U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Interview with David Hollinger

David Hollinger, the S-USIH 2012 Conference keynote speaker, is the Preston Hotchkis Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  He will be retiring from teaching following the 2012-2013 academic year.  Professor Hollinger kindly consented to be interviewed by me via email for our conference newsletter.  I have reprinted his interview below.

Alas, as our readers know, this year’s conference was canceled due to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Sandy. However, a .pdf of the conference newsletter will be available for download at the S-USIH website.  In the meantime, you can view and download the entire newsletter through my public Dropbox folder using this link. The 8-page newsletter features a piece by David Sehat highlighting and exploring the themes of the conference he planned so thoughtfully and well, an article by S-USIH President Paul Murphy discussing the possibilities of starting a print journal, a note from Allison Perlman about our plans for next year’s conference, news and notes from our members, and other key information. It would have been my great pleasure and a real privilege to help distribute this newsletter in person at our conference. Next time.


An Interview with David Hollinger
by L.D. Burnett
Q: The theme of this year’s S-USIH conference, “Communities of Discourse,” acknowledges and celebrates the enormous influence and usefulness of your conception of the field of intellectual history, a conception that is arguably “paradigmatic” in the Kuhnian sense of the word.  As you argued in the paper you delivered at the Wingspread conference, the notion of a “community of discourse” is a capacious one, able to accommodate a far broader range of subjects and subject matter than might be suggested by narrow definitions of what the term “intellectual” in “intellectual history” stands for.  In thinking about how this paradigm has functioned to frame the field of inquiry over the past four decades, do you find it still capacious enough as a way of conceptualizing intellectual history?  Are there ways of understanding intellectual history that this paradigm is strained to accommodate? 

A: I would not want to claim too much for the notion of “communities of discourse,” and prefer to see it mostly as a heuristic, not as a charter for the field. It is a heuristic in that it can help some good projects find themselves, but good projects are certainly not limited to those that operate within its scope. I am very glad that the notion continues to help colleagues design and defend their projects, but I pushed the notion more for reasons of the politics of the profession than for strictly methodological reasons. Of course the two are connected, but my big concern was to get the profession to acknowledge that the features of human life studied by intellectual historians left material tracings every bit as real as the material tracings left by elections, wars, social movements, demographic transformations, economic booms and busts, and other features of human life that historians took for granted.
This simple point was worth making because of the incessant chatter, even by people who should have known better, about the “relation of ideas to reality,” or “the relation of the interior of the mind to external life,” as if intellectual history was a series of speculations rather than an interpretation of documentary evidence comparable to that scrutinized by historians of other subfields. The vivid positivity, the concrete substantiality of our major subject matter—discourse as carried out by socially embedded human beings who left evidence of their doings in the form of letters, essays, diaries, books, etc.– needed to be affirmed. Second, I wanted to remind colleagues of the value of the kind of history that focused on the questions thinkers are trying to answer and on how various individual thinkers answered one another’s questions and thereby participated in a community of sorts. This, too, seemed obvious to anyone like me who was raised professionally on Collingwood, but some social historians at the time seemed not to know that this was what most intellectual historians did. Indeed, I wrote the essay in a kind of fury in the fall of 1977 when I read the Wingspread draft of Larry Veysey’s paper, which I thought misrepresented the methodological issues in the study of intellectual history, repeated the worst of contemporary social history’s libels against intellectual history, and threatened to undermine the credibility of a professional practice that I believed to be sound. I had told John Higham, who organized the Wingspread conference, that I would write about Kuhn’s influence on intellectual history, but when I saw what Larry had written in his pre-conference draft (I had yet to send mine in) I scraped my own draft, and while still drawing some inspiration from Kuhn, wrote in a hurry a very different paper.
But the notion of communities of discourse proved of value to many scholars long after Veysey’s formulations were forgotten, and I suppose it was just as well that I dealt with Larry indirectly, never mentioning his name, because that better enabled the essay I wrote to have a life even after the proximate cause  for its composition had largely disappeared. I spent most of the essay citing examples of existing scholarship, to guard against the idea that I was inventing anything new: I was trying to provide a set of terms that I thought might have efficacy in the politics of the profession to describe and defend a well-established practice. Delighted as I am to see this set of terms still functional, I am pleased with this chance to underscore that I was not trying to “define” intellectual history, but only to vindicate a primary form of its practice.
Q: Your recent “state of the field” essay in the MIH forum touched on the connection between pedagogy and scholarly inquiry.  In what ways has pedagogy at both the graduate and undergraduate level shaped your own scholarly inquiry?  Do you see the possibility for “new directions in intellectual history” arising out of the discourse community of the classroom?
A: In my own case, there has often been a connection between my undergraduate lecture course and my scholarly writings. Several of my articles, most fully “Ethnic Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and the Emergence of the American Liberal Intelligentsia” (1975) and “How Wide the Circle of the We” (1993) began as undergraduate lectures. I’d have a sense that this or that topic was important to the field that the course was supposed to cover, but the monographic literature seemed not right on point. Lacking a literature to harvest for my lectures, I would work up what seemed to me a sensible and sound take on the topic based on my own reading of what I took to be the most relevant sources. Then if it seemed that what I’d worked up for the students might even contribute to the scholarly conversation, I’d sharpen the lecture to the point that I could deliver it as a paper at the OAH (as I did for “Ethnic Diversity”) or the AHA (as I did for “Circle of the We”), and then, depending on the reception it got from colleagues, publish it. Undergraduate teaching has the splendid effect of forcing one to address large questions, and if the scholarly literature does not go after those large questions you have to do it yourself, and doing so can, in turn, blow back into the professional literature. Graduate teaching is something that I have enjoyed equally, but in my own case it has not had remotely as direct an effect on what I write as a scholar. Graduate students I see as fully part of the community of professional scholars, but undergraduates function more as a surrogate for the educated public at large and therefore they provide a different type of stimuli. 
Q: The Society for U.S. Intellectual History and the annual conference have their beginnings in the discourse community — or one of the discourse communities — of the blogosphere.  Because this medium of communication/interaction is technologically new, it is tempting to see the community constituted through it as also somehow new or fundamentally different from previous communities of intellectual inquirers.  But in what ways might the S-USIH exemplify continuity with a broader and older tradition of intellectual/academic communities?  What aspects of that longer tradition do you hope the S-USIH will carry forward?
A: I am not sure that blogs create “new or fundamentally different” kinds of learned communities (perhaps they do, in ways that I do not discern?), but they surely help bring into the conversation of a specialized field a number of individuals who might otherwise not be as fully part of it as they should be. I am probably not a good person to explore this question, however, because I am lucky enough to be based on a campus where I cannot walk down the hallway from my office without running into someone with whom I can have an informed and animated conversation about the latest book or article. If I were not at one of these big campuses, with large faculties and a steady stream of bright, energetic graduate students passing through, I suppose blogs would mean more to me. Blogs enable a lot of folks who would otherwise not be in regular and direct communication to be in touch with each other whenever they feel like it, and surely that is a good thing. I’m also in the habit of treating print journals and books as somehow prior to blogs, as if blogs were something to go to once you’d finished (which I seem never to manage) reading all the other stuff. I don’t defend this attitude, but I do confess to it. I’m for blogs, just not very active in them.
Q: You published your first scholarly paper in 1968 and have announced your retirement from teaching in 2013; what changes in the field over that span of four-and-a-half decades are most striking to you?
A: In 1968 American intellectual history was very close to American Studies, and the ASA’s journal, American Quarterly, was a favorite place for intellectual historians to publish. That remained true through Bruce Kuklick’s editorship in the 1970s, but by the end of the 1980s that journal had narrowed its focus methodologically and chronologically. By the 1990s it was almost entirely a “cultural studies” journal focused on the period since World War II, and largely since the 1960s. I had published in AQ three times, had read it eagerly, and had even won one of the ASA’s prizes, but I have long since quit the ASA (as have most historians I know who used to be in it). The decline (at least from my point of view) of ASA and AQ has helped make space for the creation in 2004 of Modern Intellectual History and the simultaneous rejuvenation of  The Journal of the History of Ideas, both of which turn out to be much better for us than AQ for several reasons, one of which is that they comfortably integrate American intellectual history into the intellectual history of the North Atlantic West instead of tying it, as ASA and AQ did, to more narrowly Americo-centric concerns. So, while I long lamented the transformation of the ASA and AQ, I finally came around to realizing that the liberation of American intellectual history from American Studies was a blessing in disguise. The youngest cohort of US intellectual historians is much more likely than my generation to be fluent in German and/or French, and more and more of these younger scholars are engaged in trans-Atlantic projects. This cohort, moreover, is reclaiming the study of philosophy, theology, social theory, and social science that the American Studies movement at its best had engaged, too, but then largely dropped.
The closer ties between US intellectual history and European intellectual history encourage attention to aspects of American intellectual history to which the projects that have flown under the flag of “cultural history” have been less attentive. Cultural history has done a lot of great things for us, and deserves to be celebrated, but the anti-elitist strain within cultural history limited its scope. At the risk of appearing to ignore some other really good recent stuff, I want to mention the three 2012 imprints devoted to my main field of the 20th century to have hit my desk the most recently: Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression, Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn, and Andrew Jewett’s Science, Democracy and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War. These three ambitious, rigorously argued, sophisticated monographs illustrate how, looking now only at the last couple of months of twentieth century studies, the cohort to which I refer is making the field of American intellectual history more vibrant than ever. 

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great interview. David is right about blogs, but the significance is greater than he thinks. It’s a symptom of a larger process whereby higher institutions (top research universities, newspapers of record, peer-reviewed journals) are being disintermediated as gatekeepers to intellectual engagement. These institutions — which were the primary vessels of discourse community formation, engagement, and boundary-policing — are all crumbling, and what is replacing them, inter alia, are fora like this one. YMMV as to whether this is a healthy transformation, but it is signal and epochal.

  2. I have a question for the wonderful intellectual historians that populate and keep this blog running: can intellectual history also address embodied discourse and practices? An issue that i have with the idea of tracing a history of ideas or discourse is that it implicitly displaces bodies and materiality. For humanities and social sciences scholars who work on material and embodied culture, it may seem that even when intellectual history uses the framework of discourse, it still reifies the duality between mind and body, ideas and matter. Is there work being done in intellectual history addressing this question?

  3. Luvicallejas, here’s one of my posts from back in February on embodiment in (and of) intellectual history.

    Disembodied Voices in Intellectual History

    My post riffs on/links to an earlier post by Ben Alpers raising similar questions. (My post also offers a big tip of the hat to Michael Kazin’s wonderful biography of William Jennings Bryan, which should be on everyone’s reading list.)

    But why would tracing the history of ideas or discourse “implicitly” displace bodies and materiality?

  4. Thanks L.D. (if I may call you that). And thanks regarding the Kazin reference, as somebody who is deeply interested n the Cuban and Puerto Rican reception of late 19th U.S. intellectual culture, this will come very handy.

    I personally do not have an axe to grind with the history of ideas or discourse, since I see my own work as a form of intellectual history, albeit from a literary/cultural studies angle. However, for some time there has been a critique, coming from cultural anthropology and performance studies, against the idea of being able to actually trace “ideas” or “discourse,” as if it were possible to separate them from the embodied and material world. This happens in particular with the notion of a history of ideas, which, at least traditionally, equates the realm of ideas with so called Western high culture. So some scholars have rightfully asked, for instance, isn’t dance a production of ideas too? Also, this is why you often see scholars refer to discursive practices instead of discourses, the notion of discourse also might be understood to have that idealist connotation. Even the “disembodied voices” of the virtual world are in fact not really disembodied; the ghost in the machine are also parts of a specific phenomenology with its particular affects. I do not mean of course that intellectual historians should suddenly start focusing on popular music, dance,, etc., or focus on the way that ideas are processed materially. In the end, I am referring to how in different ways we can end up reproducing that ole Cartesian dualism of mind and body.

    Kahlil Chaar-Pérez (I need to throw out this luvicallejas

  5. Kahlil, I think the Cartesian dualism may be implied in the critique of intellectual history rather than the practice of it, for it is this critique which separates the embodied and material world (without scare quotes) from “ideas” (with scare quotes). The suggestion here is that ideas — what people have thought, or believed, or hoped, or feared, or prayed, or imagined, or wondered — are somehow not quite real, or somehow less real than the tangible ways in which they are expressed.

    The sort of intellectual history that “equates the realm of ideas with so called Western high culture” has its acolytes, indeed. But the intellectual and cultural historians I read and work with operate under the (quite correct) assumption that ideas and thought are common to all people. Everybody thinks. So any and every historical document, no matter its provenance, can help us understand the meaning people have made of, and made through, the material world.

    This is what I have taken away, anyhow, from Dan Wickberg’s argument in “Intellectual History vs. the Social History of Intellectuals,” where he criticizes an approach to intellectual history/history of ideas in which “the social identity of the thinker has determined the relevance of the document.” He writes:

    “If the history of thought is to be successful, it must abandon once and for all the notion that a fixed body of texts and thinkers — a canon — is its proper subject matter, and must seek thought wherever it can find it — which is everywhere….Formal philosophy provides sources that are no better and no worse, no more important and no less important, than any other sources.”

    It’s a short article — just 13 pages — but it’s a good read, and especially helpful for those of us who grow weary of the tired and tiresome notion that intellectual history must be about “intellectuals” — as if only erudite elites had ideas.

    • And yes, in case anyone is wondering, I am keenly aware of the layers upon layers upon layers of irony in my comment above.

      I have served up a veritable baclava of burlesque.

      Here’s the recipe: in responding to a critique of intellectual history as described in this interview, I’ve deployed a variation of the critique that Hollinger criticizes in this very interview, drawing from a journal article by Wickberg that takes square aim at Hollinger himself for practicing intellectual history in such a way that can justify this critique, and all the while I’m implying that “the historians I read and work with” (which obviously includes both Hollinger and Wickberg) are somehow on the same page when it comes to the epistemic and methodological commitments of the discipline.

      I think I’m done here.

    • L.D., thanks for the Wickberg reference, this will actually be very helpful for my work.

      And thanks for shining some light on my questions. What you describe is in fact the kind of history I aspire to write.


  6. Kahlil, you’re so welcome. It’s a very good article — just an awfully odd choice in order to elucidate and even support Prof. Hollinger’s understanding of intellectual history as he lays it out here in this very gracious interview.

    I guess the common ground from which both these arguments build is the assumption that ideas — people’s thoughts/beliefs/ways of seeing the world — are not somehow set in opposition/contrast to reality. They are reality, and to the extent that we can recover any meaning at all from investigating the remains of the past that are still in our possession, we can and should look for the meaning that people now passed and past found and made of their own world.

    Anyway, I’m glad the article will be useful, and I’m glad for the chance to point to the substantial common ground shared by both Hollinger and Wickberg in their approach to intellectual history — a shared sensibility, in fact.

    I don’t know if I’m digging myself out of a hole, or just digging it deeper. Either way, I’m in good company. Thanks for the discussion.

  7. The beauty of a blog, compared to say a seminar, is that it allows time to consider a post and related commentary, to walk a way from it and come back to it for further comment or reflection. If the blog is maintained there is a record upon which one can refer in future related discussions. It doesn’t have the immediacy or vibrancy of a live face to face discussion but it acts as a kind of distilled document of thought.

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