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.