U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is the Subject of Intellectual History? — A Response

The following guest post, by Edward Blum, is a response to Nils Gilman’s post: “What is the Subject of Intellectual History?”

Discussing how notions of racial difference and hierarchy were pressed into him from childhood to graduate school, W. E. B. Du Bois recalled during his college years being “once in a museum” where he came “face to face with a demonstration: a series of skeletons arranged from a little monkey to a tall well-developed white man, with a Negro barely outranking a chimpanzee.” From there, classes at Harvard stressed “brain weight and brain capacity” as evidence of higher intellect. Then in graduate school at Harvard and beyond in Germany, he learned which race was “superior” by the histories taught. The “white race” had a history, but there was “no course in Chinese or Indian history or culture … and quite unanimously in America and Germany, Africa was left without culture and without history.” The message was clear, even though it came in different forms: certain people mattered more than others – whether they were represented at the skeletal, cerebral, or cultural-historical level.

I could not help but think of Du Bois’s reflections after reading Nils Gilman’s essay on “What is the Subject of Intellectual History?”, the comments following it, and the twitter discussion that raged into the afternoon on Friday. It seemed to me that as Gilman was making one point – for the high value of his brand of intellectual history – there was such a clear and obvious demeaning of others that it calls for some explication.

Gilman’s article makes a simple claim: “the central methodological feature of intellectual history is *close textual reading*.” He explains that he has a broad view of text to include “music, art, etc.” (as if we all know what “etc.” entails) And Gilman recognizes that in some ways all historians do this. We all offer close analysis of evidence. So far, there seems nothing with which to quibble except for the unfortunate “etc.”

But when Gilman moves to specify his rather broad definition of “intellectual history,” he shifted from an open approach to the discipline to a closed one. The text must be “carefully wrought … something that was self-consciously produced to be read with care.” And even more, the text “needs to be one that situates itself within a tradition of similar texts.”

At this point, Gilman has shifted from an interpretative approach “close textual reading” to a specified body of texts – ones that are self-consciously produced to be read with care and ones that speak within previous traditions. This shift is the transformative move from an open intellectual history to an elitist one. In fact, the definition at this point borders on the un-, even anti-, intellectual in the realm of history because of its lack of recognition for historical factors.

By closed, elitist, and anti-intellectual, I mean that the definitional circumstances Gilman sets up are so clearly contingent upon economic, social, and political factors that it appears disingenuous to build that into the definition of “intellectual history” and call it solely “intellectual.” Basically, the definition establishes a closed loop by which elite white men set the parameters of the game and then adjudicate who is allowed to play and how. To be blunt, and I think Gilman would agree, only a small set of individuals could participate in this type of realm – traditionally men of privilege.

But herein lies the problem. These are exactly the people who in the past used their claims about intellect (skeletal, cerebral, and cultural-historical) to keep others out or demeaned. Scientific racism of the nineteenth century linked hands with its romantic racialism opponents to render people of African descent somehow unintellectual, and they did so with similar assumptions about what the “intellectual” meant to Gilman. It was Kant, in fact, who claimed of the “Negroes of Africa” and the “many of them who have even been set free” that “not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality. … So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.” Did Kant base this assessment on an in-depth, close textual reading of Africans and African history? Perhaps he did with the types of “intellectual history” that surrounded him, and hence his conclusions.

Of course, I’m not the first one to point this out – as the internet academic community jumped on Gilman for this position. But then, rather than tweak or adjust his definition, Gilman doubled down. “We can rightly lament the fact that 18th century slaves were not given the educational opportunities Immanuel Kant was,” he explains in response to some comments, “but we shouldn’t allow that normative lament to obscure the fact that Kant wrote deeper, more interesting, and more influential things than anything that the illiterate slaves did.” When we closely analyze Gilman’s response, we may find more confusion that clarity. First, how does one assess “deeper, more interesting” work? These strike me as highly subjective assessments. I, for one, admire and ruminate regularly on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Her tricky plays with language and ventriloquism (placing the words of Jesus into mouth of George Whitefield into poetry by her hand that presents Christian nobility for people of Africa, for instance) are some of the boldest poetic maneuvers in American history – to me – and they necessitate close scrutiny. Of course, she was not “illiterate,” but she certainly was a slave. Then we turn to “more influential” and this becomes a question of where, how, and when. No doubt, certain texts have more influence than others. But those too are contingent on racialized and gendered factors. Thomas Jefferson hated Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, not because it wasn’t deep or interesting, but because she represented everything he hoped to hold back.

Even more, Gilman exposes in his response that his approach to “texts” is not as broad as he originally suggested. When he invokes “illiteracy,” he is clearly referring to the ability to read and write. Again, the Euro-American elite centeredness of this is evident, especially when we take into account the slew of laws that made the teaching of slaves illegal in the years following Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Why, to be blunt, would anyone want to define a field with the very tools that had been used in the past to disempower, disfranchise, and brutalize other people? Past men of privilege established paradigms by which they were the only ones who could produce “carefully wrought” texts that were in conversation with other like texts. And now we are encouraged to define a field that way?

But also what about the other kinds of literacy Gilman’s assumption leaves out: the ability to speak in a language; the knowledge of religious traditions and stories; the recognition of how to work with particular lands and environments; the ability to use clay or paints to produce objects. There are many forms of literacy and illiteracy that Gilman ignores. White missionaries to African Americans during the 1860s, for instance, routinely had no idea how to join with them in ring shouts. They lacked the bodily and ceremonial literacy to participate. But for Gilman, this would be where cultural history masquerades as intellectual history by rendering all things “intellectual.” And this may be the real villain behind Gilman’s criticism – the cultural turn that found in various groups of people customs, actions, movements, writing, and art that could be read closely.

Where Gilman fails, to me, is not only in the ways his developing definition of “intellectual history” traffics so blatantly in racialized trajectories of the past, but also in the ways he casts off those beyond his established paradigm with subjective judgments. For an essay supposedly trying to define “intellectual” history, there is a significant amount of emotional and affective judgment. Words like “worthy”, “deserve”, and “silly” punctuate the text. We are told that we are “full of it” at one point if we think a certain way.

I appreciate Gilman’s effort at boundary definition and clarity. Scholars in my primary field of study – American religious history – have had similar debates: is religious studies a methodology with tools that can be applied to anything, anywhere or does it only encompass specific and particular beliefs, values, rituals, or concepts? Some scholars shake their heads when they read of “religious studies” of baseball or hygiene rituals. Others feel pigeonholed when it is assumed they study theology or churches or belief in God when expressing their interest in “religion.” In our discipline, there is vitality in the fact that neither side wins or claims the other is “silly” or “full of it.”

Rather than replicate the ways intellectual history of the past replicated structures of oppression, would it not be better to find a way to consider close textual reading of Kant and ring shouts? Is it not possible to think beyond Euro-American assumptions about text and literacy (that somehow all must be rendered into words on paper … or a screen)? I think many of us can support and enjoy an intellectual history that does more to shake old bones than arrange them in a hierarchical order, to trouble the notion of the cerebral than weighing texts as “worthy” or “silly”, and to include more histories and cultures than we exclude.

Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of several works on race and religion in U.S. history, including W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet and most recently co-authored with Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. His twitter handle is @edwardjblum

36 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you Edward for this generous and insightful piece. I agree with your inclusive vision of intellectual history. I also appreciate how you break through the dichotomy of Kant or ring shouts into a way the two can speak to one another as intellectual history. A great post all around.

  2. Well said, Ed Blum. I didn’t have the time or energy to weigh in on all of Gilman’s points yesterday (who could?). That said, I believed my point about the “history of thought” being a better, more capacious descriptor would have been engaged. That point wasn’t engaged. Anyway, I’m with you in wanting to shake the old bones of all kinds of cerebral people. – TL

  3. Wonderful response, Ed, and I think you’re spot on in identifying the “cultural turn” as the real source of complaint of those who lament the loss of intellectual history’s supposed past “coherence” (which, as you rightly note, was part of an intentionally elitist, oppressive project).

  4. Ed, thanks for turning out such a smart, thoughtful essay, practically in real time! Nicely done.

    Tim, I didn’t realize you were looking for an “Amen.” We’ve had that convo so many times on this blog, I just figured you were preaching to the choir on intellectual history as the history of thought v. the history of particular individuals/texts. But for the sake of the catechumens, I suppose I could have responded specifically to what you said, with which (as you know) I heartily agree.

    • Thank you! …In the context, an amen would’ve been affirming—though I really wanted Gilman to engage that thought.

  5. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”

    That’s DuBois, the irony here being obvious, that although we might invoke WEB to make sure that black voices have a full place at the table of USIntellectualHistory, his own view is still quite elitist. We are back at the question of whether “intellectual history” is tantamount to the history of intellectuals.

    The meta of this blogwide discussion has strayed closer to heat than light than I’m personally comfortable with, and I think Nils Gilman has been a bit ill-used here in his quest for clarity, to distinguish what is significant from what is not. I’d think Mr. Gilman is quite comfortable with WEB in the USIH pantheon.

    The social sciences—particularly anthropology but now the infection is spreading to the other liberal arts—depend on their claim to being value-free to validate their claim to be science, not art [or politics].

    Unfortunately, this means that the significant and the not, the permanent and the passing, the wheat and the chaff, the text and the footnote, the crap and the not-crappy are all given equal value—for to assign value [or values] is to be judgmental, and “science” cannot have that!

    I personally find the meta of “what is US intellectual history” the most salient in all this, the current culture war, but I caution: The game [now to the exclusion of all else] has become one of musical chairs, and whenever race or gender is played, the music stops, and woe to him or her who’s left out of reach of a comfortable chair. Brother Nils, on this occasion.

    And FTR, to the particular here, I think it’s an American tragedy—one of the major American tragedies—that Booker T. Washington’s “up from slavery” vision of individual self-empowerment lost out to WEB’s top-down strategy of politics and a “talented tenth.”

    If you ask me—and nobody did—there’s the intellectual history gold. I look forward to USIH-blog to engage this someday.

    [Ed, even though more than a half-century before, Frederick Douglass had proven decisively to the contrary, that blacks were held to be genetically inferior at Harvard even into WEB’s time is shocking but unsurprising. Harvard has nearly always been the American Mecca for preposterous ideas.]

    [But that’s another discussion as well…]

    • No doubt Du Boos had his elitist moments and approaches. And no doubt many scholars have done the intellectual history of Gilman approach to many of Du Bois texts. But when we look at SOULS OF BLACK FOLK what do we find? A chapter that takes seriously the songs of slaves. Could one follow that with an intellectual history of slave music? I think so.

    • Tom, how has Gilman’s “quest for clarity” been used poorly? People have called for him to explain how he determines “what is significant from what is not.” You suggest that this is a fairly straightforward process–is it? And, moreover, that we are all in jeopardy of losing our scholarly souls to those who simply disagree with Gilman? Why do you see this as a zero-sum game? Where is the evidence that the scholarly profession, much less this blog, is some how the lesser for challenging assertions that we can, in some definitive way, separate what you see as the significant from the insignificant? And why do you ascribe to the writing here and elsewhere the claim of scientific truth? Again, Gilman comes closer to claiming such truth in his tautological rendering of intellectual history as a study of texts. As for the “intellectual history gold” you hope we begin to mine, are you advocating a political action committee or a scholarly endeavor?

      • I think you gentlemen misread me; as for Mr. Gilman, I suppose he’ll speak for himself at some point.

        I’m not setting the standard of what is crap and wasn’t isn’t, only saying that such distinctions can and should me made. [And not only that, but we do, whether we admit it or not! Glenn Beck.]

        My second point is to again ask for a distinction between history and anthropology, between culture [say, slave songs] and ideas [whatever “intellectual” means in “intellectual history”].

        If “history” is all things that ever happened, significant or not, if “intellectual” means every thought ever communicated, coherent or not, influential or not, then “intellectual history” is an undifferentiated soup.

        If that’s the message of “this blog,” Ray, then OK. Just askin’. 😉

      • But Tom, I really want to know how you see the “game” that you refer to above influencing the field of intellectual history and this blog. You know as well as I that to say that history includes everything and therefore is about nothing is a false choice. Boundaries are endlessly interesting to debate, but the point is primarily the debate. That’s the gold in the mine.

      • I don’t see that “this blog” has decided anything yet, Ray. But I do think that as good social science, it fancies an aversion to making value judgments, except when it comes to, say, Glenn Beck.

        To which I say, of course we make value judgments all the time, that the distinction between facts and values is often illusory.

        Like Nils, I have no problem with the McNugget/Alain Ducasse distinction, which is admittedly subjective, but not all that much–no more than the Glenn Beck/normal people distinction is taken as a given by most intellectuals. It’s OK to say X is better than Y. [And OK to disagree, of course.]

        You know as well as I that to say that history includes everything and therefore is about nothing is a false choice.

        Oh, I don’t see that as cleared up by this discussion atall.

        A formal non-judgmentalism–especially to the point of refusing to weigh significance and non-significance–or in the case of race and gender, elevating the relatively insignificant–can make a pudding of it all.

        Boundaries are endlessly interesting to debate, but the point is primarily the debate. That’s the gold in the mine.

        Well, there’s the dead white dudes thing, on which several commenters have had quite a say. Once that dookie’s in the punchbowl, debate is over. It’s all about the dookie, no longer about the punch. [I apologize for mixing your metaphor there, Ray, but I just couldn’t get the dookie to work with the gold mine.]

        To leave the meta for the moment, it might be said that, per Mr. Lincoln, US intellectual history is pretty much about the proposition that all men are created equal. With that as a touchstone, many things can me framed with relevance, incl race/class/gender concerns.

        OTOH, I still submit that there’s a necessary distinction to be made between history and anthropology. Or a declaration that there really isn’t one. “This blog” and your org planted its flag atop “US Intellectual History,” so I reckon it is whatever you say it is.

        Pls advise.

    • T Van Dyke:
      “that blacks were held to be genetically inferior at Harvard even into WEB’s time is shocking but unsurprising. Harvard has nearly always been the American Mecca for preposterous ideas.”

      Du Bois was the first African-American to get a Harvard Ph.D., in 1895. The degree of racism (and, to the extent it was taught, the teaching of pseudo-scientific racism) at Harvard at the end of the 19th century was probably roughly comparable to that found at similar institutions. Do you think there was more racism at Harvard in the 1880s and 1890s than at, e.g., Yale or Johns Hopkins? Maybe there was, but if so it would be nice if you would produce evidence to that effect. (In default of that, I’ll conclude that your remark that “Harvard has nearly always been the American Mecca for preposterous ideas”
      is — how shall I put this? — less than entirely accurate.)

  6. “Basically, the definition establishes a closed loop by which elite white men set the parameters of the game and then adjudicate who is allowed to play and how. To be blunt, and I think Gilman would agree, only a small set of individuals could participate in this type of realm – traditionally men of privilege.”

    I’m sure Gilman, and every other thinking historian for that matter, would acknowledge that intellectual hierarchies were often deeply implicated in furthering serious and tragic forms of injustice and oppression. But from such a banal observation, it hardly follows that all texts can or should be interpreted in the same fashion, or that the definition of “intellectual” (a word the poster seems to want to keep) is nothing but a ruse of the powerful.

    “First, how does one assess ‘deeper, more interesting”’ work? These strike me as highly subjective assessments”

    Of course these are subjective assessments, though to be sure Kant’s reputation has been the beneficiary of an overwhelming number of such judgments. But again, simply pointing out that subjectivity is involved, and that such judgments are often wrong, does not mean that such judgments are empty or should be set aside. We make highly subjective assessments all the time, from deciding what work to teach, to what praise to give in a book review, to figuring out who to hire and tenure, or even what grade to give a student. And yet we still do these things — and this despite the fact that all these judgments have been played roles, often large ones, in perpetrating injustice and oppression.

    “And this may be the real villain behind Gilman’s criticism – the cultural turn that found in various groups of people customs, actions, movements, writing, and art that could be read closely.”

    I can’t imagine that Gilman denies the many virtues of cultural history, and I think such an accusation is totally unfounded. Gilman’s point was not that “people customs, actions, movements, writing, and art” could NOT be read closely, but that doing so involves a different sort of methodology that that of, say, Kant’s 3rd Critique.

    Finally, I am a bit alarmed that a poster who claims to be so attuned to the (admittedly crucial) task of understanding how certain voices are excluded could render the “the internet academic community” as monolithicly agreeing with him. Frankly, the basic lack of charity shown Gilman’s positions — the “tsk tsks” and righteous twitter storms of denunciation — is unbecoming of a scholarly community.

    • You find my response less charitable than the original post? I am sorry to hear that, but I at no point refer to his positions as “silly” or express that he or anyone is “full of it.” Can you imagine hearing those words at a conference spoken during a Q&A? Part of this discussion is about appropriate professional decorum. And to hear you thinking that my piece was less charitable… Well I think a close reading of the two and even my Twitter exchanges with Andrew Hartman will bear out some truth.

      • Condescending remarks like “don’t be obtuse” and sarcastic and ad hominem riffs on the Aggrieved White Male are hardly commensurate with labeling a (mis)application of a methodology “silly.” Historianess’ early twitter postings on the subject are a case in point.

        Still, not everything is about tone. What I find particularly troubling is the rush to judgment, the incredulous denunciations of Gilman as a racist, or at best as some sort of obviously benighted holdout from a backward era. To be sure, one should argue against Gilman if they think his positions are complicit in racism or other forms of marginalization. But before rushing to judge (and vehemently denouncing him or an entire subfield blog), one should at least be very careful about understanding what he is actually saying. Instead, it strikes me that many of the highly critical postings haven’t paused to ask what Gilman means, but have instead stuffed words in his mouth, interpreting what he wrote in the ways most injurious to him. I take, for instance, your reading him as attacking cultural history as a minor instance of this.

        It is also interesting to note, for instance, how the denunciations of Gilman’s postings quickly turned on the example of slaves – a group not even mentioned in the original posting – when, as his post makes clear, the instigator of the discussion was the status of Glenn Beck and other forms of mass media. Yet somehow the critics have slammed Gilman primarily for the supposed racism of his remarks. And yet almost none of his critics have addressed Gilman’s preferred example of Beck. Now one can profitably ask if making value judgments (as I take Gilman to be doing) about Beck or porn starts necessitates similar value judgments about slaves living in entirely different times and conditions. But his critics have been content to make what was originally (I think) an implicit commentary about cultural standards today into one about judging the thoughts of very different people in a very different past.

      • Another example of invective:

        Grumpy Historian: @nils_gilman What an absurdly narrow view of sources you have. What else haven’t you thought deeply about? @historianess

      • Do you feel that I did not represent Gilman’s argument appropriately? Did I not include his definition piece by piece as he did? Did I show disrespect for his perspective or did I engage it as a scholarly point of view that I disagree with? I’m lost about the conflation between my piece and twitter comments. Oh, and I did not mean to say that all the internet world agreed with me. I merely wanted to say that others online made points I was going to address.

      • I think Glenn Beck is 100% worthy of intellectual history … and it would be one that would have to use media studies, niche marketing, and his incorporation of scholars. Now I have not read much in pornography studies (is there such a thing … I think so) but I leave it to those folks to defend (or not) their work

      • oh, and I have no opinion on Gilman being “racist” or not. My point is the racialized nature implicit within his definition … race, racism, and racialization are all very different (albeit connected) concepts

  7. I’m sure this point has been made already, and at greater length than I’ll get into. But it seems to me that Gilman is simply conflating two very different arguments: one about the different kinds of readings and analyses that we should bring to distinct textual forms, based at least in part on their conditions of creation, purposes, contexts, and so on; and one about the *value* of those different texts.

    I doubt anyone here would disagree that we can’t read Kant and (for example) the private letters of slaves (such as those being collected by an American lit professor at Trinity College for a new anthology) in the same ways. But why does that mean that Kant is more valuable or significant, necessarily? I haven’t seen Gilman, or any of his supporters here, make a case for the latter position.


  8. On “don’t be obtuse,” my apologies.

    I truly thought that Nils was being intentionally obtuse. He summarily dismissed Quinn’s close reading of his metaphors/examples as a way of linking disciplinary boundary-keeping to an attempt to (re)inscribe gender hierarchies. Her focus was on his gendered language; his response was that “I don’t think that either of the two standards that I set out are particularly discriminatory against people of any colors, creeds, or faiths” — as if gender were not the issue she had brought up for discussion.

    Since she was specifically discussing the gendered aspects of his discourse, his refusal to acknowledge her particular concern seemed to me to be evasive or dismissive, or both. Hence my jibe about how they must surely teach something about gender as a category of analysis at “lowly little” Berkeley, which I certainly assume to be the case — not the “lowly” part, but the “gender as a category of analysis” part.

    So, yes, I assumed he was being dismissive obtuse. It never occurred to me that Nils actually might not understand the critique.

  9. Gilman: “My point here, rather, is that such reckonings will be much better accomplished using tools other than close textual reading.”

    Gilman: “I’m just saying that the methods we use to understand Kant are different from the ones we should apply to understanding the inner life of illiterate slaves.”

    Blum: “And this may be the real villain behind Gilman’s criticism – the cultural turn that found in various groups of people customs, actions, movements, writing, and art that could be read closely.”

    It strikes me that you are misreading Gilman’s point. I presume Gilman would acknowledge that recovering the thoughts, emotions, and beliefs of marginalized groups requires careful analysis and interpretation. But the type of close reading that sort of analysis requires differs to some degree from the sort of close reading that an interpretation of much of Kant’s philosophy requires. Of course both forms of close reading share many commonalities, including attention to detail, expertise in the web of interconnections, sensitivities to silences and contradictions, a hermeneutic circle of interpretation, etc. On the other hand, I take Gilman to be saying that the genres that make up the writings best suited to intellectual history nonetheless differ in certain ways, for Kant’s philosophy was participating in a genre that came about in a different way and different purpose and in different conditions. He is making, in other words, a claim about genre, and saying that different genres tend to have a set of methodologies best suited to unpacking them. Interpreting Kant is like interpreting the “texts” left by marginalized culture and also, in a way, is not.
    To make this point that the methods differ in some important respect is hardly to denigrate the cultures, ideas, and thoughts of those whose exigent utterances and texts do not require Gilman’s form of close reading, nor is to castigate the historians who practice it. How then is Gilman making cultural history a “villain”? I think he is simple saying its methods are somewhat different from intellectual history, but no less worthy because of it? Why would scholars of pornography need to “defend” their work from Gilman’s definition? Likewise, I bet he would have no problem thinking that interpreting ring shouts could produce highly important historical work. After all, making a claim about which methodology is best suited to analyzing a particular genre is hardly making an evaluative claim about the historical work produced by that form of historical analysis. Gilman explicitly says he thinks the study of porn will be an important topic, and one no less important than the study of Kant.
    Now of course things are a bit trickier because “intellectual” is often a code word, at least in our world, for good. And I think Nils did invoke that sort of evaluation in his original post, but in specific application to recent mass media. It isn’t clear to me, though, how Gilman’s distaste for Beck translates into “replicat[ing] structures of oppression.” Yes, intellectual hierarchies have been used in the past as they are used today to perpetrate oppression; but does that all uses of intellectual hierarchies today are necessarily nothing but ways of replicating structures of oppression? It seems to me youar argument against these hierarchies requires just such a leap. But there is, of course, a large middle ground: we might well acknowledge that hierarchies act that way, even sometimes our own usage of them; and yet we might well believe that such hierarchies still capture something about the intellectual worth of different texts. Indeed, what academic doesn’t believe this – aren’t we all, in the end, in the business of drawing such hierarchies: in grading, in hiring, in reviewing, in tenuring, etc?
    (Note, however, that there is a difference between the intellectual worth of a text and the intellectual worth of an analysis performed on that text. Gilman might hold that Beck himself doesn’t have much to say of intellectual interest, and still find a study of Beck to be of high intellectual value.)

  10. Thankfully much of what I wanted to say has already been said. As Tom Van Dyke rightly noted, this discussion has strayed towards heat rather than light. If anything’s been made clear it is that a basically internalist conversation about which primary sources are appropriate to intellectual history quickly turned to the question of the power relations that shape those primary sources. This struck me as a strange turn, and this turn took place long before the conversation became heated. Somewhat naively, I simply wondered why intellectual historians couldn’t write side-projects without calling it intellectual history. For over ten years now I’ve written food journalism and now food history without considering the former sideline to be somehow under the banner of European intellectual history, the field in which I hold a doctorate. The latter informs the former, that’s all. Just because intellectual historians often make good authors of cultural criticism, doesn’t mean that cultural criticism is intellectual history. Problem solved.
    But it quickly came to seem that the conversation wasn’t about the definition of intellectual history but rather about the embattled position of intellectual history (and it is embattled, whatever relationship there is between the study of elite texts and the power relations that allowed their production) in an academy that is itself embattled. What, I wondered, is behind the desire to broaden the profile of the intellectual historian at this particular juncture? There is no point in being indirect here: efforts to broaden the profile seem partly driven by a desire to demonstrate intellectual history’s continued relevance as a practice. They are also partly driven, to be sure, by a more expansive sense of what counts as “ideas,” bringing us back to the substance of Nils Gilman’s original exchange, and his response to Ben Alpers’ post. Here arose a problem. Even European intellectual historians like myself (and even ones who work on the history of philosophy, as I do) don’t base our work on the claim that thinking only happens in certain precincts. One doesn’t have to invest heavily in Gramsci to realize that thinking is a widespread human practice. And perhaps more importantly, even if I agree with Nils’s claim that some texts are “better” than others (and I do) that isn’t the claim in which I root my practice as an intellectual historian (he and I might differ on this point). Instead I suggest that philosophy is a human endeavor like writing novels or painting, and that much like those activities it is most intelligible when we attend to the circumstances of those who are privileged enough to get to philosophize. To write the history of philosophy does not necessarily mean ignoring non-philosophical materials; it would be ludicrous to write a study of Sartre while ignoring the fact that French existentialism was as much a literary as a philosophical phenomenon, and troubled the line between the two. And yet the history of philosophy (for example) demands special kinds of tools. Writing its history doesn’t require that we act as guardians who determine which human utterances or written statements have intellectual merit; it means asking who was writing philosophy, or theology, or doing other specialized (and often professionalized) knowledge-producing activities, and under what circumstances.
    The fact that producing technically sophisticated ideas, like producing Alain Ducasse meals, requires an enormous investment of human time and usually money, should be something intellectual historians attend to every day. Nils explicitly recognizes this fact. On the one hand Nils is saying that Chicken McNuggets and Ducasse dishes serve different functions in the world, and on the other he’s saying that one doesn’t exactly matter “more” than the other. I don’t think this point should be lost on anyone: McNuggets matter more if you care about economies of scale or global health impacts, Ducasse dishes matter more if you’re interested in high-end gastronomy. Both, I would note, have histories – Warren Belasco’s wonderful book Meals to Come would be a great starting point if you’re interested in the history of industrializing foodways – but the Ducasse dish is just plain old doing something more complex than the McNugget is, assessed at the level of the audience’s sensory experience. To say that we should care more about McNuggets, that they deserve more of our attention, is not unreasonable, but to say that Ducasse’s efforts are somehow not part of history because they are experienced by a precious (in whatever sense you wish) sliver of humanity, would be wrongheaded. Both are part of food history. I might part company with Nils when it comes to Michael Pollan, actually; I don’t consider his sometimes terrific, sometimes didactic book to feature elements of intellectual history. That doesn’t mean I don’t value them for what they are. Horses for courses takes on a fun secondary meaning if you’re willing to consider la viande de cheval.
    But I’m most troubled by the suggestion, running through many of these comments, that caring about the discourses of elite authors makes us elitists ourselves. I’m completing a book that treats, in part, the work of the German-Jewish refugee historian Leo Strauss. His conservatism is well-known, his elitism is well-known, and he wrote on authors whose works he thought were better than others. He often did so as an exegete whose commentaries arguably did symbolically reproduce the power relations that allowed European males of status to dominate (not to mention produce in the first place) European intellectual life. My point here is that very few of us write like Strauss. Strauss is not an exemplar of intellectual history as we tend to practice it today. He was an historian who mistrusted contextualization, who would never have problematized the ideas he addressed, who was obsessed with the position of philosophers in society but uninterested in the way said position shaped not just their utterances but their thought. We don’t do this, at least not if we’re properly trained. We think hard about the political and cultural forces shaping our authors’ lives. We acknowledge the existence of class difference and of elites, but not because we like elitism.
    This brings us to a really troubling idea: if intellectual historians (like all historians, like all academics) tend to be elites, and if they tend to write on discourses produced by elites, do we then hold them accountable for this? Do we expect them to work against elitism because they’re presumed to be proximate to it? If so, are we then committed to the position that scholarship is first and foremost a political enterprise, and that politics is the ultimate horizon line of our endeavors? I can think of a good example of the mistakes that pile up when we think this way, an example drawn from my own sub-sub-field. This is the case of Martin Heidegger. It has become a commonplace to find links between Heidegger’s rather limited activity within the Nazi Party and the philosophy he produced before he joined the Party. While there are elements of his 1927 Being and Time that are “available” for such interpretations, the degree to which they dominate the literature has obscured the ways Heidegger’s earlier thought was shaped by essentially philosophical problems debated within German academic circles. More broadly: while the intricate transformations of European thought in the twentieth century certainly had political consequences, those transformations count as historical on their own merits as well.
    I think it’s especially sad that Nils has been attacked in these proceedings. This is because his own scholarly work is not, at least to this reader, driven by the elitism wrongly ascribed to him. Nils’s first book, Mandarins of the Future, presumably known to everyone in this conversation, is an intellectual history of modernization theory and the Cold War intellectuals who promoted it. In this book Nils spends as much time on the local and global political conditions that shaped their debates, as on the linked ideas of “the modern,” modernity and modernization. It is an intellectual history of ideas and debates that had, and continue to have, real-world implications, but it – interestingly for this present debate – does not make the mistake of assuming that the “best” ideas correlate with the most influential ones, or that the task of intellectual historians is limited to sorting out what’s best.

  11. Substantial comment, Benjamin. Lots to respond to.

    Many of the places where you differ with Nils, as if they were minor points, were in fact *his* major point. He wrote a normative piece about what intellectual historians *should* and *should not* study, and the salient criterion was that some texts are intrinsically *better* than others, and therefore we should limit ourselves to those texts. That, and we all know that he’s right because we feel it in our gut, a Colbertian criterion indeed.

    However, many people have already spoken to the points of difference that you raise, and to others besides. So let me respond to your chief concern. You write: “But I’m most troubled by the suggestion, running through many of these comments, that caring about the discourses of elite authors makes us elitists ourselves.”

    No. What would make us elitist would be if we said that the discourses of elite authors (which *all* of us regulars on this blog study, I’m pretty sure) are the *only* things we should be studying because they are the only kinds of texts worth studying with the tools of the intellectual historian.

    It is this notion of what is “worthy” of our attention that is problematic, as some have pointed out, for a number of reasons. Wickberg had the broadest theoretical critique. See http://s-usih.org/2013/02/what-is-the-subject-of-intellectual-history.html#comment-7156 and http://s-usih.org/2013/02/what-is-the-subject-of-intellectual-history.html#comment-7227. A judgment of merit comes clothed in power, and the power moves at play in that kind of an assertion delivered in the language that Nils chose for the occasion — well, that is worth examination and critique.

    So And other readers took issue with particular features of Nils’s text, pointing out how his language, tone, choice of metaphors, etc., convey notions of power, privilege, and hierarchy of merit — as if all that were beside his “real” point. In his responses, Nils doubled down on elitism — demonstrated in part by a peculiar lack of attention to (or interest in) who was saying what. Any objections that called attention to dynamics of race-class-gender were lumped together as the special pleading of people playing “the subject position card” (his words), and all summarily dismissed.

    It is one thing to present an apologia for why you study what you study, and there are many perfectly good reasons for a particular scholar to decide to pay attention primarily or only to the discourse of elites. It is another thing to say that everyone in your field should study what you study, and that if they are working on anything else, then they are not really doing “intellectual history,” but something else — and, as Nils made so clear, something less.

    Added 9:56 AM:
    Geez. I should note that when I mentioned “the broadest theoretical critique” above, I was referring to the discourse going on in the comments on Nils’s post. Ed Blum’s essay here is just as capacious a theoretical critique, on slightly different (but not lesser!) grounds.

  12. Tim, you know how I feel about threaded comments, so I’m replying here to your comment above about wanting Nils to engage the idea that intellectual history is the history of thought v. the history of thinkers.

    Here’s how Nils has engaged that thought before on this blog:


    And here, on your post about “the hierarchy of intellectuals”:


    I think these two old threads provide a more complete context for the current discussion. Not crazy about dredging up some of my earliest “contributions” to this blog, but what can you do. Every era is immediate to God; every error is immediate to Google.

    And on this question, anyhow, I agree with my earlier statements.

    • I love it when people (almost always friends and family) remind me of stuff I’ve done before on the event/topic immediately at hand. Usually it’s drudged up to show that I’m, um, to be nice, “not entirely consistent.” …After reviewing my old post, at least I feel like I haven’t contradicted myself (which is not unusual). – TL

  13. But what if the other side is, indeed, full of it?

    Politely saying: oh, perhaps you could consider some of the evidence that shows that global warming exists–at some point such bending-over-backwards just validates “full of it.”

  14. Well, I don’t think I have any great theoretical insights to add to what has already been said, but I can speak from the experience of having written on two very different sort of “texts”: social science and popular film. My work on social science has been invoked by one participant (“grad student” I believe) as one way of doing intellectual history through a close reading of texts. My most recent book, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema, reads a different set of texts, popular Irish-American themed films from the 1930s and the 1940s. With the exception of a couple of Cagney gangster films, these are films that have largely been ignored or dismissed as irrelevant by film historians; they certainly have never come across the radar of intellectual historians. It was a labor of love and an act of recovery on my part. I was trying to recover a narrative of community, one richer than the more abstract idea of “culture” that animated intellectuals in the middle decades of the twentieth century. So, at one level, I think that Angels With Dirty Faces has a richer and more complex social vision than anything found in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. That being said, I see no need to hold up Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien as organic Irish-American intellectuals. They were popular entertainers working in a Hollywood culture industry that for all of its commercial motivation occasionally told stories of enduring merit. If I believe Angles to be a more enduring cultural achievement than Patterns of Culture, I do not need to legitimate it by calling it a work proper to “intellectual” history. I have reservations about the Arnoldian tone of Nils’s distinctions, but as long as we have sub-fields (I would be happy to see them disappear), I don’t see anything wrong about trying to carve out a set of sources proper to a field. If intellectual historians don’t make the case for the importance of Betty Friedan or C. Wright Mills, who will? It is interesting that those who once dismissed intellectual history as elitist, that is, those who work in the history of women and minorities, now want to claim it for themselves. Irish Catholics have hardly been insiders in modern American intellectual history. I think Hollinger and Capper include only one Catholic, John Courtney Murray, in vol. 2 of their reader. There are good (and some not so good) reasons for this, but I don’t feel the need validate my ethno-religious background by claiming “intellectual” status for it. Given the general understanding of the term intellectual, I think Irish Catholics just don’t quite fit into the American intellectual scene. To try to fit them in would risk losing the already tenuous coherence that makes the field possible. That being said, there is more to history than intellectual history.

    I realize these points may have more or less already been made. I came to the exchange late and didn’t have time to sift through everything. I just wanted to put my two cents in and be a part of yet another great exchange on the blog. Thanks to everyone who makes this possible.

  15. Been anxiously awaiting the arrival of El Blarney Stone.

    I don’t feel the need validate my ethno-religious background by claiming “intellectual” status for it..

    Oh, Chris, I think you definitely should if you believe it warrants it, then back it up. In my own studies, meself detected some Aquinas in the American Founding, and admit that’s what I went looking for. Found him, but mostly through the Father of Anglicanism, Locke hiding behind his skirts, and then a fulkuvalotta Calvinists getting there first by an alternate route. I was surprised, but also delighted. Finding what you’re looking for is cool, finding what you weren’t looking for is even better.

    Considering that Catholics represent 25% of the electorate and have become perhaps THE 50-50 constituency


    Also, representing 6/9 of the Supreme Court [Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy, Sotomayor], the papists have become the audience, the jury for the American Experiment, clearly a Protestant one at its inception.

    “Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the Continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it. The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.”—Thomas Paine, Common Sense

    That the founding deist argued that America’s religious freedom was founded by god to get away from the catholics only to be guarded by them centuries later, well, i just ran of capital letters.

    Cheers, boyo. USIH is a tough town. Even Cagney would have had a rough time of it.

  16. Tom,

    Point well taken, and I agree. My intellectual history books are an attempt to argue that in fact the “problem” of Catholicism (authority, tradition) is indeed the most significant subtext for understanding American intellectual history. That is different from the issue of elitism and “heroes” history. Historians of American Catholicism who try to construct rival or parallel genealogies of American Catholic intellectuals end up writing alot of books on Orestes Brownson and John Courtney Murray, and these figures just aren’t in the end all that interesting to me in terms of their substantive ideas. I learned more about issues that really matter from reading secular thinkers like Robert Lynd and Ruth Benedict. Having come up against their limitations, I am now working on an alternative genealogy of cultural and historical consciousness in the twentieth century, but for that I have had to turn to Europe, to thinkers such as Henri De Lubac, Romano Guardini and Jean Danielou. There is no way to shoehorn these thinkers into the American Intellectual Tradition. Still, their thought illuminates some of the blind spots of that tradition.

  17. Clearly there’s a need for a Novickian or a Kleinian history of “intellectual history” and “cultural history.” The discussion here jibes with Klein’s emphasis on networks of adjacent terms — “keywords tend to carry lots of other words with them — antonyms, synonyms, complements, and related adjectival and adverbial phrases. “ [6]

  18. Bill, I am so glad you brought up Klein. We have an excellent roundtable of essays planned on _From History to Theory_. That should run some time next month.

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