U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is the Subject of Intellectual History?

The following is a guest post by Nils Gilman.

Earlier this week, Ben Alpers mused in these pages on the possibility of an intellectual history of “irrational” thought. His particular examples were the late writings of Philip K. Dick, which might (charitably) be described as mystical, and the writing of L. Ron Hubbard, which might (less charitably) be called commercial in nature. Whether either of these sets of texts is “irrational” is open to debate, but what I found most interesting about Alpers’s riff was his suggestion that virtually any text is a potential subject for intellectual history.

I have to confess, I had a pretty allergic reaction to this claim. It bothered me for much the same reason that Daniel Rodgers’s much-celebrated Age of Fracture rubbed me the wrong way: it didn’t seem to offer any basis for defining what sorts of texts were appropriate to include in a discussion of “the ideas of the age.” Alpers stated quite resolutely in the comments to his piece that he really felt that in fact, yes, any text could be given the intellectual history treatment. The discussion then migrated over to Twitter, where I started asking, rhetorically, whether it would be appropriate to write an intellectual history of, say, Glenn Beck’s half-baked rantings. When I got some affirmatives to that, I went yet further, and asked, How about an intellectual history of Honey Boo-Boo‘s utterances? Yes? Then how about an intellectual history of moans by porn stars? All verily texts, no?

What these admittedly snarky tweets were trying to get at, however, was actually something quite vital: my point was that, in fact, everyone has their standards for what qualifies as worthy of “intellectual” treatment — it’s just that some people’s standards are a lot lower than others’. What I’d like to do in this post is sketch out, in a more serious manner, what I take to be the appropriate limits of the enterprise of intellectual history.

I should begin by noting that I am definitely favor broadening the scope of topics that intellectual historians turn their sights on. For example, my own work (both scholarly and in industry) has dealt primarily with “policy intellectuals,” a topic/category that would likely have seemed bizarre to intellectual historians of Henry May or Perry Miller’s era. In the intervening years, however, we’ve seen many wonderful intellectual histories written on all manner of unlikely topics, ranging from punk music (Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces) to cooking (Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet’s Modernist Cuisine, v. 1) to college football (Brian Ingrassia’s The Rise of the Gridiron University). While all of these books are arguably cultural histories as much as intellectual histories, in each case they demonstrated that these topics contain surprising intellectual depths and textual complexities.

The question that books like this raise, then, is precisely the one that Alpers and I took up: is there any topic at all that isn’t amenable to intellectual history?

To answer this question, we must begin by noting that the central methodological feature of intellectual history is *close textual reading* — that is, careful, sustained interpretation of a text in order to “unpack” meanings that might otherwise appear obscure, inscrutable, or difficult. (I use the word “text” very broadly here – it could include music, art, etc.) Within that broad rubric, there are of course many different approaches to this sort of careful reading: Exegesis, Talmudism, New Criticism, Deconstruction, and so on. But regardless of these particulars, what sets intellectual history off from other forms of historical inquiry is this sustained, close examination of texts.

To some extent, virtually all historians do this sort of reading in their work. In other words, most historiography contains intellectual-historical “moments,” in which the historian engages in a sustained close reading of some text, be it a personal letter, a political speech, or a private diary. But it’s also clear that close reading is not the only or even the primary sort of reading that most historians do. When historians examine, for example, bills of  lading, or birth and death certificates, or bureaucratic forms, or financial accounts, they certainly scrutinize them for credibility, but they don’t usually analyze them in terms of complicated textuality: these documents are mainly assumed to be modestly functional in their communicative purpose. In sum, the sort of close reading I am referring to as the hallmark of the intellectual-historical method is in fact generally, and rightly, reserved for certain types of texts.

So, what are the types of texts that deserve this sort of sustained critical reading?

I would argue that to be worthy of the intellectual-historical approach, a text needs to have two essential features. First, the text should have been “carefully wrought” by its author(s); that is, it should be something that was self-consciously produced to be read with care. Texts produced for simple functional reasons really don’t merit this approach: there’s no such thing as a close reading of a telephone book (as even Avital Ronnel would probably admit). Second, the text needs to be one that situates itself within a tradition of similar texts.  Most such texts will usually signal this intertextuality in relatively overt ways, that is, by referencing or commenting on other, similar texts. When you think of what it is that intellectual historians mainly do when they engage in close reading, it is precisely unpacking these intertextualities.

Keeping these two defining features of “intellectual history-worthy” texts in mind, it becomes clear why it makes no sense to speak of an intellectual history of, say, Honey Boo-Boo, or porn movie grunts, or elevator music – these are simply not works of ideas that require exegesis. These texts are, fundamentally, not intellectual objects – they are objects that operate in terms other than intellectual ones. To treat them as intellectual objects is at best silly. To be harsh about it, there’s simply no reason to apply our pearly methodology to such swinish texts. Or, if you prefer a martial metaphor, applying intellectual history methods to such texts is likely killing a fly with a bazooka.

I should hasten to add that this is not at all to say that such objects are without historical interest. They absolutely are. Historians of American life in the early years of the 21st century will certainly need to reckon with the significance of Reality TV and ubiquitous pornography. My point here, rather, is that such reckonings will be much better accomplished using tools other than close textual reading. For example, future historians may wish to contextualize such objects in terms of the political economy of their production, or examine the psychological (and physiological) nature of the reactions the produce in audiences, or any number of other techniques. As they say in Britain: horses for courses.

Before concluding, let me address one possible objection directly, which is whether the distinction I’m making is a fundamentally elitist, Arnoldian one. The answer is, yes it is. In practice, the distinction I’m making almost always ends up reproducing a high/low culture distinction. And I have no problem defending this distinction, for in fact some cultural objects are much more “rich,” “complex,” “textured,” “difficult,” or whatever other metaphor you wish use to describe what separates great works from non-great ones.

Let me go further and say this: everyone knows this in their gut, even if twenty years of reading French Theory has caused them to somehow forget it. Honey Boo-Boo’s or Jenna Jameson’s utterances just aren’t as rich a vein to mine using the technique of close reading as, say, John Rawls or bell hooks. Anyone who claims otherwise is, I’m sorry, full of it. (And yes, in making this sort of absolute claim I fully realize that I am engaged in disciplinary boundary work.) My ultimate point is that we all have our standards, we all have our intellectual hierarchies, and the only question is how honest and transparent we are about them.

Postscript: I should note one thing I did change my mind about over the course of last week’s Twitter exchange (yes, I remain capable of occassionally changing my mind!): perhaps it is true, after all, that virtually all overtly political texts fall into the category of “texts worthy of close reading.” This is because, however clumsy or misconceived, virtually all political texts are not only self-consciously wrought, but also situate themselves in some sort of inter-textual tradition, if only implicitly. In which case, maybe Glenn Beck is worthy of the intellectual history treatment, after all, and maybe Daniel Rodgers wasn’t quite so unreasonable when he chose to start Age of Fracture with Peggy Noonan. My gut still tells me that including these sorts of writers defines the project of “intellectual history” awfully far down, but there’s at least a case to be made that their writings meet the criteria I’ve laid out above. So I’ll have to think more on this one.

54 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nils: Though I disagree with your overall argument, I still wonder what you think about the distinction I made in the comments to Ben’s post: what about the “history of thought”? I would argue that is a superior conception of what we do because, well, all people think. Why set up any criteria for policing that could be abused in the old high/low thought fashion? – TL

  2. I was thinking about this for my historiography talk, because one of my sub points is that intellectual history has expanded in the sense of who is an intellectual (or who has thoughts, which I think are two different things). One of my friends who sat through my practice talk asked if my contention that all people think, but not everyone is an intellectual was embraced by the larger group of intellectual historians. I will follow the comments to this post with interest for a response.

    • i was once asked a similar question but from a gramscian point of view. everyone performs intellectual labor, but to be an intellectual is to have a social function. the organic intellectual, then, is someone who performs this function without being designated by the hegemonic power as an intellectual. that’s how the argument goes (it’s not purely gramsci).

  3. Nils— The honesty about the Arnoldianism is great. Would you agree to the addendum that this means intellectual history is *dialogic* in a sense that other forms of history, however presentist, are not? this is a word, or a way of thinking about intellectual history, from dominic lacapra’s earlier career–i think of it as a way of retaining deconstructionist methodological priorities with the otherwise difficult-to-sustain position that some texts are simply more complicated, deeper, better, more rewarding, than others. that is, it makes sense to enter into a dialogic engagement with, say, martha nussbaum but not with (jenna) jameson.

    i ask this because the category of the irrational, it seems to me, is a little off to the side of the high-low simple-complex axes, demands a different lens.

    • Yes, I think this is a very good point: intellectual history, among other things, is about facilitating a dialog of ideas. And yes, I do think a dialog of ideas will be more interesting with Fredric than with Jenna.

      On the Arnoldian point, I should probably clarify that my argument is not (pace Arnold) that “complex” texts are necessarily more culturally important than uncomplex ones. In other words, I’m not making a normative cultural judgment of that sort, but rather a strictly methodological one, concerning the appropriate tool for assessing the object in question. For example, if your historical inquiry involves an attempt to assess an archive with 10,000 probate records to understand how a property rights regime changed over time, then deconstruction (or any other “close reading” methodology) is probably not the appropriate method. Whether the probate records are “more important” or “of higher cultural value” (Arnold’s questions) than, say, the writings of Fredric Jameson, is not what I am speaking to here.

  4. You had me in suspense throughout this entire piece, delaying the ruling on whether Glenn Beck commas be the subject of an intellectual history. I’ve been doing some work on Elizabeth Dilling, a forebear of Beck’s in both style and goals, and consider what I am doing in that project to be intellectual history for precisely the reasons you articulate in regards to Beck. Although Dilling definitely qualifies as “bad thought,” she intended her anti-communist (and pro-fascist) agitation to be read both carefully and within a long running tradition. Add to this the fact that, while most dismissed her as a kook, a not-insignificant number took her seriously. I think that examining the role that bad thought plays within the complex and pluralistic interplay of intellectual traditions is an important contribution.

  5. Maybe it’s because I’m a new reader to the blog but there is a Rip Van Winkle effect to this post that is itself of historical interest. The appeals to the “gut” and the apparently self-evident “worth” of some texts over others seem like time-capsule relics of an era of history-writing where certain (it must be said: frequently white male) scholars felt no need to justify the premises of their own analyses because of their uncontested control over the production of knowledge. What has the last half-century of history-writing been in the U.S. if not an ongoing attempt to redefine what utterances and forms of expression are deserving of scholarly attention? And how could someone who is not either clueless (which this author of outstanding scholarly work is not) or being deliberately provocative in the frat-boy/shock-jock manner, choose to use an overweight, working-class child and a female porn star as his examples of “swinish” material unworthy of his “pearly methodology”? Maybe I’m just betraying myself as infected through and through with something called “French Theory”—the straw man in a beret so frequently produced by those who want to dismiss, among others things, fifty years of Anglo-American social and women’s history—and this isn’t the forum for me. If the goal of this post is to function as a Keep Out sign posted on the walls of the ever-shrinking territory of “pure” intellectual history where tautological claims about the self-evident worthiness of “real” texts are allowed to stand, then it has been a success.

    • Quinn: I can assure you that my goal in posting this essay from Nils Gilman was decidedly NOT “to function as a Keep Out sign posted on the walls of the ever-shrinking territory of ‘pure’ intellectual history where tautological claims about the self-evident worthiness of ‘real’ texts are allowed to stand, then it has been a success.” So please, by all means, return to read the blog. Or at the very least, pay attention to this thread.

    • I’m glad you made this point, because I was also asking myself questions about the racial and gendered dimensions of this post. Please keep reading here and add your voice!!

    • Well, I did try to provide a justification that went beyond pure “gut.” 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. Happy to be told otherwise.

      Furthermore, I tried very explicitly to say that it’s not that I am saying that Honey Boo Boo or Jenna Jameson are creating “utterances and forms of expression are (un)deserving of scholarly attention.” Rather, I was trying to suggest that they are worthy of a certain kind of scholarly attention. It’s about not using a hammer to deal with a screw (as it were).

    • It seems to me that we need to articulate the purpose of intellectual history in order to understand what texts we can and should study via the methods of intellectual history.

      One purpose is primarily historical in nature. Studying texts via intellectual history’s methods tells us something worth knowing about the past, like the types of conversations and concerns certain people were having; the anxieties, hopes, and power structures that animated beliefs; the way ideas and beliefs spread. The criteria of whether to apply techniques like close reading is what it can tell us about the past.

      A second purpose might be to enrich our familiarity with the best that has been thought about certain types of topics, say, justice. Some texts have more sophisticated thoughts on these topics than others. That isn’t to deny that some texts and utterances outside the typical canon can’t help add to our repository of “best” thoughts. Inevitably the “great” texts did not get everything right, have had their own blinders and presuppositions, etc. But such a style or purpose of intellectual history does by definition impose an evaluative standard on its practitioners, who must judge whether the thoughts of a text do contribute substantially enriching to our body of knowledge.

      Of course making such judgments is a difficult, even impossible task. Historians have the duty to be generous in looking for worthy thoughts in non-traditional sources – a duty to be as open-minded as possible in making those judgments – but in the end of the day, such judgments inevitably must be made. Indeed, judgment is fundamental to any sort of historical work. Intellectual historians, no more nor no less than other historians, are constantly making judgments about what is worth knowing and what is worth passing onto others.

  6. Quinn raises a question that I ask in my work: is there a way to defend distinction, in the Arnoldian sense, without also defending hierarchy (class/race/gender)? Can the canon be diversified? Or can it only be destroyed?

    • I’m looking forward to see where you land on this crucial question, Andrew. I believe it can (and must!) be diversified.

    • I think there is a further interesting question that arises from Nils’ post and your response to it: is there a way to maintain “standards” without supporting hierarchy? Is there a kind necessary tension in all scholarly discourse between egalitarianism and adherence to some agreed upon measure for determining the value of a given project, argument, belief, etc.? Or to put it more simply: aren’t we all, as professional academics, in the standards business? If so, the boundary policing of intellectual history, while arbitrary (a “gut” feeling in Gilman’s terms), is a small, necessary part of the professionalization of specialties. Provided we keep these boundaries flexible, I don’t see the boundaries themselves as problematic and in fact the only way something called “intellectual history” or “history of ideas” can continue to exist.

  7. With a nod to Habermas, let me add that I think there is a performative contradiction at the heart of any scholarly attempt to claim that there is no hierarchy in the quality of ideas.

    Again, this is not to say that bad ideas (whether evil, incoherent, or banal) are unworthy of scholarly/historical attention, but rather a plea for people to call bad ideas out for what they are.

  8. Surely there has to be a less elitist rationale for close textual reading as the not exclusive but primary stock-in-trade of intellectual historians. Else what is intellectual history but a particularly well-organized game of “If you could have dinner with a famous person from history, who would it be?”

    Actually, there is a far better rationale, and Henry May has already said it, in The Enlightenment in America:
    “In arguments among historians, intellectual history has been widely, severely, and sometimes justly criticized on two related grounds. It lacks quantification, and its findings exaggerate the role of the articulate elite. I consider both of these tendencies largely inevitable, and think that the best correction is to write other kinds of history using other kinds of sources. It is not true, as some proponents of democratic history rather surprisingly seem to imply, that ordinary people do not have general ideas. It is true, however, that it is hard for the historian to recover the general ideas of people who do not write them down.”

    One can accept Gilman’s two criteria for intellectual history, I feel, without being an Arnoldian. If one recognizes that the kind of care of composition and intertextuality which Gilman prizes is at root the product of sufficient leisure or suitable employment, either of which gives one adequate time to compose a text carefully and to amass enough intertextual references to enrich one’s text satisfactorily, then the not-so-tacit superciliousness towards “not great” texts need not be any part of intellectual history.

    May goes on to talk a little about the marvelous experience of poring through a very wide variety of sources—some of which would probably fall afoul of Gilman’s criteria—and again what he says is, I think, instructive about where one might find material for intellectual history:
    “My main reliance for sources has been on printed pamphlets, sermons, and letters. In general I think there is much to be said for the position of the late Perry Miller, who argued that the main concern of intellectual history is with the public record that people could read. However, when one deals with religion one cannot completely understand the public record without getting into private emotions, sometimes recorded in private sources. For this reason I have supplemented my work by reading manuscript letters in a number of the leading research libraries of various regions… Since I am interested in anybody’s opinion about anything which reflected his fundamental assumptions, this has been a fairly arduous and a somewhat random, trial-and-error process. Yet it has been very enjoyable, and sometimes, turning rapidly through a family correspondence dealing with farm prices, health and illness, and local politics, I have come across a sharp expression of feeling—sometimes in time of acute personal crisis—about death, human nature, or even cosmic anxiety. The passages that I have quoted represent a very small part of what I have learned from reading letters.”
    (These quotes can be found on pages xviii-xix)

    • These are excellent points, and to my mind they dovetail precisely with the points that I have made. As you suggest, even relying on written records is a form of elitism, as it favors those who were literate and had access to the means to write. My challenge to the readers here is to embrace the elitism of our enterprise, rather than acting like virgins in a whorehouse. Yes, we’re interested in literate people, rather than the illiterate. And yes, we’re interested in the deep and somehow “important” thinkers. That is what our subfield is all about. We have lots of other colleagues doing wonderful, important work who use other methods to interrogate other subjects. But what we do is scrutinize “difficult” and “complex” texts. I’m not saying that what we do is more important than what our colleagues in say, environmental or economic history, do; I’m just saying that our methods are most appropriate for a certain subset of historical materials, and we should be clear about what defines that subset. It makes no more sense to use intellectual history methods to study Honey Boo-Boo than it does to use soil analysis to study Hegel.

      As to May, the way he describes his approach to reading in fact entirely corroborates my point. Yes, he “turns rapidly” through many banausic documents, and what he is hunting for are those moments where, amid all that relatively intellectually uninteresting discussion, his subject suddenly engages in “a sharp expression of feeling” that causes May to pause and read closely. That sudden pause to scrutinize a text, which suddenly turns out to contain an unpolished diamond of insight and meaning, that precisely is the “intellectual historical moment.”

      • Nils,
        My argument wasn’t that the passages from May refute your ideas about intellectual historical method; I posted them to demonstrate that those principles needn’t carry the same tone you use, and probably would do better without it.

        You needlessly conflate method with valuation. Yes, the method of intellectual historians requires texts produced by a certain class of individuals—men and women of enough means or chance that they have acquired an education sufficient to make time to produce texts of some complexity. But you seem to think that our attention to these people entails (and should entail) an attitude about our work that normalizes and even elevates the condition which allowed them to become subjects of intellectual historical inquiry. Rubbing shoulders with the smart and powerful, you seem to be arguing, should make us into people who value smartness and power (or necessarily does make us into such people). I don’t see that as necessary.

    • Excellent and timely post. I meself was wondering whether “intellectual history” is synonymous with the history of intellectuals, as May writes, that “its findings exaggerate the role of the articulate elite.”

      In my own studies, I’m quite less interested in the “true” John Locke [as unearthed by Straussians such as Michael Zuckert] than the John Locke as understood by the American Founders, who understood him more in the natural law tradition. Further, the “real” Locke was rather a dead end in intellectual history, obviated by the more exciting and modern Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, etc.

      If we somehow uncovered unpublished Locke that offered the key to a hidden new and ‘truer” Locke, the “close reader’ would be ecstatic, but it would be no more than a footnote to intellectual history at this point.

      I do notice the academy is so crowded that much dissertation work is on what I would call historical dead ends, and these footnotes seem to be given equal regard to what I would consider history’s main text.

      [We might also caution against the elevation of certain R-C-L POVs to anything more than footnotes for much the same reason. We should not confuse history with what we might call forensic anthropology.]

      • Tom: You’ve now used this ” forensic anthropology” throwaway twice at this blog to describe race-class-gender history. Would you mind explaining yourself?

      • If history is a tree, some branches go their own way and peter out. Some die, like the Shakers.

        You can’t tell the story of America without telling the story of black America, but I suspect that the narrative will read about the same if we leave out, say, Scientology.

        And one could write a book a ladies’ abolition group in Philadelphia, but if they had no palpable effect on the slavery question, the study of them is a footnote.

        Hope that helps, Andrew. I found the larger discussion here more challenging, what is intellectual history? There are countless fads that have died out, although popular in their time. Their content is often less important than their effect on their times or on succeeding ages, if any.

  9. I suppose to define something is to inevitably exclude something otherwise why define it. This is equally true of intellectual history as it is of neoliberalism. By creating boundaries we clarify intent and use, so for that I appreciate Nils post. The examples Nils has used has raised a divide (in my mind) as to what is intellectual and what is cultural history in context of this discussion, but in the end or at least as time progresses don’t we all vote with our feet and in so doing establish hierarchy? That is to say the market of ideas are purchased and utilized or left to rot on the shelf.

  10. Nils, don’t be obtuse. Surely they teach about such newfangled categories of analysis as gender, even at lowly little Cal. Indeed, have you not read your Kerwin Lee Klein? Here’s an observation worth pondering, on p. 3 of his intro to _Frontiers of Historical Imagination_:

    “…androcentric language structures current debates. Historiographers have feminized figurative language to contrast it with more rational masculine forms.”

    In a somewhat similar fashion, you have chosen an obese working class girl and a sexually objectified and commodified woman to metaphorically embody your notions of what — or who — is an unworthy subject of intellectual history.

    “Disciplinary boundary work” indeed.

    • I also mentioned Musak, and could just as easily have spoken about James Deen or The Bachelor. I picked Honey Boo-Boo simply because she was the Reality TV phenomenon of the year last year.

      I’m afraid, L.D., that it’s you who are obsessing about the R-C-G dynamics of this.

      With that said, of course this set of criteria is going to skew toward the educationally privileged, which will then naturally reflect all the social exclusions associated with access to those privileges. But just because certain categories and classes of people have been excluded from the opportunity to acquire the learning needed to play the intellectual game at a high level is no reason to pretend that they are playing the game at that level. We can rightly lament the fact that 18th century slaves were not given the educational opportunities Immanuel Kant was, 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.

      Again, let me clarify: I am NOT saying that understanding Kant is a more important topic than understanding slavery. 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. (Slave narratives, on the other hand, are obviously a ripe topic for intellectual history. And guess what — they are virtually all not only self-consciously literary texts, but also very much situated in a tradition of such texts.)

      • “…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.”

        And here is, once again, encapsulated the deep racism that seems to be seeping into “intellectual” history. I encourage you to go read Kant’s deep thoughts on the stupidity of black people. Absolutely deeper and more interesting than the MANY MANY things written by enslaved people who resisted the racist categorizations imposed on them by that hero of the Enlightenment, Kant. #sarcasm

  11. Backing away from this discussion scrum, I think the post misses two key points:

    1. The “subjects” we use in writing intellectual history depend on our goals and objects. When you have a hypothesis or thesis, you then test your embryonic thought by going to sources. Those sources are a collection of diverse subjects, objects, events, etc.

    2. Intellectual history is also a method—a way looking at any subject (from greatly to hardly complex) in a nuanced fashion. In this way intellectual and cultural history overlap; either is liable to create a complex discourse about objects that may seem “simple” or superficial to others. – TL

  12. I’m not a trained historian (intellectual or otherwise) and I am continued awed by how intelligent the contributors to this blog are. But as I was reading Nils’ essay a couple of questions came to mind. One, is the credibility of an intellectually significant text contingent upon time? The examples of Honey Boo-Boo and Jenna Jameson are both so recent phenomenon, that it’s difficult to judge the intellectual effects of their “thoughts”. But what about the songs of a Woody Guthrie? His songs could arguably been seen by contemporary intellectuals as simply pop culture social critique, but I think his songs and lyrics can withstand a “close reading” now, but might not have in the 1930s.

    And this brings me to my second question, which is how much of Nils’ methodological standards are based on the creation of intellectual texts verse their effects? Nils argues that a “text should have been “carefully wrought” by its author(s)” which is solely focused on the creation of a work and not its actual impact. What role does cultural influence play in the criteria? Which is more worth of intellectual study, an obscure well-constructed work, or a poorly constructed but hugely impactful work? While I would agree that Honey Boo-Boo is a sort of flash in the pan star whose thoughts lack both construction and impact, but how do you deal with the works of someone like Madonna, Michele Jackson?

    And a third questions, that just came to mind as I was writing, where do religious/spiritual texts fall? Nils amended his thoughts to include Glenn Beck and overtly political writing, but how about overtly religions or new age spiritual texts. Do even bad overtly religious/spiritual texts meet the “Beck Standard”?

    • Madonna and Michael Jackson are certainly interesting historical figures, but I don’t think that a close reading of their lyrics (or even of Madonna’s book “Sex”) will get you to what is interesting about them. (Guthrie is another story.)

      On the other hand, it might well be a good idea for someone to write an intellectual history of “Madonna Studies” if only as a warning about what happens to academics who lose the ability to detect self-parody. (Just for laughs, here’s a line picked at random from one of those Madonna studies papers: “The net effect of this rhetorical displacement is what might be called a pop-modernist ideology critique, where the significance of the Madonna commodity-body is less a function of the forces of the Fordist mode of production (as the classic Frankfurt School critique of the culture industry) as post-Fordist image production, the way that media culture sells cultural commodities to audiences.” What can we say? Well, at least the author had the good sense not to try to perform a close reading of the libretto!)

  13. A very interesting post and thread…but I’m not sure what it has to do with me or with my post to which the OP is supposedly responding.

    Nils begins by claiming that “Alpers stated quite resolutely in the comments to his piece that he really felt that in fact, yes, any text could be given the intellectual history treatment.” I’m at a loss to figure out where–in my post or my comments–I said anything like that. I certainly don’t believe it.

    My post was about texts produced by two particular people, L. Ron Hubbard and Philip K. Dick. I did try to make the case for why intellectual historians should grapple with their work, whatever its intrinsic merit. I most certainly did not suggest that intellectual historians should study Honey Boo-Boo nor the “moans of porn stars.” And though I find the gendering of these straw-women to be kind of interesting, what I find perplexing is that Nils, who claims to be very upset about my post, seems utterly uninterested in discussing the actual examples that I offered.

    The irony is that I am actually in substantial agreement with Nils about what intellectual historians ought to study and how they ought to study it. Close textual reading is our core technique (though it’s not our only technique). And I’m actually on board the notion that this technique is more usefully applied to some texts than others.

    Now what I actually said in the comments to my post was that “ideas that had cultural power are worthy of study by intellectual historians.” Let’s break that down a little. Not everything that has cultural power has it due to ideas, a word I actually meant in a fairly old-fashioned, formal sense. Honey Boo-Boo and Jenna Jameson do, indeed, have cultural power. But it is not their ideas that give them that power. And, to put Honey Boo-Boo aside for the moment, though I think future cultural and social historians should have a lot of interesting things to say about porn and sex work at the turn of the millennium, I agree that the porn and sex work itself is probably not the territory of intellectual historians (though the writings of public intellectuals–including some porn stars, male and female, in their non-moaning moments–about pornography very well might be).

    Similarly, not every idea has cultural power. Indeed, the thought that intellectual historians should limit themselves to ideas that did is arguably more restrictive than Nils’s criteria above. And, in fact, I didn’t intend it as a restriction (I didn’t write “intellectual historians should only consider ideas that had cultural power”). Again, the point of my OP and the comment in question was to include-in people like Hubbard and Dick, not to exclude anyone in particular (though this doesn’t mean that I intended that everyone should be included).

    (Frankly, a more on-target, and perplexing (for me at least) objection to my post was my decision to classify Hubbard and Dick’s thought as “irrational thought,” a description I was uncomfortable with when I came up with it, and which I’m even less comfortable with now. But I don’t really have a good, larger category into which to put them).

    As for Nils’s limiting criteria of inclusion: I would argue that both Hubbard’s and Dick’s writings situate themselves within traditions of similar texts (self-help books and works of popular philosophy in Hubbard’s case; novels of ideas in Dick’s). And both were self-consciously produced to be read with care.

    A partial exception would probably have to be made for the material that eventually ended up being published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. These notes and fragments were unfinished, not prepared for publication by their author, and, in that sense, were very much not intended to be read by others at all (at least in the form in which they existed at the time of Dick’s death).

    But here’s the thing: since their publication, as a matter of fact, they have been read by many people with care.

    And this is, I suppose, one area in which I’d draw my lines somewhat differently from Nils. I am as interested in the spirit in which a text has been consumed as I am in the spirit in which it was produced. A text that many in the past read closely and with care might very well deserve to be read closely by intellectual historians, regardless of its author’s intent (which is, at any rate, often difficult to know).

    But in general, I think I am much more in agreement with Nils than he thinks I am. Someone else will have to take up the cause of the intellectual history of Alana Thompson.

    • Thanks, L.D. I’m sorry if I misrepresented what you said, but I got the sense from our comment-thread digression into the Van Meegeren forgeries that you had a much broader sense of what was a proper subject for intellectual history.

      On the issue of reception, I would agree that there is a broad set of activities to be done here, some of which may be intellectual historical in method, but many of which are really cultural histories, following Janice Radway’s pioneering efforts. What Radway strikingly did NOT do, however, was engage in “close readings” of the development of ideas in romance novels themselves, recognizing instead that the pleasure of the novels resided in something other than the play of ideas. She focused much more on the themes and the activities that take place “around” the activity of reading (and above all writing) such novels. And this was just the right way to treat such novels. She didn’t pretend to be writing Fabio Gramaphone.

      Of course yes, insofar as sex workers (including porn stars, and of any gender or orientation) are reflecting on their experiences, and situating those reflections in a broader history of other such reflections, then certainly they are engaged in “idea work” that would make it a right and proper subject for the intellectual-historical method.

      I confess I find it tedious to respond to Left-McCarthyite insinuations about the “gendering” (tsk! tsk! you naughty straight white male, you!) of my examples of intellectual-history-method-inappropriate texts, but I suppose I must: I could have made exactly the same point using James Deen and “The Bachelor” — both straight, white, middle-class men — and neither of them remotely worthy of close readings of their utterances.

      • Yes, you could have mentioned James Deen and The Bachelor…but you didn’t (Since I haven’t tried to deprive you of your professional status, Nils, I think it’s a bit much to call my amusement “Left-McCarthyite.” My comment about Honey Boo-Boo and Jenna Jameson’s gender was honestly intended as a humorous aside.).

        And I’m not LD 😉

        I would note a further difference between our attitudes toward the field, which is at least implicit in our exchange: though I’m certainly interested in making sure some things are included in intellectual history, and though I don’t think everything under the sun would make an interesting subject for intellectual history, I really don’t get upset when people write intellectual history about things that I wouldn’t think would make good intellectual-historical subjects. Quinn, downthread, is apparently writing an intellectual history of Honey Boo-Boo. Will that work? I have my doubts, but my attitude to his project is “let a hundred flowers bloom!” (though I agree with him that, when advising graduate students, we need to be careful to counsel them regarding the saleability of whatever it is they’re hoping to plant).

      • No you’re not. You’re a highly privileged professor (at an admittedly only second-rate history department). If you’re going to play the subject-position card, then at least learn to read your hand properly.

        You’re also a left McCarthyite – by which I mean, precisely, that in calling me (or at least my words) racist, you insinuate and name-call, assigning ideological and political positions to your opponents on the basis of supposed membership in groups that are supposedly engaged in some conspiracy of oppression. You’re engaged in race-baiting in the precisely – and I mean precisely – the same way that people on the right engage in red-baiting. Congratulations on having learned the nasty habits of the oppressor class.

        If we’re going to have a discussion about racism, then let’s have it. Racism is about thinking (or treating) certain categories of people as inherently different (read: inferior) from others, in ways that correlate to their “racial” characteristics. There is NOTHING in what I wrote that could remotely be construed by a literate person as meaning that. Pure McCarthyism. As with those accused of communism by McCarthy, I won’t even dignify it with a denial.

        I was making an entirely different claim, which is that certain categories of people were (and continue to be) systematically excluded from the possibility of reaching their full intellectual potential, and that as a result, they did not have the opportunity (that is: they were systematically prevented from having the opportunity) to produce the kinds of intellectual products that those in non-excluded categories have historically been able to produce. Failing to recognize the impact of that exclusion is tantamount to forgiving the oppressions of the system. If you can’t see the difference between that position and Elkins’s, you need to read. A lot. Start with Elkins.

        Let me ask baldly: if the lives of slaves, peasants, proletarians, and other historical underclasses were every bit as rich and fulfilling (intellectually and otherwise) as the lives of the ruling classes, then why should any of us be concerned about the difference? Simply because of “power differences” tout court? Please. Those power differences had real material impacts on people’s lives, including their ability to ascend to intellectual heights. It’s certainly true that “rubbing shoulders with the smart and powerful” is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for attaining intellectual heights, but it is correlated. That’s what “privilege” is all about.

  14. Interesting stuff. I think the title of the post gets at a problem Nils wants to address. What is the subject and how is it related to texts that speak to it and about it. You can study well-written texts about subjects that people literally considered trash. I enjoyed reading and writing about film critics who wrote about films in that existed in the first fifty years of the movie history that were, largely, thrown away because they were considered disposable culture. Susan Sontags’s essay, “Notes On Camp” brilliantly challenged the notion that we can identify what is significant in culture, especially those forms or actions or events that challenge traditional notions of what is considered significant. In short, if the text is the THING then texts about trash can be the stuff of intellectual history as much as texts about natural rights.

  15. The problem, Nils, is that you are continually conflating questions of the definition of subject matter as “important” and “interesting”–terms that are themselves question begging– with questions of quality and value. I think that it’s a good thing that intellectual history has moved away from questions of inherent worth or value in regard to its subject matter, as much as we retain those evaluations in regard to the discourse of historians–it has opened up a realm of meaning that has transformed the way we think about thought in history. When you say that we know “in our gut” that some texts are more worthy of study than others, and that the criterion of “complexity” (which is the Lacapra criterion) is the appropriate one to delimit our subject matter, you are simply importing a kind of “self evident” or “common sense” appeal without any real intellectual justification. From a distant stance, all human symbol making is extraordinarily complex, and the notion of complex texts vs. non-complex ones seems evidence of a kind of provincial and narrow point of view that has not questioned its own assumptions.

    Where I really want to disagree here, however, is with the notion that the thing that distinguishes intellectual history is a method of close reading of texts. This definition would make intellectual historians basically New Critics, when they clearly aren’t. For one thing, historians are generally not interested in the autonomy of texts as closed systems. The thing that distinguishes intellectual historians from other historians is close attention to the historical dimensions of thought. Texts are sources that help us to reconstruct patterns of thought as historical entities. Every text, from this point of view, is a fragment to be used in an act of historical reconstruction. Framed in this way, the question of the inherent complexity of a particular text becomes less important than the complexity of a discursive field. We look for patterns of thought across those fields. We judge the importance of particular ideas in terms of these patterns, and not in terms of the idiosyncratic complexity of an individual text. Within this way of conceiving intellectual history, there can be a lot of different methods and ways of proceeding, so I’m not arguing that there is only one correct method of intellectual history. But the assumptions that Nils puts forth are, I think, unnecessarily narrow and frame the issues in a way that is not helpful.

    • I agree with Dan. In my approach intellectual history is about the history of ideas, how they are generated, disseminated, adopted and adapted. The subject is ideas, not any particular group of people who articulate them. Intellectuals and those deemed regular folks are both carriers of ideas that they don’t control once articulated. That does not negate the validity of history of social history of intellectuals and the institutions they are situated in as an aspect of intellectual history.

    • I had supposed that I’d stirred the pot enough on this forum in recent days, but Andrew asked if I would explicitly respond to Dan’s point. Which I’m happy to do since his post was the one that most directly grappled with the main point of my argument (as opposed to self-immolating over the examples). So let me try to answer each of Dan’s points.

      First, as to the conflation of interesting/important. I agree that my original post did not properly distinguish the two, which are very often far apart. Schematically, we may make the following distinction. On the one hand, “importance” turns on some assessment of the breadth and depth of the impact of some set of ideas. Stalin’s ideas about revolution would be an obvious examples of ideas that have had enormous impact, even if they were not particularly complex in themselves. What is complex is tracing the bewildering array of specific receptions and applications of these ideas. (One might argue that the index of an idea’s complexity might be its amenability to adaptation and integration into diverse discursive contexts, but I’m skeptical of that claim.) If Stalin’s ideas hadn’t had such impact, however, the texts of his writings in themselves would not necessarily merit rich discursive unpacking – a minor theorist in the Marxist revolutionary tradition. This is why the focus of most writing on Stalin doesn’t typically center on a careful, close reading of his theoretical texts.

      On the other hand, “interesting,” while obviously subjective to some extent, speaks to the degree of richness that can be unpacked from the text, that is, the complexity of the ideas (h/t LaCapra) and the explanatory power that they offer to whatever topic or phenomenon they refer (or to the current conjuncture). There’s just more “going on” in a text like, say, To the Lighthouse or The Waste Land than there is in, say… OK, I won’t offend anyone this time, I’ll just say, than there is in most others. Which means there’s more to unpack, more connections to be made, more context to be fleshed out. (Here’s another heretical suggestion: I would warrant that the extent of this textual “richness” might even be [gasp!] quantifiable.)

      Let me now address Dan’s second, bigger point, which is that my definition reduced intellectual historians to New Critics focused on closed texts. That is, frankly, a direct misreading of what I said. First, I specifically said I was using the term “close reading” broadly; I specified that there are many methodologies for doing this, of which New Criticism is only one. I mentioned exegesis and Deconstruction, but I might also have mentioned the hermeneutics, structuralism, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalytics, various flavors of “formalism,” and so on — along with myriad theoretical and methodological permutations and combinations. So, let a hundred flowers bloom on reading techniques. Second, I certainly don’t think that texts can or should be read mainly as “closed systems.” My second definitional element – that the right kinds of texts for intellectual history methods are ones that position themselves in a tradition of similar texts – certainly pointed to the centrality of intertextuality to what we do as intellectual historians. Which is why I said, in the very next sentence, that a main thing intellectual historians do is “unpack intertextualities.” All of which is to say that, on this latter point, I agree with Dan that we need to look at a “discursive field” rather than just at individual texts.

      But let’s be clear that this opening from the single text to a wider “discursive field” doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) mean evading a close engagement with the text in question, but rather should serve the purpose of illuminating the text in question. (This was the central thrust of the New Historicism in literary criticism – and while hidebound New Critics sniffed that the new historicists ignored the literary texts themselves, that claim is belied by virtually any book by, say, Stephen Greenblatt.)

      So this is what intellectual history is about: staying close to our rich, deep, complex texts. If we fade into some generalized assessment of whole discursive fields, without closely engagement with of any single texts within it, then we’ve strayed pretty far away from what intellectual history is mainly about. (That “assessing the discursive field” approach may of course be entirely appropriate to certain topics — perhaps the field of Reality TV, indeed — but it’s no longer what I think of as intellectual history.)


      While arguably these lines are somewhat arbitrary, since as practicing historians we may opportunistically apply intellectual history methods in some places and then cultural or social or economic history methods in others, I think that having this discussion matters for an important pedagogical reason: it’s important that we as a field don’t lose sight of the fact that our particular role within the discipline is to keep alive the teaching of the great texts, the ones that will teach us and our students how to read better.

      Here’s why. My strong belief is that if all you ever do is watch Reality TV, then you’re never going to gain the cognitive skills that will allow you to say something interesting about a text by, say, Theodor Adorno or Martha Nussbaum. On the other hand, if you spend your formation reading Nussbaum and Adorno (and really learning how to unpack the richness and complexity of what they write), then you WILL be able to say something interesting about Reality TV. So again, I go back to the fact that not all texts are created equal in terms of complexity and thus in terms of pedagogical worth. Furthermore — and here’s the really serious provocation — every one of the people on this thread knows this (or at least lives this), since we all choose to assign some texts rather than others in our classes, presumably because we think the ones we are assigning provide better learning opportunities for the students than the ones we don’t assign.

      Where I guess there may be a fundamental disagreement is what we think the pedagogical purpose of history itself is. Myself, I see the goal as trying to teach people how to read in more complex and diverse ways. Certainly there may be some here who have other possible pedagogical goals — based on this thread, ideological indoctrination comes to mind — but what I can say for certain is that the main thing I have tried to teach my students (and, much more, the people I now supervise) is how to be better readers and writers, which is to say: better thinkers. I see the larger social purpose of intellectual history as being in no small measure about keeping alive and teaching people how to appreciate the texts that will make future generations smarter. In the coming dark ages, we better hope somebody does this.

      • Nils, what is your definition of “text” in this response? Are you limiting it to written text or does your definition anything that could be read textually?

      • In defining your pedagogical purpose, I think you overstress form (complexity) at the expense of content. I presume you are not just interested in teaching via complexity, but also familiarity with a certain canon of texts and arguments, say, the basics of political theory.

        I think you also think we need to be more upfront with separating claims about methodology from claim about purpose. One could agree with your definition of intellectual history as requiring close reading of complex texts while rejecting your purpose in applying (and teaching) that close reading. In short, the methodology of close reading can serve different masters.

  16. I will raise a point that I (and others) have raised here on the blog before: Is intellectual history a methodology or a subject matter? Does a historical work need to be exclusively about texts that were carefully wrought and situated themselves among texts of a similar tradition? Or can a historical work analyze carefully wrought/emblematic texts alongside other kinds of texts in order to uncover larger truths of historical significance? If the latter, then I can imagine a quite scintillating analysis of Honey Boo Boo–or some other pop-culture phenomenon–that would use use intellectual history methods without exclusively focusing on (or being pigeonholed as) something called “intellectual history.”

  17. A long response because this has really been a stimulating discussion!

    In a recent issue of the AHR, Gary Wilder suggests that one of the responses to the various “turns” of the last few decades has been a retreat by historians to naively straightforward narrative, or what he calls “descriptive realism and archival objectivism”–a tendency no doubt furthered by the allure of visibility for scholarship involved in publishing with trade rather than academic presses. What Gilman continues to propose here seems more simple and frankly less interesting: not only a retrenchment but an attempt to travel back to an earlier time when intellectual historians labored presumably untroubled by anxious actors at the margins eager to have their voices made part of the Big Story. The fact that Daniel Rodgers of all people, hardly a methodological Jacobin, is singled out for special skepticism is a measure of just how reactionary (I use the word advisedly) this proposal is.

    I could imagine a way of out here that would solve many of the problems named here: a renaming of the discipline. What is offensive to me, and likely many others, is the fact that the field of intellectual history would be permitted to hold the “sovereignty of definition” as the Germans call it, for the universal category of the “intellectual” or “ideas” as such. This is why it rankles when Gilman concedes—in what he seems to think of a generous moment–that slave narratives are legitimate objects for intellectual history but feels the need to qualify parenthetically that “they are virtually all not only self-consciously literary texts, but also very much situated in a tradition of such texts,” that is, the European tradition to which the slave is a late arrival. At work here is the demotion of the marginalized population to the position of those reacting to the site of all intellectual causation, which remain those with the pens, the presses, and the pulpits.

    There is, of course, another way of thinking about this dynamic that replaces the simplistic causation of A-influences-B, namely, the method used by “French theorists” from Eric Hobsbawm to Louise and Charles Tilly to William Sewell and Frederick Cooper (among many others) who argue that it is the precisely the mobilizations of (usually inarticulate and illiterate) men and women that transform the normative content of the intellectual categories of “democracy,” “man” and “people.” This method, hardly controversial, has the enormous benefit of saving the subjects of study from the condescension of the derivative or the mimetic.

    It is entirely conceivable that a subfield of history could be practiced that operates exactly as Gilman says. To avoid the understandable irritation of it making the claim to the “intellect” as such, though, we could propose, in the spirit of precision rather than self-righteousness (or “Left McCarthyism” to cite the most intellectually lazy term I’ve heard in a while), that it be renamed White Elite Knowledge Studies. There is precedent for this. Mary Poovey’s Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at NYU is a home for studies that consider carefully the conditions and technologies of knowledge production as well as the ideas conveyed by and through them. Any protestation about the bagginess of the term could be cut answered by reference to the categories of Africana Studies, Ethnic Studies or the recently-renamed School of Cultural Analysis, also at NYU, where far more diverse intellectual and cultural trajectories through the human past are united under a single roof.

    A valuable first project for such a subfield might be an intellectual history (because do they ever write!) of the Aggrieved White Male. The singularity of this world-historical figure is that no matter how much conditions still work overwhelmingly in his favor, he is still able to muster a powerful sense of marginalization. One of its opening hypothesis would be that nobody plays the embattled minority like the erstwhile majority—and for good reasons. While historically marginalized populations—be they people of color, women, queers, or the disabled—begin any academic undertaking with the knowledge learned the hard way– that their experience is considered derivative and inherently relational. Every revision of that still-reigning consensus is a struggle. It may come as an ongoing source of outrage but never a sense of surprise when the efforts of self-expression and articulation of people coming from a similar position as them are considered “low standard” or “swinish.”

    The Aggrieved White Male, let’s call him AGM, by contrast never fails to be both surprised and outraged when the relative dominance of his own identity group’s projects of self-expression and articulation experience move slightly from center to margin within the fields of popular culture and higher learning. My proposal is that they secede. Whether the formation of White Elite Knowledge Studies will accelerate or slow the disappearance of those who would attribute primacy of historical change to those who had access to pen and print remains to be seen. What is clear is the subfield’s hierarchies will no longer cause offense by claiming jurisdiction over “the intellectual” as such.

    As for the aside in Gilman’s original post that he “uses the word ‘text’ very broadly here – it could include music, art”, this is inconsistent with his later assertions that to study Madonna with the tools of the intellectual historian, one would have to study only her book “Sex” or that slaves are not viable subjects of intellectual historians because they were illiterate. If this expanded understanding of text is taken seriously then one could presumably study the dance, songs and rituals of slaves as well, mostly Yoruba imports that were reworked over time into, among other things, jazz, calypso, and the blues. Either way, Roland Barthes would be happy to hear about Gilman’s expanded definition of the text. It is the only verifiably French idea in the whole discussion.

    • It is hard to find the arguments amidst the snark in this posting, but it seems to boil down to a claim that Gilman’s definition of intellectual history would render the thoughts and writings of marginalized groups as “derivative” of elite white culture and, therefore, 1) inferior to it on some evaluative scale, 2) not a primarily mover of historical change.

      But what about Gilman’s definitions actually involve such claims? To say that slave narratives are responding to white forms of writing is not to say they are nothing but recapitulations of such traditions, nor is to claim they are any more or less of a cause of historical change more generally. Indeed, one can readily acknowledge the poster’s point that intellectual history is sometimes (often?) moved by developments outside of the world of intellectuals without therefore abandoning Gilman’s definition of the field.

  18. This is a great discussion, and as a participant in the twitter debate that preceded it, I am pleased to see that it has continued here. It seems that there are a few crude points that have not yet been made:

    1) Nils suggested on twitter that “profundity” is the key criterion for evaluating whether or not a text merits study by the intellectual historian; I’m not sure if he is sticking with that here, or if “complexity” is the new metric.

    In any event, one cannot know how “profound” or “complex” a text is until it has been studied, and, presumably, compared to other texts. Most historians, having sunk time and energy into performing a close reading (I agree that close reading is the only methodology non-quantitative history has ever had and the only methodology that is ever taught, so we might as well be honest about it), will have a professional interest in producing an analysis; most of the time, there is something meaningful to be said about any text with which one has spent time. Some time there isn’t. But I think that even most of us who have travelled down dead ends would conclude that the material needs a differently qualified interpreter, not that it is unworthy of study.

    As someone currently writing a short essay about Honey Boo Boo and the idea of the “grotesque”–which I am now explicitly positioning as an exercise in intellectual history, prompted by this discussion– and whose immediate scholarly community includes a very serious porn scholar, I may be in a unique position to point out: unless you’ve sat down with the texts, you don’t know–can’t know– what you are talking about.

    The real question is not evaluative but pragmatic and professional: would you advise a grad student or peer to hit a particular set of archives? I would probably not recommend that a peer embark on a Ph.D diss on adult performers’ utterances for the same reason that I would advise against a project on “The American Nietzsche”– they would be hard projects to go on the market with, in the case of the former because of longstanding prejudices against studying porn and in the case of the latter because somebody just wrote that book . Alternately, I might advise myself not to study the intellectual history of Hummel figurine collectors, because I would find it too boring, or the Spanish Inquisition, because I would find it too traumatic. None of this has anything to do with the intrinsic study-ability of the subject matter.

    2) “Profundity” is normative; so is “complexity.” I am not scandalized by the persistence of Arnoldian tendencies in intellectual history, but I do think it is unhelpful and antidemocratic. Everybody thinks.

    • I mainly agree with the first set of arguments here.
      1. Certainly we can’t know the intellectual or aesthetic quality until we have delved into the material. This is why the first step of most research is to immerse oneself in primary sources before choosing a method for assessing those sources. But once one has made the assessment, then choosing the right method becomes critical.

      2. Profundity and complexity are not synonyms, but they are closely interrelated.

      3. The last question you ask, about what you would advise a graduate students to study, is a reasonable one, though I would call it a bit of an abdication, in that rather than taking a stand yourself on what is worth studying, you are making a (perfectly pragmatic and reasonable, to be sure) assessment of the prejudices of the market. If “the longstanding prejudices” (presumably of “the academic market”) happen to be anti-porn, then you’d advise against this topic — the implication being that if “the prejudices” happened to be pro-porn, you’d advise in favor of such topics. Unless, that is, you found the topic personally “boring.”

      “Boring” is actually a pretty interesting category, in that to me it seems to me to be bringing judgments about quality and importance in through the back door.

      As for the “Arnoldian” being “undemocratic,” I suppose that depends on what your hope is for democracy. My hope is that democracy will take the form of giving everyone the opportunity to appreciate the great and the wonderful, not about leveling us all down to some lowest common denominator.

      On this latter point, there’s a telling moment in Hemingway’s otherwise mediocre novel For Whom the Bell Tolls in which one character criticizes the other for using “usted” instead of the more informal “tu” as being “counter-revolutionary.” To which the man responds, “I’m fighting the revolution so that everyone will say ‘usted’ to each other.”

      • Points well taken. As an adherent of Jacques Rancière’s, I am actually probably more aligned with your position than I have indicated, but properly sketching that out would likely take the discussion in a different, less immediately relevant, direction.

        I agree that “boring” is normative, as is “traumatic”–there is no way to exorcise the normative, but I think one should settle on normative distinctions that one can defend. Ethically, I’m OK with “boring” and “traumatic,” because I feel that I can reliably gauge my own sense of either without having to settle on a final definition and without having to impose my standards on anybody else. In other words, I think that I can feel “I don’t want to do that” without having to jump to “that should not be done.”

        Outside of these considerations lurk professional norms, which I think, are properly the object of a productive cynicism. I would double down, that is, on a purely tautological definition of “intellectual history.” “Intellectual history” is what people call “intellectual history.”

        Finally, I should clarify my objection to the Arnoldian view, which is problematic not as an act of ranking (an unavoidable human activity, as feverishly pursued by every subaltern group as by every elite organization), but in its ideological work–the idea that there really is some kernel of truth in the notion that certain texts authentically contain the best that has been thought and written, as opposed to evincing maximal compliance with an arbitrary set of rules. Perhaps I’m wrong, but does not faith in this kernel of truth lead rather quickly to the prison of infinite regress?

  19. To add a little levity to the conversation–on our Facebook page, Leo Ribuffo wrote the following: “You’ve got maybe 200 people in the country who do this stuff and somebody wants to police the boundaries from what, an invasion of cultural historians who think close readings of mediocre ‘texts’ worth the time. Sounds like Malta getting a nuke to deter an invasion from Monaco.” Although I agree with Leo’s sentiments (and have laughed out loud at it several times now), I enjoy our occasional forays at this blog into disciplinary boundary setting/busting.

  20. Unlike most in this very engaging and important thread, I find myself in relatively strong agreement with Nils. Though I want to qualify that agreement. As an intellectual historian studying American philosophy (I should add that I’m a graduate student), I’m in the business of dealing primarily with complex texts. It is, obviously, not only historians of philosophy who do this, however. I think of the work of someone like Christopher Shannon, who provides compelling intellectual justification for his refusing to privilege the order of events over the order of ideas (Roberto Unger has much to say on this point), and who critically engages in close readings of texts to get at their import and historical significance. The same can be said of someone like the late John P. Diggins. There are, of course, other ways of getting at the import and significance of texts or ideas. But it seems to me that, especially among American intellectual historians, this approach is shied away from (and in Shannon’s case, derided in reviews) in a justification of either attempting to strike the “appropriate” balance between ideas and events, or substituting sheer breath for analytical depth. Now there is nothing wrong with either of these approaches relative to those taken by folks like Shannon, La Capra, Diggins or, say, Alan Megill. But it’s important to point out what’s lost and what’s gained in each. And I take this to be what Nils is getting at. As LaCapra points out, convincingly in my mind, the desire for a masterful synthesis when dealing with an intellectual discourse often winds up with the unfortunate result of reducing complex texts to a few sentences or paragraphs in order to place it in a larger context. This is an unfortunate but, as Martin Jay points out, often necessary result of presenting a larger synthetic picture of an intellectual current. But the cost involved does mean that important and complex texts, the ideas and nuances of which are part of what intellectual historians (some?) should concern themselves with, are treated simply in the service of a larger argument, as puzzle pieces rather than dynamic and intentionally written, carefully crafted, pieces of writing. Thus it seems to me that one should not simply accept the consequences of a given approach wholesale (especially those more contextual or breadth/synthetic driven studies) and just “get on with it.” The point is that because intellectual history is so small and also inherently interdisciplinary, it should allow for multiple approaches to the history of thought, and with that, multiple methodologies. I bring up the example of Shannon as someone whose work I greatly admire (while disagreeing with a great deal of his conclusions), because he is willing to engage with texts in a rigorous and intellectually nuanced way. As Dan Wickberg (another intellectual historian whom I greatly admire) alluded to , this may bring him closer to a New Critic. But I say to that: so what? Should we not welcome the expansion of intellectual history’s disciplinary boundaries in the same way that extending it to all areas of thinking seeks to do? On that note, the qualification of my agreement with Nils also comes in the form of dissent from that position. In a debate with David Harlan, David Hollinger made a similar point when, being accused by Harlan of implicitly policing the boundaries of the discipline, he urged that he had always been an advocate of plurality in the methodology of intellectual history, finding value in everything from the social history of ideas approach to post-modern, “textually” oriented approaches like that taken by John Owen King in his book The Iron of Melancholy (an incredible work). The point of which, again, is that one of intellectual history’s virtues should be its methodological capaciousness. But it seems that the import of Nils’s comment is that many seem less willing to embrace that virtue when it comes to the close reading of texts, an approach, of course, redolent of an older, more dialogical style of intellectual history. Thus, comments like Quinn’s smack of paranoia and, frankly, a rather cliche populism that is beholden to strange breed of “progress:” “We’ve gotten over all those dead white men, why should we privilege what they have to say when women and racial minorities have been oppressed, their ideas ignored or placed in relation to white European thought?” Such a reactionary posture, I think, winds up becoming elitist in its own right. Which is to say this: Of course it’s important to study ideas outside of the context of dead or extremely old white men (elities, if you will). But that does not mean that we should shy away from them, as if what they have to say is uninteresting or unimportant. (And yes, this is a conflation of methodological choice with value, but is that conflation not exactly why we’re having this conversation in the first place, and why Nils’s post seems to have provoked such strong reactions?) And on the methodlogical level, it should not mean privileging low-brow, or middle-brow (I admit, dicey and problematic distinctions) over the complex texts of say, philosophers or other “high” intellectuals. What I take the significance of Nils’s post to be, though, is that we should in fact stop acting like virgins in a whorehouse because that seems to him to be something of a trend in intellectual history (I assume this applies especially to American intellectual history). Far be it for me to claim awareness of all the work currently being done in American intellectual history. But I will defer to Nils’s observation as someone more qualified than I, yet who seems to corroborate my sense of the field thus far in my graduate training.

  21. I would like to begin by thanking this community for a very engaging set of responses to my post. It’s a privilege to by read and challenged by people this thoughtful. I’d also like to respond at some length to what I think has been the most penetrating critique of what I wrote, articulated in various ways by several people here.

    I think there are (at least) FOUR issues at stake in this debate, which need to be unpicked. One is the intellectual complexity or aesthetic rarification of a particular historical object; another is the normative assessment of the quality of the object; a third is the historical importance of that object; and finally, there is the question of the appropriate method for assessing the object. My basic argument in the original post was that the intellectual-historical method of close reading (in all its various technical guises) is most appropriate for intellectually complex historical objects, and less useful for (possibly very historically important, and very historically valuable but) intellectually simple objects – like, say, James Deen’s or Jenna Jameson’s grunts and exclamations.

    The discussion thread has migrated to a separate issue, namely whether my “Arnoldian” provocation conflated the first two or maybe three of these issues. To me, the issue is not a matter of conceptual conflation, as the thornier problem that IN FACT there is a strong correlation between the first two of these categories, and a weak correlation to the third. This correlation is not, however, absolute by any means. There are many intellectually rarified products that are clearly of minimal importance in the wider stream of historical change – the many intellectual “dead ends” that one commentator referred to being the limit case. Likewise there are many historically crucial events and objects that are clearly awful as a normative/aesthetic matter – Treblinka, Nagasaki, the Middle Passage, and so on.

    And yet, and yet… there is a correlation. Let me try to illustrate what I mean by this through a foodie example. By way of metaphor, let us consider the comparative complexity, quality, and historical significance of, say, Alain Ducasse’s various “three star” restaurants versus that of the Chicken McNugget. On the one hand, if you want to understand what’s special about the gastronomy of Alain Ducasse you need to understand the lengthy history of the production of high-end French cuisine; you’ll also need to understand the cultural details of that eating culture, its service culture, the nuances of how you are expected to behave while you are being served, and so on. Such appreciations are only (and can only be) available to a very privileged subset of humanity: to full appreciate Ducasse’s accomplishments, you will need to be very rich, since to understand the nuances and refinements of what he does, you’ll need to have eaten many meals at similarly rarified establishments, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. It is a realm of extreme privilege. On the other hand, to appreciate the foodie qualities of the McNugget, you don’t need to have any refinement at all. The basic aesthetic and gastronomic appeal of the McNugget requires no training whatsoever: fat, sugar, salt, meat. Punkt. Any two year old appreciates a McNugget for the very first time in the same way that I appreciate it on my 200th eating (OK, that was a personal confession).

    My first point about this comparison is simply that as an aesthetic object, the meal at Alain Ducasse is clearly a much more complex and nuanced thing than a six-pack of McNuggets served via a drive-through. By that I mean, quite simply, that understand Ducasse’s appeal requires a much more cultivated (and privileged) education in gastronomy than does appreciating the foodie-aesthetic qualities of a McNugget. It requires a privileged training to fully see all the nuances of what Ducasses does.

    But here’s the Arnoldian rub: Ducasse is just also flat-out better than the McNugget. It is of higher quality. This is a matter of taste, in both senses of the word. Of course, there might be some who would prefer the McNugget to the Ducasse meal, but this would reflect the quality of their gastronomic education, not the objective quality of the gastronomic objects. One is simply BETTER than the other. Just because it takes an education to see the difference doesn’t mean that the difference isn’t ontological.

    In fact, neo-Arnoldian that I am confessing myself to be, that in fact this same principle applies to many, many realms of aesthetics: the more complex, nuanced, and rarified objects are of BETTER quality than the ones that are more banausic and simple to appreciate. Thus “Pride and Prejudice” isn’t just “different” from, say, “Fifty Shades of Grey” – it is BETTER than “Fifty Shades of Grey”; the bas reliefs on temple at Angkor Wat aren’t just “different” from my stick-figure drawings, they are BETTER than my stick figure drawings; Yo-yo Ma’s way of playing the cello isn’t just “different” from the way I play it, it is BETTER than the way I play it. What’s more – no matter the howls of outrage that this claim is going to produce here on this blog – every single last one of you knows in your heart (and hopefully also in some other organs) that this claim about aesthetic superiority is true. Yes: true. It’s not that I am conceptually conflating complexity with quality, it’s that in fact these two things are highly correlated.

    So I’ve established that in fact there is a strong correlation between complexity and quality. The next question is whether there is such a correlation between quality/complexity and something we call “historical importance.” And here, I would argue, there is very little correlation at all.

    To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the food example. If we ask which is the more “historically significant” object, the McNugget or the Alain Ducasse meal, I would answer that it’s not even close: clearly the McNugget is the far more “significant” object – it is eaten by millions, and the conditions of its consumption and production transforms diets and bodies, ecosystems and economies, the planet over. Ducasse, by contrast, is simply the creator of pleasure palaces for the privileged few. It’s not even close.

    This finally brings me full circle to the question of method. I’ve sketched out two “methods” for assessing the McNugget-v-Ducasse question. On the one hand, we might use the method that involves assessing the refined aesthetic aspects of the two, in which case we would rightly conclude that the Ducasse meal is the more interesting of the two – and yes, also the one of higher quality. That’s what happens if you apply the “intellectual historical” method to assessing the two. On the other hand, if you apply a different methodology, namely one that looks at the political economy of the two meals, then you’ll come away with a very different view of the relative significance of the two meals. In other words, you need to pick the right methodology in order to really understand what makes the McNugget meal more significant than the Ducasse meal.

    This example, of course, isn’t at all hypothetical. It’s exactly what Michael Pollan did in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As we all know, Pollan is an excellent intellectual historian and aesethetician of food, and has had the privilege to learn very well how to appreciate the exquisite gastronomic nuances of rarified meals. But when he got to his chapter on the McNugget, that was not how he chose to write about it, because to write about the McNugget this way would be to totally miss what is salient and special about the McNugget. Instead he wrote a brilliant history of America’s economic enslavement to corn production, with the McNugget standing at the very end that complex regulatory, economic, political, and legal foodchain. In other words – and this brings me back to the original point of my post – it’s all about methodological appropriateness. As I said: horses for courses.

    This then, is what we as intellectual historians do: we don’t necessarily focus on the things that are MOST important. What we focus on is the things of greatest complexity and quality – things which, alas, are often not at all the most important things of their age. In fact, that is an essential part of our own historical role as intellectual historians: to keep alive the memory of (and appreciation for) things that are of high quality and value, even in the face of historical oblivion at the hands of awful, tawdry things that are in many cases more historically significant. I’m not saying that’s the only role for intellectual historians, but it is certainly one of them.

  22. At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me try to respond to this last comment by Nils. Some of this discussion has been illuminating, but the heat has tended to overwhelm the light. And I have to say, the primary responsibility for the heat/light ratio has to rest with Nils and his rhetorical choices. That is, I think there is a very good argument to be made in defense of the autonomy of formal thought as an object of historical study, that self-consciously produced arguments can be distinguished from other kinds of cultural artifacts on formal grounds and treated as a distinct arena of meaning. I don’t agree with that argument, but I think it’s a tenable one, and it would not have produced the firestorm that Nils’s post, and his subsequent defenses and elaborations of it, produced. But Nils chose to conflate the question of what is the subject (I would say “object,” but that’s just me) of intellectual history with two other, very separable, issues: 1. the “worthiness” of objects to be studied, some things being intrinsically “better” than others for reasons of aesthetic and/or intellectual merit; and 2. the purpose of intellectual history as a recuperative act of redeeming profound thought and thinkers from, in E.P. Thompson’s words, in another very different context, “the overwhelming condescension of posterity.” Note that this last position approximates a kind of cheerleading, more interested in promoting the value of the objects of study, than of understanding them in critical terms. A critical view of history that sidesteps the issue of evaluation as the primary purpose of historical study (who was good and who was bad for whatever assignable reasons) is at odds with the view that Nils is promoting here. I won’t elaborate that point here, since it would be digressive, but I am not simply saying that facts are one thing, values another. He then chose to deliver this argument by adopting both a sneering and dismissive tone _and_ by insisting, as he continues to do, that we all know that he is right because we all continue to make aesthetic judgements and judgements of merit (for instance, my judgements about the intellectual weakness of his arguments compared to other arguments). This idea that we all know what is a good argument and what is mere tripe shows that we all know that some objects are more worthy of study than others. But the fact that I make aesthetic judgements about some food over other food doesn’t mean that I believe there are ontological grounds for that judgement. The fact that I believe some arguments are better than other arguments (which is the basis for the criticism I might make about the contemporary writings of other historians, or the kinds of things I might like to read when I don’t have my historian’s hat on) says nothing at all about the proper object of historical study. In other words, historical understanding and aesthetic appreciation are two entirely separate and distinct things. Nils’s argument would, if I understand it correctly, essentially turn intellectual history into an exercise in appreciation and discrimination rather than critical analysis. What, after all, stops the intellectual historian from deciding that he is only going to study the worthy Kant of categorical universalism and leave aside the unworthy Kant of racial theory?

    • On this point, Dan, I completely agree with your general point — which, I have to point, is one that was first and most extensively elaborating by, ahem, Kant — that aesthetic judgments and scientific judgments are two totally different kinds of projects. (In the case of food, however, I would argue that one cannot fully separate aesthetics from ontology, but that doesn’t mean that conceptually the two are identical.)

      I also would like to be clear that I am not asserting that we all agree on what does and doesn’t have aesthetic quality — I am only arguing that we all have some standards of some sort, and that what we ought to be doing is laying our cards on the table concerning values/aesthetics and then having a reasoned argument about these distinctions. Otherwise we retreat into total relativism. (In other words, if you think the McNugget has greater aesthetic merit than Ducasse’s poulet fermier, then by all means let’s have that discussion. But let’s not pretend that we can’t make such a judgment at all, or that rendering such judgments is nothing but bigotry and snobbery.)

      As to the question of whether my judgment excises the critical element from historical study, I don’t know where that comes from. Anyone who has read my work can see that I am absolutely committed to rendering critical judgment of historical figures. Why is not possible, for example, to simultaneously — or at least sequentially — to render the judgment that Kant was ultimately a more complex and interesting thinker than, say, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, but that we still must try to critically interrogate his historically role and the substance of his ideas. Indeed, these two points in conjunction strike me as the essence of our pedagogical endeavor: to teach ourselves and our students how to be critical of even the things that are hardest to be critical of because they are so finely conceived.

      Let me illustrate this point with what I hope will be a relatively uncontroversial example. I’d much rather have my students read thinkers like Hayek, Friedman, Buckley, or Strauss than, say, Jonah Goldberg or Ann Coulter. Why is that? It’s because I want my students to learn how to critique the smart and thought-through version of contemporary conservative thinking, not the half-baked, idiotic versions of it. If they can critique the former, then critiquing the latter will be child’s play.

      In other words, while the process of aesthetic/qualitative judgment involves a fundamentally different kind of assessment than the one of critical assessment, as a practical matter the act of committing intellectual history must involve both if it’s being done right. So, we shouldn’t conflate them, but neither should be jettison one of them.

  23. According to Wickberg, Gilman thinks it is only appropriate to write about “historical objects” that we evaluate highly. Certainly Gilman isn’t making this claim about history overall. He has said time and again he believes that many forms of history are highly valuable, including histories of the now proverbial illiterate slaves as well as of phenomenon that he has antipathy towards like Glenn Beck. Clearly he does not think that history in general should only be written about good intellectuals and their texts.

    Gilman is making a claim about what sorts of texts the subfield of intellectual history focuses on and the methodology that is appropriate to it. I take him to be making a claim that what defines intellectual history from other neighboring fields like cultural history is a certain practice of close reading – a methodology best suited to a certain type of text. This is a par-for-the-course argument about defining the subfield’s essence and thus its difference from its neighbors. Gilman is not saying that non-intellectual historical scholarship is any less valuable; he is simply saying it is different, requiring a different methodology because studying a different genre. Matching interpretative tools to genre is hardly a revolutionary claim.

    Gilman’s point about evaluative standards, I think, comes up when his critics misread his value-neutral boundary work for judgments about the value of the “historical object” being studied. And to be sure, Gilman muddies this issue in his first post with invocation of the pearls for swine, though the original contexts of such remarks were not claims about people in the past, but examples from the mass media today. Gilman’s value judgments were not about illiterate slaves – and yet they somehow got read as attacks on illiterate slaves. To say, as Gilman presumably would, that illiterate slaves did not produce works that can be read by intellectual historical methods is not to say that these slaves didn’t have their own thoughts and beliefs, that they lacked agency, or that they (or their thoughts) aren’t worth studying. Indeed, as I pointed out in my previous post, we can well hold that illiterate slaves got important things right that Kant got dead wrong and still think that what is recoverable of their thoughts cannot be studied via intellectual historical methods.

    Contra Wickberg, I don’t think it is Gilman who imposes today’s standards on the past. I think, rather, it is his critics who do so. Gilman’s point is that illiterate slaves did not in fact leave works of the kind he thinks makes up intellectual history; that doesn’t mean he thinks that they were any less valuable or worthy people because of it – because to judge and condemn them by today’s standards for intellectual worthiness would be not only anachronistic, but entirely unfair to their plight as slaves. Saying that illiterate slaves did not produce works that can be studied via intellectual historical methods is not to pass judgment upon them, nor is it to invalidate the work of those who are involved in recovering their experiences, thoughts, etc.

    In short, Gilman does exactly what Wickberg calls for. He realizes that it is a mistake to critique illiterate slaves for not comparing favorable with the intellectual production of Kant. And he nonetheless finds them entirely worthy topics of historical study – and almost certainly decent people nobly persevering against impossible circumstances to boot. He isn’t judging the past against today’s standards, and he recognizes that even subjects seemingly devoid of explicit intellectual content (mainstream pornography) could well be important “historical objects” of analysis.

    Let me conclude with an example of Wickberg’s confusion. In his original posting, Wickberg asks , under Gilman’s vision, “What, after all, stops the intellectual historian from deciding that he is only going to study the worthy Kant of categorical universalism and leave aside the unworthy Kant of racial theory?” Gilman well knows, I bet, racial theory has an intellectual history too, and thinks it key subject. The notion that Gilman is advocating a connoisseurial “exercise in appreciation and discrimination” is unfounded. Like the rest of us, he thinks the value of intellectual historical work is what it can tell us about the past – and telling us about the history of racism and how it operates is hugely important. He isn’t asking us to choose between studying the Kant of racial theory and the Kant of the critiques.

    I don’t think Gilman’s postings and tweets have been exemplary, but I appreciate his perseverance in persisting against what has been quite a bit of vitriol. I find Quinn Slobodian’s snarky post on the “AWM” distasteful and distracting, substituting the easy self-congratulations of sarcasm for actual engagement. On twitter, Historianess and Grumphistorian have both substituted ad hominem lob shots for actual engagement with the discussion. If you want to make serious arguments and accusations, sarcastic riffs and angry tweets are not the way.

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