U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History and Theory Today

History and Theory Today

by Kerwin Lee Klein

[Editor’s note: this is the fourth and final essay in a series of roundtable essays on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).  — LDB]

One of the cheeriest things about our current academy, is the way that younger scholars have built institutions like this one.  I am struck by the care my readers have devoted to the text.  Gregory Jones-Katz’s elegant synopsis of Chapter Three; Daniel Wickberg’s canny observation that Chapter Four is also a reflective critique of the book; and Ben Alpers remarking the ways that I evade some of the contested ground on the frontiers of secularism and religion.  These readings were really helpful for me, because when I return to my older work all I can see is duct tape, bondo and primer.  The responses raise too many questions and issues for me to engage serially, so I will briefly situate the book in ways that I hope will address most of them, and then close with a few comments on our current moment.   

From History to Theory is partly a coda to my first book, Frontiers of Historical Imagination, and it traces a similar trajectory: the rise of historicisms in the North American academy; the emergence of antihistorical alternatives; and the interaction of these two forces in the twentieth century.  In each case, the turns away from history were fueled partly by political or philosophical problems in the older historical models.  And in each case, the revolts against historicism served both democratizing and totalizing tendencies.  In Frontiers, the rise of antihistorical forms of ethnographic analysis helped to expand the visibility of Native Americans, for example.  In FHT, the scientism of logical positivism helped to secularize a waspy academy in ways that provided opportunities for more sympathetic explorations of cultures that older historicisms had imagined as peoples without history.  FHT stands pretty heavily, then on some of the narrative arguments of FrontiersFHT also allowed me to work through some of the issues in an ongoing project, a history of mountains and mountaineering focused on science, technology and popular piety.

From History to Theory took final form only after I decided against a more traditional collection that would’ve included essays on particular figures or movements in addition to those focused on particular terms or word strings.  I chose instead a slimmer but more coherent study of historical semantics.  The plan of movement is dialectical: The first chapter ends with the failure of historiography and the emergence of history and theory; the second ends with a positivist conception of science that helped to consolidate art as the alternative field for historical theory; the third ends with the linkage of language, art, and ethnographic senses of culture; the fourth ends with the attempt to ground decolonization in aestheticized conceptions of language; the fifth ends with the accidental return to theology as a front against the nihilistic tendencies unleashed by aestheticization; and the last moves out of the academy and into the popular reduction of history to eschatology.  Each set of key words helped to define the condition of possibility for the next.  That method is not intended to be polemical, although traditional humanists tend to be suspicious of studies that move horizontally, rather than tracing lines of intellectual descent.  I am fine with that, and my semantic histories aren’t meant as a front against biographical and contextualist studies, on the one hand, or rational reconstruction on the other.  Methodological pluralism is part of the appeal of intellectual history, or at least it ought to be.

That said, my decision to focus on academic key words shapes the narrative in important ways.  As Wickberg correctly notes, the motivating questions in each section tend towards, “what were the conditions of possibility for x?,” rather than, “what caused Professors a and b to act as they did?” Indeed, the failure of various attempts to generate universal accounts of language, including causal models, is part of the story.  The focus on historical semantics also allows me to range widely.   And the focus on language is apt precisely because language came to occupy a central place in 20th century thought–  avoiding language here would be like avoiding the life sciences in a study of evolutionary thought.   Where many other authors working in history and theory have emphasized trans- or ahistorical literary, logical or tropological forms to theorize history, I have tried to historicize the language of theory.

Because I teach mostly in modern US and Europe, I have the luxury of approaching history in the manner held out by the great historians of the Progressive Era– historical studies ought to help the audience make sense of the contemporary world.  Both Frontiers and FHT begin with current problems, then drop back into the past to work forward.   Since I live in the US, although I frequently speak to the historiography of modern Europe, the ultimate narrative arc of FHT returns to the US.   And although the US and Europe have shared a great deal of historical experience, the obvious differences matter–  the US began as an agrarian republic, built on a white Protestant settler colonialism and racial slavery, and its subsequent evolution has been shaped by a tension between science and religion very different to that of Europe.  Unlike the majority populations of most western European democracies, the overwhelming majority of US citizens remain religious and supernaturalist.   That American setting thus has special significance for for philosophy of history, which has a long and messy relationship with Judeo-Christian theology.

Those differences between Europe and the US matter most in the chapters on memory.  Chapter Five was written and published in the winter of 1999/2000, and all of my reviewers note the tonal shift from the earlier chapters.   That shift is due to the polemical tone of the original, and its acerbity is accentuated in the book by the way that the discussion of memory emerges at about the apex of Freytag’s Pyramid.  I contemplated smoothing out that tonal shift, but in the end, left that piece essentially unrevised partly because it had circulated widely and revising seemed a bit like cheating; partly because I wasn’t going to amend the actual argument; and partly because that tone had been part of the moment in which the essay appeared.   In 1999, there were very few critiques of memory in print, and some folks thought that critique was an invitation to fascism.  The Twin Towers were standing, the Bush-Cheney administration was not in power, and any suggestion that eschatology remained a significant part of American culture and politics was received as evidence that one had spent too much time in the provinces.   (It was as if I were claiming that fanatical devotees of a Bronze Age millenarian blood cult were about to infiltrate high public office, seize veto power over the appointment of the federal judiciary, supply big chunks of the ideological and electoral cover to run a disastrous war in the Holy Land, and redline grant proposals for scientific research at NSF and NIH.)

One of the ironies of the success of hypostatization of memory, is that many readers project that usage onto the essay and then read it as an indictment of all study of popular and folk history.   But folks have studied museums and parades and memorial culture without resort to memory and the various theological terms haloed round it.  Sam Wineberg’s cognitive studies of historical pedagogy in K-12; Keith Basso’s accounts of place naming in Cibecue Apache; or Claudio Fogu’s analysis of the Italian Fascist revision of the codes of popular piety; all strike me as good examples of what W. V. O. Quine might have called,  “history and theory, naturalized.”   Nor do I advance any claims about the effects of  Erinnerung and zakhor in, say, Berlin or Groeningen.  Nor do I actually argue that the scholarly texts that mobilized religious loanwords for history and theory contributed directly to the political successes of fundamentalists in the US.   Nor did I need any of those claims– I simply showed that the common histories of memory for North America were factitious legitimation narratives, and that the reiteration of religious loan words undercut the grand claims for memory as a critique of metaphysics.  Moreover, one would hope that even in the humanities, the inability of a theoretical discourse on popular culture to recognize much less explain the influence of supernaturalist theologies of history in the world’s last superpower would be reckoned a serious defect– hence my final chapter.

Both Alpers and Jones-Katz raise the spectre of the humanities in the 21st century,   Alpers by worrying over the metaphysical extravagances of the humanities and Jones-Katz by celebrating them.  Although I am delighted to learn that at least some young Americanists have enough training in classical Greek to seriously attempt a recuperation of Aristotelian semiotics, I am not especially optimistic about substance or presence as foundational elements (rather than objects) of a research program.  Like most other Americans, I have no formal training in classics–  I usually read Aristotle in translation –but I do have a smattering of what is usually called, “New Testament Greek,”  aka “redneck Greek.”   My guess is that most Americans who aren’t of Greek descent but who have some Greek acquired it as I did, via homiletics or a local seminary or an extension course at an R1 or in the big, wide world of online learning.[1]   That means that most Americans familiar with parousia did not first encounter the term in the writing of Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man.  Parousia, as presence, has long been a keyword of American Protestantism, and all kinds of millenarian interpretive wars turn upon variations in its rendering. In any event, outside of a few cloistered nooks of the humanities at R1s, the presence that matters to most Americans is the presence of The Lord or His agents or his enemies, such as the devil in the shape of a Darwinian or a secular humanist.

Martin Heidegger’s work, politics and influence remain open and important questions for serious research in modern intellectual history.   A lot of very good scholars have begun unpacking the ways in which Heidegger’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and engagement with aletheia evolved out of his early experience with high modernist theology.   Indeed, I shelved an earlier chapter draft on Heideggerian poetics largely because folks like Theodor Kisiel, Jeffrey Andrew Barash and Peter Gordon had dealt with many of the issues I wished to highlight.  That moment remains important for my own work, although Heidegger’s vocabulary– Erschlossenheit, Entschlossenheit,  Ereignis –strikes me as unportable.   That was largely by design, as Heidegger’s suspicion of calculative rationality extended to the use of “theory” as if it were a toolbox in which one might rummage for a screwdriver or a spanner.  His engagement with techne remains one of the center pieces of right-wing critiques of modernity, and a strong influence on Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason.  That Heidegger’s work emerged out of the crisis of historicism, and thus the crisis of modern theology, is now obscure to many younger readers, and it surfaces in my conclusion in a reminder that as recently as 1959, Hans Meyerhoff could build a popular teaching anthology around the general notion.

Finally, on the question of religious and secular:  Secular, as John Dewey used to say of religion, is a collective term defined by its history and projected ends.   Secular always refers to some kind of historical process.   The phrase, nominally secular, is partly a punning, insider reference to the various philosophical debates associated with nominalism and nomination, but also a reminder that the attempt to nominate certain spaces for secular status matters not because secularity  happens in a final way, but because attempts to secularize or sacralize some particular space can shape the kinds of things that happen there.  Because secularization is partial and historical, even a “secular” Protestant culture will still have a Protestant flavor that may be especially evident to those from other faith communities.   So rather than seeing in the end of my story a crisis of secularism, I see rather one of the unforeseen consequences of the perceived success of the secularization of the modern research university.   Without secularization, Yale would never have admitted a Catholic like William Buckley, Jr., who could then turn about and rant about the soul-crushing secularism of the modern university.   But a keen sense of the recent, contingent and fragile nature of secularization is one of the engines driving From History to Theory.   And so far as the university is one of the success stories of secularization in American life, and one of the glories of modern democracy, the current dismantling of the modern research university is a challenge for intellectual history.

Kerwin Lee Klein

Berkeley 2013



8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wanted to take this opportunity to publicly thank Kerwin Lee Klein and our three reviewers — Ben Alpers, Daniel Wickberg, and Gregory Jones-Katz — for participating in this roundtable. The review essays were all excellent, and Prof. Klein’s response here is intriguing and illuminating.

    Thanks also to our readers for their engagement. This roundtable has prompted several substantive discussions on this blog and elsewhere, and I am sure there will be more conversations to come.

    Publishing this set of essays has been a wonderful privilege and a real pleasure. Thanks again to all.

    • Thanks for organizing this roundtable, LD. Spectacular. I learned so much.

    • Ditto Andrew. I knew of the book courtesy of you, but now it’s on my reading list. One of the things I appreciate the most about USIH folks is their openness and friendliness to theory—to thinking about the history of philosophy. – TL

  2. Aside: Next up is “mountains and mountaineering”? Holy cow. Do you mean that metaphorically, like Gaddis’ seashore/topography metaphors in *Landscape of History*? I jest. But I’m intrigued by the move. – TL

  3. I wish to make a few short remarks concerning Klein’s response. First off, I read From History to Theory and loved it–minus the last two chapters. The first of these two I found to contain many important insights as well as a proper warning that even esoteric areas of study may have political ramifications. Still, I agree with everyone else: From History to Theory ought be required reading for anyone interested in the development of “theory” in the 20th century. In the end I disliked the two chapters together for the reasons that Greg noted.

    Which brings me to the remark I really want to make. I think that you have misrepresented Greg’s position a bit, Professor Klein. Greg is not metaphysician. Rather, his essay seems to have two key moves on this point: 1) a plea to keep our minds open to methodologies that do not really upon reducing everything to representation and then 2) a description of what one path might look like (i.e. through Gumbrecht, Runia, etc).

    The part about knowing Ancient Greek is a bit disingenuous since Greg is clear that he is pulling from the work of Gumbrecht. It is this work that allows him, in my view, to make the moves I just described without resorting to metaphysics. In fact, I think that is the whole point of Greg’s essay: that we can talk about things presence without relying on Presence. To have recourse to Weberian terms, enchantment is not metaphysics in this case. Presence, as understood by Gumbrecht and Runia, is historical, not atemporal as its theologically usage would be. It is shorthand for the moments of slippage akin to those described by some of the great modernist authors where subjects feel as if they’ve fallen out of time–or that time is out of joint.

    This approach will not solve all the riddles of intellectual history, nor does it pretend to aspire to such heights. If anything recognizing that one call follow the lead of people like Gumbrecht and talk about nonrepresentational but still historical things without having recourse to fixed metaphysical systems limbers up our methodological predilections. It sends a reminder that there are many tools out there for the historian to use when analyzing his or her topic. Many of these rely upon linguistic theories informed by the folks that Professor Klein has skillfully examined; some others rely upon theories that Greg has carefully assembled. The fact that theorists as far ranging as the late Jacques Lacan (with the notoriously difficult concept of the Lacanian Real) to the burgeoning field of Affect Theory have all circled around a similar problem–i.e. how to represent the nonrepresentational–is a sign that opening the door to presence does not mean erecting a methodological wall around it. As these different names indicate, there’s a lot of room for debate even when we are talking about unspoken things.

    That there are possible political implications in this related to American Protestantism is clear. But so too is the fact that praising the fruits of secularization will not in itself protect such institutions as the university. If defending secularization is the intent, than it seems like one should take a more open attitude toward the project: experimenting with different terms and putting them to work in ways that might not seem immediately apparent. There might be rich potential in a Gumbrechtian approach that the political risks alone should not foreclose. After all, courage is just as necessary as prudence in such a monumental endeavor as defending secularization.

    • Thanks for the response, and apologies for the delay in replying. I appreciate environments in which graduate students and juniors can safely engage senior scholars, and criticism is most effective when it’s directed sideways or upwards. So I tried to direct my response to Greg’s essay toward broader developments in the humanities. But that may have been too oblique, so let me clarify what seems to be a deeper disagreement. Perhaps I can persuade you to dislike the first two chapters as well as the last two!
      My deviations from intentionalism may obscure my old skool roots. Despite my differences from Amos Funkenstein or Carlo Ginzburg or Bernard Williams, I feel privileged to have watched them work, and I remain deeply influenced by the older humanist tradition. For me, intellectual history begins with reading the primary works in original languages where possible and in something like chronological order so as to reconstruct the line of conversation. When I decided I needed a better grip on the return of eschatology in high modernist theology, I started by reading Schweitzer then Barth and Bultmann and Cullman and Tillich and Moltmann and so on. When I decided to learn the Heideggerian tradition, I read the important precursors and then as much of the Heidegger as I could get my hands on. I lacked the Greek to intervene in the controversies over his translations, but tried to get a sense of the stakes by reading a bit in the philological debates. After that I started in with the younger generations– Gadamer, Adorno, Arendt, Koselleck, Jauss. And that brought me to the early work of Gumbrecht, which is why some of it appears in the citations of my books. And that is probably also why I found his later work a rehash of older (and sometimes problematic) Heideggerian themes. So although I don’t have a Gumbrechtian perspective, I do have a perspective on Gumbrecht.
      I work the same way each new project– whether I’m treating landscape painting or glaciology. I understand that this approach is no longer fashionable. But I see no credible alternative for disciplinary rigor, aside from the linguistic, philological, and connoisseurial training traditional to the humanities.
      If we can get all we need of Aristotelian and Heideggerian philosophy from reading popular English language treatments, why should we fund Departments of Classics or German Studies? So far as many of our colleagues in the STEM fields are concerned, we could just get on with teaching remedial writing to the engineers.

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