U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reflections on the Edges of Historical Thinking

Reflections on the Edges of Historical Thinking

by Daniel Wickberg

[Editor’s note: this is the second 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]

Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory is an unusual book. Neither a traditional monograph, nor a theoretical treatise, nor really a traditional essay collection, it is in many ways sui generis.  It’s hard to think of a book quite like it, mostly because its angle of analysis is so unlike the common coin of historical writing.  Klein’s book is a collection of essays, each a kind of historical-ethnographic portrait of a major term/idea/intellectual orientation within the recent intellectual history of a decidedly minority discourse.  The ideas are central to the intellectual history of our own time, but the discourses in which they are examined are marginal to the central disciplinary orientation of the field of history itself.   That is, when mainstream historians discuss their discipline, they do so in terms that might be regarded as much more “nuts and bolts” than those theoretical, philosophical, and conceptual ones considered by Klein here.  The objects of Klein’s analysis are the discourses of those self-reflective historiographers, philosophically-oriented intellectual historians, and erstwhile “philosophers of history” that exist within and without history departments, but at their periphery. The effect is of an historical account of keywords, a la Raymond Williams, in recent cultural history, told from and through the margins.  And yet, because his approach is not a narrow disciplinary intellectual history but an examination of cultural discourse, this small band of marginal historians, in Klein’s work, becomes a window onto some of the most profound cultural and intellectual transformations of the past half century.

Klein’s book lies somewhere in the liminal land between intellectual history, philosophy, and anthropology; since this is both the point of view of the text and its subject matter, the work reads like an ethnography of contemporary thought, written from the point of view of a participant observer who is also an historian.   In other words, the intellectual historian in this text is a “marginal man,” observing and reflecting on the intellectual history of his own discipline, and on the history of thinking philosophically and theoretically about intellectual history.  He is both inside and outside, using the very perspectives and conceptual schemes he is analyzing to understand and make sense of their history. Unlike any other contemporary work I can think of, there is a persistent collapse of the distance between object and subject, so the book’s arguments are illustrations of the very intellectual changes it documents and analyzes; the dialectic logic of identification and estrangement makes for what is both a model of an original way of writing history, and a self-reflective analysis of the conditions of its own possibility.  If Hayden White’s Metahistory challenged historians to see their own narrative strategies of representation as prior to empirical content, Klein goes one step further, both backward and forward; instead of asking us to reflect theoretically on history, he is in effect reflecting on the historicity of the idea of a theoretically informed history.  This is, in his words, “a history of history’s edges,” (p. 169)   itself written from the edge of history.

If all this sounds like a headache in the making, an abstruse, theoretically dense text that seeks to “out meta” the “meta” of post-linguistic turn theory, I have good news.  Klein writes with a genial clarity that represents the best of the “plain speech” craft tradition in historical writing.  His distinctions are sharp and clear, his analysis delivered with a careful, almost Lovejovian, command, his points articulated in a reasoned and compelling voice.  His prose is occasionally chatty, always expressive, witty and unpretentious.  This is a highly sophisticated critical and historical analysis that doesn’t need to signify its erudition with jargon, unnecessary abstraction, neologisms, and throw-away references to the obscure texts of the academic inside dopester.   There will undoubtedly be references that are unknown to the neophyte, and the text is by no means a light read, but its entire thrust is to explicate and make clear a set of historical relationships between ideas, rather than to impress its audience with its own learning.

If there is a central argument to this collection of finely observed studies, it would be the implicit argument of the title itself.   As the positivistic and scientific conception of history as a form of empirical knowledge of the past–at its high tide in the mid-twentieth century–came under assault by the suspicions of the interpretive frame of mind that elevated culture, language, and meaning to a central position, so the community of critical historians turned to critical “theory” as a way to free history from its modernist epistemological and metaphysical residues.  Klein’s title, then, bears a certain irony; it expresses a “metanarrative” of either liberation (theory liberated from the constraints and claims of a unitary past) or declension (the loss of a stable past and its progressive certainties to the moral and epistemic swamp of “theory”), but in either case it ends up repeating, in narrative form, the very thing that is said to be lost or overcome—the metanarrative itself.  The title, then, is something of a joke, a play on every form of historical narrative that is structured by the form of moving from a beginning to an end: from tradition to modernity, from boundlessness to consolidation, from the island community to the bureaucratic society, from history to theory.   The larger substantive claim of the text might be something to the effect that history’s eclipse was not the result of the importation of French or continental post-structuralism in the 1970s as the standard narrative would have it.  Rather, the fundamental shift was a result of the intellectual groundwork laid by analytic philosophy and ethnographic anthropology in the mid-century years themselves.   In fact, philosophy and mid-century anthropology are key players in Klein’s argument, in a way rarely taken up by those who have analyzed changes in historical thought largely in relation to literary and post-structuralist theory. Rather than Derrida and Foucault (who, it should be said, are not entirely absent), the stress in Klein falls on figures like Suzanne Langer and  W.V.O Quine.

The actual form of the text is a series of historical essays on keywords or terms in the discourse of history: historiography, philosophy of history, language/linguistic, culture, metanarrative, postmodernism, and memory among them.  Each essay makes an argument about the changing configuration of terms, not as isolated units of meaning, but as part of a larger pattern of discourse.  The first essay, for instance, charts the changing meaning of “historiography,” and in particular the way in which a term that had grown to encompass a wide sphere in the mid-twentieth century—referring to a) philosophical and conceptual concerns in historical knowledge, b) the history of historical writing, and c) practical methodological issues and critical debates within specific areas of practice—was gradually pushed out of historical discussion.  One of the primary evidences of the decline of historiography as a keyword is the disappearance of the departmental major requirement for a course in historiography in most American universities.  For Klein, the distinction that came to be drawn between “real” history (not mere historiography) and “theory” as its own particular specialization marked the end of the integrative possibilities of “historiography” as a way to define the distinctive domain of all historians.   As Klein puts it,  “In the usage of most historians, the shift away from historiography to history and theory implies that history is one thing and theory quite another.” (p. 32) Behind the rise and fall of terminology lies an intellectual revolution.  Of course, the “and” in “history and theory” marks both a split and a union, and Klein has much  less to say about that union than that split.

Similarly, the postwar vogue of “philosophy of history,” embodied especially in the analytical debates around Carl Hempel’s “covering law” model of historical explanation, and the attempt by “critical” philosophers of history to free themselves from the “speculative” or metaphysical philosophy of history inherited from Hegel, in Klein’s view, gives way to “history and theory” in the 1960s and 70s.  Philosophy of history, as a subfield, was wedded ideologically to Cold War debates about epistemology and metaphysics; the attempt to create a critical method for history that contained no metaphysical commitments—no unfolding of Geist, no inexorable logic of class conflict—was, according to Klein, the ideological defense of a procedural liberalism against the totalitarian determinations of History writ large.  The legacy of logical positivism that underwrote Hempel’s covering law model was no match for the political and intellectual unmoorings that marked the 1960s.  The turn away from positivistic models—and the enduring connotation of “philosophy of history” with grand metaphysical models of the past guided by a pattern or design–and toward the prestige of “theory “in the understanding of history marked a self-consciously aesthetic turn away from positivist epistemology and toward a stance of estranged critique.

The story Klein tells, here as elsewhere, is more complex and multidimensional than this brief synopsis suggests.  Intellectual shifts and reorientations are treated as parts of larger cultural and discursive patterns, not so much the product of self-conscious agency and intention or as masks for some political and social intentions that need to be uncovered.  This is in keeping with the object/subject collapse that defines the project as a whole.  Like William James, Klein is an accommodating thinker, willing to entertain a variety of readers and their interpretive stances.  But he has his limits.  He welcomes the historians of ideas, the Foucauldians, the discursive deconstructionists, and the Marxian-informed social historians, all of whom may appreciate the attention to the history of language (and language about the idea of language) that informs this book.   “Those who insist that the only possible way to study the meaning of words and discourse is by reference to the self-conscious intent of the individual author or speaker,” on the other hand, “can write their own books.” (p. 11).

This rejection of old school intentionalism as a form of antediluvian fundamentalism goes hand in hand with his critique in a later chapter of the convergence of antimodern left and Christian right on a re-enchanted world in which “memory” is invoked against the acids of critical reason and bureaucratic instrumentalism.  There we find Klein invoking the Hegel-we-can-never-seem-to-be-free-of as the source of a “dream of liberation,” against the totalizing implications of a re-enchanted world of Christian dominion (pp. 159-60), a world that represents a threat to Klein’s own skeptical and secular modernism.  If this seems an odd place to end up (what do Christian conservatives, far outside the perimeter of the secular academy, have to do with academic theory?) I can only say, read the book.

Much as I admire this book, I do have some bones to pick.  Klein suggests that the failure of the philosophy of history to preserve a place for itself in the academy lies in the intellectual baggage it carried, and in part the turn by historians away from philosophy.  Here, I think, is only half the story.  If I, like Klein, may be permitted a personal anecdote: as an undergraduate history major in the early 1980s, I had a strong interest in philosophy and took a number of classes, including a class in the philosophy of history (taught by the department’s continental philosopher).  We read, as par for the course, analytical and speculative philosophies, as well as Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge.  By far, the most alien material in this class, for this budding historian, was that focused on the idea of history as a positive science, in particular, Hempel’s writings.  The problem with the analytical philosophy of history, as it struck me then, was that it betrayed no knowledge of the actual practice of historians.  Hempel didn’t seem to have read any history, had no real conception of source criticism and use, paid no attention to ideas about development and change, and was unfamiliar with the kinds of subject matter that historians of various kinds focused on.  He purported to give an account of what it is that historians do, without citing any particular historians. His philosophical position represented a kind of empty formalism in the philosophy of social science, a demonstration of logical necessity unmoored from practice. Now it is also true that most historians I have known, both now and then, have showed little patience or concern with philosophical questions, much, in my view, to their detriment.  But the failure of analytical or critical philosophy of history surely owes as much to the failure of philosophical outreach or concern with the practice of historians.

In part this failure of outreach may be due to the prevailing negative attitude toward history that dominated philosophy departments throughout the post-war era.  And this brings me to a second criticism.  Klein makes much of the role of analytic philosophy, and its convergence with cultural anthropology, particularly in the conflation of linguistic and cultural analysis that came to characterize theoretical considerations of history, language, and culture.  It may be true that the anthropologist Edward Sapir and the philosopher W.V.O Quine were concerned with common problems of language, representation, reality and translation, and that the importance of linguistics in mid-century anthropology “helped to make anthropology monographs common reading for analytical philosophers.” (p. 73).  Klein enlists these observations in an argument that it was “the analytic philosopher as field linguist” (p. 74) in Quine’s Word and Object that set the stage for the triumph of Clifford Geertz’s symbolic anthropology among historians in the 1970s and 80s.  The linguistic turn/cultural turn was enacted in the conflation of language and culture in philosophy.  But the problem with this analysis is that it assimilates what were largely technical and theoretical concerns with language and meaning, concerns that were largely void of any specific historical or cultural content, to the historical uses of Geertz’s Weberian understanding of culture.  The analytic philosopher’s hostility to the very idea of the historicity of ideas is evident in the treatment of the History of Ideas, which has its roots in philosophy but was no longer welcome in philosophy departments in the 1940s and 50s.  Quine’s reading of Robert Redfield while on vacation in Mexico becomes the basis for an analysis of analytic philosophy engaged in a “colonial encounter,” but the encounter itself seems rather abstract, free of specific political and historical conditions.  It is hard to see how we get from ahistorical analytic philosophy and its technical concerns with language and meaning to the kind of history that prevailed in the wake of Geertz’s assimilation by historians.  It is a brilliant move to suggest that when French theory came to America, the land had already been tilled by analytic philosophy.  Unfortunately, this is also a period in which American philosophy divorced itself more fully from other humanistic disciplines; whatever was held in common was taken in radically different directions, ones in which the possibility for common ground between historians and philosophers—embodied in mid-century figures like Arthur Lovejoy, Morton White, Isaiah Berlin—was lost.   The philosopher Richard Rorty came to have a broad influence in the humanities at the very moment he ceased to be welcome in philosophy departments.

One of the great charms of From History to Theory is the way in which it moves effortlessly between the narrow world of a specific intellectual discourse and the broader cultural world of which that discourse is a part.  One never feels that the intellectual world being analyzed is some isolated and separate sphere with its own language and internal history apart from the larger culture—Klein writes from within a perspective in which language and culture have been conflated, a perspective that is documented in his own history.  There is nothing narrowly disciplinary or “internal” about this history; rather, it is mapped onto a broader universe of cultural reorientation.  The most significant example of this lies in his parallel analysis of the rise of “memory” studies in historical literature, and in conservative Christian circles in the 1980s and 90s.  In both cases, he argues that memory was invoked to remake the public sphere in sacred terms; that the two worlds were, and presumably still are, engaged in a common cultural project. “But for Christian conservatives, as for academics, the discourse of memory pulled together the private and frequently therapeutic vocabularies of postwar selfhood with the civic rituals of a nominally secular state.  Memory provided a language uniquely suited to opening secular public spaces to Judeo-Christian religious tradition.” (p. 158)  That the movement to restore the Ten Commandments to courthouses, to recover memories of demonic possession leading to child sexual abuse, or to rewrite history in explicitly Christian terms as David Barton of Wallbuilders proposed, could be seen as partaking in the same logic as reconstituting the memory of Holocaust survivors, or analyzing war memorials and rituals of public life as historical events, speaks to the logic embraced by Klein in situating popular and academic discourses in the same world. The belief in the autonomy of academic discourse is, for Klein, a fool’s dream; his ultimate call is for a theoretically informed history to re-engage with the world of which it is necessarily a part.

Since the vogue of “memory,” the keyword that has come to structure historical writing and thinking to the greatest extent in our own time is “transnational.” It was with some surprise I found it absent from Klein’s analysis here, since so many of the arguments he makes circle around questions of post-colonial critique, especially with regard to distinctions drawn between peoples with and without history.  The transnational, whether we find it in the study of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, or a decentered contemporary transnational American Studies, or the problem of the Americas North and South, is rooted in two apparently conflicting modes of thought: post-colonial theory on the one hand, and neo-liberal globalization on the other.  The one purports to speak for the resistance to Western domination, the other to promote the benefits of markets liberated from the boundaries of the nation state. I suspect that Klein might find those apparently opposite modes of thinking to betray an underlying common conception, one in which the decentering of the nation state serves the purpose of remaking the world in cosmopolitan terms.  Historical thinking and writing follows the flag of the compelling intellectual and cultural orientations of our own time—or at least that’s what we might have said when we still believed in historiography.  Some of us still do.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Dan,

    Thanks for this account of what looks like an interesting, if quirky book (I think we need more quirky books). The dominance of analytic philosophy among American philosophers may not explain the reception of French cultural theory among historians, but it is a nice window on the organic wholeness of postwar intellectual life even among intellectuals who would seem to have nothing in common at all. This seems to me one of the most important contributions of cultural history to our general intellectual life.

    I also appreciate your parting link between post-colonial and globalization theory. I have for some time seen the shift from a “solid” framework of nation states to a more “fluid” framework of transnationality to be somewhat evasive of deeper issues, as well as symptomatic of the kind of transition historians are always finding (you mention the tropes of “boundlessness” and “consolidation,” which can move in either direction).
    Targeting the Christian Right seems like shooting fish in a barrel for an academic. What is his standard for “real history,” as opposed to ideologically driven “memory”?


  2. Chris–
    Klein is, I think, critical of those historians, theorists, and scholars who are _not_ explicitly Christian but who seek to sacralize history through “memory” as an antidote to the bureaucratic rationality of modernity. it’s not so much an attack on Christianity–at least in the chapter on memory in historical discourse– as a brief for a consciousness among secular academics about their own values and the way in which memory talk undermines those values. He’s pretty explicit about this, and I don’t think he presents those secular values as neutral. Ben’s review of the book is pretty accurate on Klein’s take. Because Klein sees culture/language all over the terms of our interpretation, including his own, I think the question of “real history” or “non-ideological history” is not an issue for him–it’s a question of what values are going to guide historical thought, not of critiquing religion for introducing “values”. In other words, Klein has taken the linguistic turn more seriously than most historians; he realizes that we are still writing history in the shadow of Hegel, even as we have denied the metaphysical sources of our own thinking; this is the condition of the possibility of our saying anything about the past at all. Where Klein differs from those “shooting fish in a barrel” academics is that his point is not simply to dismiss religious belief as “unscholarly,” but to show how postmodern putatively secular academics and theorists are engaged in the same project as the religious right. I have to be honest: I actually found the first four chapters of the book much more engaging than when the polemics against “memory” were introduced in the last two chapters. But I suspect, that’s just me.

    • Dan,
      Thanks for the clarification. From what both you and Ben have written, it does seem like the more descriptive earlier chapters are more helpful, and worth a read. I will have to add the book to my already too large pile of books that I must read.

  3. A live question is whether it’s really the 21st century historian–in his normative strict-secular milieu [as Shannon notes]–who “remembers” the American religious landscape correctly.

    Gordon Wood, on Meacham’s American Gospel:

    Despite all our current concerns about theocracy, religion then was much more powerful and pervasive than it is today, even though the percentage of church membership may have been smaller then than now; indeed, as Holmes correctly points out, the overwhelming religiosity of the Revolutionary era made the Founders appear “less devout than they were.” Jefferson and Madison and other rationalists were on the defensive against the forces of popular Christian enthusiasm. Franklin was only being wise in advising a friend in 1786 not to publish anything attacking traditional Christianity. “He that spits against the wind,” he said, “spits in his own face.” By contrast today it is the devoutly religious people who feel beset and beleaguered by an increasingly secularizing culture.

    Of our post-Everson polity:

    “We do not, and cannot, base American constitutional jurisprudence on the historical reality of the Founding*. Our constitutional jurisprudence accepts a fiction involving the Founders’ intent—it may have become a necessary legal fiction as the country’s laws have taken shape but it is a fiction nonetheless.”

    Legal fiction? I don’t know if this perspective was introduced in the “religion and law” symposium, but if Wood’s right, it’s quite key, at least as genuine intellectual history.


    *I personally demur in that IMO the Constitution permits both a completely irreligious nation or one more accommodating to religion than at present. See also my erstwhile blogbrother Hunter Baker’s


    which despite the title, advances that middle view persuasively.

  4. Dan: Since I haven’t read the book, all I can say at this point is thanks a million for this well-written review. Since you yourself move between history and philosophy, this had to be an enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to learning more from the next two entries in the round table. – TL

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