U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Politics of Historiography

I am reading George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. It’s on my exam reading list, and it’s on my radar screen for my dissertation (for my dissertation topic, see my profile via the link on the sidebar).*

I came across this passage at the conclusion of the second chapter, “The Revolt Against the Masses,” which traces the very beginnings of what Nash calls “traditionalist” (neo) conservatism:

Above all, the most noteworthy feature of this body of thought is the simple fact that it was overwhelmingly intellectual history.  In nearly all these accounts of the decline of the west, relatively little attention was paid to “material” or “social” forces. Instead, ideas were alleged to have been decisive; ideas had consequences.  Evil thoughts had generated evil deeds. At the root of modernity was intellectual error.

…In a sense, an explanation which made ideas the principal engines of history was an explanation which offered hope.  Perhaps it is harder to battle the direction of events if one thinks that the whole impersonal weight of industrialism or secularism or urbanization is bearing down on the present. Perhaps it is easier to resist one’s age if ‘only’ ideas and not ‘forces’ seem to be the foe….This belief in the potency of ideas pervaded all segments of the postwar American Right.**

Now, Nash is not referring to the historiography of intellectual history within the academy, but rather to the polemical/hortatory works published in the 1940s and 1950s by conservatives seeking to locate the beginning point of modernity’s “error” and find a way to correct for it by a return to “medieval” ideals of truth, chivalry, certainty, etc.

Nevertheless, this passage has prompted me to go meandering down a rabbit-trail of thought.  I’m hoping somebody can tell me if it goes anywhere.

What I’m thinking about — still rather inchoately — is this:

Does resistance to the notion that intellectual history is better conceived as the “history of ideas”/history of thought within U.S. intellectual history spring not so much from an epistemic rejection of supposed idealism/dualism as it does from Leftist rejection of supposed conservatism?  In other words, is a minoritarian methodology considered suspect not because of (supposed) epistemic weaknesses but because of (supposed) political commitments?

This leads me to another question:  to what extent do epistemologies always imply/entail accompanying  politics?  And do the same politics always go with the same epistemologies, or are they detachable?

And if I’m going to be Jamesian — and I might as well — at the bottom of both epistemology and politics is “temperament.” So when a particular historiography (and I’m using the word in its most capacious sense, per Kerwin Lee Klein***) is challenged, or denigrated, or viewed with disfavor, it might be the epistemic grounds, the politics, or the temperament behind the approach that people are reacting to/rejecting.

The explanatory schemes of historians might be rejected on the grounds that they are somehow unreasonable (epistemology), that they have undesirable political implications (politics), or that a critic cannot imagine/empathize with the basic world view that (probably?) comes through in the historian’s methodology (temperament).

I know it’s not either / or.  But it’s important to figure out exactly what it is about the “idea” of the “history of ideas” or the “history of thought” that riles people, and if it’s a case of all three factors being present, or two, or just one.

A related question — or so it seems to me — is this:  What is it that makes people with different politics able to rally around the “same” idea?  Epistemology? Temperament? Both?  By the same token, what makes people with the same idea turn to “different” politics?

And in typing out my questions, I see that I am approaching the problem in the wrong way — for a historian, anyhow.  Or, to be pluralistic, for this historian.   My question suggests that I am looking for a “rule” here, which is a social-science-y nomothetic move.  My question doesn’t pay attention to particularities of time, place, circumstance, but abstracts historiographic critique in a most unhistorical way.

Which leads me to another thought…

If (particular kinds) of historical thinking are connected somehow to (particular kinds) of politics, you can bet that ahistorical thinking has its own politics as well.

So that’s my rabbit trail.  Let’s see where it goes from here.


*This post is a very slightly revised version of a post I ran last week on my personal blog, which is active again after a long hiatus — for how long, I don’t know. That flood tide of words that I have been anticipating is starting to roll in, and I’ve got to put ’em somewhere.

**George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2006), 82.

***Later this month we will be hosting a roundtable on Klein’s From History to Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As someone who remembers the ’60s, if not the ’40s and ’50s. I think you’re a little off here.

    First, I’d say the reaction went the other way: conservatives were rejecting a tendency in historiography away from “traditional” topics and interpretations towards a social and economic emphasis which was to a significant extent influenced by Marxism. They saw themselves as standing athwart the tide of History as well as of history. Bear in mind that for Americanists, intellectual history was primarily the “social and intellectual history” of the elder Schlesinger et al.

    Second, there’s a huge disciplinary issue here. Conservative intellectuals, and historians of ideas, were rarely professors of history. A number of them were professors in other fields (philosophy, political science); their works sometimes influenced academic historians; they drew on history; but they were not historians, any more than Clifford Geertz or Benedict Anderson are/were; and their works were not quite history.

    Third, we’re not talking “supposed conservatism” here. These people’s works was not just seen as politically conservative, it was clearly conservative in its focus and methodology – straight back to Herbert Baxter Adams, perhaps. The questions you ask about how people rallied around ideas, or interpreted them differently, were not their questions; those are the questions of another group of historians (Hofstadter and Bailyn, let’s say) and of the American Studies folks, who did some “history of ideas” work with a popular perspective. These were not conservatives at all except in the eyes of ’60s-’70s leftists.

  2. Andre, thanks so much for this thoughtful reply, which both illustrates and interrogates some of the things I was slouching toward in my post.

    As I mention above, in framing my question in an abstract way, it is not really a historiographic question at all. “What is it that makes people do ‘X’,” without specifying what people, when, and where, is more of a sociological/psychological question than a historical one. (Or, more informally, it’s “a social-science-y nomothetic move.”) A historical question would address a problem in its context.

    Not that I didn’t have a historical context in mind — but I wasn’t going back decades. More like months!

    I had been mulling over how I would approach reviewing Corey Robin’s book, and what it was that bothered me about it, and why, and how what bothered me about Robin’s book was quite different from what bothered me about Michael Kazin’s book, etc., etc. (see my post from last week for more on that — http://s-usih.org/2013/03/the-reluctant-historian.html). And that got me to thinking about our oft-fought methodenstreit here on the S-USIH blog, and how epistemology and politics have intertwined in our own discussions, and whether they are in a determinative or a discursive relationship.

    I had these particular conversations in mind:




    So that’s the immediate historical context for my very ahistorical meditation on the relationship between epistemology, methodology, and political commitments.

    However, what is most interesting to me is that you assumed that I was talking about the 1960s – 1970s. So you provided a thumbnail sketch of the twists and turns of historiography during that time — a sketch which is, I have to say, very helpful in providing one possible way to frame developments in the field.

    But what intrigues me so much is how you began your remark. You said, “As someone who remembers the ’60s, if not the ’40s and ’50s. I think you’re a little off here.” It is so interesting to me (and, I think, really important) that in correcting my historiography, you appealed to memory — specifically, to the memory of the 1960s-70s.

    That is an interesting move, historiographically speaking, in terms of grounding the authority of your account. Now, you didn’t just say, “I remember things differently,” and move on — you sketched out a plotline of historiographic movement through the period. At the same time, the fact that “remembering it differently” might “trump” the act of reading it differently — that’s quite a seismic shift in historical epistemology.

    Daniel Rodgers talks about wrinkles in time. I think some of those wrinkles might be fault lines too.

  3. I like to say that I was raised by a new cultural historian during my Master’s work, and later taught the ins and outs of critical theory and its manifestations.

    It was always my understanding that social history, cultural history, and cultural anthropology, etc., was both a methodological and political rejection of conservatism in many ways. In my own research I have found that several of conservatism’s most renowned historians intentionally stayed out of debates concerning postmodern, cultural Marxism, etc. because they considered it trendy and anti-intellectual. However, not all conservatives were methodological elitists either (John Lukas wrote at least two books about the historical consciousness of ordinary people in Philadelphia and Budapest; Allan Carlson states openly that history should consider everyone). In one respect the conservatives kind of knew the field would eventually find its way back to ideas/intellectual history. Then again, for many conservative historians intellectual history was never in decline (consider looking over ISI’s academic journals).

    The return of intellectual history has both a conservative methodological and religious undertones to it. Thinkers like Christopher Lasch, MacIntyre, and Milbank slowly ushered this change from the left as well, in my opinion. This is not necessarily a political claim either. In other words, writing intellectual history doesn’t make the historian a Republican or politically conservative.

  4. SB, thanks for the thought-provoking comment. I was raised by wolves, so my historiography can be a little fierce sometimes.

    When you write of “several of conservatism’s most renowned historians,” do you mean “historians who studied conservatism” or “historians who were themselves conservative”? And, as a previous commenter said on another thread, not to go all Louis Hartz or anything, but what distinguishes these particular conservative historians — writing in the 60s? 70s? — from “vital center” liberals?

    On the “return of intellectual history” — my surmise here is that you mean both the rising stock of the field/subdiscipline (whatever we are, I’m pretty sure we’re not the Enron of the profession) and the (re)turn to the history of ideas/sensibilities, etc.

    On your suggestion of “religious undertones” to this resurgence of the history of ideas — I think you’re onto something here. What makes these “religious undertones” so interesting is that they are in one sense thoroughly secular. The disenchantment of academe in the modernized university has been complicated and sometimes problematic (see Julie Reuben here), and intellectual history *can* be seen (not entirely correctly, in my view) as a way of making metaphysics respectable again.

    Having said that, the “culture wars” that erupt on this blog from time to time seem to me to be of (at least) two kinds: internecine conflict between the “high church” and “low church” practitioners of our “faith” (the social history of “intellectuals” and their texts v. the history of ideas in whatever texts they may be found) and conflict between the “incarnationalist” (idealist) and “gnostic” (materialist) practitioners.

    So, for example, if I took my own taxonomy seriously (which I *barely* do), I would class myself as a “low-church incarnationalist” — meaning, first of all, that I have the broadest understanding of where ideas can be found and do not feel that I must respect some hierarchy of merit with “complex” texts at the top and outhouse graffiti at the bottom; secondly, that I am convinced that ideas find immanent, intimate expression in and through the lives of people and the world we make, and are not epiphenomenal.

    But taxonomies are never descriptive, always heuristic, and they construct the conceptual world they classify. So I am not proposing this taxonomy for wide adoption. It is just a metaphor, a way for me to make sense of the complex, diverse, yet overlapping commitments of intellectual historians. There are other ways to see this work, and I suppose that some reader who bristles at being classed as a “high church incarnationalist” or a “low church gnostic” or whatever might suggest a better way to see things.

    I hope so.

  5. My love for this post, Lora, is compounded by your smart responses to two great comments. I particularly like your sub-disciplinary taxonomy–about how we seem divided between “high church” and “low church,” on the one hand, and between “incarnationalist” and “materialist” on the other. This is really apt, but it also complicates the original questions you posed about the relationship between politics and epistemology. Because these two bifurcations are both political and epistemological, though they don’t always map in terms of consistent valences. As for me, I’m probably a Low Church Materialist, but I am ecumenical and often prefer reading intellectual historians of the opposite valences.

    The relationship between epistemology and political ideology has been perhaps THE driving force of my scholarship. Many readers of my first book, Education and the Cold War, were thrown for a loop by my long theoretical analysis of this relationship in the introduction and conclusion (it didn’t help that in the latter I had a long analysis of Althusser!) They came for the educational history and got epistemology! In my book on the culture wars that I am now writing, one of my theses is that the culture wars are best understood as an epistemological rift, but that political ideology and epistemology melded together unlike in most historical cases. I interweave this analysis throughout the book, showing how for some thinkers having an absolutist epistemology did not map neatly onto them having a conservative political ideology, and vice versa, but that such imbalances got lost in the culture wars tidal wave.

    In any case, I thought through some of these concerns in a previous post: http://s-usih.org/2012/03/politics-of-epistemology.html

  6. “Does resistance to the notion that intellectual history is better conceived as the ‘history of ideas’/history of thought within U.S. intellectual history spring not so much from an epistemic rejection of supposed idealism/dualism as it does from Leftist rejection of supposed conservatism? In other words, is a minoritarian methodology considered suspect not because of (supposed) epistemic weaknesses but because of (supposed) political commitments?”

    Yes. But this works in many directions, I should think. What is a “minoritorian” methodology? Or maybe a more pertinent question is what is a “majoritarian” methodology? A lot of champions of traditional history of ideas/thought intellectual history would say they’re the ones rejecting epistemically shoddy, politically suspect, partial approaches. Nor does this always dovetail with political commitments, as Andrew has pointed out many times, and will discuss in his book. There are more than a handful of folks on the political left who are just as harsh critics, if not harsher, of the stuff the academic left gets up to as people on the right; though perhaps not as many.

    Apart from saying that every question you raise can be answered, “Yes!” let me just affirm Andrew’s high praise of this post. It’s fabulous. Your inner Platonic dialogue (monologue) may end in aporia, but you’ve done a great job highlighting the issues.

    That said, let me challenge your taxonomy of intellectual historians. You describe yourself as a “low-church incarnationalist” (and I’m not sure I like the term “incarnationalist,” but I’ll save that for another day). But I’m not so sure you’re not really a high-church incarnationalist. I’d probably be described as a high-church intellectual historian of the old school, but I’m not the least bit (or only minutely) interested in “the social history of ‘intellectuals’ and their texts.” To I think it’s the low-church types who adopt the social history approach. The high-church types, on the other, hand, recognize “the history of ideas in whatever texts they may be found.” High-church idealists recognize that ideas may be found anywhere. They put ideas first, not all the “baggage” (social history and what not). That said, I’d venture high-church types are more hierarchical than LD would allow. Not because one medium (a book) is intrinsically superior to another (outhouse grafitti), but because some ideas are more meritorious than others. The task of the intellectual historian is to say why that is so. Well, a task.

  7. Thanks for the toothsome comments.

    @Andrew — I’m glad somebody loves this post. I’m starting to worry that if I put up one more post on historiography there will be a reader revolt. Making sense of how to do the work of a historian is the biggest problem I have right now. My dissertation depends on it. I’ll try to develop a new hobby soon, but for now, everything is always already historiography for me.

    That said, I’m glad you liked my metaphor. I have a thing for metaphors, but for every bit of clarity they bring they also tend to muddle something else. This metaphor was risky, but I thought it worked okay. As to your taxonomy, I figured you would self-identify as a low-church gnostic (or, as you put it, materialist). And of course “gnostic” isn’t the best word — in some ways, “docetist” (or maybe, “reverse docetist”) would be better. “Manichaean” can work, although it of course implies not just dualism but also moral judgment, and I was trying to separate the two. So “gnostic” will have to do unless someone has a better suggestion.

    @Varad, I am somewhat amused but really more amazed that my on-the-fly metaphor for how to think about the disciplinary divisions of intellectual history is already being refined to be rendered more useful.

    Having said that, I want to stick with my original intention in distinguishing “high church” and “low church” as “those committed to a hierarchy of texts/sources” and “those who are willing to look at ideas from any source whatsoever.” I suppose I could have called them “Cyprianists” and “Origenists,” but that still would obfuscate — or perhaps, I suppose, helpfully problematize — the distinction I’d draw between the epistemological and the political.

    Doctrinally speaking — and I am still in my metaphor here; I’m not talking about any real doctrine of any overtly religious community, though I am making (very freewheeling) allusions/analogies — what makes the “we’ll look at ideas in any source” folks “low church” is a foregrounding of the pneumatological. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit…” I suppose the historians of ideas/historians of sensibilities are the Pentecostals of intellectual history — following “the Spirit” (and don’t think for a second that Hegel’s Geist has stopped haunting us all) wherever it moves, across the boundaries between high/low, philosophy/pop psychology, elite/mass, etc., etc.,

    For those of my colleagues who are thoroughly secular, my apologies for shoehorning you into a religious metaphor. FWIW, I am unapologetically secular as well — no “confessing history” here. I passed on reviewing the book because I am not yet enough of a pluralistic Jamesian to manage the task without becoming positively apopleptic. But having acquired this ecclesiological/theological vocabulary in another time, in another place, I thought I might as well use it here on the off chance that it helps somebody come up with a useful way to make the familiar strange.

  8. I was once an intellectual historian. I studied with David Hollinger, who chaired my dissertation committee. That was in the late 80s/early 90s. I say “once” because I was never able to secure a tenure-track appointment. So I’ve done other things. For me, I always regarded intellectual history as a counterpoint to the type of social history that emerged in the 60s — a history that largely emphasized (with good cause) the race-class-gender troika — though with considerably less emphasis on class as the decades wore on. While personally committed to progressive cause, I found social history boring. Book after book seemed to tell the same story — albeit with different characters and different epochs. Not so, I thought, about intellectual history and its myriad sub-disciplines (e.g., history of science, history of law, history of medicine, history of ideas). When it came to choosing a dissertation topic, I asked myself two questions: What types of sources did I want to live with for the next 2-3 years and what type of book did I want to write? The answer to the first questions was easy: Typed sources because I’m horrible at deciphering hand-written sources. That fact, more than other, I believe is what ultimately directs people to intellectual history. The other great thing about the sub-fields of intellectual history is that many are extraordinarily well indexed — especially science, law, and medicine. Finally, in my opinion, fighting current political battles in the past seems silly given the number of battles we need to fight today. I don’t know if any of this addresses your concerns. But … it’s always fun to pontificate!

  9. So, I tend to view historiography through the prism of reactions. I see the return of intellectual history as natural reaction against social history writ large (encompassing cultural history, new cultural history, left postmodernism, etc.). It is also possible, as John Lukacs claims, that history has now overtaken philosophy. Of course, Lukacs is supposing like other first generation postwar conservatives that analytic philosophy is a product of what he calls ‘the democratic age’ and real philosophy should be about both truth and speculation simultaneously. If Lukacs is correct, then intellectual historians are doing something greater than anyone is willing to admit or suggest. I will refer back to Andrew Hartman’s claim concerning the epistemological element of his first monograph. Although I have not yet finished Hartman’s excellent new review essay, anyone who reads this piece will understand that the intellectual historian’s occupation is beyond merely describing events in the broadest sense. In other words, our theological, cultural, and political assumptions are alive in methodology and the forms chosen to represent the content as Christopher Shannon has so ably demonstrated.

    Because I’m already over my head here allow me to throw out a few more ideas. Academic historians like to believe they are always ahead of the curve. Since religion has returned to academia, what do we make of those historians who never abandoned the categories of religion in history? Off the bat, I think of a generation of conservative and religious historians who still have not been studied in the light of this new fervor for religion (the evangelical worldview school and the postwar conservative Catholic historians for example). Here is another question then: Did social history fail, or did it claim more epistemologically than it could chew? And is intellectual history’s return also a recognition that all history is epistemological and religious in the most fundamental sense?

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