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).