U.S. Intellectual History Blog

US Intellectual History in the Bay Area

Last week, I spent some time in the Bay Area–first at the OAH in San Francisco, and then at Stanford University, where I was doing some research at the Hoover Institution Archives. On Sunday, the last day of the OAH, I was present for a great panel filled with U.S. intellectual historians, titled: “Naming Intellectual Movements: Who Gets to be an “-ism”? Then on Monday, because I was at Stanford, I was present to hear Jim Kloppenberg give the inaugural David M. Kennedy Lecture on the United States in the World. Because I really enjoyed both the OAH panel and the Kloppenberg lecture, I’ll briefly share a summary.

The OAH panel was chaired by David Hollinger, with presenters Henry Cowles, Joel Isaac, and Elizabeth Lunbeck. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen commented. Honestly, all three papers were fantastic, and I’m not just blowing smoke. Isaac’s challenging paper on Wittgenstein reception among American philosophers, more than anything else, made me want to pick up his new book (which was a finalist for the S-USIH book award.) Lunbeck’s smart paper on Freudianism, more than anything else, got me excited to read her forthcoming book, with the awesome title, The Americanization of Narcissism.

But even given the high quality of these papers, my favorite was from Cowles, the one graduate student on the panel. He presented on what amounted to an irony: we named something we consider loathsome (social Darwinism) after a man (Darwin) whose ideas did not logically conclude in the loathsome “ism” in question. Interestingly, Cowles showed how Richard Hofstadter was key to engraving this “ism,” thanks to his 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought. Cowles concluded with a provocation that I would love to see him take up elsewhere (perhaps at this blog): he contends that cultural history smuggles sociobiological thought into historiography!

Jennifer’s comments were, not surprisingly, really smart–and this, after Hollinger made a joke while introducing her by saying that a recent review of her book claimed Jennifer was responsible for reviving U.S. intellectual history. Obviously this was funny to Hollinger and the assortment of scholars in the room who had been writing intellectual history for several decades.

Kloppenberg’s lecture, titled, “Tragic Irony: Democracy in European and American Thought,” was based on his big forthcoming book. I’m certain this book is going to be widely read, in part because he is somewhat polemical in the historiographical fights he’s picking with assorted neo-Beardian and neo-Lockean interpreters of early U.S. intellectual history. Kloppenberg, of course, takes a much more pragmatic theoretical approach to understanding democracy. He argues that democracy is a process reliant upon four preconditions: restrain, humility, reciprocity, and autonomy. I won’t go into more detail here, since soon we’ll all have several hundred pages of this work to read. I will say I found the talk very compelling and look forward to reading the book.

I guess that’s the lesson I learned in general: I have several new books to add to my reading list.

In any case, U.S. intellectual history was alive and well in the Bay Area last week. Can’t wait to see it thriving in southern California in November.