U.S. Intellectual History Blog

We Can’t All Be Richard Hofstadter, Right?

The Tensions Between Being an Intellectual and Studying Intellectual History


LMCAIn my long, slow relish of Richard Pells’ A Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age*, I just finished chapter four (of six total). My motivations for the close reading are professional and personal. I had read LMCA about ten years ago, and have referenced it many times since. This time around, however, I wanted to be absorbed in the story. Professionally I wanted a more precise sense of LMCA’s place in the historiography. I also wanted to rethink my older calls (here and here) for a more robust and precise historiography of American liberalism.** Personally I’m trying to understand what went wrong with mid-century liberalism. I returned to Pells because I wanted a refresher on its most prominent contemporary critics—to see if the seeds of a later destruction were sown already in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I’m almost always reading USIH material on at least three levels: first for a work’s place in the historiography, second for its place in my work on the great books idea (or other simmering projects—e.g. anti-intellectualism), and then finally for personal gain.

It’s the last reading that brings me to a series questions driving this post: Is the desire to be an intellectual aided or hampered by the study of intellectual history? Should or could the field be promoted (or at least acknowledged) as an aid to that end (i.e. learn how to be an intellectual)? Does the study of USIH naturally lead practitioners to exist in a kind of liminal intellectual role (always just part way there)? Do intellectual historians look down on their “engaged” colleagues? Are “intellectuals” who don’t understand the history of intellectuals in America adequate (i.e. understanding seems necessary if not sufficient)?

C._Wright_Mills_ImageThe section of Pells’ book that brought me to these reflections covers C. Wright Mills. This section is Pells at his best: synthesizing and emphasizing Mills’ work, placing him in his immediate 1950s context, and placing Mills properly in the narrative—i.e. in the larger context of ideas from the 1940s through the early 1960s. And the section is also brief, maybe 12 pages total!

One of Pells’ consistent themes is the role of the intellectual. He covers thoughts on that topic, for example, from Daniel Bell (pp. 132-133), Louis Hartz (pp. 150, 162), Richard Hofstadter (pp. 150, 152, 162), Harold Rosenberg (p. 223), Mills (pp. 256-259), and Michael Harrington (p. 341). I found Mills’ reflections most compelling. Here are some of Mills’ points about the role(s) of an intellectual (as presented by Pells on pp. 258-259):

– Do “raise…fundamental questions about the nature and direction of American life” (p. 257).
– Do not be “satisfied to serve as experts and counselors to the men in charge” (ibid).
– Do not permit your “research interests to be defined by the state or the corporations or the military or the foundations” (ibid).
– Do not limit yourself “to ‘safe’ and often ‘microscopic fields of inquiry’ rather than studying ‘man and society as a whole'” (ibid).
– Do not cultivate “the ‘fetish for objectivity'” (ibid).
– Do not self-censor in order to exhibit ” the ‘discretion’ and ‘good judgment’ required of ‘academic gentlemen'” (ibid).
– Do not take on a “posture of alienation” in order to retreat from politics and immerse oneself in cultural matters (ibid). Do not be “satisfied merely to contemplate [your] own alienation” (p. 258).
– Do engage in “radical thinking” (p. 257). [By this I think he meant imaginative radical thinking.]
– Do “be acutely aware of…ambiguous entanglements with existing institutions” (ibid).
[The following three are related]
– Do “translate…[shared] ‘personal troubles into social issues'” (p. 258) [Meaning troubles shared with others.]
– Do “point out the public ‘meaning and source[s]’ of private discontent” (ibid).
– Be willing to “link the personal and the political” (ibid).
– Do “infuse…cultural critiques with a sensitivity to the ‘structure of institutions’ and the ‘foundations of policies'” (ibid)
– Do “formulate a set of ‘demands and programs’ on the basis of [a] synthesis” of observed shared troubles (ibid).
– Be “the ‘moral conscience’ of [your] country” (ibid).
– Do not “pretend to be a consultant or an administrator or a proletarian revolutionary” (ibid).
– Do use “information…knowledge, and…sense of estrangement to challenge the reign of the elite” (ibid).
– Do use “the media, but always on [your] own terms and for [your] own purposes” (ibid).
Richard_Hofstadter– Do remain “‘detached from any enclosure of mind or nationalist celebration’ in order to conduct a ‘continuing, uncompromising criticism’ of all official creeds and established regimes” (p. 259).
– Do try “to understand and to transform the social order by communicating…discoveries as coherently and truthfully as possible to the ‘right people, at the right time, and in the right way'” (ibid).

Given these high ideals and demands, is it even possible to both be an intellectual and study intellectual history simultaneously? If one can’t really do both well, should one try? We can’t all be Richard Hofstadter, right? Not that Hofstadter even met Mills’ ideals (or would even try). – TL


*My series on Guillory will continue in future posts, but I happen to be reading two books at once so today’s reflections derive from the other.

**I’m wondering if, in the end, I’m wanting a one-stop shopping kind of book on American liberalism—one that summarizes all the major historiography and content points. Does this exist? Perhaps a volume that would fit into this series (e.g. *American Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction*)?

23 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think it’s certainly possible and, I’d add, necessary to at least have some foundation in intellectual history if you aspire to be an intellectual.

    Looking at what Pellis requires as an intellectual in society, however, it’s probably difficult to balance all of those AND have a solid foundation in intellectual history….but being an intellectual isn’t supposed to be easy, by any stretch of the imagination.

    As for a one-stop shop for the history of American liberalism, that’s something that is definitely needed. With recent books such as “Making Sense of American Liberalism”, the field is going in some new and exciting directions, but it would be nice to have an idea of where the history of American liberalism is right now.

    • Thanks for the comment, Robert.

      Note: The list above is from Mills, not Pells (though Pells rewords slightly some of Mills’ points).

      I’m with on none of this being easy. Though it seems easy in our culture of celebrity. – TL

      • Ah thanks! Just noticed that reading through the text, my apologies.

        As for intellectuals today, just what does it mean to be an intellectual in our age? Do the rules listed above still apply in our era? Something I’ve just thought about, especially with the growth of social media and the ways in which it has become easier to disseminate information to a mass audience via the internet.

      • Robert: Good point about what it means to be an intellectual today. I still think that many of Mills’ points above apply. I’m sure, however, he’d add some further points about using media on YOUR terms—which the current climate does seem to favor.

  2. Given these high ideals and demands, is it even possible to both be an intellectual and study intellectual history simultaneously? If one can’t really do both well, should one try?

    Excellent. I would submit that many or most have some pretentions to being public intellectuals, say even a Roger Ebert. More charitably put, aspirations of having their ideas taken seriously by others.

    This is what makes a public intellectual, the “public” part, being received by the public. Being on TV is good. Someone cited Rachel Maddow and Steven Colbert the other day. Oh, and getting prizes. The intellectual establishment is lousy with prizes. Why, Roger Ebert had bot a TV show and a Pulitzer. Now that’s public, perhaps even intellectual.

    But leave that designation for others to make: One cannot proclaim himself an intellectual. Like “philosopher,” there’s a qualitative hump to get over–one cannot really be a bad philosopher, for a bad philosopher is really no philosopher atall.

    To close this circle then, one can be a scholar of philosophy without being one. Likewise, scholars of intellectual history should not assume their expertise makes them intellectuals. Or that other intellectual historians are genuine intellectuals, worth regard and study in their own right.

    [No offense, but sometimes the endless acknowledgements of one’s fellows gets to be a bit much. Running off a list of other intellectual historians is de rigueur, but is not the same thing as doing intellectual history, the history of actual intellectuals. Doing the history of intellectual history is a snake eating its tail.]

  3. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple months writing the introduction to my dissertation in which I try to flesh out what I mean by “intellectual labor” in its early American context. At the same time, I’ve had to define what I mean by the term “intellectual.”

    Your closing paragraph reminded me of Dominick LaCapra’s observation: “the relationship between the ‘critical’ intellectual and the ‘scholarly’ historian…is essential for the internalized dialogue that marks the intellectual historian.”

    I think we lose site of what it means to be an intellectual when we frame the the problem as a false choice between our identities as intellectuals or historians (with this distinction come a host of others: universal or particular knowledge, generalists or specialists, public intellectuals or professionals, insiders or outsiders, affirmation or dissent, engagement or detachment).

    Intellectual identity, it seems to me, defies such classification and pigeon-holing. (Channeling my inner William James).

    • Thomas: Thanks for that observation from LaCapra. Can you provide more on the source (i.e. book or article)?

      I think the solution to the either/or dilemma is simply context. There’s a time for more history and historical thinking, and a time for positive presentist analysis, action, and programs. Still, the question remains as to identifying one’s situation—i.e. what’s required right now? – TL

      • Dominick LaCapra, “Rethinking Intellectual History and Reading Texts,” in Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives, ed. Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), 85.

        He treats the issue here as well: Dominick LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 16-17.

  4. Lord have mercy. If I ever say to anybody, “I am an intellectual,” or — worse! — “I want to be an intellectual,” just set me adrift on an iceberg. Seriously. Just put me down with a dart gun.

    I mean, isn’t it enough to be a thoughtful person, no matter what my job happens to be?

    I am a historian, which means I have received specialized training in a particular kind of thinking, a kind of thinking that I expect to use in the classroom. I want to teach history at the college/university level, and I want to write about and talk about the past in a way that is informed and interesting, accessible yet challenging, to people who are interested in history — from “the general reader” to fellow academics. And, while I’m at it, I’d really like to get paid a decent wage for my labors.

    But the thinking — I do that all the time, for free. I don’t need a license for that, or even a title. Yeah, some of the thinking is all right, some of it is not so sharp. But I do my best. And as a woman from a working-class background, if I thought I needed to measure up to the term “intellectual” — as either a job description or a stereotype — in order to “think in public,” I would never have written a word, much less become a historian.

    It was — no, it is — difficult enough to accept the label “intellectual historian” or “intellectual history” as an appropriate descriptor of the kind of work I would even want to do, much less the kind of work I might actually manage to be doing from time to time. I had some serious doubts about associating myself with such a label or with anybody who would want such a label. For the better part of a year, I told my (not-yet) advisor, “No, I don’t think I could be an intellectual historian; that’s not me.” But some people just won’t listen.

    By now, as you can see, I’ve since gotten over (most of) my angst about the label “intellectual historian.” I wear it, and I work it like I own it — but that’s because the substantive there is “historian.” That’s the only way I could stand to associate myself with the term “intellectual.” I don’t know if that’s class, or gender, or some lethal combination thereof, but there it is.

    Now “thoughtful” I will own — because that’s not an identity or a social role. That’s just a way of getting around in the world.

    I don’t know whether you’re an intellectual or not, Tim, and I don’t know if you have ambitions to be one, or if being a historian “covers” it for you. But you’re a thoughtful person, and that’s good enough in my book.

    • As always LD comes in with the Hammer of Knowledge!

      I was hoping you eventually respond to this post. Thinking about intellectuals, it’s also worth noting that some intellectuals have different missions. Looking back at the list Mills provided about what it means to be an intellectual, those qualities would especially apply to intellectuals from oppressed groups, such as minorities and women in the United States for most of the 20th C. And, I’d add, there may be an even greater urgency for those intellectuals to participate in the intellectual and cultural ferment of society.

      Going back to the original question, it’s certainly possible to be an intellectual and not study much in the way of intellectual history. But I’d expect that, at the very least, most intellectuals (whether inside or outside of the academy) have some engagement with some aspect of intellectual history. Perhaps not in writing an article or monograph about a topic in intellectual history, but at least browsing such an article or book about the topic.

    • If one equates elitism and snobbishness with the category of intellectual, or if those relationships are necessary, then that category should be avoided. But if we can decouple the elitism-intellectual and snobbish-intellectual associations, then we are left with “thoughtful” (or reflective or deep or whatever). And everyone should be able to think historically, to some extent, right?

      Also, LD, by hanging out with USIHers, you’re risking the “intellectual” label—whether you want it or not! I mean, of all of the best USIHers you know, doesn’t the term “intellectual” often work as well?

      I offer all of this as encouragement. – TL

    • I read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life about ten years ago and it literally changed my life and shook me to the core. I can never regard the word intellectual with suspicion or skepticism after reading that book. What do you think the relationship between Mills and Hofstadter is? I had always assumed Mills to be much farther to the Left, to the point of having sympathy with, for example Cuba and being explicitly anti-Capitalist (whereas Hofstadter was more “agnostic” about Capitalism). And what exactly is the relationship between one’s politics and ones’ feeling about the label or role of “intellectual”? Will someone with explicitly egalitarian convictions find the actual role of the intellectual to be complicit with unjust power? Or is there a feeling that the natural flow of thoughtfulness would be compromised by the training? Just curious.

      • My understanding of Mills, via Pells, is that the former was less anti-capitalist than anti-big capitalism. Pells argues that Mills was very nineteenth century in his approach to democracy and capitalism—perhaps more producerist? (That is my term, and I speak of its positive small-shop aspects, not the nativist ones). But there seems to be some debate about Mills’ views of capitalism. Where is Dan Geary when we need him?

  5. Insightful and thought-provoking post as always, Tim. What about Christopher Lasch as an intellectual grounded in intellectual history (or at least wrote alot about intellectuals)?

    • Andrew Hartman will have more to say about this than me, no doubt. But a lot of those “Rochester folks” have links to Lasch, and several of them spoke at one of our conferences about Lash’s influence on their public activities.

  6. The rough, unofficial definition of “intellectual” we seem to be working with here seems unnecessarily narrow to me. For example, L.D. Burnett, from what I’ve read of your writing, you absolutely qualify as an intellectual, I’m sorry to say (and only sorry because, the idea seems troubling to you). I love Mill’s list but hardly think one has to check every box on it before consider themselves intellectuals. Perhaps this is some kind of naive or presumptuous, but I’ve always considered anyone who is thirsty enough for knowledge to make an effort to educate themselves, and intrigued deeply enough by some aspect of human experience (be it history, or literature, or philosophy) to spend a sizable portion of their time working on such questions to be an intellectual. I also feels like it requires some level of bravery — you have to try to contribute to the larger project you identify with. Ie, you have to take a position, and while I don’t think your position need reach the level of brilliance to qualify you, it does have to display a certain level of understanding and thoughtfulness. Under this definition, half of the people I know are intellectuals. Almost all of those are historians (but not intellectual historians).

    Because this is my understanding of the term — and maybe its excessively democratic or low-brow, I’m not sure — I don’t see how one could be an intellectual historian without being an intellectual!, unless you somehow manage to be incredibly well-informed about the thoughts of intellectuals without forming your own thoughts on any of the same subject matter. That seems unlikely. It is certainly possible, however, to be a historian without being an intellectual; I know quite a few of those. These are people who tell a story, tell it well, and keep things in context, but they have certain notions about keeping away from presentism or speculating beyond the sources that they never really do much more than that — ie, they don’t really tell us why any of this matters, or what it could mean to us in the future. But because of the nature of subject matter people deal with in intellectual history, it seems hard to me to avoid becoming one yourself.

    Now whether or not you are a *public* intellectual takes another level of commitment, I think. Mill’s list, I think, actually speaks more to the demands of a public intellectual than anyone who might qualify as just an intellectual. On this point, I think a higher standard ought to be called for — you’ve got to take some definite positions on contemporary power arrangements so, merely picking horses in a pool of intellectuals from 100, or 1,000, years ago doesn’t seem sufficient. To be publicly useful — and this is ignoring the whole problem of first needing to get famous enough for anyone to listen to you — you ought to be saying something about The Way We Live Now. Otherwise, you might still be an intellectual, but I’m not sense of what use you are to any “public” that is still around.

  7. I think it’s very difficult to detach the term “intellectual” from its rootedness in class, especially the substantive form: “the intellectuals,” “an intellectual,” etc. This is why I think “history of ideas” or “history of thought” is a better descriptor for the field, because it’s a bit broader. It’s more hospitable, if you will — no respecter of persons.

    At the same time, it might be especially important for some people to claim/own/inhabit the term intellectual — like, say, women or people of color, or people who have been “categorically” excluded. If we’re going to be stuck with the word, we need to do what we can to make it more capacious and less clubby.

    But the word comes with so much baggage, I think — so much historical baggage, and so much professional baggage. I think Tim’s post here is an attempt to sift through some of that baggage. But I’d just as soon travel light right now. “Historian” is heavy enough most days, and “history of ideas” more burdensome still, especially for someone who is fond of concretizing thought in workaday metaphors.

    Like I said, I am pleased to be considered thoughtful. If one of my profs or one of my colleagues says, “Now that’s an interesting idea,” then I know I’ve hit pay-dirt. I wish I struck gold more often on the blog, for our readers’ sake. But a lot of life is just showing up, and sometimes that’s true on the blog too. Anybody who thinks it’s even POSSIBLE to write an “intellectual” post every week on deadline is welcome to give it a try!

    People may see the word “intellectual” in the blog title and expect nonstop esoteric erudition. That would be unfortunate for them — and probably for us too. But if they will “settle” for our good-faith efforts at thoughtfulness and inclusivity, they might find community here, as Robin Marie apparently has. This is a quote from her dissertation acknowledgments:

    To the scholars who take time out of working on published articles and books to write blog posts accessible to any educated person: thank you. There are many of us lurkers reading away, which allowed me to get a feel for the lay of land without always having to endure awkward social moments at conferences or spend the money to get to said conferences. Countless were the mornings I spent over lattes and oatmeal cookies rapturously reading the latest post on Crooked Timber or the US Intellectual History blog. This is a real service to the community you should all be very proud of and I am quite grateful for it.

    That’s something anybody would be proud to be a part of. And I’d like to think that more people will be interested in joining our conversations and our society. Some people will be attracted by the idea of thinking about “intellectuals,” some will be a little put off by it. If you like the term “intellectual,” you are in good company around here. If you don’t like the term — well then, come sit next to me.

    As Alice said to the Mad Hatter, there is plenty of room.

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