The Tensions Between Being an Intellectual and Studying Intellectual History
In 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)?
The 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).
– 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*)?