U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Going Meta On Historical Thinking

John_ToewsAbout a month ago someone posted a talk by John Toews, University of Washington professor of History and former director of its Comparative History of Ideas Program (CHID), on the S-USIH Facebook page.

I don’t think that Toews is a familiar name among Americanists. He has published essays in History & Theory and The American Historical Review. His books include Becoming Historical: Cultural Reformation and Public Memory in Early Nineteenth-Century Berlin (Cambridge, 2004), an edition of The Communist Manifesto: With Related Documents, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), and Hegelianism: The Path Toward Dialectical Humanism, 1805-1841 (Cambridge, 1980).

We’re a diverse group, so not everyone’s Facebook posts grab my attention, but this hit square in one of my sweet spots. Those of you who know me well also know that I’m big proponent of the notion of ‘historical thinking’ as a guide to teaching others how historians give philosophical depth and breadth to events, people, and places they explore. I’ve been following the discussion of ‘historical thinking’ for some time, beginning in 2007 when I first encountered* the AHA Perspectives article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke (*Aside: I now disagree with my attempt, in that reflection, to create hierarchy out of the 5 Cs). I kept pondering their piece when I read Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001) about three years ago, and then created my own guide to historical thinking that I called “The Nine Cs.”

Professor Toews doesn’t add another C, nor does he try to refine points made by Andrews, Burke, and Wineburg. Rather, Toews applies historical thinking to the topics of identity politics and and ethical action. And he does this in the context of thinking historically about his own historical thinking on these topics.

Rather than attempt to explain Professor Toews’ 58-minute talk, I thought I’d simply offer you my notes on his presentation. I know that not everyone has the time to watch long videos like these. Indeed, I viewed it, with ear phones, one night while my spouse watched 1.5 hours of Masterpiece Theater on PBS. With that, here are my minute-by-minute, brief observations—and index of sorts—on the Toews presentation. Enjoy. – TL



0-3 minutes – Admin intro

3-7 – Toews warm up, caveats, problem of ‘lectures’, what CHIPs faculty do, and personal reflections on his own past work and teaching themes from that work

7-8 – On autonomy of history
— 7:45-9:30 – On nature of history of ideas, cultural history, and intellectual history

9:30 – starting to get to title object – thinking about thinking historically – “this is where intellectual history begins to ask really interesting questions”

11:11 – thinking always takes the form of narrative

11:30 – Toews reflects on music as an example

15:45 – Critical thinking broached

16:00 – Toews asks himself: What is the value in what I do? In humanities in general?

18:00 – Toews tries to answer questions about larger value in relation to an autobiographical moment–namely, his own father’s query about how will this further the common good – how will work further the kingdom of god in the world?

19:00 – human autonomy, relationship to self and other selves

19:40 – what is role of subjective agency in voluntary identity?

— what could be ground for such autonomy?

20:20 – ethical dimension with autonomy – group v. self

20:45 – connected to historical self consciousness

21:31 – historical understanding should teach humility

21:50 – The 5 Cs – explicitly noted

22:15-23:15 – did not teach us about becoming ourselves – current action not addressed, weaknesses of 5 Cs approach

24:00 – problems, autonomy, identity, connection to historical consciousness

24:40 – “thinking historically about thinking historically” – specifically cited

25:00 – project – Toews – 1968 – put together prospectus for his dissertation

26:50 – 60s focus on personal liberation

27:00 – sought to expand circle of we and inclusiveness in early work (by Toews). collective liberation his focus

30:30 – what are the real possibilities for choice in a historical moment?

31 – fav song of 60s, Leonard Cohen’s there are no chocolates in the boxes

31:15 – in 1980s sought still to understand self awareness, but within historical difference and historical discontinuity

35:30-36:30 – worlds of identities can be determined. Freedom may only exist in the interstices

37:30-38 – Boundaries of historical difference harder to maintain without larger metaphysical structures

38:30 – radical historical difference and incommensurable pluralism might created interstices of radical freedom, very much without cultural determinism (me: existential freedom and consequence of dread?)

39:30-40:00 – Move to search for cultural anchors

40:00 – How to posit anchors without resort to transcendence (esp. God)

41-42:00 – teaching “cultural vertigo” but also instilling positive virtues (encourage student creativity)

42-46 – reflects on specific experiences relative to teaching at U.Washington

46 – embodied selves, engaging in constant process of reinvention

— new problem – “Emancipation from identity” –

46:30 – “monochromatic” sense of identity – Me: problem of too much focus on one’s self

47:30 – phase 3 in Toews project – project of Freud in relation to identity formation – led back to

48:00 – problem of identity to forms of social interaction (Freud as help with thinking about individual, rather than community)

48:44 – followed Freud to problem of autonomy, of self-authorization

49-50:00 – performance of identity (dialogue w/Freud)

51:30 – Freud’s version of autonomy

52:00 – Freud: self-making not outside of our finitude

52:30 – thinking emancipation from identity politics to ethical relation to self/others – links back to J.S. Mill (esp. On Liberty)

53:30 – Freud recognized our connections with others, related processes but non-identity-related

54-55:00 – Rhizome figure relates to his message — horizontal network, proliferating connections w/out clear boundaries, coalitions, instability as a virtue, fluid, constantly transforming, experimental connected reality

56 – related all to U Washingtons’ CHID (sp?) program, “Chiddies,” rhizome

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Had to pop in to note that I am a product of the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program at UW, having received my BA there, and TAing and teaching in the program while working on my MA. Professor Toews is indeed a formidable figure, and it has been my great pleasure to both take seminars with him and TA for his Freud course. The CHID program is in many ways a model for what can be done to apply intellectual history beyond the discipline itself. The program has gradually transformed over the years from a focus on “traditional,” primarily European, intellectual history to a wide-reaching and socially engaged model of education. They are doing “interdisciplinary” right.

    • Charles: Thanks for the confirmation of what I suspected—namely, that this would be a great program for those with USIH leanings. – TL

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