U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The “Futures” of American Intellectual History (Guest Post by Angus Burgin)

(Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to post this report on the Futures of American Intellectual History conference, held earlier this year in Cambridge, England.  It comes to us from Angus Burgin, Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins and author of The Great Persuasion, winner of this year’s Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History from the OAH.– Ben Alpers)

Since developing a self-conscious identity in the interwar years, American intellectual historians have occasionally entered into waves of heightened self-reflection.  The first of these began at midcentury, when the rapid ascendance of the subfield inspired some of its practitioners to explain their methods to the broader discipline.  In an age when a survey of American historians’ ten preferred books included titles by Merle Curti, Joseph Dorfman, Perry Miller, and Henry Steele Commager, younger scholars were eager to grapple with the implications of their mentors’ work.  John Higham’s 1954 essay “Intellectual History and its Neighbors” was exemplary of the era’s amalgam of excitement and uncertainty, basking in the “blessings of effervescence” even as it acknowledged “the perplexities of understanding just what is going on.”  

A second wave, running roughly between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, looked back on that “golden age” with both nostalgia and embarrassment.  The landmark texts of this era included New Directions in American Intellectual History (1979) and Modern European Intellectual History (1982), both based on conferences that had convened two years earlier.  The latter collection was more closely attuned to the implications of “Critical Theory, hermeneutics, structuralism, and post-structuralism,” but both volumes shared its concern with the discipline’s turn toward social history.  Amid what John Higham characterized as “drastic skepticism” about the methods and claims of intellectual historians and a “loss of momentum” within the subfield, the contributors sought to coalesce around new methodologies that would redress the perceived excesses and limitations of the preceding generation.

It has now become evident that we are in the midst of a third period of self-reflection.  Dialogues about the state of the subfield began percolating in forums in Historically Speaking (“Is Intellectual History a Neglected Field of Study?”, September 2009) and Modern Intellectual History (“The Present and Future of American Intellectual History,” April 2012).  This year has already yielded a volume on Global Intellectual History, and one on Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History is scheduled to arrive in December.  A promotional statement for the latter astutely diagnoses the reasons for a renewed engagement with methodology.  “Now intellectual history is ascendant in the profession,” it asserts, “and a kind of mutual admiration, almost to the point of complacency, flourishes where bitter polemics once festered.”  The current president of S-USIH, Daniel Wickberg, described the situation in similar terms in a blog post here in 2012, concluding that its internal debates were marked by “complacency and self-satisfaction.”  As such comments suggest, intellectual historians increasingly perceive their methods as flourishing, even as they worry about the justification for this return to prominence.  In what ways do their practices today differ from those of their more marginalized predecessors three decades ago?

It is in this spirit of self-assessment that James Kloppenberg, Michael O’Brien, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and Joel Isaac decided two years ago to convene a series of gatherings to discuss the “futures” of American intellectual history.  An initial meeting was held at Radcliffe in the spring of 2012, and eschewed formal papers in favor of preliminary discussions of shared themes; a second meeting, held at the University of Cambridge this summer, involved the presentation of conference papers that will eventually comprise a volume (with the tentative title The Worlds of American Intellectual History).  The letter of invitation to the first of these gatherings explicitly invoked prior generations’ efforts at self-critique while gesturing toward the very different circumstances prevalent today.  “At this moment intellectual history seems to us in excellent health, a mood not shared in 1977 or 1982,” it read.  “But it seems less clear that intellectual historians share a sense of purpose and direction and perhaps even less clear whether such sharing is desirable.”  Like the conference that yielded New Directions in American Intellectual History, this gathering was intended to articulate the state and orientation of the subfield — but in this case the conversations would be oriented around explicating an apparent renaissance, rather than forestalling a precipitous decline.

I have been asked by this blog and the conference organizers to share a few initial comments on the proceedings.  In some ways this is a challenging task, as I don’t wish to provide a trailer for “coming attractions” or to critique presentations that remain unpublished and have yet to undergo a substantial round of revisions.  The structure of the conference presents further difficulties, as the organizers encouraged participants to submit exemplars of (rather than explicit ruminations on) their methodologies.  This approach yielded essays that ranged broadly across a few central themes, some of which have been chosen to provide a loose structure for the book:  “Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning” (including contributions from Caroline Winterer, Andrew Jewett, Peter Gordon, and David Hollinger) and “Expanding the Frame of Justice” (including contributions from Charles Capper, Leslie Butler, Jonathan Holloway, Nico Slate, and Samuel Moyn).

Despite this empirical orientation, over the course of the discussions some methodological fault lines began to emerge.  If the conference that led to New Directions in American History was marked by a loose consensus that intellectual historians should focus their analyses on “communities of discourse,” this gathering was distinguished by the heterogeneity of its contributors’ inclinations.  A spirit of comity and mutual tolerance was draped over quite different visions for the future trajectory of the field.

One cluster of contributors emphasized the benefits of what Sarah Igo wryly described as “free-range intellectual history.”  In presenting her research on the history of privacy, Igo argued for an approach that respected the “changeable, capacious” nature of ideas, illuminating the “dense feedback loops” that characterize our media-saturated age.  Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen expressed the value of a similarly expansive methodology to her current work on the history of wisdom-seeking in modern American culture.  Citing Henry James’s injunction to be those “on whom nothing was lost,” she urged historians to follow ideas as they appeared in venues as varied as “university lecture halls, seminaries, cock fights, and glossy magazines.”  Daniel Rodgers’s contribution contextualized this methodological turn.  Where previous generations relied on “discourses” and “languages” to find order in the past, historians are now focusing on the problems posed by movement and mutability.  In Rodgers’s assessment, the “containment projects of the past have given way to the work of tracking ever more complex patterns of change and motion.”  The intellectual historians of today have shed the subfield’s onetime emphasis on stable cultures to reshape it as another form of “borderlands history.”

However fashionable borderlands history may be, other participants in the conference worried about the implications of this methodological turn.  In their own work on the disciplinary histories of philosophy and political science, Joel Isaac and Duncan Kelly suggested that such “containment projects” have merits that should not be bypassed altogether.  In perhaps the conference’s most dramatic moment, Michael O’Brien read a statement from Isaac — who was absent due to the birth of his second child — arguing that we should seek to preserve space for historians to master “the conceptual repertoire of a philosophical tradition” in order to elucidate problems as they unfolded within philosophy itself.  Such an approach characterized classic works by senior figures in the field (including David Hollinger, James Kloppenberg, Bruce Kuklick, and Dorothy Ross), remained vital to the work of leading Europeanists in recent years (including Peter Gordon and Samuel Moyn), and uniquely equipped historians to contribute to “live debates in philosophy, theology, and political theory.”  In his analysis the growing prominence of American intellectual historians had come at the cost of defining projects in terms established by the broader discipline.

Sophia Rosenfeld’s paper, “Intellectual History after Arendt,” echoed Isaac’s call for intellectual historians to engage more closely with philosophy in both its historical and contemporary forms.  Her vision for the structure that such engagement might take, however, looked starkly different.  While Isaac urged historians to follow the technical details of discrete philosophical arguments, Rosenfeld expressed admiration for Arendt’s willingness to eschew “linear genealogy” or “narrative conventions.”  Historians who engage with Arendt’s work might be inspired to broaden their temporal or geographical framework, constructing a “philosophical history” that draws on historical analysis to address normative questions in the present day.  While some worried that such a project would reenact a long-dormant Lovejoyan approach to the “history of ideas,” Rosenfeld argued that historians could traverse broad expanses of space and time while remaining closely attentive to “ambiguity, complexity, multiplicity, and patterns of difference and similitude.”  We can shed some of the conventions of the historical profession without doing violence to history itself.

While the other papers at Cambridge embodied or contested these programs to varying degrees, many left their authors’ methodological commitments implicit.  As discussions of embodied methodology require more detailed exegesis than is possible in this format, my focus here has been on the papers that threw the conference’s incipient distinctions into sharpest relief.  This has the unfortunate effect of making the debates seem more pronounced than they appeared at the time.  Many other stories could be derived from the discussions at the conference, perhaps focusing on the importation of novel or reworked analytical tools from international history, the history of science, the history of capitalism, or cultural studies.  Reviews of the volume will surely find grounds for significance that go unmentioned here.

Nevertheless, in a subfield long marked by a sense of internal solidarity, a renewed attention to methodological divisions carries a special significance.  They suggest that echoes of the primordial disputes between “internalists” and “externalists,” or acolytes of Lovejoy’s “history of ideas” and Curti’s “social history of American thought,” have endured even as our practices have been reimagined and recast.  We should not be surprised to hear these reverberations at the very moment when intellectual historians have begun acknowledging their own return to prominence.   If marginalized subfields seek to coalesce around common ground, newly “ascendant” ones can return to the luxuries of internal disputation.  Arguments that were only faintly audible from the rafters at Cambridge are likely to grow louder in the years ahead.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. First things first, I think this narrative description frustrates me more than it helps. I mean this as no reflection on Professor Burgin. Rather, I long to hear the full explication in these papers. So this post is, in fact, acting more as a “trailer of coming attractions” than Burgin might like! Or at least that’s how it’s functioning with me.

    While I’m sure the reading was dramatic, I’m not sure I get Joel Isaac’s point. Or maybe I’m misreading the narrative above. But who or what entity is preventing any particular history from “master[ing] ‘the conceptual repertoire of a philosophical tradition’ in order to elucidate problems as they unfolded within philosophy itself.” Perhaps the problem is that there is no philosophical tradition presenting itself as a friendly to historical methodology, such that a historian could become an exemplar of that line of philosophical thinking?

    And if someone chose to work as Rosenfeld suggests, I don’t know what any historian should be afraid of “reenact[ing] a long-dormant Lovejoyan approach to the ‘history of ideas.’” I think that Dan Wickberg might object to this characterization. And honestly, how many Lovejovian historians were there in the first place?

    I’ve never seen Lovejovian “family tree” that documents sad reenactors in his tradition. In fact, I’m the only one I know of, through my own documentation of how Mortimer J. Adler worked to make Britannica’s *Syntopicon* an exemplar of Lovejovian unit ideas methodology, that has explicitly tied any post-1950s historical work to Lovejoy himself. Indeed, it seems that Lovejoy inspired more philosophers than historians (e.g. Berlin, Foucault?, Pocock). Is there something I’ve forgotten from Novick about Lovejoy’s disciples?

    Anyway, enough of my questions—and my minor kvetching. Thanks a million for giving us this preview. – TL

    • Erratum: My 3rd para should read—“And if someone chose to work as Rosenfeld suggests, I don’t know WHY any historian…”

    • I read Isaac’s concerns as reflective of current debates going on within European intellectual history between internalists and externalists. It seems like there has been a focus on US intellectual history on what Burgin calls the borderlands approach where intellectual history is in close contact with other subfields of US history. To some the proliferation of borderlands intellectual history has come at the expense of more traditional internal intellectual histories in line with the Lovejoyan history of ideas. This seems to be reflected in the recent literature. While there have been important internalist European intellectual histories in recent years – Peter Gordon’s “Continental Divide” jumps to mind – there arguably has not been similar work on the US side (I say arguable because Andrew Jewett’s book is in many ways an internalist history).

      As a graduate student studying the dialogue between intellectuals in a particular field, I have been tempted to write in an internalist vein. I have been cautioned not to do so however because there is a feeling that internalist intellectual histories are too narrow and diminish one’s employability. I think Isaac is commenting on what I see as a precipitous decline in this tradition, one that he feels – and I agree with him here – is valuable to getting at certain problems in the histories of philosophy, literature, the university, the hard sciences, and the social sciences.

  2. I fear that yesterday’s comment was a bit too cynical and questioning.

    To be more positive, I want to say that I found what Burgin relayed about Sarah Igo and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen to be in line with my feelings about the study of the field (i.e. the “free-range,” history of thought approach—taking thought wherever its found and seeing how it fits in the “larger” and more specialized currents of thinking). So I’m pleased to see my democratic approach to the field represented at these conferences. – TL

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