U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Into the Blinding Sun:” Philosophical History 50 Years after Perry Miller


There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. . . . Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” 1836

Perry Miller died fifty years ago today at age fifty-eight. After his death, letters of appreciation from friends and former students flooded the desk where Elizabeth Miller was working to complete her husband’s The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War. In their letters, students expressed gratitude, friends offered Elizabeth their support, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. confessed that Miller’s death, coming on the heels of President Kennedy’s assassination, had left him in a deep depression. “Perry, as you well know,” wrote Schlesinger, “was one of the first influences in my life.” “He was a superb teacher,” Schlesinger recalled. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a frequent correspondent of Miller’s and a careful reader of all Miller’s books, published an obituary for his friend in the New York Herald Tribune. At a meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, Edmund S. Morgan delivered a moving tribute to his advisor, in which he insisted that Perry Miller’s contributions would be understood only “when philosophers become historians and historians become philosophers.”1 David Hollinger chose Morgan’s words to begin his invaluable interpretation of Miller’s thought, “Perry Miller and Philosophical History,” published in 1968 in History and Theory. In this article, Hollinger noted that “little effort has been made to analyze in depth [Miller’s] view of American history.”2 Fifty years after Miller’s death, and nearly fifty years after Hollinger’s article, historians have still made little effort to analyze Miller’s thought, and possess no understanding of “philosophical history” in his published works and personal commitments. At the semi-centennial of his death, it is time to reevaluate and rehabilitate Perry Miller, and to discover the potentials of what Hollinger called “philosophical history.”

One of the great contributions of Hollinger’s article was to highlight the central tensions animating Miller’s work— tensions that historians continue to ignore. As Francis T. Butts recently argued, historians treat Miller “primarily as a foil.”
3 They inaccurately accuse him of believing that the realm of thought takes places completely removed from environmental influences, of stressing intellect at the expense of emotion, and of portraying Puritan thought as static and one-dimensional. Against these characterizations, Hollinger demonstrated how Miller not only refused to resolve, but also reveled in the tension between mind and environment (or “the conscious” and “the mechanical” as Hollinger described it), between reason and emotion, and between the “mystery” outside of time and the Puritan in time.

Hollinger presented Miller as an artist whose medium was tension and paradox. Revealing “intensively purposive and creative activity” and “a depth of aesthetic sensitivity,” Miller’s best work, Hollinger argued, “achieves a level of artistic merit rare in his generation of historians.”4 According to Hollinger, Miller’s art was primarily epistemological and historical because it was informed by ideas about the relationship between perception and reality, and based on Miller’s conviction that “the heart of the human problem is history,” or how to live a life in time, the ultimate meaning of which is not given in time.5

Despite his incisive analysis of Miller’s mind, however, Hollinger left only clues as to what, exactly, “philosophical history” is, and how historians might apply the lessons of Miller’s approach both to their research and their intellectual life. Beginning with Morgan’s challenge that “philosophers become historians and historians become philosophers,” one might pursue the problem of “philosophical history” in Miller’s thought by picking up where Hollinger concluded his article— with a quotation from Miller’s biography of Jonathan Edwards. “One has to look directly into the blinding sun,” Miller wrote of Edwards’ intellectual commitment.6 Miller, speculated Hollinger, similarly possessed “some emotional need ‘to look directly into the blinding sun.’”7

Interestingly, looking directly into the sun is what Socrates argues the philosopher must do to achieve enlightenment in Plato’s Republic.8 When Plato’s philosopher, freed from imprisonment in a cave of shadows and echos, first casts his or her (yes, it is his orher for Plato) eyes upon the sun, he or she is blinded. “At first he would most easily make out shadows,” Socrates explains, “later, the things themselves.” “And from there,” continues Socrates, “he could turn to beholding things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night . . . than by day— looking at the sun.”9 Eventually, however, the philosopher can look at the sun, and concludes that it is “the source of the seasons and the years and is the source of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing.”10 Because sunlight allows the eye to see objects clearly, in the Republic Socrates uses the sun as a metaphor for that which he believes allows the soul to be guided by reason.

For Miller, inclination, ideology, and “determinations of love or hate” constituted the metaphorical sunlight by which objects of history are illuminated.11 This is not to say that Miller identified ideas as the “cause” of historical events. Rather, he believed that ideas were what organized, made sense of, and gave shape to the objects of history, as Plato’s sunlight does not cause objects, but allows the eye to perceive them clearly. “What man sees as the truth of history is what he wills to prevail,” wrote Miller. “The disposition of man,” he affirmed, “makes the truth of history.”12 Or, in Jonathan Edwards’ view, “what men call history is the idea they have of the past, not the actual events which they never witnessed.”13 Without the idea, there is no coherence to events. Miller explained in his biography of Edwards that the Northampton preacher delighted “in showing how at every juncture of history, learned men, philosophers, and academic historians, missed the significance of their epoch, and did nothing but collect facts without meanings.”14 Facts without meanings, like shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, lack integration with that which gives them shape— “the disposition of man,” “what he wills to prevail,” “the idea . . . of the past,” the sun. 

Miller’s “philosophical history,” therefore, requires that the historian examine the assumptions and affections that shape various understandings of man’s place in time. For example, Miller vowed to excavate the “real being” behind Puritanism, which lay “not in its doctrines but behind them,” meaning the anxieties and longings that expressed themselves as Puritan doctrine in a specific time and place.15 If Miller’s “philosophical history” demands looking at the metaphorical sunlight through which the Puritan project took shape (or the metaphorical sunlight through which Melville conceived of the White Whale, or Emerson became an invisible eye-ball), Miller’s history also suggests that historians confront the dispositions, affections, assumptions, or anxieties that shape the writing of history by other historians. Therein lies the unique value of intellectual history, if historians can learn from Perry Miller: to bring into focus, to historicize, and to interrogate the assumptions and longings that shape ideas of the past for our subjects, our fellow historians, and ourselves.

In the chapter in which he suggests that “one must look directly at the blinding sun,” Miller explains that Edwards critiqued both the rationalist opponents of the Great Awakening and the enthusiasts who took religious emotionalism too far. “The point of his critique of both rationalism and enthusiasm,” Miller wrote of Edwards, “was that each of these emergent monstrosities, though in different ways, would absorb the individual into . . . a scheme . . . of comprehension which in itself was all too comprehensible.”16 “Sooner or later,” Miller and Edwards each warned their contemporaries, “when their schemes prove incapable of coping with the multiplying accidents and the torments of existence . . . then the real terror comes, not the terror of hell and of flames, but the emptiness of the soul that has seen nothing worth seeing, has understood nothing worth understanding.”17 Miller’s warning to contemporary historians is that they learn to examine the intellectual frameworks that (whether the historian is aware of them or not) necessarily absorb the historical subject and shape the historian’s understanding— or risk seeing only shadows without recognizing the light of the sun.

In 1962, one year before Miller’s death, John Higham called for a new kind of history that would allow the historian “to grasp the moral tone of a particular time and place,” and explore the “tangled combinations . . . of love and hate . . . pervading a career, a movement, or a period.”18 Early in his intellectual life, Miller had already discovered, and indeed gone beyond, Higham’s new history. “An idea in the mind is not only a form of perception but is also a determination of love and hate,” Miller wrote in Errand into the Wilderness.19 It is fitting that Higham’s concept of the historian as moral critic parallels Miller’s “philosophical history.” Miller’s philosophy represented critical moral inquiry. For Perry Miller was as much a social critic as he was an historian or a professor of literature.

As a social critic, Miller struggled to be both philosopher— critically interrogating assumptions regardless of the consequences to institutions or foundational ideas— and professional historian of American literature, with commitments to institutions such as the University, to society, and to the nation. Miller ‘s struggle echoes a problem Plato examined at length throughout his body of work. As Thomas More paraphrased in Utopia, Plato desired that “philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers.”20 The coincidental similarity between this statement and Edmund Morgan’s formulation hints at a more serious connection: Plato could only have his philosopher-kings in the imagined city Socrates created in the Republic. In reality, even so much as trying to be a philosopher and a publicly engaged citizen proved impossible for Socrates; the city executed him. Thomas More, too, struggled to serve King Henry VIII while following a moral code he had arrived at through philosophical inquiry; the King executed him. Jonathan Edwards’ Northampton congregation voted to remove him from the pulpit when his philosophy did not meet their needs. Ralph Waldo Emerson was banished from Harvard University in 1838 after the ideas he presented in his “Divinity School Address” threatened the foundations of Unitarian thought, and Henry David Thoreau chose self-exile, first at Walden and then (briefly) in prison, rather than conformity. Although he did not, as Socrates did, face the threat of execution, Miller confronted the same major tension that lies at the heart of the Platonic corpus and in the lives of More, Edwards, Emerson, and Thoreau: how to make the work of the philosopher or scholar relevant to society without conforming to the practical and material demands of society— or being ignored and marginalized (or executed).

Hollinger would remind us that Perry Miller thrived in tensions like this. Rather than trying to resolve the tension between philosophy and politics, Miller lived in it, found it generative, and used it to inform his view of professional humanities as philosophy. Miller’s version of “philosophical history” implied a pedagogy and public stance that encouraged the scholar to “keep alive a passion for knowledge that is first and foremost its own excuse for being,” or risk becoming “merely an instrument of national policy.”21

To a great extent, Miller embraced academia as a welcome retreat from society. He also feared the entanglement of the humanities with an increasingly mechanized and business-oriented ethos. In an autobiographical essay called “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,” published in 1956, Miller recalled how, as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, his professors “all seemed so magnificently a law unto themselves that I could conceive of no greater measure of earthly felicity than to grow up, learn enough, and become as like them as possible.”22 Miller apparently failed to recall that before he conceived of no greater pleasure than to become an alienated academic, he tried two other forms of separating himself from society. After his first year as an undergraduate, Miller abandoned his studies and lived for a brief time in a secluded cabin in Colorado (a devotional imitation of Thoreau), and later joined the crew of a cargo ship that took him around the world (like the castaways on the Pequod).

In 1931, after completing his PhD at the University of Chicago, Miller became the first officially-titled Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. There he brought his “philosophical history” to life, not only in scholarship such as The New England Mind and Jonathan Edwards, but also in speeches at conferences and commencements, and in magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic.At the heart of Miller’s public “philosophical history” was his belief that“nothing, not democracy itself, and not even the American way of life, is so sacred that it cannot be studied, analyzed, and criticized.”23 “There is a kind of invigoration that comes with contending against society for the welfare of society, and of this paradoxical strength American education now stands in desperate need,” Miller argued in 1949 in an essay attacking the requirement of loyalty oaths for teachers.24

Accused of turning the youth of Athens into subversive philosophers and critics, and of impiety to the ideological foundations of his city, Socrates had audaciously declared that his reward should be maintenance at public expense in the grand chief office of Athens. Similarly, Miller suggested that the scholar was of greatest value to democratic society, even— or especially— when he or she “contended against society.” “What we are worth,” Miller said of his fellow intellectuals, “is much more than even this luxurious America can afford to pay us, so that it shamefacedly reacts by underpaying us. This it does, I hasten to say, by its standards, not by ours.”25

Miller believed that the highest purpose of graduate studies— in any field— was to produce philosophers alienated from society, capable of critiquing society, and thus better able to provide a positive critical influence on society. “The paradox we have to deal with,” Miller explained, “is that the very being of a graduate school is inevitably a challenge to that policy which brings it into being and which manfully supports it.”26 Under this view of graduate studies, both student and teacher are engaged in philosophy— radical interrogation of assumptions and foundations regardless of consequences. “We all have to work toward the engendering of dissimilarity, work for the opportunity to examine, question, and if need be to dissever the nerves of solidarity, rather than to rest in pre-commitment to their preservation,” insisted Miller as philosopher. “For this purpose,” added Miller as professional historian of American literature, “graduate school exists.”27 In the ideal graduate program, Miller held,“both the instructor and the student are perpetually reminded of their invincible ignorance.” “The beauty and terror of our study is precisely that we constantly face this admission, but that somehow we persist,” Miller declared.28 According to Socrates, philosophy constituted a desire for wisdom that stemmed from acute awareness of one’s own lack of wisdom.

Miller feared that this ideal graduate program, capable of producing philosophers who pursue knowledge of its own sake, did not, or could no longer, exist. “Young students are little instructed in what scholarship signifies,” Miller complained in 1956, “instead, they are urged by all the pressures of the times to find for themselves a place in the department.”29 “I tremble for our civilization,” explained Miller dramatically, “when the methods of Madison Avenue penetrate the scholar’s sanctuary.”30 Miller was primarily concerned with the scholar’s need to “fit in,” and the pressure to market his or her work. This approach might be professional history or professional humanities, but it is not philosophy. Miller wanted to see graduate schools produce philosophers and critics, regardless of the pressures of the market or the needs of the state. “The illiteracy rate may be reduced to zero, but a diffusion that does not carry with it the excitement of discovery, though it may have clear prescriptions for the optimum citizen, will become an assembly line for the production of serviceable robots,” Miller worried.31

With these words, Miller anticipated student activist Mario Savio’s rallying cry in Sproul Plaza against the mechanization of the modern university, in a speech delivered almost exactly one year after Miller’s death. “If [the university] is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors, and if [UC Berkeley] President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something,” Savio cried, “the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to . . . have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product,” pronounced Savio on December 2, 1964. It will remain unclear what position Miller would have taken on the actions and ideas of the student left, had he lived past 1963. A radical individualist, a conservative critic of the Enlightenment, a Stevenson Democrat who worried that the New Deal would quash individual liberties, and an atheist who preferred Jonathan Edwards’ worldview to Benjamin Franklin’s, Perry Miller defies easy political categorization. He thought outside traditional categories of “radical” and “conservative” and beyond such contemporary favorites as communist and anti- communist. Although a proponent of liberal democracy, he was not a cold warrior, preoccupied with the Soviet threat or concerned that countries around the world might fall to communism; though an admirer of John Brown and William Faulkner, he remained silent on modern questions of racial justice. Nevertheless, throughout the 1940s and 50s, Miller articulated some of the criticisms of the modern University that guided the early student movements of the 1960s, and remain relevant today.

For example, Miller foresaw that the humanities had signed a compact with the Devil by embracing the support of institutions concerned with Cold War cultural diplomacy. If intellectuals, understandably excited to receive unprecedented recognition and funding, articulated the value of the humanities strictly in terms of their utility for national policy aims, they would be at a loss to defend the importance of their work once the government, as it inevitably would, abandoned the cultural Cold War and moved on. “The humanists have nobody else but themselves to blame for the incoherence of the picture they offer to the pragmatic world,” Miller exclaimed, prophetically, in 1950.32

Despite his paeans to the excitement of discovery and knowledge for its own sake, Miller was too honest a philosopher and too sharp an historian to romanticize the life of the mind into an impossible caricature. He was, at times, highly cynical about what he called “the looming nihilism of what was formerly the scientific promise of mechanical bliss.”33 At a conference on intellectual community in 1961, Miller warned his fellow humanists against the temptation “to construct tiny oases of gentility around the library, the art museum, the concert hall.”34 He constantly reminded students and colleagues that the Romantic New England mind was the same mind that brought about the technological era, that Emerson believed Transcendentalism and technology went well together, and that Thoreau wrote poetically about the sound of the train as well as the titmouse. “The mind of the nation flung itself into the mighty prospect, dreamed for decades of comforts that we now take for granted, and positively lusted for the chance to yield itself to the gratifications of technology,” Miller declared. Deploring “how seductively our fondness for Poe or Thoreau distorts our image of the era,” Miller asserted that “the age was grasping for the technological future, panting for it, crying for it.”35

Miller called upon intellectuals to claim responsibility for the dangers and the ugliness of postwar American life, and not “regress into the womb or irresponsibility.” Miller’s ideal philosopher or scholar did indeed need to maintain a distance from the values and opinions of the herd, but this distance should not mean a retreat from responsibility to society. “If in an age of machines and of helpful gadgets our propensity be nourished to live with less and less understanding of all that we ought to comprehend, what happens when our debilitated faculty is told that it has to live under the shadow of nuclear weapons?”36 If it was more important than ever that philosophy articulate dissent from the massification of the university and the values of mass consumer culture, it was also more important than ever, Miller believed, that philosophy and the humanities reach out to society to help Americans strengthen that debilitated faculty. To this end, Miller envisioned a true philosophical community of learning beyond the professional humanities. He encouraged intellectuals across all faculties to engage in critical dialogue. “Baseball is endlessly fascinating, but it need not be the sole noncontroversial diversion when intellect meets intellect,” Miller reminded his audience at the conference on intellectual community.37

“It may be,” conceded Miller, “that every exertion toward a community of learning is bound . . . for the remainder of our existence, to come to no decisive conclusion.” “But,” he wondered, “is success the only goal?”38 Jonathan Edwards’ theology “gave [men] no other redemption than their own appreciation of the system that holds them,” Miller explained with affection and admiration in his biography of Edwards.39 Similarly, the only positive advice Miller offered for reclaiming the examined life in a mechanical age was an exhortation to face the situation that confronted modern man “without flinching.”40 To look, that is, directly into the blinding sun.

Yet, is it nothing but a burden?” asked Miller. “Not in the least,” he answered. “Like the precious, beautiful, insupportable and wholly irrational blessing of individuality, with all the myriad quandaries of responsibility therein involved, the responsibility for the human mind to preserve its own integrity amid the terrifying operations of the machine is both an exasperation and an ecstasy.”41


1 Edmund S. Morgan, “Perry Miller and the Historians,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 74 (1964), 18.

2 David Hollinger, “Perry Miller and Philosophical History,” History and Theory, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1968), pp. 189-202, 189.

3 Francis T. Butts, “The Myth of Perry Miller,” American Historical Review, 87:3 (1982), 666. As Butts points out, Robert Middlekauff gravely misunderstood Miller’s entire scholarly enterprise when he asserted that “form for Perry Miller may be thought of as having existence outside of experience; form indeed may be outside of history.” Alan Simpson similarly misunderstood Miller when he complained that Miller “told us too much about the Puritan mind and not enough about the Puritans’ feelings.” Historians such as George Marsden and Gary Wills have upbraided Miller for overemphasizing the influence of John Locke on Jonathan Edwards, yet these historians spend more time lamenting Miller’s influence than explaining where he went wrong, and they offer no alternative theories about the origins of Edwards’ epistemology. See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 61-64, and Gary Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007), 100. In his chapter on “Philosophy and Jonathan Edwards,” in A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000, Bruce Kuklick supports Miller’s argument about the influence of Locke on Edwards. See Bruce Kuklick, A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2003).

4 Hollinger, 200.

5 Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949), 305.

6 Miller, 195.

7 Hollinger, 202.

8 What follows should be taken as a very lose analogy. I am not trying to suggest that Miller was a Platonist (he wasn’t), nor am I trying to suggest that “Plato” is synonymous with “philosophy,” though if I had to pick one name that was, I would go with Plato.

9 Plato, Republic, Allan Bloom, translator, (United States of America: Basic Books, 1968), 195 (116a-b).

10 Bloom, 195 (116b-c).

11 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1956),179.

12 Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 312.

13 Ibid.

14 Miller, 313.

15 Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 4.

16 Miller, 193.

17I bid.

18 John Higham, “The Historian as Moral Critic,” American Historical Review, 67:3(1962), 622.

19 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, 179.

20 Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 <http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/more/utopia-I.html>

21 Miller, Perry, “Education Under Crossfire,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines: Essays by Perry Miller, (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press 1979), 96.

22 Miller, “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 9.

23 Miller, “Education Under Crossfire,” 96.

24 Miller, 96.

25 Miller, “Liberty and Conformity,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 189.

26 Miller, “Education Under Crossfire,” 79.

27 Miller, “Liberty and Conformity,” 194.

28 Miller, 193.

29 Miller, “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,”14.

30 Miller, 11.

31 Miller, “Education Under Crossfire,” 92.

32 Miller, “The Plight of the Lone Wolf,” 13.

33 Miller, “The Responsibility of Mind in a Civilization of Machines,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 212.

34 Miller, 199.

35 Miller, 202.

36 Miller, 210.

37 Miller, 212.

38 Miller, 213.

39 Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 190.

40 Miller, “The American Humanities in Industrial Civilization,” address delivered at the University of Massachusetts, July
6, 1956, 10.

41Miller, “The Responsibility of mind in a Civilization of Machines,” in Crowell, John, and Stanford J. Searl Jr., eds., 213.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Rivka, thank you for your excellent essay. I found it of interest since I am looking into Miller, and how as an atheist he nevertheless took theological ideas seriously. He didn’t think they were either silly or irrelevant.

    I have no definition of philosophical history, but all historians are engage in it one way or another. Your essay reminds me of Hadden White’s Metahistory. He describes the ideological commitments, value systems, that historians cannot escape in writing their accounts of the past. He cites the four identified by Mannheim as anarchism, conservatism, radicalism, or liberalism, not as absolute or exhaustive political positions but rather as historical sensibilities. All these in turn are a mixture of congruence and social transcendence. Ideology combine with modes of emplotment and modes of argument give clues to the historical consciousness of the writer.

    I think this schema has significance in how a historian examines her subjects and how much she considers the ideational world they inhabit. Ultimately, it places the historian in the position of a critic involved in moral inquiry into the past and serving in a role of self-reflection for society. Miller was self-consciously engaged in such a venture.

    I am echoing much of what you already said which lead me to another point you touched. Has the profession abandoned this project of critical moral inquiry for survival within the modern academy that has sold out to capitalist corporatism? Capitalist corporatism is not interested in critical moral inquiry. It does not like questions that make future workers skeptical. If so, where will critical moral inquiry continue? While the profession is pursuing an agenda to keep historians institutionally employed in any form, where is space and time for critical thinking, contemplation, and creativity? It may that in the future, if not already, the historian who wants to look directly into the blinding sun will find herself among the starving artists. The price of institutional alienation is understandably too high for most.

  2. Rivka: Thanks for this. I know little about Perry Miller (except what I’ve forgotten from reading *That Noble Dream*), since he wrote on historical topics outside of my areas research.

    But I’m struck by how the idea of “philosophical history” corresponds with what Arthur Lovejoy lived, in practice. Lovejoy was a prominent realist philosopher while also tracing the long history of unit ideas. Surely both Miller and Lovejoy spoke about their mutual, shall we say, love of wisdom. What have you discovered about their transactions, whether merely professional or perhaps something more? – TL

  3. While this is an interesting essay, I have to say that it’s unfair to the historians who have engaged Miller’s scholarship most carefully and critically to say that “historians have still made little effort to analyze Miller’s thought, and possess no understanding of “philosophical history” in his published works and personal commitments.” For one thing, the Francis Butts essay cited as “recent” was published 31 years ago, much closer to the date of MIller’s death than it is today. Second, anyone who reads Middlekauff’s elegant account of The Mathers intellectual world will see how deeply MIddlekauff (Morgan’s student) embraced Miller’s commitments, even while dramatically correcting his arguments. And the real place to look for historians who have assessed Miller’s work and addressed it on its own terms and on its own turf is in the writings of people like Edmund Morgan and his many students, including Middlekauff, David Hall and Tim Breen; and Bernard Bailyn and his many students who have worked in the field plowed by Miller, including Richard Bushman, the late lamented Michael Kammen, Mary Beth Norton, Virginia Anderson, and many others, among whom I’m proud to count myself. I humbly mention the Introduction to my book, The Price of Redemption, as one small example among the many efforts made by working historians to analyze, appreciate, and engage Miller’s version of “philosophical history.”

  4. Rivka,

    Every time I read one of your posts, I’m reminded of the stark difference between an academic and an intellectual. Not only does Perry Miller embody the latter, but in your analysis of his thought and work, and in your seamless and elegant suggestion that the history of his thought should be both appreciated on moral and historical terms, you embody that position as well. You’re a truly deep thinker, Rivka. And your posts continue to inspire me.

    • Erik, You mention that reading one of Rivka’s posts reminds you of “the stark difference between an academic and an intellectual.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on this difference. Does Miller embody the intellectual as well as the academic? Or, in your opinion, does he only embody the former? And, since I’m deeply interested and invested in how ideas/roles become embodied, I was wondering what you meant by your use of the word (embody)?

      All the best,


  5. And the real place to look for historians who have assessed Miller’s work and addressed it on its own terms and on its own turf is in the writings of people like Edmund Morgan and his many students, including Middlekauff, David Hall and Tim Breen; and Bernard Bailyn and his many students who have worked in the field plowed by Miller, including Richard Bushman, the late lamented Michael Kammen, Mary Beth Norton, Virginia Anderson, and many others, among whom I’m proud to count myself. I humbly mention the Introduction to my book, The Price of Redemption, as one small example among the many efforts made by working historians to analyze, appreciate, and engage Miller’s version of “philosophical history.”

    The floor is yours, sir. You have at least one reader. Engage away.


    According to that somewhat obscure bookseller, your 1997 book seems to cost

    2 new from $5,380.63, with 4 used from $787.92

    I must admit I’ll have to wait until the price comes down a bit. And I’ll admit it was fun looking you and your book up, since I’m a sucker for a good contrarian.

    Peace, bro. Word up, though—Rivka’s actually the last one you should take a swipe at around here if you want to have some good contrarian fun.

  6. Tim,

    Great question! Curiously, no correspondence between Miller and Lovejoy exists in Miller’s papers (maybe theres something in Lovejoy’s?), nor are any of Lovejoy’s books on Miller’s personal “list of every book I have read,” though I have no idea how faithfully he updated this list (of course I would be happy to read half of these books in a life-time!). There’s certainly an affinity, though. Something to look into. Perhaps Daniel Wickberg has some ideas?

    • You called? I think this issue came up on one of your earlier posts on Miller. Miller and Lovejoy seemed to move in entirely different circles, despite their common interest in the ways in which history and philosophy might come together. Miller wrote very little for the Journal of the HIstory of Ideas, for instance, despite the fact that it’s heyday was in the period of his greatest prominence in the 1940s and 50s. It might make sense to think about this as a matter of affinities shared by a number of mid-century figures who straddled the boundary between history and philosophy, who saw history as a way to approach philosophical questions, and philosophy as a way to push history away from an abstract empirical social science into a humanistic frame of reference. Figures like R.G. Collingwood, Isaiah Berlin, Morton White, Maurice Mandelbaum, as well as Lovejoy and Miller, among others seem to speak to this notion of a philosophical history. One interesting feature of this generation of historian/philosophers is that they came to prominence at precisely the moment that philosophy departments were deciding that they could really do without history by making philosophy into a technical and analytical discipline.

  7. Mark,

    This is point is very well-taken. Thank you. I did not mean to be so dismissive of half a century of scholarship, including your own, and including a truly excellent piece on Miller that Jonathan Wilson recently posted on this blog ( http://s-usih.org/2013/11/a-savage-at-heart-perry-miller-and-robert-oppenheimer.html ).

    However, I do believe that Miller is still greatly misunderstood by most historians who name him in their work today, and that many historians who mention him have clearly failed to engage (or even read, it would seem!) his work. In _That Noble Dream_, Peter Novick characterizes Miller as completely anti-material, with no regard for environment or the social. Novick quotes some of Miller’s disparaging remarks about social history (from the prefaces to Orthodoxy in Massachusetts and both volumes of the New England Mind), but fails to that Miller’s real intellectual project (found in the chapters of those works) was to explore the tension between mind and environment. In _Head and Heart_ (2007), Gary Wills dismisses Miller for having made Jonathan Edwards into an Enlightenment figure, a claim that could only be made without opening one page of Miller’s biography, where one finds several passages like this one: “Out of Edwards’s work might be compiled an indictment of the eighteenth century that would rival Blake’s and delight the heart of every Romantic” (Miller,119). George Marsden, in his biography of Edwards, published in 2003, condescendingly compares Miller’s _Jonathan Edwards_ to Shakespeare’s Hamlet– “a triumph of the imagination,” but more art than truth (Marsden, 61). This curious insult alone reveals a complete misunderstanding of Miller’s “philosophical history,” or his understanding of the role of imagination and art in social science and philosophy. But Marsden goes even further in abuse of Miller in his discussion of John Locke’s influence on Jonathan Edwards. Admitting that Locke “was crucial in setting Edwards’s philosophical agenda,” Marsden attempts to displace Miller’s interpretation by stipulating that Edwards actually went “far beyond [Locke]” (Marsden, 64). Apparently Marsden overlooked the ecstatic “Edwards went beyond Locke, far beyond him!” in Miller’s essay on Edwards in _Errand into the Wilderness_ (Miller, 179)!

    So, while I have no idea why I described an article written before I was born as “recent” (good catch there), I believe that, as Butts argued, historians still use Miller “primarily as a foil.”

    Even David Hall and Robert Middlekauff, who you mentioned, have characterized Miller as a rigid idealist with no concern for human experience, when nothing could be further from Miller’s “philosophical history.” Hall, whose work I admire as some of the finest examples of U.S. intellectual and cultural history, began his career as a graduate student using Miller as a foil. Perhaps because of the burden of writing in a field still under the shadow of Miller, Hall has, in both scholarship and public remarks, fiercely attacked Miller while at the same time coming to many of Miller’s conclusions. Beyond the Puritans, in scholarship on the cultural Cold War and the creation of American Studies, historians continue to paint Miller as a Cold War nationalist, without engaging with his thought, and ignoring the “philosophical” stance he strove to maintain as a scholar and critic.

    Once again, I take your point, and regret that I appeared so dismissive of a significant body of excellent scholarship. However, I do think that while there has been some productive engagement with Miller, there remains a dangerous and pervasive tendency to turn him into a caricature, to use him as a foil (even among scholars like Hall and Middlekauff), and to invoke his name without engaging with his work,

    Finally, I would suggest that there is a difference between critically engaging with Miller’s thought– which I believe still hasn’t been done enough, but take your point that it has certainly been done, and done quite well, more than I initially suggested– and really understanding and implementing his “philosophical history.” This essay was my attempt to explore one idea of what that “philosophical history” might be (both in scholarship and in intellectual life), but I don’t pretend to have pinned it down. If Edmund Morgan is right that we won’t really understand Miller’s contribution until philosophers become historians and historians become philosophers, then I would argue that fifty years after his death, we are still far from understanding Miller’s “philosophical history.”

    • I see what you’re saying, but I guess my point is that if you really want to see how Miller’s work has been engaged, understood, appreciated, you have to look in the right places, and I really don’t think that Garry Wills and Peter Novick, or even the prefaces and framing devices in various books, are the places to find it. We all know the pressures on scholars, particularly younger ones, to frame the contents of their new work against the premises or framing contentions of their elders, so it seems to me to be important to look past that stuff at the work itself. Yes, I agree that especially as time goes by, fewer scholars actually read Miller and he becomes caricatured. But there’s nothing unusual or peculiar to Miller and “philosophical history” on this score — it happens again and again to scholars whose work gains widespread notice (Richard White has spoken brilliantly about this with respect to what has become of “The Middle Ground.”) And yes, perhaps the generalizing remarks of my predecessor at Berkeley, Bob Middlekauff, may have slighted the tensions in Miller’s work, but at the same time, if you read MIddlekauff on The Mathers, you’ll see what he really thinks in the depth of his engagement with Miller’s way of doing history. Another interesting place to look is the series of implicit exchanges between Miller and Bailyn in the 1950s to early 60s. Bailyn reviewed Miller’s Colony to Province when it came out, appreciatively, but pointing out important reasons, philosophical reasons, why Miller’s approach of reading the “mind” of the past strictly from the literary record may miss important aspects of historical experiences that impinged on that “mind” in ways that might not always have been consciously apparent to people at the time, but was nonetheless powerful. At the moment, Bailyn was pioneering exactly this kind of work in his own research in social and economic history, including some of the first use of computer analysis of large databases by any historian. Miller was openly scornful of these methods, and said so in the new preface he wrote for a later version of Colony to Province put out by, I think, the Beacon Press around 1960. Eventually, Bailyn would elaborate some of these ideas in his presidential address to the AHA c. 1982, on “The Latent and the Manifest” in history. But if you look at the larger trajectory of Bailyn’s work, in which, in some of his first books and articles, (New England Merchants, “Politics and Social Structure in VA,” Massachusetts Shipping, a statistical survey [with Lotte Bailyn], The Origins of American Politics, then you’ll see that by laying this social history groundwork, exploring the “latent” aspects of history that Miller dismissed, he made it possible to write Ideological Origins of the Am Rev, a book profoundly engaged in the “tension between mind and environment” that Miller championed, but with an understanding of the “environment” rooted in a kind of research that Miller turned a blind eye to. In the collective work of many scholars over the past half century who have really, seriously, and in a sustained way, engaged in aspects of Miller’s project, I think you’ll find what you’re not likely to see in the remarks of passing commenters like Novick and Wills, or dare I say, Butts.

  8. Since questions about the relation between Lovejoy and Miller have come up a number of times recently on the blog, I did a little research and found some information that may be of interest.

    From a considerable historical distance, seemingly increased by lack of study of their work and settings, it’s at least initially surprising that while Lovejoy and Miller appear to have some “affinities,” as Rivka and Dan suggest, it looks as if there was little mutual orientation or interaction between them.

    It’s perhaps more puzzling when one realizes that, as Wickberg points out, Miller did publish in the JHI, and in the very first issue in 1940, The New England Mind. The Seventeenth Century, was reviewed by Herbert Schneider. The mystery intensifies [if you’re still following along] when one sees that Miller was on the Board of Editors of the journal, from its beginning until his death in 1963. [In a quick search I located two articles Miller published in the journal – “’Preparation for Salvation’ in Seventeenth-Century New England,” JHI 4, 3, June 1943; and a review V.W. Brooks, New England: Indian Summer, in JHI 2, 1, Jan 1941. A rare example of sustained attention to Miller’s work in the journal is Gene Wise, “Implicit Irony in Perry Miller’s New England Mind,” JHI 29, 4, Oct-Dec 1968.]

    Dan Wickberg is probably on the mark in pointing out there were “affinities shared by a number of mid-century figures who straddled the boundary between history and philosophy,” but perhaps that’s too broad a brush to make sense of what their apparent lack of relation might indicate about the differences that may account for it.

    What seems a puzzle might be resolved if we knew more about the personal, institutional and intellectual circumstances involved. [I don’t know how extensively Lovejoy’s papers have been studied, and I am not familiar with Daniel J. Wilson’s Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Quest for Intelligibility, 1980.]

    Whether they are usefully encompassed by Hollinger’s notion of “philosophical history” is another issue.
    A few quick speculations come to mind: their backgrounds were very different, and a generation and a half separated them: Lovejoy was born in 1873, and Miller in 1905, so Lovejoy published his influential critique of pragmatism, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms” when Miller was only three. Lovejoy was a philosopher who turned to the history of philosophy and the “history of ideas,” while Miller was a literary scholar who moved into a subfield he sometimes referred to that way. Of course these disciplines and sub-disciplines were cross-bred and -fertilized in many ways, but that doesn’t reduce to a single Gemeinschaft of scholarly oneness.

    Miller and Lovejoy are sometimes mentioned together in characterizations of intellectual history over against the Progressive history that preceded it, and the work that came later. Novick mentions them together in discussing the postwar resurgence of intellectual history, and its “turn away from the ‘pragmatic,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘environmental’ study of ideas,…” [380]. Robert Allen Skotheim, in American Intellectual Histories and Historians, 1966, noted that many historians had reservations about Miller’s internalist and textualist approach, then commented that Lovejoy was “the most articulate spokesman for the internal analysis of the content of thought in history….” [254] Warren Boutcher, in “Analysis of Culture Revisited: Pure Texts, Applied Texts, Literary Historicisms, Cultural Histories,” JHI 2003, claims that both saw abstract ideas as hard facts of history. Examples could be multiplied.

    Occasionally the two are contrasted. For example, Murray G. Murphey, in “Perry Miller and Am Studies,” American Studies 2001, suggests they were very different kinds of intellectual historians, but that Miller sometimes described himself as a historian of ideas because “there was no term available in the professional lexicon of historians to describe what he did.”

    Hollinger, in Higham and Conkin, eds, gave considerable attention to Miller, emphasizing his compatibility with the newer emphasis on “discourse communities.” In contrast to Miller, he characterized Lovejoy as an example of Geertzian thin description, which made his work “anomalous” in terms of later developments. [47-8]
    In the New Directions volume, Miller is referred to more often than anyone else. His standing at this moment in intellectual history could be assessed by looking at the articles by Sacvan Bercovitch, Henry May, Murray Murphy and Paul Conkin.

    • Thanks for this, Bill! Absorbing. I’ve done a bit of non-archival work on Lovejoy, but my attention at the time was not turned toward Miller so I don’t remember how/if Wilson covered him. – TL

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