U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sentimentalism in Twentieth-Century America: Or, the Virtues of Broad Reading

With the book published I have been thinking, still, about all the things left out—necessary, conscious, and otherwise. Books are necessarily the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of things authors know and explore. What’s more, those explorations don’t end with publication. For instance, I have read more theory related to my book this year than I had read in the past five. Publication signals some degree of finality, but I have been restless. It’s as if I had to publish the book and declare closure on a stage, or an act, in order to grow out of certain strains of thought.

Old and New Reading

To go big and gain perspective on their archival work, history professionals—at least those with a social science bent—often turn to theory. Until recently, however, I had always turned to philosophy. Theory felt cold and technocratic, but older, non-analytic philosophy felt vibrant and human. Indeed, the older the better. Those philosophical works had always helped me break out of my presentism and myopia. I went that direction because I’ve long been on humanities side of the proverbial question about whether history is more humanities or social science. Reading older books in philosophy had also helped me understand why people look to great books for wisdom, and why Mortimer Adler resonated with that kind of historical mind. Turning to older philosophical works also helped me better think through the virtues of historical thinking. At the very least those readings tilled my intellectual soil such that I welcomed, with open arms, the work on historical thinking that has appeared over the past ten years.

But that somewhat eclectic approach to outside reading, while still useful, began to feel less relevant to me around 2008. The kinds of questions that arose, within and around me, demanded more reading in the political and social sciences, especially in works from the past 50-70 years. As I responded to those questions with new books and authors, I now understand better my own baseline assumptions about social and political questions. Some of that reading made it into my book on the great books idea, especially in relation to Adler’s own political philosophy and how it affected his late life work. But my other, deeper reading in Critical Theory probably won’t be fully expressed until my next project.

Historians also read broadly, of course, in the secondary historical works around their topics. That reading is often inspiring, if not always in the ways intended by other historians. Even so, when one studies twentieth-century topics, the pressure to keep up with new works can be overwhelming. For me the directly relevant secondary work on the great books idea was not difficult to follow. However, as I started to realize the varieties of liberalism and conservatism contained in Adler’s thought, over different periods, I found myself consulting with more, and more recent, secondary literature on politics and political history. Over the past ten years, as USIH readers know well, there has been explosive growth in secondary works on conservatism in particular. Those books show the continuum of conservative thought that has developed over the past 50 years. As I noted above, a great deal of that reading made it into my book. Those works were inspiring, but I think I can leave that genre alone for a few years.

While diving into the recent literature on political history and political philosophy, I gave some thought, here at the blog and teeny bit in my book, to the work of George Kateb. You may know that Kateb is a political philosopher who has written extensively on “democratic individuality,” and his thinking was rooted in the works of American romantics like Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. Prompted by frequent USIH commenter Bill Fine, I ran down an article by Kateb from the old Intellectual History Newsletter (IHN, the precursor to what is now Modern Intellectual History). That article was quite useful, but the rest of that 2002 issue (volume 24, the final entry in its 24-year run) held forth great appeal. Kateb’s piece was part of a forum titled “Liberal Culture and Their Critics: The Trials of Transatlantic Discourse,” and newsletter also contained a forum on Menand’s Metaphysical Club. Indeed, after going to find the Kateb article mentioned by Fine, it turned out that I had purchased that IHN volume several years before (probably for the Menand forum).

Since finishing the book I’ve been working my way through a stack of back reading. That brown card-stock covered issue of IHN volume 24 was in the pile. Despite being a bit tired of political history, I decided to work my way through the liberalism forum, which was really a set of papers reproduced from something called the “Sawyer Seminar” that had taken place from 1999-2001. At first glance this doesn’t seem to qualify as the new and stimulating kind of “broad” reading I described above. But the seminar/forum is broad for me in the sense of chronology and and geography. Pieces by Sarah Maza, Gerald Izenberg, and Ruth Bloch put me in touch with thinkers from France, England, Germany, and Scotland. Those historians also took me out of the twentieth century and into the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

Sentimentalism and Ruth Bloch

Ruth Bloch’s piece, titled “Utopianism, Sentimentalism, and Liberal Culture in America,” has been particularly inspirational and stimulating, for me anyway. Here’s an abstract of the article (probably written by her):

In all its ambiguities, a liberal culture of free markets, individual rights, and constitutional democracy is probably more universally associated with America now than ever before. Especially in this post-communist, post-welfare-state age, liberalism and America together are widely seen as showing the way to a politically free and prosperous future – as well as, of course, representing all the attendant risks of globalization including labor exploitation, cultural imperialism, and environmental degradation. If the connection of America to liberalism seems obvious, the connection of America to utopianism and sentimentalism is, I would argue, equally important but far more obscure. It is the purpose of this paper to analyze the historical interrelationship of these three more or less discrete intellectual systems, and to draw attention to the points of conflict, overlap, and mutual reinforcement among them. This interpretation not only takes issue with an overly simplistic view of present-day American culture as liberal, but, perhaps more importantly, complicates what we mean by American liberal culture by reexamining its eighteenth-century origins.

In her article (pp. 47-59), Bloch reminds us of several traits of eighteenth and early nineteenth century sentimentalism, as it arose from thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Lord Shaftesbury, John Millar, Lord Kames, and others centered in Edinburgh, Scotland. You may already be aware of those traits and beliefs, but let me recap them here for myself and others:

– An elevation of “the emotional response of sympathy over the rational calculation of utility” (p. 49). In other words, the “centrality of emotional experience” was key to sentimentalism (p. 54);
– Envisioning “human connection[s] as proceeding through empathy” (p. 49) and “acts of compassion” or “heartfelt benevolence” (p. 50);
– An anticipation of “new and subversive currents of literary and philosophical romanticism” through the “anti-rationalism” of sentimentalism (p. 50);
– A challenge to individualism, especially the effects of greed on persons, in that “morality is derived from the emotional response of empathy, rather than from the rational calculation of self-interest” (p. 50);
– A belief, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that “Nature hath implanted in our breasts, a love for others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct” (p. 53) [Aside: This goes toward Rivka Maizlish’s post from yesterday about the head-heart dichotomy in early American history.]; and
– A belief, paraphrasing Adam Smith, that “sentimental moral sense” should restrain “normally beneficial self-interest” (p. 53).

But where Bloch really touched me and my prior work on Adler, especially on the deep, Scottish roots of his philosophy of common sense and later, 1960s-1970s liberalism, was when Bloch outlined some intersections of sentimentalism and Lockean liberalism. In Bloch’s words: “Both Lockean liberalism and Scottish sentimentalism inclined towards an idealization of nature as consistent, orderly, and above all knowable … .”

It seems clear to me that both Scottish sentimentalism and Scottish common-sense philosophy contained a number of intersections, and may even depend upon one another more than historians have generally heretofore acknowledged. Except, that is, for Sophia Rosenfeld. She noted these connections in Common Senses: A Political History (Harvard, 2011). She posits that the philosophers of Aberdeen who crafted Scottish common-sense philosophy owed a debt to the work of Lord Shaftesbury and his successors (Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, and George Turnbull), who had “postulated the existence of an innate ‘moral sense’, or instinct for virtue, that naturally led mankind to act benevolently and to consider the common good” (p. 59).

Indeed, both sentimentalism and common sense rely on a knowable nature, a realism in nature, that can be counted on as a baseline for both rationalist and sentimentalist social and political constructions. Bloch furthermore notes that “Nature” allowed sentimentalists and liberals to see some “consistency between Christianity and Enlightenment worldviews” (p. 53).

Bloch also acknowledged cross-currents. She noted a conservative (non-liberal) strain of sentimentalism, one that is surprisingly apparent, to my mind, in late 1960s and 1970s American thought. This strain consisted of a kind of “organicism” as well as a “downplaying of individual agency” and “skepticism about the possibility of rapid social change” (p. 55). Bloch argues that this is seen—in eighteenth, nineteenth, and even twentieth-century forms of sentimentalism—when one examines sentimentalist ideas about women and the family. I can’t help but think here of Christopher Shannon’s comments on Michael Kramer’s recent posts about the late-life thought and writings of Christopher Lasch. Shannon finds the late-life conservatism of Lash, with regard to family and skepticism of social change, compelling. That rebuke of Enlightenment rationality and “progress” seems to correlate with conservative sentimentalism from the early American period. Perhaps, as an aside, the roots of late Lasch and Shannon lie in Scottish sentimentalism?

Effects on Mortimer Adler

This political malleability of sentimentalism means, to me, that Mortimer Adler may have, surprisingly and accidentally, imported some sentimentalism into his 1965-70 reconstruction of common sense for mid-twentieth-century liberalism. If Adler imported sentimentalism, it might be seen in his naturalistic assumptions about the given-ness of the common good. He explicitly based his common-sense moral thinking on Aristotle’s Ethics, but that doesn’t mean he (or Aristotle) was immune from smuggling in sentimentalist notions about the naturalness people to consider “acts of compassion” and “heartfelt benevolence.” Common sense was about faculties, but there can be little doubt that the sinews of morality bound together the bones of knowledge obtained by those common faculties and experiences.

Dan Wickberg, to his credit, seems to have pointed me in this direction with regard to Adler and common sense (in a cautionary fashion), when he commented on a July 2011 post of mine that began a four-part exploration of the roots and traits of Adler’s philosophy of common sense. Dan emphasized the distinction between a common sense that pretends toward common notions of morality and common sense that focuses on human faculties (how we absorb and process the outside world). But Dan also hinted and connections between the two. I remember noting Dan’s comment. But because I knew little about sentimentalism at the time, I didn’t know what exactly to do with his points in my evolving thoughts about Adler’s common-sense liberalism.

These connections are not perfect in relation to Adler. Of course it is true that Adler would have rejected the anti-rationalism inherent in sentimentalism. He was more than willing to scrutinize and search for the rational roots of moral philosophy and ethics, as they had developed in history. All morality wasn’t simply a given condition for Adler. But his thinking still had some deep assumptions that seem to rely on givens about human nature (i.e. the desirability of the common good and the wide accessibility of common experiences).


Even apart from Adler and my own work on him, am I wrong in wondering, when I hear yet another conservative call for a return to the rational principles of America’s founders—enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—whether those conservative critics have properly understood the role of sentimentalism (of compassion, empathy, and benevolence) in late eighteenth-century thinking? Have those critics remembered only their Locke at the expense of the sentimentalism in Jefferson, or only half remembered the writings of Adam Smith? And when those with a fetish for the founders quote Thomas Paine, are they remembering that Paine’s vision of “the natural order of things” involved a social harmony that depended on sentimental moral theory?

This reflection began with the virtues of broad and continual reading. My point was to show that the connections scholars make don’t end with their books. Monographs, articles, and scholarship ought always, despite their formal sounding names, to be thought of as conversation starters rather than the end all one’s thought on a subject. As such, my thinking about Adler the the great books idea are still evolving. I’m making new connections with every new book and article read, whether that reading is in history, philosophy, theory, or just the news.

And this is the beauty of work in the academy, when the academy is working properly that is. In the security of a position wherein one teaches and conducts research, with the protection of academic freedom, the scholar can continue to make connections—to grow her or his work. It becomes a benevolent friend. The threads and stories spun are heartfelt, and given to the community’s fund of common good. In this way all scholarship is sentimentalist, and rooted in broad reading that embeds one’s subjects in the larger tapestry of knowledge.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is definitely a thought-provoking post. I think what most caught my eye was the ideas of sentimentality and common sense and their relation to mid-20th century liberalism. I’m curious to see what others have to say about this–but there’s a great deal to digest here! Which I definitely like.

    • Thanks Robert! I’m pleased to have had at least one reader (or skimmer!) on this long meandering post. I’m interested in the longue durée of ideas, when I can actually see the connecting threads. In this case, I wish I had more time to consider the connection between sentimentalism and the philosophy of common sense. That’s not to say, however, that even if I had made the connection, it would’ve made it into the manuscript. I might have worked it all out, but still had to exclude it for space considerations. For instance, a lot of what I put into those four posts from the summer of 2011 just didn’t make the cut (though some significant parts did). Again, thanks for checking out the post. – TL

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