U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Makes a Book Fall into Obscurity?

What makes a book fall into obscurity? Not the normal obscurity that most once popular books face, only to be kept alive by historians like us.  Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Looking Backward, I’ll Take My Stand, The Lonely Crowd, Silent Spring, and The Closing of the American Mind no longer enjoy the broad readerships that they received at the time they were written, but they live on among intellectual historians and our students.  I’m asking about the deeper obscurity faced by some once popular or intellectually significant works that even U.S. intellectual historians don’t much discuss.

The book I’ve recently started thinking about that has raised this question is the philosopher F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding.

Filmer Stuart Cuckow Northrop (he understandably went by his initials) had been chair of the Philosophy Department at Yale and was the first Master of Silliman College. At the time of its publication in 1946, The Meeting of East and West made this already successful philosopher famous beyond his field and beyond the academy.  In Meeting, Northrop argues that the post-war world is marked by profound ideological divisions. Though one of these is the split between capitalism and communism, the most salient and profound division, according to Northrop, is that between the Occident and the Orient.  These divisions, Northrop argues, are first and foremost ideological, and must be resolved at the level of philosophy before they can be resolved in practice. Luckily, Northrop thinks, the solution to the principal division of East and West will also resolve the other divisions, including that between communism and capitalism.  In Northrop’s view, the West is essentially theoretical in its approach to the world, while the East is essentially aesthetic.  By creating a new ideology that merges these two approaches the great divisions of the world can be bridged.

The Meeting of East and West was widely reviewed across many academic disciplines and attracted the attention of a variety of thinkers whose fame has survived longer than Northrop’s. Alfred Kroeber reviewed the book for The American Anthropologist. Though critical of many aspects of the work, he praised Northrop for being “the first philosopher, at any rate among Anglo-Saxons, who has troubled really to concern himself with culture in the concrete.”  Eric Voegelin reviewed Meeting in Social Research (Voegelin compares Northrop  to Henry Adams, but he doesn’t mean the comparison as a compliment). Merle Curti reviewed the book for the Pacific Historical Review, calling the book a “major accomplishment,” expressing the hope that many historians would “read and ponder it,“ but arguing that “[i]t would have been preferable had this gifted and learned writer brought to bear in his analyses and recommendations more of the data and approach of the social scientist in general and of the historian and anthropologist in particular.” James Burnham reviewed the book for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Calling Meeting a work of an “average but active intelligence,” Northrop Frye, writing in Canadian Forum, admired some aspects of the book, but largely worried that it reflects an unearned American utopian one-worldism:

I imagine that whenever an Oriental philosopher tries to tell us about his Tao, his Citta, his Nirvana, or his Brahman, he is also telling us, in Eastern language, that an intellectual and cultural synthesis which gets everything in and reconciles everyone with everyone else is an attempt to build the Tower of Babel, and will lead to confusion of utterance. He may be wrong, but Professor Northrop will never catch him in his made-in-U.S.A. net, however skillfully he throws it.

But the book received its most positive reception in the general-interest press. “Here is one of the most provocative, penetrating, and thrilling deployments of philosophical insight that has come to light in a generation,” declared Ordway Tead in the Saturday Review.  Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Howard Mumford Jones called The Meeting “great, difficult and important,” and declared that it was the “most important intellectual event in the United States thus far in 1946.”

Although the emerging Cold War would make the East – West division perhaps seem less salient that Northrop argued in 1946, the philosopher seems to have remained a significant public intellectual for several years. His 1952 book The Taming of the Nations: A Study of the Cultural Basis of International Policy was similarly aimed at a broad audience, though it received much less attention than Meeting.  And as late as 1961, then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara declared that The Meeting of East and West was one of his three favorite books, along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Toynbee’s A Study of History.

But in later years, the fame of Northrop and his book waned.  If you’ve heard of The Meeting of East and West, it’s likely due to the impression the book made on another, less famous (at the time at least) reader.  Returning on a troopship from Korea in 1948 (before the War), Pfc Robert Pirsig read Northrop’s book, which made a deep impression on him.  It would later be one of the principal influences on his best-selling 1974 novel Zen and Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Though significantly better known today than Northrop’s Meeting of East and West, Pirsig’s novel is also not the sort of text that intellectual historians have taken seriously (though Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen has argued pretty convincingly that we should).

And Northrop’s book remains absent from most discussions of American thought in the 1940s.  The Meeting of East and West goes unmentioned in what I think of as the foundational general intellectual histories of late 1940s America: Richard Pells’s The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age and  William Graebner’s Age of Doubt, though Graebner quotes Northrop from a different work on the role of science in society.  Northrop is also absent from Bruce Kuklick’s History of Philosophy in America.

Why haven’t we given Northrop and his book more attention?

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Why haven’t we given Northrop and his book more attention?

    Not familiar with the tome, Ben. You seem to have put your answer in the form of your question, though. 😉

    The Meeting of East and West was widely reviewed across many academic disciplines and attracted the attention of a variety of thinkers whose fame has survived longer than Northrop’s. Alfred Kroeber reviewed the book for The American Anthropologist. Though critical of many aspects of the work, he praised Northrop for being “the first philosopher, at any rate among Anglo-Saxons, who has troubled really to concern himself with culture in the concrete.” Eric Voegelin reviewed Meeting in Social Research (Voegelin compares Northrop to Henry Adams, but he doesn’t mean the comparison as a compliment). Merle Curti reviewed the book for the Pacific Historical Review, calling the book a “major accomplishment,” expressing the hope that many historians would “read and ponder it,“ but arguing that “[i]t would have been preferable had this gifted and learned writer brought to bear in his analyses and recommendations more of the data and approach of the social scientist in general and of the historian and anthropologist in particular.” James Burnham reviewed the book for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Calling Meeting a work of an “average but active intelligence,” Northrop Frye, writing in Canadian Forum, admired some aspects of the book, but largely worried that it reflects an unearned American utopian one-worldism*:

    But the book received its most positive reception in the general-interest press.

    BF mine. It’s all there. To the matter:

    In Meeting, Northrop argues that the post-war world is marked by profound ideological divisions. Though one of these is the split between capitalism and communism, the most salient and profound division, according to Northrop, is that between the Occident and the Orient. These divisions, Northrop argues, are first and foremost ideological, and must be resolved at the level of philosophy before they can be resolved in practice.

    The first axiom is that “Every man has an idea that will not work.” As opposed to a posteriori proofs of what works [good ideas], there is an infinity of a priori ideas that do not [bad ideas].

    As it turns out, the “Orient” of Northrop’s 1946 is now grabbing the rope of economic liberty and the human potential just as the well-fed Occident is asking, “Is that all there is?”

    And the “Muslim world” pretty much blows here in the 21stC, but in another 1000 years, just as it was 1000 years ago, it might be the only decent place to be, the only place outside of Huxley’s brave new world.

    ___________

    *”Utopian one-worldism–the Universal and Homogeneous State of Fukuyama’s End of History and Chayefsky’s Network, that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality? One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused?

    What’s not to like?

  2. Ben, you make the book sound quite intriguing, so I looked it up on Google Scholar, which has a convenient (though almost certainly incomplete) option to view what has cited any individual work. And looking there actually gives a very interesting perspective on what one might mean by “obscurity”–Meeting has, unless Google’s making this up to mess with me, been cited by 213 articles or books just between 1990 and 2013, with 138 of those between 2000 and 2013! This one, for instance, looks pretty interesting, even if it only has a few paragraphs on Northrop. But generally what I’m seeing is an incredible eclecticism, ranging from hard political science to what might be considered New Age lit–but all very far from US intellectual history.

    Obviously some books really do disappear, but I wonder often the books we presume to have fallen into obscurity live on quite healthily like this one, but in places we probably would never encounter?

    • Andrew: I think you can always find a cult following for an author, particularly in the Age of the Internet! I’ve seen this with M.J. Adler. Obscurity definitely does not mean lost in our new electronic information ecology.

      An obscurity does not mean less meaningful. Intellectual historians, on that note, routinely deal in works that would be defined as obscure by others. It’s in the nature of the field. – TL

    • Andrew: I think you can always find a cult following for an author, particularly in the Age of the Internet! I’ve seen this with M.J. Adler. Obscurity definitely does not mean lost in our new electronic information ecology.

      And obscurity does not mean less meaningful. Intellectual historians, on that note, routinely deal in works that would be defined as obscure by others. It’s in the nature of the field. – TL

      • Tim,
        A cult following is not actually what is going on here, though. There is quite a range of scholarly literature from the past 10 or 20 years that clearly has some memory of–and some use for–Northrop: it’s not just one of those geocities sites dedicated to an obscure figure (as I’m sure we’ve all run into!).

        My question was not really, “Can anyone ever truly be obscure?” but rather, what does the fact that Northrop does have a current scholarly presence but not one in US intellectual history tell us about the limits and grooves of our field? Perhaps that is what Ben was asking originally, but I think it is a question which is sharpened by the evidence that Northrop is still being cited relatively voluminously.

      • That’s what I took you as saying, Andrew! I should have sharpened my question exactly as you suggest: Northrop is missing from the U.S. intellectual history canon, but is far from entirely absent from scholarly discussion. I really didn’t mean to suggest that he was totally absent, but he may loom larger in other quarters than I suggested. I do think that the mere number of citations doesn’t entirely tell us how closely someone is being read or how living his or her work is.

  3. Dear Ben,

    Thanks for this great post and for bringing Northrop into the discussion. I would love to see more of a discussion of his work on this blog, as well as others in ’40s who are difficult to characterize easily — Alain Locke at Howard University, and Charles W. Morris at University of Chicago, for instance. Morris’ work in semiotics (an attempt to link pragmatism to logical empiricism) shared much in common with Northrop’s, and the two were friends. Arguably, Morris was more of a central figure in the ’40s debates.

    I’ve done some work on Northrop over the past few years, and he plays a central role in my current article on Yale University’s curriculum debates of the ’40s, which I presented at USIH in November. As I said during the Q&A period, he’s a fascinating figure who was involved in some of the major movements of the 20th century — symbolic logic (he studied at Harvard in the ’20s with Henry Scheffer), cybernetics (he was the only philosopher invited to the Cybernetics Group), and, of course, East-West philosophical synthesis. He was also a good friend of Einstein, and a key feature of The Meeting of East and West was Northrop’s attempt to use Einstein’s philosophy of science to both understand and resolve world ideological differences. This is actually more convincing and intriguing then it sounds (but still a bit nutty!)

    I think it’s important, too, to place Northrop and the Meeting of East and West in the larger curriculum battles of the ’20’s, ’30s, and 40s, which Andrew Jewett has tackled in his book. Northrop was overall a kind of marginal figure in these debates, always hovering around but never quite understood or totally taken seriously. My article about the Yale debates places him on the losing end over a battle about the nature of the humanities. He remained an important public intellectual after the late ’40s but lost much of his stature in the humanities circles, which might have contributed to his invisibility today.

    There were also political and religious battles involved — Northrop wanted to subsume Communism in his theoretical system, among other potential contentious issues. His grand ambitions at ideological consensus also seemed far less likely, at the beginning of the Cold War, even if those like McNamara could claim him as a favorite.

    There are other fascinating connections – Northrop taught James Jesus Angelton, the CIA figure, as well as George Bush the first.

    Finally, I think one major reason why intellectual historians have not treated Northrop is the tendency for intellectual historians to avoid the history of science and philosophy of science in their archival choices. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for this. But Northrop was primarily a philosopher of science — very broadly conceived.

    I’d be interested in chatting more as I would love to bring more attention to this figure. No biography has ever been written, and some of his views (especially his critiques, perhaps not his solutions) need further attention. In my mind, he is one of the few intellectuals of the 20th century to diagnose some of the problems of cross-cultural understanding, treating them as basically epistemological and historical rather than as ideological. Again, that is not an apology for his prescriptions, which were quite conservative and rationalist and religiously-motivated.

    Bryan

    • Thanks so much for this, Bryan. I’m planning to give a paper on The Meeting of East and West at the SAAP conference next year. I’d love to see your stuff on Northrop.

      In the introduction to Meeting , Northrop actually credits Angleton (who was an undergrad student of Northrop’s) with planting the seed of the book’s argument in his mind.

      Your thoughts about the reasons for Northrop being an intellectual orphan seem very sensible to me. In certain ways his project in Meeting reminds me of Ernst Cassirer’s. Cassirer had himself, in a sense, already become a kind of philosophical dead-end in continental philosophy. (Northrop actually mentions Cassirer in passing as one of many people he sees as working on similar issues).

      • Yes, and the two were intimately familiar – Cassirer was at Yale from ’41 – ’44 and worked with Northrop and Charles Hendel. But Northrop never really properly credited Cassirer, likely for lingering anti-Semitic sentiments at Yale, I think.

        I’ll plan to be in contact.

    • Mortimer Adler treated East-West problems as *epistemological* in his 1992 book, Truth in Religion. Adler argued, in characteristic form, that it all came down to the East’s rejection of Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction. Sigh.

      Of course, by 1992 Adler was rejected by large segments of the philosophy profession, and the feeling was mutual. I’ll need to check that book again to see if Adler’s referenced Northrop.

  4. Ben,
    I totally agree (and really was just flabbergasted by the number of citations and wanted to share!). I didn’t scan that closely through some of the works citing him, but I bet you’re absolutely right that no one’s reading him with the kind of depth and care that an intellectual historical project allows for.

  5. Interesting but related side note: I’m currently getting back up to speed on a project about the transnational history of the great books idea. Part of that story, from the 1960s, involves M.J. Adler trying to construct an “East-West” Great Books of the World project for Britannica. And, to Ben’s (and Andrew’s and Northrop’s) projects, Adler basically gave up on the East-West Great Books endeavor because he couldn’t come up with (in his mind) a corresponding number of “great ideas” to tie the world set of books together in a new “Syntopicon” (think: history of ideas). This blog is helping me because I never quite understood, or had not tried to understand, the significance of Adler’s “East-West” terminological choice. – TL

    PS: My apologies if I’ve brought up this topic before at the blog.

    • Do you know anything about St. Johns College’s decision in the early ’90s to create a Classics of the East graduate program at their Santa Fe campus, Tim?

    • Adler basically gave up on the East-West Great Books endeavor because he couldn’t come up with (in his mind) a corresponding number of “great ideas” to tie the world set of books together in a new “Syntopicon” (think: history of ideas).

      Fascinating, Captain. Dovetails a bit with a Bloom quote someone just sent me:

      Blockquote>”Nietzsche was a cultural relativist, and he saw what that means– war, great cruelty rather than great compassion. War is the fundamental phenomenon on which peace can sometimes be forced, but always in the most precarious way. Liberal democracies do not fight wars with one another because they see the same human nature and the same rights applicable everywhere and to everyone.

      Cultures fight wars with one another. They must do so because values can only be asserted or posited by overcoming others, not by reasoning with them. Cultures have different perceptions, which determine what the world is. They cannot come to terms. There is no communication about the highest things. (Communication is the substitute for understanding when there is no common world men share, to which they can refer when they misunderstand one another. From the isolation of the closed systems of self and culture, there are attempts to ‘get in contact,’ and ‘failures of communication.’ How individuals and cultures can ‘relate’ to one another is altogether a mysterious business.) Culture means a war against chaos and a war against other cultures. The very idea of culture carries with it a value: man needs culture and must do what is necessary to create and maintain cultures. There is no place for a theoretical man to stand. To live, to have any inner substance, a man must have values, must be committed, or engage. Therefore a cultural relativist must care for culture more than truth, and fight for culture while knowing it is not true.”

      There is no common ground between the cultures, no grand synthesis possible.

  6. I’ve always had this idea for a feature/column for the blog in which formerly prominent books are taken down from the shelf, dusted off, and exposed to the light once more. I’m not sure how one defines “formerly prominent” or “fallen into obscurity,” but we all know that there are books that used to be a big deal but for whatever reason aren’t now. Or to put it another way, books that our professors had to read in graduate school.

    The AHR has had a feature for the last couple of years called “In Back Issues” in which is the conents of three or four previous issues of the AHR are discussed. Often it’s the most interesting thing in the issue. (I kid, I kid. Mostly.) For some reason it’s not in the latest issue, which I have on my desk next to me. I hope they haven’t discontinued it.

    At any rate, I think it’d be interesting to do something like that here. As I say, we can all think of books like that – the scholarly equivalent of distant relatives or ancestors, once young and vibrant and setting academe on fire, but now living out a quiet senescence in a retirement home. They don’t have to be history books, either. The old fossil Ben dug up isn’t history, but it fits. I think. Forgotten, neglected, obscure; call ’em what you will. But one thing’s sure, libraries woudn’t be so large if so many books didn’t become one or all of those things.

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