U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kathryn Lofton’s Interview and Intellectual History: A Forum

Dear USIH Readers: The compelling interview that Cara Burnidge did with Kathryn Lofton, who will give the keynote at the 2014 S-USIH conference in Indianapolis, relates to some of the central, long-running debates about intellectual history. I would like to draw your attention to two points that Lofton made in particular:

1) “It is only if Intellectual History proves that the intellectual is not an exclusive category — that is, if it proves that its premise is not a mere matter of expertise, but a practice of life shared by all — that it gains significance.”

2) “The cultural turn included, as one of its worst habits, a kind of reflexive populist snobbery toward Intellectual History, and this diminished enormously the intellectual consequence of many works that could have been better if only they hadn’t been so frightened of being associated with ideas (as opposed to movements, practices, habits, affects, or modalities).”

I posted the interview at my Facebook page, which then led to an interesting and friendly debate about the purpose of intellectual history. A few of us decided it would be better to carry this debate over to the blog, where more readers, including hopefully Lofton, can respond. I have asked those who participated in the Facebook debate to replicate and add to their responses here. But by all means everyone is welcome to chime in. I’d like this to be an open forum on Lofton’s interview, a discussion that will hopefully carry over to her keynote in October.

Lofton’s interview was fairly representative of the type of intellectual history I do. Which is not to say I would exclude other types that are equally valuable. I originally thought the two passages that I quoted above were contradictory, but the more I thought about it, I decided the two points are only incompatible if we don’t think ideas, even at their most sophisticated, are something everybody can relate to in some fashion. I’m interested in the way intellectual discourses loop in and out of more popular, political discourses, and how each set of discourses is changed by such interactions. This seems consistent with Lofton’s approach, as she articulated it in this interview. This is not to obliterate all distinction, but to recognize the blurriness of such distinctions, particularly in late-twentieth-century American culture, when it was less and less possible to hold onto “high,” “middle,” and “low” cultural and intellectual distinctions, and when academia was more and more intertwined with popular and political culture.

Your thoughts? Let’s go.

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A similar debate occurred at the AHA session on intellectual history.

    Many of us — like Lofton — want to challenge the reservation of the category of “intellectual” to a certain (elite) class of human activity, on the grounds that all human activity is reflective, and it is even possible that the ideas of a fairly serious intellectual calibre help constitute the social order even for non-intellectuals. And I completely agree with Lofton that it was just accidental and misguided for both “social” and “cultural” history to be so suffused by their famous animus for intellectual history. (For further thoughts, see my “Imaginary Intellectual History,” in the new *Modern European Intellectual History* volume OUP just published: http://global.oup.com/academic/product/rethinking-modern-european-intellectual-history-9780199769247).

    That said, this emerging position does raise serious difficulties. For one thing, it seems bizarre to describe intellectual history merely as the study of “people thinking” — as I heard Dan Rodgers describe the field at a recent Cambridge conference that will give rise to a parallel state of the art volume for US intellectual history. (Who doesn’t think?) It seems to me that the emerging generalization of ideas to society has to take place on other terms than just abolishing the border between high and low.

    For another thing, intellectual history exists in our academic culture as the study of books and thinkers, though there are always going to be debates about which books and thinkers are worth studying, let alone canonical. If so, the generalization of the ideational beyond “intellectuals” poses an existential threat to intellectual history — for better or worse.


    • Sam, I’d like to take up a couple of points you make here. I think we can agree that intellectual history can neither be the study of everything thought on any given topic nor can it be the endless parsing of epistemological debates over how we can know what we know about a certain topic. What you seem to suggest, and I like to hear more from you on it, is that intellectual historians seek those points of intersection between ideas developed through privileged books and among privileged intellects and the moments where we can identify some level of popular engagement or promulgation of those ideas. While seeking these points, though, intellectual historians try not to imagine that the only ideas worth studying are those developed by a relatively stable category of thinker and literature. In other words, we need to be aware that those we often privilege were receivers of ideas as well as generators of ideas. It seems to me that we can often see this relationship play out in religion when we contrast theology and faith; or in concepts such as peace, human rights, freedom of expression–all of which can be theorized in minute ways but have reflection in and are a reflection of the lived experience.

  2. (I’m re-posting from the FB page in an effort to loosely recreate that thread):

    Andrew, is there any way to read the interview so that the two statements you highlight – which are the ones that stood out to me too – don’t seem to contradict each other, the former stealing all the power from the latter?

    • As I responded to Ben in our earlier debate (and as I indicated in my introductory remarks): I see what you mean, Ben. I originally had a similar reaction, but decided that the two arguments are only incompatible if you don’t think ideas, even at their most sophisticated, are something everybody can relate to in some fashion.

  3. I was also nonplussed by Lofton’s casual dismissal as “undemocratic” of the scholarship of a whole series of luminaries in the field. (Full disclosure: she specifically named both my undergraduate and my graduate advisors.)

    To me the “tel”l that this represented an pleasant form of 90s-style academic identity politics was her “gentle” parenthetical aside that these were all men. First off, who cares that they’re men (or that they’re all white, which I was surprised that she didn’t mention, since it would have been of a piece)? Who is gently” essentializing whom, here? The “gentler sex”?!

    Second of all, even if we do care, what sort of “gentle” historiographical cherry picking is that? Just focusing on that cohort; is Lofton’s compulsion to play the gender card so strong that it justifies writing Dorothy Ross and Susan Buck-Morss (to name but two) out of the historiography of that generation of intellectual historians? Or, alternately, are we only going to accuse scholars of being undemocratic if they are (white) men? Can’t we save a little powder for Gertrude Himmelfarb?

    • Nils: It’s not like it’s some hidden secret that most intellectual historians have been men. No matter what we think about that fact, it is a fact. Lofton merely pointed to the elephant in the room.

      That said, it is possible to make distinctions between some of the intellectual historians Lofton cites in her interview. I tried to do this by mapping out our sub-field for my students a few months ago. Go here for the photo of my map.

  4. Andrew, as I responded on FB, the two might not be incompatible on theoretical terms, but we don’t live in a purely theoretical world. I think many of us (echoing Sam’s above comment here) can sympathize with Lofton’s desire to connect the productions of American cultural life with those of American intellectual life, always bearing in mind the grey zone between them. We’ve all seen attempts (Gramscian among others, and I also like Collini’s approach) to think of ideas as things everyone has or can relate to. I’d suggest that the incompatibility or compatibility of #1 and #2 can’t be adjudicated on purely theoretical terms, however, because they reflect such different valences of concern. But this dances around an issue we’ve already debated at USIH before, namely what counts as intellectual history and what doesn’t. I’m troubled by the tension between #1 and #2 because I sense in it a desire to make intellectual history expansive in ways that threaten what I construe as its basic terms of coherence.

  5. Reposted:

    There has been an unfolding conversation on Facebook about Kathryn Lofton’s intriguing interview, much of it centered around two potentially contradictory ideas that she puts forward. These are, as identified and quoted by Andrew Hartman:

    1) “It is only if Intellectual History proves that the intellectual is not an exclusive category — that is, if it proves that its premise is not a mere matter of expertise, but a practice of life shared by all — that it gains significance.”

    2) “The cultural turn included, as one of its worst habits, a kind of reflexive populist snobbery toward Intellectual History, and this diminished enormously the intellectual consequence of many works that could have been better if only they hadn’t been so frightened of being associated with ideas (as opposed to movements, practices, habits, affects, or modalities).”

    These two quotations generated debate about whether they were paradoxical—the first gesturing to a populist democratization that Lofton suggests is still required in intellectual history; the second seeming to take almost the opposite position as a critique of the populist anti-intellectualism Lofton views as present in historical inquiry after the cultural turn. Is there a need for still more democratization in the study of the intellect across broad sections of society (quotation one) or is there a need to recover intellectual life even if it exists at elite levels (quotation two?)? The debate touched on earlier debates and discussions on the topic of intellectual history’s boundaries that have occurred on this blog; and perhaps it also broke new ground (I’ll leave that judgment to others).
    In any event, as requested by USIH’s fearless leaders here are my comments, transported through the magic of cut and paste from Facebook to the original USIH blog post comments section.

    Note that these will read a bit out of context until the other commentators on Facebook (hopefully) post their engagements with Kathryn’s interview. But for now, here’s what I had to say:

    Comment #1:
    To me what Kathryn doesn’t say, though I suspect she’d agree, is that intellectual history, at its best, has sophisticated and nuanced modes of addressing the very (vexing) question of how ideas, power, equality, and hierarchy relate to each other.

    Comment #2:
    This is quickly written, so subject to tweaking and clarification (and continued critique and debate), but I think there are three positions lurking here: one is Nils’s and Ben’s insistence that we draw strong boundaries between thinkers who approach ideas in systematic ways (Kant) vs. the surfacing of ideas in other forms (poor Honey Boo-Boo, once again!)–in this position, so far as I can tell, one of the fears is that it’s a slippery slope from Honey Boo-Boo and Oprah to Roger Ailes, Zhadanov, and Goebbels as intellectuals; the second position is the one that Kathryn at once gestures toward and criticizes–she is arguing that intellectual history needs at once to be democratized in its sensitivity to the intellect in play across many settings, both systematic and less worked out, while at the same time she wants the field to avoid adopting reflex populist positions that are glibly and simplistically populist and anti-intellectual (I’m more in this camp, though I am willing to listen carefully to the concerns raised by Nils and Ben and others); the third position is an important one–to me it is that we can grant that there are different levels of systematic intellectual reasoning, but that there are also complex intersections among these levels of systematic thinking and more loose and even dodgy surfacings of intellectual activity (again Kant vs. Oprah), and that sometimes it indeed takes not a scalpel to discern them but rather new, more subtle ways of thinking about the intellect and how it moves around, cross-cuts boundaries; in other words to make the very kinds of moral and ethical inquiries that Ben sand Nils call for, to distinguish between, say, the intellectual (and ideological) workings of Oprah and that of Ailes (Goebbels, come on!) without falling back on hierarchies that seem, in their way, to reinforce other kinds of social, political, cultural inequalities that really are just elitist.

    Comment #3:
    PS Maybe position two and three are the same in the above?

    Comment #4:
    I think Ben makes a good point. We’re discussing all thus in the provisional space of interviews and Facebook posts. So all is understood as dialogue and (if Nils will grant us this! That’s a joke) *unsystematic* exploration of ideas Kathryn broached, ideas that continue long-running debates in usih land about the contours of intellectual history.


    • Michael, just to your last point here, yes, I thought it appropriate to comment that Lofton was being interviewed and we perhaps shouldn’t hold an interview to the same high standards of internal consistency we might apply to, say, an essay. On the other hand, one could also say that interviews are great places to observe people’s less intentional, more “symptomatic’ and thus especially revealing utterances. I’m just not enjoying the symptom du jour.

  6. I do not want to be overly critical of a first engagement with the S-USIH community, but the following from Lofton tweaked my USIH elitism radar:
    “And I tend to think that the “why” is the intervention of the intellectual remarking upon the abstractions of the case. This is, to me, intellectual history, U.S. and not. It is the prompt to think conceptually about the case. And everyone, even if they slug in the material facts of labor history, should be in partial service to that command.”
    Although this is only a slice of her entire dialogue, it seems to forward a thesis that intellectual history—inasmuch as it imitates the highest of intellectual activities—serves as the queen of the historical subdisciplines. I do not offer this as a positive, but I’m also unsure how negatively I should view the substance of the final statement (i.e. “everyone…should be in partial service to that command”).

    Did anyone else notice this? Am I reading too much into a potential casual aside, or is it a provocation of substance? – TL

    • Tim —

      I think this is a useful line of inquiry in that it registers the ways that intellectual history must deal at a more developed level with the interplay between concepts that structured past worlds of thought (“communities of discourse”), efforts by those in the past to shape those concepts (whether systematically or not, Kant or that old philosopher that Nils loves so much, Honey Boo-Boo), and the concepts we as historians are using to examine the past. Other historical subfields often begin with fixed categories of correlation and causality, yes? Political history matters because here is where the change happened, labor history mattered because Marx said it does. When those fields shift to the territory of probing the concepts of cause and correlation, of “structuring structures” of thought that matter as much as externalized forces (market forces, legislative maneuverings, etc.), they are borrowing from intellectual history.

      I didn’t say this first, by the way—to me, Warren Susman makes this point (especially about the interplay between the worldview of the past and the historian’s contemporary assumptions) in _Culture as History_. Oh wait, that’s cultural history, not intellectual history. I’m in trouble again Anyway, he’s not the first to draw our attention to this issue either. He got it from critical theory, philosophy, and other traditionally intellectual historical fields I think.

      Thanks for directing our attention to this passage in Lofton’s interview.


  7. You can treat everything as intellectual history equally, but you can’t treat everything equally as intellectual history.

  8. One of the things I find interesting here is the rather loose notion of democratic as simply more inclusive – that intellectual history would be more democratic if it included more sites of thought. II don’t quite follow that, but it is something that is certainly not confined to this thread. I would actually say that the most robust and critical engagements with democracy come from working with and through the texts of those we would think of as intellectuals – I have in mind, at the moment, Claude Lefort and Jacques Ranciere.

    I’m sympathetic to questioning the policing of disciplinary and subdisciplinary boundaries, but I don’t know that that is democratic…

    • Well put Brian. There is a difference between thinking through democracy as something different—perhaps even more—than just populist equality. The quality of the equality in democracy matters, right?

  9. Very interesting discussion (and Cara’s interview with Lofton was great and provocative, too). Let me throw another wrench into the distinction between the two quotations from the interview, since most of the discussion has focused on the populist/elitist implications of thinking about intellectual history one way or the other. What I was struck with is that the first quotation defines the object of intellectual historical study in terms of “a practice of life,” and the second in terms of “ideas”. The first pushes us to conceptualize intellectual history as the study of people thinking, the second to conceptualize it as the history of thought worlds. I think intellectual historians do both things, but I tend to favor the second, since it answers the kinds of questions I’m interested in (I’m not sure at this point that I can defend it better than that!). The first pushes us toward motives and actions of historically situated actors–it considers thinking as an action in response to a variety of conditions and concrete circumstances, but it is not as concerned with the close analysis of thought and its coherence (or lack of coherence), but rather what thinking _does_. The latter pushes us more toward close attention to ideational formations, both in terms of their content and form. The proponents of the former tend to think of the latter as “disembodied” intellectual history; proponents of the latter think of the former as concerned with extra-intellectual motives and causes as the expense of understanding the content of ideas. Note that the distinction I’m suggesting here bisects the popular/elite, culture/canon types of distinctions and is not necessarily lined up one way or another with those distinctions.

    Also: those defenders of a boundary between the kinds of texts that are the proper object of intellectual (vs. cultural) history are often forced to invoke criteria like “serious” (as Samuel Moyn does above) or “complex” (as LaCapra, for instance, has done), terms which themselves appear to beg the question. Sometimes the distinction is between “formal argument” and “informal writing”. In any case, it calls for greater definition than is normally given.

    • Dan —

      As usual this is provocative and downright radically useful for rethinking some of the still relevant but perhaps slightly stale dimensions of the current conversation about populist/elitist tendencies in intellectual (or not-intellectual) history.

      My question is about the latter approach you mention—”the history of thought worlds.” How would you distinguish (or not) between the ideological and the ideational?

      I ask because it strikes me that lingering in the background of this conversation are recent engagements with and critiques of current turns in American studies and cultural studies on this blog and at the USIH conference. Would it be fair to say that American studies/cultural studies as “the Other” to US intellectual history (as Am Studies and Cult Studies have occasionally been positioned on this blog and elsewhere) tends to privilege the unmasking of *ideology* at work in things that seem, on the surface, to be unideological or at the very least unconcerned with a consistent ideological positions (well, I supposed that is the very definition of ideology in the Marxist use of the term!). Whereas you use the term “ideational,” which opens up other notions of ideas at work and at play with a force in social worlds that is different from a focus on “the history of people thinking,” though in shifting from people to ideas, it does seem to come into contact with a more stinging focus on ideology rather than the ideational, right?

      Wait, have you broached this distinction/intersection before? I’m very interested in the ideational as a slightly different approach to unsystematized, informal moments of ideas at work and in play as compared to the ideological, with all sorts of implications there for how we think about ideas and power, ideas and democratic engagements of various sorts, ideas and their “seriousness” and “complexity” as compared to their imposition of other forces (economic, political, hegemonic, patriarchal, racialized, heteronormative, etc.) through the use of the intellect. Does the ideational give us a more supple way of working through ideas and power while the ideological approach essentially closes down explanatory possibilities before one even starts with its assumptions not of how ideology works, but rather of where and from whom it emanates?

      Best, Michael

      • Michael–
        Thanks for the questions, which I can perhaps gesture at answering, although they are big questions. The distinction I would make between the ideological and the ideational, as you suggest, depends upon what definition and understanding of ideology you are relying on. The Marxist tradition invokes a notion of ideology that is premised on the idea that the function of ideas is to legitimate or promote existing power relations, and therefore tends to see ideas as either sources of obfuscation that need to be demystified or as means for achieving political ends. I think also of Daniel Bell who, even as he moved away from Marxism, maintained the idea that ideologies were the basis for converting ideas into actions, or were “levers” or instruments of power. In this tradition, a big distinction between ideas and ideologies. Geertz, on the other hand, in his “ideology as a cultural system,” converted the notion of ideology to something that looked more like Weber’s webs of signification, a kind of mental map of the world that defined reality. I guess when I say “ideational” I’m thinking about something more like Geertzian ideology. But I would agree with the general point that you seem to be pointing to–those who are concerned with the uses of ideas–with praxis– tend to think of ideas as ideologies in the Marxian sense; those who are interested in analyzing ideational worlds as systems of ideas in their relationship to one another tend to be interested in more than the instrumental use of ideas. Whether this maps onto the American/Cultural Studies vs. Intellectual History distinction is, I think, an open question, because there are many intellectual historians who subscribe to the view that thinking is important precisely to the extent that it serves the ends of something defined prior to thought (e.g. social and political ends, legitimating or challenging existing relations, as an expression of class, race, or gender position, etc.). Big questions for a blog comment, so my apologies that I can’t get deeper into it here.

      • Dan —

        Thanks for delving into the big questions. Aren’t they, in the end, always the best ones, even when squeezed into the small space of blog comment boxes and even when they do bring us circling back to terrain that feels well trod?

        I am with you on drawing from Geertzian explorations of ideology as cultural system writ on the surfaces of life. This seems to me always useful to put in dialogue with (vulgar?) Marxist notions of ideology as mystification, as merely a cover or front for other “deeper” “truer” “realer” causal factors (economic, political, social).

        Here you seem to have in mind the idea of ideas as things themselves, moving in and across and through life, operating with a causal power of their own. This perspective often seems so fragile in most popular (and academic) discourse about history. But I’m with you: it’s good to locate ideas as forces in the world, to see them and give them their due.

        Not that we’re in some Hegelian land here of ideas guiding all. Rather that we’ll need, as so many theories of culture are at pains to point out, to keep in balance the times when ideas are doing different things in the world, when, on the one hand, they are generating, shaping, pushing, and pulling people, when they are in fact engines of history, and, on the other, when they dissolve, like mist, revealing other structures. The always-easy intellectual payoff is to claim one is seeing through the fog of ideas to other, supposedly sturdier, rockier structures, whether those be the means of production or personal motives or identities fixed in the social strata. The more honest approach to me is the one you suggest: to pay attention to ideas as dynamic energies in the world, leaking out like sparks from the worn-down and brittle explanatory infrastructures that often pass for historical explanation these days.

        Thanks for broaching these big issues here. Thickly and descriptively (and with a Geertzian wink?),

  10. wow, great discussion.

    I’m glad you pointed out that line. I appreciated reading it in the interview. It’s an important and powerful statement about the value of intellectual history: to bring to the surface and critically examine the theoretical/foundational assumptions behind all historians’ work. I don’t know about the “queen” of sub-disciplines, but I certainly agree that every historian should be “in partial service to that command” to understand the theories and assumptions that direct their questions and arguments. Herein lies the value of intellectual history.

    Lofton does not use the word “undemocratic,” nor is she at all “dismissive” of Miller, Hofstadter, Kloppenberg, Jay, etc. She calls them “brilliant” and says she has been “quite simply floored” by their work. She clearly finds these scholars extremely valuable, but wants to move beyond some of the categories they may have created– beyond, for instance, “ideas” strictly as ideology (Hofstadter) or strictly as formal philosophical inquiry (Kloppenberg) and into the realm of ideas as human reflection on human experience (which is actually a position that Perry Miller took, see the chapter “The Rhetoric of Sensation” in _Errand into the Wilderness_).

    This brings me to a comment I want to make on the question of inconsistency or tension between the two quotations Andrew selected–
    I see absolutely no inconsistency– theoretical or otherwise– in advocating an expansion of the cast of characters of intellectual history on the one hand, and, on the other hand, denouncing an approach that so fears “formal ideas” that it misses opportunities to strengthen arguments or, even worse, fails to understand the “formal ideas” that indeed ground even the least theoretical work (back to the line that Tim highlighted)!

    On the question of “democratization”–
    An expansion of the cast of characters in intellectual history can be democratic (a focus on “the people” in the aggregate or on individuals whose records only happen to survive but who were not and are not public figures), but it doesn’t have to be. Thinking about Bob Dylan as an object of study for intellectual historians expands our notion of what “thinking” is, who a “thinker” is, and where and how ideas are made and communicated. But Bob Dylan is still a white man, and still a public figure. Really, he’s just like Jonathan Edwards. Okay, I’m kidding. In all seriousness, however, I want to point out that Lofton only says democratic/democratization once in the interview, when she argues that historians should retrieve the intellectual “from NYRB stratospheres.” I would caution that a fixation on “democratic” or “anti-democratic” intellectual history is unproductive and reproduces the dichotomy that Lofton– as she expressed in the two, not contradictory, quotations that Andrew selected– seeks to transcend.

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