U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Carl Becker and Disillusionment (Guest Post by Andrew Seal)

(Editor’s Note:  This is the last in a series of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal.  I want to thank him for his terrific contributions to the blog. I hope that this won’t be last we hear from him at USIH! — Ben Alpers)

Try to tell the story of the intellectual transition from Progressivism to Cold War liberalism without using the word “disillusionment.” Can you? The shortest answer to the eternal question, “who were the progressives?” (begging the pardon of Daniel Rodgers, Glenda Gilmore, and their many predecessors) may well be a retroactive one: a progressive is someone who became disillusioned by 1920.

And if we move forward to the birth of neoconservatism, we may only do worse: the famous definition of that intellectual formation is Irving Kristol’s “[A neoconservative] is a liberal mugged by reality.”

Disillusionment is, I will grant, a powerful force in politics and culture, and probably most powerful at the “dark and bloody crossroads” where they meet. Even more powerful, however, is the narrative of disillusionment, the substitution of the muddy waters of indecision with the drier, finer dust of crushed hopes.

Carl Becker retains some place within 20th century US intellectual history because his most famous work, the 1931 presidential address “Everyman His Own Historian,” fits well in a history of historiographical disillusionment with the “noble dream” of historical objectivity and technical disinterestedness. Those who have read his earlier essay, which you can find in its entirety here, titled “Detachment and the Writing of History,” will probably recall it as much of the same—a sameness that is surprising because its date, October 1910, well precedes the timing of epistemic disillusionment we have been led to expect.[1]

It is a fun but maddening essay. It is chockablock with references to a dozen figures, most by last name only, that require a better than intermediate knowledge (and recollection) of European intellectual and political history, and sentences like this—“The remarks of Herbert Spencer in this connection are well known to every one”—are made difficult by Becker’s flattering assumption that they are well known enough not to bother quoting or paraphrasing.[2] But even more perplexing than its allusiveness is its eschewal of formal problems for scenes: a scientist lugging the first volume of the Cambridge Modern History to a forest to read on holiday; a “literary man” with writer’s block poised above a “nice white paper, a good pen, a capital style, every means of saying everything, but nothing to say”; and a number of others.

This rhetorical dramaturgy is effective but risky: Becker is clearly clever enough to keep the whole scene in front of him at all times, but we must keep our eyes very open to do so also.[3] Furthermore, this ventriloquism turns “the historian” into a rather silly figure:

You cannot disconcert the orthodox historian of our day by saying that he has got a mass of facts together without knowing what to do with them: if the truth of them cannot indeed be questioned, he will know very well what to do with them: he will put them in a book.

How very droll! Becker’s strategy, both in his preference for crafting scenes rather than stating problems and in his light raillery, is a precarious performance, easily misunderstood. Scenes are more capable of diverse readings than are formal statements of problems, and wit, particularly in this subtle form, always encourages readers to raise their guard, to read a little harder for the next joke. That concentration can spill over into wariness, and wariness into suspicion: just why is Becker laughing to begin with?

But if Becker’s style and tone put him in frequent danger of being misjudged, some of his philosophical commitments—or, let’s not say commitments, let’s say dispositions—left him almost guaranteed to be misconstrued. Let’s take, for instance, his attitude toward historical facts. Here is what he says in “Detachment” of the orthodox attitude toward how the disinterested intellect encounters facts:

Intelligence, thus reduced to a kind of delicate mechanical instrument, set carefully in a sealed case to protect it from the deflecting influences of environment, we are to suppose capable of acting automatically when brought in contact with objective phenomena. These phenomena—the ‘facts’ of history, for example—come before it, ‘wanting to be known’; it expands itself sensitively, and truth is registered upon its polished surface, as objects are upon a photographic plate.

The touch is light but the smile severe: the scare quotes, the scorpion-tail sting waving over words like “mechanical” and “automatically,” the more obvious smirk in “delicate” and “sealed case”… the message is rendered: this attitude is self-deceiving, arrogant, unreal. Becker picks this up later, but with a more direct rebuttal:

while we speak of historical facts as if they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ‘facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.

Pebbles and photographs—trinkets—such are historical facts! It is easy enough to leave off here: we’ve got the skepticism we came for, the “relativism” we wanted. Becker’s historian, properly undeluded by the phantom dream of detachment, makes her own pebbles and feels not the least bit bad about it.

But one thing jars, a loose thread in the first of these two quotes that evades Becker’s drollery: what is that thought that “the ‘facts’… want to be known” doing there? It is not really tidied up by the photography metaphor—does the object photographed wish to be rendered on film? If so, why do we speak of capturing images or taking pictures? After the second of these two passages, Becker adds, “How, then, are these images formed? Not from the reality directly, for the reality has ceased to exist. But the reality has left certain traces, and these help us to construct the image.” These “certain traces” which “help us,” along with the facts’ unresolved desire “to be known” suggest an agency—inaccessible to us, but detectable—in the “facts,” in the “reality.”

These traces that “want to be known” show up in other places in Becker’s work: “Everyman His Own Historian” is, in a sense, built on them, as the essay’s central drama is about a man who feels a tingling, a fact that is trying to get his attention but which he cannot remember immediately. Becker speaks in an essay conveniently titled “What Are Historical Facts?” (1926) about facts having strings “to innumerable other facts,” a situation which strongly suggests the possibility that in dealing with one “fact,” the historian involuntarily pulls a clump of other facts into her lap, which demand also to be known and—in a word that pops up in this essay and a few others—“affirmed.”

Becker consistently argues that what the historian really deals with when turning over the sources she has assembled are affirmations, not facts. “There is thus a distinction of capital importance to be made: the distinction between the ephemeral event which disappears, and the affirmation about the event which persists. For all practical purposes it is this affirmation about the event that constitutes for us the historical fact.”

“Affirmation” is a curious word: it is not a pessimist’s word, nor a skeptic’s. Becker could have said something along the lines of, “What we deal with are not facts about the past, but admissions of what is sayable about the past.” Or, “we cannot reach the facts; we can only reach our approximations of the facts.” But he chose “affirmation,” and it’s difficult to argue that he did so to confess his fears of history’s futility or inadequacy. In the face of reality’s impalpability, historians affirm rather than concede.

Secondly, “affirmation” suggests a sense of pressure from that impalpable, “disappeared” reality, a sense of what Derrida referred to as an ébranlement, a tremor, something that ripples into us from a distance. Historians know to affirm something because they can feel, not the fact itself, but its tremors. But that also, like those passages above, implies a certain agency to the reality of the past, an impingement or an entailment. Becker may have been reaching avant la lettre toward an object-oriented ontology or affect theory, and there is a way in which this language of facts “wanting to be known” echoes today’s attempts to bring the hauntings of history, the specters of the past, into the pages we write and the lectures we give. This may well be in the spirit of Becker.

That is speculative, but this I think I know: I think this language of affirmation—of assenting to but not conceding the impalpability of reality while simultaneously insisting upon its agency upon us—is what makes Becker, in a sense, our contemporary, ready for a revival. We remember him as a pessimist, a relativist, a cynic, but much of his writing is directed toward finding a way to keep history open to the possibilities of affirmation, in the special sense I’ve tried to outline here.

I say this because affirmation is not merely the opposite of disillusionment: we live, most of us, in a time we are increasingly characterizing by its disillusionment, by what Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism,” but what we need, I think, is not kind optimism, and we certainly do not need illusionment. Perhaps affirmation may do.



[1] Jeff Ludwig left a wonderful comment about his work on Becker on my last post, and was kind enough to share with me an essay he wrote on Becker’s intellectual trajectory. Jeff makes an incredibly strong case for categorizing Becker’s outlook during the 1920s and 1930s as deeply pessimistic, referring to copious letters and essays which support that reading. I would certainly not argue that Becker was an optimist during these years, but I would argue that Becker’s mood was more variable and that certain of his ideals and dispositions only rarely slipped into serious doubt or discredit. Disillusionment and pessimism are, to me, too comprehensive, too overmastering to do justice to Becker, or to most of the other figures who are so labeled.

[2] One figure who is not difficult to identify is Nietzsche, who also comes up in “Everyman.” Here, he gets a prominently long blockquote, and there are other Nietzschean moments scattered throughout Becker’s oeuvre. I checked, and Becker is not mentioned in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, but it would be terrifically interesting to get her read on Becker’s Nietzscheanism.

[3] Becker is, in fact, not always so clever. This is largely the method he uses in “Everyman His Own Historian,” and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich recently pointed out that, in his central scene of “Mr. Everyman” trying to pay a coal bill, Becker appears to have missed a number of his own tricks. Consulting price indices and engineering estimates for heating, Ulrich concludes that not only did Mr. Everyman pay for far more coal than he could have used, but he also overpaid by a factor of about four!

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, this is such a wonderful post. Really. What a beautiful read.

    I am especially drawn to this idea of “the facts” or the past somehow wanting to be known. I don’t want to threadjack, but would like to suggest that there may be some congruence between your observation about (past) reality’s “agency upon us” and my suggestion at the end of this post about history’s “use” of us historians.

    And I think you’re so right to key in on the word “affirmation” — perhaps in some small way a slightly more decorous, tweed-and-elbow-patch version of Molly Bloom’s “Yes”?

  2. L.D.,
    Molly Bloom and Carl Becker–what a couple! I think Becker’s affirmation is perhaps a little less… jubilant, but I think I know what you mean.

    As for the connections to your marvelous post (thanks so much for retrieving it and connecting it to this one), I have to say, on rethinking a little bit, that you have definitely caught a certain eschatological echo in the way I’ve framed Becker’s notion of historical facts. But now I’m wondering if that is more Becker or my own unintentional spin on things. There’s maybe more than a breath of Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History intruding here.

    Becker’s biographer goes into his religious background and his undergraduate struggles with shucking off his Methodist heritage; what remained of that upbringing and that struggle is difficult to parse. So I don’t know that I want to speak for Becker as far as the more theological roots or implications of the view I’ve presented here.

    However, I think that what Becker is definitely trying to do in these moments is to figure out how to square the circle of a material record and an inaccessible past. Following your lead, I’ll quote a different epistle: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen… Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Hebrews 11: 1, 3)

    I think Becker would be able to apply this passage without much modification: our faith in the material record we have is itself a kind of evidence of what we cannot access, which is the past. It is not that the record–the correspondence, the stacks of probate records, the photographs, the ledgers, the buttons and ragged objects that survive–itself is evidence, but our faith in the record. We can see the material record, but their continued visibility for us rests on the agency of forces which have never been accessible to us. For Becker, those forces are not divine in an orthodox Christian way, and I’ll have to do more reading to figure out entirely what’s going on, but that is my initial read.

  3. This is a great post. I hope this point is not too far off topic but I read Becker’s The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers in high school and it had a great impact upon me.

  4. Thanks again for another excellent post, Andrew, as well as for your comments on my hopelessly aged essay. The work you’ve done to “muddy the waters” surrounding Becker has been a treat to read. Yours is an invaluable reminder to resist the siren call of the overly-simplified narrative of disillusionment, to which I certainly succumbed when first interrogating Becker a decade ago.

    I wonder if there was something specific to me, or if this is a more general phenomenon, but it seems like I spent the first half of my education in history too readily lumping intellectuals into vague categories (“Progressive,” “Consensus,” New Left,” etc.) only to spend the second half (I’m on my last dissertation chapter now) unpacking them and trying to give complexity its due. Labeling figures like Becker as “Progressive Historians” allowed me to begin to map out the field in broad terms, so in some sense it was a helpful first step. It created an organizational context into which I could try to place his ideas, a broader milieu that might help me understand them. But from the beginning I was boxing him in, looking for Progressive or pessimistic identifiers instead of appreciating subtleties or ambivalence. I suppose that’s why there’s a quaintness to reading back through one’s old undergraduate and early grad school papers– the earnestness of them, their unwitting reductionist habits– but plenty of cringe-worthy moments besides. So, I guess what I’m saying is: where were you ten years ago?!? Or maybe I should have just read “Everyman” more closely.

    Seriously, though, many thanks for this food for thought. And for encouraging me to take better advantage of this great USIH community.

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, Jeff! I don’t mean to be too doctrinaire about the utility of labels–I think there have been some excellent discussions on this blog about the old “lumpers” vs. “splitters” debate, and I suppose you’d probably have to put me on the side of the “lumpers.”

      What I meant here was to suggest that it isn’t only the way we group historical figures but also, and perhaps more so, the way that we move between the supposed “tone” of an era and the “mood” of a historical figure which is a very complex procedure, one that, as you note, I think we should be more cautious about.

      Thanks again for your comments!

  5. Great essay! And I agree with LD that this is beautifully written. I’m now feeling more than a bit ashamed at the lack of artistry in my posts.

    So, Andrew, would you be willing to characterize Becker as living with a sense of “disillusioned affirmation”? I ask because Becker doesn’t seem, per the title, to really be disillusioned. The past may be illusory or fuzzy to him, but it really exists and can be discussed with *some* sense of a common endeavor. He’s appropriately cautious of “facts”—which are tremors or representations of real past events—and the so-called “historical record.” As you say, we all live in a spirit of Becker, or in his long shadow. He was disillusioned with Rankeian “technical disinterestedness,” but not with history or knowledge as general endeavors—right?

    Jeff: I love your characterization of being in grad school and learning to attach the simplistic, reductionist labels of various schools to various historians, and then spending the rest of one’s career tearing those apart—or seeing so many complications that the “adherents” of those so-called “schools” dwindle radically in number, so as to barely even be schools. – TL

    • Tim,
      Thanks! Writing about Becker, who was such a wonderful stylist, forces one to elevate one’s game, at least so that there isn’t such an unflattering disjuncture between the texts quoted and the text composed.

      You’re very right: I don’t want to characterize Becker as disillusioned, but not because I think he didn’t sour a little over time, or at least for a time, in his feelings about how beneficial historians were as social actors, by which I mean not just actors in the service of reform, but a broader compass of enriching the life of the communities to which they belong. But that was less about some turn in his thinking about technical disinterestedness or the historian’s access to “truth” and “the facts” than it was about a more historically situated judgment as to the political and cultural matrix of the post-WWI US. The involvement of many historians (including Becker himself) in the propaganda efforts shook him, but less because he rethought his metahistorical beliefs than because I think he formed from that experience a sharper understanding of the structural weakness of truly democratic institutions in the US at that time.

      I hope that makes some sense–I’m at a very provisional point in synthesizing my research, so my tune might change later on!

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