U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Should Intellectual History Be Philosophy By Other Means?

Yesterday, Claire Potter put up an interesting post on her book blog about the relationship of historians of political movements to the movements that they study.  Potter is working on a history of anti-pornography feminism. She reports that audiences for her work frequently assume that she herself is an anti-porn feminist.  However, Potter writes in her post, “[m]y hope for this book is that you will be so compelled by my scholarship that you will never know my private views on this question.”

It’s worth reading Claire’s whole post, which is full of interesting observations about  the expectations that certain scholars – especially “women, queers and people of color” – will necessarily agree with the people that they study, the value that some scholars find in using their work on social activism as a form of social activism, and the reasons that she is not doing this in her current project.

Potter’s thoughts on the issue of the relationship of work on social movements to social activism made me want to visit some parallel issues that intellectual historians face:[1]  What is our relationship to the ideas we write about? Is part of our job to evaluate the merits of ideas in the past?  In what instances should we – or should we not – weigh in on intellectual disputes in the past?   

I think people are less likely to assume that intellectual historians agree with the people we study than that historians of social movements (let alone historians of social movements who come from groups that are popularly understood as engaging in “identity politics”) are sympathetic with the movements that they study.  Nevertheless, I think we are frequently drawn to studying thinkers with whom we are either particularly sympathetic or particularly unsympathetic. And we need to decide how whether (and how) we want to discuss this sympathy or hostility.

As Claire suggests in regards to historians of social movements, how much we foreground our own opinion of the ideas and thinkers about whom we right varies (and, in my opinion, ought to vary) from project to project.  I largely share what I take to be her sense that we are often best served by not foregrounding our own views about the matters that our thinkers thought about.

But the issues facing intellectual historians are not quite the same as the issues facing historians of social movements. To begin with, writing history is, under most, though not all, circumstances, a distinctly different activity from engaging in a social movement.  On the other hand, intellectual historians are, like our subjects, engaged in intellectual work. Whether we like it or not, the very act of writing intellectual history thus sometimes necessarily leads us to engage on our subjects’ turf.   This was a constant issue, for example, when I was working on Strauss and the Straussians, who have distinctive ideas about history and historicism that are central to their understandings of philosophy.  In a sense the very act of writing (my kind of) intellectual history of the Straussians entailed disagreeing with them about important things.

History can also be a very useful way to evaluate ideas from the past.  Philosophers themselves often write intellectual histories and intellectual biographies for this very reason. And when philosophers do so, the conclusions they reach often involve coming to some kind of normative evaluation of the ideas of the person or people that they are studying.  The philosopher Edward Skidelsky’s excellent intellectual biography of Ernst Cassirer explicitly rejects the revival of Cassirer’s views that has taken place recently, especially in Germany. “We can admire Cassirer’s moral grandeur while at the same time acknowledging his intellectual defeat,” Skidelsky writes.  But at the same time, Skidelsky knows he is writing a work of history. While he rejects Cassirer’s answers to important questions about liberalism and culture, he does not attempt to formulate better ones in these pages.  Simon Glendinning’s The Idea of Continental Philosophy: A Philosophical Chronicle is a more polemical example of a philosopher writing history for philosophical purposes, in this case to suggest that the very idea of continental philosophy was an ideological construct designed to limit the scope of Anglo-American philosophy.  Similarly, John McCumber’s Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era is an indictment of the behavior of many American philosophers during the Second Red Scare and an attempt to argue that the demands of the Cold War were decisive in shaping American philosophy during those years.  (Although McCumber is a professor of German at UCLA, his PhD is in philosophy).

I like all three of these books. And my sense is that they are all frequently used by historians.  But the very frankness with which their authors take sides is, I think, more typical of history of philosophy written by philosophers than history of philosophy written by historians.  Nonetheless, works by intellectual historians can also take sides.

All these books also instantiate my sense that, by and large, Europeanists (in both history and philosophy) are more likely to use intellectual history as a method of raising philosophical issues than are Americanists in these disciplines, though my sense of this is purely anecdotal.

Claire Potter doesn’t mention what I’d imagine is one of the main reasons people seem so interested in her personal relationship to anti-porn feminism:  although the “porn wars” of the Eighties are a thing of the past, pornography remains an issue that feminists disagree about. Historians’ relationships to movements that are today less controversial are, I think, less fraught.  It’s unlikely that someone writing about the rise of Nazism or of the third KKK would be assumed to be supportive of these movements, just as it’s very likely that someone writing about the Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s would be assumed to be supportive of it.

Similarly, I think books studying ideas that concern living issues are more likely to raise the questions I’ve been discussing than books whose subjects concern matters about which people no longer argue.  Nobody, I think, would wonder whether or not Carlo Ginzburg was a believer in Menocchio’s cosmology. In contrast, much of the criticism of Jonathan Sperber’s recent biography of Karl Marx involved Sperber’s refusal to treat Marx’s ideas as living ones (Andrew Hartman discussed this aspect of the arguments over Sperber’s Marx biography in an excellent post that appeared almost exactly a year ago on this blog.) The issues that modern U.S. intellectual historians are more likely than not to be living issues, and thus to raise these sorts of questions.

How do readers of this blog who write intellectual history handle these questions? How do readers of this blog who read it like to see them handled?



[1] Of course some of intellectual historians work on social movements and are faced with exactly the questions that Potter raises.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great essay, Ben.

    I think the rubber hits the road when one is writing about groups who are engaged in serious antagonisms with other groups (over issues with real ethical and material stakes), and one sympathizes with both. In the case of the subject of Potter’s book, I feel that there were honorable positions on both the pro and anti sides within 1970s-era feminism (but I would not want to write about Jesse Helms sympathetically, and I think an author who sought to bracket completely their feelings about a demagogue like Helms would be courting ethical disaster). The same might be said for Communists and Left Anti-Communists, or Civil Rights liberals and Black Power partisans.

    It drives me a little nuts when historians address this history of conflict with either an “each side had good points” or “pox on both their houses” approach. It drives me more nuts when the preference for either is under-theorized.

    For example, many historians are actually guided by a sense that one should celebrate above all something like “political virtue,” and ultimately evaluate their subjects against the rubric of “how virtuous were the actors I am studying?” (I did that above, by saying “there were honorable positions on both the pro and anti sides”–where does this “honorable” come from?). The components of this sense of “virtue,” almost never spelled out, are often quite traditional–self-sacrifice, self-discipline, organizational power, the ability to triangulate, etc.

    Histories of the “good 60s/bad 60s” variety may be less common, but I still feel that “how virtuous was everybody?” is extraordinarily common in articles and monographs on the New Left and the CRM. If that’s our question, we should be clear about it. I’m not sure, however, that it’s a very good question. Even less sure that it is particularly productive, in any sense of the word?

  2. I waded a bit into the discussion over Claire Potter’s post via Facebook, as I have an essay on film criticism and pornography out just now in a collection of essays edited by Eric Schaffer. I like Kurt’s frustration with the “nobility is in us all” argument, but also find it difficult at times not to be a little bemused when other scholars pat me on the back for treating a slightly unorthodox position (in the case of porn, it is those critics who were publicly skeptical of the sexual revolution on the screen) with some measure of respect. In this sense, I wonder what the stakes are. When writing about the debates in the early 1970s when porn had its truly popular moment, there were critics who had fought hard to free movie culture of censorship and liberal pretensions suddenly sounding a bit censorial and liberal. But in that contradiction is a drama, and if virtue enters the picture is seems necessary to watch historical actors wrestle with what they perceived a virtuous or heroic while condemning those who appropriated their formally rebellious mantle. The game that we get involved in a scholars, where we are party to the stakes (I suppose), gets in the way of the drama and the stakes that those we write about actually lived through. In short, I share Claire’s hope for keeping ourselves offstage while understanding we are still participating some kind of action.

  3. Thanks for raising this important issue Ben. I have to say that the very approach that I would dub “historical” is antithetical to the idea of treating thought in the past as something you are trying to evaluate in terms of its moral or epistemological truth, as opposed to its historical significance and meaning. There are lots of philosophers, political theorists, et al. who want to argue with the past or to make pronouncements on who got it right and who got it wrong, to recover a “usable past,” or to make judgements of abstract qualities. I think the more you do this, the less historical you can be in your analysis, since the kinds of judgements you are talking about involve abstracting from the conditions of meaning and contexts of significance into a realm of transhistorical reason and abstract criteria. Taking sides with one group or another, or one system of thought or another, is akin to collapsing the historical distance and contextual understanding necessary for historical understanding. One of the reasons intellectual historians and philosophers sometimes seem to have a hard time talking to one another, I’m guessing, is that the former actively seek to suspend judgement about the truth of a form of thought in order to understand its historical significance, while the latter think that the goodness or badness, the truth or falsity of a set of ideas is the essential goal.

    That said, intellectual historians still have an object-subject problem in the sense that we are thinking about the past, and the ideas we use as part of our method and conception of the past are themselves inherited from that past. It’s not possible for us to treat all ideas (such as our idea of what the proper way to study history might be) as purely objects of historical analysis, since we would then have no tools to study the past. But studying, say, anti-pornography feminism doesn’t require that we take it to be right or wrong, a position we share or don’t, and in fact historical understanding would seem to require that we put that judgement aside. However, it is impossible to conceive of the entire field of women’s and gender history coming into being without feminism as an intellectual movement (as one example). In this sense, I think it’s fair to say that anyone who studies women’s history in in fact taking a position on feminism more broadly, and unavoidably doing so. When we study historiography, we see changes in the study of history–the very notion that X object is a legitimate object of historical study, for instance–and attribute those changes to various intellectual influences. Why are the histories of sexuality, race, and the environment today legitimate avenues of inquiry when in the not-so-distant past they would not have been included within the legitimate objects of historical inquiry? The historian can’t be neutral in any case, and every choice of study involves some evaluative stance. Saying that some object has historical significance, that it warrants sustained scholarly analysis and understanding, can’t be a purely neutral position.

  4. This is an excellent post that gets to the heart of what we all do as intellectual historians. And, in some sense, I think we all consider these questions daily, whether it’s through our research, conversations with colleagues, or while we’re writing.

    One element I’d like to hone in on is your mention of the history (and historians) of social movements. I find in my conversations with historians who are cultural or social historians of such movements that, while we’re all interested in facets of Black Power, civil rights, and the like, the way we approach them can lead to some interesting differences of opinion. Now, such differences may have arisen even if we were all doing the same sub-field of history, but I’ve found myself asking questions such as, “What does it mean to be ‘elite’ in the context of African American intellectual history?” Talking to people far more interested in the larger masses of a social movement, I find the conversations are needed and illuminating. But I think what you’ve written here also gets to thoughts I’ve entertained about my own relationship to the legacy of such movements. After all, as Holloway laid out in “Jim Crow Wisdom”, and other scholars have argued elsewhere, the growth of African American history, and later Black Studies (not to mention the presence of African Americans across the Humanities and Sciences) was often a way for African Americans to assert their humanity, intellect, and worthiness for citizenship.

    The questions you raise here, quite simply, are ones we need to consider daily. Again, thanks for such a wonderful post.

  5. As an intellectual historian working on the history of philosophy, it becomes quickly apparent that there is a relatively significant divide between philosophers doing that work, and historians. And Ben, I think your intuition that Europeanists have more of an inclination towards philosophical history is right on. One is hard pressed, I think, to find parallels to the work of intellectual historians like Marty Jay, Peter Gordon, Samuel Moyn, etc. in the American context. With that said, however, it seems to me that the primary question is in terms of empirical versus philosophical history–Americanists seem more inclined towards the former. It comes down to the extent to which we historians should “suspend”‘ our judgments (as though this were possible) versus those philosophers who are in fact doing philosophy by thinking with, recovering, the ideas of past thinkers, to greater or lesser degrees. The problem is that, especially if one is studying philosophy, there are so many added historiographial (qua philosophical) issues that arise when one traces the “development” of thought, how one evaluates change, progress, decline, or the like. The criteria are just different, though not wholly different. I suppose one’s view of the criteria also depends on the extent to which, and how, ideas should be contextualized, and to what extent you’re comfortable occupying the dreaded (unmarketable) zone between disciplines.

    On that note, Dan, I must take issue with your divide between history on the one hand, and evaluation in terms of moral or epistemological truth on the other. As you yourself mention toward the end of your comment, our historical methodologies are themselves ideas inherited from the past, and as such we can’t historicize them to the point where we lose our normative commitment to their truth, or, for the pragmatist, their usefulness. With that said, it seems to me that the very act of suspending judgments of our historical subjects is a contradiction in terms: if we reify our idea of historical distance, for example, as a normative commitment, then we put ourselves at odds with the possibility of historicizing (contextualizing) the very idea of historical distance itself, and thus seem to, by implication, to foreclose the range of ideas that can be studied historically. The point is that when we historians stop believing in any moral epistemological truths because of a deep historical awareness of the contingency of ideas, then we logically cannot commit ourselves to the value of history itself as a mode of human understanding. If we realize this, however, then it seems to me that there is, accordingly, no good reason why the historian is somehow less historical by casting judgments on past ideas, or subjecting them to evaluation.

  6. Erik–
    I think you are largely right, although I would argue that you draw the line a little too sharply in terms of logical necessity rather than pragmatic practice. That is, when we “suspend judgment,” I guess I don’t think that means that we don’t have judgements and evaluations or that we pretend to a kind of objectivity or neutrality we cannot posses–as you rightly point out, we cannot avoid such things. Rather, “suspending judgment” means that we deliberately and self consciously hold those judgements and evaluations of truth or rightness to one side, as a strategy, for the purpose of engaging an alternative way of analyzing thought. We can be Rortian “ironists” in using methods and modes of thought that we know are the products of historical development without feeling compelled to say that those modes of thought have an historically transcendent source of authority. But just because we are always in the stream and not observing it from the outside doesn’t mean that part of that stream we swim in can’t be the part that asks us to contextually evaluate the relationship between ideas in the past–who thought them, for what purpose, in response to what conditions, and influenced and shaped by what precedents, for instance– without assessing their epistemological or moral values. And, what I was trying to say, if none too clearly, is the extent to which we swim in the part of the stream that contains the idea that one of our primary commitments is to take sides with thinkers in the past, we are pushed in a direction that makes it harder for us to see the contextual world that thought was part of. We are appropriating it for the present, rather than situating it in the past. Ultimately, of course, we are always appropriating for the present, but I think it makes a difference that the mode of appropriating it as an historian is to render it “other,” and contingent on the contextual elements of the past. Some of this just comes down to the differences between the kinds of questions that historians and philosophers ask.

    Sorry this is so abstract and opaque. Let me try with an example: I find William James ‘s thought to be compelling and my own thinking as an historian has clearly been shaped by reading James. But if I go to historically analyze James, I don’t think it helps me very much to emphasize where I think James gets it right and where he gets it wrong–a close reader of my historical analysis may be able to find in my method the ways in which it approaches James in a Jamesian way, but the purpose of my analysis is to locate James in a time and place and not to show that James was right or his method preferable. So, my method may utilize a conception that ideas are fluid rather than fixed Lockean “things”, that James clings habitually to received ideas that he has no reason to doubt, that the sources of his thought are not all consciously known to him–all, I think, ideas derivable from a reading of James’s _Pragmatism_. But the purpose of my analysis is not to affirm or promote James, or the critique him, but to understand his thought by situating it in relation to Darwinism, changing conceptions of science, liberal Protestantism, etc..

    On the question of whether there are Americanist “philosophical” intellectual historians, rather than the default empiricist historians so endemic to American historiography, I would agree that it is a minority position, but there are and have been some: Thomas Haskell, Jim Livingston, perhaps John Patrick Diggins in his own way. All of them very different from the Europeanists you cite.

  7. Dan – This is one of the nicest descriptions of philosophy and history as forms of “pragmatic practice” that I’ve encountered, but it seems that a couple of things might be missing, or understated.

    In your idealized description, historians are oddly decontextualized, and perhaps that’s what Erik was reacting to in his comment. They choose where to swim in the stream of time, and adopt strategies with apparently perfect self-transparency, though, to go with your metaphor, anyone who has ever tried to swim in a stream – grant me, one swollen in springtime – knows that it can do more than “ask” us to move along in a certain way.

    Is this a caricature of your position? Yes. That said [I’ll use that increasingly common rhetorical move here] the question becomes how to account for why people often care, and care to dispute, strategies and choices, whether to historicize or philosophize, contextualize or perennialize. How does one explain the often bitter contention, the point and passion of these disciplinary contests going on now for a couple of centuries at least?

    If the spirit of context points to some possible limits in our transparency to ourselves and the world that moves us down the stream, to a “certain blindness” as the philosopher said, in how we’re constituted, made dumb even as we’re enabled, it seems to have thinned out here. [I won’t call it a neo-liberal stream.] To appropriate the old Ann Swidler essay about culture, it’s context as a toolkit, an odd sort of reprise of that noble dream, the historian as exceptional.

  8. Bill–
    Thanks for your excellent corrective. I didn’t realize (!!!–making your point here, I think) as I was writing, the extent to which I was in the grip of a kind of voluntaristic anti-contextualism in advocating for a kind of contextualist and contingent approach to the historical object. The usual ironies apply…

    I would be the first to agree with the general point you make–our approaches to the past are deeply determined by the contexts in which we write, contexts which can often appear invisible to us at the very moment they compel us to see in one way or the other. This is another way of saying that thinking historically is in some form always “presentist”. So, perhaps the better conclusion is that we can’t in some purely voluntaristic way “suspend” or put aside our evaluative proclivities, since they’ve got a hold of us without our being fully aware of it, but that our (or at least my) reflexive distaste for thinking”inside and with” rather than “outside and about” speaks more to the long modernist complaint about the thinness and alienation of the universalist Enlightenment tradition.

  9. Great discussion—from Ben’s opening to the comments from Kurt, Ray, Dan, Robert, Erik, and Bill. I love pondering how our vantage points, assumptions, theories, and evidence effect the histories we compose. It’s all so intricate and complex, yet so deceptively simple to the uninitiated.

    Returning to Ben’s original questions: “What is our relationship to the ideas we write about? Is part of our job to evaluate the merits of ideas in the past? In what instances should we – or should we not – weigh in on intellectual disputes in the past?”

    I think sometimes too much is made about either one’s distance from or closeness to a historical subject. Both distance and closeness have potentially positive and negative effects on a story.

    Personally I believe it works better to have a stake in the story, so that one *feels* its urgency throughout what can be trying circumstances in the course of years-long projects. This stake/feel is especially important for book projects, but would likely distort short-turnaround article projects. I almost always get negative feedback on article projects, where the reader/editor can see more of my heat than the light I’m trying to shed on the subject. I get that—and almost never have a problem with changing and rethinking the narrative on those points.

    I waited until the end of my book on Adler and the great books idea to fully reveal my personal position (biographical and historical) in relation to both. I did that with the hope of avoiding any auto-turn off/turn on by the reader (who presumably came to my book for history and not biography). Perhaps I underestimated my readers—meaning their ability to suspend judgment, to read on without my past sympathies in mind. But I’m partial to stories where an argument is made and ‘backed up’ before I learn the author’s personal relationship to the subject matter. [I say that despite my deep affection for Bill Cronon’s *Nature’s Metropolis*, wherein he begins and ends his book with personal anecdotes—though its more extensive at the end, as I remember the book).

    But I think the real sticking point is the reader’s feel for author’s ability to be objective, no matter that author’s subject positions. Our confidence as readers is bolstered when we see *position* (past and present) treated with care. So then we feel, even when the author is less than explicit, that she/he is always thinking about that position and trying to analyze accordingly. That position involves sympathies, distance, closeness, assumptions, theoretical models, evidence, etc. Clarifying all that AND telling a good story, that flows, is nearly impossible. So all we can do is demonstrate some sensitivity at the start, during, and after—and then hope our readers trust us. – TL

  10. Historiann has taken up the issues raised by Claire Potter’s post over at her blog: The author, the work, and the ‘objectivity question’

    I weighed in on comments over there re: what seemed to me to be a misread or oversimplification of Novick’s argument and approach in That Noble Dream. (Basically, I think Novick has also been a casualty of the fallacy that holds a historian’s fairness suspect based simply on his/her interest in a subject.) Anyway, thinking about that issue (and some not unrelated dissertational trouble) made me realize that a re-reading of Novick, cover to cover, is immediately in order.

    So here are some excerpts from Novick’s intro which might shed some light on the issues raised in this post and also on some of our recent discussions on other threads at the blog.

    Following the standard practice of historians treating any body of belief…I put to the side questions of the truth or falsity of that which is being described. We live in an era of blurred genres and the collapse of many of the traditional boundaries between disciplinary approaches. But though the lines are fuzzy, there remain important differences between the approaches of the philosopher and the historian in dealing with the history of thought. Philosophers, as a result of training and inclination, can rarely resist engaging in systematic critical evaluation of the thought they discuss. We historians, as a result of our training and inclination, are professionally sensitized to the historicity of intellectual life: the extent to which the emergence of ideas and their reception are decisively shaped by surrounding cultural assumptions, social setting, and other elements of their total historical context. We are thus reflexively loath to apply implicitly timeless criteria in judging what we describe and, historically, explain…. (5-6)

    On the other hand….

    The horror of “irrationalism” in the history of disciplines confuses norms of scholarly discussion with procedures of scholarly analysis. Except with very good friends, it is considered tactless and discourteous to suggest that someone’s views are a reflection of his or her background, prejudices, or psychic needs. We stick to the reasoned arguments advanced, even if privately we think those arguments are shallow rationalizations. The need to behave this way in scholarly discussion is obvious, as are the costs of violating the rule. But if, as historians of an ongoing discussion, we believe that the protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by “extra rational” factors, what kind of historians would we be if we suppressed this perception? (Of course, the perception might be wrong, but that is quite another issue.) (11-12)

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