U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is U.S. Intellectual History? (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editori’s Note: This is another in our ongoing series of guest posts reporting on panels from the recently concluded Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference in Indianapolis. This is a review of the Saturday plenary session for the sixth annual S-USIH conference in Indianapolis, entitled “What is U. S. Intellectual History?” It comes to us from Gene Zubovich, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation, entitled “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism,” analyzes the role of religion in the rise and fall of American political liberalism from the 1930s to the 1960s. In doing so, it revises the common understandings of both liberal politics and of religion in the mid-twentieth century. Zubovich is currently a resident fellow at Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. He has also served in the past reviewed books for this blog.

 The plenary session, “What is U. S. Intellectual History?,” asked the speakers to consider two broad questions. First, what is not intellectual history? In other words, what are the boundaries of our field in relation to other historical subdisciplines and other related disciplines like literary criticism and the history of philosophy. Second, can and should we write intellectual history without intellectuals, or is the subfield bound to the intellectual as a category?

All of the participants agreed wholeheartedly on one thing: that intellectual historians should be “big tent” historians. Voices that desire the policing of disciplinary boundaries were distinctly absent. Precisely what big-tent history should look like was a bit more amorphous. Andrew Jewett suggested that arguments are the subject of inquiry for intellectual historians. We ought to follow these arguments wherever they go, even if they take place outside the academy, literary communities, scientific communities, or other traditional sites of study. Jewett appeared worried less about where these inquiries might take us and more on how history departments shape our inquiry. Political history is enjoying prominence these days and the desire to stay relevant and find jobs is driving intellectual historians toward political history. Instead, Jewett suggested, intellectual historians should be concerned about achieving some subdisciplinary autonomy so that we have leverage, communally, to decide what subjects we find worthy of study.

For Daniel Wickberg, intellectual history has been moving in the direction of inclusivity in recent years. Practitioners have often done this by widening the category of “intellectual” to include a greater variety of thinkers. Others, including Wickberg himself, prefer to focus on “intellectual” as a type of history rather than a type of person, in order to look at the way ideas move and shape our world. The category of “intellectual” is useful within the field of intellectual history as a historical category but it does not help us choose who to make the object of our study in the first place. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen offered two ideas that historians should work to reconcile. The first is that “a big tent is a boring tent.” She was suggesting that intellectual historians ought not to shy away from taking a clear methodological stance and distinguishing themselves from other subfields. At the same time, we are and should be a field that does its best work when we interact with other disciplines.

Edward Blum placed greater emphasis on intellectual inquiry as a form of exclusion, particularly racial exclusion. He highlighted two texts that mascaraed as intellectual history but, in fact, are anti-intellectual: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and George Marsden’s Twilight of the Enlightenment. Why are these two works anti-intellectual? Because both purport to speak in universal terms, taking the self as the subject, while excluding voices of African Americans and others who do not fit their narrative. He also called out older works, like those of Bernard Bailyn and J.G.A. Pocock, for their exclusion of a wide range of thought from their narratives. Historians have created a “box” that some fit into and others don’t. We should be weary of such devices, whether they are implicit or explicit.

Kathryn Lofton pushed furthest the boundaries of intellectual history to include Whitney Houston and Kim Kardashian. Focusing on what one might call “high” intellectual history obscures the process of thought-making, Lofton insisted, and allows historians to ignore the question of who gets to make knowledge. As fewer and fewer people pay attention to intellectuals, and as communication transforms from long-form essays, letters, and books to twitter and text messaging, historians would be remiss not to look at knowledge producers in this new economy of ideas. Even those subjects who want us to think less (e.g. Kardashian) have thought inscribed on their bodies. By choosing the example of Kardashian, Lofton lightened the mood of the conversation and elicited laughter in her analysis. But the laughter itself was indicative and forced the audience to confront the question: are we laughing because we believe Kardashian degrades our ability to think? Are we latter-day versions of William Dean Howells, concerned about the pernicious effects of twitter and blind to changes in our world?

In this panel, as in the conference in general, there was a sense that American intellectual history is a broad and capacious field. Kevin Schultz’s talk on the state of the field reinforced this impression. But there was an undertone of anxiety about the subjects being left behind as intellectual historians, and historians in general, move toward the history of politics. This appears to be an especially acute issue for subjects like the history of literature, philosophy, and social science, which are likely to receive little attention in their historical context if they become solely the purview of those fields themselves.

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