A common phrase heard in graduate seminars and conferences is the call to “take seriously” a historical figure, organization, or idea. Sometimes this mission is declared in the context of struggling over what constitutes the proper subject matter of historians’ attention, such as in debates about whether figures of pop culture should be analyzed as major carriers of the ideological formations central to the work of intellectual historians, or not. Other times, however, this phrase is invoked as a defensive posture to justify a closer examination of phenomenon that is regarded as unethical and, often, already well understood. It is this use of the request that we take something seriously that I would like to explore today.
The most obvious purpose of taking something seriously is reaching a better understanding of your subject matter. Intellectual history in particular is impossible to do without the crucial step of grinding your way into the mindset and perspectives of the subjects you study. Another common way of putting this is the necessity of understanding the thoughts and beliefs of historical actors “in their own terms.” Self-understanding is, of course, very important, and usually results in certain actions and consequences. So this step cannot be overlooked.
However, if the call to take something seriously and understand the ideas of subjects “in their own terms” is the end goal, rather than merely a step towards a clearer understanding, a serious problem arises. This problem is best summed up by an aside – indeed, a comment in parentheses! – in an almost three year old post by John Holbo at Crooked Timber: sincerity is not the same thing as accuracy. Or, in other words, people can delude themselves. This seems, of course, obvious on the most intimate of levels. As anyone who has lived for any significant amount of time past middle school has probably figured out, the capacity for self-deception in the human creature is great. Almost never does the manipulative and power greedy head cheerleader conceive of herself as manipulative and power greedy. (At least in my squad she didn’t!)
Not surprisingly, then, the examples of this dynamic in large-scale historical phenomenon abound. Holbo’s post concerned the question of whether opponents of gay marriage are bigoted or not. As he argues, simply participating in polite discourse and without a stated goal of ostracizing or denying the humanity of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people does not exclude one from participation in bigotry. After all, if we pursue such an argument that means that a good chunk of white people who politely resisted the civil rights movement were not bigoted. They simply wanted, as they put it, to keep their communities “closed.”
This is, perhaps, too obvious of an example, but the problem appears in many other places in the historical field – indeed, intellectual history, as a subfield, seems to be particularly prone to the mistake of beginning and ending an investigation with the “self-understanding” of our subjects. This is due in part, I think, to the dynamics of studying intellectuals – we, the scholars, imagine ourselves engaging in a conversation with our subjects that is structured most like an interview; tell us what you were thinking here!, we silently beg of our sources. Moreover, we often study conversations between various intellectuals, looking at what they said to each other – and it is difficult to do either of these tasks, and do them well, while constantly questioning the accuracy, if not the sincerity, of the replies.
But often, the call to take someone or something seriously extends, in fact, to accepting our subjects’ version of the story. The intellectual taken seriously slides into the intellectual that is taken entirely at her word. Contradictions or outcomes seemingly in opposition to intent, when identified, become something other-than or unattached to the central spirit of an idea or text, like a malignant tumor either the past already has or the future will be able to remove. Alternatively, critiques that focus on the more unsavory aspects of an intellectual’s contribution are reduced to presentism; there is nothing a good contextualization cannot cleanse away. Many intellectuals precious to our liberal tradition, for example, seem to fall under this protection – some of the responses to Schulz’s critical piece on Thoreau, for example, can be summed up as asserting that Schulz simply didn’t understand what he was thinking, and/or trying to do, sufficiently. On the other hand, John Locke has recently been losing some of the immunity his supposed commitment to liberty has afforded him, but note that even here, much of the case rests on the fact that not only did Locke condemn himself by what he did, but also what he wrote down. (As though this constitutes a greater sin!) Here, then, is something of a nod to liberal skeptics who might insist that actions be historically understood and situated, but thoughts, even when articulated in the context of violence, oppression, and colonialism, be given the benefit of the doubt as to their sincere and thus somehow transcendent, autonomous, and/or accurate nature. Indeed, at its worst this tendency can effectively result in a wholesale denial of the existence of the subconscious, ironically parading as a particularly historical argument in its virtue, yet actually ahistorical in insisting that what an intellectual claimed about herself trumps both the historical application of her ideas and/or her unsavory commitments that have since become discredited.
There is a common response to this critique which, in its most simple type, often comes in the form of a cliché – historians who search for the historical function of ideas are claiming (in a vulgarly Marxist manner, it is usually implied) that ideas are merely “a smoke screen,” for, or reflection of, power relations, rather than constituting an essential element of historical change and action in their own right. The water of that particular contention is too deep to wander into right now, but I think it is worth noting that although ideas are certainly not merely smoke screens, one of their primary historical roles has often been, in fact, to hide things as much as challenge or change them. Indeed, they are so powerful in this regard that they have often served to hide us from ourselves as much as prevent others from detecting our deeper motivations. Alas, bullshit – and especially a self-interested acceptance of it – compromises a good amount of human history.
It is particularly important to recognize this in our own historical moment. For when appeals to colorblind ideology allow us to deny racism, and arguments about freedom block us from ending a dystopian outbreak of mass murder, elevating the respect given to sincerity might not merely distract us from the truth, but prevent us from creating a society worthy of being taken seriously in the first place.
 Indeed, there is probably a thoughtful essay to be written about how the pleasure induced by historical investigation of intellectual circles resembles, in many regards, the pleasure of eavesdropping.