U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intellectual History from Below (Guest Post by Emily Rutherford)


by Emily Rutherford

When he came to give a lecture at Columbia University last month, Chris Hilliard was introduced as “an intellectual historian from below.” “From below” is a term to conjure with in modern British history: a field whose forebears include E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill, and others; a field in which class as a category of analysis is never far from the foreground. But “intellectual history from below”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To judge from classrooms, conferences, even the pages of (ahem) a certain journal, it would seem that there is a rather specific and narrowly-defined vision of who gets to be a subject of intellectual history. But if, as Joyce Chaplin suggested in her Lovejoy Lecture earlier this month, intellectual historians might attune themselves to the nonhuman, surely they might also profit from inquiries into less elite, less educated subjects—even illiterate or barely literate ones. I am going to tell you a bit about how Hilliard has done this in his work. And then I am going to get a bit polemical. “Intellectual history from below” means two things: it refers to the subjects the intellectual historian investigates; but also to the culture of the field itself, which could be made more equitable and welcoming by a rethinking of what sort of subjects constitute intellectual history. As an editor at JHIBlog, I have had probably a hundred conversations with potential writers who say, “What I do isn’t intellectual history/history of ideas. It’s not clever enough. It’s too far from political thought or the history of philosophy.” This perception is widespread and it is holding intellectual history back. Hilliard’s work shows us how it can be changed.

Hilliard’s first book, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006), is about how writing emerged as a pursuit for ordinary, working-class people in Britain in the interwar period. In his introduction, he clearly frames his project as “literary history from below,” taking seriously the literary aspirations of ordinary people and the magazines, clubs, and interest from democratizing publishers and agents that sustained them. His second book maintained his interest in the world of twentieth-century literature and literary criticism, but turned to F.R. Leavis and the literary-critical movement of which he was a leader, in English as a Vocation: The Scrutiny Movement (2012). Previous accounts of Scrutiny had tended to emphasize the centrality of Leavis, with other figures understood as disciples who sought simply to apply his methods to their reading, writing, and teaching. But Hilliard gives us a more contested and diffuse landscape, in which non-elite individuals such as schoolteachers and adult-education lecturers reinterpreted Leavis’s and other critics’ ideas to suit their own political and pedagogical ends, often with consequences for thought and action that the critics could not have predicted or intended. Hilliard’s creative use of sources makes both books stand out: he turns to documents, such as the records of provincial writers’ clubs or of adult education colleges, that others had not thought to use and in many cases did not even know existed. He reads those sources in original ways, revealing the idiosyncrasies in how individuals develop ideas about writing, politics, or the world around them.

So too last month at Columbia, when Hilliard opened his lecture by challenging himself to tell a literary history of the most unlikely subject: a poison-pen letter-writer who, in 1920s West Sussex, attempted to frame a neighbor for the obscene and threatening letters she sent to residents on their street, including herself. Ranging over the uses of literacy in a criminal libel investigation of the period, Hilliard concentrated in particular on the contents of the letters: the handwriting, a key aspect of the criminal investigation; and also the kinds of obscenities the letter-writer used. Swearing was a distinctly masculine practice in interwar England, and so by being a woman who swore in letters sent to both men and women, the letter-writer was violating an important cultural taboo. Hilliard showed how this could be why her syntax seemed so irregular. She mashed obscenities together in compound forms, used verbs as nouns and vice versa, in a manner not attested in any other records of slang or swearing of the time, because she did not have access to the masculine environments in which she might have heard swearing regularly used. She was not, as Hilliard put it, a “native speaker” of obscenity.

What does this have to do with the kind of history JHI represents? In a seminar Hilliard held with graduate students later that week, we came back to Scrutiny, and to the present-day consequences of how topics like mid-twentieth-century Cambridge literary critics are understood. Political thought has recently been experiencing a revival of interest in modern British intellectual history, with investigations into other academic disciplines (such as literary criticism, history, economics, or anthropology) often understood as closely connected to the political questions facing, predominantly, the New Left—and thus to political questions that we face today, as we re-evaluate the welfare-state settlement of a period that our discussion demarcated as 1942-63. Historians of the United States in the same period might notice a similar trend. This is a topic that can be pursued skillfully (and is, by several of my contemporaries), enhancing our critical historical understanding of politics and political thought in the twentieth century. But it is also a topic that can lend itself to a peculiar kind of nostalgia, expressed by young people who were born long after the mid-twentieth-century settlement unravelled through challenges on a variety of fronts: not only from neoliberalism, but also from other left-wing political perspectives, foremost among them feminism, that challenged the profound limitations of the mid-century New Left perspective. Understanding this genealogy has allowed me to observe a certain collapsing of past and present: when some young intellectual historians admire the pre-1968 Left for its commitment to a socialist ideal from which our present world has fallen, they also naturalize the culture in which the subjects of their research operated. I’m just going to come out and say it: the history of leftist political thought and allied disciplines, operating within the pre-feminist paradigms of the subjects it studies, is not a comfortable atmosphere in which to be a woman—particularly when it is the main arena for young scholars interested in history of ideas. The intellectual history of other times, places, and political orientations is often no better, similar enough to academic philosophy to mirror many of the social and cultural barriers to women’s participation in that field.

As in philosophy, I believe that many of the gatekeepers in intellectual history would not like to imagine themselves as people who contribute to their discipline being a hostile environment for women, and are eager to remove barriers to women’s participation. Unfortunately, such discussions tend to cohere around topics such as parental leave, work-life balance, and unconscious bias in hiring or grant decisions—which, if important issues, seem to me to have little to do with the reasons that I and other young, early-career women feel socially and culturally unwelcome among groups of intellectual historians. We are intelligent, opinionated people who are experienced at historical research and have opinions about ideas and their history, but the conversation that is going on around seminar tables and in the pages of journals is too narrow and uncritical to be an interesting one, while joining or starting alternative conversations usually entails reaching the decision, “I’m not an intellectual historian. Intellectual history is not for me.” Put simply, intellectual history is as much of a boys’ club as the Universities and Left Review, and when there are so many other subfields in our discipline which are not, why would we stick around?

How to change this? We can turn not to HR practices, but to our research itself and how we talk about it. We can take a leaf out of Hilliard’s book—as, indeed, we editors have sought to do since we began JHIBlog—and define intellectual history as widely as possible. It is a subject which can be studied above and below, and one which can include the widest possible variety of individuals, who do not necessarily conform to our preconceptions of someone who is capable of having “ideas.” We must be unfailing in our commitment to situate ideas and their authors in their social and cultural context, and thus avoid temptations to naturalize our actors’ analytic categories and political programs or to collapse the distance between their time or their subjecthood and our own. We must take seriously those whose primary subject of study is the social and cultural context: we must not marginalize them as helpmeets to “real” intellectual historians, but must make sure that our conversations about intellectual history, at least when they occur in public, demonstrate awareness that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, in the past or in the present. As Hilliard’s sources and methodology demonstrate, the circumstances in which ideas appear can involve unintended consequences, or unexpected meetings of “high” and “low.” They can challenge us as humans to treat new interlocutors with dignity and seriousness. Making room in one’s scholarship for unexpected interpretations of Scrutiny outside the academy, or for a West Sussex housewife’s profanities, is not after all so different from making room for an intelligent and inventive colleague who has not read every word of Gramsci or Foucault, and may still have something important to say.


Emily Rutherford is a PhD student at Columbia University, writing a dissertation on higher education in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain and what it has to do with politics and culture. She is a co-editor of the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas and tweets at @echomikeromeo.  This essay is cross-posted with permission from the JHI Blog. You can find the original post at this link:  https://jhiblog.org/2016/05/18/intellectual-history-from-below/

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks to Emily for letting us cross-post this here.

    I think that some of us here at the USIH blog have been concerned, rather intensely and over a long period, with broadening the circles to which intellectual history applies, both in terms of historians practicing and the people studied.

    On the latter, I have been a proponent of the “history of thought” as a means of capturing all relevant thinkers, thoughts, ideas, groups, institutions, etc. It signals something larger and more inclusive than “intellectual” history.

    On for the former, meaning practitioners, we need all types. How to meet the need? This involves many fronts: being welcoming, being inclusive, studying shared topics with relevance to the past and present, intentionally studying formerly neglected topics, etc. One way to accomplish these ends is to purposely cross-pollinate with orgs/groups that have shared historical interests (e.g. AAIHS). – TL

    • Hi Tim, thanks for your comment. Maybe rebranding what we do can help draw more people in, but I’m not sure that’s all it is. One of the things I’m trying to suggest is that when people say “I’m not an intellectual historian,” what they’re really saying is not necessarily “Oh actually, I work in a slightly different but related field.” Sometimes, they’re saying “I work on the ideas of provincial academics, but I’d rather talk to these social historians here because the intellectual historians are over there having a conversation about Horkheimer and they’re all white men from elite universities.” In other words, to be successful, rebranding has to come with a culture change.

      But I definitely agree with you that organizations and spaces that can establish inclusive practices–USIH, AAIHS, whoever–are a great route to change. We just need to make sure that we stay self-critical and stay focused on change: naming the problem isn’t the same thing as fixing it, and saying that one is inclusive isn’t the same thing as practicing inclusive behavior. I do think that there is a lot of reason to feel optimistic, though. History writ more widely is not a boys’ club, and many people are very committed and open to change.

      • Emily,

        I didn’t mean to suggest that mere rebranding would do the trick. It won’t. As you note, the changes have to be real and substantial.

        Your first point aobut redirecting one’s desire for collegiality is an interesting one. I wish we could gather some survey data on that, somehow. It’s always difficult to show why people don’t do things.

        I can’t say anything to disprove the experiences and real observations of your friends/colleagues. And I wouldn’t try. The feeling of not being included, or of conversations being tired or boring, are real. I used to feel them at social science history groups.

        You should come to a S-USIH meeting! I’d love to hear your comparative experience after one of our meetings. But perhaps you’ve been to one already, or your colleagues have, and felt the same things? I’d love to hear more about that on the side. I’d like to make some real changes to combat those feelings.

        FWIW, I do feel our Society has made real efforts to be inclusive, even if some of the efforts haven’t been successful. We’re open to trying new things—new formats, new processes, new approaches.

        Thanks again for the post. I’m happy to have these conversations, and to try to make substantial changes.

        – Tim

  2. Note to readers: when I posted Emily Rutherford’s essay, I accidentally left off the last paragraph. Then the link got so much IMMEDIATE traffic that the server went down and I couldn’t log in to fix it for almost a half-hour. My sincere apologies for the mistake — the full text of the essay is now here for your perusal/comment.

    Thanks again to Emily and JHI Blog for allowing us to run this essay here.

    • LD: I’d love to hear your comments about some of Emily’s reply above—about real inclusiveness, conference experiences with gender, etc. – TL

    • Meaning: Even though I’m not old by academic standards, since I self-identify as a male, and am white, and love Critical Theory, I’m not really the *best* person to be trying to woo disaffected scholars back to USIH circles. 🙂 – TL

  3. Thanks so much to Emily for writing such a thought-provoking post. I think many of the same arguments made here on behalf of why women may feel uncomfortable in the field of intellectual history can also be applied to, say, people of color or LGBT individuals. The shame is that there are so many intellectual history narratives and questions we miss out on when people are left out like this.

    The question of *who* we emphasize in intellectual history to be studied is one that should not be easily dropped. In fact it should continue to spur us on. A good example of this is Jonathan Holloway’s *Jim Crow Wisdom* which is as much an intellectual history of Black America in the 20th century as it is a cultural history or a history of memory and remembrance. The sources in there are not just major thinkers but also popular culture, and even his own family history.

    As intellectual history continues as a field, I hope we can continue this debate. Only by doing so can we ensure that the field remains fresh and relevant–not just to fellow historians but to the larger world.

  4. Tim, I couldn’t nest my reply to your comment above (I guess there were too many nests already), but thanks–yes, I agree with all that. And I’d love to make it to an S-USIH meeting someday! I TAed for a US Intellectual History class this semester and enjoyed encountering the field for the first time. It would be great to learn more.

    And Robert, thanks for your comment as well. I wrote from my experience as a (white, queerish) woman, but it’s been great to see others find that the piece spoke to their own experiences of difference, either in terms of their research subjects or their own identities. It seems to me that this further underscores that these are issues that will take intellectual imagination to solve, not only HR policy solutions. The latter are perfectly fine, but they can kind of narrow the field of what kinds of exclusion are under discussion and being worked on.

    • You’re absolutely right–I am racking my brain right now about what we should do, but all I can think is that the solutions won’t be easy ones.

      I like to think that the work at our blogs–USIH, JIH, and AAIHS, among other places–can play an important role here. We can continue this debate online and at conferences, working our way to a better, more inclusive form of intellectual history. I know that the AAIHS conference included some serious discussions of what, precisely, should constitute African American intellectual history.

      • I agree–and one other great thing the internet can do is to provide a platform for people at less elite institutions, who may not be in a coastal population center and may find it challenging to travel to attend conferences, etc. The narrowness of elite institutions can encourage a certain closed-mindedness that isn’t necessarily reflected across US academia more widely.

  5. Thanks, Emily, for sharing your post here. And thanks to the entire JHI Blog editorial team, which has amplified (skillfully) several key debates ongoing in the history of ideas, and done so in a readable way that connects readers old and new. I think your sketch of early-career scholars’ reticence to self-identify as intellectual historians rings true; as a specialization, it can sound dry, weighty, print-based, elitist, lofty, abstract—you get the, uh, idea. We know it is far livelier (and friendlier) than advertised, as there’s a growing stack of USIH conference programs (shameless plug) and Facebook exchanges to prove it.

    As you observe, new definitions, intellectual traditions, and professional guides are ever worth the experiment. Recently, a senior scholar reminded me that “life does not happen in themes.” The categories we impose on any brand of history-writing can grow too comfortable, constricting our long-term growth as a useful field of knowledge. Editing our niche timelines matters, too. The field’s 20thc. focus, while rich, can dissuade junior scholars focusing on the pivotal eras of formation, Revolution, and Civil War—and there’s still a great deal more to find (and say) there. I believe the history of ideas in early America will benefit, for example, from the current renewal of interest in longue durée scholarship. I think the recent surge in narrative history will aid the cause, too.

    Here at USIH, I’ve chosen to frame intellectual history as “ideas in action,” road-testing a way to weave together story and analysis while presenting the kinetic, all-at-onceness of history as it happens. For, whether they act from “above” or “below,” all thinkers are risk-takers; a good intellectual history is, to my mind, a high-stakes thriller that makes you miss your stop on the way home because you’re too busy thinking alongside the past. It’s a page-turner suggesting what we’re capable of, and also how our ideas can fail (yet fall into the archive). Slave or free, rich or poor, the knotty course of a colonial woman’s thought—her trajectory from idea to action—is as worthy of our focus as the ideas that “win,” adhering to national culture and story. Fortunately, in researching a new project of intellectual biographies drawn from early American thought and culture, I’ve found plenty of women historians who act as fine guides for such an endeavor (Linda Kerber, Caroline Winterer, Catherine Brekus, Nancy Cott, Karin Wulf, Mary Kelley…&c &c).

    But, as you point out, our academic traditions and methodological approaches must continue to evolve. Perhaps the blogosphere is a good place to begin, again. Since we’ll raise this question in the fall at #USIH16, let me ask you to comment here on the power of the medium you’ve chosen to convey your thoughts: As an intellectual historian, do you find blogging to be a useful practice? How do you think new media can/should change the tradition/discourse of what we do as American intellectual historians?

    Thank you again for a thoughtful and provocative post.

    • Hi Sara, thanks for your comment. As a 19th-century historian, I love what you have to say about the contributions that pre-20th-century historians can make! In particular, it strikes me that there is a lot less of a risk of naturalizing your actors’ categories if they lived 300 years ago…

      Blogging: it’s a double-edged sword. It can be a distraction from a more contemplative kind of writing that is more heavily researched and allows the time for ideas to germinate (she says, writing this comment in the knowledge that she has to submit a substantive piece of Real Historical Writing for a 5pm deadline today). But it can also provide a platform, especially to younger scholars, scholars at less elite institutions, and others who would otherwise have difficulty getting a word in edgewise. Academic blogging has long been an important venue for thinking about the culture of the profession. This I find more engaging personally than blogging about one’s scholarship, and as a blog editor it can also be really challenging to coax people to share their research on the internet at an early, speculative stage. I think we’re still working out how to use this medium in a way that integrates it productively with other ways in which we practice our scholarship.

  6. Tim, thanks for your interest in my take on this issue. All I can say about it for now, in this space anyhow, is that I’m grateful it’s being discussed so thoughtfully and openly here. Judging from the wonderful convo developing above, I think all y’all will be fine if I just sit this one out.

    That said, I guess at some point it might be useful/helpful for others for me to say something about my own experiences in overcoming a lot of barriers (some self-imposed, but most just par for the course) to be able to both work as and identify as an intellectual historian or a historian of thought. Because I was damn certain that I could not belong in this field, for some of the reasons that Emily notes above as well as some others that probably aren’t peculiar to me, even if it felt that way. Yet here I am — thanks in no small part to the community called forth and sustained by this blog. So if I can do this and be this, then maybe explaining how that came to seem possible will encourage other people to give it a try.

    Still, even if people are ready to hear those stories, I’m not sure I’m ready to tell them here. Let me think about it.

  7. I would like to add that because of the concerns expressed here, the 2016 USIH conference will feature a plenary entitled “The Many Faces of Gender in American Thought: Considering Our Methods.” This is something I have thought about for a long time and I have pressed for more attention to gender as a tool of analysis as we look at the history of thought. I discussed part of this issue in a previous post on this blog on Feb, 4. Not sure how to link that here. (help!) It seems that this is topic we continually return to without much resolution. I do think that much of if is due to the questions that are asked of the past and not just who is at the table. Gender is often invisible in more ways than one and many women who I have spoken to hesitate to address gender in their work or want to be distanced from it. I hope everyone who attends the conference will engage with this particular panel.

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