U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Could there be an intellectual history without ideas

Following E. P. Thompson’s work on the British working class in the 1960s historians of what we usually call the “new social history” have attempted to produce history that would not rest on texts authored by elites, but on other forms of evidence culled from the archive. Recently I have been preoccupied with the question if that is something intellectual historians should attempt as well. And if they do would it still be intellectual history?

Another work by E. P. Thompson perhaps best captures this question. In 1971 Thompson published “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” which attempted to sketch a framework for the mentality of the English plebs when faced with economic pressure. According to this formulation there are certain red lines that the English crowd would not tolerate, which the historian could tease out. There were unspoken assumptions within communities that were usually well understood, and when the elites abrogated these terms the crowd would rise up to uphold them. Thompson’s work focused on food riots, but other scholars have attempted to apply this framework to a whole set of corporate (1) assumptions.

To what extent can we regard such an attempt to penetrate into the realm of assumptions, emotions, and instincts as intellectual history? For though it surely falls to some extent within the many registers of human cognition, the evidence we have is only circumstantial. We do not know—and cannot even get a good feel for—what ideas those pre-articulated instincts helped form. We cannot even be certain that this pre-articulated layer of thought that we hypothesize about really existed.

Such problems are not only reserved for the actions of historical subalterns. Take for instance a famous document like the Declaration of Independence. It talks about “self evident truths,” but to what extent did the people who wrote the Declaration believe what they wrote? And even if they believed what they wrote, to what extent would they be likely to act on those ideas? We know that to a significant extent they were not prepared to hold themselves accountable to the notion that “all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson did not release his slaves after writing the Declaration, and though he said much on account of slavery—and even acted to some extent on his ideas, as in his work on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 for example—should we not attempt to formulate an intellectual history that fully accounts for his actions?

Take for example John Adams’ reply to his wife Abigail in response to her famous “Remember the Ladies” request. “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh,” he wrote to his wife less than three months before the Declaration of Independence was made public. And he continued with a jeering tone to dismiss all those groups of non-white and non-elite men who have recently decided to challenge “the bonds of government.” In other words it would seem that there was much else that was “self evident” about the Declaration of Independence. Even if those who wrote it thought they believed it, we can tell that there is a pre-articulated—and is some ways more significant—intellectual level that evinced very different convictions.

Now in this particular instance I presented some textual evidence to support my case, but can we imagine an intellectual history that does not rely on classically authored texts at all? What ever we might call it, it seems worthwhile to understand this level of cognition that in many—perhaps most—regards has shaped historical reality more than fully articulated ideas have.

[1] By corporate I refer to premodern notions of community bonds.

41 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I love this! It reminds me of Peter and Carol Stearns’ work on “emotionology” — essentially the study of emotional standards (what emotions were and were not accepted in a given time). I think, however, that the most sophisticated history of this type would involve all three things: intellectual standards, subjective experience of ideas, and the ideological content of the ideas themselves. This is what a fully-developed approach to the history of ideas looks like, in my view.

    • Thanks Jeremy, I agree, a fully developed intellectual history would do just that I think–if it can be done that is. I suspect however that charting the many layers of the ideational realm and its historical significance is something almost hopelessly impossible to achieve.

      • I have to disagree here. People have been telling me for the entirety of my academic career thus far that the things that interest me — the ways subjective experience shapes the world around us — can’t be studied by historians. No, I counter; it’s simply a matter of examining different kinds of sources, and believing them.

  2. Two possible examples of what Eran Zelnik is talking about in his interesting post. One has to do with the approach to intellectual history that might be called “structural”(not necessarily “structuralist” as in Levi-Strauss). Here Foucault and Kuhn (and Michael Polanyi too) taught us to look at the tacit as well as explicit forms of knowledge. They were not really empirically identifiable in a systematic or a straightforward sense, but more like conditions of possibility in the Kantian sense. Here the question is: what would you need to believe in or entertain tacitly in order to speak or act in a certain way explicitly.
    The second way ideas come to us/we discover ideas and use them came to me when I was working on the idea of freedom in the Civil Rights Movement. There/then, an idea, signifier, meme, etc travelling under the alias of “freedom” accrued meanings to itself over time, underwent transformations due to experiences and thought, at a popular and explicitly individual level. One thing that is easy to forget is that, at least in the CRM, lots of people got their intellectual stimulation and their conceptual arsenals not from reading by oneself(even by oneself one is with another), but from listening to and arguing about what the preacher had just said in the Sunday service. Can you go from Jacob wrestling with the Angel for his blessing to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic of recognition? You bet–and you don’t need to be Hegel to make that jump. I would also stress that all this is not a kind of natural “thing” that the untutored do. It involves high level, intense thought on the part of people who are seldom given credit for thinking as opposed to experiencing or acting.

    • Thanks Richard. When writing this I indeed had in mind something along the lines of Foucauldian discourse, though I think that the Bourdieu’s idea of habitus perhaps even better captures what I’m getting at here.

    • Thanks Michael. Yes on both accounts, that’s why I’m usually more interested in cultural history than intellectual history. I guess part of my agenda on this blog for a while is to try and collapse this distinction.
      I would also add that what I am occupied with more right now is lack of action (or practices, as post structural cultural historians would call it). Can we think of a way to penetrate ideas (or dispositions, discourse, habitus, or what have you) by silences. I think the answer is yes, to some extent, but it must rely on a strong comparative framework.

      • I like thinking of a lack of action as a form of silence. Or, silence in action!

  3. Writing awhile back on “Intellectual History and the Social Sciences” in Higham and Conkin, Gordon White cited Thompson to make Richard King’s point about the “prescriptive and circumscriptive force of culture and its institutions,” that ideas are less the causes or motives of individuals’ behavior, than the structure of meaning and action by which ideas and their carriers are used, the tacit warrant of the self-evident. But does this distinction map onto that between intellectual and cultural history?

    • I think the distinction between intellectual history and cultural history is often methodological. Good intellectual history will involve cultural methods and good cultural history will involve intellectual methods. Ideally I think they should be collapsed and Wood’s formulation I think mirror’s that ideal. As much as I hate to say it, I sometimes agree with Wood.

  4. Eran–
    I was puzzled by the title of your post because I thought, no, there can’t be an intellectual history “without ideas.” How would that even be possible? But you seem to conflate ideas with what you call in your final paragraph “classically authored texts,” which you then see as repositories of “fully articulated ideas.” So, the question isn’t really about ideas vs. something else as the object of intellectual history, but about the production of intellectuals and their more systematic working out of ideas, on the one hand, and the inchoate and under-articulated ideas found in a variety of cultural registers, on the other. You ask “To what extent can we regard such an attempt to penetrate into the realm of assumptions, emotions, and instincts as intellectual history? ” and I would answer that good intellectual history always attempts to understand the assumptions and emotional valence of forms of thought (if not “instincts”); we are defined less by our commitment to some canonical body of texts written by intellectuals than we are by our commitment to understanding ideas (which often take the form of “assumptions”) as historically constituted. In fact, even if we focus on canonical texts, our historical sense drives us to link those texts and their content to the much messier world of cultural predispositions, discourses, ideologies and world views. The old idea of intellectual history as an exclusive commitment to only the arena of formalized and highly articulated bodies of thought and texts is, I think, not representative of the mainstream of practice of the profession, if it ever was. But ideas remain central; without them, no thinking. That’s my take, for what it’s worth!

    • Thanks Dan, so are you saying that fully articulated ideas have no autonomy? It seems to me that many intellectual historians still operate under the assumption that the genealogy of ideas has a certain autonomy that can never only be reduced to its historical context, in this case of pre-articulated assumptions. The definition of autonomy is obviously a tricky and slippery one, but I feel like especially of recent historians have been quite inclined to “take ideas seriously,” meaning refusing to reduce them to discursive formations when the need for us to do so arises. At times it should be clear to us that people are deluding themselves and intellectual historians have been hesitant to fully grapple with that in my opinion.

      • Your short answer here raises more questions than I think I can even begin to address, but I would point to just two: 1. You draw a sharp distinction between “autonomy” and “reduction” to context, excluding a range of relations between those two. I am aware of no intellectual historian who believes that ideas are entirely autonomous, if what you mean by that is self-contained and independent of other realities and/or contexts. If you have somebody in mind who writes intellectual history as the tale of autonomous ideas, who might that be? I think this is a false choice. 2. If you mean that failure to “reduce” ideas to discursive formations “when the need for us to do so arises,” signals a commitment to autonomy of ideas, I guess I find this incoherent. First, because it leaves out questions of relationships that are not reductions, and second, because it seems to imply that discursive formations are somehow not ideational. Historians, it seems to me, are contextualists all the way down, and their contextualism is what tends to distinguish them from others who might approach ideas some other way. If you are here falling back on an old distinction between material reality and ideas (which is implied in the gesture toward “false consciousness” you make in your last sentence), yes, I think most historians have given up such a dichotomy, with its implication that ideas are somehow not real, and can be measured by their failure or success in reproducing or expressing some independent (autonomous?) realm of material existence. But it might be helpful if you could point toward those intellectual historians you think are committed to the idea of “autonomous ideas” so that we can have a sense of what we’re talking about here.

      • What I had in mind specifically in this response is recent histories of conservatism in the late 20th century that refuse to reduce it to a combination of racism, sexism, and financial interests. They insist on treating these ideas “seriously.”

    • “I am aware of no intellectual historian who believes that ideas are entirely autonomous…”

      No, but apparently there are those who believe they can be transcendent, as has been discussed on this blog in the past. Or at least flirt with the idea. These aren’t the exact same thing, but they can have similar consequences and expressions.

      Also, the idea of false consciousness, in a classic Marxist sense, wouldn’t apply to what Eran was thinking about here, since false consciousness only applies to the oppressed who drink the ideology of the oppressors — for the oppressors to simply tell themselves stories about their priorities that are more pleasing than, “well,we’re justifying our own power and privilege” is something, but it’s not false consciousness (since it aligns with their material interests).

      • Can you point me toward the discussion of “transcendent” ideas on the blog? I just see a lot of straw men and false choices (If ideas can’t be reduced to expressions of interest than they must be autonomous or transcendent–either/or).

        On “false consciousness”: I’m happy to dispense with this short hand, but I think maybe that Lukacs in _History and Class Consciousness_ defined and used it in a much broader way than you indicate–specifying all forms of ideological thought that did not line up with objective class conditions as false consciousness. Bourgeois liberalism was, in this formulation, a kind of false consciousness. But I’m not a historian of Marxist thought, so perhaps Andrew (who is!) could enlighten us on this–I’m happy to be wrong and stop using terms that I thought meant one thing but clearly don’t. But, of course, looking into the history of the idea of false consciousness would require that we take it “seriously.” I think maybe the term “ideology” was, in the original Marxian lexicon, mostly what we seem to be talking about, but today that term is used in so many ways that it has lost the specificity of that original context.

      • Yup: http://s-usih.org/2014/05/beyond-conservatism-vladimir-nabokov-and-the-anti-political-in-u-s-intellectual-history.html#comments

        I don’t think anyone, including Eran — ok I know this, seeing as I live with him — believes in it’s everything or nothing. But we’re talking more about tendencies than declarations; the methods some historians use over and over again, and then deny that those methods have implications because they don’t agree with those implications as stated by critics. There’s quite a difference, in other words, between doing something and owning it; and if folks don’t agree that they are participating in something, there’s nothing I or Eran can say to convince them otherwise if they’re not convinced by the evidence on hand. In other words, there’s no point in continuing the conversation when we emphatically disagree about the implications of how some people do history.

      • Regarding “transcendental” ideas, there are some pieces on transcendentalism itself that seem to agree with their historical subjects. I am thinking of Richard Francis’s “Transcendental Utopias,” for instance.

  5. I would like to see the term “intellectual history” replaced by “history of thought” which conveys a broader meaning of the object of our study and includes the ideas of non-elites, widely diffused sensibilities and cultural environments. “Intellectual” still is heard by too many as the study of stuffy old white guys. But no, their can’t be history of thought without ideas of some sort and from some where. The sources can vary. I thought that was already settled.

    • I agree history of thought or history of consciousness would be better.
      But can you glean ideas if you only have actions? Is moral economy an idea?

      • Ah, Tim — thanks for running that search! So many great posts there.

        There’s no way to search only the comments from the front page of the blog, but a search for the phrase “history of thought” via the dashboard has it showing up in 38 different comments here over the years.

  6. Great post, Eran. This may be beyond the parameters of your question, but what about the sociology of intellectuals? I think it is possible to write about intellectuals – their relationships, status, and institutional affiliations – without engaging with their ideas (not in any meaningful way, at least). In my experience intellectual historians are too eager to subscribe intellectual or ideological reasons for actions taken by scholars or non-academics defined as intellectuals. Personal hatreds, power grabs, and other species of departmental and intra-university or intra-institutional politics often play an important role in assessing an intellectual’s place in her cultural and social milieu. It seems that a study focused on these relationships should be defined as an intellectual history, yet it would not be about ideas. What do you think?

    • “In my experience intellectual historians are too eager to subscribe intellectual or ideological reasons for actions taken by scholars or non-academics defined as intellectuals.”

      I agree!

    • I think that would be a really cool project. I would be actually even more interested in applying this kind of exercise to legal history. Can we do a history of Supreme Court decisions based only on the justices’ personal interests and experiences?
      I think that would be especially worth while because legal history is so often just sophistry designed to uphold certain interests.

  7. Robin Marie, you have offered (at #5, above) a link to a 2014 blog comment which is, presumably, an example of (as you put it) “…the methods some historians use over and over again, and then deny that those methods have implications because they don’t agree with those implications as stated by critics. There’s quite a difference, in other words, between doing something and owning it; and if folks don’t agree that they are participating in something, there’s nothing I or Eran can say to convince them otherwise if they’re not convinced by the evidence on hand.”

    Who are “the historians” here? Andrew? Me? Rivka? All of us? Someone else? And which of those three historians (or some others that you’re assuming we’re all supposed to call to mind?) is denying that their/our methods “have implications”? And in response to what critics?

    • Well L.D., since the comment section hasn’t been the friendliest place around here lately, I was trying to be diplomatic, but ok —

      At that moment, I was referring to Dan, whose choice of subjects and individuals to study, combined with his conclusions and methodology, participates, in my opinion, in a reification of ideas that abstracts them from their power context and content all too often. If you want another example, at the OAH conference a few weeks ago, he used the texts of postwar liberals in a very straightforward way, and described his method as one of — and I am quoting from my obviously paraphrased notes I took at the time — “going to the text themselves.” I expressed my criticism of that then, in front of everyone, but you know, didn’t feel it was necessary to do it again here when I had already had my two cents in person.

      Look, I study postwar liberals myself, and I think that going to the texts themselves is a method, but only in the sense that you have to put your shoes on your feet before you can tie them. My frustration, as always with these conversations with Dan, is that I’m ready to offer up my political commitments and how they connect to my assumptions, at all times. When I notice others doing the same but then have them insist on their innocence of any such thing, I don’t know what else to do or say. Perhaps it just comes down to well, yeah; it doesn’t sound good when I describe it, because that’s not your own understanding of your work. That’s what makes it a critique.

      If there could just be a response of “yeah, well you’re wrong” to me, that’s one thing; but it is frustrating when the move is to claim that I (or in this case, also Eran) are setting up straw men, when all we are trying to do is to point out a conspicuous absence in a lot of intellectual history, that yeah, ironically enough, Dan often participates in. That doesn’t need to be anything necessarily personal, though — especially since it is so common and not at all particular to him — which is why I tried to keep it vague.

  8. Ah oh, the link above is not meant to be to one comment; it is meant to be to the entire post and conversation.

      • Yes in the sense that I was simply displaying that the idea of going “beyond politics” has been discussed, per Dan’s request to provide evidence of that, but no in the sense that I was not proscribing the exact same view to everyone.

        I do not know why it linked specifically to your comment, but it was not intentional.

  9. Anyway, then and now I was trying to do something really dumb, which is try to argue that what someone does isn’t matching up with what they say they are doing. (As you can see when I wrote, back then, this: “Finally, I don’t think anyone here has actually *claimed* that politics contaminates anything – that’s part of what I’m trying to point out, that things pop up in asides but aren’t unpacked…) This works when your subjects are dead and/or not colleagues; when they are, it’s a fool’s errand, and I take responsibility for thinking it should be accepted and digested in any way that’s productive, for anyone.

  10. Robin Marie–
    The only person in the linked discussion who talked about “transcendent” ideas, as far as I can tell, is you–that was your characterization of a position nobody else took. Look, I get that you don’t like the kind of intellectual history I am in favor of (which I tend to think is pretty capacious–if you want to do ideological demystification, have at it. But if you want to write an intellectual history that refuses to take ideas seriously, I would just say you’re in the wrong line of work.). What I don’t get is the constant shifting of goalposts and the mischaracterizations of your interlocutors’ positions. But I guess what you’re saying here is that since you already know what my politics are (or those of anybody who takes a position which is not yours) that you don’t have to see my arguments as anything more than an ideological symptom. My response is premised on the idea that what you or Eran say should be responded to as a set of ideas that have some claim to be taken seriously. I am trying to be fair in characterizing what I think the two of you are saying, although one moment it’s a critique of the idea of “autonomous ideas,” and in favor of reduction of ideas to something else, and the next (when told nobody actually believes in a method or practices a form of intellectual history in which ideas are autonomous), it’s a statement that my position is in favor of “transcendent ideas,” again, a position I never took. Perhaps your frustration in these arguments arises from the fact that your interlocutors refuse the characterization of the arguments you make, but instead of listening to the arguments they do make, you seem to want to double down on the characterization you have already made. If you won’t respect the sincerity or seriousness of the argument on its own terms, but persist in seeing it as an ideological symptom, it’s hard to have a discussion. Given that, this will be my final statement on this thread.

  11. Perhaps what Eran and Robin are proposing here is simply a Marxist analysis of the production of ideas: it is not just an issue of context, but of material production, which connects directly and indirectly to the articulation of racialized, gendered, sexualized structures. What Dan says about ideology can be put to use in this regard. Intellectual labor–be it by historians or any other cultural worker–cannot be divorced from the ideological formations and disagreements it emerges from, be it from a leftist, liberal or conservative subject position (ideology does not equal false consciousness in this type of reading). I believe Eran’s reference to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus in one of his comments helps to clear out some of the confusion–even as it addresses questions of place and space, habitus is not far from the concept of ideology. In my research, I have always struggled with my relationship with objects of study that I do not identify with, because they adopt a a particular politics. Yet, from a Marxist perspective one can also read against the grain and find flashes of meaning and contradictions, while acknowledging our own interpretive categories and codes, a la Fredric Jameson. There is no pure text or subject position, after alll. In this regard, I side less with the hermeneutics of suspicion that ruled over literary and cultural studies in the 80s and 90s and most of the 2000s–what the queer theorist Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick calls “paranoid reading,”–than with a “reparative” approach to critique. https://sydney.edu.au/arts/slam/downloads/documents/novel_studies/3_Sedgwick.pdf

    I also see an invitation somewhere in this kerfunkle to reflect more–and collectively–on how institutions, disciplines and their gatekeepers (journals, blogs, actual scholars and so forth), and the contemporary social order shape the work done by intellectual historians–and viceversa. I do recognize though that the majority of the USIH bloggers do participate in this enterprise, in some way or another. Onward.

  12. At the risk of inviting Eran onto unwelcome or even dangerous professional territory, it seems to me that much of the conversation in the latter half of the comments section has devolved into the tacit (unproveable) rather than the explicit (arguable) practices of leaders in the field. I wasn’t at the OAH, didn’t catch the (hidden) allusion to Dan, Rivka, etc. in Robin’s earlier post, etc. Can we bring these disagreements (of which there are many) more out into the open? Perhaps follow up these rich disagreements over the course of several more posts? These issues strike me as fruitful points of contention if we can move past name-calling and insinuations.

    For example, Eran cites an interest in “ideas (or dispositions, discourse, habitus, or what have you).” All of these terms seek to get at the “inarticulate” aspects of lived experience; but, of course, these different theoretical terms matter immensely to how one tries to write intellectual history! And yes, I would suggest that “history of consciousness” implies a different historical practice from “history of thought” because it hints at a more relaxed stance toward the intentionality of actors. And we _should_ argue here about which of these is the better descriptor and why–I was glad to learn about Tim’s earlier posts on just this issue. Choices in theoretical vocabulary are statements of position, but you all know this already.

    So, I guess I’m wondering if Eran (or Robin, or LD, or whomever wants to continue this conversation) would be willing to put his/her reflections into dialogue with a specific piece of recent methodological writing in the field? This way we can move onto the terrain of public argument. And may I be so bold as to suggest one or two possible texts for future discussion in this direction?

    The first would be Dan Wickberg’s “What is the History of Sensibilities?” On p. 664 of that article, Wickberg attempts to distinguish “sensibility” from other terms such as “ideology, worldview, habitus, structure of feeling, episteme, mentalite, and paradigm” and to defend the former. I’d be curious to know what Eran makes of this argument, which seems highly germane to the topic of this post.

    Also relevant to the exchange above between Robin and Dan about politics, I’d be curious to know what she’d make of Dan’s statement on p. 674 of his article: ““Culture is not power, nor is power the only or the most important element of culture. Power is but one dimension of culture” . . . “There is a world of meaning that falls by the wayside when this view predominates.” Doesn’t this lay out one reason why some people think there is a realm (of meaning, experience, etc.) “beyond politics”? And if that view is insufficient, let’s discuss it here!

    Two other pieces come to mind in relation to the above discussion of “autonomy” and its relevance (or irrelevance) to the current practice of the history of ideas. The first is–you are seeing a theme here–Dan’s piece, “In the Environment of Ideas: Arthur Lovejoy and the History of Ideas as a Form of Cultural History.” This piece seems relevant because Wickberg (using last name to refer to the document and not the man, whom I have never met) argues that Lovejoy, contrary to stereotypes about his work, did _not_ advance a theory of “unit ideas” operating autonomously from history. In fact, Wickberg goes on to suggest that Lovejoy shares more in common with Foucault than with Plato (p. 451). Note as well how similar Lovejoy’s own historical framework is to the aspirations laid out above by Eran. Wickberg quotes this passage from _The Great Chain of Being_; “there are implicit or incompletely explicit assumptions, or more or less unconscious mental habits, operating in the thought of an individual or a generation. It is the beliefs which are so much a matter of course that they are rather tacitly presupposed than formally expressed and argued for, the ways of thinking which seem so natural and inevitable that they are not scrutinized with the eye of logical self-consciousness, that often are most decisive of the character of a philosopher’s doctrine, and still oftener of the dominant intellectual tendencies of an age.”

    So, maybe Eran is an secret Lovejovian, perhaps to his chagrin? 🙂

    The last two pieces I’d like to bring into the discussion are Darrin McMahon’s “The Return of the History of Ideas?” and Peter Gordon’s “Contextualism and Criticism in the History of Ideas,” both from _Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History_ (OUP, 2014). McMahon defends a certain kind of autonomy in the history of ideas–an autonomy from local contexts in favor of the long duree. In his own way, Gordon does the same in his criticisms of the excessively restrained (and, in his view, politically impotent) practices of contextualism among the Cambridge school (Skinner, Pocock, Dunn, etc.)

    For what it’s worth, it might be helpful to distinguish b/t two two types of autonomy: 1) a belief that ideas have autonomy from history, and 2) a belief that ideas have autonomy from (political) power. If I read him correctly, Wickberg does not subscribe to #1, and doesn’t believe that many other historians do either. (McMahon’s piece would seem to lend support to this view of the current state of the field, even as he pushes back somewhat against this consensus). However, Wickberg does subscribe to #2. If I read her correctly, Robin subscribes to neither #1 or #2. That seems like a debate worth fleshing out further at some point if time and inclination permit.

    I realize these may seem like arrogant/unworkable requests coming from an outsider to the field, so let me conclude by saying simply: it’s always a pleasure to follow the heady methodological discussion here. Thanks for your hard work, all!

    • Hi Patrick —

      I am going to bow out of this conversation, but thank you a lot for your excellent comment here, as it was super clarifying for me. And yes, you’ve read me correctly.

      • Well, I’m glad I understood your argument correctly. I agree with Khalil above — we need more voices on this blog who attempt to develop a materialist theory of intellectual history. Though I have learned a great deal from the essays by Dan cited above, I’m not sure I agree with his comment that “ideological demystification” is necessarily opposed to “taking ideas seriously”–much depends on how nimbly one moves back and forth from the ideas in question to the mechanism of critique (economic, racial, gender, etc). Probably much also depends on how one distinguishes b/t “ideas” and “ideologies,” and whether one believes that the act of “demystification” is necessarily reductive (and thus, inherently “unserious”). For what it’s worth, there seem to me a number of examples among Marxist critics in literary studies–books by Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Francis Mulhern, Fredrick Jameson–that take (bourgeois) ideas and literary forms seriously and yet also subject those ideas and forms to a rather severe critique from a Marxist point of view. One can think of other recent examples–Sam Moyn on human rights, Ibram Kendi on racist ideas, etc.–that also seem to pull this off.

        As a last provocation, I’d be most curious to have you or others take up again the theme of whether historical analysis can ever get “beyond politics.” That post by Rivka that you linked too was really fruitful, I thought, since she tried to develop an argument for how we might discuss the aesthetic apart from the political—that in fact, reducing everything to politics could actually cause us to get the history of Trilling, Chambers, and Nabokov wrong (though I realize her position ultimately seemed unpersuasive to you).

        This is a little out of the way for readers of this blog, but there’s a series of back-and-forth exchanges b/t Francis Mulhern and Stefan Collini in the _New Left Review_ back in 2002-3 about just this issue–i.e. whether cultural criticism can or should ever arrive at a horizon “beyond politics” that might be worth reflecting on in this space. I can send you (or anyone else) copies of the articles if you like; unfortunately, they are beyond behind a paywall.

    • Thanks for this well thought out and well put comment.
      I think that at the end of the day it boils down to two differences Robin and I have with many other, usually liberal, historians:
      We use a different theory of power and we have a different idea of what makes for worthwhile historical inquiry. The two are of course linked.

      • I think this is right. I probably am similar to you and Robin Marie about how power works and appreciate the two of you working out these differences here at the blog. Where I disagree with you two is regarding what is worthwhile historical inquiry. I’m pretty open to any and all–at least, any and all that have made their way onto the pages of this blog.

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