A leading textbook publisher has invited me to pull together some accompanying materials for its textbook aimed at the US Survey I and II, (i.e. from the closing of the Bering Straight to the opening of the investigation into the Justice Department’s firing practices).
Looking over the fine existing examples of collected readings supplements, I realize that a large number of typical selections were written by political and military elites. Recognizing that survey courses must situate the major political and military events, (if for no other reason than to provide context for intellectual, social, and cultural histories), I am certain that this project will silhouette its fair share of generals on horseback and statesmen in debate. But I would like to punctuate the American Survey with as many engaging samples of literary, industrial, philosophical, reform, and scientific writers as the press will tolerate. I’d even like to include historians who were involved in the debates of their day. Just by way of example, I have a copy of a letter from Frederick Jackson Turner to his press, shrugging off as “unimportant” a disparaging review from a “rather non-influential and radical historian” named Charles A. Beard.
So I ask you, teachers of undergraduate American History classes, what specific reading excerpts would YOU like to see included in such a supplement?
Please reply to this question by posting a comment at the bottom of this post, or by emailing me at textcontext (at) psu.edu. I appreciate your suggestions, and you may well see them included!
This visual version of the chemist’s old friend, the periodic table, is embedded with tidbits about the history of science. The site could be useful in an electronic classroom. – TL
I open with this false dichotomy not merely to draw your eye. In reading a dual review of two biographies about Einstein, published this morning in the Chicago Tribune, it seems that this fallacy is a quiet assumption of the reviewer, Daniel Sutherland.
This is not to disparage the review or reviewer; the piece is informative and insightful. Sutherland, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, relays that the two books in question, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe and Jurgen Neffe’s Einstein, both contextualize their subject.
The differences between the two works are substantial. In building their respective cases for Einstein, according to the reviewer, Isaacson focuses on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while Neffe utilizes the long duree of the Annales School in exploring the history of science back to the seventeenth century. Isaacson apparently treats Einstein sympathetically, while Neffe is “concerned with deflating the myth and settling accounts.” Finally, Isaacson’s work is long (680 pages) and Neffe’s is relatively shorter (461 pages). But length didn’t daunt Sutherland, as he found Isaacson’s book “hard to put down.” With that, the reviewer’s preference between the two books is clear. And since Sutherland is a philosopher by training and not a historian, questions that would concern an historian are naturally not as important.
But Sutherland touches on a few issues that are crucial to intellectual historians in his review. They come to the foreground in what I see as the intellectual heart of Sutherland’s review. Here’s a passage from that heart:
“A final challenge for the biographer is Einstein’s genius. What is a genius, and what did Einstein’s consist in? Was his brain different from other brains, a suggestion that inspired the doctor who performed his autopsy to abscond with it? What was unique to his thinking? Einstein himself said he was not more gifted than anyone else, just more curious and tenacious than the average person. . . . The question of genius quickly expands into a broader analysis of what made his achievements possible. What effect did his early reading have on his discoveries, and how much help did he have from those around him? What cultural and social conditions contributed to his revolutionary thoughts? As Neffe says, ‘Einstein never saw himself as part of a team,’ and we tend not to as well. How much of his genius is a simplifying story that ignores the complexities of the way science works, and how much of it can be rightly attributed to him?”
This heady stuff for a newspaper review, but it touches the heart of a philosophical problem in working on the margins of biography and history. Which way do we turn, Sutherland asks?
The answer is simply to split the middle between individual and environment. This seems common sense enough, but Sutherland refrains from addressing the question of which author found the best balance: he leaves it to the reader. To me this shouldn’t be the philosophy of a reviewer of the popular bio-history genre. The reviewer must attempt to assess whether a book’s author properly balanced the individual with his or her environment. What is proper, you might ask? I’m not a 100 percent sure, but I’d like to hear the reviewer’s assessment of the issue in the context of the subject (in this case Einstein).
Now I know something about the practical questions of newspaper publishing and the history of reviewing. Do readers want to know what’s in a book, or the reviewer’s opinion of the book? This tension in reviewing began around the turn of the last century, and has been documented, for instance, in Joan Shelley Rubin’s The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992). Why can’t newspaper book reviewers find a balance between the two? Is it some kind of fear (such as exposing biases) on the part of the newspaper or the reviewer? I don’t know. I’m sure this issue was discussed, in part, at the recent BookExpo panel on the “intellectual history of book reviewing.”
Is it responsible for a reviewer of the bio-history genre to leave open a judgment of balance? When historians find occasion to review this book genre, should we leave our readers suspended in this false dichotomy or try to take a stand?
Isn’t the problem of balance most acute in intellectual history? Doesn’t an author who underplays environment contribute to hero worship, thereby fostering forms of elitism? This is has been a perennial problem in, or accusation against, intellectual history. But in turn, doesn’t a focus on the environment undercut the uniqueness of the individual, thereby undermining her or his dignity? If the answer to these questions of paragraph are all affirmative (or at least mostly so), then the question of balance cannot be ignored.
Since we at USIH conduct reviews, I also wonder about the thoughts of my fellow contributors on this issue. Ought we not seek a strict balance in assessing the strengths of this genre? Or should we at least offer an explanation if we think is not balanced? – TL
Dear USIH Readers,
Although intellectual historians are not explicitly welcomed or sought, I think the topics listed in the CFP below may be of interest. No url was given (hence the longer notice here).
BOSTON COLLEGE BIENNIAL CONFERENCE ON THE HISTORY OF RELIGION
The History Department of Boston College invites papers and panels for its Biennial Conference on the History of Religion to be held on March 14-15, 2008. Since the increased emphasis on social history during the 1960s and 1970s, historians of religion have considered the variety of categories that shape both institutional and individual religious identity. These categories include ethnicity, race, socio-economic standing, gender, and political affiliation among others. At the same time, historians recognize that religious affiliation is only one of many factors that shape an individual’s personal identity. Also at play are processes of construction, contestation, and connection. Moreover, there are a myriad of factors that influence these processes and define the boundaries of religious identities – the clerical and lay, the national and transnational, the urban and rural, subjective and objective realities. Far from closed, these boundaries are fluid and malleable; a single religious community or individual may possess multiple religious
identities that permeate and influence one another.
We welcome paper and panel proposals from both established scholars and graduate students on topics from the Reformation period and beyond that touch upon the question of religious identity. The geographic scope is broadly defined to include areas from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Suggested themes include the factors contributing to the construction of religious identities, the active processes involved in creating religious identity, the malleability of religious identities, the transnational features and connections of religious identity, and/or the moments of crisis in religious identity.
Individual paper proposals should include a 300-word proposal, paper title, and current c.v. Panel proposals for two to three presenters should include a 250-word panel abstract (including panel title), a 300-word proposal for each individual paper (including paper title), and a current c.v. for each presenter.
Deadline for submission is October 1, 2007. Please direct all proposals to Sarah K. Nytroe, Boston College History Department, Lower Campus Office Building, 4th Floor, 21 Campanella Way, Chestnut Hill MA 02467, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notice to Transcendentialists, Abolitionists, Radical Historians, Americanists, Civil War Historians, Literary Historians and Alcott Scholars (Intellectual Historians may also recall that Louisa May Alcott had a father, Bronson):
The Louisa May Alcott Society has been holding conferences, printing newsletters, and sharing scholarly resources. Interested?
Also, there is a New Louisa May Alcott Documentary Film In The Works. Interested?
Today I come to you with an unusual USIH post. Rather than address a topic peculiar to U.S. intellectual history, this piece aims at larger issues: logic, discussing thought in history, and a case study from an widely acclaimed book on an international figure. But my thinking on these larger issues originates with what some would call a pet peeve: misgivings about the phrase “linear thinking.”
Since starting History and Education last year, one of the most consistently read posts there covers the subject of linear thinking. For every 100 visitors, or every 1.5 to 2 days, around 4 or 5 people read that post. I attribute those consistent viewings to a kind of at-large vagueness about the phrase’s meaning, and the subsequent desire for definition. I also noticed yesterday that a Wikipedia search for the phrase – as well as searches on “linear thought,” “non-linear thinking,” and “non-linear thought” – reveals nothing.
Thanks to Sitemeter, I know that the H&E post’s most common entry point is a Google search on the question “what is linear thinking.” But it’s not just Google that’s efficiently driving people to H&E: comments on the post (including my replies) display further attempts to delineate the boundaries of linear and non-linear thinking.
By way of summary, my first thoughts on the subject began with the idea that linear thinkers are simply logical – and that’s not such a bad thing. The corollary was that non-linear thinkers are not logical. There’s a bit more to the entry, but that was my gist. If I were to revise the original post I would expand on my introductory paragraph’s point that non-linear thinking is a synonym for thinking creatively, and perhaps a just another way of talking about the subject of “informal logic.” In many ways this USIH post is an expansion on that original H&E entry.
Here I want to dig deeper into the notions of linear and non-linear thinking. To help, I will eventually analyze a passage from George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, titled Witness To Hope. Because Weigel’s book is also a kind of intellectual history that received wide acclaim, his means and method should be of interest to intellectual historians. But before delving into Weigel I’d like to lay out some hopefully universal starting points about the study of logic.
To those who believe that logic is a subject admitting of innumerable types, with little common ground for discussion, then this post is not for you. Many members of the varieties-of-logic crowd believe that everyone operates under her or his own “logic.” Nonlinear and linear thinking, to them, are just more nominal categories in a morass that includes dialectic, the “logic of history,” symbolic logic, positivism, utilitarianism, and a multitude of other “isms” and philosophies.
For those believing that some universal rules apply within the subject of logic, common points of understanding exist. Traditionally, for instance, in basic texts like Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen’s Introduction to Logic, two kinds of reasoning fall under the “formal logic” rubric: inductive and deductive. Both types utilize if-then statements and syllogisms (if in different ways), but differ with regard to cogency (or strength) and validity, for induction and deduction respectively. Induction works from the ground up (a posteriori) by observing phenomena and generalizing; deduction works from the top down (a priori) by applying universal principles to particular situations.
The category of “informal logic” includes fallacies, such as those illuminated by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. This especially important classification was covered exhaustively for historians by David Hackett Fischer in his 1970 book, Historians’ Fallacies.
There’s much more that could be said here about the contemporary scene in logic studies, but I’ll leave that for minds more competent than mine.
My point in elaborating on these means of reasoning, or subjects within logic, is to emphasize two things. First, logic is a viable field of study that concedes some inherent, universal organization in thought. Next, straight lines – or linearity – can be seen in all types of logical reasoning. Induction, for instance, can be seen as thinking that begins with the particulars, but proceeds in a kind of straight line that is visible in syllogisms. Even fallacies, although considered “informal logic,” can also be expressed “linearly” in faulty syllogisms. In many ways, then, being linear is often tantamount to simply attempting to be logical.
But what’s expressed by calling someone a “non-linear thinker?” This brings me to a passage I read recently in Weigel’s Witness To Hope. That passage, set in the context of Karol Wojtyla, Jr.’s development as an intellectual and a philosopher in the 1950s, defines linear thinking and addresses Wojtyla’s traits as a non-linear thinker. Here’s the paragraph (italics mine):
“Wojtyla-the-philosopher refined his distinctively phenomenological way of doing philosophy in [his] doctoral seminar. Many philosophers think in a linear way: they state a problem, examine a variety of possible solutions, and then, through a step-by-step process of logic, reach and state a conclusion. Wojtyla did not (and in fact does not) think linearly. His method was circular, but in the manner of walking down a spiral staircase, not going round-and-round a closed circle. He, too, would begin by identifying a problem: for example, what constitutes a just act? Then he would walk around the problem, examining it from different angles and perspectives. When he had gotten back to the starting point, he and his students would know a little more, so they would start walking around the problem again, reexamining it from this angle or that, but now at a deeper level of analysis and reflection. This continued through any number of perambulations, never forcing a conclusion before the question had been exhaustively examined from every possible point of view.[fn64] It was a power method of leading a seminar, a situation in which Wojtyla’s sharply honed capacity for analysis and making distinctions worked to great effect. Transferred to the printed page, however, it made for very difficult philosophical essays.” 
Lest we think this was just Weigel lionizing Wojtyla’s seminar method, the former forwarded the following in footnote #64: “Offered this once [by Weigel] as a description of his intellectual method, Pope John Paul II agreed that it was a reasonable depiction of the way his philosopher’s mind worked. [Author’s conversation with Pope John Paul II, December 11, 1996.]” (p. 899)
And make no mistake, here in a key passage of the book, Weigel’s acting as an intellectual historian. He’s attempting to explain someone’s thought processes to a reader.
But did Weigel do a good job of explaining the future pope’s manner of thinking? In terms of artistry, there’s no question. Weigel’s a superior writer. He set up Wojtyla’s dynamism, as well as the pope’s interest in hiking, in earlier passages. With that, the passage on Wojtyla’s “perambulations” is near perfect, at least in my estimation. It dovetails nicely Weigel’s caveated spiral-staircase analogy.
What of the notion of Wojtyla being a nonlinear thinker? Here I think Weigel did less than a perfect job as an intellectual historian. To me the phrases “linear way” and “think linearly” are unsatisfactory explanations of Wojtyla’s mind and method. But before I proceed, I want point out that my criticism is not meant as an overall indictment of Weigel’s book. I’m merely conducting a close reading, an intellectual historian’s reading, of one paragraph on one page in an 886-page book. The critique which I’m about to offer should be considered inconsequential in light of Weigel’s larger audience and goals.
With that in mind, I don’t see either of Weigel’s aforementioned phrases about linear thinking as helping toward his goal – to wit, showing that the future pope balanced traditional methods of thinking with those outside the box. Weigel’s definition of “the linear way” is reductionist in the context of the rest of the passage. How? The connotation is that linearity is insufficient, and that Wojtyla stands above or outside the rules of thinking.
I read Weigel’s passage as making Wojtyla appear to eschew traditional, formal logic and evade evaluations of fallacious thinking. Both are traits that’d normally be looked down upon in Catholic philosophical circles – especially traditional ones. I believe Weigel really wanted to demonstrate that Wojtyla was a hyper-linear thinker. Wojtyla took step two of Weigel’s definition of linear thinking to the max: the future pope examined “a variety of possible solutions” in an exceptional fashion. Wojtyla’s not a nonlinear thinker, he’s extraordinarily linear according to Weigel’s definition of the phrase.
I understand Weigel’s motivations to show Wojtyla’s creativity. Beyond admiring the workings of Wojtyla’s mind, the former wants to demonstrate how Wojtyla, as an old theater guy, steps outside of himself to look at problems from different angles. And the staircase analogy carries with it a certain step-by-step, logical connotation.
But the paragraph also gives the reader the feel that merely understanding a problem’s different appearances was Wojtyla’s goal. One might read this passage and believe that the future pope merely tried to empathize with everyone, and didn’t have a larger conception of the common good in mind (i.e. Wojtyla’s notion of the “law of the gift”). This clearly doesn’t describe Wojtyla accurately. The former pope was not afraid to draw conclusions and make judgments: to utilize the rules and maxims of formal logic. If he lacked those traits, he wouldn’t have become the universally acclaimed leader that he was.
One could also read Weigel’s passage and vaguely depart with the notion that Wojtyla was a kind of multiculturalist. While that may be true, that “kind” must be fleshed out. For instance, John Paul II will not be remembered for being a moral relativist, a position that is often attributed – rightly or wrongly – to multiculturalists. He most certainly applied traditional rules of logic to ethical questions.
Aside from this appearance of nitpicking by a sometime intellectual historian (me), I really like Weigel’s Witness To Hope. The book’s universal admiration is deserved. I’m no expert on John Paul II or the twentieth-century Catholic Church, but the book seems quite comprehensive. I’ve read about one quarter of it, and thus far it’s been a nice balance of biography and history. This seems to be what sells today, and Weigel does a fine job of engaging the two fields. I’ve learned more, for instance, about Poland’s cultural and religious history via Weigel than when I taught a world history course.
Finally, although it’s clear that I have a pet peeve about the notion of a “linear thinker,” no one – including Weigel – has convinced me yet that the irritation is unjustified. In writing here about it, and on Weigel’s passage in particular, my hope is that more care will be given to how the phrase is utilized.
What does the phrase ‘linear thinker’ mean to you? Does the notion of a “non-linear thinker” imply a lack of logic, or someone that ignores traditional logical categories? And if I haven’t treated Weigel justly, feel free to tell me how. – TL
 I use Amazon links not because I’m a fan of the conglomerate, but because of the sometimes enlightening discussions in each book’s review sections. Here’s a link to Powell’s to see the contrast.
 George Weigel, Witness To Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 138. This edition contains a Preface from 2005 written after John Paul II’s death.