Here’s an intriguing, brief piece about Schlesinger’s ‘vital center,’ authored by Clare L. Spark and posted over at History News Network (HNN). – TL
[Original USIH content by Tim Lacy, Chicago, IL]
In an H-Ideas post from January 17, 2007, I asserted that the field of U.S. intellectual history was perhaps at “its all-time low as an independent entity.” I also asserted, in melodramatic fashion, that the field was in its “death throes.” Since then I’ve come to realize that the real issue seems to be identity. This was implicit when I stated that a “gathering with those focused on intellectual history would help with technical, historiographical, and philosophical issues peculiar to its discipline.”  I was advocating for something that would give the field some character in relation to other historical subdisciplines.
With the issue of identity in mind, I want to stake out a claim for U.S. intellectual history as an independent entity. Providing a tentative – yet ambitious – definition of the field might help invigorate enthusiasm for activities on its behalf. Some may view this definition as a kind of disciplinary policing or turf-defining exercise. That is not at all my intent. While others desire walls and boundary setting, I seek only a more definite identity. All varieties of intellectual history inherently push boundaries. But before a discipline can be interdisciplinary, it must necessarily have some claim of its own. This essay’s goal is to define intellectual history’s uniqueness as a whole, with a particular eye on its U.S. subdiscipline.
Answers to the following questions will help in the quest for identification: What are the similarities between U.S. intellectual history and rest of U.S. history’s subdisciplines? Are there any substantial differences? What does intellectual history have to do with philosophy, literary theory, the history of U.S. philosophy, the history of science, cultural history, and the history of ideas? Is it mostly an interdisciplinary field? Why does U.S. intellectual history matter at all?
Thorough answers to these comparative questions would require a lengthy composition, one unsuitable for a web log or e-mail format. I can, however, forward some nodes of thought about which the field of intellectual history, on the whole, seems to revolve. These nodes can then be applied to the context of the United States.
In general, intellectual history today is less enthusiastic about exploring large bodies of people. That kind of overly ambitious work got the field in trouble in the 1950s and early 1960s. But intellectual history is certainly not unconnected to social history. Masses of people can be guided by ideals or ideologies, and intellectual history is a discipline where the reader – and writer – make stops in time to analyze the virtues and vices of ideas. In this way intellectual history shares something with philosophy. Intellectual historians should not fear the act of pausing to analyze a text, and that pause should be longer in a book of intellectual history than it may be in other historical disciplines.
Because of the depth of analysis, the field of intellectual history shares other traits with philosophy. The intellectual historian should be expected, more than in other historical subdisciplines, to use the critical tools of philosophy (i.e. logic) to unpack an idea or text’s strengths and weaknesses. The intellectual historian might explore language theory’s view of a particular document, or try to reconstruct arguments not explicitly made by a historical actor. As has been the case throughout its entire history, intellectual history therefore finds much in common with literary theory and the critical evaluation of literary history. And as with literary theory and some other historical subdisciplines, intellectual historians are very much concerned with hidden assumptions. But intellectual historians try to link those assumptions to logical arguments and critical theory in general.
This relationship with philosophy might lead the casual observer to call every historian of philosophy an intellectual historian. But that’s not the case. A historian of philosophy generally focuses on self-proclaimed philosophers, whether professional or amateur, but does not purposely seek out ideas and ideals in the culture at large. Yet the intellectual historian, however, is sometimes necessarily a historian of philosophy. Some philosophers have affected, directly and indirectly, larger numbers of people. In the 1960s, for instance, student activists and revolutionaries in the U.S. found much to like in the work of Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills. The self-proclaimed intellectual historian always seeks to trace the movement of ideas beyond the dialogue of philosophers.
The intellectual historian’s comfort and relationship with philosophy also result in theorizing – philosophizing – about the nature of history itself. Hence, those interested in theories of history share common ground with philosophers and intellectual historians, but not every theorizer of history is an intellectual historian. A philosopher of history may not necessarily care about how an idea useful to the historian has developed historically, or who the key figures were in an idea’s development. The intellectual historian, on the other hand, acting as a historiographer does seek to trace that development.
This same relationship holds with historians of science. Their work focuses on professional and amateur scientists, but does not have to aim at larger philosophical ideals, ideas, and the deep analysis of texts. Of course larger, transcendent ideas do arise as a consequence of the work of certain scientific projects: one need only think of Big Bang theory to prove this. The historian of science, as such, may most certainly traffic in social, cultural, or intellectual history, utilizing methods peculiar to each field, but nevertheless limits his or her scope more than would an intellectual historian. The intellectual historian, on the other hand, uses the history of science and other subfields in order to trace the larger effects of an idea in history. An intellectual historian (or intellectual historian of science) would be more likely, for instance, to trace the idea of ‘progress’ by synthesizing the work of historians of science and philosophers (i.e. Hegel).
What of cultural history’s relationship with intellectual history? Here the distinctions become fuzzier, and the emphases and interests of individual historians become deciding factors. Cultural history deals with a broad set of artifacts and the activities of people: it is very interested in what ties or brings a people together. This interdisciplinary aspect of cultural history mimics the same traits as they exist in intellectual history. But while an intellectual historian might, especially in the past, deal with culture in a broad “mind study,” the cultural historian does not, by necessity explore philosophy, or the deepest aspects of an idea’s formation. Cultural historians can deal with philosophers and philosophy, but intellectual historians are required to look deeply at a text, to pause and linger over the assumptions and potential contradictions of an idea.
An example of a work, to me, that successfully bridges (or complicates, depending your perspective) this divide is Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front.  Denning succeeded in showing, over and over, how Popular Front artists imbued their cultural productions with socialist ideas. But works like Denning’s are rare, and the Library of Congress classified his work in three ways: 20th century popular culture, 20th century American arts, and 1918-1945 U.S. social life and customs. None of these, interestingly enough, mention intellectual history.
If pressed I’d argue that the critical difference between an intellectual and cultural historian rests on two factors: (1) the self identification of the historian in question, and (2) a historian’s willingness to unabashedly utilize the language of philosophy. Of course the latter makes a critical difference in a history book’s audience, especially in a society that Cornel West accused of suffering from an “evasion to philosophy.”  The sometimes complicated, even archaic language of philosophy may turn off the casual reader of cultural history. But the intellectual historian seems willing to make this sacrifice (so long as her or his publisher is on board).
So the intellectual historian today, as the designation has developed over time, straddles the boundaries between culture, society, science, ideas, literature, and philosophy. Intellectual history’s interdisciplinary nature, especially among the subdisciplines of history, allows its practitioners maximum latitude. The intellectual historian is expected to pull together secondary (and primary) source material from a number of fields in order to understand the movement of an idea. This perhaps explains the apparent diminishing of the field: practitioners of intellectual history are dispersed in a number of other disciplines. Bruce Kuklick forwarded a similar argument with regard to philosophy’s diminished status in his 2001 book, A History of Philosophy in America.
This brings me to a tough topic: the relationship between intellectual history and the history of ideas. What’s the difference between the two, at least among U.S.-based historians? By way of historiography, we know that Arthur Lovejoy helped found the field of the history of ideas. That style of writing and research was less concerned with social and cultural events that surrounded the production of an idea or text, and more concerned with an idea’s relation to past ideas. In sum, Lovejoy and his followers believed that ideas could transcend time, and that writers were not strictly hooked to environmental circumstances. Lovejoy’s approach enabled transcendent unit ideas analyses (i.e. the history of evil) and often overly ambitious generalizations about periods (i.e. the aforementioned ‘mind studies’).
Practitioners and enthusiasts of intellectual history, on the other hand, preferred to limit analyses of intellectual life to limited time periods. They sought to connect as much as possible the ideas in a text to the environment in which the text was produced. They are sometimes called historicists. Important figures in this field included James Harvey Robinson (a professional pioneer, albeit with European topics), Merle Curti, and John Higham among others. The abusers of Lovejoy’s transcendent approach annoyed the historicists. The historicists felt that practitioners of the history of ideas overlooked too many exceptions, that their generalizations were too broad. In sum, historians of ideas did not nuance their analyses with enough attention to differences in time and space.
It’s likely clear to the reader that the ultimate tension between the two views of the field is the distinction between text and context. How much context is enough? How do we define context? Can context mean the place of text in the midst of other texts of time, or the place of an idea within other ideas of a time? Is context always the wider events of period? Is it possible that a piece of writing, or discussion of an idea, can transcend its context? Can a book produced during the Cold War be unaffected or unrelated to the Cold War? What contextual events are so ubiquitous, so powerful, that nothing remains untouched? I would argue that few are that powerful. Hasn’t everyone felt the overreaching by those who contend that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything?
But what should intellectual historians today do about the text/context distinction? Well, there are at least two compromise options. The first involves focusing on “communities of discourse.” I initially ran across this solution in John Higham and Paul Conkin’s New Directions in American Intellectual History, especially in a contributing essay by David A. Hollinger, and saw the method successfully utilized in Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect.  With “communities of discourse” as a guiding theory, intellectual historians can accommodate the desire to dig deep, to explore arguments, while also contextualizing an idea within dialogue. The intellectual historian can use this approach to bring in biography and relevant, diverse life events, without losing focus on the ideas to be explored.
Intellectual historians today could also treat the text/context question as a false dichotomy. It’s not an either/or proposition, but rather one of light or heavy context. Some studies call for heavy contextual analysis, but others might be fine with a light-handed contextual exploration. Dominick La Capra has addressed text and context issues in works such as History in Transit (2004), but the issue still seems to plague the field – and intellectual history in particular. 
Since most practitioners of intellectual history today lean toward the historicist view of the field, it’s more appropriate to defend those who find virtue in Lovejoy’s history of ideas approach. With that, rather than question whether a so-called historian of ideas can analyze the “history of good” or the “history of lust,” why not take those studies for what they are? Why not criticize them on other grounds than their ability to account for every event and figure of an era? Don’t transcendent studies of more defined ideas help introduce readers to a broad range of historical questions? If so, is there not some good in writing a “mind study?” Clearly these works attract attention, such those recent ones on terrorism and the clash of civilizations. Why not just acknowledge the uses (and weaknesses) of the Lovejoy’s disciples without vilifying their approach?
I subscribe to both of these compromise approaches between intellectual history and the history of ideas. By acknowledging both, as well as intellectual history’s relations with the other subdisciplines of history, I believe that intellectual historians can be interdisciplinary historians, par excellence. In sum, no one can claim to be an intellectual historian without being one who moves between historical subdisciplines.
But why U.S. intellectual history? In another analysis at this web log of John C. Greene’s 1957 article, “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History,” I asserted the following: “To learn U.S. intellectual history, one must first have a strong sense of the United States’ general history and present-day situation – its strengths, weaknesses, vagaries, politics, important women and men, decades, events, and apparent priorities. After gaining a deeper understanding of these things, one should then dig backwards and sideways. That digging ought not be restricted by superficial political boundaries. And because it is as burdensome for U.S. specialists to learn European history, or other histories, as it is for them to learn U.S. history, this is where international, interdisciplinary conferences are important. . . . Let us first learn the areas where some practical knowledge is feasible (i.e. the U.S., China, France, or even perhaps ‘Europe’), and then turn our mining activity sideways, following veins of thought into areas outside the United States.” 
Taking this approach to the field has the side benefit of keeping questions about U.S. intellectual history relevant to present-day problems. Esoteric explorations ought, of course, still take place, but using the present to guide inquiries into the past will keep the discipline fresh to today’s readers.
The question of why “U.S.” intellectual history also involves humility and another bit of chastening for the discipline. All too often the term ‘American’ is misused to identify the field, giving works of “American Intellectual History” more geographical significance than they actually have. No so-called work of “American Intellectual History” should convey the sense, unintentional or no, that it might in any way speak generally for all peoples of North, Latin, or South America. Of course U.S. history involves colonialism, and the phrase “U.S. Intellectual History” is not meant to exclude that period of study: all activities aimed at the formation of the United States are significant to its intellectual history. But in the end, the notion of “U.S. intellectual history” gives more definition and identity to the discipline.
If we can consider the “why U.S.” topical aspect of the question answered, what of the state of the field here in the United States. Historians of U.S. intellectual life must have a sense of best practices, errors, interdisciplinary methods, and important topics in the field. This sense must be available to aspirants in the United States. This knowledge can only be gained by associating and conferring with those “in the know.” That learning and those conversations can only take place if the field has a sense of identity. I fear that without some sort of superstructure or gathering place, the lessons learned by senior historians will become lessons lost.
With these thoughts on identity in mind, all aimed at defining and carving out a distinct place for the field, I argue that U.S. intellectual history – not just intellectual history in general – can be a potentially vibrant and relevant historical sub discipline. More adherents might also result in more quality works about the thought of all U.S. denizens. If the field takes it upon itself to foster a distinct identity, perhaps it can then help promote the overall intellectual life of the U.S.? Few at home or abroad would complain about that.
Comments are welcome.
[I have benefited from the suggestions and criticisms of H-Ideas editor Neil Brody Miller, as well as my colleagues at the U.S. Intellectual History (USIH) web log, including Paul Anderson, Andrew Hartman, Paul Murphy, Mike O’Connor, Joe Petrulionis, Sylwester Ratowt, and John Thomas Scott. But no matter any assistance received, I take sole responsibility for the content of this post. – TL]
 Tim Lacy, “U.S. Intellectual History: A Call To Action,” History and Education: Past and Present web log, January 17, 2007. Available here.
 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997).
 Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
 John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); Thomas Bender, New York Intellect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).
 Dominck La Capra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
 Tim Lacy, “John C. Greene’s ‘Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History:’ A 50-Year Retrospective Review And Comment,” U.S. Intellectual History web log, February 21, 2007. Available here.
This query was sent to me by Thomas Hagedorn. Below that is my reply and also a response from Tim Lacy.
I was excited to learn about the new blog that you participate in and even more thrilled to read your recent lengthy post about the job opportunities for intellectual historians in schools of education.
I hope that you can help me with a fairly narrow inquiry that I have.
First, some background for you. I am not well-versed in intellectual history and that is probably a charitable description. Second, I am a self-trained historian, with only one brief semester of graduate school.
Third, I am close to completion of a 120,000 word history of the common school movement. This work is narrative, nonfiction American History. It is written as a popular or trade history, that also speaks to and addresses scholars interested in the origins of the American public schools and the common school movement. I am now doing research on the last part of the book and am reviewing once again other historians’ work, including textbooks. I am particularly interested in what grad students in ed schools are being taught about this period.
I am quite puzzled about the treatment of educational philosophy from the end of the revolutionary era, up to the Civil War. For example, in History of Education in America, by Pulliam and Van Patten (2007), they describe six educational philosophies Perennialism, Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, Reconstructionism, and Protest Philosophies on pages 35-61. Many other textbooks and other monographs seem to use the “Enlightenment” in a very sloppy way, without consideration for some of the distinctions made by Henry May (Enlightenment in America). Skeptical enlightenment figures like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine are put center stage.
Yet my research shows that a very strong role in the common school movement was played by Calvinists, trained at Yale or Princeton or one of the many Calvinist colleges established in the West in this period (Illinois College in Jacksonville would be a good example). These folks were steeped in Scottish Common Sense Realism (SCSR). Yet, I find little or no mention of Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, John Witherspoon, Timothy Dwight (Yale), Nathaniel William Taylor, Dugald Stewart (Virginia) and Samuel Stanhope Smith (Princeton) in the work of others. It has been two years since I did this line of research, so I need to dust it off a bit, but I think Cremin is about the only ed historian who touched on this.
In a “taxonomy” of philosophies, would SCSR fall under Realism? My guess would be “no” because I can’t imagine these orthodox Calvinists sitting in the same intellectual pew with Bertrand Russell.
If you accept my premise that these Calvinists played a dominant role in the common school movement (I have amassed lots of basic biographical evidence, from many states), where then is the treatment of their philosophy – SCSR – in most of the monographs and textbooks? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question, to further explain my real question above.)
I hope you can help in some way.
Andrew Hartman wrote:
Thanks for your positive response to our new blog and thanks also for your query. Tim Lacy, one of our co-editors, is also interested in the intersections of intellectual and educational history. In fact, I would venture to say he might be able to help you more than me because I’m afraid this terrain is a little out of my element — I focus on the twentieth century.
I think you’re probably on the right track when you argue that the common schools were not rooted in the Enlightenment thought of Rousseau, et. all. As I’m sure you know, Rousseau was influential amongst American transcendentalists, but his educational thought never really had much influence on school policy. The child-centered movement was huge in the Progressive Era, but except for a few exceptions (G. Stanley Hall) it wasn’t rooted in a pastoral vision of childhood a la Rousseau. The leaders of the Free School Movement in the 1960s were all readers of Emile, but they barely made a mark in the world of education except as a sort of novelty.
If graduate students aren’t reading about the influence of Scottish Realism it’s probably due to a larger problem in educational historiography. At least until the mid-twentieth century, educational historians were rarely more than boosters. They were liberals or progressives (depending on the decade) and they wrote about their fellow liberals or progressives from earlier times. And when this style of historical writing went out of fashion, it was replaced by a tradition rooted in US social history, which was tied up in Marxism and critical theory. These historians critiqued the liberal tradition (both history and historiography) for its attempts to create docile subjects for the corporate order. I’m partial to this style of analysis, but can see that it might be problematic that these historians, like their liberal forebears, never questioned whether or not the original schoolmasters were themselves Rousseau-style liberals. Maybe they were conservatives — if this is how one might classify SCSR? I can’t really speak to how influential SCSR was. I know Horace Mann is commonly assumed to be perhaps the most influential of the early reformers. And he had sort of a “common sense” approach — and was typically blind to the ways in which what was sensible to him and people of his class (anti-factionalism, for example) was not necessarily sensible to others.
Tim Lacy wrote:
On your SCSR question, if you couldn’t find your answers in Cremin I or II, I would go to the following: Bruce Kuklick’s ‘The History of Philosophy in America.’ It covers both the philosophy and the period (1780-1860) about which you’re concerned. I do recall SCSR having a connection with Calvinism. However, there is another kind of realism, distinct from SCSR, that arose around 1910-1920. Adherents included Arthur Lovejoy, George Santayana, etc. This later group reacted to Idealism, which itself was a partial reaction to SCSR.
As for Pulliam and Van Patten, well, they’re concerned with educating teachers broadly, not the whole of the history of the philosophy of education. It’s a fine book, but I wouldn’t use it for “the” answers if you’re writing an authoritative account.
[From Tim Lacy]
At a site devoted to promoting the United States’ overall intellectual history, how does regional history come into play? Clearly there’s a regional interest in intellectual history, evidenced by long-running and successful Southern Intellectual History Circle (SIHC). Every report I’ve heard about their meetings is colored with smiles and success. I must admit, as an outsider looking in, that I’m somewhat jealous.
But what of other regions? Do we need an intellectual history “circle” for the Northwest, the Sunbelt, the West, the Midwest, and New England? How do Alaska and Hawai’i fit in? One might even argue that New England’s intellectual history at least has some foundational texts, namely Perry Miller’s New England Mind volumes. But, as a Midwesterner, do I need to start a “Heartland Intellectual History Circle”? I don’t think so.
Do U.S. states and cities also sometimes need intellectual histories? Of course. The success of Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect is proof of this. As a Chicagoan, I’ve contemplated the need for a similar study.
While I firmly believe regional and micro-analyses have a great deal of validity, there needs to be, in 2007, a professional-level commitment to firming up our national identity as U.S. intellectual historians. Every regional study has national implications. For instance, with regard to SIHC and the U.S. South as a field of study, isn’t their intellectual history firmly linked, at least in terms of the colonial and antebellum periods, to the anti-slavery arguments of the North? I’m sure that not all the South’s intellectual history of that period consists of reactions to the North, but surely there are substantial connections.
I hope that the discipline of intellectual history is not on a road to fragmentation at a time, in terms of overall humanities resources, when unity would be more useful.
Thoughts? – TL
I just read that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. died on Wednesday, February 28. He was 89 years old. The New York Times obituary is here.
John C. Greene’s "Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History:" A 50-Year Retrospective Review And Comment
[USIH exclusive content by Tim Lacy]
In June 1957 the Mississippi Valley Historical Review published John C. Greene’s article, “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History” (p. 58-74). The article served as a response to two articles by John Higham published earlier in the decade: an April 1951 piece in the American Historical Review titled “The Rise of American Intellectual History,” and a June 1954 essay in the Journal of the History of Ideas titled “Intellectual History and Its Neighbors.” Quotes from Higham’s essays bookend Greene’s article. At some point I hope to review Higham’s articles, but the symmetry between rethinking Greene’s practical advice and this web log’s creation is too good to pass up.
What makes Greene’s article special? For one, it received pre-publication commentary and criticism from a number of important intellectual historians, as well as figures from the field at large. Reviewers included Merle Curti, Henry F. May, George L. Mosse, Arthur Bestor, Charles G. Sellers, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (p. 59). The article has also been acknowledged as a sign post for present-day intellectual historians.
So what did Greene determine were the “objectives” and “methods” of the field? For him both were wrapped up in the act of defining the discipline of intellectual history. With that, the field’s goals, according to Greene, very much corresponded to what historiographers have called “mind studies.” Greene underscored this when he wrote that “the primary function of the intellectual historian is to delineate the presuppositions of thought in given historical epochs and to explain the changes which those presuppositions undergo from epoch to epoch.” He continues: “It is the peculiar province of the intellectual historian to search for and describe those most general ideas, or patterns of ideas, which inform the thought of an age, define its intellectual problems, and indicate the direction in which solutions are to be sought” (p. 59). If these statements strike today’s historians as somewhat over ambitious, it is because intellectual historians – from the 1977 Wingspread conference forward – successfully chastened the field to be more humble.
Greene persists in his admonition for intellectual historians to find larger patterns of thought throughout his piece. In fact, two major topics in the piece try to illuminate just such a goal. Those two subjects were “the underlying views of nature in the eighteenth century” and “the conflict between science and religion” in American thought (p. 60-67 and 68-71, respectively). The first task seeks to discover points about intellectual history in general, and the second with regard to U.S. intellectual history in particular.
In discussing his two cases amidst finding larger patterns of thought, Greene uncovered several nuggets useful to today’s intellectual historian. Most of his points within the first example topic, on eighteenth-century views of nature, came to fruition with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Those Kuhnian-like points, in Greene’s terms, included the historian’s discovering a period’s dominant and subdominant views, and determining the terminus ad quo and ad quem for all (p. 63-64). Greene’s expressions here felt eerily similar to Kuhn’s, except in the latter’s use of the more pithy term “paradigm.”
But in discussing eighteenth-century views of nature, Greene also argues that intellectual historians must have (1) “a broad exposure to the relevant source materials,” (2) “a logical habit of mind,” and (3) “a keen eye for the recurrence of the telltale words of phrases . . . of a bygone age.”
With regard to (1) and (3), Greene asserts, in an unexpectedly democratic phrase, that “it makes little difference for this purpose whether he is a ‘great thinker’ or just a country parson grinding out a sermon” (p. 65). I used the phrase ‘unexpectedly democratic’ because it was pounded into me, in graduate school, that one of the reasons for intellectual history’s decline after the rise of social history was its exclusiveness: intellectual history only focused on great men, philosophers, and the intellectual elite. While my training wasn’t necessarily false, I see here that at least a few intellectual historians displayed concern for problem as early as 1957. Greene’s phrasing wasn’t as inclusive as a historian today might put it, but he certainly wasn’t limiting thoughtfulness to a society’s elites. Greene purposed that we discover the dominant and subdominant views of an age by exploring all of an age’s thinkers.
Greene admonished intellectual historians to be sensitive to their final manuscripts, to their writing. He warned that “abstract analysis is not the final goal of the intellectual historian’s labors. The end product . . . should be a narrative which not only tells what happened and how and why it happened but makes it happen again for the reader.” Intellectual historians must attend “to the affective tone of general ideas,” and remember that “every world view involves an emotional as well as an intellectual apprehension” (p. 67). Of course all historians today would do well to enliven their presentation of ideas with some sense of how they were both presented (i.e. shrill?) and received (i.e. happily?). But this is not a particularly novel problem in the field. I think all intellectual historians struggle with how to make high-level thought friendly and exciting to readers who might perceive the discussion as dry.
The article heats up for today’s U.S. intellectual historian when Greene begins elaborating on the U.S.-based “conflict between science and religion.” However, his essay’s relevance isn’t because of the still ongoing issue in Kansas, but because of the article’s original goals: objectives and methodology.
Greene’s first concern is over what he called a “Monroe Doctrine in intellectual history.” He feared an “untenable” situation of “America for the Americans,” and “Europe for the Europeans.” He argued against that situation as follows: “The peculiarity of general ideas is their ubiquity in time and place. Western thought is all of a piece. It cannot be chopped up into centuries and countries without rendering it lifeless and meaningless. American thought is but an aspect of Western thought, inseparable from it in any effective sense” (p. 68).
This proposition is worth deep consideration at a web log that proposes to forward the cause of U.S. intellectual history. Are we attempting to set up a disciplinary enclave? No. Enclaving is representative of a poor attitude, but sharing and dialogue are legitimate activities of professionals. So long as promoters of U.S. intellectual history do not set themselves up to act exclusively or become snobs, they do no harm. All particular disciplines are obligated to engage the rest of the historical profession. Intellectual historians that work on U.S. topics and thoughtful actors should of course engage in interdisciplinary work. But the problem today, to me, is that there are not enough self-identifying intellectual historians. Not enough feel free to identify as such due to the lack of demand and the lack of a strong disciplinary superstructure in the United States. Therefore they migrate into other fields – especially cultural history and perhaps interdisciplinary structures. No disciplinary superstructure means no regular U.S. venue for presenting papers. While interdisciplinary, European, and international intellectual history flourishes, U.S. intellectual history suffers from what Greene might have called a reverse Monroe Doctrine.
But, returning to Greene, was he snobbishly arguing that there are no distinctively U.S. ideas? I don’t believe so. He promoted, without naming it as such, an Annales-like long duree. He only asked that U.S. intellectual historians acknowledge the “strands in the complicated web of causes which produces a movement of thought” (p. 65). By looking at the West as a whole, intellectual historians are less likely to miss deeper currents: uniquely U.S. ideas exist, but U.S. intellectual historians need a built-in in system of checks.
To me, the goal for those that study U.S. intellectual history is – using Greene’s words – to “cut beneath the bare exposition of pragmatism, instrumentalism, and other isms to the underlying tensions” of U.S. thought. But Greene finished that same quote, however, by writing “. . . the underlying tensions of Western thought, [of] tensions which have manifested themselves in a thousand forms and contexts from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present day.” To Greene, “the American intellectual historian must be first and foremost an intellectual historian and only secondarily an American historian” (p. 71). Acting in this fashion would help place “a damper on chauvinism” and discourage “parochialism” (p. 72).
Although there is much to recommend in Greene’s argument, I want to forward the exact opposite proposition. To learn U.S. intellectual history, one must first have a strong sense of the United States’ history and present-day situation – its strengths, weaknesses, vagaries, politics, important women and men, decades, events, and apparent priorities. After gaining a deeper understanding of these things, one should then dig backwards and sideways. That digging ought not be restricted by superficial political boundaries. And because it is as burdensome for U.S. specialists to learn European history, or other histories, as it is for them to learn U.S. history, this is where international, interdisciplinary conferences are important. Finally, returning to Greene’s encouragement to learn Western thinking, I would argue that thinking of the Occident as a monolithic entity is just as problematic as thinking of the Orient as monolithic. Let us first learn the areas where some practical knowledge is feasible (i.e. the U.S., China, France, or even perhaps ‘Europe’), and then turn our mining activity sideways, following veins of thought into areas outside the United States.
As Greene himself asserts (but for mind studies), let’s learn the collective, individual details of U.S. life, culture, and society such that the “lowest common denominators” are understood (p. 73). Then we can perhaps, in the distant future, put together “mind studies” that make more solid generalizations. I’m not sure I want to advocate for those kinds of studies, but if they’re inevitably going to be done (such as Mark Noll’s 1995 The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) they need to be done with sound premises. But it is as if U.S. intellectual history as a field put the cart before the horse in the 1950s by making the large, basically unfounded generalizations first.
By starting with a sense of the U.S. itself, both its past and present-day circumstances, then the intellectual historian also has a better chance of building a narrative to which today’s readers can relate. Is not the relativist, subjective nature of all endeavors in history based on the fact that historians construct inquiries based on problems and paradoxes seen in her or his lifetime? This is not a bad thing. It results in historical inquiries that speak to today’s reader. If today’s intellectual historian starts by asking questions about the U.S., then he or she can lead the reader backwards, from events with which the reader has had cursory contact.
Greene’s 1957 article clearly contains a number of thought-provoking nuggets. It’s certainly a product of its times, with its emphasis on finding large, epochal patterns of thought, and dominant and subdominant issues. But the piece also contains admonitions and encouragements useful to today’s intellectual historian. Greene proved prescient as well. The field followed his prescription that one should be an intellectual historian “foremost,” and a U.S. historian only “secondarily” (p. 71). While I disagree, I also can’t deny that Greene’s oracle came to be. With my abovementioned caveats in mind, I recommend his 50-year old essay to instructors of courses involving the historiography of intellectual history.
On a final note, the surprising relevance of Greene’s article has likely determined the direction of my next few posts. I foresee writing retrospective reviews of John Higham’s 1951 and 1954 compositions. – TL