In its commitment to promoting research, teaching and intellectual exchange on the historical study of American thought, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History offers a book review section that identifies new and significant historical monographs in the field of U.S. intellectual history. Book reviews facilitate informed dialogue on the current state of the field and raise interest in the political, cultural and intellectual project of writing history. Historical scholarship is the foundation of our profession and teaching its heartbeat; book reviews introduce our diverse readership to the creative and original questions and methodologies of scholars dedicated to the dissemination of historical knowledge and understanding. Thus, book reviews play an integral part in the collective intellectual project that is the writing and teaching of U.S. intellectual history.
The second of two responses in our mini-roundtable on Liberalism: The Life of an Idea focuses on potential areas of research on the history, or histories, of liberalism. Fawcett’s book is a noble attempt to talk about a complicated historical legacy, but other avenues of research may offer additional food for thought for scholars.–Robert Greene II
Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea is a needed attempt to distill the history of liberalism in the West to a readable, one-volume history. Covering the evolution of liberalism in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, Liberalism offers a history of the ideology from the early 19th century until the present day. Fawcett’s book, understandably, has a wide range of historical characters and offers some comparisons—and contrasts—across national borders. Liberalism says much about the history of a political ideology that has changed form so much over two hundred years. Matt Linton’s wonderful essay said a great deal about the book and the difficulty of writing such a history, and today I’d like to take some time to consider the book in context of recent works on intellectual and political history. At the same time, I’d also like to sketch out where historians can go in the future with histories of liberals, liberalism, and the institutions affected by that ideology.
Today starts a brief, but exciting, two-day mini-roundtable discussion on the new Edmund Fawcett book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Today’s post is written by Matthew D. Linton, a Doctoral candidate in History at Brandeis University. Tomorrow will see a post also about the book. In today’s post, Mr. Linton offers a keen and meticulous analysis of Fawcett’s book, and what it does (and more importantly, doesn’t) say about the history of liberalism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. –Robert Greene II
Confusion about liberalism’s definition is ubiquitous in American popular and scholarly discourse. To the conservative Fox News set, liberalism has become a catch-all term for ineffective governance and flimsy morals. During the 2004 Presidential election Republicans had so successfully tarred liberalism that Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry shied away from using the term. In recent years a resurgent left has also been critical of liberalism without properly defining it. Scholarly magazines like Jacobin have often criticized unspecified liberals for embracing capitalism and refusing to take strong ethical stands on poverty and racism. While the left’s criticisms of liberals undoubtedly hold true for some liberals, without an agreed-upon definition of liberalism it’s difficult to determine if sweeping criticisms from the right and left are defensible.
The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe
by Michael D. Gordin
304 pages. University of Chicago Press, 2012
To enter the thought world of Immanuel Velikovsky, the Velikovskians, and Velikovskianism is to be absorbed into a fantastical language of largess. One hears unfamiliar terms such as cosmic catastrophism, geocentric catastrophism, flood geology, astral catastrophists, secularly-oriented catastrophists, and alternative cosmologies. Michael D. Gordin’s intellectual history provides a sense of the characters, context, and complexity that surrounded Immanuel Velikovsky, his fans, and his followers. It is a fascinating and sobering story that will be of interest to all concerned about science, democracy, and the public good. (more…)
Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United State and India
by Nico Slate
344 pages. Harvard University Press, 2012.
In Spring 1941, a colored woman boarded the “whites only” car of a segregated train in the American South. Crossing the Louisiana border, she was asked by the ticket collector to move to a colored car or else she “will regret it” (1) She refused and the ticket collector left to get the engineer. When he returned however, he did not ask her to move. He had learned something new. “You are an Asian” he sneered before skulking out of the car (1). He would “not bother her” for the rest of the trip (1). (more…)
The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
by Joyce Appleby
494 pages. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
This is a big book. I don’t mean by this that it is physically large: it is 436 pages before the endnotes, a reasonable length considering the topic. I mean instead that it is big in scope, interpretation, and ambition. At times, Appleby offers vistas of world history that are breathtaking, both in how much of that history they take in at once, and in how readers are invited to reconsider whole periods in a new light. Appleby stresses that capitalism has never been a natural or fore-ordained system. It happened by accident, Appleby insists, refuting Adam Smith and Karl Marx. It happened against many odds, in particular ways, beginning with seventeenth-century England, and then happened again, in different ways, in other places and times. Once it did happen, though, it remade – and continues to remake – our world. It is a cultural system as much as an economic system, which is inseparable from our ideas of morality and how the world works. Among the most important changes it has wrought are: a departure from old expectations of scarcity; a new expectation of turning profits; mobility, in every sense of that word; encouragement of democracy; ever-increasing emphasis on consumer choice; and even, Appleby avers, an uncovering of what it is that people really want. (more…)
Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind
by Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached
352 pages. Princeton University Press, 2013.
In a typical PET (positron emission tomography) brain scan, a radioactive element attached to glucose is injected into the subject’s blood and traced as it flows into and throughout the brain, where the molecule’s decay can be measured to yield an image of the brain at work. In Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind, Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached attempt an analogous procedure regarding the diffusion of a neuroscientific mode of thinking about the mind into the psychological and social sciences and practices concerned with keeping society safe and and its members sane. (more…)