Every now and then, I’ll be in conversation with a colleague or friend and the authority of an analytical concept will appear in the debate. These concepts usually hold the weight of a long history of historiographic criticism and correction – they are the invaluable result of picking apart the assumptions of past scholarship. However, their value lies not merely in identifying an error, but pursuing a broader truth that often intertwines with a social value – the Dunning school is not merely wrong but wrong and racist, and the Lovejoy approach of a “History of Ideas” is not only ahistorical but anti-democratic.
Usually – as with the examples cited above – there is no need, in the course of a discussion with someone of a similar educational background, to elaborate further than merely referencing the concept and critique. When we call the “History of Ideas,” elitist, we know what we mean by that, and we are also working on a shared assumption, or value, that elitism is a suboptimal way of understanding and acting in the world. It goes without saying, in these cases, that therefore the argument being criticized is also wrong, because the moral weight of the category assumes it and precludes any further discussion.
I’ll stop being so abstract and provide some examples in common refrains you might have heard: