U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Proposition For Debate: Change In The Objects Of Study For Intellectual Historians

[Updated: 8/20/09, 9:35 CST]

Intellectual historians have traditionally been concerned with high and complex thought—traditional philosophical topics (Deweyan instrumentalism, Jamesian pragmatism, etc.) or practical applications thereof (Deweyites in education, Jamesians in psychology, etc.). These concerns might involve iterations of larger, more evident ideas or topics (e.g. freedom, democracy, knowledge, truth), or it might involve history books that make explicit subtle points of method (e.g. language theory, logic, arguments). The point is that a kind of top-down movement pervades this tradition—from complex ideas and/or prominent thinkers, to historical evidence.

But because higher thought exists and is on record, this does not necessitate that intellectual historians should neglect “lower thought.” By lower thought I mean that which is not recognized or always respected by philosophers or intellectual historians. This includes non-Western thought processes, the varieties of emotion, the appearance of unreasonableness (e.g. popular culture frivolity, ideologues), and less articulate attempts to rise above everyday circumstances. Of course this may involve occasional speculation on the part of historians to fill the gap inevitably left by the less articulate.

I do not mean to assert that a move toward the broad study of less complex thought should necessitate the neglect of higher modes of thought. A move toward more popular expressions of the intellect is meant only to (a) show the appeal of intellectual history to more readers and citizens, and (b) serve as a bulwark against the charge of elitism in intellectual history (e.g. concern only for those who express themselves well or in a complex fashion in the archives).

Be it resolved, then, that some significant portion of intellectual historians should, if not already doing so, concern themselves with classes of people traditionally considered less or in-articulate, irrational, emotional, or whose apparent actions would formerly indicate irrationality or radical differences in reasoning method.


What am I forgetting? Is this proposition so obvious as to be irrelevant? Per the 1977 Wingspread Conference, has the history of culture, or cultural history, fulfilled this obligation? If so, has it done it satisfactorily? Is forwarding this proposition just another case of one forgetting about the “hidden intellectual history” of the past 30 years or so—–the kind of intellectual history that is now scattered over many other subfields? An example that might prove this point could be Michael Denning’s much-discussed and admired study, The Cultural Front. Are there not enough of those kinds of books? But have books on immigration history and the history of emotions, for instance, made an effort from the bottom up to connect historical actors to traditional streams of intellectual history? – TL

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  1. lots of people will be/are unhappy with higher and lower as caracterizations of what intellectual vs cultural historians study.

    my own broad answer to what i take to be your proposal is that intellectual history should already be contextual. adequate contextualization of any given subject will almost certainly entail a certain degree of attention to various other fields of investigation–and almost always to understand a certain thinker, intellectual problem, tradition, or really any of the ‘high’ objects of traditional intellectual history, it is absolutely necessary to surround them with a ‘low’ context of, say, mass cultural tropes, changing social structure, acute political conflict…

    then, you’ve got to ask if intellectual historians actually do this as much as they should. this is a different question. but it seems to me that dense contextualization can be done without simply giving up on the specific objects of intellectual history.

    now, i do think it is a major unresolved issue that essentially only europe and the US seem even to *have* an intellectual history. on the one hand, this is simple ignorance. of course the rest of the world has an intellectual history. it’s just we weren’t trained in it, and most of it is written in languages we don’t (usually) read.

    on the other hand, this is an effect of the structure and history of the academy, which is and remains, like the geopolitical world, dominated, though increasingly less so, by europe and the US. so, it might be argued, as the institutions that are the material foundation of academic study globalize, so to will the subject-matter of this study.

    there are, i think, those who believe that intellectual history as a discipline is inherently eurocentric. i don’t think this is the case–but i think where you come down on this issue has to do with what you think about ideas like ‘rationality’ and ‘universality,’ rather than anything else. in my experience, a violent rhetorical rejection of ‘the history of ideas’ is often followed by what is, in fact, an intellectual history. so i’m sceptical.

  2. Eric: High-low is certainly a bifurcation or a false dichotomy. I mean, more nuance is available in studies like Joan Rubin’s Making of Middlebrow Culture. I’m not sure that simply adding more context solves the problem, however. For instance, Thomas Bender and David Hollinger have been practitioners and advocates of the notion of a “community of discourse.” But intellectuals sometimes run in small circles or only talk with folks in their specialties (excepting public intellectuals, of course). This would make adding context just more of the same, in some cases. As far as “lower thought” goes, well, those in that class (or the middling sort) are not always aware of their connections to more complex systems of thinking—having absorbed some of their notions from popular culture or implicitly through their sometimes limited education. And saying that, I’m not sure that intellectual historians make a big effort to connect their findings to pop culture, and the same goes in reverse for cultural historians who identify ideas and trains of thought in their phenomena. – TL

    BTW: I agree with you that many historians opposed to intellectual history or the history of ideas end up practicing it, one way or another, in their work.

  3. Tim kindly made a comment on my blog, culturerover, in response to “The Backlash of History,” my response to David Kaiser’s recent screed-interview on the History News Network against anything but old school diplimatic/political history.

    So, below, I post a link to that conversation on culturerover, which Tim connected to his proposal about intellectual history above.

    Here’s the link: http://www.michaeljkramer.net/cr/?p=930

  4. This is somewhat unrelated, but Michael Denning has come up in my reading several times this week. One of the better things I’ve come across is an interview in the Summer 2007 issue of The Minnesota Review. Here’s a brief excerpt:

    “From the beginning, the theoretical model that really held The Cultural Front together was Raymond Williams’ notion of the “formation,” the combination of a particular social location and a particular aesthetic form. For Williams, the project of cultural studies, the way one could move away from close readings of individual texts, was to use the intellectual imagination to see how individual texts and lives came together in specific formations. Formations, not individual texts, are the basic units of our cultural traditions. The first third of The Cultural Front was imagined as a kind of overview, but the second two-thirds are an examination of a number of those formations.”

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