U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Peter Gordon on What Is Intellectual History

Recently I found an essay by Peter Gordon titled “What Is Intellectual History? A Frankly Partisan Introduction to a Frequently Misunderstood Field.” Gordon answers this question by comparing intellectual history to other disciplines: history of ideas, philosophy, political theory, cultural history, and various aspects of sociology. His main point seems to be that intellectual history draws on multitude of methodologies and often overlaps with other disciplines (and he sees this as a good thing). Intellectual history is distinct because as its primary goal is takes the study of ideas and intellectual life. Also, intellectual historians find this study intrinsically interesting. For example, evaluating the relationship between cultural and intellectual history, Gordon writes: “Cultural historians pay attention to ideas mainly because they are seeking evidence for larger patterns of culture; intellectual historians pay attention to ideas for their cultural significance but also because they find the ideas themselves of interest.”

I found the essay interesting for two reasons. First, it reminded me of the discussion on this blog about what is U.S. intellectual history. Second, it increased my understanding of the field of intellectual history. Since my training was in the history of science department, I bring different assumptions and different understanding of what is intellectual history than many of this blog’s other contributors and readers. Consequently, I often lack the knowledge which is assumed by others. For example, after reading Gordon’s essay, I finally understand something that always puzzled me: the source of intellectual history’s heavy focus on political thought.

I am curious what others think of Gordon’s assessment of intellectual history? Also, Gordon, who studies European history himself, draws on examples from European intellectual history. I wonder if his essay would be different if Americanist perspectives were included.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. i read Gordon’s essay some time ago, but remember thinking that it was a remarkably succinct and balanced (despite the ‘partisan’) account.

    it is indeed an interesting question how it would look written from the US. i’m a europeanist myself, so i can’t say. some guesses: more concern with cultural history, less concern with self-differentiation from the history of philosophy. The history of political movements in the US is oftentimes radically de-intellectualized in ways that i sometimes think mirror the ways in which European political movements have been over-intellectualized. or at least such is my sense. if this is the case, then i imagine that intellectual history would also have a less close relation to the history of political thought. privileged objects of ‘traditional’ US intellectual history such as pragmatism or transcendentalism have a much more highly mediated relation to politics (than, say, Hobbes and Locke), while more recent objects (witness: the African American intellectual tradition), are so contestatory that they have their own canons and historiographies. the relationship doesn’t call for differentiation but integration.

    anyway, i also would be curious how a US intellectual historian would have written (might re-write) Gordon’s essay.

  2. The history of political movements in the US is oftentimes radically de-intellectualized in ways that i sometimes think mirror the ways in which European political movements have been over-intellectualized. or at least such is my sense.

    A partial exception, I think, involves the historiography of modern U.S. conservatism, which used to be dominated by intellectual history approaches (especially back when it was mainly conservative historians writing like George Nash working on it). However, part of the process of the history of conservatism becoming a more “mainstream” topic in U.S. history has been a relative decentering of the intellectual history narrative. Lest I be misunderstood, I should add that this is not just a question of more liberal and left historians working on this history (though more of us are). Important recent histories of U.S. conservatism written by more conservative historians like Donald Critchlow and Gil Troy have also focused less on the intellectual history side of things than, e.g. Nash did.

  3. Sylwester,

    I’ve printed and am now reading the article. Question: Do you know when it was published? The latest citation in its “recommended reading” is 2006. It looks like it was written for a department lecture.

    – TL

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