U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Present and Future of American Intellectual History

Guest post by Daniel Wickberg, University of Texas at Dallas

The most recent issue of Modern Intellectual History (vol. 9.1, 2012, pp. 149-248) contains a forum on “The Present and Future of American Intellectual History,” continuing a spate of subdisciplinary self-reflection in the wake of the thirtieth anniversary of the Wingspread volume, New Directions in American Intellectual History. Wingspread alumni Thomas Bender, David Hollinger, and David Hall are represented as the established voices of the field, and are joined by prominent scholars who came of professional age in the 1970s and 80s—James Kloppenberg and Joan Shelley Rubin– and in the last two decades-–Leslie Butler and Jeffrey Sklansky. The forum appears to have grown out of a symposium at Harvard in April of 2010, featuring Butler, Hall, Hollinger, and Kloppenberg and perhaps the state of the field panel on intellectual history at the OAH in 2011, in which Rubin, Sklansky, and Kloppenberg were all participants. Charles Capper, who is one of the editors of MIH, was involved in both the symposium and the OAH panel.

I mention these origins in the spirit of the forum itself, which continually invokes the institutional embeddedness and circulation of ideas and thought in concrete social contexts as a way to approach intellectual history. In that spirit, we might see this forum itself as a community of intellectual discourse, a network of intellectual historians, a conversation defined by professional status and norms. We might spend a great deal of time highlighting the educational and institutional backgrounds of the participants and their roles as gatekeepers for a scholarly community; the anticipated and diverse audiences who might read the forum and their particular local responses; the transnational, national, and local forces contributing to this particular historical document; the creation of a “public” of intellectual historians through explicit argumentation; an ever-widening circle of social, political, and economic contexts that inform the arguments made by the forum participants. We might, as I say, do this, if we were committed to the project that seems largely to be a matter of consensus among the forum participants. But since I’m not committed to that project nor that consensus, and have other ideas about how to study ideas historically, I’m going to try to say something about that consensus not in its spirit—that is, the dominant spirit of contemporary intellectual history practice—but in a counter spirit somewhat on the margins, concerned with the ideas themselves, and in particular the often unstated assumptions and intellectual frameworks that lie behind them.

I want to say first that I have enormous admiration for all of these scholars, and for the valuable work they have contributed to the field; I am glad that MIH is addressing the issue of the contemporary and future status of American intellectual history, and the editors have chosen a very distinguished group of accomplished historians to do so. And much of what they say is sharp, incisive, and easily wins my consent. My criticisms here are offered in the hope that vigorous debate and disagreement are the lifeblood of an intellectual endeavor, and that scholarship thrives on criticism and varied perspectives, and not in terms that are hostile or confrontational in the worst sense. And one thing is certainly missing from this forum—vigorous debate, conflicting visions, a sense that choosing one set of options may necessarily preclude another. It’s hard to come away from this forum with any other sense than that “it’s all good.” As salutary, broad, and inclusive as the visions of intellectual history offered here are, there is a tone of complacency and self satisfaction that runs through the forum, a sense that what we really need is more of the same, that the project outlined at Wingspread and its moment of crisis has been successful and that we both should and shall continue in its path. There are no “new directions” in this vision of intellectual history, only the same direction we have been on for thirty years or more. Is this the sign of a successful field, comfortable in its middle age, open, pluralistic and inclusive, or one that has lost its will to self-critique, that no longer looks at its guiding assumptions with a critical eye?

Bender, in his introduction, speaks of the essays here as “six distinct but broadly compatible narratives,” that “together offer a fair representation of current practice in the field.” Is there really this level of consensus in the field of American intellectual history? If one were to read only these essays, one would be excused for thinking so. While there are differences in emphasis and focus in these essays, this is a remarkably like-minded group. What is the core of this consensus? First, almost all of the historians here are what we might call “fusionists”; they believe that intellectual history should not be an autonomous form of inquiry set against and distinct from other forms of history, such as political, economic, or social history. Second, and relatedly, all of them reject what we might call “internalist” accounts of ideas and their histories in favor of a distinct brand of contextualism, one that emphasizes non-intellectual forms of context. Third, they mostly aim to affirm the expansion of what counts as appropriate subject matter for intellectual history against the old charges of elitism, embracing popular and fugitive texts and figures and readers as well as authors, while simultaneously restricting that subject matter by embracing criterion of significance defined by the “public” significance of ideas or discourse. (Hollinger is a partial exception to this last rule, but mostly because his essay is really about what to include in the sourcebook he and Capper edit—more on that below.). Fourth, the extensions of the domain or focus of intellectual history that these essays imagine is through geographical and social space—local, national, transnational—more than through time. As Leslie Butler affirms in her essay, the role of intellectual history is “to counter glib assumptions of continuity and genealogy by offering close, careful readings of ideas as they emerged, moved about, and worked in history.” (p. 169) It’s hard not to read her as suggesting that any focus on continuity through time is “glib,” and that any “genealogy” is ignoring local and specified contexts that are understood to be the proper frames of intellectual history. Again, only in Hollinger’s essay is there a sense that large intellectual processes and themes of continuity (in this case, the encounter of Protestant Christianity with Enlightenment thought) that connect the four centuries of American history might be the proper focus of intellectual historians. The agenda laid out in these essays, despite differences, then, coheres around this vision of intellectual history: fusionist; focusing on social and institutional contexts; simultaneously inclusive of a broad array of texts and historical actors, and exclusive of non-publicly oriented thought; and focused on specific historical actors rather than large transformations.

Butler’s essay, entitled, “From the History of Ideas to Ideas in History,” sets the tone. While it’s been a long time since something called the history of ideas has occupied pride of place in intellectual history, it serves here as a contrast to where Butler imagines the field has gone in the wake of Wingspread. Others in the forum are quick to note that American intellectual history was often paired with social history in the mid-twentieth century, and that the Lovejoy-influenced history of ideas never had a lot of salience for Americanists. But Butler’s point is really to highlight and endorse what I am calling the “fusionist” version of intellectual history. Ideas become significant, in this version, when they are attached to history writ large, when they help illuminate events, institutions, and patterns that are themselves historically significant.

The slippage here is evident; when Butler is talking about ideas in history, she is no longer talking about the peculiar disciplinary mode of study we call history, but about the object of that study (the events of the past). The question of who decides what is historically significant, what the events and persons of the past are that ideas can be brought in to illuminate, is elided. History in this sense is an already given thing, and ideas are in it. The question of which ideas are worthy of study or are part of history, then, is determined by what events are historically significant. Intellectual history is a handmaiden to the dominant or mainstream narrative of political, economic, and social change. Ideas that do not speak to issues of “public” concern, as several of the historians here suggest, are, if not “outside” of history, marginal to it. Hollinger notes that one of the large changes that has occurred in the field in terms of the centrality of types of thinking included in source books like The American Intellectual Tradition is a shift away from literary and philosophical thought, and a concomitant rise of interest in social and political thought (to which we might add economic thought, as the history of capitalism becomes more and more an organizing principle of contemporary historiography). The foregrounding of public life as the proper subject of history leaves out questions and problems that cannot be organized around debates and arguments over, say, the proper role of science in a democracy, the purposes and limits of state action, the relationship of art to public life, etc. While all of these kinds of questions seem to me important and fertile questions, that have inspired some very important scholarship, they also seem to define the field in an unnecessarily narrow way.

What I am calling the “fusionist” position on intellectual history is evident, and quite explicit, throughout the forum. Sklansky, for instance, seeks what he calls a “reintegration of social and intellectual history,” following on the subdisciplines’ “parallel crises” in the 1980s. Rather than the story often told of intellectual history’s crisis in response to the dominance of social history in the 1970s and 80s, Sklansky asserts that both fields, which had been strongly linked in the mid-century, came under sustained attack by postmodern attacks on “master narratives.” Now, with the reemergence of capitalism (I never knew it went away! Those of us who cut our teeth on Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America, the Fox and Lears edited volume on The Culture of Consumption, Warren Susman’s essays, James Weinstein’s “corporate liberalism,” not to mention James Livingston’s Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution thought we were studying the intellectual history of capitalism in the 1980s and 90s) as a new object of study, focusing on commoditization rather than proletarianization, intellectual and social history are back together. Like Sarah Igo in another recent go-around on the status of intellectual history, Sklansky advocates for the centrality of a particular topic as a way to integrate intellectual history into the mainstream of historical practice, rather than see it as an autonomous field of study.

The “blurred genres” of modern historical writing are also promoted in Kloppenberg’s essay, which insists on a kind of extension of intellectual history that, if successful, may well make the very subfield disappear. “Whether the results are called intellectual, social, cultural, or political history makes no difference” says Kloppenberg; “as the scope of social history expands to encompass the interpretation of cultural meanings and intellectual history extends from the highly educated to the realm of social protest movements and eventually to the texts produced by bloggers and tweeters, the distinction between social history, cultural history, and intellectual history will become increasingly blurred if not entirely erased.” (p. 209) Rubin’s essay, in line with her general interest in middlebrow and popular readers, looks for what she sees as a similar extension, focusing on reception and local uses of various forms of cultural production; the social history of reading, and the history of cultural institutions and cultural hierarchy. For her “American intellectual and cultural history will most thrive when it extends beyond a history of American intellectuals to become a history of intellectual life in America.” (p. 231)

Now, I am all for treating every text we can as an intellectual history document, as a text to be read for its assumptions, meanings, and purposes, so I think it has been salutary to move intellectual history away from a narrow focus on people we might designate “intellectuals” or on “formal,” “serious,” or “canonical” thought. But the idea that this move or extension necessarily puts us on the terrain of social history is, I think, wrong, and cultural history is not simply, as some have suggested, the place where intellectual and social history meet. In the vision of Kloppenberg, Rubin, and the other participants in this forum, the breakdown of subdisciplinary distinctions comes through the intellectual historian’s embrace of a certain vision of contextualism, an embrace that foregrounds institutional and social contexts. All historians are, of course, contextualists. The real distinctions between them come from what kinds of contexts they regard as significant, how they contextualize, and the weight they give to the internal features of a text and document in relationship to those contexts. One form of intellectual history has tended to foreground specifically intellectual contexts for any given text; intellectual historians of this sort are interested in the ways in which ideas within one text can be illuminated by the presence of ideas elsewhere—both ideas that are contemporaneous with the text, but also those established in pre-existing texts that are read and re-read. The job of the intellectual historian, in this version, is to situate texts in terms of what they drew from other texts, assumptions they shared, and ways in which they departed from those other texts. It is a deeply contextualist way of thinking, a way that situates ideas in time, but not necessarily or primarily in terms of authorial intention, social circumstance, or what Kloppenberg calls “embodiment. “ The kind of intellectual contextualism I am suggesting here is not the kind of contextualism that the participants in this forum have in mind.

The problem of contextualism and the inherent conflicts between different forms of it is not adequately addressed in the forum, because most of the participants see all forms of contextualism as compatible; the broad and inclusive vision outlined here assumes that no hard choices need to be made, that choosing one context doesn’t preclude another, that forms of contextualism are not incommensurable. David Hall, in his essay promoting the fusion of intellectual and cultural history—which is already largely a fait accompli, so the advocacy for it as something that remains controversial or has been substantially resisted is a little odd—does suggest that compromises that put aside some of intellectual history’s “engagement with the intricacies of ideas,” among other things, are “inescapable.” But this is a minor note. Kloppenberg, in his manifesto for a “pragmatic hermeneutics,” suggests that we think of contexts as “a series of concentric circles.” “Place a particular text at the center, and arrange around it an ever-widening set of circles that trace the contexts surrounding any text…. Intellectual historians began at that center, with that text, and work outward toward historical understanding.” (p. 202). The image of concentric circles suggests that the choices we make are between narrower and broader contextual understanding, and that the former is contained within the latter, even if having greater specificity.

But contexts are not already given—they are products of the questions we ask and the ways that we frame problems. To choose one set of contexts—to start for instance, as Kloppenberg suggests that we need to do, with the embodied author–is to choose a way of thinking about relevant context that precludes alternative approaches. If we were to listen to Foucault instead, we might want to see the author as an effect, rather than a cause, and start our contextualism with the level of discourse. None of the authors here wants us to do that. The two ways of thinking about relevant context are incompatible. The critique of an approach to intellectual history as a realm of “disembodied” ideas that Kloppenberg undertakes here assumes that we cannot understand texts, in any sense, in relation to one another without seeing them as the product of specifically located authors. He immediately concludes that intellectual biography, as a form, is to be privileged, that rooting the ideas of a thinker in his or her life story is a primary mode of understanding. But the closer we get to the details of a life, the further we get from a broad set of other contexts. What if abstracting ideas from the lives of their authors allow us to see relations that are invisible in an author-centered context?

Butler seems to recognize the problem of choosing contexts, arguing that potential contexts are “nearly infinite” (p. 164) and that historians have generally not been very good about critically reflecting on the meaning of “context,” even though it is one of their discipline’s key terms. In her advocacy for “public” and “transatlantic” contexts, she even suggests that such a choice involves both gain and loss. The gain she suggests is greater “accuracy,” (which suggests a residual commitment to the old empiricist model) but she has nothing specific to say about what is lost. (p. 168) While all of these historians are open to thinking in terms of intellectual contexts, the general emphasis is on institutional, social, and public life as the forum in which ideas count; the historian is less concerned with showing how ideas shape one another, and more with the actions of specific persons who use ideas as tools to achieved various ends. The conscious public use of ideas, for instance, for these historians is much more important than the shared and under-articulated common assumptions of a body of discourse. Sometimes the question is not an either/or question, but more a matter of emphasis—and the emphasis falls squarely on the kind of intellectual history that has been front and center since Wingspread.

Hall, in his essay, provides a much-needed look back to the mid-century intellectual history of Henry May, Sidney Ahlstrom, and Merle Curti as a contrast to the present—and there is, in his essay, a sense that something has been lost from the ambitions of these earlier historians, despite what he regards as their outmoded assumptions. Comparing contemporary practice to these forerunners, Hall claims that today’s “intellectual historians seem reluctant to use the once-canonical categories of ‘the Enlightenment’ or ‘Romanticism’ or ‘Social Darwinism,’ restrained from doing so by what we know about the genealogy of these categories and by our feeling that, close up, they give way to particularities that bring us closer to a ‘lived’ description of intellectual life.” (p. 176) This suspicion of broad themes, of collective sensibilities, of capacious intellectual movements in favor of fine-grained attention to local and institutional practices and writing seems to be the established voice of contemporary historiography. While we may have replaced such broad categories as Romanticism—which Lovejoy dismantled and pluralized back in the 1930s—with others—Sentimentalism, Pragmatism, Pluralism—the dominant tendency of our era has been to insist on criticizing any such category as “monolithic” and inadequate to the plural forms of meaning it hides. Even a work of integration and synthesis like Daniel Rogers’s justly celebrated Age of Fracture embraces this suspicion—when asked about the title, he has pointedly insisted that it does not take the definite article—he is not writing about the age of fracture, but about a particular age of fracture, one among many. This reluctance appears as a symptom of the very fracturing he sees as characteristic of the age.

While Sklansky suggests that capitalism might be one integrative topic for intellectual historians, only in Hollinger’s essay do we see an attempt to embrace some kind of broader and unifying theme that might undergird the study of American intellectual history as a whole. But Hollinger’s essay is not about the forms of scholarship and methods in the field, but about what to teach in undergraduate courses on American intellectual history. Because Hollinger and Capper have edited six editions of their 2 volume The American Intellectual Tradition over the past 25 years, they have had to debate with a wide swath of teachers in the field about which writers and which texts are “canonical” and should be read by students in the field. While the other entries in the forum are concerned in part with expanding intellectual history away from a canon of thinkers, Hollinger has been compelled to consider the canon. He and Capper could have edited a different kind of reader, one that rejected a canonical approach, and moved across categories of high, low, and middlebrow, but they have embraced a frankly “intellectualist” approach, one that grants significance to “important” thinkers and texts. Not only have Hollinger and Capper embraced a singular “tradition” as the hallmark of their reader, they have organized the readings around a central theme, rightly derived from their mentor, Henry May—“the accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment,”–and have organized each volume into broad thematic and chronological categories.

I confess that I have been using Hollinger and Capper in my intellectual history courses for almost twenty years, and am overwhelmingly pleased with the quality of the text and the selections (and the excellent headnotes and bibliography). Like their many correspondents, who the editors listen to when making decisions about revisions, I have always had ideas about texts and authors I would like to see included: Benjamin Rush (“Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic”), Robert Park (“Human Migration and the Marginal Man”), and the Port Huron Statement, for instance. My somewhat idiosyncratic choices don’t show up in the suggestions that Hollinger’s interlocutors have made, apparently. But the demands for Leo Strauss, Theodore Parker, Kate Millett, and Edmund Wilson, among others, do. This essay, which details some of the ways in which the field has changed—the addition of more conservative thinkers, for instance—provides a real contrast to the tone of the rest of these essays. I am left wondering why what we teach and what we write about are so divergent, and I say this as someone who both teaches this body of canonical thinking, but writes on topics that are not guided by the notion of a canon at all.

One theme that was not present in any sustained way in the Wingspread volume, but that is ubiquitous in this forum, is the focus on transnational study. There is a certain irony in this in that, despite the old American exceptionalist framework present in mid-twentieth century practice, intellectual historians have always been much more concerned with transnational connections (ideas not respecting borders and all that) than many of their fellow historians. Who thought you could be a scholar of Transcendentalism without knowing something about German idealism and European romantic thought more broadly? Who was under the impression that the development of American higher education could be understood absent the German university and the educational experience of Americans abroad? Books like Alan Simpson’s Puritanism in Old and New England (1961), or J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975) on “the Atlantic Republican Tradition” or David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975) long preceded the current vogue of transatlantic and transnational study. As social and cultural and economic historians have turned to the transnational in the last twenty years—following the flag of globalization and our own neoliberal moment—intellectual historians have had something of a head start, and it’s precisely because earlier versions of intellectual history were not wedded to the idea that specific local social and institutional contexts were the proper contextual frames to study ideas. In other words, the broader vision of an older intellectual history was, as the theory folks like to say, “always already” transnational. If there is a fundamental difference between more recent transnational work, such as Butler’s Critical Americans (2007) and Brook Blower’s Becoming Americans in Paris (2011) and the older transnational intellectual historiography of the mid-twentieth century, it still remains unclear what it is. Perhaps as intellectual historians begin to look more broadly at the Americas and the Pacific, and not so exclusively at the European-America connection, we might see a greater departure from the established forms of intellectual history.

While I am not advocating a wholesale return to the pre-Wingspread era of intellectual history, I do believe that the choices that have shaped the discipline in the past thirty years have entailed some losses as well as gains. Today we know titles such as Ralph Henry Gabriel’s The Course of American Democratic Thought (1956), Joseph Dorfman’s The Economic Mind in American Civilization (5 vols., 1946-1959) and Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought (1943), if we know them at all, as moldering and out-dated works that are rarely read. We have yet to have a really good history of American intellectual history, one that explains how we got where we are, how much our approaches are indebted to those of the past and the assumptions they made, and how much we have departed from them. Ellen Fitzpatrick’s History’s Memory (2002) dismantled the self-serving narratives of social and cultural histories of the 1980s and 90s as “new” departures by showing the “new history” as central to American historiography from the Progressive Era forward. Perhaps we need a history of intellectual history in the spirit of Fitzpatrick’s book. Even intellectual historians can be short sighted when they set out to define the future.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’m interested in your observation that “public significance” is one of the few criteria given in these essays for excluding an account from American intellectual history.

    It seems to me that the unspoken but looming problem for all of these authors may be not the lack of a clear definition of “intellectual” or “history,” but rather the lack of a clear definition of “American.” It’s been many years since any historian could safely assume that the intellectual output of (e.g.) New England theologians or Chicago social scientists was somehow representative of American thought. That problem weighed heavily on Wingspread; now it seems not to bother most historians, who have more professional pressure to work on a small scale anyway.

    But what has taken the place of a more or less unitary concept of American thought has been the notion of an American public — at least, an ideal of an American public. Now we don’t have to worry so much anymore about the representativeness of author or audience, but we have purchased that freedom at the price of excluding intellectual work that does not seem to bear on public concerns as such.

    — Jonathan Wilson

  2. Dan: I hope to have a longer, more involved comment to this post later, after I read the forum, but I wanted to drop a quick note of thanks for reviewing it. I had read Bender’s introduction, via .pdf, and was unhappy with the assertion that “younger scholars” were represented in the forum. I realize “young” and “junior” are relative in the academy, but what of graduate students and scholars in their thirties? It seems that a forum that discusses the future would solicit the select views of some just entering the field but committed nonetheless. …I say this not as wishful thinking in relation to me, since I’m only a bit younger than Butler and Sklansky (though both of them have 10 years on me in established positions).

  3. Tim, it’s ironic that your frustration with the MIH forum is expressed in terms of the “social profile” of the participants, as if their “generational” status (either as “senior” scholars in the academic sense or as “people older than me” in terms of age) is what explains their seeming consensus — in other words, you’re suggesting “that rooting the ideas of a thinker in his or her life story is a primary mode of understanding.”


    FWIW, my own understanding of “younger scholars” is tied not to chronological age but to “professional age” — both time and job status since the PhD. So it seems to me that you would count as a younger scholar, no matter your actual age.

    Clearly, when someone goes through a PhD program or begins his/her research career matters in terms of what “contemporary intellectual history practice” or “contemporary historiography” can mean for him/her. Indeed, Dan makes the point that Hollinger and Capper’s approach to the AIT reader owes something to their intellectual biography as students of Henry May. But he is hardly suggesting that the thinking of any of the scholars in this forum can be “explained” by where they went to school, or with whom they studied, or even when — because ideas are, in a sense, no respecters of persons.

    This is one of the (wicked!) ironies of the second paragraph — implicit is the idea that the methodological model around which consensus seems to have been built would both be and feel reductive if “we” applied it to our own discourse. Would it be fair — or, I guess, full — to “explain” or “explain away” any of the ideas put forward in this forum on the basis of the biographies and “discourse communities” of the authors? Not even David Hollinger can be kept within the confines of a discourse community!

    In any case, finding “younger” scholars to participate in this forum would not have guaranteed any kind of conceptual diversity in terms of an understanding of how to do intellectual history. If “the social history of intellectuals” is indeed the dominant narrative for the practice of intellectual history, this essay seems to me to represent something of what that narrative seeks — or manages, or exists — to dominate.

    And, yes, I have been listening to Foucault.

  4. @LD: I have merely asserted that there are generational differences in how the state of the field appears. I worked within the age profile given by Bender: senior, middling, and younger. Otherwise, I agree that time spent in the field is part of one’s profile. Indeed, that’s what I was getting at when I noted my age relative to Butler and Sklansky–that we need to hear from those with less time spent in the field. I think it matters in terms of topics covered, perspective, theoretical influences, etc. No, that diversity would not have guaranteed diversity. But perhaps their points of view would not have been the same, yes? As it is, we don’t know. Otherwise, is it not true that every generation must write, or interpret, history anew? – TL

  5. I don’t know that we must, but it appears that we sometimes do.

    I should also point out that listening to Foucault and understanding Foucault are two different things. At this point, I am only claiming the “listening.”

  6. On the other hand…

    It seems to me that it’s precisely the (unacknowledged? inadmissible?) presence (power?) of “the canon” (in whatever intellectual context) that allows for (insists upon?) the exploration of “topics that are not guided by the notion of a canon at all.” The project that this essay calls for — “a good history of American intellectual history, one that explains how we got where we are, how much our approaches are indebted to those of the past and the assumptions they made, and how much we have departed from them” — both rescues and resists the idea of canonicity.

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