U.S. Intellectual History Blog

New Directions in American Intellectual History: A Summary

Not only our major “state of the field” essays on this blog, including particularly the fine guest posts by Daniel Wickberg and, more recently, Angus Burgin, but also the “state of the field” forums those two guest essays discuss, all alike acknowledge and contend with the continued importance of the 1977 Wingspread Conference on New Directions in American Intellectual History. wingspreadTo even mention “Wingspread” is to gesture toward one of the most significant developments in the historiography of our subdiscipline. Wingspread is one of those things that Every U.S. Intellectual Historian Needs to Know – or at least know about.

But I wonder if many of our readers have had an experience similar to mine: seeing Wingspread mentioned on this blog (or elsewhere) as a particularly important historiographic marker without first having a clear idea of what was being discussed.  If you happened to stumble onto this blog before you stumbled into the systematic study of historiography – as was my case – then perhaps this happened to you. 

Indeed, in even the most rigorously sequenced and systematic of graduate programs, I imagine this is often the case:  we encounter ideas or thinkers in a fairly ad hoc fashion in coursework and conversations in and out of the seminar room, and we spend our time in graduate school scrambling to figure out how to fit it all together into a somewhat systematic or coherent whole. This is the full-immersion method of “learning to think in the field” – something akin to being tossed (or, I suppose, leaping headlong) into a roiling torrent dotted with various texts and ideas swirling all around you like so many separate planks and logs, and your job is to collect these materials and lash them together to make a raft, while you are in the water.  As Mr. Toad would say, “It’s the only way to travel!”

For the sake of those readers who are just now getting started on their U.S. intellectual history raft (or for those readers who have managed to cobble together a serviceable raft without accounting for this particular plank), I am posting below the (long!) précis I wrote last spring, summarizing each of the essays in the New Directions volume.  This will be dry reading for those who already know the text, but it might prove useful to some poor fainting, struggling grad student who is just trying to keep his or her head above the water.



Higham, John and Paul K. Conkin, ed. New Directions in American Intellectual History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

This volume contains a selection of papers that were presented at the 1977 Wingspread Conference on New Directions in American Intellectual History.  The conference was held against a backdrop of anxiety and crisis for intellectual historians — a sense that their once central sub-discipline was seen as increasingly marginal and irrelevant.  Moreover, the sense of the discipline’s decline was linked with the rise of another subdiscipline:  social history.  The rise and influence of social history is the foil against which these papers argue for the viability and promise of intellectual history.

The book itself is divided into three sections.  The first section of essays address “the field as a whole,” the second section contains essays that line up with the focus on “History of Ideas,” while the third section contains essays that focus on “History of Culture.” In their introduction, the editors say that “every session” of the Wingspread conference exhibited a tension between two “contrasting tendencies”:  a focus on clearly and self-consciously articulated ideas, or a focus on a “less refined level of consciousness” (mentalites).  Below I will briefly summarize the main contribution each essay makes to this landmark collection.


Laurence Veysey, “Intellectual History and the New Social History”

Veysey reminds us of the working assumption of intellectual historians;  “all ideas are false but important” (4).  That is, they are historically situated, but are nevertheless real historical agents, rather than epiphenomena.  He wants to address the relationship between intellectual and social history, and he seems to place more emphasis still on the exploration of self-consciously “intellectual” texts, simply because “little surviving evidence exists with which to reconstruct the mental patterns of large portions of the society” (22).  Intellectual historians thus should not claim that their findings are broadly representative or make generalizations about “American thought” or the “American mind.”

Gordon S. Wood, “Intellectual History and the Social Sciences”

The social sciences are generally nomothetic and thus carry a certain hint of determinism and behavioral inevitability that most American historians resist.  But social scientists, following Durkheim and Saussure, as well as Geertz, have “come to realize that they cannot understand man and his society by treating human behavior” as any other subject in the natural sciences, but must instead understand how “meanings determine actions.”  Since such meanings are “what intellectual historians call ideas,” the scope of intellectual history is broadened to include all human behavior (32).  But the awareness of and focus on culture points out the ways in which ideas/culture can be, if not determinative, then restrictive of human choice.  Ideally, the intellectual historian will use a “zoom lens that will enable us to move easily back and forth from the small, close-up world of unique and individual volition…to the larger aggregate and deterministic world of cultural conventions and collective mentalities where ideas control men” (37).  This dual perspective will allow us to see how individuals “make small accretive piecemeal changes in the constantly developing cultural aggregates” (37).

David A. Hollinger, “Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals”

Hollinger argues that ideas and presuppositions all address implicit questions, and that groups of people who share the same presuppositions or “answers” to these questions constitute distinctive discourse communities.  Most intellectual historians study the discourse of “men and women of words” — writers who explicitly argued or addressed ideas.  Hollinger contends that a focus on intellectuals is helpful because intellectuals are members of other discourse communities and participate in the daily life of the culture.  Therefore, in the writings of intellectuals one can find explicitly articulated ideas that may be present but inadequately described or represented by non-intellectuals.

Rush Welter, “On Studying the National Mind”

Welter argues that intellectual historians should continue to attempt “broad-based analyses of American thought” (64), and that “particular studies of discrete groups can have little meaning unless they serve to illuminate a more general perception of historic phenomena” (65).  I presume he is reacting against the New Social History’s focus on micro-communities; he is arguing for the need to pay attention to broad intellectual context in order to understand the “significance and meaning” of those subjects treated in fine-grained studies. (65)  Historians should be simultaneously attentive to context and content of ideas (73).  Intellectual historians should cast a wide net in looking for ideas in the available documents, and try — still, through a focus on “intellectuals” — to “get at patterns of thought that extended across class and educational lines” (76).  To do this, intellectual historians will need to broaden the scope of their inquiry beyond “recorded exchanges of thought” between intellectuals who were self-consciously engaged in dialogue with one another’s ideas (78-79). Still, though, the focus is on the documentary evidence left behind by “intellectuals.”


Sacvan Bercovitch, “New England’s Errand Reappraised”

Bercovitch revises Perry Miller’s thesis that Puritan divines of the late 17th century abandoned their original “errand” as a failed project and with the collapse of the church-state form of governance resigned themselves to carving out a less ambitious errand of seeking to exert a positive moral influence on an increasingly secularizing society.  Bercovitch returns to the text from which Miller takes his title, Samuel Danforth’s 1670 sermon A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness, and finds that this jeremiad is not a narrative of declension but carries forward that errand by “transmitting a myth that has remained central to the culture” (91).  Bercovitch finds in this and similar expressions of late-Puritan orthodoxy the roots of American exceptionalism and the sense of America’s special mission in the world.  Because the “errand” was successfully broadened beyond the particular politics and polity of the Bay colony, the Puritans did in fact succeed in their errand.

Henry F. May, “Intellectual History as Religious History”

While intellectual history “deals with whatever people have found inescapably important,” May prefers not to conflate it with religious history (106). Though the borders between these two disciplines dedicated to human thought/belief blur, he finds the distinction useful (108). At the same time, intellectual historians’ ineptitude or disinterest in handling/understanding the inner logic and inner distinctions of explicitly religious thought has hampered their ability to fully understand or adequately describe the broad context of American thought.  May emphasizes the continued importance of religious thinking to many Americans well beyond the nineteenth century.  Examining both intellectual and religious history will help historians of American culture with “their hardest and most important problem, the special and unique relation between elites and masses in this country” (114).  Both intellectual and religious historians should remember that, no matter which of those two broad discourses they are studying, the other discourse was “powerfully present” (114).

Dorothy Ross, “The Liberal Tradition Revisited and the Republican Tradition Addressed”

Ross wants intellectual historians to renew attention to “political ideology and its long-term continuities” (119).  Intellectual history has helped broaden the definition of what counts as political thought, as its attention to the “Puritan mentality” helped scholars arrive at the realization that “religious and political consciousness were fundamentally intertwined” (120).  She suggests that historians build on a fundamental insight of Pocock’s work:  the idea “that historical consciousness–how a people locates itself in time–is a basic dimension of political and social thought” (120).  A kind of millennialist view of society in social thought of the 1880s gave way to an increasingly historicist and secular understanding.  Nevertheless, the rise of the social sciences, with their transhistorical generalizations, in some ways represent a return to — or a preservation of — a “pre-historicist” mindset.  “The real paradox of Progressive thought is that historicism, with its desire to secure values within history, ended in an ahistorical social science that had adopted the objective voice and strove to be value-free” (129).  The ahistorical analysis of the social sciences is an intellectual return to “America’s millennialist past” (129).

Thomas L. Haskell, “Deterministic Implications of Intellectual History”

Intellectual history can illuminate the extent to which the conceptual world in which people live determines and circumscribes the possibilities they can imagine and the choices they can make.  This insight, highlighted by the work of Thomas Kuhn, can suggest a level of determinism that most historians, including intellectual historians, might find unsettling.  But historians should “assign a high priority indeed to the exploration of these controlling presuppositions that shape thought, and thus behavior, in every sphere of life” (141).  Uncovering the contours and the normative functions of these presuppositions is a crucial work, and part of a pedagogical responsibility to help students appreciate the constraints within which individuals in the past made the choices that they made.


Murray G. Murphey, “The Place of Beliefs in Modern Culture”

Murphey argues that “the significance of intellectual history depends upon the importance of belief for the functioning of society” (151).  He contends that beliefs are central to modern culture, and defines beliefs more broadly than a set of logical theorems or propositions.  Beliefs or world views have an explanatory function and create a sense of order and stability.  Since beliefs account for experience, as experience changes, beliefs will change — though that change is constrained by a need for consistency or stability (156-157).  A key work of intellectual historians will be to understand how ideas — beliefs — function socially and psychologically as part of “a complex functioning sociocultural system” (164).

David D. Hall, “The World of Print and Collective Mentality in Seventeenth-Century New England”

Hall frames his essay as a contribution to “the debate between social and intellectual historians about the distance that exists between elites or intellectuals and other groups” (167).  By exploring some of the ways that printed texts circulated among those with seemingly limited literacy, as well as the ways in which popular or folk concepts made their way into print, Hall shows that the “categories of elite and nonelite are too limiting” (169).  Unlike parts of Europe during the same time period, and even parts of England, “the whole of New England constituted a reasonably uniform language field” (175), and the texts which circulated widely in that culture would have been both accessible and known to elites and non-elites alike.  Hall warns against the idea that elites and non-elites had fundamentally different ways of thinking or inhabited fundamentally different cultures, and does not believe it is useful to carve up the subjects of intellectual history on the basis of class identity or literacy.

Thomas Bender, “The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and the Professions”

Bender argues that intellectual and cultural historians should take more care to situate their subjects — including ideas and systems of belief — geographically.  Historians should be attentive to the networks of dialogue and connection that were available to thinkers in various locales, and the way those networks differed.  The “civic professionalism” through which intellectuals identified with and contributed to the social/cultural life of a particular place differed from the growing “disciplinary professionalism” in which intellectuals saw their main “community” as not tied to the particular institution in which they worked but located within “the profession” as a whole.  Identification with a profession became a way for urban intellectuals to gain “acceptance of their special competence in a milieu of strangers” (189).  They were also seeking a sense of belonging and security.  The growth of disciplinary fields and the attendant gatekeeping and boundary-enforcing work of scholars within those disciplines was as much about finding that sense of security as it was asserting class identity (190).

Neil Harris, “Iconography and Intellectual History: The Half-Tone Effect”

Neil Harris challenges the hesitancy of intellectual historians to consider visual texts.  While he recognizes that a close reading of iconographic sources might require a specialized vocabulary with which intellectual historians may be unfamiliar, he insists that intellectual historians must be attentive to the ways in which this particular development in the technology for reproducing images contributed to the formation of mass culture.  Historians should pay attention to the discourse surrounding the emergence of half-tone technology as part of the emerging debate about mass culture.

Warren L. Susman, “‘Personality’ and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture”

Susman builds on Rief’s insight that “as cultures change so do the modal types of persons who are their bearers” (213).  He argues further that cultural change will always involve a change in the way people conceptualize the self (215).  The nineteenth century notion of the self as possessing “character” has given way to the modern/mass-culture notion of the self as possessing “personality.”  Further, the emergence of the idea of “personality” in popular culture predated formal articulation of sociological/psychological ideas of personality.  This fact confirms Susman’s conviction that “general social attitudes exist in popular thought before formal ‘ideas’ expressing them rise to the level of general understanding” (219).  Here in Susman’s essay, then, we have two “rules” or “general laws” of historiography:  changes in culture are accompanied by changes in the concept of personhood, and ideas exist “in popular thought” before they are formally articulated by individual thinkers.

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  1. Thanks for this post. Something like this is definitely what I needed, because I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while. I know I still will (at some point) but this is very fascinating, especially since it’s from a time period when, as you mentioned, intellectual history seemed to be in trouble as a field.

  2. Well, there might be a few folks in the field well beyond grad school who haven’t read every word (or perhaps any word) of New Directions. In fact, it’s probably a testament to my initial misapprehension of how to prepare for qualifying exams that I did, indeed, read every word (though it was well worth reading). However, for those who don’t have the time/opportunity to skim the text, the above summary might come in handy. This was one of the first précis I wrote. The more reading I did, the shorter and more impressionistic they got — one of those survival skills you pick up while treading water and trying not to get snagged on the flotsam. Anyway, I know it’s long for a blog post, but now it’s indexed in Google and somebody can find it later if they need it.

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