Yesterday, Claire Potter put up an interesting post on her book blog about the relationship of historians of political movements to the movements that they study. Potter is working on a history of anti-pornography feminism. She reports that audiences for her work frequently assume that she herself is an anti-porn feminist. However, Potter writes in her post, “[m]y hope for this book is that you will be so compelled by my scholarship that you will never know my private views on this question.”
It’s worth reading Claire’s whole post, which is full of interesting observations about the expectations that certain scholars – especially “women, queers and people of color” – will necessarily agree with the people that they study, the value that some scholars find in using their work on social activism as a form of social activism, and the reasons that she is not doing this in her current project.
Potter’s thoughts on the issue of the relationship of work on social movements to social activism made me want to visit some parallel issues that intellectual historians face: What is our relationship to the ideas we write about? Is part of our job to evaluate the merits of ideas in the past? In what instances should we – or should we not – weigh in on intellectual disputes in the past?
I think people are less likely to assume that intellectual historians agree with the people we study than that historians of social movements (let alone historians of social movements who come from groups that are popularly understood as engaging in “identity politics”) are sympathetic with the movements that they study. Nevertheless, I think we are frequently drawn to studying thinkers with whom we are either particularly sympathetic or particularly unsympathetic. And we need to decide how whether (and how) we want to discuss this sympathy or hostility.
As Claire suggests in regards to historians of social movements, how much we foreground our own opinion of the ideas and thinkers about whom we right varies (and, in my opinion, ought to vary) from project to project. I largely share what I take to be her sense that we are often best served by not foregrounding our own views about the matters that our thinkers thought about.
But the issues facing intellectual historians are not quite the same as the issues facing historians of social movements. To begin with, writing history is, under most, though not all, circumstances, a distinctly different activity from engaging in a social movement. On the other hand, intellectual historians are, like our subjects, engaged in intellectual work. Whether we like it or not, the very act of writing intellectual history thus sometimes necessarily leads us to engage on our subjects’ turf. This was a constant issue, for example, when I was working on Strauss and the Straussians, who have distinctive ideas about history and historicism that are central to their understandings of philosophy. In a sense the very act of writing (my kind of) intellectual history of the Straussians entailed disagreeing with them about important things.
History can also be a very useful way to evaluate ideas from the past. Philosophers themselves often write intellectual histories and intellectual biographies for this very reason. And when philosophers do so, the conclusions they reach often involve coming to some kind of normative evaluation of the ideas of the person or people that they are studying. The philosopher Edward Skidelsky’s excellent intellectual biography of Ernst Cassirer explicitly rejects the revival of Cassirer’s views that has taken place recently, especially in Germany. “We can admire Cassirer’s moral grandeur while at the same time acknowledging his intellectual defeat,” Skidelsky writes. But at the same time, Skidelsky knows he is writing a work of history. While he rejects Cassirer’s answers to important questions about liberalism and culture, he does not attempt to formulate better ones in these pages. Simon Glendinning’s The Idea of Continental Philosophy: A Philosophical Chronicle is a more polemical example of a philosopher writing history for philosophical purposes, in this case to suggest that the very idea of continental philosophy was an ideological construct designed to limit the scope of Anglo-American philosophy. Similarly, John McCumber’s Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era is an indictment of the behavior of many American philosophers during the Second Red Scare and an attempt to argue that the demands of the Cold War were decisive in shaping American philosophy during those years. (Although McCumber is a professor of German at UCLA, his PhD is in philosophy).
I like all three of these books. And my sense is that they are all frequently used by historians. But the very frankness with which their authors take sides is, I think, more typical of history of philosophy written by philosophers than history of philosophy written by historians. Nonetheless, works by intellectual historians can also take sides.
All these books also instantiate my sense that, by and large, Europeanists (in both history and philosophy) are more likely to use intellectual history as a method of raising philosophical issues than are Americanists in these disciplines, though my sense of this is purely anecdotal.
Claire Potter doesn’t mention what I’d imagine is one of the main reasons people seem so interested in her personal relationship to anti-porn feminism: although the “porn wars” of the Eighties are a thing of the past, pornography remains an issue that feminists disagree about. Historians’ relationships to movements that are today less controversial are, I think, less fraught. It’s unlikely that someone writing about the rise of Nazism or of the third KKK would be assumed to be supportive of these movements, just as it’s very likely that someone writing about the Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s would be assumed to be supportive of it.
Similarly, I think books studying ideas that concern living issues are more likely to raise the questions I’ve been discussing than books whose subjects concern matters about which people no longer argue. Nobody, I think, would wonder whether or not Carlo Ginzburg was a believer in Menocchio’s cosmology. In contrast, much of the criticism of Jonathan Sperber’s recent biography of Karl Marx involved Sperber’s refusal to treat Marx’s ideas as living ones (Andrew Hartman discussed this aspect of the arguments over Sperber’s Marx biography in an excellent post that appeared almost exactly a year ago on this blog.) The issues that modern U.S. intellectual historians are more likely than not to be living issues, and thus to raise these sorts of questions.
How do readers of this blog who write intellectual history handle these questions? How do readers of this blog who read it like to see them handled?
 Of course some of intellectual historians work on social movements and are faced with exactly the questions that Potter raises.