U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Common Critical Categories and the Fear of Hell

Every now and then, I’ll be in conversation with a colleague or friend and the authority of an analytical concept will appear in the debate. These concepts usually hold the weight of a long history of historiographic criticism and correction – they are the invaluable result of picking apart the assumptions of past scholarship. However, their value lies not merely in identifying an error, but pursuing a broader truth that often intertwines with a social value – the Dunning school is not merely wrong but wrong and racist, and the Lovejoy approach of a “History of Ideas” is not only ahistorical but anti-democratic.

Usually – as with the examples cited above – there is no need, in the course of a discussion with someone of a similar educational background, to elaborate further than merely referencing the concept and critique. When we call the “History of Ideas,” elitist, we know what we mean by that, and we are also working on a shared assumption, or value, that elitism is a suboptimal way of understanding and acting in the world. It goes without saying, in these cases, that therefore the argument being criticized is also wrong, because the moral weight of the category assumes it and precludes any further discussion.

I’ll stop being so abstract and provide some examples in common refrains you might have heard:

  • The analysis of Trump supporters that cast them as uniformly boorish and, especially, stupid, is elitist.
  • Notions of progress – especially those rooted in the Western Enlightenment – are teleological “whig history.”
  • New Atheism is positivist.

In providing these examples, I do not intend to suggest that I think the above statements are wrong; actually I think they are all correct. However, I notice how invoking these critical concepts, despite deriving from a history of criticism that resulted in a critique broadly accepted as valid, can sometimes shut down investigation in a way they should not always do.[1]

The problem is, there is no order to the universe. So yes, the elitism of the Lovejoy practice of “the history of ideas,” is, in fact, elitist (and because of the context, therefore tied up in a bunch of white male supremacist/imperialist yuckiness) and, in large part due to its elitism, also wrong.[2] But does that mean that everything that can be fairly described as elitist is also wrong? For example, while I am very critical of arguments that seem to assume that Trump voters simply need to “ get educated, ” (and that doesn’t square with the numbers, anyway) I am not so critical of critiques that describe them, collectively, as racist, as Chancey DeVega argued for a few weeks ago. There are some that might, however, consider that position elitist as well. Assuming they are correct, is that in and of itself a reason to reevaluate the argument?

Maybe yes, and maybe no. But the issue should not simply be dropped once something is diagnosed as elitist. And in case anyone thinks I am trying to slowly build a case for elitism, don’t worry – these questions don’t make me comfortable. On the contrary, the most vivid memory I have associated with such doubt is the soul-gripping fear, sitting in a church service my grade-school best friend once dragged me to, that everything her pastor was saying about Jesus, my inherently ugly heart, and hell fire was true. (I imagined myself and everyone I loved, none of whom were “born again,” suffering unspeakable pain for an eternity, of course.) Subsequent investigation (and also, not being a super-anxious nine year old anymore) eventually cured me of that particular terror. Nonetheless, I think it is important to consider, every once and a while, if just because a certain interpretation of reality strikes you as dismal and/or morally repugnant, it is necessarily inaccurate. After all, if there is a God, all evidence points to him being quite the son of a bitch. And so, maybe the arch of history does not lean toward justice? At least no one case accuse me of being a Whig.

[1] Similarly, we often fall back on similar normative critiques concerning method. Because of the variety of strategies employed by different branches of the humanities and social sciences, these refrains are more contested than analyses within a single discipline; calling something “qualitative” might be bad these days in sociology, but can be a compliment to a historian. Nonetheless, even within disciplines there usually still are predominant assumptions about what constitutes “proper method” that should likely be interrogated much more than they are.

[2] Insofar as an entire approach to studying something can be “wrong.” You get my drift.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I don’t see why/how the history of ideas would necessarily be ahistorical, antidemocratic, and/or elitist. Thoughts are objects to be handled like anything else. If anything, I’d say that historicizing ideas, handling them not as eternal truths but as dated things, is a potentially “democratizing” move.

  2. What follows probably misses the deeper point of this post, but I’ll venture it anyway:

    I have been criticizing, for a few weeks now, the narratives of Trump and his supporters that correlate with your first bullet point: “The analysis of Trump supporters that cast them as uniformly boorish and, especially, stupid, is elitist.”

    I do believe, in my heart of hearts, that those analyses are both elitist and superficial. I think they constitute the heart of the present-day problem that is liberalism (which has infected both parties).

    Why? Because they confuse the clothing for the person underneath. Or, to invoke another metaphor, they focus on prominent trees while missing the forest.

    If you added “racist” into your sentence above, I would add that the elitist criticism confuses superficial racism for structural racism.

    My complaint, then, about the elitism behind these criticisms is not the elitism per se, but the fact that the position, or perspective, clouds—or stops—one’s ability to see deeper currents. The deepest of currents here are structural racism and structural inequality. The reverberations of those structural problems (in our thought patterns) are sowing confusion in relation to political/practical priorities.

    Now that I’ve worked out a bit of your puzzling post here in my comment, perhaps we’re saying similar things. But I refuse to embrace any “elitism” charge, leveled against me (potentially), for saying there’s more to see. And I refuse to let go of the elitism behind the critics saying these things about Trump and his supporters. – TL

  3. @L.D. — Certainly, it can be done that way. I wasn’t referring to what could be but what was a very narrow tradition of *not* putting ideas in a context larger than the world of white elite males.

    @Tim — Similarly, I don’t disagree with your sharp analysis here. (And if you read that DeVega link, I think you’ll find he has a somewhat similar structural reason for considering Trump supporters racist.) My point, again, was not to advocate for any particular view, but consider how labeling something this or that does not always correlate 100 percent with whether the thing being labeled is an accurate description of reality, even if the label is something that usually distorts clear analysis. Hence the refrain about there being no order to the universe.

    Maybe a better example would have been the history of animal rights. As someone who feels constantly on the verge of becoming vegan for ethical reasons, I am aware of critiques that this is a typical concern for white elite Westerners. And as far as I know, the history of animal rights is largely a history of bourgeois culture. So what do I do with that? Can the ethical treatment of animals come from historically elitist roots but still be the right thing to embrace? Those are the kind of uneasy complications I’m thinking about.

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