Book Review

From New Directions to the American Labyrinth

The Book

American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times

The Author(s)

Edited by Raymond Haberski, Jr. and Andrew Hartman

Editor's Note

This is the second installment in our roundtable discussion of the edited collection, American Labyrinth. Click here for part one.

For Angus Burgin, Wingspread and New Directions are a “then and now” presence in the history of American intellectual history, important markers in the field. The book provides “a unique point of comparison for assessment of methodological continuity and change.” [n.1]  In their introduction to American Labyrinth, Ray Haberski Jr, and Andrew Hartman point out that the conference “kick-started” changes in the field, and in the conclusion Daniel Wickberg says the book is “the key text for understanding the reorientation of intellectual history in the 1970s and ‘80s.”  James Livingston finds the spirit of Wingspread still alive, specifically in Thomas Haskell’s article on the powerful role of metaphors that generate cultural, then intellectual revolutions. In his article on “Culture as Intellectual History,” Ben Alpers draws upon Leslie Butler’s point that the narrative of “decline, fall, and phoenix-like rebirth” has become “trite with the retelling,” though it’s provided a usable past for intellectual historians. [n.2]

There are some good reasons to see a fairly straight if thin narrative line from Wingspread to the present, and not only because it’s often referred to, though not closely examined. There are organizational continuities as well, as New Directions led to the Intellectual History Newsletter [1979-2002], which became Modern Intellectual History, and soon after, the USIH blog, the Society, and conferences beginning in 2008.  A highlight for me was the panel on Wingspread at the 2009 S-USIH conference led by some of the original participants, including Tom Bender, David Hall, David Hollinger, and Dorothy Ross. [n.3]   USIU

Wingspread is associated with a sense of crisis and unease, as American intellectual history was squeezed by changes from various directions.  Much work had been done with the assumption  that large entities such as nations are integrated by big ideas and values, as in many studies of the American mind, character or spirit. Actually, the second World War and the Cold War notwithstanding, the social unit may have mattered less than the presupposition of holistic integration around fundamental ideas, operative in Perry Miller’s The New England Mind, especially the first volume in 1939, and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, 1941; and applied in big histories, such as my grad school professor Stow Persons’ American Minds: A History of Ideas, 1958, organized around successive “social minds.”

Social history was part of a trend away from this holism, toward more conflictual perspectives, Marxian and otherwise, that featured inequalities and differences of class, status and political power; and often a scientific program that seemed to threaten reduction or determinism for those persuaded of the priority of ideas and ideals.  A common strategy in New Directions was to avoid earlier assumptions about the spread and unanimity of ideas and beliefs, and pursue their study in thick “communities of discourse,” as David Hollinger called them — professions, scientific communities, religious groups, and the like. Tom Bender urged what he called “intellectual history from a local standpoint,” since while ideas are “enmeshed in a world of ideas,” they are also embedded in the discrete social worlds that mediate them. [n.4]

To me, one of the striking features of New Directions is that, even as they retreated from grandiose claims, many contributors were quite attuned to concepts and theories in disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and philosophy, along with the Cambridge school and the history of science.  It’s as if, while their topical reach became more circumspect, their conceptual ambitions expanded, or perhaps better, they felt obligated to go outside history to improve their subdiscipline (though internal matters were also of concern, such as the relation between intellectual history and cultural history). [n.5]

By contrast American Labyrinth suggests a more confident field that celebrates its “capacious”  posture and expands into subject matters beyond those of traditional intellectual history, but that is less engaged (apart from specific research interests) with other fields as challenges or correctives for history;  more inclined to address other disciplines as topics for historical investigation, to perform intellectual history instead of detouring to it through other fields.

Problems with this too-neat contrast between the two books include that we’re often unclear what’s inside and what’s outside disciplines, how inter-/ and trans-disciplines should be understood, or how to identify “theory” when we see it.  In New Directions, Foucault and Kuhn are important figures, but both were arguably doing history of a kind; while in Labyrinth, theoretically rich topics are engaged through specialty areas or intersectional concepts, such as in Ruben Flores’ discussion of transnationalism, Christopher Nichols’ treatment of globalization and isolationism, K. Healan Gaston’s discussion of the meanings of religion and secularization, or Angus Burgin’s history of entrepreneurialism. [n.6]

In “Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals” in New Directions, David Hollinger wrote that historians are ”admirably eager to absorb as much insight as possible from…ahistorical disciplines” such as anthropology, philosophy and sociology, though it’s difficult to discern “exactly where and how the perspectives of the major theoretical traditions in the human sciences ought to inform the selection, design, and execution of a project in the historical analysis of thought.” But it was clearly a live issue for him. [58]

In his article, Hollinger gave considerable attention to Michel Foucault, whom few had studied at this time. He found that while Foucault thought more in terms of synchronicity and structure than of historical narrative in the usual sense, he contributed to a theory of discourse by featuring its “empirical surface,” which might be helpful in surmounting perennial dichotomies in the field between the ideal and the material,  reasons and causes, or internal/hermeneutic and external approaches.   [n.7]

Hollinger had published an article on the implications of Kuhn’s work for history in the AHR in 1973, but in New Directions, Thomas Haskell gave Kuhn the most attention, as he worried over the “deterministic implications of intellectual history,” especially as expressed in Kuhn’s theory that “mankind’s most fundamental assumptions…are normally immune to the experiential evidence that might modify or falsify them.”  In the end, though, Haskell found that Kuhn didn’t contribute much that was new to history, since others, such as Collingwood and John C. Greene, had already argued for the power of deep presuppositions and general patterns of ideas.  Haskell quoted Collingwood’s remark that since people aren’t usually conscious of their deepest assumptions, they can’t be said to choose them.  Indicating some familiarity with the history and philosophy of science, he quoted Stephen Toulmin’s criticism that Kuhn downplayed “reasons” in favor of “causes.”  We can’t know whether voluntarist or deterministic arguments will ultimately triumph, he concluded, only that the answer “will not come from the pen of an historian,” who in the meantime should avoid taking a position on the question. [n.8]

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whom John Higham called “virtually the patron saint of the conference” [xvi] was cited more often than anyone except Perry Miller, in connection with his concept of culture as collective and public (Gordon Wood), the importance of symbols in religion (Henry F. May), the concept of thickness in the history of ideas (Hollinger), and the near equivalence of the concepts of culture and belief (Murphey).  [n.9]

Presumably these historians didn’t want to become philosophers or even historians of science, but to translate and incorporate such discourses into terms they found useful.  As Burgin suggests, most at Wingspread were more eager to sharpen historical work, to revitalize and keep it up to date, than to revolutionize it, and those most open to emerging trends were also the ones “most protective of longstanding practices.”  [Worlds, 349-350].  I’m not sure how conservative they were in this sense, by intention or otherwise; nor is it clear how much the discipline was changed in the long run through their extra-disciplinary excursions. The important point here is that they thought it was essential to acknowledge and address questions raised in fields tangential to history, but with perceived implications for it.

If there’s something to the broad contrast I’ve drawn between these two important books, how might we account for it?  For starters, Wingspread took place in the midst of a truly remarkable period of innovation and creativity that encompassed all the humanities and social sciences, a time of synchronous, overlapping “turns,” not to mention broader cultural changes.  Much of the new thinking came from major figures who were seemingly everywhere, working during an exciting time of disciplinary openness and interdisciplinary exploration.  (One of my favorite examples is the use of Kuhn to support the argument in Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture, 1969.)

Foucault’s understanding of discursive formations, Kuhn’s paradigms and Geertz’s concept of culture:  all exhibit a foundationalist sensibility and bent toward totality … implied as well in the sense of “radical” as going to the roots, and in deconstruction.  There’s a quality or style of thinking in New Directions that resists delimited topics, circumscribed disciplines and abstracted levels and sectors of analysis, that sees entailments and implications coming and going everywhere.  Prominent in the book, for example, is the sense that history can’t be done responsibly without dealing at some level with broadly philosophical issues, such as freedom and determinism, or whether history is a hermeneutic or scientific discipline.

What’s especially intriguing is that these intellectual historians seemed to think that the crisis of the field — certainly not understandable in isolation from wider contexts — needed to be met by a sort of conceptual free-ranging; that in the midst of crisis, they didn’t develop the predictable mentality, but went exploring.

Labyrinth comes at a time when much of this work, often summarized as “theory,” is seen to have been somehow assimilated, set aside or moved beyond. After many “turns,” here’s a re-turn to history, thinking of the discipline along the lines of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, which found it more consensual than many others, based on shared norms for practicing the craft rather than on theoretical or methodological agreements. [n.10]  And it’s suggestive that those most often cited in Labyrinth are historians, not anthropologists or philosophers.

Carolyn Dean’s comment in a review of Darrin Mc Mahon and Samuel Moyn’s collection, Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, 2013, applies to many of the pieces in Labyrinth, in featuring “the supplementary and constitutive role of intellectual history…not as a set of texts, but as articulating some form of critical relation to other forms of inquiry whose blind spots it illuminates with no pretense to mastery.” [n.11] And quite possibly the best way to explore these spaces of supplement is through the sorts of engagements on display here.

Daniel Wickberg’s “Conclusion” can be read as an effort to rationalize the current direction.  In a way that echoes and supports the big-tent theme, and in recognition of problems of “incommensurability,” he provides a thorough map of the concept of context in order to turn epistemological or metaphysical questions into analytical choices by individual historians, conditioned by the questions being asked in particular projects. Contexts have no independent reality outside particular historical projects; instead, they are so many “tools of analysis.”  [312, 315, 316]  This strategy implies that abstracted philosophical disputes about materialism vs. idealism, atomism vs. holism, thick contextualism vs. long-term history and the like are finally distractions from the practice of history.

In his “Afterword” to Worlds, Michael O’Brien speculated that intellectual history may have absorbed something of the postmodern (and/or, one might add, the neoliberal), perhaps more than is typically recognized.  Few today are moved by the “once obligatory… acknowledgement of theoretical influences,” and instead there’s something of an “instinctive acceptance of the idea that there is no harm in eclecticism, that fragmentation is not a threat, that inconsistencies need not be reconciled, and that history does not have a direction.” [Worlds, 368-370]  At the same time, maybe it’s not too fanciful to imagine an eventual return to something like John Greene’s view that the job of intellectual history is to locate the “most general ideas, or patterns of ideas, which inform the thought of an age,” since ideas that travel, intersect and combine may come to describe newly imagined wholes.  [n.12]

In the big tent milieu, there’s an understandable desire to make intellectual history more accessible by repeatedly affirming the importance, significance and force of “ideas,” and how much they “matter” — even to the point of inverting William Carlos Williams’ expression, possibly without considering what he was rebelling against. There might be a risk that a useful slogan can slip into a program, but intellectual history will do better in the long run without a totem. [n.13]

If we take seriously that in this newly capacious field, the common coin is “ideas,” then the term and concept call for systematic analytical attention and close historiographic study.  If “ideas” and “context” are now the keywords of the field, the former deserves at least as close a look as the latter, which some of the articles in Labyrinth clearly recognize.

Notes –

[n.1] – Angus Burgin, “New Directions, Then and Now,” in Joel Isaac, James Kloppenberg, Michael O’Brien and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, eds,  The Worlds of American Intellectual History, 2017,  343. I’ve drawn on this book to generalize trends indicated in the book under discussion.

[n.2] – Raymond Haberski Jr. and Andrew Hartman, American Labyrinth. Intellectual History for Complicated Times, 2018, 3, 319n.3, 16-17. I refer to the book as Labyrinth in the text, and include references there.  Quotations by Wickberg, Livingston and Alpers are found on pages 319n.3, 16-17, 274, respectively.  Alpers cites Leslie Butler, “From the History of Ideas to Ideas in History,” Modern Intellectual History 9, 1, March 2012, 157. Christopher McKnight Nichols, in “United States in the World:  The Significance of an Isolationist Tradition,” notes that while no one dealt directly with the topic of his essay, New Directions included material on the philosophy of history, the problem of causation in history, the role and power of ideas, and intellectual history methods, citing Conkin’s “Afterword,” in John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, eds, New Directions in American Intellectual History, 1979, 231.  Nichols, Labyrinth, 222n.46 and n.47.

[n.3] – A helpful discussion is Tom Bender, “Forty Years from Wingspread: The Transformation of American Intellectual History,” Modern Intellectual History, 2017, a review of Joel Isaac, etal, eds, Worlds.

[n.4] – Tom Bender, “The Cultures of Intellectual Life: The City and the Professions,” 191-192.  Only slightly anachronistically, we might think of this as the beginning of the age of fracture.

[n.5] – As Alpers points out, it’s significant that the topic of the Intellectual History Newsletter in 1996, was “cultural studies,” not “cultural history.” The latter named work done mostly by historians, while the former was a more interdisciplinary field developed mostly outside history, and widely associated with post-structuralism. He notes that Martin Jay was one of those who wanted to protect intellectual history from absorption by it. 246-7.  Training in intellectual history was important, Jay said, partly because dealing with newer thinking on culture required “a secure ground in certain recent theories” mostly developed by intellectuals. “Keeping the Horizons Unfused:  Intellectual History and Cultural Studies.” 7.

[n.6] –  Andrew Jewett, in “On the Politics of Knowledge,” Labyrinth, discusses the metaphor of intellectual history as a commons, and questions about “outsourcing” the histories of specialized fields, including disciplines to their local practitioners, which can’t be  explored here. 291-294.  In the case of American sociology, disputes have concerned who is best equipped to historicize the field, sociologists who are generally not very interested in the history of their discipline, thinking of it as progressive, or historians who know the history it’s a part of but often little of the thing itself.

[n.7] – David Hollinger, “Historians and the Discourse of Intellectuals,” New Directions, 58-60.  In an interview with L.D. Burnett on the USIH blog, 11.2.12,  he remarked that the concept of “communities of discourse” was intended as “a heuristic, not as a charter for the field,” useful for calling attention to the “vivid positivity, the concrete substantiality” of discourse, which suggests Foucault’s enduring influence.

[n.8] –  David Hollinger, “T.S. Kuhn’s Theory of Science and Its Implications for History,” AHR 78, 2, April 1973.  Thomas Haskell, “Deterministic Implications of Intellectual History,” 140, 146.  Haskell wrote that Stephen Toulmin’s, Human Understanding “should become a basic text for all intellectual historians.” 148n.33. James Livingston, in “Wingspread: So What?” remarks that Kuhn was the “presiding spirit” of the conference, and he quotes Haskell’s “fundamental assumptions” passage, not to trouble over its putative determinism, but to affirm the [causal?] force of ideas, and that  intellectual history had less to worry about from social history than sometimes thought.  Labyrinth, 16, 17.

[n.9] – Respectively, 35, 106, 48, 154.  Other anthropologists, including Redfield and Anthony Wallace, were also cited.  Ben Alpers, in “Culture as Intellectual History,” notes the importance of Geertz even into the early ‘90s, when he was a graduate student in history at Princeton. 277.  Several of the historians in New Directions seemed heavily under the sway of the holistic, functionalist concept of culture that Geertz both expressed and challenged. Murray Murphey’s “The Place of Beliefs in Modern Culture” is especially interesting, along with his “American Civilization as a Discipline?” American Studies 40, 2, Summer 1999, a reprise of his 1967 article.

[n.10] – Michele Lamont, How Professors Think:  Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, 2009.  Lamont seems to have figured in Sarah Igo’s widely cited discussion of the model of free-ranging intellectual history, which surely depends upon a muting of meta-historical issues and a more pragmatic focus on strategies and tools for specific projects. Sarah Igo, “Toward a Free-Range Intellectual History,” in Worlds, 324-342.  Burgin cites Igo and says that the articles in Worlds are more exemplary and programmatic, less theoretical or retrospective, to use his terms.  Worlds, 343.

[n.11] –  Carolyn Dean, review of Darrin Mc Mahon and Samuel Moyn, eds, Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, 2013, AHR 120, 4, Oct, 2015, 1445.  One especially interesting initiative in Labyrinth was Christopher Nichols’ “United States in the World:  The Significance of an Isolationist Tradition,” which sees the concept of grand strategy as an “epistemology —  that is, as a structure and study of knowledge and justified belief set in action.”  222n.45.

[n.12] – John C. Greene, “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, June 1957, 59.  Greene’s article was cited by both Haskell and Hollinger in New Directions.

[n.13] – Inversions of Williams’ line from Patterson occur in Haberski and Hartman’s “Introduction,” and in Livingston’s “Wingspread: So What?” 7; 12, 17.

2 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Hey Bill, great review! I’ve read large portions of both books and my sense is that intellectual history writ large, at least as it’s represented in American Labyrinth, has evolved into a mash of social, cultural, political, intellectual et al histories. Perhaps intellectual history’s uniqueness is the willingness of its adherents to venture into other disciplines. To illustrate my point, I’ll lift a portion of a paragraph from Laurence Veysey’s opening essay from New Directions. Vehsey identifies himself as both a social historian and intellectual historian.
    “Social history portrays a deeply segmented society, split by race, sex and social class. Intellectual history either suggests a single culture or dwells on subworlds within the Protestant and Jewish elites. Social history dwells upon blacks, immigrants, women, the poor, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Marylanders. Intellectual history emphasizes ministers, lawyers, radicals, writers, professors, New Englanders, a few whites from the deep South, and (by an odd quirk) the more articulate politicians. For social historians the central institution of the past century is the factory; for intellectual historians, the university. Social history, finally, studies census returns and city directories, sources that offer representative evidence about populations. Intellectual history unashamedly studies some of the most unrepresentative evidence conceivable.” P. 6 -7
    I don’t know if he overstated his case back in the seventies but it surely would be overstated today.

  2. Hi Paul – Thanks for the feedback.

    Following this passage on differences between social and intellectual history, Veysey goes on to ask “should intellectual historians change their methods and approach to respond to the kinds of challenges recently posed by the younger social historians.” [7]

    He develops a framework to move the field beyond the old binary of “material forces” vs “ideas,” and concludes that intellectual history has an “integrity” of its own as a field … whether practitioners concentrate on “collective mentalities” (today’s cultural studies) or “formal systems of thought” (history of ideas) [19] But it has much to learn from social history, in the way of increasing the rigor and empirical grounding of its analyses, both pointing toward more circumspect generalizations and “a more honest, if humbler, redefinition of our tasks.” [21, 23]

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.