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“Intellectual History for What?


U.S. Intellectual History Conference 2010

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
Maxwell School of Syracuse University

For all those interested in serious, nuanced study and exchange of ideas, the post-1960s
period up to the aughts was not exactly a boon. Between pressures for intellectual
conformity from both right and left, public discourse that was little more than therapy
session qua shouting match, a society rent by a self-righteous and fundamentalist
evangelical culture and its equally self-righteous and fundamentalist atheist critics, and
the frenetic technological distractions that threaten the last vestiges of the
contemplative life and fact-to-face interpersonal relations, we face a climate openly
hostile to the free and open exploration of ideas.

Meanwhile, our field faced its own obstacles: a drastic shrinkage of jobs, hyper-
specialization; the bureaucratization, over-administration, and commercialization of the
university; careerism; and the crisis in the humanities.

In the waning of the 1950s and 1960s, a heyday for the academic field of history,
excitement about the new focus on blacks, women, and workers was largely sublimated
in the establishment of specialized academic journals, ghettoized in programs of special
study and subfields, or absorbed into the mainstream with token classes in lecture
courses or separate chapters in textbooks. Who would have known that the generation
of C. Vann Woodward and Herbert Gutman, was not a beginning but an end? The
legacy of the push for inclusion of the marginalized in the American context was African
American studies, Women’s studies, the new Social History, and more recently, Queer
Studies.

Critics have decried this splintering. By the late 1970s, Lawrence Stone called for
renewed attention to narrative. There were calls for “bringing the state back in” and for
synthesis, and new thematic approaches, such as Atlantic studies or Global History, but
these do not automatically get us any closer to a sustained focus on ideas or truly
animating interpretations. The last far-reaching historiographical challenge to Whig
history and consensus interpretations (or conflict interpretations, for that matter),
based on intellectual history and socio-cultural context was the now largely forgotten
social control school. It fit the times, both inside and outside of the profession, to argue
that the powerless were subjected to forces beyond their control, but others saw this as
diminishing the outsiders themselves. Critics of social control emerged in the late 1970s
and 1980s when the sixties social movements were domesticated for use in the
curriculum. The institutionalization of cultural politics channeled different promising
interpretive streams into the same dull and obvious funnel of agency.

The new premise of much historical writing was that the inclusion of marginalized
groups and the study of ideas were mutually exclusive. In a twist that was doubly
cruel—to the field of study itself, which suffered from this inauspicious timing, and to

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those deemed automatically, by virtue of their station in life, to have no connection to
ideas—intellectual history became suspect, the sole preserve of the elite.

The outpouring of interest in this new venue (the U.S. Intellectual History conferences)
thus is an occasion for surprise and delight for those of us working in relative isolation—
perhaps even alienation—during the months, years, or decades past. It joins other signs
of renewed interest in ideas in American life.

One sign of an unmet craving for ideas was the takeoff of the new media as a forum for
discussion, together with the debate over the public intellectual, which have dovetailed.
Whether one thinks the blogosphere promising or damaging, or the public intellectual is
in decline or alive and well, is overshadowed by the good news that people are actually
debating these questions.

However, cultural historians and theorists have brilliantly showed us the power of the
existing cultural apparatus to lead to a “colonization of the life-world,” turning issues of
substance into opportunities to gain viewers’ fleeting attention for attention’s sake.
What intellectual history can do is resist this.

How? By deliberately resisting the tidal wave of our time that pushes nearly all
endeavors to an ever-heightening level of awareness of one’s own position, a rarified
form of self-consciousness that forever edges out content not even for form but for a
level of self-referentiality that leads nowhere beyond itself.

A case in point is the debate over the public intellectual. So much energy goes into
assessing the List (in the various publications which have drawn them up), into
discussion of what someone’s place is on the List and the question of who are the public
versus—what? private?—intellectuals. From the mutual recriminations, it would appear
that each of us faces a rational lifestyle choice between two different career paths or
alternative identities.

If Intellectual history is to become, in this amazing second chance it has been given,
something of real significance it will certainly do so by refusing to be the subfield of
Intellectual history per se. Once it is objectified as a field that exists today as merely an
alternative to other fields, it is subject to the temptations to which other contemporary
fields have yielded: above all, the pressure to engage in relentless self-examination.
Such examination, when taken to a certain attenuated level, ends up obliterating what is
being examined. It becomes a way of examining ourselves from without rather than
inhabiting ourselves from within. The myth of objectivity suggests that examining
ourselves from without will free us of blinders and bias; yet, it is only by looking at the
world from within that we can be outward looking.

In this exciting reemergence of Intellectual history, instead of asking who are the real
intellectuals, the real public intellectuals, or the real non-public intellectuals
(presumably the real academic scholars), we might decipher the various practices and
traditions in which we wish to be engaged.

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The best way to become free of the powerful cult of personal identity today as well as the
bureaucratized pseudo-sciences of the modern research university is to resurrect or
create anew a different way of being in the world. Making Intellectual history into a
meaningful activity requires a similar discipline. This involves, in part, a recognition
that identity—or better yet, self-definition--comes only through engagement with
substance, not prior to it.

Our field needs to prove itself. Of course we need introspection and armor. It does
none of us any good to be so contrary to current trends as to be out of the picture
altogether, no matter how praise-worthy our purity.

But what do we really need at this key time if it is to be a real turning point?

What we need is a true revival of the passionate commitment to ideas and the best
practices that have grown up around them, produced them, and made a hospitable
space for them. Any renewal must take into account the hostile conditions I have
outlined above. It must push onward not just in spite of those conditions, but also
because of them.

U.S. Intellectual history in particular has a great deal to prove. There is acre after acre
of unbroken ground that needs to be put into cultivation. One of the corruptions of
today’s careerism and commercialism is that success comes from marketing and self-
promotion and not inherent worth. If we agree with this criticism, it falls on us to create
something of worth.

Rather than marketing for marketing’s sake, we should adopt the craft model and draw
attention to our efforts through quality. But more than ever now, because the
intellectual crafts have all but died out, we need originality as well.

What picture do I have in my mind of this emergent intellectual history? It is one that
answers the following questions, not through defensive strategies but through new
work:

1. Why do American History graduate students often have fewer or no language


requirements for the highest levels of educational attainment than those studying
the history of other parts of the world? When is it not an advantage to know at
least German, French, Italian, ancient Greek, and/or Latin or other languages
depending on the subject, for serious U.S. intellectual history?
2. Why have American historians largely ignored developments in Continental
Theory and other movements that have caused such a stir in other disciplines?
What is the cost of leaving assessment of recent intellectual developments to
those without a historical perspective?
3. Why have other fields of history, such as European history, managed to produce
more significant individual works and noteworthy schools of thought or
approaches? Why were there no prominent attempts to write in the vein of
mentalities or micro-history? Why no beautiful wedding of the best theory and
empirical observation? Of institutional and intellectual history as has been done

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for the study of monasteries in the early Medieval period? Of religion and
philosophical ideas of physicality as for the Late Antique period? Of emotion and
ethics as explored by political philosophers and classicists? Of culture and
memory as for Holocaust studies and other fields?

We face a choice:

1. See the coalescence of a new academic subfield or revivify longstanding traditions


of truth seeking and moral inquiry.
2. Employ new academic jargon or a new deliberateness about our vocabulary,
aimed at clarification, articulation, and communication with a reader, including
one another.
3. Espouse the virtual world entirely or experience the reverence for the written
word, page, and book—where ideas are experienced in their full physicality and
embodiment in the concrete product of another person’s labor in the real world.
4. Perpetuate the myth of omniscience or practice intellectual humility and honesty
with ready admission of what we have not yet read fully and completely and with
close readings of what we deem the most significant thought worthy of our own
precious hours and of sharing with others.

Rather than a disembodied mass of information gathered and classified by a computer,


we need an archeology of knowledge in which we are truly interested (as opposed to
disinterested as much as uninterested) and we are each in the soil up to our knees open
to the awe of discovery and eager to share those discoveries with others similarly
interested.

But all this presupposes we are exploring questions of new and time-worn concern that
actually matter beyond the making of one person’s academic career. What would really
be exciting would be if such questions were to drive future inquiry in U.S. Intellectual
history. Only then would it be possible that we might see the renewal of interest in ideas
become more than a brief scenic outlook on the way to a cavernous darkness that ends
by absorbing us all in its abysmal emptiness.

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