This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
McClay University of Tennessee at Chattanooga The title of our roundtable, “Intellectual History for What?” is surely meant to echo famous titles in a similar vein, such as Robert Lynd’s Knowledge for What?, or David Riesman’s Abundance for What? But for me, it was a vivid reminder of one of my graduate-school teachers, a cheerfully blunt critic who always came to our departmental seminars armed with the question, “So what?” We could set our watches by the moment, forty minutes or so into some poor terrified grad student’s presentation of his or her seminar paper, when the niceties having been discussed, the anvil would fall, the critic would lift up the student’s paper, often holding it up by a corner, as if it were carrying some contagion, and say, “OK, but so what? Why should I care about this subject? What is at stake here? What difference does it make?” Such questions are almost impossible for those of us in the humanities to answer, particularly when they are asked in a spirit falling somewhat short of full sympathy. After enduring these questions for years from uncomprehending friends and relatives— you want to do what?—we tend to avoid them, and laugh them off when they arise. I often wondered whether, were the tables turned, the critic cited above could have succeeded in justifying his own work to an equally determined interlocutor, one who permitted no laughing off of the subject. In any event, though, we do need to begin any such discussion with an unpacking of the meaning of the question: “For what?” To begin with, is intellectual history’s end, that for the sake of which it is undertaken, an instrumental end, or a teleological one? And to whom are we trying to justify ourselves? To other historians, as a way of securing for ourselves a respected “place at the table” in the discipline of history—a place that seems somewhat in doubt in recent years, given the steady disappearance of jobs in the field? Or should we wear our marginality as a badge of honor, and regard our prospective audience or community of discourse as something both wider and deeper than just the discipline of history? This ambivalent sentiment about our disciplinary home reflects the odd situation in which we find ourselves. Intellectual history seems to be both everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because its diffuse influence is so widely in evidence, particularly in the appropriation of its insights and methods in the practices of historians and other scholars who most emphatically do not regard themselves as intellectual historians, and do not think that what they are “doing” is intellectual history. But nowhere too, in that intellectual history as a freestanding subdisciplinary niche, a subject area with its own distinct identity, rather than a set of tools that can be put to use in a wide variety of more concrete inquiries, has regained little of its former eminence, and in fact by some measures appears weaker than ever. It is hard to be enthusiastic about the subdiscipline’s prospects when one sees an ever-shrinking number of tenurable
Copyright Wilfred McClay 2010 1
positions in the academy which are defined primarily as intellectual-history posts. No responsible graduate advisor will take on students specializing in intellectual history without apprising them of these facts, and offering strategic advice (i.e., be sure to yoke their interest in intellectual history to a less exotic line of inquiry). In short, the subdiscipline might seem to be flourishing and dying at one and the same time. It seems to be flourishing as a practice woven into the larger fabric of an increasingly self-conscious discipline. It seems to be dying as an independent and selfjustified field of inquiry, complete with its own clear and compelling raison d’etre. Of course that last standard is a high one which few subdisciplines can meet. The essentially bureaucratic categories that we use to organize knowledge are pragmatic rather than ontological in character, and no subdiscipline can retain much meaning if it is divorced from the whole web of disparate approaches to things. But intellectual history is particularly vulnerable to this difficulty. Left to its own subdisciplinary devices, it tends—like all subdisciplines trying mark out their distinctive turf—toward the esoteric and toward the invention of neologisms and arcane vocabularies that make distinctions and discriminations that are not available in ordinary language. There is much to admire in such refinements, but one has to face the fact that they are also one source, and perhaps even the chief source, of the subdiscipline’s perceived irrelevance. Intellectual history periodically needs to be brought down to earth, and challenged once again to prove its usefulness in untangling and clarifying concrete problems in other subdisciplines and larger and broader contexts. This also means that calling into question intellectual history’s subdisciplinary status may be a good thing for intellectual history, even if it is very hard on intellectual historians. Do historians believe that the study of intellectuals, philosophers, and social and political thinkers, of formal systems of thought, is essential to understanding the past? This large question is not easy to answer, particularly since what people believe is not always what they think they believe, and professional historians, like the rest of us, can be very unreflective and conventional in their thinking about matters outside their speciality. It is generally true, too, that few members of the profession these days feel comfortable in talking about “understanding the past” in anything but the most breezy and approximate way, a reflex that one can perhaps attribute to our era’s scrupulous resistance to metanarratives. (And it’s worth noting that one can be resistant to metanarratives for lazy or careerist reasons as well.) But nearly all professional historians show a vivid and consuming interest in formal systems of thought when such systems specifically involve their own field. In a word, they are fascinated by the intellectual history of their own field, and are not averse to linking it loosely to larger stories about politics and ideas. They are fascinated by competing methodologies and hermeneutical considerations, not to mention the competing personalities and schools of thought of their own profession.
Copyright Wilfred McClay 2010
I perhaps date myself a little here by citing older books, but I think of the abiding interest stirred by books like Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, or Richard Hofstadter’s magisterial The Progressive Historians, or David Hackett Fischer’s tart classic Historians’ Fallacies, books that were catnip in their heyday to graduate students and professional historians, but which held less interest for general educated readers. And this is not even to mention the influential historiographical essays that one finds in profusion in almost every subfield, each of which is a kind of intellectual history, an effort to map and remap the terrain of the field, always being renewed, always being contested, always in need of rethinking and revision. Graduate education in the United States is, in no small part, dedicated to the cultivation of precisely this kind of historiographical self-consciousness about one’s field, the possession of which is one of the distinguishing marks of academic historical writing. If there is one thing that all serious graduate students share, it is a fascination with precisely this vantage point on their field, with the chance to look under the hood of the car. The demonstration that one has acquired such historiographical sophistication about one’s own field, and has shaped his or her own work in a manner that is responsive to the questions generated by the existing literature, is precisely one of the objectives of the dissertation. To do this effectively, even in something as basic as a survey of literature, requires a kind of knowledge and craft that is not generally associated with intellectual history. But it should be. If historians thought about the matter more deeply, they would see that, like Monsieur Jourdain in Molière, who woke up to discover that he had been speaking “prose” without realizing it, their own labors are firmly anchored in the intellectual history of their own discipline. They may have little interest in exploring such an account of the past apart from what it contributes to their research specialty. But it is the source of their own questions. The move toward doing history “from the bottom up” did not simply emerge from the bottom up. It was an event in the intellectual history of the West, with many forebears and many foreshadowings. One of the unexpected benefits of teaching in a non-research institution is the fact that I regularly teach the U.S. history survey course, and usually both semesters of it. Composing the survey course is a great and messy act of triage, which requires that one overcome one’s aversion to metanarrative long enough to put together something that is honest, coherent, and reasonably complete. In such a setting, it becomes easier to see what aspects of intellectual history matter and deserve to endure, and what parts are either superficial or willfully abstruse. I have no difficulty in incorporating most (though not all) of the central topics in American intellectual history, although I no doubt omit subjects that others here would find it unconscionable to leave out. And I come away from the effort with a sense that, whatever the bureaucratic condition of intellectual history may be, and despite its losing its distinctive cohesion as a subfield, the thing itself is healthy and indispensable. I also cannot fail to mention the fact that so many of the most interesting and imaginative in the cohort of younger scholars are being drawn to the study of intellectual history. Indeed, one could argue plausibly that it is in fact the young, such as the
Copyright Wilfred McClay 2010 3
creators of the U.S. Intellectual History blog and this conference, who are leading the way. What makes their dedication so impressive, and moving to me, is the fact that these are precisely the ones who have the least to gain and the most to lose professionally, in a precarious time of shrinking jobs and disappearing venues, but who are taking up the cause of intellectual history’s future in the teeth of all this discouragement. Something more than careerism or opportunism must be motivating them. What could it be, other than love of the subject? A discipline is defined by the questions it asks, and intellectual history does not, and should not, confine itself to trivial ones. It is at its best when it operates, as David Hollinger put it memorably, as a commons, a meeting ground (or, if you like, a salon des refusés) for the dissidents within the existing disciplines: the nonanalytical philosophers, the political theorists, the theoretically reflective social scientists, the sociologists of ideas, the literary scholars. Not merely to be dissidents together, but in the pursuit of something common. But also mindful that a commons does not take care of itself, and the notorious “tragedy of the commons” is not an abstract threat, but an ever-present possibility, when there is no one taking responsibility for the fundamental care of the commons, for the requirements of a certain kind of discourse. That is, in part, what the group organizing this conference is doing, and I salute you for it. In an era in which genres continue to blur and many disciplines continue to lack any rationale beyond sheer institutional momentum, it is good (if bracing) to be forced to live off the land—off the commons’ pasturage, so to speak—and be forced to think our way back to the important questions. This should mean openness to insight wherever we can find it. We should not, for example, be so quick to dismiss the longer past of the discipline; that was the mistake of so many of the contributors to John Higham’s and Paul Conkin’s book New Directions in Intellectual History (1979), a book that those of us who were in graduate school in the Eighties flippantly disparaged (we were grad students, after all) as “No Directions,” for reasons that, all flippancy aside, subsequent events seem to me to have borne out. But there are examples closer to hand that remind us of what we could be doing. For me, one of the pinnacles of recent writing in American intellectual history, which deserves mention along with the outstanding books of the past decade, was the debate in the 1990s conducting among Thomas Haskell, David Brion Davis, and John Ashworth about the origins of the humanitarian sensibility. The questions engaged—in the pages of the American Historical Review, of all places—were among the profoundest to which humanistic scholarship addresses itself. Why and how do our ways of thinking about the world change? Why does a moral category that worked for one time and place cease to be effective within another? How can we detect and define a general moral sensibility, and how and why does that moral sensibility change? By what processes, social and cognitive, does such a change occur, and how is one to reckon the balance between the two?
Copyright Wilfred McClay 2010
Their debate drew attention across the intellectual spectrum. It did not need a subdisciplinary rationale to attract keen interest. But it exemplified the activity of intellectual history as conducted by academic historians operating at the highest level, drawing both upon empirical data and careful examination of ideas to reach provisional conclusions—and then subjecting such conclusions to debate. To paraphrase the famous words of Samuel Johnson, anyone who has lost interest in such a debate has lost interest in life itself. All of this happened during a time when intellectual history as a subdiscipline was supposed to be in terrible decline. Even if that was so, the macro does not determine the micro, and history is, notoriously, about both. To be sure, no one can know whether younger scholars of the same caliber are waiting in the wings. But it would be a mistake to bet against it. The questions are still there for the asking, and there appear, miraculously enough, to be rising scholars who want to ask them again, and again. Something good will come of this interest, whatever subdisciplinary name it may eventually bear.
Copyright Wilfred McClay 2010
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.