Book Review—The State of US Intellectual History

us intellectual history: commons or labyrinth?

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • Raymond Haberski Jr. and Andrew Hartman, eds., American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018)
  • Joel Isaac, James T. Kloppenberg, Michael O’Brien, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, eds., The Worlds of American Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Two new edited collections make it possible to take stock of the state of US intellectual history at the close of the 2010s. Between them, American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times, edited by Raymond Haberski Jr. and Andrew Hartman, and The Worlds of American Intellectual History, edited by Joel Isaac, James T. Kloppenberg, the late Michael O’Brien, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, present thirty-five essays, two introductions, and two conclusions. This diverse range of scholarship encompasses the history of philosophy as well as philosophies of history; issues of race, gender, class, and region; questions of the nation, the transnational, and the local; cosmopolitanism as well as populist reactions; popular culture and media histories as well as esoteric texts by obscure intellectual figures; the colonial period to the present (but on balance weighted more toward the nineteenth and twentieth centuries); law and economics; politics and war; the history of science (but, interestingly, not so much the history of technology); notions of faith and religion in American life as compared to the steady march, perhaps (or not, depending on which essay you read) of secularization; public intellectuals, but also the changing meanings of privacy (and publics, and intellectuals for that matter); histories of the body as well as (and still mostly) histories of the mind; the history of morality, but also what might make for a moral approach to history; and a lot of self-reflective, but rarely self-absorbed, meditation on the methods of (and best practices for) intellectual history itself.

The books share the mission of rigorously examining the continued relevance of intellectual history now. They also provide a useful contrast, for while they overlap in many respects, they also offer slightly different framings of the American intellectual history endeavor. Haberski and Hartman’s volume is far more focused on explicitly positioning intellectual history as contemporary social criticism, whereas Isaac and fellow editors are more willing to let their book rest in a more traditional academic scholarly register. American Labyrinth tends more toward national history (with the exception of Ruben Flores’s essay on the “bilateral directions” of imperial power between Mexican and US intellectuals), while, as its title hints, there is a stronger transnational bent to the essays in Isaac and company’s book (but many still circle back to the US in the end). The differences, however, go beyond social criticism compared to academic history or regional orientations toward nation or world. There is another noticeable interpretive slant that distinguishes the two volumes.

As their title indicates, Haberski and Hartman picture the contemporary world of American ideas as a “labyrinth”; by contrast, in the introduction to The Worlds of American Intellectual History, James T. Kloppenberg imagines the same space of US intellectual history as a “commons” (2). This is an important metaphorical distinction that runs through the two volumes despite the fact that they share a number of contributors and in many other respects overlap and intersect in themes and foci. Haberski and Hartman call for an intellectual history that is “contrapuntal” (6). They want to accentuate scholarship that will “bear witness to the ideas that few might recognize lurking behind the social history of their time” (6). For them, the way to conceive US intellectual history is that it has the capacity to push past the shiny surfaces of contemporary life and the “things that capture popular attention” to reveal thickets and mazes of ideas that require expert navigation. By contrast, in his introduction to The Worlds of American Intellectual History, Kloppenberg makes a slightly different case: he believes that “no boundary stands between the two objectives” of “interventions into twenty-first-century American culture” that are also “exemplifications of historical scholarship” (13-14). For him intellectual historians work in a clearing, and sometimes they even do the very work of clearing out the commons.

To be sure, the distinction between “labyrinth” and “commons” breaks down at times in the two volumes. In American Labyrinth, for instance, Andrew Jewett imagines the transdisciplinary “politics of knowledge” as a “clearinghouse” or “commons” while in The Worlds of American Intellectual History, Daniel Rodgers pictures intellectual history as an exploration of the liminal borderlands, where not only do “ideas jump the tracks,” but also there are always, to borrow Carol Gluck’s term, “words with shadows,” and moreover we should picture “historical practice as a game of sliding scales, an optician’s rack of lenses running from the minutely local to the global” and “the motion of ideas across borders emerges as a central theme at every scale” (309, 318). Nonetheless, in Haberski and Hartman’s book there is an overall tendency to emphasize the radical pluralism, the contradictions and tensions, the problems, the serpentine ironies of ideas in US history, while in The Worlds of American Intellectual History there is, by and large, a more confident pursuit of, and stronger belief in, the capacity to achieve consensus.

Nowhere are the differences more present than in the two opening chapters. In American Labyrinth, the ever combative and often funny James Livingston presents a tour-de-force biographical meditation. Titled “Wingspread: So What?,” it examines the sense of crisis among intellectual historians at the infamous 1977 Wingspread Conference (which Angus Burgin also covers in Worlds of American Intellectual History with wonderful archival digging into the initial rejected proposal put forward for the conference by organizers John Higham and Paul Conkin). Additionally, Livingston wryly chronicles his own academic near-miss for an appointment at Princeton and other colorful stories of this one historian trying to find his way, comically and sometimes painfully, through the imbroglios of both modern academia and the larger public culture of recent decades.

Here, the labyrinth of modern intellectual history in the United States is dizzying, for in Livingston’s take, American history is itself labyrinths all the way down. We can do our best work, Livingston proposes, therefore, by recognizing the fact that we live in the “new vertiginous contingency” described most accurately by the American Pragmatists of the early twentieth century (20). “Cultural ferment” (11) and the “marketplace of ideas” are “the habitat of every American” for “all we’ve had in common” are “the stories we tell each other about where we came from” (18). Lacking any collective core, Americans must rely on their own stories, symbols, and narratives—in short their ideas—to try to navigate the maze of their polyglot history, to try to seek out the truths of their times, or even “how truth works” at all (20). Pragmatism’s turn away from universalist Enlightenment norms to a recognition of the swirl, the snarl, the confusing spiral, of seeking truth is paradoxically the very thing that gives historians their bearings. A profound skepticism about anything fixed or permanent is what is best to believe. “So what?,” Livingston concludes, “Hell if I know. Except that after Wingspread, everybody seemed to understand…that significant intellectual change presupposed cultural revolution. Me too” (20).

For Livingston, the power of ideas rests in their capacity to shape strategies of social transformation in the jostling pathways and cacophonous uncertainties of the American labyrinth; by contrast, Caroline Winterer’s opening essay in The Worlds of American Intellectual History stakes a claim for the enduring power of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in American public life and intellectual culture. “The American Enlightenment,” she writes, “is foundational, and its scholarly approaches less adventurous, because it is penned by nationalist imperatives.” Whereas Livingston describes an American intellectual culture in which there are no foundations except in competing ideas, Winterer sees a center, a commonality, a core: “Because it blends so easily what the founding ideals of the American Revolution,” Enlightenment thinking “supplies modern Americans with a vocabulary and a historical framework that facilitates a national conversation about lofty aspirations” (20). She takes us through the arguments about the continued presence of religious faith in the American Enlightenment, as Henry May crucially put forward. Then she cleverly describes the “liberalism-republicanism systems theory” debates that still, in their way, dominate graduate student reading lists on colonial US history. Winterer returns repeatedly to the point that “to ask what was the American Enlightenment is therefore also to ask what is the American Enlightenment?” There is a “double duty” at work here that collapses contemporary debates about American culture into the Enlightenment framework of the eighteenth century.

While Livingston imagines this older world buried by the jungles of modernity and corporate finance capitalism—with more relevant and fresher intellectual responses emerging in social democratic, Pragmatist, feminist, identity politics, and other radical quarters—Winterer holds fast to the persistence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, in all its complexity across the Americas, in debates about modern US and transatlantic cultures. Which is to say that for Livingston there is no commons, only a labyrinth. For Winterer, the legacy of the Enlightenment and debates about it ground contemporary American intellectual debates and the political imagination. For Livingston, Americans share nothing by default; therefore there is only the competition of narratives, yarns, tales, stories, ideas—all competing for prominence and value. For Winterer, while there is competition among ideas, Americans still strive to realize, finally, the Enlightenment ideals of the nation’s political founding. Those truths, which we hold to be self-evident, still matter in her interpretation. They are what we—all aspiring citizens of a transnational enlightenment perhaps not yet fully realized—have in common.

Are these different takes—the Pragmatist’s labyrinth vs. the Enlightenment scholar’s commonweal—merely those of a twentieth-century US historian and an eighteenth-century one? To some extent. However, the other essays in American Labyrinth and The Worlds of American Intellectual History also tend toward different tones: American Labyrinth is generally more willing to live with the fragmented and partial, to dig into the contested, to dive into the confusion of the kaleidoscopic; The Worlds of American Intellectual History, despite the plural efforts of its title, strives to hold the pieces together, to give a sense of holistic inquiry, to carve out a dell or glade from the messy terrain of both history and contemporary society, to shape a shared intellectual project. Even the strongest calls for somewhat wilder, more unfixed intellectual history methods in Worlds still call for a kind of orderly openness, as when Sarah Igo, considering the strange saga of the concept of privacy in America, invites us to roam not a wilderness of ideas, but rather an unfenced but presumably domesticated “free-range” farm.

A labyrinth of “so whats?” or an unfenced space of “free-range” Enlightenment-descended thinking? While never starkly oppositional in the two edited collections, they present two very different overarching frameworks for considering the state of US intellectual history. One sees the guiding metaphors in the very structuring of the chapter sections in each volume. American Labyrinth is divided into five sections: “Mapping American Ideas,” “Ideas and American Identities,” “Dangerous Ideas,” “Contested Ideas,” and “Ideas and Consequences.” Maintaining their labyrinth motif, Haberski and Hartman claim that “the chapters in this volume do not pretend to align with each other or with an overarching argument” but merely seek to “get readers to think more creatively and expansively about the assumptions they hold” (7). By contrast, Worlds of American Intellectual History tries to categorize and organize a bit more to bring order to the proceedings, with five sections on “Frames,” “Justice,” “Philosophy,” “Secularization,” and “Method.” While James Kloppenberg admits that the chapter organization is largely “heuristic,” with plenty of “boundaries, made to be crossed,” he identifies two core themes: first, “the value-laden quality of American intellectual history,” the sense that it always retains a normative as well as a descriptive quality, and, second, an “attentiveness to the relation between the present and the past,” for “no matter how deeply devoted they are to respecting the evidence they uncover, historians can never shed their skins or transcend their own time and place” (13). Compared to the puzzles of irony and entanglement in Haberski and Hartman’s volume, there is again more of an effort to clear out a commons in The Worlds of American Intellectual History, even if it is also a dynamic crossroads of busy complexity and diversified flow.

A rundown of the contents of the books is warranted, if also inadequate to convey the richness of the scholarship in these two volumes fully. The first section of American Labyrinth, “Mapping American Ideas,” begins with Livingston’s aforementioned essay, followed by David Sehat’s scathing critique of conservative constitutional originalism and Kevin Schultz’s effort to mark the ways in which the pursuit of freedom (just another word for nothing left to lose, as Fred Foster and Kris Kristofferson wrote and Janis Joplin most famously sang) in the 1960s broke US society from the norms of the immediate post-World War II order. In the second section, Amy Kittelstrom asks us to cast a wider net on the history of philosophy rather than only focus on the (typically male, white, and elite) philosophers; Jonathan Holloway probes the painful historical shortcomings of recognizing black Americans at the nation’s universities; Natalia Mehlman Petrzela shifts our attention to the intellectual dimensions of feminist gym cultures from Esalen to Jane Fonda and the ways in which new approaches to physical culture had political effects on the post-1960s women’s movement; and Ruben Flores shows how intellectual history revises understandings of US imperialism from unilateral domination in Latin American countries such as Mexico. Complex borrowings, appropriations, and adaptations of philosophies such as Pragmatism were not simplistically imposed, but rather intellectuals in Mexico appropriated the philosophy for their own needs.

In “Dangerous Ideas,” twentieth-century political liberalism and conservatism go up on trial. Kevin Mattson defends Niebuhrian-style liberalism as an effective politics of humility while Andrew Hartman critiques it as lacking an effective articulation of anticapitalism. Lisa Szefel asks us to look to a more idiosyncratic conservative sensibility that would better allow historians to grasp the cross-class alliances within its political and cultural formations while Angus Burgin asks us to notice how conceptualizations of entrepreneurship changed over the course of the twentieth century, growing in popularity alongside rather than against the rise of a postindustrial, corporate “knowledge economy”—not quite the thing most assume when they picture the figure of the entrepreneur today.

Section four on “Contested Ideas,” focuses on war and religion. Raymond Haberski Jr. traces how the shifting sacralization of war shaped the symbolic development of the American nation—and the very real lives of the soldiers who fought those wars—from the Civil War to Randolph Bourne’s critique in the early twentieth century to Michael Walzer’s development of “just war” theory by the conclusion of the century. Christopher McKnight Nichols shows the surprising dynamic between the isolationist turn inward in the domestic United States and international crises and instabilities. K. Healan Gaston tries to take religious positions of faith and belief as valid historical forces, often in conflict with each other rather than as effects of other, secular causes. And Christopher Cameron asks us to widen our understanding of African-American history beyond the framing of the Christian church as central. By attending to the many narratives of failed religious conversions and the freethought traditions in African American intellectual life, we can glimpse the diversity of African-American intellectual life more accurately.

The final section of American Labyrinth on “Ideas and Consequences” turns to what Andrew Jewett describes as the “politics of knowledge.” Tim Lacy presents a powerful re-reading of Richard Hofstadter’s influential study of anti-intellectualism, recovering the initial negative reviews of the book that eventually won a Pulitzer Prize and noticing how they pointed to larger crises in democratic discourse at play in American anti-intellectualism rather than Hofstader’s seemingly elitist, neo-Menckenite critique of Americans as dunderheads and hayseed reactionaries. Benjamin L. Alpers traces the dynamics between cultural and intellectual history since the 1970s, with an emphasis on how cultural history has broadened the palette of intellectual inquiry while the related field of cultural studies has been more detrimental. Jewett himself traces an ongoing process of naturalization and denaturalization in the creation of knowledge, particularly when it comes to the sciences, and believes intellectual historians offer the best “institutional nexus” for the “cross-disciplinary transfer of insights and methodological tools, while contributing their own deep knowledge of historical settings and training in the careful use of evidence.” Maybe not a labyrinth at all for Jewett, who sounds more like James Kloppenberg in the introduction to The Worlds of American Intellectual History here. But right after Jewett, Daniel Wickberg’s conclusion swings us back toward the labyrinth. Wickberg brings questioning and critique more to the fore with a deep skepticism about the core historical concept of “context,” which he takes to be a bit fetishized by historians these days. Much like Rita Felski in her wonderfully titled 2011 essay “Context Stinks!,” Wickberg calls for a complication of the term instead of continuing with the assumption that it presents one simple, fixed, static temporal period following sequentially after another.1 Instead, he offers no less than six modes of context that we might consider, ranging from the question-dependent to the relational. We are back in the maze again—but at least we now have a rich set of maps for trying to navigate it by the end of American Labyrinth.

A rundown of the essays in The Worlds of American Intellectual History adds more maps to the gazetteer, with the difference that these contributions generally aspire to be more authoritative than the writing in American Labyrinth. Caroline Winterer’s aforementioned essay in the opening “Frames” section is followed by Leslie Butler’s magnificent piece on shifting the “Women Question” of the antebellum era from movement history to what she calls “problem history.” In doing so, Butler cracks open the ways that the history of women in the United States became fundamentally linked to larger issues of democracy, particularly in the works of Tocqueville and Harriet Martineau. Nico Slate demonstrates how the rise of the Third World concept in the Cold War era effectively cut off activists in the United States from an older, transnational, radical-activist tradition of “colored cosmopolitanism.” And Jonathan Holloway turns to museum exhibitions in the United States and the Caribbean that harness Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “black Atlantic” to note the ways in which today’s curators are attempting to confront the absent presence of enslaved peoples from the African Diaspora, sometimes powerfully and sometimes, still, with evasions of the full, painful history they endured.

These frames of the Enlightenment, women’s history, and the transatlantic story of the slave trade and subsequent radical movements for equality within the colonial and postcolonial eras feed the next section of The Worlds of American Intellectual History on “Justice.” Margaret Abruzzo shows the surprising ways in which antebellum Americans understood moral agency in relation to the subordination of slavery even as the contradictions between free will and enslavement began to exert pressures both theologically and experientially. Duncan Kelly tracks out the career of Francis Lieber as an “ambivalent figurehead” for the origins of political science in the US, with attention to how Lieber’s cosmopolitanism paradoxically fed the building of the nation-state instead of undercutting it. Samuel Moyn, in typical swashbuckling style, contends the global justice movement of the 1970s a handmaiden to neoliberal capitalism, arriving as a response the challenges the decolonizing Global South mounted against hegemonic international nation-states and economic systems during the early part of that decade. Overall, the three essays serve as reminders that the story of “Justice” in the US is more often a history of injustice, or highly imperfect justice at the very least.

In the next section, focused on “Philosophy,” Francesca Bordogna shows how the transatlantic appropriation of William James’s pragmatism, typically associated with democratic energies domestically, ironically fed fascist ideologies and sensibilities in Italy. Back in the USA, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen uses a middlebrow magazine from the mid-2oth century, quite literally titled Wisdom, to trace the American interest in pursuing wisdom in ways that trouble our assumptions about who gets to practice philosophy in the country—and what even constitutes wisdom as a more common, public philosophical pursuit. Ratner-Rosenhagen looks to popular culture for Wisdom—and wisdom, but Joel Isaac holds fast to a more classic style of the history of philosophy, claiming that high-end, rigorous, formal, academic, theoretical thinking can “tell us where certain blockages or wellborn grooves have emerged in the political imagination” (203). Focusing on Wittgenstein’s philosophical approach to understanding pain and personhood, he reveals the influence of Wittgenstein’s seemingly obscure concepts on subsequent generations of social scientists and the broader public. Sophia Rosenfeld is similarly interested in how philosophers relate to publics, relating how Hannah Arendt’s adventurous, context-crossing sense of historicism can serve as a model of speaking to pressing contemporary political and cultural matters from historical positionings. Her essay theme—that too many chronologically-bound rules for what is allowed to connect intellectually can limit the impact of intellectual history—in fact has much in common with Daniel Wickberg’s critique of narrow definitions of “context” in his conclusion to American Labyrinth.

The next section of Worlds of American Intellectual History show how careful historical scrutiny to the theme of “Secularization” can sharpen our understanding of the past not only as a done deal, but also as a way to register the ongoing power of religion in the US polity and imagination. Andrew Jewett turns his attention to how science and religion were not necessarily mutually exclusive in post-World War II America. Peter Gordon probes the different ways in which the transatlantic duo of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas devised humble, perhaps too humble he suggests, mechanisms for secular liberal democracies to incorporate values and actions shaped by the seemingly incommensurable claims grounded in religious faith. David Hollinger, by contrast, sticks to his guns about the continued march toward a less religious United States in his essay on the continued validity of classic secularization theory.

The final “Method” section includes the aforementioned essays by Sarah Igo calling for a “free-range” unfenced version of intellectual historical inquiry, Daniel T. Rodgers’ comparison of intellectual history to borderlands approaches methodologically, and Angus Burgin’s finely wrought archival revisiting of the 1977 Wingspread Conference, which continues to loom large in intellectual history as a field. In his posthumous afterword, Michael O’Brien wonders if what we are witnessing in the essays found in The Worlds of American Intellectual History is a US intellectual history after the apex of American global power. There is, he believes—and this is perhaps in contrast to the tenser framing of American Labyrinth—”a diminution of anxiety, even a sense of living after the moment of strife” in the essays of his edited volume“Intellectual historians used to fight one another over method, with some stridency,” he writes, “partly because they were conscious that, in the wider world, they were unsafe and needed to get their act together.” But now, “our authors content to assume what once was contentious” (369).

Why is this the case? For O’Brien, “It is not that a sense of peril is absent,” but rather that “the feeling seems implicit that intellectuals, having survived with a role for so long, seem likely to survive for the foreseeable future, with as much or as little an effect as they have ever had” (369). Is this a fancier way of echoing Jim Livingston’s Miles Davis riff—so what?—in his opening essay for American Labyrinth? Yes and no. Livingston throws down the gauntlet: there is an unfolding cultural revolution in American life, he believes, and intellectual historians are merely manifesting its dizzying implications. As Livingston claims in his own study of recent American culture, everything is turning inside out and upside down.2 We face “difficult times” and therefore must go on the offensive to find ways to think within this new labyrinth of puzzling disorientation. O’Brien would not entirely disagree, but as with one of the authors in his book, Daniel T. Rodgers, who pictured recent decades in American intellectual life not as “inside out,” but rather merely as “fracture,”3 O’Brien strikes a more hesitant, reactive, cautionary pose, calling on intellectual historians to still write “in defense of the life of the mind” (370).

So, intellectual historians and those who aspire to the title, the choice is yours: get lost in to the unsettling labyrinth or seek out the possible safety of the commons. Either way, these two books will help you think better about the history of thinking, both in the United States itself and in a world still very much influenced, for better or for worse, by the ideological—and ideational—formations of the American intellectual landscape.

[1] Rita Felski, “Context Stinks!,” New Literary History 42, 4 (2011): 573–91.

[2] James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

[3] Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Harvard University Press, 2011).

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