Pushing at the Seams: US Intellectual History

by guest contributor John Gee

Intellectual historians, I’ve heard it said, are people who argue about what intellectual history is. The field of US intellectual history has been marked in recent years both by growth—one might even say rebirth—and by persistent concerns about its boundaries: between the US and the world, between ideas and politics, and between professional “intellectuals” and others. The Society for US Intellectual History’s annual conference, which took place October 13–15 at Stanford University, once again justified this conversation’s continuance by demonstrating the vibrancy of the histories at these crossroads.

Several panels revolved around connections between the intellectual histories of the US and those of other places. This is an enduring concern (as the society’s current and past book award winners demonstrate), and it pops up even when not explicitly the subject of discussion. For instance, in the roundtable discussion “Whither Puritanism?” Chris Beneke, David Hall, Mark Peterson, Sarah Rivett, and Mark Valeri spent a good deal of time not on the origins of American Puritanism in Europe, but on its ongoing Euro–American basis. While there was lively discussion of the legitimacy of looking to Puritans for “origins” (of modernity, democracy, etc.), they can clearly no longer serve as a nationalist origin story.

Transnational perspectives were also on display in back-to-back panels on international politics. “Intellectual Bases of American Hegemony” revolved around the transition from World War II to the Cold War. Tightly-connected papers from Daniel Bessner, Stephen Wertheim, and Anne Kornhauser examined justifications of a US-led global order, and the increasing permanence of “states of exception” justifying otherwise-extraordinary reductions of liberty at home and abroad. These are familiar themes, but they received careful attention and usefully raised the question of what made this moment such a turning point. Next up was “American and European Internationalisms, 1920-1940,” which showcased persistent ambiguities rather than decisive transitions: the Vatican’s challenge to the Wilsonian vision (Giuliana Chamedes), the ambivalent Russophilia of many liberal Protestant internationalists (Gene Zubovich), and the left’s attempts to rethink international solidarity in the wake of World War I (Terence Renaud). These two panels not only offered a thoroughly transatlantic perspective on their subject matters. They also bridged the gap, thankfully no longer so wide, between histories of internationalism and international histories.

Other preoccupations of US intellectual historians have been their fuzzy boundary with cultural historians and their putative elitism—both of which were subjects of discussion at another plenary roundtable, “The Many Faces of Gender in American Thought.” Mia Bay, Kimberly Hamlin, Deborah Dinner, and Daniel Wickberg called on the field not merely to include women’s voices more prominently in their research and teaching, but also to incorporate gender more thoroughly as an analytical tool. While women may not have participated in every conversation, for instance, gendered metaphors are everywhere in the texts we tend to study. We would do well, the panelists suggested, to borrow more from the methods of women’s and gender studies in exploring these dynamics. (Would that I had more detailed notes, but that’s asking a lot for an evening panel held after an open-bar reception.)

One panel featuring both gender and women prominently was “Historicizing Morality in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Andrea L. Turpin presented work from her recently-published book, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917, showing how the increasing presence of women in higher education caused colleges and universities to change their mission. Rather than prepare students to be good Christians, the rising progressive generation would prepare them to be good men and women. Laura Rominger Porter, meanwhile, took a close look at the dynamics of church discipline in the antebellum upcountry south, where white men resisted impositions on their masculine and republican independence with a vision of “republican” rather than “monarchical” church governance—a rhetoric that would later transition smoothly into arguments for secession from the United States itself.

Another panel pushed at the boundaries of religious history by examining “The Search for a Democratic Religion.” Amy Kittelstrom discussed James Baldwin’s atheist attachment to Christianity, which she argued revolved around moral agency and an insistence on seeing each person as fully human. She related these ideas to Emersonian self-reliance, to Gunnar Myrdal’s American Creed, and to broader currents in African-American religiosity. Natalie Johnson, meanwhile, discussed Louis Finkelstein’s attempt to theorize a Jewish religion/way of life that would be fully compatible with world religions and pluralist democracy. Finkelstein, part of the general midcentury interfaith movement, represented both inclusions and exclusions: while he successfully pushed social scientists to be more respectful in their explanations of religion, he also enabled critical or dismissive evaluations of indigenous religious practices left out of the “world religions” basket.

Near and dear to my heart as a historian of social science was the roundtable on “The Work of Dorothy Ross and its Significance for Intellectual History.” A powerhouse crew of colleagues and students went well beyond the usual encomiums to present a remarkably coherent view of Ross’s oeuvre. To a person, they spoke not only of her sensitivity to the ideological dimension of thought—the ways formal, disciplinary work never fails to connect to wider currents in aesthetics, religion, politics, etc.—but also the rigor and care of her portraits of individual thinkers. One can, Ross has proven, be a faithful interpreter of the most technical of arguments without confining oneself to narrowly disciplinary ways of thinking. (One can also, the panelists concurred, do this while being a first-class mentor of younger scholars—which the Society for US Intellectual History has recognized with the new Dorothy Ross Prize for the year’s best article by an “emerging scholar.”)

In the spirit of the Dorothy Ross roundtable, I would suggest the eclecticism of the conference helps to remind us of the connectedness of historical phenomena. It is difficult, of course, to move from religion to philosophy to social science, from gender to race to international politics. But when the basic question we ask is how our historical subjects thought about the events they were a part of, we owe it to them to be capacious in our response. We may not all live up to Dorothy Ross’s example, but it is a fine one to follow.

John Gee is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Harvard University, where he studies modern social thought in the Americas. His dissertation project examines how US and Mexican anthropologists used theories of culture to engage with indigenous politics from the 1930s to the 1960s.

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s