Terminology: Intellectual History May 22, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: Friedrich Hayek
This post continues my discussion of historiographical terminology. All definitions are ones I personally adhere to, but the idea is to open questions about useful distinctions and the terms used to describe them.
My previous post was on the “history of ideas,” which I take to be a very general category, applying to the ideas of populations of all sizes, and encompassing both explicitly held ideas, as well as those ideas that reside implicitly in texts and other works (e.g., worldviews, ideologies, customs, values, etc…). In this post, I’ll discuss a subgenre of the history of ideas, intellectual history.
I take “intellectual history” to refer specifically to the study of texts and even some non-textual works (certain kinds of art and architecture, for instance) that consciously build on and respond to other people’s works. These texts often, but not necessarily, develop their ideas in the form of arguments. I would refer to texts to which the methodology of intellectual history applies as “intellectualized” rather than “intellectual” texts, so as to avoid any implication that non-intellectualized texts are somehow not the product of the intellect.
Intellectual history need not involve—and may, in fact, be severely limited by—the establishment of a canon. I would take the selection of a relevant body of texts for analysis to be one of the greatest challenges of intellectual history.
Analysis in intellectual history can involve the elucidation of arguments, which can involve:
1) analysis based on evidence from within texts or from within a particular author’s oeuvre,
2) finding a contextualized meaning in texts by placing them in the context of other texts with which they were explicitly or implicitly in dialogue, and/or
3) finding meaning in texts by placing them in various (political, social, economic, cultural…) contexts to which they refer directly, or to which they seemingly respond. (3), of course, necessitates hybridizing intellectual history with other forms of history.
Analysis can also involve charting continuities and discontinuities in unit-ideas, terminology, concepts, concerns, arguments, argumentative forms, and uses of particular pieces of evidence. It can also involve attempting to discern an author’s intentions (stated or unstated), but it can also study reception and appropriation.
Some, but not all, of these analytical tools overlap with those used in the general history of ideas.
Intellectual History vis-à-vis the General History of Ideas
I would consider intellectual history to exist as a subset of the history of ideas, and is distinguishable by certain methodological peculiarities.
Although communities participating in a particular intellectualized discourse are fairly small (let’s estimate under 1,000, though most intellectual historians concentrate their attention on only a handful), to my mind, intellectual history cannot be reliably distinguished by the authorship of intellectualized texts. As a tautology, intellectuals tend to write intellectualized texts, but, in principle, anyone could have written a text requiring the tools of the intellectual historian. The utility of these tools depends only on if they are fitted to the nature of the text to which they are applied.
What is this nature? I do not believe complexity is a good guide to identifying intellectualized texts. Although intellectualized texts might, as a general rule, be more complicated than non-intellectualized texts, intellectualized texts need not necessarily be very complex. Likewise, non-intellectualized systems of ideas can actually be very complex, requiring deep and flexible critical insight.
Rather, I would draw the distinction in that intellectual history can reward attention to textual specifics in a way that more general histories of ideas would not. In intellectual history it would be entirely possible for a historian’s argument to hinge on a particular passage of a particular text. Ideas in non-intellectualized texts, on the other hand, would be more diffuse, and would be apt to be found throughout a body of works.
A couple of months ago Nils Gilman (who has written on modernization theorists) got himself into trouble at the U. S. Intellectual History blog for trying to define a place for intellectual history by creating a zone of exclusivity around the texts to which intellectual history can be applied. I would have to agree that not all texts reward the use of the tools of the intellectual historian, but I believe that he focused wrongly on the quality of texts and their likely authorship, as opposed to some more generic intellectualized characteristic. This led inevitably into discussions of the relative worthiness of “high” and “low” culture, which were certainly tendentious, but did not strike me as especially productive.
It seems to me that Gilman (as well as the other bloggers at USIH) are trying to maintain a place for intellectual history of the kind defined here, while reserving the right to work in the more general history of ideas. Such a defense seems necessary because the genre is often viewed as old-fashioned amid the more general sorts of histories of ideas that now prevail. This seems pretty uncontroversial to me. Personally, I don’t think the disputants were so very far apart, and think the whole dispute might have been avoided by paying more explicit credence to the complementarity of intellectual history with the broader—and certainly just as important and interesting—history of ideas, while maintaining the need for the specialized study of intellectualized works.
Next: Domains associated with intellectual history, including: art and literary history, the history of philosophy, and the history of scientific knowledge (as distinct from the history of science, which is two posts away).
For the truly interested, some extraneous thoughts relating to the flow of ideas and the notion of an intellectualized discourse developed here.
Could we apply the tools of the intellectual historian to the comments section under a newspaper story? I would say “yes,” in that a comments section or any other instance where ideas are debated and discussed can be said to constitute an intellectualized discourse. However, one should recognize a one-way flow of ideas from high-profile intellectualized discourses (say, Sunday talk shows) into local intellectualized discourses where they become bound up with other ideas in circulation there. Thus, while one could use the tools of intellectual history to analyze a local intellectualized discourse, one might find it more fruitful to employ more general tools from the history of ideas (say, analyzing the flow of ideas about Barack Obama’s agenda, rather than the evolution of specific arguments in support of this or that perspective on his agenda within this or that comments section).
Now, certainly high-profile intellectualized spaces are apt to obtain ideas from more general discourses. For this reason the general tools of the history of ideas can and should be applied to high-profile intellectualized discourses as much as they are to local intellectualized discourses or to non-intellectualized discourses. The same, or similar, ideas can be just as present in an intellectual’s work as in song lyrics, advertisements, property records, and other non-intellectualized works preceding his or her work.
Do, then, intellectualized works carry any special importance or “authority” at all, making them worth study? I would say “yes,” but with hesitation. For example, I would point to the influence of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in present political discourse, because it gives libertarianism much of its voice and confidence.
Yet, contrary to the claims of a lot of authors, I tend to be skeptical of the capacity of intellectualized texts to legitimate ideas by virtue of their intellectualization (which is a big issue for those of us in the history of science).* The Road to Serfdom, I would say, is not influential especially because it was written by an economist, or even because its ideas were worked out with some degree of rigor, but because it gave some substance to the idea that state encroachment on private affairs is a snowballing process. Our understanding of that idea’s career in the broader population is increased if we understand Hayek’s text, its origins, and its appropriation. That said, non-intellectualized works can have similar galvanizing effects, and it would be, I think, misleading to single out intellectualized texts as peculiarily influential or legitimating on this score.
*Legitimation is often said to occur when a text or author is invoked as justification for some statement or action. However, I would hesitate to draw a strong link between justification and legitimation. I feel that actors do feel obligated to justify their ideas, but that the particular claims that are used to justify ideas are less important than the fact that the actors are confident in offering some rationalization. Thus, since any given justification can be criticized or nullified without invalidating the statement or action, its legitimizing power is suspect. The connection is doubtless closer within expert communities, where independent assessments of justifications are made. But, again, in this case, legitimation is not in the justification, but in the assessment.