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The Nineteenth Century Problem August 15, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The universal historian Henry T. Buckle (1821-1862) was last subject of a serious scholarly monograph in 1958.  This is the fate of any number of nineteenth-century intellectuals.   The first reason for the disappearance of these writers has been the inability to connect them to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: the World Wars, National Socialism, the deradicalization of the European right after Nuremberg, the flight of the Marxist intellectuals, and so on.   Second, the nineteenth century has been the province of sociologists and literary scholars.  Such attention continues to be selective, judging from the ceaseless publications on the canonical sociologists: springtime for Weber, and winter for Gobineau and Bagehot.

Third, ignoring the nineteenth century allows anthropologists to get on with their own work.  Fourth, and finally, while some nineteenth century economists get attention — Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) has been accumulating more slim volumes as the months go by — the impression I get from some not so cursory reading of the literature is that the with the exception of the proponents of “evolutionary” and “heterodox” economics, philosophers of economics, and Philip Mirowski, it’s Smith, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, or monograph wilderness. 

The unifying thread behind all of these reasons is that of “relevance.”  It’s quite easy to pitch another book on Heidegger, since academics are still haunted by the fact that brilliant people are also terrible, immoral human beings.  How philosophy can be “political” is the key to Heidegger’s “relevance”.  And of course Hayek or Keynes appear daily to save us all.  What about poor Buckle? How is he relevant?  The answer is not an easy one, but it has everything to do with how one really should do intellectual history.

As I mentioned in my post on Joseph Denniker, the central problem confronting the historian of nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas is how nineteenth century writers related to one another.  It’s not merely a question of who said what first or who formulated the problem best.  Tocqueville was not the only sociologist of American exceptionalism: Arnold Guyot and Mosei Ostrogorski produced variants of their own which are each interesting in their own way.

Thus, a way to tackle the nineteenth century problem is to identify a series of authors who addressed the same issue.  This has been done admirably by Jerry Muller in his Mind and the Market and his more recent, more controversial Jews and Capitalism.  Muller’s work is a concept-history or history of mentalities.  Hans Kohn does the same in his history of the idea of nationalism.  So does the nineteenth century Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky in his two volume History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne.

As needed are accounts of the development of intellectual sub-disciplines in Europe and America, particularly geography, comparative linguistics, archaeology, primitive technology and material culture, agriculture and nutrition studies, and the discovery of ancient writing systems.  Who has heard of the disciplines of  “economic,” “political,” or “industrial”  geography, or “industrial medicine”?  What precisely were the connections between these geographies and economics, industrial medicine and  studies of the labor problem, particularly the conditions of the working class, and geography and the sciences of ethnology and anthropology?   How do historians of manners, the arts,  or of national literature, such as Hippolyte Taine, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold fit into this picture?

The nineteenth century problem, which extends into the first decade of the twentieth, is that we have no sense of the nineteenth century “canon.”  As historians, we have no idea what people in the nineteenth century read, who or where from they really got their ideas, and how ideas adapted and changed over time.

The problem of the nineteenth century is then of the “second order” intellectuals, those thinkers who while popular or novel in the nineteenth century, or who exerted a massive influence on better known social thinkers, have disappeared from historical consciousness.  These include Fustel de Coulanges and Alfred Espinas, who had a decisive influence on Marx, Engels, Kautsky, and Durkheim, among others.  Even more important was Archibald Alison, the progenitor of “economic determinism” and whose multivolume history of Europe was derided (and cited) by just about everyone.   Perhaps most apparent is the lack of scholarship on  E. B. Tylor, R. R. Marett, Gobineau, George Gliddon, and Robert Knox, more or less any anthropologist in the nineteenth century in Europe or America other than Lewis H. Morgan.  Without a firm understanding of these thinkers we cannot truly assess Franz Boas’ “revolution.”

And here may be the salvation of nineteenth century intellectuals, connecting them to twentieth century revolutions and innovations.  This requires, however, that we understand what they read, why they wrote, and what they argued.

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