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The Changing Landscape of Intellectual History

The origins of intellectual history as a distinct field cannot be stated with complete confidence, for either its theory or practice. The choice of any single figure as the founder of intellectual history would be subject to legitimate criticism, but Giambattista Vico might be the least controversial figure to be awarded this honor. Benedetto Croce identified him as the first historian to recognize “the unfolding of the human mind in history” as the master variable in the social lives of men and women. Vico’s commanding insight in The New Science (1744) Croce labeled “the intellectual backbone” of serious historiography in modern times.1 Certainly, this book is one of the most important pioneering works about the crucial importance of ideas in history. Ever since Vico, a vast theoretical literature has enriched the work that intellectual historians do.

Edmund Burke could be listed as the pivotal figure in devising the practice of intellectual history, although not without an equal degree of trepidation as in the case of Vico over the possibility of unfairly slighting other historians. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke identified the radical intellectuals of the Enlightenment—“the literary cabal” of fanatical anti-Christians who undermined the Old Regime—as the primary cause of the French Revolution. He singled out Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the archetype of the modern revolutionary intellectual. Burke declared at the outset that his book would not proceed according to a formal method. Nevertheless, by showing how “writers, especially when they act in a body and with one direction, have great influence on the public mind,” he set a practical example for future historians writing about ideas and movements in history.2

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville, Jacob Burckhardt, and Johan Huizinga sought to show how ideas command certain stages of history. Contemporary historiography in America and Europe furnishes abundant evidence of the appeal that elite thought and culture continue to exert for traditional scholars writing in the grand manner marked out by the old masters. Yet, a highly self-conscious and resolute counter movement has presented itself in full battle array.

In American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times (2018)a group of generally like-minded historians commented on the shortcomings in traditional styles of thinking about intellectual history. Their main charge concerned an elitism, perpetrated through excessive attention to maleness and whiteness, in the subject matter selected by traditionalists. Henry Steele Commager, the standout traditionalist in the pages of American Labyrinth, had selected in The American Mind (1950) a cast of central figures that included not a single woman or black person. In the book’s index, a reader could find passing references to female authors such as Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein, but Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois among black notables did not even merit a sidelong glance from Commager. American Labyrinth announced how a new generation has gone about the work of rethinking intellectual his- tory to mandate an inclusion of unheralded actors and themes. The book includes essays about gym culture, film noir, and entrepreneurship as examples of a new dispensation for intellectual historians.

The intentions of the editors are clear in their introduction to the book. The spectacular rise of social history during the 1960s and 1970s had caused a crisis of confidence among intellectual historians who justly stood accused of elitism: “Unlike the type of intellectual history in fashion during the middle of the twentieth century, which focused mostly on the ideas that animated the world of political and economic elites, social history unearthed the histories of peoples long neglected by a discipline over-attuned to elites.”3 The task, beginning in the 1970s at diverse organizational conferences, described in detail by the editors and other contributors to the volume, lay in bringing about a synthesis of social and intellectual history. In that way the hitherto excluded topics and voices of the past could gain a hearing.

Traditionalists had continued to demur, most notably among the leading historians of the day, Christopher Lasch. Keeping faith with older styles of writing about the life of the mind, Lasch stood in unrespectful opposition to what he saw taking place in the history profession. Learned in both European and American intellectual history, he based The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991) on traditional textual methods of interpreting elite thinkers. He did not glaringly make the mistake of Commager, his father-in-law, in virtually omitting women and black people from his account. Hannah Arendt makes an appearance in the text. In a long essay, Lasch presents Martin Luther King, Jr., as a courageous and penetrating critic of rationalist progress theory and, in the historian’s fiercely held view, of the mentally debilitating political correctness to which it has led. The King tribute, however, forms only a part of one chapter in a book containing eleven long and densely packed chapters, which generally confirm the old rule of ascendant white male thinkers. He repeatedly denigrates the cause of identity politics as an ignorant project of a rancid American liberalism threatening to destroy the university as a place for serious learning. Moreover, the new computer-based research techniques then coming onstream as an almost religious value system for social historians, he dismisses as “this useless documentation” that leaves us bereft of genuine understanding.4 His book is an old-fashioned call to find instruction from the superior thinkers who have thought the most deeply about the abiding questions of history.

Vestiges of traditional approaches in the practice of intellectual his- tory ironically lie strewn throughout the pages of American Labyrinth. David Schat’s “On Legal Fundamentalism” is a traditionalist essay in its methodology and discussion of elite jurists and texts. Ruben Flores in “Parallel Empires: Transnationalism and Intellectual History in the Western Empire” examines the impact of seminal works of American intellectual history in Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador while defending trans-national intellectual history from the charge of elitism. Andrew Hartman does include W. E. B. Dubois in “Against the Liberal Tradition: An Intellectual History of the American Left,” but in other respects deals with the subject in the light shed by the careers of men like Tom Paine and Eugene V. Debs, as Commager would have done. Raymond Haberski, Jr., in “War and American Thought: Finding a Nation through Killing and Dying,” cannot do justice to his theme without sustained reference to Mark Twain and Randolph Bourne. For “United States in the World: The Significance of an Isolationist Tradition,” Christopher McKnight Nichols analyzes foundational documents in the history of American foreign policy and the work of leading historians in that field. Indeed, few of the essays in this anthology can be said to lack thematic or methodological connections to the older styles of writing intellectual history. The collection falls a good deal short of making a complete break with the tradition, despite the frequently expressed hoped-for transformation of the field into something essentially different from what it had been.

A social and intellectual history synthesis different from the one outlined in the editors’ introduction is hinted at in the last essay of American Labyrinth, Andrew Jewett’s “On the Politics of Knowledge: Science, Conflict, and Power.” What does Jewett mean by “the politics of knowledge?” He appears to be alluding to the core ideas in the sociology of knowledge. In his footnotes he does not mention Karl Mannheim, but in voluminous publications this Hungarian Jewish thinker formulated a powerful synthesis of social and intellectual history very much concerned with the politics of knowledge. When Jewett writes, “To omit formal ideas and their champions from the picture is to fundamentally misrepresent social action and historical change,” he distances his essay from the anthology’s democratizing version of social and intellectual history and, in effect, recalls to mind the ideas of Mannheim in his masterpiece, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (1936).5

In Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History (2014)the European counterpart anthology to American Labyrinth edited by Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn, Mannheim’s ideas make a conspicuous appearance, though with hardly any attribution to him and no sustained analysis. Suzanne Marchand in “Has the History of Disciplines Had Its Day?” includes him along with Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and Quentin Skinner among thinkers loosely identified as belonging to older and more recent variations of the sociology of knowledge tradition “dating back to the work of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim.”6 It is a tradition of thought that continues to be very helpful, she acknowledges.

That Marchand is the only author in either anthology so much as to mention Mannheim does not make her an outlier, at least among the Europeanist scholars. In their introduction, the editors of Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History declare their intention to evaluate the canons of intellectual history, past and present, and to determine the best path forward in the field. They want their book to include an inventory of master work as well as current trends. Such an updating became necessary primarily because of “the spectacular rise of social history, a methodological breakthrough often linked to quantitative approaches that channeled the widespread sentiment that to focus on political and intellectual elites was to overlook the widest swathes of humanity.”7 Like Haberski and Hartman, they acknowledge the challenge of social history as a watershed moment for the field of intellectual history. The essays that follow in their anthology run a wide gamut of theoretical possibilities. A. O. Lovejoy’s philosophical classifications of pure ideas in The Great Chain of Being (1936) provide the same kind of traditionalist baseline in Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History that Commager does in American Labyrinth. More a philosopher than a historian, Lovejoy showed little interest in the manifold ways that economics and class formed the historical context in which ideas took root.

Quentin Skinner receives credit in the McMahon-Moyn book for having done the most to correct Lovejoy’s deficiencies. John Tresch deals explicitly with Skinner’s critique of Lovejoy, in “Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas.” The Cambridge University scholar’s contextualist ideas for understanding intellectual history, in “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” (1969) and Visions of Politics, vol. I: Regarding Method (2002), come up for discussion throughout the anthology. In the essay, Skinner concludes, “The understanding of texts, I have sought to insist, presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean, and how this meaning was intended to be taken.” A contextual reading of written works ac- counting for “the constraints of a given situation” is indispensable for genuine historical understanding.8

In the book, Skinner repeats the points of his article and expands upon them, calling for intellectual historians to focus not only on the particular text, but also “on the prevailing conventions governing the treatment of the issues or themes with which the text is concerned.” He has little use for the postmodernist ideas of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes regarding the death of the author and the fruitlessness of trying to understand the motives and intentions behind written works. Skinner replies, “texts do, after all, have authors, [. . .] and authors have intentions in writing them.” Still less could he abide by the anti-logocentric dictum of Jacques Derrida that the original meaning of any text was irrecoverable. It scarcely followed from Derrida’s objections to a rational analysis of language that “we can never hope to construct and corroborate plausible hypotheses about the intentions with which an utterance may have been issued.”9

Skinner presents his method as a means of achieving that which Derrida had declared to be impossible. He identifies the conceptual history ideas of Reinhart Koselleck as a program compatible in some respects with his own, underscoring the importance of the German thinker’s 1989 article, “Linguistic Change and the History of Events.” Koselleck writes, “The sociology of knowledge and linguistic analysis converge, so to speak, when ‘meaning’ and ‘experience’ are set in relation to one another.”10 All language is conditioned historically and all history is conditioned linguistically. The very concepts framing any historical work, from choice of subject to research strategy and plotting of the story, depend on linguistic contexts. A historian’s perspective comes not only from the available language and concepts, but also from a whole range of social and biographical factors. Some of any historian’s options have a pre-linguistic provenance. Summarizing the significance of Koselleck’s ideas for his own work, Skinner lauds his Begriffsgeschichte—conceptual history—methodology as an important contribution to a contextual understanding of how ideas evolve through history and shape it.11

Only Foucault is cited more often than Skinner in the index of the McMahon-Moyn book. Some of the references to the French thinker, though, resemble tributes to the formerly great who no longer form a vital part of contemporary theory and practice. Marchand, for example, sums up his legacy this way: “Nor is the influence of Foucault entirely gone [. . .].”12 Indeed, she compares him unfavorably with the older sociology of knowledge theorists, the paramount chief of whom was Mannheim.

Many other contributors to Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History make use of the sociology of knowledge vocabulary. Peter Gordon uses the term itself in “Contextualism and Criticism in the History of Ideas.” Judith Surkis discusses the social history of ideas in “Of Scandals and Supplements: Relating Intellectual and Cultural History.” John Tresch refers to the sociological dimensions of scientific communities, thereby reinforcing Thomas Kuhn’s thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that science is not a structure unvarnished by a host of extra-intellectual factors emanating from commanding power elites. Much of the ubiquitous discussion in the anthology of Skinner’s contextualism as a call for understanding the text within its context strays into terrain clearly marked out by Mannheim. In Skinner’s famous essay concerning the value of the history of ideas, he recognizes as much by connecting a key element of his contextualist theory to “the whole question of the sociology of knowledge.”13

Without Marxism, the sociology of knowledge never would have taken hold. As with all philosophers of history for his generation, Mannheim grappled with the legacy of Karl Marx. He did so critically. Marx had presented a challenge of far-reaching importance to traditional historians, and by the end of the nineteenth century his work had become a focal point of theoretical debates between Marxists and anti-Marxists, as well as scholars like Mannheim who said both yes and no to him. In The German Ideology, which Marx wrote with Friedrich Engels in 1846, intellectuals played no more than a secondary role in the historical process.14 The mode of production had a completely determining effect on culture and thought. In the book’s most famous sentence, Marx declared, “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.” As intellectuals acted primarily from class loyalty, he concluded, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expressions of the dominant material relations.”15 The way Marx envisaged the substructural-superstructural relationship between the mode of production and ideas compelled the liquidation of intellectual history as an independent field of historical research.

The Marx of The German Ideology and the Marxists who rigidly adhered to the substructure-superstructure model of understanding ideas triggered a reaction from traditionalists convinced that intellectuals could be and were protagonists in the historical process. Max Weber, always a revered master for Mannheim, presented The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) as a challenge to “the doctrine of the more naive historical materialism, that [. . .] ideas originate as a reflection or superstructure of economic situations.” He tried to show how religious ideas had preceded and led to the creation of capitalist structures, or just the reverse of what Marx had claimed to be the true pattern of history. Ideas, Weber reasoned, could not be dismissed as epiphenomena. To treat them as Marx did was to reduce history to economic determinism with all the ambiguities and contradictions of human nature omitted.

Citing the cases of representative figures, Weber carried on his scholarly investigation of capitalism’s origins. Benjamin Franklin was his star exhibit of an American who had transformed Puritanism into the getting-ahead business creed that became the country’s real religion: “In this case the causal connection is certainly the reverse of that suggested by the materialistic standpoint.” On the same theme, he added: “To speak here of a reflection of material conditions in the ideal superstructure would be patent nonsense.” If it could be shown that fundamental changes in the mode of production had preceded the state of mind exemplified by Franklin, then theoretical Marxism would win a great victory, Weber thought. In fact, though, the contrary was true. Franklin as well as Richard Baxter and John Wesley illustrate “the manner in which ideas become effective forces in history.” The mutation of the Puritan code, favoring the development of a rational economic outlook, “stood at the cradle of modern economic man.” For Weber, there is pathos in Baxter’s image of material goods lying on the saint’s shoulders like a light cloak, which can be thrown away at any moment: “But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage” as material goods gained an increasing and finally a complete power over the lives of modern men.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Catholic Christianity functions as the dominant tradition against which Protestants reacted in language that announced the modern capitalist world. Weber noted that no corresponding work ethic existed in Catholicism. There was no Catholic Ben Franklin. Indeed, during the Middle Ages such a state of mind would have been proscribed as the lowest form of avarice. Weber comments extensively on Catholic traditionalism as “the most important opponent with which the spirit of capitalism, in the sense of a definite standard of life claiming ethical sanction, has had to struggle.”16 Without producing a detailed analysis of Catholic thinkers, he makes clear his awareness of Catholicism as an alternative way of life. The way he describes the social and economic consequences of these two ideological polarities suggested to Mannheim a pattern that could be applied to the historical process generally.

Operating in the tradition of Weber, Mannheim also formulated his ideas as a critical reaction to Marxism, while acknowledging its enormous importance for twentieth-century historians.17 In Ideology and Utopia, he agreed with Marx: thought, to be understood fully, must be traced back to its specific interests in society. For his own interpretation of the connection between ideas and their social setting, Mannheim used the term “relationism.” The thought of an individual was related to his or her life situation. Inspired by Weber, though, he argued that if every historical-social situation is made up of material interests it also inherits cultural beliefs and attitudes. He joined Weber’s challenge to the reductionist assumptions of many Marxists, that the life of the mind is simply a reflection of the mode of production. The cumulative inheritance of cultural factors and traditions also had to be understood as active forces shaping social and economic realities. As Weber had shown, economic interests can be overshadowed by cultural and religious considerations. Mannheim later would claim that the twentieth century had revealed how ethnic, racial, and nationalist passions continually had offset the power of class consciousness.

Although Mannheim learned a great deal from Weber, he did not merely repeat the lessons of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He developed ideas of his own about the seminal role of intellectuals in history. One of the most important and controversial of his theories concerned the independence of the intellectuals. Mannheim coined the phrase, “free-floating intelligentsia.” He meant by it that there is nothing automatic resulting from class affiliation about the way intellectuals commit themselves to one ideology or another: “This ability to attach themselves to classes to which they originally did not belong was possible for intellectuals because they could adapt themselves to any viewpoint and because they and they alone were in a position to choose their affiliation, while those who were immediately bound by class affiliations were only in rare exceptions able to transcend the boundaries of class outlook.”

Marx had made many valid observations about the social conditioning of thought, but Mannheim contended that Marxism could not account for a demonstrable fact about modern intellectual and political life: the presence of middle-class intellectuals across the spectrum of left, right, and center ideologies. He identified four major ideological traditions in the modern world: liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and reaction. Marxism offered no help at all in understanding why an intellectual would choose one of these traditions over another. Most intellectuals go through the same kind of public education and attend university, the paramount channel for professional advancement. With the increasing homogenization of the educational process and the social classes from which the intellectuals come, Marx’s class analysis seemed to Mannheim to be increasingly irrelevant as a method for understanding who the intellectuals are and what they do: “Participation in a common educational heritage progressively tends to suppress differences of birth, status, profession, and wealth and to unite the individual educated people on the basis of the education they have received.” Such differences had relatively little to do with the ideological choices that the intellectuals made.

One of Mannheim’s most penetrating questions is how do middle-class intellectuals get to be Marxists in the first place. He observes that the fanaticism of radicalized intellectuals “bespeaks a psychic compensation for the lack of a more fundamental integration into a class and the necessity of overcoming their own distrust as well as that of others.” As a telling example of the free-floating intelligentsia theory, he offers the middle-class Marx, who passionately embraced the cause of the proletariat. Obviously, Marx’s passion for workers did not come from his hermetically sealed bourgeois background. If class determined everything, Marx logically never could have arrived at his proletarian philosophy. Something other than class position in the substructure had to have shaped his convictions about a proletariat that was a closed book to him existentially. Mannheim thought he knew what that something was: the force of ideas acting as an independent variable in history. Marx had detached himself from his own class interests. If he could do it, why could intellectuals representing other ideological traditions not do it as well? In later writings, he would modify his free-floating theory about the intellectuals without abandoning its basic propositions. Mannheim continued to fault the unsubtle procedures of Marxist historians. Other factors besides class still had to be considered in understanding how and why the intellectual life of a society developed the way it did.

Mannheim employs “ideology” and “utopia” in ways comparable to Antonio Gramsci’s use of hegemony and counterhegemony. Mannheim noted that Marxists called the world view and political philosophy of the dominant order its ideology. This discovery by Marx, of how political rhetoric is used as a cover for power, remains the most original and greatest achievement of Marxism, in Mannheim’s view. Unfortunately, the Marxists failed to apply their supreme insight to themselves, preferring to think of Marxism as the purest possible science. In this preference, Marxists adhered to what Mannheim called the law of all utopian thinkers: to envisage their alternative to the status quo as reason itself. Once in power, they only could take menacing offense at the suggestion that their rule partook of all the deformities, with some Stalinist innovations added, of ideological theory and practice. Politics unfolds according to the following rule: “It is always the dominant group which is in full accord with the existing order that determines what is to be regarded as utopian while the ascendant group which is in conflict with things as they are is the one that determines what is ideological.” The task of the historian is to penetrate the illusions that the exponents of ideology and utopia have about themselves and each other: “The attempt to escape ideological and utopian distortions is, in the last analysis, a quest for reality.”18

Gramsci makes no direct impression on the American Labyrinth authors, and in Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History only Marchand mentions him. She hurries past Gramsci without explaining what his hegemony theory is.19 The omissions in the one book and the slight references in the other are mystifying in view of the enormous attention that continues to be paid to his work the world over. The Columbia University Press translation of the more than three-thousand-page-long Prison Notebooks has made the full range of his ideas available to the English-speaking world. To celebrate the centenary in 1991 of Gramsci’s birth, academic conferences devoted to his work took place in Tokyo, New Delhi, Cairo, Santiago, and New York City. The International Gramsci Society, housed in the United States where his ideas have attracted a devoted following, has become an important organizing body for scholars in diverse fields. The Bibliografia gramsciana, begun by the late Marxist historian John Cammett, now contains more than 20,000 entries in 41 languages.20 A national edition of Gramsci’s opera omnia got underway in 2007 and is in progress.

Gramsci’s prison writings presented a novel Marxist interpretation about ideas as primary weapons in class conflict.21 Whereas Marx had attributed only an epiphenomenal significance to the work of writers and artists, Gramsci granted them a crucial role in the great struggles for power throughout history, either as traditional intellectuals of the hegemonic status quo or as organic intellectuals in defense of proletarian counterhegemony. The intellectuals gave the different groups in society their sense of class “homogeneity and consciousness.”22Without writers and artists speaking for them, the classes would remain unaware of themselves as distinct groups and lack the capacity to act coherently.23

The complex process by which Gramsci arrived at his hegemony theory has been the subject of numerous accounts, pro and con. A large and variegated school of admirers sees him as the humane Sant’Antonio of Marxism.24 For adversaries claiming that Gramsci’s Marxist-Leninist politics began and ended with the dictatorship of the proletariat idea, he deserves to be remembered primarily as a leading architect of communist totalitarianism.25 In the vast scholarly literature on Gramsci, Marxist historian Perry Anderson stakes out the middle ground as a critical admirer. Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony made a permanent contribution to our understanding of the nature and methods of state power, but Anderson faults him, in Marxist terms, for exaggerating superstructural factors in the subjugation of the masses and for minimizing the coercive structural forces asymmetrically available to the status quo. An exculpatory sentiment, however, pervades his analysis. Gramsci’s ordeal in a Fascist prison largely accounts for “the difficulties and contradictions of his texts.”26

Mannheim presents a more neutral version of hegemony theory than the Gramscian one that has become world-famous. As a refugee in England after 1933, he passionately embraced political causes of his own involving democratic freedom and anti-totalitarianism. Yet, he thought of his sociology of knowledge system as a discipline for overcoming or at least compensating for bias. Unlike Gramsci, Mannheim aspired to look coldly at every group, the way a historian should. He shows no ardor in Ideology and Utopia for proletarian favorites or a pre-ordained historical destination at the end of an alleged dialectical process. In a posthumously published sequel, Essays on the Sociology of Culture (1956), he faulted all Marxists for their wishful interpretation of history and Marxism congenitally “as a technique of arriving at fixed conclusions from varying points of departure.”27 Power is not the only thing in life, but the conflict between the powerful and those who would become so is the main storyline for historians. The dynamic between the contending groups is eternal and irresolvable. Mannheim acknowledged the inevitable pull of political and emotional partisanship in all historians. They would be inclined toward one or another of the value systems available to them: liberalism or conservatism and socialism or reaction in one of their religious or secular variations. Of course, their accounts would be colored by what they believed and felt. No one could be objective, but Mannheim offered the sociology of knowledge as an empirical discipline for promoting fairness in historical writing.

Intellectual historians looking ahead to a unification of social and intel- lectual history might want to take a good look back at the old sociology of knowledge for the disciplined instruction it offers on how best to advance a project that already exists. It was Mannheim nearly a hundred years ago who insisted on coupling social and intellectual history as one indivisible branch of study. Other thinkers have contributed in diverse ways to the sociology of knowledge tradition, but the intellectual backbone of it in Croce’s image for Vico comes from Mannheim.

This article appeared in South Central Review, vol. 39, no. 1, Spring 2022, 39-51. It deals with methods both old and new of understanding the force exerted by ideas in history.

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