Intellectual History Making a Comeback

22 November 2011 at 11:18 am 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

At this blog we love intellectual history, particularly the history of economic and management thought. Of course, intellectual history has largely disappeared from the curricula of top economics and management programs. In these fields, the trend was driven by positivism — the belief that social science, like natural science, should favor experimental methods, hypothesis testing, and the rest of the usual trappings of Science. For positivists, there is no need to study the history of the discipline, because any truths emerging from prior work have already been incorporated in to the current textbooks and journal articles. (Murray Rothbard called this the “Whig theory” of intellectual history.)

In the field of intellectual history more generally, the challenges came from the late-twentieth-century emphasis on race, gender, and ethnicity, which privileged social, cultural, and material factors over intellectual ones. But apparently intellectual history is making a comeback. The New York Times reports on the newly formed Society for U.S. Intellectual History, which is sparking new interest in the field. The Times article describes

a resurgence in the fortunes of intellectual history — a discipline long dismissed, if not as boring, then as musty, elitist and out of touch. While intellectual historians like Richard Hofstadter and Perry Miller once dominated the profession, they were swept aside in the 1960s by the rise of social and then cultural history, which regarded talk of “the American mind” as code for “the mind of white, male Americans who happened to write books.”

Today, however, a new breed of young intellectual historian is aiming to integrate the spirit of “history from below” with an approach that doesn’t chop American history off at the neck. Young intellectual historians, scholars at the conference were quick to emphasize, have fully absorbed the lessons of the profession’s increased attention to questions of race, class and gender, without losing hold of the premise that ideas matter, even in a culture that still considers “intellectual” a term of abuse.

“We still want to talk about ideas, but we see ideas everywhere,” said Andrew Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University and president of the newly formed Society for U.S. Intellectual History, which sponsored the conference. “Big ideas affect everybody. It’s not elitist to talk about them.”

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Michael Marotta  |  24 November 2011 at 8:18 am

    I just got a PBS show from my branch library about “epigenetics” the ways that environment changes heredity as chemicals from food, drink, internal stress, external stress (famine), etc., cause mechanisms to turn off certain genes or allow them to be active. Not exactly Larmarckism, it nonetheless revives the old debate.

    Even in astronomy, while we do not retrieve the old paradigms, a deeper study of the past at least reveals a rich tradition of empirical observation and numerical prediction (“computus”) too easily lost in glosses about the European Middle Ages. The medieval Church actively supported astronomy because calculating Easter was theologically important.

    Historical studies can be relevant to so-called “positivism” in science.

    A couple of months back, an Onion article begged people to study history because if we know about the mistakes of the past, we can stop repeating them.

    Ultimately, it depends on what your interests are.

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