Eric Miller on intellectual history’s attempt to revive itself


Intellectual historian Eric Miller

A couple of years ago, I was sorting through the annual pile of books that comes to my door as a judge in the Christianity Today Book Awards (history and biography category). It was The Year of the Erics. A little giddy with the “new book smell,” I ploughed through Eric Metaxas‘s Big Bonhoeffer Book–critiqued at last week’s Wheaton Bonhoeffer conference, I understand, for being “not scholarly enough.” Then I turned to Eric Miller‘s biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time, with a thrill of anticipation.

You see, during my graduate studies, Lasch’s own Culture of Narcissism had struck me with all the force of revelation. This was history as moral crusade, and an acute analysis of American culture to boot. The sort of thing that might even convince a reader that the history of ideas, though hoary with age and encrusted with the critiques of modern “social historians” and “cultural historians,” still carries great power and usefulness.

A Time reviewer had written, “Formidable intellectual grasp and the kind of moral conviction rarely found in contemporary, value-neutral history and sociology. . . . Lasch is on to something quite real.” I would discover in Miller’s book that Lasch’s own journey–raised by foaming-at-the-mouth liberal atheists and slowly maturing into a sense of the value of Tradition for human flourishing–gave his work the poignant urgency and acuteness of an intellectual memoir. A young C S Lewis once wrote to a friend that Dante’s Comedia “felt like the most important poetry I had ever read.” Lasch had been like that for me, and Miller, excavating Lasch, became that too.

In the end I couldn’t vote Metaxas’s opus the best of the year. In the comments accompanying my vote, I rehearsed Miller’s tale: how Lasch had only finally extricated himself from his “longstanding looming sense of alienation” by deconstructing American liberalism. How he had drawn from Western tradition—even Calvinism—to forge a higher, paradoxical “conservative radicalism.” I concluded, “For a post-Christian era struggling with social responsibility and moral integrity, I can recommend no more salutary biography than this one. May the young intellectuals of the early 21st century absorb Miller’s work on this great intellectual of the late 20th—and Lasch’s work on our decadent, idealistic, Christ-haunted, individualistic, narcissistic America.” (I captured a few juicy bits of Miller’s book here.)

Hence my delight at discovering, in Books and Culture‘s latest number, Miller reporting on a new phenomenon: some young bucks’ attempt to resuscitate intellectual history as a discipline. Here’s the beginning of the article (the whole thing can be found here):

In Quest of Intellectual Community

From monologue to dialogue

“As opposed to stupid history?”

That’s what a student had asked when, this past November, I told my 19th-c. U.S. survey class I was heading to New York City for an “intellectual history” conference. It was a reasonable question, reflecting understandable confusion. if intellectual history—the study of ideas, any ideas, in the flow of history—hasn’t exactly disappeared amidst the profession’s proliferating subfields, it’s certainly been forced to go undercover. Try searching for a post in intellectual history and you’ll search yourself right out of the academy.

So this conference was a spearhead of a larger effort, what one of its organizers calls a “quixotic attempt to invigorate” a once mighty field. There’s nothing particularly quixotic, to academics at least, about summoning scholars to give and listen to papers on subjects of little interest to more than fifteen human beings outside of the room. But there is something very quixotic about such a conference being organized by a group of junior scholars from (mainly) second-tier institutions that nonetheless manages to attract a spectacularly high concentration of influential historians from élite institutions. To add to the novelty, the organization sponsoring the conference didn’t exist even a year ago. What existed was a blog with the unadorned name “U.S. Intellectual History,” itself not even five years old. Somehow the blog’s architects had staged three annual conferences prior to this one.

It was the luminaries shining out from the program that attracted me—Jackson Lears (Rutgers), Pauline Meier (MIT), Eric Foner (Columbia), Dorothy Ross (Johns Hopkins), Michael Kazin (Georgetown), Daniel Rodgers (Princeton), and—it’s no exaggeration to say—many others. Why were they there? Could it be that something new was emerging in history?

That’s not just a cute question. In his widely debated 1988 book That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick had surveyed the landscape and declared that not only was “objectivity in crisis” but that (as he titled his last chapter) “there was no king in Israel.” The (truly) quixotic Victorian attempt to turn history into science, Novick was burdened to contend, had, after one hundred years of effort, led to sophisticated scholarship but little evidence of a past rendered with the clarity and (collective) confidence science should have made possible, according to the profession’s overwhelming epistemological consensus—”the idea and ideal of objectivity” being, as Novick put it, “the rock on which the venture was constituted, its continuing raison d’être.”

Still, despite the serious, compelling, and fundamental critique of Novick and others, the canons and traditions of scientistic history have retained their force, as Novick, in fact, predicted they would, postmodern contentions about the limits of reason proving no match for the institutional and ideological force of the profession itself. History in the modern American vein has its own history, and it tends to rough up those who mess with it.

Not surprisingly, then, the conference featured a stimulating mixture of focused intelligence and resourceful argumentation serving the usual ends with the usual means. Scholars incisively probed links between consciousness-raising groups and revolutionary politics, between the psychological category of self-hatred and liberal cosmopolitanism, between women’s higher education and secularization.

Again, Miller’s whole article can be found here.

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