Thursday, October 11, 2007

Kloppenberg on Tocqueville

Kloppenberg, James T. "The Canvas and the Color: Tocqueville's 'Philosophical History' and Why it Matters Now." Modern Intellectual History. 3,3 (2006). 495-521.

In order to get away from the madness of contemporary theory I had a nice vacation inside my discipline, with James Kloppenberg’s relatively recent piece in MIH about Tocqueville. Tocqueville is someone I should know more about; I should certainly read L’Ancien régime, and, it seems, his Recollections on 1848. Also, of course, as Kloppenberg says, “Tocqueville is hot.” (497). I sort of knew that already—but four new translations of Democracy in America since 2003? That’s crazy. There was a debate about translating Tocqueville in French Politics, Culture and Society in the Spring of 2003—Arthur Goldhammer, who made one of the new translations, sits on the editorial board of that journal. It’s a debate I should look at.

The main point of Kloppenberg’s article is that Tocqueville wrote ‘philosophical history’ that is very close to the kind of intellectual history we should be doing now. Kloppenberg says, “At his most historically sophisticated...he displayed the reflexivity associated with the approach I call pragmatic hermeneutics” (520). An approach elaborated in two previous articles that (it’s my mantra) I should really take a look at. Happily, Kloppenberg gives us, in one sentence, what this means, and what intellectual history is suppose to be:

“Only through multiple stages—first the painstaking study of texts and the meticulous reconstruction of contexts, then the systematic effort to relate the multiple meanings of the former to the multiple layers of the latter, and finally the self-conscious attempt to connect historical analysis to the aspirations of one’s own time—is it possible to produce philosophical history of the sort Tocqueville sought to write. As the endless struggles over Tocqueville illustrate, at best such texts will generate conflicts among those who approach them with an acolyte’s reverence, a vulture’s hunger, or a historian’s insatiable desire to understand more clearly phenomena that will never be understood completely” (521).

It’s a big sentence. And that second sentence feels off to me. Especially “at best...” Hermeneutic approaches can not, I think, be sustained in an academic context. It’s an artistic, religious experience. I think I’d better go find out just what he means, and then decide.

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