"Return of the History of Ideas?"
When I began graduate school, I was very interested in method. Theoretical and methodological discussions about historiography seemed weighty, important. As I progressed with my own project, I became less interested in discussing method. It came to seem to me that most methodological questions were simply badly posed, or really hid (and then not very well) value judgments that had to do with what ought to be studied, or who ought to write, or something even more baldly political, rather than anything properly about how one should go about ‘doing history.’ Discussing method in the absence of a concrete project or problem came to seem to me pointless. Which it certainly is not, even if many particular instances of such discussion are.
I have been meaning to have a look at McMahon and Moyn’s edited volume Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History since shortly before it appeared in 2014. The book contains 14 essays by some quite excellent historians, and looks promising. At the moment I just want to set down some thoughts on having read Darrin McMahon’s essay, the first, “The Return of the History of Ideas?” The essay is, needless to say, erudite and rich. McMahon is especially effective as selecting the pungent quotation. For instance he cites Darnton objection to Mornet’s Origines intellectuels de la révolution française that it offered a “French filter coffee machine: it assumed that ideas trickled down...”(18). I’m not sure exactly what sort of machine Darnton has in mind, but it seems to me that a French press might function as a lovely metaphor. The ideas (the caffeine!) diffuse gently out from the texts (the grounds), which are more or less well distributed in the more or less hot milieu (the water). But the brew is only finished when the plunger (revolution? historiography?) clarifies and compresses the situation...
In any case, briefly put, McMahon wants to defend a new history of ideas—the name for Arthur Lovejoy’s much-maligned field. What this tends to mean in practice is books that follow a single idea through time. McMahon has himself written Happiness: A History and more recently Divine Fury: A History of Genius. I’ve read parts of the latter. This mode of doing history, McMahon says, seems to be returning. What does this mean? His essay proceeds by recounting first how Lovejoy’s history of ideas was “Unfashion[ed]”—that is, made unfashionable—and then what a newly fashionable such sub discipline might do for us. The first part looks on the one hand to Skinner and Pocock, and on the other to Darnton. Between the out-and-out hostility of the New Social History, this is to say, and the condescension of the Cambridge School, Lovejoy-ian history could not stand. McMahon is less concerned to narrate this process (there is so little space!) than to point out the degree to which the criticisms offered in the 70s and 80s were not particularly fair, especially when applied to Lovejoy’s actual scholarship rather than his methodological statements.
In the second part of McMahon’s essay, he identifies four “principles areas” in which the history of ideas, renewed as it seems to be by a recent “spate of monographs,” might be of use. The goal here is not, of course, to claim the imperial status that Lovejoy gave to—won for—the history of ideas. “Surely the days when historians fought over their dominions and parcels of turf like colonizing generals are behind us,” all we want, writes McMahon, is “a place on the map” (22). First, the newly racinated history of ideas should return to us one of the great strength’s of Lovejoy’s approach, which was to see the longue durée histories of ideas. Braudelian histories of ideas are needed “to open up sight lines and reveal connections that are potentially obscured by a more intense focus on immediate context” (23). Second, McMahon suggests that the history of ideas, as an effective counter to the tendency to provincialism built in to intensely contextual accounts, may be in a position to confront less fearfully the charge of presentism: “not all ideas are the prisoners of context, trapped in time, long ago defeated and dead. A certain historical presentism need not be a dirty word, and in fact at a time when humanists are continually being challenged to justify their “relevance,” presentism may be a useful strategy of survival.” After all, the best history always uses “the past to illuminate the present” (25). Third, the new history of ideas ought to be “eclectic,” drawing on all kinds of resources that neither Lovejoy, attuned mostly to philosophy, nor the Cambridge School, so focused on political and moral thought, bothered to interrogate. This seems to mean on the one hand crossing yet other disciplinary boundaries, but also into popular culture: “A revitalized history of ideas ought at the very least to be eclectic, reveling in the interdisciplinary ideal that first defined it, counting itself a citizen, though hardly a king, of infinite space” (26). This, McMahon understands, means manipulating lots of information necessarily at second hand. This suggests the fourth and final possible contribution, which is to bring “writerly craft” back to historiography. Intellectual historians, McMahon feels, have spent too much time worrying about the essential limits of language as such, and not enough time working to make their language more pleasing. McMahon’s example of excellence here is not Lovejoy, but Isaiah Berlin.
About this last point I have mixed feelings. I suspect that I share much of McMahon’s frustrations with the nature of the debates that intellectual historians engaged in over the course of the 1980s. And I do think that the form of history is important. Obviously we should all be better writers. And yet I wince (I do not reach for my revolver) when academics make good writing a programmatic goal. Similarly, I agree that a thoughtful degree of presentism is no bad thing—although I think we probably already have this—but I do not like the suggestion that this is to be thought of as a “survival strategy.” Writing history, and all the more so intellectual history, for a broad audience is commendable, if extraordinarily difficult. But this is at best a goal for the individual, it is not a disciplinary goal. McMahon would, and rightly, protest that he is after all not telling everyone to write in this way, only trying to argue that longue durée, synoptic (a term I associated with Martin Jay, who is all over this essay), well-written accounts focused on a particular idea across diverse contexts, are useful. Let those flowers bloom! Just give us a spot on the map! And I could not disagree. Nor do I disagree that Lovejoy has come in for unjust abuse and that Berlin could sometimes write in a very powerful, engaging way. And I am not in a position to evaluate the collection of new monographs that McMahon has in mind. Holding a concrete example of such scholarship in my hands, I would want to think about how it handles causality. Thinking about the collection of such monographs, I would like to know what ideas they treat, and wonder if any conclusions about the tendency of the subfield to confirm or upset categories could be drawn from this list. Finally, I would be interested to hear more about the distinction—which I think McMahon would maintain—between scholarly monographs constructed along these lines and self-consciously popularizing books.
In any case, as I move forward through this volume—and there are at least four or five of the chapters I’ll certainly read—perhaps I’ll be able to pick up some of these questions in a different light.