A touchy discipline in the making

Modern Intellectual History
April 21, 2006

Modern Intellectual History , or perhaps modern intellectual history, is a curious thing. Programmatically, it is whiter than white - to use an expression with a history of its own - eclectic and hermeneutic, receptive and integrative, anchored in the text, apprised of the hors-texte and attuned to the context. Actually, it is tribal and touchy, at once thuggish and insecure. Or so it seems from this slice of the life.

"Intellectual history" as a term of art was apparently not in use before the 20th century. In the 21st, it wants to be a field or even a discipline of its own. If such outlandish pursuits as military history and international history, not to mention cultural history and social history, then why not intellectual history? Key to this endeavour is the flagship journal. Enter Modern Intellectual History , whose commissars strain manfully to identify and justify their epistemic niche in a form of words that conveys forward thinking and forward movement. After venturing "an expanded but still focused disciplinary enterprise", they toy with "a distinct form of inquiry" before settling on the nearest thing to a rallying cry the praxis will allow: "Intellectual history is best thought of as a discipline in the making." Pessimism of the intellect is for the birds. Vanguardism is the order of the day. From a standing start to a discipline in the making in one short century. The modern intellectual historian is no slouch.

What is modern intellectual history about? The editorial response to that crude question borders on the prissy, not to say the opaque: " Modern Intellectual History is concerned with the historicity of textual performances, whether written, printed, visual or musical." This is subject to further explication, certainly, but it will be a relief to find the instructions for contributors expressed in a language non-initiates can understand: " Modern Intellectual History is a new journal for scholars of different disciplines who are interested in the intellectual and cultural experience of Europe, America/the United States and the non-Western world from 1650 onwards and in the patterns of cultural and intellectual interaction between them. Its aim is to understand the contextual origins and reception of texts and to recover their historical meaning." MIH , therefore, is not the sole province of historians. In their inimitable fashion, the editors extend the hospitality of their pages to "hermeneutically minded scholars with an historical orientation, whether their interest is in the history of literature, science, philosophy, law, religion, political thought, economic thought, social theory, psychology, anthropology, art, or music": a commendably broad church.

Edited out of Boston, North Carolina and Edinburgh, the journal has a transatlantic complexion. The US looms largest, according to the affiliations and the interests of the editorial board and the contributors, with an admixture of Oxbridge and a seasoning of Essex, Florence, Göttingen and Paris. A typical issue contains three substantial articles and three or four equally substantial review essays. It is a high-powered, high-grade production that makes room for a generous provision of fine black-and-white illustrations - a standing reproach to the visual wasteland that is the lot of most academic journals.

So far, the range is not quite as wide as the declaratory intent. There is a goodly helping of religion but precious little science. If intellectual history is distinctive in its emphasis on "the historical power of ideas", as Lloyd Kramer claims in the inaugural issue, the realm of the ideas canvassed in MIH is predominantly the humanities. That is a vast realm, and it yields some notable riches. It reflects well on editors and contributors that the (commissioned) review essays as a whole are particularly nutritious. A few are exemplary: Sarah Maza on "Stephen Greenblatt, new historicism, and cultural history", Daniel Walker Howe on "Two approaches to American theology", Jan Goldstein on "The linguistic construction of class in some recent historical scholarship".

The quality of the articles is more variable. A low point is reached with one on "Acknowledgements: instructions for use" - surely a spoof - focusing on their "paratextual nature" and offering nothing less than a "sociogenesis" of the genre. "Acknowledgements are staring you in the face.

Their location in the work can vary, but it is always a prominent place and a place that is more or less expected." This is trumped in its turn by the anonymous referee who unwisely granted the author of the article special permission to quote from his report. After insisting that acknowledgements "are certainly no less germane than, say, the table of contents", the referee continues: "And since I never have time to read a whole book... their importance is only exacerbated." So much for the historicity of textual performance.

Other offerings are deadly serious, if not over-serious. Some of the intellectual cut and thrust is unsparing - and unforgiving for readers - "the application of the isomorphic model to Nietszche leads to more egregious misinterpretations". Sadly, several contributions are marked by a de haut en bas , an air of what one can only call intellectual superiority when it comes to other rag-tag disciplines and their manifold shortcomings.

This condescension extends even to potential allies. ("Although Chateaubriand: poésie et terreur is more accessible than much literary criticism, since it eschews arcane theoretical debates and erudite argument with other scholars...".) It is reminiscent of the attitude of some nudists to the clothed world - the "textiles". Given the aspirations of MIH, and MIH, it is contrary and disabling.

What then of an interim verdict? MIH is good in parts. It will surely get even better if more people play. "The curate's egg: provenance and provender", anyone?

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

Modern Intellectual History: Charles Capper, Anthony J. La Vopa and Nicholas Phillipson

Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - three times a year Institutions £106.00 (print and online) Individuals £26.00 (print only)
ISSN - 1479 2443 Online ISSN 1479 2451

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