Introduction to the History of American Ideas

Saturday, February 21, 2009

There are many ways in which you can study American history. You can study the social history of America, or the political or economic history of America. In so doing you may sometimes feel that these three ways of studying America almost present three entirely different Americas to our gaze. Sometimes it seems as though one didn’t happen in the same place as the other. What ties all the various kinds of history together, however, is how we think about them and how we think, as a nation, about America. This is what we call intellectual history.

As a discipline, intellectual history can cover a broad territory: a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of popular culture, social criticism, literature, political ideas, and all of it stirred by two cooks from which we inherit our most fundamental assumptions: the Puritan cook of New England and the secular cook of the eighteen century’s Enlightenment. Naturally, as the saying goes, the more cooks, the more liable you are to spoil the soup, and the more liable you are to see the two cooks end up beating each other over the head. That’s what makes the study of American ideas so interesting.

The Psalmist said: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”. That expresses for me how central the history of ideas is to American history.

Is there an American Mind?

I must admit that there are large numbers of people for whom the very proposition that there is an American mind is a puzzlement. By far, the largest segment of that population of skeptics are those who believe that the great defining characteristic of Americans, as opposed to the Germans or the French or the Chinese, is precisely that we don’t labour under the burden of a national mind. American are doers, not thinkers; or at least we are more inclined to “can do” than “think about”. We expect knowledge and education but only to the extent that it helps us solve problems or make sales.

Part of the reason for this is that we are comparatively new among the nations of the Earth, and we had the job of developing an entire continent on our hands for the last two hundred and some more years. This kept us busy to pay much attention to how we think.

Another reason is the fear we have of what ideas can do to people if they become to preoccupy with them. We have the example of the last century in Europe to remind us of what furies people are capable of unleashing in the name of ideas, whether those ideas go by the name of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or the “final solution”.

We are people of moderation in ideas. We are of the political center. Sometimes we even congratulate ourselves on not possessing an American mind at all. In his famous address on the American Scholar in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson jeered at the book-learned class, who valued books as such but not as related to nature and the human constitution. Emerson believed that character is higher than intellect, and he hailed the coming of a democratic paradise in which the single person made up his own mind on everything without the dictate of others.

Doers not Thinkers

The great American historian and librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin summed this up when he described early Americans as a people who focused on immediate, changing and unpredictable needs. They did not pursue the absolute nor spent their thinking on doctrinal things. In every aspect of American life, Boorstin said, ideology was displaced by organization. Sharp distinctions of thought and purpose were overshadowed by the need to get together on common purposes. Even American lawyers, said Boorstin, proceeded undogmatically from case to case, rich in the prudence of individual cases but poor in theoretical principles.

The Effect of Democracy

European observers, however, were not so confident that this was a good thing. The French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous commentary on American democracy based on his travels through the United States in the early 1830’s. He dismayed to find that there is no country in the civilized world where they are less occupied with philosophy than the United States. And not only philosophy, less occupied with theology, with political theory, with fewer great artists, illustrious poets and celebrated writers.

This had occurred, according to de Tocqueville, not as one of the virtues or strengths of democracy, not as something to be boasted about; rather, de Tocqueville treated this as one of the effects of democracy. De Tocqueville would have agreed with Emerson. In a democracy everyone is permitted and even encouraged to think for themselves. The problem is that maybe that wouldn’t always take us in encouraging directions.

Each, said de Tocqueville, withdraws into himself and claims to judge the world from there. A man who undertakes to examine everything by himself would give little time and attention to each thing. And so, in democracies, de Tocqueville concluded, people have only the shallowest of ideas and tend to be tightly chained to the will of the greatest number. In other words, democracy has gave us a thoughtless heart.

No one, however, has been harder on American mindlessness than American themselves. James Fenimore Cooper complained in 1838: “In America the popular press scrutinizes over public men, letters, the arts, the stage and even over private life”. In 1842, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story blamed the vast predominance of the taste for light reading and amusing compositions over that for solid learning and severe and suggestive studies. He took that as a sign of American intellectual decrepitude. The consequence is, said Joseph Story, that many of our best minds devout all their thoughts and time to labours of this sort.

The psychologist Granville Stanley Hall, writing in 1879 said that the college curriculum should not be controlled by the churches and denominations that founded them. There are, Hall wrote, less than half a dozen colleges or universities in the United States where metaphysical thought is entirely free from reference to theological formulae. And the faculties, Hall said, were composed of professors who did nothing but parrot what their teachers had taught them.

If so many Americans and Europeans agree that there was no intellectual life worthy of a historical survey, what am I doing here talking about it?

I want to talk about the American Mind as a historian, not as a philosopher. The preoccupation of professional history people ever since history became an independent discipline in the 1800’s, is to look for historical change and historical explanation in purely material rather than intellectual causes. A model for this has always been Carl Marx, who effortlessly reduced all human events to a struggle, to a dialectic between different economic classes. Marx was neither unique nor original in this, but his reduction of everything to purely material causes carried virtually every other history practitioner along with him.

The result has been the triumph of either social and economic history; or cultural history, which tends to treat all intellectual activity as a front for the real causes: political or economic power, whether this comes in the form of the so-called Annales School, or more recently in the clothing of the so-called New Historicism. It’s what people owned, or ate, or manipulated that counts; rather than what they thought. It is not, in another words, that Americans lack a mind, it’s that in the minds of many historians is the “minds” that don’t matter.

Whenever a brave soul does venture to teach a course on American intellectual history or the American mind, the result is very curious. Your usual course of study follows what I call the “Great Convention” of American intellectual history. I will talk about this convention in the following article: The Great Convention of American Intellectual History.