Understanding today’s America by eavesdropping on the past

May 6th 2018 | Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Special to the State Journal
Arts & Humanities, Faculty
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Wisconsinites, like this typing fisherman, find havens for ideas while fishing in the state's waterways and hiking in the deep woods just as much as in their personal book collections and the public library. Professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen's work examines the history of people and their ideas through the records they leave behind. (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-121878)

When people ask what I do for a living and I tell them that that I am an American intellectual historian, I often get responses like, “Ha, it must be a short history!”

Their joke has a long history. Already in 1963, prominent U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter published his study of American history, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” which popularized a longstanding notion about Americans’ interest in serious, penetrating thought – namely, that there was too little of it.

What is American intellectual history? I get that question a lot, too.

Intellectual history is an approach to understanding the American past by way of ideas and the people who made or were moved by them.

It seeks to understand the origins of certain preoccupations in American thought; where they came from, and why some ideas, which used to be important to Americans, have faded.

Intellectual history can focus on a single concept such as “freedom,” “justice,” or “truth.” Or it can examine a larger body of thought like “Darwinism,” “democratic theory,” and “conservatism.”

Intellectual historians pay careful attention to time and space: Why did Americans come to those conclusions? Why at that time? Why there? For an intellectual historian, the political, religious, and economic contexts of the idea are as important as the idea itself.

The way that I discovered American intellectual history, and the reason it still holds my attention and why I love teaching it, is that it’s a way to eavesdrop on the past.

Its intent isn’t to spy on the inner thoughts of unsuspecting dead people. It’s fueled by the desire to connect with interesting people we might not otherwise know but for the records of their minds they left behind.

All kinds of sources are fair game — from major works of political theory and theological disputation to minor novels, private correspondence, and marginalia in a book. All of these are precious historical sources that can awaken us to the ways Americans have constructed their realities.

Intellectual historians pay careful attention to time and space: Why did Americans come to those conclusions? Why at that time? Why there?

My work aims to make historical consciousness not simply the preserve of an academic discipline, but also the discipline of an educated citizenry. Current political ideas, economic debates, and moral commitments all have histories.  But such a notion is often a revelation for our students and the broader public. 

With this commitment to bring history to bear on Americans’ current conceptions of themselves and their world, I have written a book for a general audience coming out later this year called “The Ideas that Made America: A Brief History of American Intellectual Life,” which covers the development of American thought from the first time the word “America” appears in world history (on a map of 1507) up until today.

I am also working on another book, “The American Ways of Wisdom,” a history of the quest for wisdom in twentieth-century American life. 

My work won’t let me lose sight of the present. My research and teaching deals very much with America today.

But it understands that our current political debates, economic fetishes, and moral commitments all have histories. What most concerns us today might have seemed ludicrous to our ancestors. And what they perceived as having great urgency might have somehow become irrelevant for us. Why?  That’s what intellectual history tries to figure out.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor and Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Professor in the Department of History. Her research focuses on U.S. intellectual and cultural history, including the history of philosophy, political and social theory, religion, literature and the visual arts. She also investigates the transatlantic flow of intellectual and cultural movements, print culture and cultural studies.

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