The same day I get tagged by the History Carnival for my post on "Useable Pasts" sees my friend, the UPS man, arrive at my door to deliver Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. How fortuitous. David Brown's book demonstrates one problem with the field of intellectual history:
Intellectual historians often take the thinkers they write about at their word. I know you know the dead horse I wallop here.* For those who don't, a refresher course. The chapter on Social Darwinism and American Thought opens promisingly enough. "The New Deal changed everything," Brown writes.
And it did.
The influence of the New Deal and the reaction of those who, like Hofstadter, stood to Roosevelt's left cannot be quashed from any responsible intellectual history of the period. The New Deal shaped the dissertating Hofstadter's politics to a great extent, so much so that the former Communist critic of the New Deal created a mythic philosophical movement with which the New Dealers could pound their opponents. But from that point forward the quality of the chapter declines steeply.
But Hofstadter produced his thesis under the eye of Merle Curti, a pioneer in the emerging field of intellectual history. Liberated from the Progressive penchant for appointing heroes and villains, Hofstadter was able to merge both his politics and scholarship into a powerful critique of the great titans. (29)
What? You want to know how Hofstadter "liberated himself from Progressive penchant for appointing heroes and villains," don't you? So do I. I've read few books as many times as I've read Social Darwinism and that statement so disconforms from my knowledge of the book that I'm barely able to type the following summary of Hofstadter's "Table of Contents":
- "The Coming of Darwinism": Summary of the period.
- "The Vogue of Spencer": Spencer is a big fat villain.
- "William Graham Sumner: Social Darwinist": So is Sumner.
- "Lester Ward: Critic": My Hero!
- "Evolution, Ethics, and Society": Huxley dreamy, Kidd nightmarish.
- "The Dissenters": My Heroes!
- "The Current of Pragmatism": Williams James and John Dewey! Give me a "P"! Give me an "R"! Give me . . .
I could continue, but I think I've made my point. Hofstadter went to great lengths to create heroes and villains in his turn-of-the-century yarn. On some level, even Brown knows this:
Hofstadter found a foil to Sumner's philosophy in the impressive scholarship of Lester Ward. (32)
How, I wonder, does one have a foil without antipodes? And if Sumner plays foil to "the impressive" Lester Ward, how does that antipodal logic not cast Sumner as the villain and Ward as the hero? I'm baffled. I could continue all night, but I want to save some material for tomorrow. I'm only three pages into the chapter on Social Darwinism, but I should stop now, as I'm tempted to say, pace Ms. Parker, that this book should not be tossed lightly aside but hurled with great force.
*Those with access to the OED can witness the fine pun I stumbled into there.