Intellectual History in an Anti-intellectual Age, Part 2: Roundtable Sponsored by Modern Intellectual History in Honor of Charles Capper

AHA Session 214
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Buckingham Room (Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level)
Anthony J. La Vopa, North Carolina State University
David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley
Emma Kuby, Northern Illinois University
Dorothy Ross, Johns Hopkins University
Julia Adeney Thomas, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

We appear to be living in a highly anti-intellectual age. Fabricated news stories sway elections. Expert scientific opinion on climate change carries little weight with large swaths of the population. The value of higher education itself has come under scrutiny, especially when it doesn’t lead to explicit financial reward. What is the status of intellectual history in this context? Arguably, it has never been more important as a field. Intellectual historians are charged with the task of asking about the status of intellectual work in context. They ask how ideas form, gain credence, find resistance; how some come to prominence and others get marginalized. And they reflect on what constitutes an “intellectual” and “intellectual work,” often finding both in surprising places – some in the universities, some in the streets. Recognizing that the field itself is going strong, as indicated by the proliferating number of journals, books, and organizations dedicated to it, this roundtable will reflect on its status in our seemingly anti-intellectual setting. We aim to discuss how developments in the field in the last two decades have helped us to substantially expand our understanding of what constitutes “intellectual history,” what kinds of sources fill our formal and informal archives, what kinds of topics we study and what questions we pose. The roundtable itself is organized by the journal Modern Intellectual History in honor of one of its founders and now – after 15 years – its out-going coeditor, Charles Capper.

In this second part of our proposed two-part roundtable, the speakers all reflect on the way that new or existing historiographical categories might be mobilized or repurposed in an anti-intellectual era. David Hollinger argues for the renewed relevance of the “national” in this moment, even as the global and the transregional narratives proliferate; while Dorothy Ross sees in the “biographical” a way to shed light on shifting intellectual landscapes. Emma Kuby historicizes the category of “responsibility” as it was attached by historians to intellectuals in the face of violence and extreme political situations, asking whether current conditions provide us alternative languages for thinking about intellectuals and their role in the world. Finally, Julia Adeney Thomas expands our horizons to ask us to think about the Anthropocene, reflecting on the diverse archives and reworked conceptual categories that are necessary to think about the planetary context of crisis.