American Historical Review; Oct87, Vol. 92 Issue 4.

Review Article

Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience


In an article published in 1981 that outlined the current trends and future prospects of intellectual history, William J. Bowsrna coupled a pessimistic assessment of the "obvious and probably irreversible" professional decline of the specialized "history of ideas" with an optimistic projection of the transformation of intellectual history into a pace-setting participant in a more broadly conceived "history of meaning." Bowsma counseled intellectual historians to resist debilitating defensive anxieties regarding their professional identities and the autonomy of their field and to recognize that the "remnant chiefly worth saving" from their traditional concerns—the focus on the production, reproduction, and transmission of meanings in various historical periods and cultural contexts—placed them at the center of the most interesting and innovative work currently being produced, not only by their fellow historians but more generally in the humanities and social sciences. The apparent decline of intellectual history as an academic subdiscipline might be construed as a sign of its maturation and assimilation into the general current of historically oriented studies of human culture: "We no longer need intellectual history because we have all become intellectual historians."1

Bowsma premised his assessment of intellectual history's possible fate in the 1980s on two general assumptions. First, he connected the decline of the traditional "history of ideas" to the historical disintegration of the belief that conscious, rational thought was the universal, species-defining, and thus "highest" form of human activity, determining the criteria of truth in matters of both fact and value. By viewing the works produced by intellectual elites claiming this universal perspective as merely a subgroup within the larger category of cultural constructions of meaning that were "a function of the human organism as a whole," intellectual historians were finally coming to terms with their own persistent

' William J. Bowsma, "Intellectual History in the 1980s: From History of Ideas to History of Meaning," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 12 (Autumn 1981): 279, 283, 280.


880 John E. Toew

The books under review are (in alphabetical order):

Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge, 1986);
David A. Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington, Ind., 1985);
Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas (Berkeley, Calif., 1984);
Peter Jelavich, Munich and Theatrical Modernism: Politics, Playwriting and Performance, 1890-1914 (Cambridge, Mass., 1985);
Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives,
Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan, eds. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982);
Dominick LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983);
Dominick LaCapra, History and Criticism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985);
Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida
(Berkeley, Calif., 1985);
J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1985);
Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History: Mode of Production \ersus Mode of Information (Cambridge, 1984);
Philosophy in History, Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner, eds. (Cambridge, 1984);
The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Quentin Skinner, ed (Cambridge, 1985).

practice of historicizing and contextualizing the intellect and its products Second, Bovvsma assumed that the integration of intellectual history into the history of meaning would not simply invert the hierarchies of the past, giving privileged status to bodily needs, psychological cravings, and social interests, rather than to conscious ideas or rational argument, but would avoid reductionist procedures altogether. The new categories of "meaning" and "experience" would not replicate the old polarities of thought and reality, consciousness and being, but would encourage an integrated concept of historical reality as meaningful experience in which "the creative interpretation of experience also shapes experience" and "some sense of meaning is ... both a condition and a product of experience.'"-This new agenda for intellectual history had a number of significant implications. It promised an end to isolating specialization and the resulting disciplinary and subdisciplinary feuds and anxieties. Intellectual historians could feel encouraged by the affirmation of the centrality of their concerns and the relevance of their professional skills for the critical questions animating current scholarship. More specifically, Bowsma envisioned an increasingly self-conscious search for inter-

2 Bowsma, "Intellectual History in the 1980s," 283, 288.



pretive strategies to reconstruct the production and transmission of meanings at various cultural levels and in different cultural contexts. This search would encourage less unilateral and parasitic, more intimate and dialogical, relationships with sister disciplines such as cultural anthropology, art history, and philosophy and a more systematic use of linguistic models and procedures, since the primary medium of meaning was obviously language. The cultural world, the realm of meaningful experience, he claimed, might be described as a "vast rhetorical production." Entering into the mainstream of the history of meaning would involve the intellectual historian in a linguistic turn.3

The dozen recently published books under review in this essay are too narrow and arbitrary a sampling (skewed both toward modern European intellectual history and the analysis of the artifacts of intellectual elites) to provide anything like an adequate test of Bowsma's projections. It is striking the extent to which they virtually all assume, however, the validity of his general claim that intellectual history is an integral part of the interdisciplinary study of the history of meaning and that the pursuit of this study involves a focused concern on the ways meaning is constituted in and through language. A new self-confidence is clearly evident. The fears of being conquered and colonized by the perspectives and methods of social historians, so prevalent among intellectual historians just a few years ago, have diminished considerably, and one can even find warnings about the dangers of overconfiderice and intellectual imperialism.4 But the interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary tensions and disputes have not been resolved or put aside. Although a reconsideration and perhaps rearrangement of conventional categories and oppositions is clearly under way, the first result of this self-reflective activity appears to be a displacement of conventional distinctions and disputes into the new terms of meaning and language. We may all be historians of cultural meaning as constituted in language, but we still investigate meaning at different cultural levels involving different kinds of texts requiring different kinds of linguistic analysis. As Martin Jay and others have correctly pointed out, the question of whether or not intellectual history should take a linguistic turn involves the preliminary question of which amonga variety of linguistic theories of meaning a historian should choose.5 The linguistic turns chosen often overlap with traditional divisions between historians of sociocultural structures, political ideologies, and the artifacts of "high" culture, as well as between historians of the different national cultures in which various theories have been formulated and elaborated.

In spite of these indications of continuing disagreement along familiar lines, one can also discern a new framework of questions, or a "problematic," around which the discussions among intellectual historians are increasingly organized. Most seem ready to concede that language can no longer be construed as simply a medium, relatively or potentially transparent, for the representation or expression

3 Bowsraa, "Intellectual History in the 1980s," 290.

4 See, for example, Hollinger, In the American Province, 188.

Martin Jay, "Should Intellectual History Take a Linguistic Turn? Reflections on the Habermas-Gadarner Debate," in LaCapra and Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History, 87.


of a reality outside of itself and are willing to entertain seriously some form of semiological theory in which language is conceived of as a self-contained system of "signs" whose meanings are determined by their relations to each other, rather than by their relation to some "transcendental" or extralinguistic object or subject. Disputes arise from a concern for the implications of a commitment to a semiological theory of meaning in its extreme form. Such a commitment would seem to imply that language not only shapes experienced reality but constitutes it, that different languages create different, discontinuous, and incommensurable worlds, that the creation of meaning is impersonal, operating "behind the backs" of language users whose linguistic actions can merely exemplify the rules and procedures of languages they inhabit but do not control, that all specialized language usages in a culture (scientific, poetic, philosophical, historical) are similarly determined by and constitutive of their putative objects. Within this perspective, historiography would be reduced to a subsystem of linguistic signs constituting its object, "the past," according to the rules pertaining in the "prisonhouse of language" inhabited by the historian. As Keith Baker warns, structuralist theories of language seem to extend "an offer of the entire world as a domain of meaning, but at the cost of our historical souls."6 Although expressions of apocalyptic fear of the end of history as we have known it or millenarian hopes for a totally new kind of history can occasionally be discerned in the current literature, the predominant tendency is to adapt traditional historical concerns for extralinguistic origins and reference to the semiological challenge, to reaffirm in new ways that, in spite of the relative autonomy of cultural meanings, human subjects still make and remake the worlds of meaning in which they a re suspended, and to insist that these worlds are not creations ex nihilo but responses to, and shapings of, changing worlds of experience ultimately irreducible to the linguistic forms in which they appear. Insofar as it is a type of history, intellectual history cannot be completely identified with a radical hermeneutics that assumes nothing exists beyond meanings, but it must address the issue of explanation, of why certain meanings arise, persist, and collapse at particular times and in specific sociocultural situations. Although no easily discernible, common position emerges in the works under review, they can be seen as participating in a common discourse in the sense that they address themselves to the promises and the problems of sustaining the dialectical unity of and difference between meaning and experience (as all historians must) in the wake of the linguistic turn.

If the general field of historical studies could be redefined as the investigation of the contextually situated production and transmission of meaning, intradisciplinary turf battles between social and intellectual historians would appear to lose their point. The disjunction between external event and internal idea, between objective process or structure and subjective representation or expression, would dissolve if a consensus could be established that the plowing of

6 Keith Michael Baker, "On the Problem of the Ideological Origins of the French Revolution," in LaCapra and Kaplan, Modern Eurapean Intellectual History, 200.


a field, the abuse of a child, or the storming of a fortress were as much contextually situated, meaningful social actions as the construction of a philosophical argument, the choice of a metaphor, the publication of a journal, or the performance of an opera. However, a number of the most persuasively argued contributions to contemporary debates on the future of intellectual history indicate that, even if historians could agree that they were all engaged in reconstructing the history of meaning, intradisciplinary tensions and conflicts would persist. The essays of Roger Chartier and Dominick LaCapra address this issue critically and direcdy, focusing on the hegemonial claims of "sociocultural history" or the "social history of ideas" within the history of meaning.7

What both Chartier and LaCapra find objectionable in the sociocultural history inspired by the French Annales school is the ways in which this history objectifies meaning in order to open up the sphere of cultural history to the methodological procedures and organizing categories developed in socioeconomic analysis. Such objectification, they argue, has taken two major forms. It is characterized, first of all, by an overwhelming focus on the reconstruction of impersonal, collective, "unconscious" structures of perception, feeling, and thought, on the inventory of available tools or terms (the lexicon) and the rules and procedures of their use (the syntax) that together make up the collective mentalite of a period or culture. Particular acts of meaning-production are reduced to instances of the underlying structures that enable or restrict their possibility. The connection to Michel Foucault's concept of linguistic performances as instances of rules contained in archaeologically recoverable "archives" or "epistemes" or "discourses" is obvious, although Foucault eschewed the totalizing ambitions and causal claims of many sociocultural historians. The second way meanings have been objectified in the social history of ideas is through defining individual meanings as self-identical ideas or "essences" that can be extracted from their textual contexts and treated as commodities distributed and consumed in statistically measurable patterns. Although neither Chartier nor LaCapra denies the importance of reconstructing linguistic codes or of analyzing the production and distribution of meanings as commodities, they both perceive the history of meaning as a complex process of linguistic creativity and communicative action that is irreducible to socioeconomic models and demands the interpretive skills intellectual historians and literary scholars have developed in the critical reading of the artifacts of "high" culture.

Chartier and LaCapra each propose a sweeping revision of the categories imposed on the history of meaning by sociocultural historians. First, they question the binary opposition of elite and popular culture, especially in the form that implies that the popular is more basic and inclusive. Such a categorical opposition constitutes a gross oversimplification of the heterogeneous strands of cultural meaning present within any historical culture and obscures the complexity of the relations between them. The category of elite culture hides significant distinctions

' The following discussion draws on LaCapra's essays in both Rethinking Intellectual History and History and Criticism. Roger Chartier, "Intellectual History or Sociocultural History? The French Trajectories," in LaCapra and Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History.


between the "high" culture articulated in the complex, self-consciously constructed artifacts of philosophers, theologians, artists, and other "intellectuals," the "official" culture supported or propagated by state authorities or established churches, and the "dominant" or "hegemonial" culture of social and political elites. Similarly, "popular" culture must be conceptually differentiated info "general" or "common" culture, the culture of socially dominated or politically excluded groups like peasants or wage-laborers, the "everyday" culture of work, play, family, and gender relations in which all groups shared in specific ways, the "political" or "public" culture in which citizens engage in debate on their common and conflicting goals as members of an organized community, and the "mass" culture of the consumers and producers of commodified meanings.8 As Chartier insists, although each cultural level can be reconstructed as a world of meanings, these heterogeneous worlds are not autonomous but appear "as compound worlds that bring together, in a virtually inextricable mixture, elements of very diverse origins."9 The multilayered complexity of a culture composed of such heterogeneous compounds undermines the assumption of distinct cultural "objects" demanding different methods of analysis. Both interpretive and reconstructive techniques are needed for a nonreductive investigation of the history of meanings at all levels. Anonymously structured codes enter into the most individualized, self-conscious, and linguistically refined artifacts of "high" culture, just as the religious beliefs of a common miller should not be reduced to a simple instance or determination of a reified, "popular" mentalite.10

Second, deconstructing the opposition of elite and popular entails a reconsideration of the oppositions of creation-reception and production-consumption as well. According to Chartier, reception and consumption should be viewed as creative, productive actions. The appropriation of imposed or distributed meanings, even in the most authoritarian and closed homogeneous cultures, is not simply a passive assimilation but is characterized by interpretive activity that involves resistance and evasion as well as substractive, supplemental, and transformative revisions. Meanings are never simply inscribed on the minds and bodies of those to whom they are directed or on whom they are "imposed" but are always reinscribed in the act of reception.11 LaCapra develops this point into a general theory, often formulated in the terminology of Derrida, about the reading and interpretation of texts. Reading, viewing, or listening are construed as critical, creative actions in which the dynamic, multidimensional aspects of the production of meaning in the original artifact or text are constantly questioned, displaced as repetitions in different systems of meaning, supplemented, parodied, and reinscribed in various other ways in a process that can never attain the finality of definitive, fixed interpretation but that involves a continuous play and prolifer-

8 LaCapra, History and Criticism. 74—78.

9 Chartier, "Intellectual History or Sociocultural History," 34.

10 See LaCapra's extended review of Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms in History and Criticism. 45-69.

11 Chartier, "Intellectual History or Sociocultural History," 37-38.


ation of meanings.12 While Chartier sees the dissolution of the dichotomy between producer and consumer as a premise for erasing the methodological divisions between sociocultural and intellectual history, LaCapra uses the concept of creative consumption as a means of reinstating the "relative specificity" of intellectual history in both an intra- and interdisciplinary context, as the form of historical investigation that is especially attentive to the sophisticated art of textual reading and that takes as its privileged objects those "great" texts in which the active, self-questioning, critical, and constructive aspects of the process of meaning production are most clearly evident. Intellectual historians are especially concerned with those historical artifacts that are "good for reading" or "good for thinking," whose multilayered and conflicting levels of meaning demand critical engagement and dialogue.13

The third major categorical opposition questioned by Chartier and LaCapra is that between representation and reality. The conventional procedures of sociocultural history are perceived as implying that meanings are not produced as actual, "material" events within the dense interrelations of systems of signs but are epiphenomenal and determined by an extralinguistic reality through relations of cause, reflection, representation, analogy, or expression. The new, semiologically oriented history of meanings, however, begins with the assumption that meanings do not simply mirror or represent but actually constitute or create the reality experienced by human beings. The "experience" that generates the revising and transforming procedures of creative consumption is never "raw" but "always already" constituted in meaning. Two consequences flow from this premise. First, all forms of historical evidence have not only a referential, "documentary" dimension insofar as they refer to various historical forms and contents that exist as already constituted, "given" meaningful experiences, but they also exhibit a "work-like" dimension as acts of meaning-production in which the given forms and contents are set into new patterns of relationship in order to constitute a new meaningful reality. This duality is present in parish registers and trial reports, philosophical treatises and musical compositions. In this case as well, however, LaCapra goes beyond Chartier in claiming that different kinds of texts embody the duality in different ways and that the relative specificity of intellectual history is tied to its interest in understanding those texts that are least documentary and most work-like. LaCapra is concerned that the intricate internal dynamics by which meaning is constituted in great texts will be ignored by historians taught to "gut" texts for information about an extratextual reality. Conventional methods of paraphrase and synopsis, for example, imply a belief that texts are not events in the history of language in which the process of meaning-construction takes place but simply containers of ideas or facts that can be extracted from them and then

12 LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, 23-69.

13 The allusion is to Claude Levi-Strauss's comment in The Savage Mind that certain things can be
"good to think" just as others might be good to eat.


set into relation with other similarly mined ideas or facts.14

A second implication of the deconstruction of the distinction between representation and reality is the need to reconceptualize the issue of text and context. First, the context in which a textual artifact or systematic pattern of signification is to be understood must itself be conceived as a compound world of constituted meanings, as a text requiring interpretation. Both text and context are complex relations of "signifying practices."1 r> The connections between them must thus be construed as "intertextual." The context never "explains" the text in the sense of providing the essence of its appearance or the cause of its effect or the reality of its representation. LaCapra expends a great deal of energy in the exposure and systematic critique of tendencies toward the reductive contextual interpretation of textual events. His critical reviews of Carl Schorske's Fin desiecle Vienna or Stephen Toulmin and Allan Janik's Wittgenstein's Vienna, for example, continually return to the two primary ways in which intellectual history may fall prey, even in the practice of its most distinguished exemplars, to the sociocultural historian's reading of texts as documentary representations of reality rather than complex textual events in a textualized context.16 Restrictive documentary readings that paraphrase the complex workings of a text in terms of essential contents are connected to equally restrictive readings of the context as a matrix for the production of those contents or as the source of the realities reflected in them. Reading LaCapra's critical commentaries, one begins to wonder if it is possible to avoid the pitfalls of a referential or representational theory at all without ceasing to "do" history and restricting oneself to thinking about it. Has the theory of the linguistic density and complexity of texts, contexts, and their apparently circular relationships outrun its possible utility as either a clarification of, or guide for, historiographical practice? An instructive commentary on such questions is provided by two exceptionally talented young historical scholars, who have written interesting first books devoted to historical analysis of the high culture of dramatic writing and theatrical production in relation to other levels of cultural meaning and to shifting historical experiences: Peter Jelavich's Munich and Theatrical Modernism: Politics, Playwriting and Performance, 1890—19141 and Jean-Christophe Agnew's Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theatre in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750.

Jelavich tends to eschew self-reflective or programmatic theorizing and can in many ways be read within the framework of conventional intellectual history, especially as practiced by his unconventionally brilliant mentor, Carl Schorske. The backbone of Jelavich's study consists of paraphrases and synoptic reconstructions of a number of texts in a particular genre produced in a particular time and place. The homologies in content and form as well as the temporally situated patterns of change among these artifacts of "high" culture are in turn interpreted

LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, 33-34; see also Hans Kellner, "Triangular Anxieties: The Present State of European Intellectual History," in LaOapra and Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History, 116-17.

15 LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, 26-27.

"' LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History., 84-117; LaCapra, History and Cntuism, 81-86.



and explained by placing them in a series of contextual relationships. The "point" of theatrical modernism is to be grasped through a reconstruction of its historical contexts, both contexts of meaning and contexts of experience. Modernism, he suggests, "was the product of a game played with diverse cultural pieces on a political, social, and commercial terrain that was constantly shifting."17 Like Schorske, Jelavich sees the shifts in the political terrain, specifically the external defeat and internal collapse of liberal politics, as the ultimate context or as the context of last resort for understanding the fate of modernist theater. His book begins with a description of the crisis of Bavarian liberalism in the late nineteenth century and concludes with a description of its accelerating collapse during and after World War I.

Despite such indications of the persistence of a traditional historiographical standpoint, Jelavich's work is clearly sensitive to the kinds of concerns and perspectives voiced by LaCapra and Chartier. This awareness is evident first of all in the choice and definition of his "object" of investigation. Modernism is defined primarily in terms of the emergence of a nonmimetic, nonrepresentational concept of language as a system of signs within which worlds are constructed rather than reflected. This concept of language is seen as having critical and deconstructive as well as Utopian and constructive potentialities to reformulate the function of art in society. This concept made possible a critical dismantling of inherited cultural languages as "ideological" constructions and justified the belief that the aesthetic creation of new patterns of meaning, especially in the theater, could also produce new worlds, construct new modes of individual existence, and forge new kinds of communities.

Second, Jelavich's own reconstruction of the culture of theatrical modernism and its various cultural contexts tends to treat these patterns of meaning as heterogeneous and compound worlds. The languages of theatrical modernism expropriate and transform signifying elements from subterranean, oppositional traditions in official academic neoclassical culture, dominant Catholic religious culture, traditional folk culture, and commercialized mass culture. The modernist culture that emerges as these elements are put into experimental relationships creating new patterns of meaning and a new self-consciousness about the ways in which meaning-construction occurs is in turn situated by the historian in relationships with other compound and heterogeneous cultural worlds that together compose what we might call the cultural universe of fin de siecle Munich.

But Jelavich is not content to summarize or paraphrase the process of meaning-construction in a number of texts situated within, and interacting with, multiple cultural contexts, nor would he, I think, be willing to define his own history as simply another moment in the "game" of deconstructing and constructing meanings. He wants to know why a particular modernist version of the game began at a certain time, why its rules changed when they did, why certain players played it. Answers for these questions entail some concept of the relationship between experience and meaning. Jelavich attempts to address this problem at a

17 Jelavich, Munich mid Threatrica! Modernism, 10.


number of levels, in terms of the external impact of political events and social changes and in terms of the internal pressures of social interests, political ambitions, and psychological needs, but the conceptualization and practice of this dimension of his contextual analysis is eclectic, somewhat vague, and occasionally reductive. What is missing is a clear sense of the complexity of mediated connections between experience and meaning that would parallel the new sophistication of the analysis of meaning-construction and recognize the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere. In the case of the modernist avant-garde, it would seem especially important to reconstruct the experiential context of its players in the Bohemian worlds of disinherited intellectuals and the commercial cultural relations that transformed their created meanings into marketable commodities. What kind of experience did aesthetic modernism make meaningful? This is obviously the critical question for historians. Jelavich knows this but is unable to formulate it in a clear fashion and thus address it effectively.

Agnew's Worlds Apart provides an interesting complement and parallel to Jelavich's study. Ranging over two centuries of the history of meaning in the Anglo-American world with significant forays beyond these temporal and linguistic boundaries, all within the confines of 200 pages, Agnew's investigation lacks the monographic specificity and empirical density of Jelavich's book. Although he is intellectually subtle and often imaginatively original in his reinterpretations of familiar phenomena, Agnew can also be irritatingly allusive and has a tendency to engage in theorizing digressions. His general theme concerns the relationship between the human experience of the economic realities of market exchange and commodity production on the one hand and the symbolic artificial world of theatrical forms and performances on the other. Agnew claims that, in pre-modern cultures like medieval England, the market and the theater were segregated as "worlds apart," through elaborate rules and rituals, from the stable identities and meanings of ordinary social life. Both were places in which liminal experiences of fluid exchange, threshold crossing, and transition were confined and controlled. During the sixteenth century, however, the market gradually ceased to be a place and became a "placeless process" pervading general social relations in the culture that had previously confined it. This new pattern of social experience had its critical and threatening aspects: the dissolution of traditional notions of self-identity in the experience of a protean, estateless, masterless self always on the threshold of becoming something or someone else in the process of exchange, the breakdown of transparent reciprocity between social actors through the calculated misrepresentation of private intentions in the constantly renegotiated relations of social life, and the leveling of traditionally constituted social and cultural hierarchies through the commutation of all specific obligations and values into the liquid equivalencies of commodity exchange.

Agnew contends that English Renaissance theater, in its forms as much as or more than in the specific messages of its contents, modeled, "materialized," and explored the ambivalences of these new market relationships, giving new meaning to the ancient figure of theatrum mundi: "Separated like the market from its original ritual and hierarchical aegis, the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater furnished a


laboratory of representational possibilities for a society perplexed by the cultural consequences of its own liquidity."18 The complex analyses and interpretations with which Agnew pursues this theme through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries cannot easily be summarized, but the guiding thread of his argument is that the cultural history of the theater is marked by persistent attempts to repress, deny, domesticate, and control the protean implications of market relations as represented on the stage. His analysis culminates in an interpretation of eighteenth-century social philosophy as a form of this domestication, in which elements of the theatrical metaphor were absorbed into social analysis for the purposes of segregating the market as an objective, economic process from the sphere of moral and aesthetic values, thus controlling the threatening experiences of a generalized market "culture."

In many ways, Agnew's study can be read as an exciting example of the practice of the new, serniologically oriented history of meanings. Throughout his argument, Agnew generally follows a deconstructive model of reading texts as complex constructions of signs attempting to impose a fixed structure of meaning on the fluidity of market experiences, constantly undermined in their attempts by the subversive power of market culture itself. He also eschews the conventional distinctions between sociocultural and intellectual history and applies the same interpretive methods to documents of popular culture as to the sophisticated artifacts of high culture. Agnew is clearly more subtle and convincing than Jelavich in his efforts to interpret the symbolic world of cultural artifacts as struggles to make experience meaningful, but he is less aware than Jelavich of the heterogeneity and peculiarly compound nature of particular meaning-constructions. Agnew reads all of his texts, whether sermons, political treatises, or dramas, as addressed to the same experiential dilemmas, with little concern for the varieties of inherited patterns of meanings or the varieties of experience that constitute the contexts of these texts. Agnew simply assumes that the primary reality underlying social experience in modern society is the progressive transformation of social relations through commodity production and exchange, producing a pervasive, problematic relationship between fluid and stable models of meaning-construction.19 In the parlance of the new intellectual history, one could say that Agnew is not attentive enough to the specificity and plurality of historical "discourses," the heterogeneity of the questions these discourses address, and the variety of the worlds of meaningful experience that are produced, reproduced, and transformed within them.

Aside from the reformulation of the text-context problem, the most obvious consequence of the linguistic turn in intellectual history has been a focus on "discourse" as an organizing term for conceptualizing and practicing the history of meaning. In a concluding comment on the essays in Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives, edited by LaCapra and Steven Kaplan,

18 Agnew, Worlds Apart, 54.

19 This position appears to be based on a rather simplistic, "documentary" (in LaCapra's sense)
reading of Marx; compare Agnew, Worlds Apart, 52.



Hayden White notes that "discourse" has become one of the most commonly used terms in the lexicon of the new generation of intellectual historians.20 However, the essays on which this comment is based reveal at least two significantly different concepts of what a discourse is and what its acceptance as an organizing principle might imply. Mark Poster, presenting atid advocating a Foucauldian perspective, insists that redefining the object of intellectual history as discourse(s) implies a radical, revolutionary break with the rationalist, subjectivist, evolutionary assumptions of the Western cultural tradition and thus also with the practices of the conventional intellectual history that have served as its preserver and mouthpiece. Discourses are identified as archaeologically recoverable, objectively describable "systems of statements" related according to rules and procedures that rigorously determine what can be said and how it can be said. They are static structures in the sense that changes can only occur as internal transformations within the rules that define them, and as discontinuous and incommensurable in the sense that they constitute self-defining worlds whose relationship to other worlds can only be construed in terms of exclusion, resistance, or domination. Individual performances or actions within a discourse are thus always instances or manifestations of its ordering regularities. At the same time, discourses are perceived as intimately tied to institutions and social practices, as forming structures of domination or systems of power. Discourses might thus be described as impersonal, anonymous, "objective" systems of rules that, in a very practical and active sense, construct the world of objects and subjects, the world of "experience."

Foucault's concept of discourse evolved in the study of disciplinary languages closely connected to the social practices of medicine, psychiatry, criminology, and sexology, and it has been most influential in stimulating historical scholarship in these areas. Poster advocates that Foucault's discourses should become the proper object of intellectual history in a broader sense, organizing the study of all patterns of meaning-construction. Such advocacy seems caught in insurmountable contradictions. Poster admits that, in the process of translating Foucault's position into terms that would allow it to function as an interlocutor in current debates among intellectual historians, he "examined the discipline of archeology not as a discourse, but as a set of ideas, as the project of an author, as the work of a subject."21 To engage seriously in a discourse with Foucault therefore seems to assume a concept of discourse that undermines Poster's own, that recognizes the novelty and autonomy of individual discursive performances and the possibility of discursive transformation through intersubjective communication

Although Keith Baker's contribution to the volume edited by Kaplan and LaCapra pays lip service to the theories of Foucault, the concept of discourse Baker develops for the investigation of competing ethical and political ideologies articulated in the general space of "public" culture diverges sharply from Foucault's model. Although Baker does see discourses as separately constituted

211 Hayden White, "Method and Ideology in Intellectual History: The Case of Henry Adams," in LaCapra and Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History, 280.

21 Mark Poster, "The Future According to Foucault: The Archaeology of Knowledge and Intellectual History," in LaCapra and Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History,. 152.


domains of meaning and social action in which the public world, its political hierarchies, legal structures, social categories, and relevant actors are constructed according to varying internal "logics" or sets of rules, organizing concepts, and metaphors, these discourses are not "insulated from another in any strict way." They are dynamic rather than static and undergo constant change and elaboration through the activity of the individual agents who perform within them. They are open to the impact of new experiences and are capable of responding to the actions occurring in other discourses.22 This concept of heterogeneous, compound, interacting, open discourses in a constant state of dynamic change both within themselves and in their relations to each other because of the transformative activities of individual agents who articulate them seems to owe much less to Foucault than to the theory of discourse developed over the past twenty-five years in the historiography of early modern Anglo-American political theory, especially by Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and J. G. A. Pocock, a theory that has recently been articulated in its most developed form in Pocock's Virtue, Commerce and History.

As Pocock's introductory essay, "The State of the Art," makes obvious, the theory of the history of political discourse has become increasingly complex and flexible as its practice has evolved and the number of its practitioners (now virtually a discursive community themselves) has expanded over the years. As the object of historical inquiry, discourse is differentiated into a relationship between three factors or dimensions. First, there is the "structural" dimension (developed in an extreme, one-sided fashion by Foucault) of relatively stable conventions, usages, idioms, rhetorics, or vocabularies that Pocock now refers to as "languages." (This designation is a bit confusing since "languages" do not overlap with the ordinary meaning of vernacular languages but are really sublanguages: conceptual and metaphorical frameworks that can be translated from one vernacular to another.) Languages embody the rules that define a communicative world, determining what counts as reality and limiting the possible ways in which realities can be connected. Many such languages may and usually do coexist (the "republican" language of civic virtue, the classical liberal jurisprudential language of rights and contracts, the utilitarian liberal language of interest and strategic adjustments) in the public space of political struggle and discussion at any particular historical moment, and any given text may participate in a number of languages and relate them to each other implicitly or explicitly in a variety of ways, occasionally developing "meta-languages" or secondary languages in order to do so. The first task of the historian of discourse is to identify and reconstruct such languages, to demonstrate their "paradigmatic" force or organizing power in various texts and to construct their implicit forms into an explicit "ideal type" or hypothetical model that can then become an instrument for identifying a particular language in other texts and contexts.

The second dimension in discourse is comprised of the specific linguistic performances or "speech-acts" that are not just events in language but actions on language, expropriating the inherited, already constituted framework in order to

22 Baker, "Ideological Origins," 200-03.


modify or transform it. Such acts are acts of communication demanding and eliciting responses or "countermoves," which are themselves creative expropriations and transformations of language. It is this process of constant interaction between speech and language, action and structure, that constitutes a "discourse." The conditions that make a discourse possible are a plurality of languages and the existence of speakers who have access to these languages and are thus able to engage in creative linguistic performances. Any single text may perform actions in many languages at once, relate different languages to each other in a single action, or even move toward the creation of new linguistic forms through the creative play of the inventory of meanings at its disposal.

Third, Pocock claims that the historicity of language in discourse cannot be understood without some concept of the relationship between language and "experience." The past, as the inherited inventory of constituted patterns of meaning, weighs on the present of the linguistic actor, precluding any direct causal determination of speech by experience or reflection of experience in speech. Yet the innovations and transformations that individual speech acts perform on inherited languages must ultimately be situated in a history of experience and related to it in a "diachronous, ambivalent and problematic" manner.23 In Pocock's historiographical practice, economic processes and political events play an important role but largely as experiences that demand response rather than determine what that response will be.

Knowledge of the experience to which discourse responds and which it transforms into meaningful experience is itself only accessible through the mediation of texts: experience is not simply given but already worked over and mediated by language and thus as much an object of interpretation as the texts in the history of discourse. Pocock's implicit but quite obvious polemical intention to recover the republican discourse of civic humanism thus also entails a revision of previous conceptions of the history of experience in the eighteenth century. The central significance Pocock attributes to the creation of the institutions and practices of public credit in the commercial revolution at the beginning of that century justifies and reinforces the continuing relevance and importance of the language of civic virtue. His attempts to displace the individualistic natural rights and utilitarian theories of Locke and Bentham to the periphery of political discourse is tied to his attempt to displace the kinds of experiences their theories made meaningful, the experiences of commodity exchange and production, to the periphery of the history of experience as well.

Experience also enters into Pocock's history of discourse at another, more general, level. He admits that the existence of discourse itself as a historical object presupposes a specific kind of experiential "base," that is, the existence of relatively autonomous agents, sharing and able to use a variety of linguistic resources available in the public domain, and thus capable of issuing ulterances and responses that are non-determined and mutually intelligible. Discourse implies the communicative context of an intersubjective community of free individuals. And

23 Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History, 29.


if the meaning-constructions of historians are to be seen as taking the form of linguistic performances in a discourse, as Pocock seems to assume they do, they presuppose an intersubjective community of scholars. Pocock's theories often seem like theoretical reflections of familiar practices because the world they assume is also the world in which many contemporary Anglo-American historians live or think they live.

The problem raised by Pocock's work in relation to the general pursuits of intellectual historians concerns the extent to which its assumptions and methods are applicable to different kinds of inquiry situated in different communicative contexts. David Hollinger addresses this question, at least implicitly, in a number of essays. Hollinger claims that the history of discourse is in fact not so much a program for intellectual historians to follow as a description of what many of them were practicing long before the linguistic turn brought a new rigor of conceptualization to their pursuits.24 But the diversity of these pursuits implies that "discourse" as an object of study might be extended beyond Pocock's somewhat restricted model of political discourse within a community of relatively equal and autonomous actors sharing a common inventory of languages. How broadly could one define the concept of a communicative context? Could one construct a discourse on the basis of the more general notion of common questions addressed by linguistic performers in different cultures and different times? Discourse appears to assume a community of discursive actors. How far could the boundaries of such a community be extended? Two recent cross-cultural studies of the history of specific discourses among modern European intellectuals may provide insight into the practical relevance of such questions.

It may be misleading to construe Allan Megill's Propheti of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida as an exemplar of intellectual history as the history of discourse. Megill rarely uses the term "discourse" to designate the object of his analysis and tends toward the more conventional terminology of "perspectives." He affirms his protagonists' rejection of the assumption of evolutionary, continuous history, or "historicism," and claims to be "committed" to "the structuralist and poststructuralist notion of discontinuity in history."25 His interpretations of the texts of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida are not conceived as reconstructions of utterances and responses, or moves and countermoves within a continuing argument or conversation, but as independent redescriptions of different perspectives that can be read and understood in isolation from one another. The "strange affinities" and "telling differences" that Megill discerns within these texts are not presented as differentiations of a common vocabulary or language. He does not engage in the reconstruction of the enabling and restrictive rules of a linguistic code for purposes of contextual interpretation. In fact, Megill generally slights and often consciously dismisses contextual analysis, his aim being not to explain certain perspectives as historical actions within specific

24 Hollinger-, In the American Prcnnnce, 131-34. 23 Megill, Prophets of Extremity, 205.


frameworks of both discourse and experience but simply to "display" these perspectives, "lay bare" their assumptions, "point out" their affinities with other "more familiar thought," account for their rhetorical force, and "to criticize in the conventional sense."20

Despite such disclaimers, Megill's study does conform to the model of a history of discourse in a number of ways. He admits that the temporal organization of his reconstructions conforms to a historicist model in which Nietzsche is seen as positing a perspective that, is adopted in more unequivocal fashion by Heidegger, critically developed by Foucault, and finally deconstructed by Derrida. In a number of passages, this development is even described as a four-stage "dialectic." As an identifiable developing perspective, moreover, the thought of the "prophets of extremity" emerges from a shared "problematic" and manifests common patterns that could be construed as constituting something like Pocock's "language." The problematic is the belief in the existence of a crisis in Western culture characterized by the collapse of meaningful experience, by the perception that natural and sociolnstorical existence is, or has become, "derelict" or meaningless, and the conviction that all attempts to claim otherwise are illusory, self-deceiving mystifications. The response to this crisis takes the form of the development of a "language" of "aestheticism," whose elements are expropriated from their original contexts in Romantic and Idealist thought and recombined in a theory of meaning which claims that art, discourse, language, and myth make and remake the world they claim to express or represent.

Megill does attempt to interpret the evolving extremism of the concept of crisis and its aestheticist corollary within a contextual framework. This framework is defined first of all as "crisis-oriented modernism and post-modernism."27 The four figures of the study are seen as selling the agenda as well as articulating the assumptions and working out the possibilities of a style of thinking or form of discourse Megill believes defines a whole epoch of Western history, from the late nineteenth century to the present. He claims that this style of thought is intimately connected to assumptions about meaning and meaningful experience that extend far beyond the confines of small groups of avant-garde intellectuals and artists. The language of the aestheticists has become "common coin," articulating a situation that faces a collective "us" and presenting this "us" with options for response. It is this cultural context of the individual prophets of extremity that gives historical point to their claims and motivates the need to engage their discourses. Thus Megill can interpret Derrida's deconstruction of the assumptions of crisis and the autonomy of language as opening "the possibility of a beginning: one that would liberate us from the historicism and aestheticism that, in one way or another, have dominated western thought since the beginning of the nineteenth century."28

2(1 Megill, Prophets of Extremity, 186. 27 Megill, Prophets of Extremity, xi. -!H Megill, Prophets of Extremity, 337.


Megill makes an effort to mediate between the apparently contradictory concepts ofhis aims and procedures by insisting that the discursive regularities and the contexts he posits are his own "fabrications," creative constructions rather than historical reconstructions.29 The point of these constructions is to demystify the claims of aestheticism so that we can perceive the prophets as speaking to and at us rather than for us. The fabrications of historical reconstruction are not to be perceived as purely arbitrary; they arise from a critical engagement with the texts themselves, they are acts of critical distancing through which the texts are allowed to speak as the voices of "others" to which we are asked to respond. The language of the prophets is an "edifying discourse" that constructs new possibilities of living in the world, temporarily lifting us out of the given world of the everyday, expanding our horizons. But these discourses remain places to visit, not places to live. Megill insists over and over again that the claim by aestheticists that the world is a construction of language simply cannot come to terms with our experience of the world as determined not only by meanings but by natural and social needs. There is an intransigent, given quality in experience, a "reality" encountered in the ordinary world that is obscured and ignored in the aesthetic theory of the autonomy and creative power of meaning. One would have to be a "madman" or a "fool" to take the claims of the prophets literally.30

This criticism of aestheticist discourse from the standpoint of experience in the "real" world points to the major problem in Megill's work. Although experience is a central category for defining his own critical standpoint vis-a-vis aestheticist discourse, experience does not enter into his historical analysis of that discourse. Even the notion of crisis is interpreted as a fabrication or construction justifying a certain mode of discourse; it is not related in any way to a history of experience to which discourse must respond. Megill makes no attempt to situate the history of the aestheticist perspective within the history of experience, even though he insists that the aestheticist perspective implies a denial of experience. Experience enters his account only from the outside, in a completely unhistoricized fashion. 1 he consequences of this inability to conceptvialize the role of experience within the history of meaning is evident in his interpretations of the texts of the aestheticists as well. The aestheticist perspective, he concedes, has been extracted from texts in which it is often in a problematic relation to other forms of discourse. He has chosen to ignore these other languages to "display" the structure of the aestheticist perspective. But it is precisely those other languages in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault that address the issue of the relationship between language and experience or language and "reality." Thus Megill has dismissed or erased experience from both his analysis of texts and his analysis of their contexts. The result is an ahistorical "history" of meaning set in radical opposition to a dehistoricized experience.

Unlike Prophets of Extremity, Martin Jay's Marxism, and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukdcs to Habermas was self-consciously conceived as a history of a

29 Megill, Prophets of Extremity, 277.

30 Megill, Prophets of Extremity, 102, 343.


discourse, the "Western Marxist discourse of totality," even though it does not consciously follow the models of either Foucault or Pocock. Jay's use of discourse as an organizing concept is complex and multilayered, as he is concerned with the ways in which one discourse (totality) functioned within another (Marxism), but is sometimes confusing, since the boundaries of both discourses are exceptionally vague and porous. The discourse of totality can be traced back as far as classical Greece and is virtually synonymous with discussion of the metaphysical or theological foundations of Western culture, but Jay does not attempt to reconstruct it in a systematic or continuous fashion. Instead, he focuses on a number of textual events within the discourse of totality that Western Marxists had already selected as relevant to their own project or that had exerted an obvious impact on their intellectual formations. His aim is to show that, by the time of the emergence of Western Marxism after World War I, the concept of totality was already imbedded in a complex, inwardly differentiated discourse, providing various possibilities for creative appropriation. What we might call the "compound heterogeneity" of the discourse of totality is described in terms of three pairs of contrasting concepts: "latitudinal/longitudinal" (more commonly designated in the current literature as synchronic/diachronic but most simply stated as spatial/temporal), "descriptive/normative," and "expressive/decentered" (replacing the more traditional subjective/objective).

The central role that the discourse of totality plays within Western Marxism distinguishes it from previous and competing Marxisms, Jay contends, and the recognition of this centrality allows the intellectual territory of W'estern Marxism to be charted in new ways. First, it permits Jay to connect some of the familiar characteristics of individual thinkers conventionally classified as Western Marxists: their sociocultural status as marginal intellectuals educated in elitist academic traditions, isolated from a mass audience yet committed to revolutionary change, their interest in methodological and philosophical issues and in the cultural dimension of historical analysis, their hermetic style of writing, their openness to non-Marxist intellectual traditions concerned with the issue of totality, and thus their tendency to proliferate adjectival or hyphenated Marxisms- Second, Jay's method allows him to include within the intellectual terrain of Western Marxism individuals previously excluded because of their hostility to one particular form of totality (subjectivist or neo-Hegelian) or because of their negative assessment of the possibility or desirability of any form of historical totalization. If the tradition is conceived of as a discourse emerging from a shared focus on a problem rather than as a grouping of texts with similar solutions, "positivist" Marxists like Louis Althusser or Giovanni della Volpe or negative Marxists like Theodor Adorno can also be included in a meaningful way. Finally, Jay's focus on the discourse of totality as an organizing framework makes possible a reconstruction of the history of Western Marxism as a meaningful temporal narrative.

Jay's narrative begins with the paradigmatic articulation of a Marxism recon-ceived around the discourse of totality in Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs's position is conceived as paradigmatic not only because it presented a compelling synthesis of Marxist and totalist discourse that later


thinkers could assimilate but because this synthesis contained critical unresolved problems—concerning the status of humanity's relationship to nature within the sociohistorical process and the identity or even existence of a collective human subject through which totality in a normative sense was to be historically constituted—from which significant discourse could proceed. It "launched a pioblematic."31 The narrative unfolds as a history of argumentation in which the originating paradigm is critically assimilated, reproduced, questioned, revised, elaborated, and increasingly "deconstructed" to the point where discourse of totality itself is placed in question. The story concludes, however, not with the collapse of the project of Western Marxism but with Jay's sympathetic portrayal of Habermas's "Promethean effort to reconstruct Marxist holism on boldly new grounds"32 and a discussion of how this effort might be sustained in the face of the poststructuralist challenge to all forms of discourse of totality.

Jay's story, like Megill's, is clearly structured by its conclusion. Habermas and Derrida serve as guides to the histories that lead up to them, but Habermas's guidance is rather different than Derrida's. First, Jay is much more sensitive than Megill to the complex, conflicting relations between different "languages" or paradigms in any particular textual performance and to the ways in which the history of discourse proceeds not as a series of edifying fictions creating their own realities but as an intersubjective dialogue in which a common, shared reality is tentatively created through agreement and consensus. Second, unlike Megill, Jay places the relationship between the history of experience and history of meaning near the center of the historian's concerns. This focus is evident from his attentiveness to texts that address this issue as well as in the construction of his own text. In some ways, Jay's work is also characterized by a turn away from the social history of ideas, or at least by hesitancy concerning the possibility of carrying out its program. Jay, like Megill, rejects the claim that discourse could be reduced to ideology, to the representation of social, political, and individual experience, or to the direct expression of needs, desires, or subjective intentions. Linguistic paradigms and discursive "problematics" are seen as possessing a reality and a history of their own, as informing or shaping experience as much as being informed or shaped by it. Yet Jay does insist that understanding change in the history of meaning requires a contextual analysis that is more than intertextual, that connects meanings to experience, that does not lose sight of the fact that "living individuals" and not only texts are participants in the history of discourse. Such contextual analysis is present throughout Marxism and Totality, but it is not its central focus and is somewhat scattershot in character. The failure or reluctance to address the relationship between experience and meaning more systematically is especially striking in a work sympathetic (or at least not hostile) to the various Marxist and Freudian-Marxist positions of its historical protagonists. Marx and Freud (standing in here for more general sociohistorical and psychological interpretations of meaning) seem increasingly to have become not so much guides

31 Jay, Marxism and Totality, 127. yi Jay, Marxism mid Totality, 461.

for investigating how life becomes text (as they were for an older generation of intellectual historians) but complex texts l.o be deciphered with the help of linguistic and philosophical guides.

Within the extended, loosely organized family of hisforiographical subdisciplines, intellectual history has gained occasional, grudging respect and, more frequently, notoriety for the intensity and promiscuity of its interdisciplinary liaisons. This is especially true for those intellectual historians who pursue what H. Stuart Hughes described almost thirty years ago as the via regia of intellectual history—reconstructions of the meanings and interrelations of "great" texts, which, apart from the particular case of the history of historiography, tend to be situated in the interpretive traditions, disciplinary vocabularies, and libraries of other academic departments.33 When intellectual historians become particularly promiscuous in their interdisciplinary relations, they may be open to charges of unprofessional dilettantism; when they forge particularly intense relations in one direction, they may be accused of professional disloyalty, of not doing "real" history. Sensitive to new developments in the disciplines from which they borrow their objects of research, intellectual historians may often function as advocates of theoretical perspectives that appear alien to their disciplinary colleagues. Because of their uncertain professional and institutional status and their concern with theoretical texts, intellectual historians often tend to be more self-reflective and interested in theoretical discussion of the nature and methods of their inquiry than most other historians; they function as "cuckoos in the historical nest," in Leonard Krieger's apt phrase.34

Such familiar manifestations of the dilemmas and opportunities of the intellectual historian's professional situation as a scholar without a clearly defined Fach are evident in the works under review. Bui the familiar has taken on some unfamiliar forms in the context of the expansion of interest in the historical constitution of meaning within the humanities and social sciences. The trend has been away from psychological and sociological theories that provided models for relating experience to meaning in terms of representation, cause, or expression and toward theories that recognize language in all its density and opacity as the place where meaning is constituted and that have found their more general theoretical articulation in linguistics, philosophy, and literary criticism. But it is not only the direction of intellectual history's interdisciplinary liaisons that has changed. These relations also appear to have taken on a new form that, is less parasitical and more reciprocal The critical question is not whether theories, models, or methods developed in one discipline can be effectively applied in another but whether a general shift in perspective has occurred regarding the production, reproduction, and transmission of cultural meanings that impinges on all of the disciplines in the human studies and provides the basis for a genuine

;" H. Stuart Hughes, CoiiM-iowuiev and Society: The Reorientntum of European Social Thought,, 1890—1930 (New York, 1958), 10.

34 Leonard Krieger, "The Autonomy of Intellectual I liaxmy," Journal of the History, of Ideas, 34(1973): 499.


interdisciplinary dialogue in which intellectual history will have a distinctive voice. The shift in the form of intellectual history's interdisciplinary relations is evident in three areas: in the kinds of interdisciplinary "borrowing" exemplified in the writings of LaCapra and Megill, Poster and Jay, in the type of "grand" theory most influential in the human studies, and in the internal transformations of neighboring disciplines such as philosophy and literary criticism.

For almost a decade, Dominick LaCapra has been urging intellectual historians to pay closer attention to developments in literary criticism and philosophy in order to "acquire the conceptual means to come to terms with problems in their own field."35 More specifically, he has persistently claimed that intellectual historians could profit from the study of Derrida in order to learn the art of close and critical textual reading. From the Derridean perspective, historical texts appear as scenes of struggle between opposing tendencies and ultimately as acts of linguistic domination in which one tendency is hierarchically privileged as the source of unity and order. LaCapra believes that this perspective has significant implications for the practice of intellectual history. First, it reanimates the classic texts as vibrant inner contests or dialogues that are only artificially or politically resolved. Second, it places the intellectual historian in the position of a cultural critic whose interpretive readings involve an immanent critique of such artificial and political resolutions as acts of domination or self-deception. Third, the practice of deconstructive reading involves the reader in a dialogic relationship with the text. As an uncompleted contest, the text becomes a goad to thought, resisting the historian's own attempts at "closure," either through full appropriation or simple projection. Texts become present as active "others," not as objects or mirrors. Fourth, in the dialogue with the historical text, the interpreter becomes aware of interpretive activity as a creative, transformative appropriation as well as an act of reception and recovery. Intellectual history becomes an education in cultural self-awareness. Finally, LaCapra insists, as we have seen, a critical, deconstructive reading of historical texts reopens and "problematizes" the relationship of text and context.

The perspective on textual reading that LaCapra derives from Derrida is not simply a transplantation of certain methods and models from one discipline to another. He finds in Derrida a general attitude toward the production and reproduction of cultural meanings, a liberating, critical stance that demystifies and contests the "conventional" privileging of "unity and its analogues: order, purity, closure, undivided origin, coherent structure, [and] determinate meaning."36 In this sense, LaCapra's position parallels that of Megill, for whom Derrida functions as the liberator from the literal claims of aestheticism. In both cases, the intellectual historian's professional role is merged into the interdisciplinary vocation of cultural criticism, whose aim is to prevent cultural closure and keep the process of dialogue and criticism open. But LaCapra perceives the intellectual historian's vocation of historical scholar to be a crucial element in the more general vocation

3;> LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, ] 5. 36 LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, 68.


as cultural critic. Although philosophers and literary critics may pay lip service to the need for contextual historical analysis, they are untrained and often inept in its practice. Derrida may have correctly "problematized" the relationship between text and context, but. he has not provided guidelines for the way contexts (other than the general context of the Western metaphysical tradition) can be read so as to illuminate their significance in the production of "work-like" texts. Intellectual historians can provide historical specificity to the ways in which discursive codes and social practices enter into the play of meaning-construction. Because all meaning is "context-bound" and because this includes the meanings that critics produce in their deconstructive readings, LaCapra clearly envisions the intellectual historian's role qua historian f.o be more than ancillary in the interdisciplinary temple of cultural criticism.'7

Although Jay and Poster acknowledge the general validity and historical importance of the deconstructive critique of previous attempts to construct a unified determinate meaning for experience, the inspiration each derives from Habernias and Foucault is tied more closely to the need to create some new form of cultural consensus and historical coherence in the wake of the critical carnage. Jay finds in Habermas at least the possibility of rebuilding hope for an intersubjectively generated, rational consensus through historical analysis of its experiential conditions. Although Jay does not apply Habermas's theories as models for his own historical analysis, he does view them as opening up a perspective on our present condition that could revitalize the historian's traditional interest in forging a bridge between memory and hope. Poster, whose Foucault, Marxism and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information significantly moderates his earlier extreme advocacy of Foucault's positions, appears to be moving toward a similar stance. Foucault's theory of discourse is described as complementary to Marxism in that it provides a comprehension of new forms of social experience within advanced industrial societies in which "knowledge is increasingly implicated in modes of domination,"38 and thus also as an aid for mastering the future. Both Jay and Poster see the historian as an empirical researcher sensitive to the complex dialectic between meaning and experience who plays an important role in modifying and moderating the claims of contemporary theoreticians. Thus Poster claims that historical investigations of the discursive and experiential contexts of Foucault's disciplinary discourses have revealed the need to revise Foucault's claim that discourse constructs the objects and subjects it purports to represent.

A collection of introductory essays on nine influential contemporary thinkers, edited by Quentin Skinner under the pretentious and somewhat inappropriate title of The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, provides an interesting perspective on the kinds of interdisciplinary relations evident in the works of LaCapra, Megill, Jay, and Poster. The volume includes useful and occasionally

37 LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, 17, 69, 344-^6; LaCapra, History and Criticism, 10, 42-43, 106-07. s8 Poster, FuucaulJ, Marxism and History, 91.


thought-provoking appraisals of the theories of Derrida, Foucault, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Habermas, John Rawls, Thomas Kuhn, Louis Althusser, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Fernand Braudel. It would be difficult to fault the inclusion of any of these figures among an elite group of influential theorists in the humanities and social sciences over the past twenty-five years, but problems clearly arise in the attempt to bring them together as participants in the common project of restoring "grand theory" in cultural studies. Skinner's attempt to accomplish this task in his introductory essay is exceptionally muddled and vague. Confusions arise primarily in two areas. First, Skinner defines grand theory in an irritatingly fuzzy manner that seems to include two distinct types of theories: ambitious, systematic, totalizing theories of human nature and culture on the one hand and theories that merge descriptive and normative claims and thus dissolve the conventional distinction between fact and value on the other. The first definition seems singularly inappropriate for many of the thinkers treated, especially for the critics of all totalizing theoretical claims such as Foucault, Derrida, Gadamer, Kuhn, and even Habermas. The second definition comes closer to designating a common element of the individual theories but, at least in its iconoclastic forms, does not seem particularly "grand." The second area of confusion stems from Skinner's developmental vision of grand theory's "return." He posits an original positivist and empiricist standpoint, grounded on a strict analytical separation of descriptive, empirically falsifiable, and thus "objective" theory from subjective, ethical, and metaphysical value judgments, dominant among Anglo-American social scientists during the 1950s and undermined after 1960 "by successive waves of hermeneuticists, structuralists, post-structuralists, post-empiricists, deconstruc-tionists and other invading hordes."39 Obscured in this metaphor is the fact that the original context of the invading theories was different from the context of the invaded theorists. It is difficult to see why Gadamer or Derrida should somehow be seen as engaged in a grander form of theorizing than should Heidegger or Sartre. More puzzling still is Skinner's suggestion that the invasion of the Continental critics of the positivist-empiricist consensus cleared the ground for new forms of systematic, totalizing theory in Althusser, Levi-Strauss, and Braudel. This evolution is a "return" in an all-too-literal chronological sense.

Despite such confusions, The Return of Grand Theory does provide suggestive guidelines for grasping the overall cultural point of much contemporary theorizing, especially in the work of Derrida, Gadamer, Foucault, and Habermas, and especially as it relates to the theory and practice of intellectual history. At the most obvious level. Skinner's Continental invaders and their Anglo-American sympathizers have constructed a sweeping and apparently devastating critique of the traditional foundations of knowledge claims in both the natural and the human sciences. If we take them seriously, we must recognize that we have no access, even potentially, to an unmediated world of objective things and processes that might serve as the ground and limit of our claims to knowledge of nature or to any

i0 Quentin Skinner, "Introduction: The Return of Grand Theory," in his The Return of Grand Theory m the Human Sciences, 6.


transhistorical or transcendent subjectivity that might ground our interpretation of meaning. Knowledge and meaning are not discoveries but constructions. The world and the subject that confronts it are "always already" present to us as culturally constructed. This perspective (and one may certainly call it "grand" in its sweeping reformulation of the way we live our selves and our worlds) has a number of significant implications. It is radically historicist in the sense that all knowledge and meaning is perceived as time-bound and culture-bound, but it also undermines the traditional historians' quest for unity, continuity, and purpose by robbing them of any standpoint from which a relationship between past, present, and future could be objectively reconstructed. By conceiving of knowledge as a form of action, as creation, domination, or communicative engagement, moreover, this perspective implicates all forms of knowing in the social and political practices of a specific sociocultural formation. Finally, the new grand theory tends to dissolve the analytical distinctions between, and hierarchical ordering of, different modes of knowing and the disciplines connected to them.

Within the general situation articulated in grand theory, various responses are possible. One may, like Gadamer, focus on the ways in which shared cultural meanings embodied in different traditions can be revitalized (without falling into the metaphysics of subjective identification) through the existential encounter of different cultural worlds or horizons and the production of a dialogic relationship Gadamer describes as the fusion (never complete) of such horizons. One may, like Foucault, emphasize the hegemonic aspects of all collective, organized worlds of meaning and engage in a relentless, though seemingly Sisyphean, critique of domination. One may, like Habermas, combine a critique of hegemonic discourses and their sustaining practices with a Utopian projection of a possible sphere of free communicative interaction and democratic world construction. Or finally, one may, like Derrida, revel in what Nietzsche called the frohliche Whsenschaft of deconstructive criticism, unveiling the proliferation of meanings without end in the repetitive, constantly displaced struggle to impose univocal meaning or cultural closure. None of these responses can be theoretically or empirically grounded, of course, without falling into the illusions of a bankrupt metaphysics; they can only be justified in practice.

Although thinkers like Gadamer, Derrida, Foucault, and Habennas are not scholars in specific disciplines, they might be described in terms of a peculiar combination of intellectual historian and cultural critic. As scholars, they engage in the historical analysis of texts, discourses, and other forms of the production and reproduction of meaning. As intellectuals, their work is aimed at the practical transformation of the present and finds its justification in that effect. One could say that they provide a self-reflective description of the practice of intellectual history as a way of life rather than a specialized academic discipline. The ambivalence produced by recognition of the general cultural perspective implied in the intellectual historian's routine working assumptions is one of the persistent themes in the essays of David Hollinger, recently collected and published under


the title In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas. Hollinger's field is American intellectual history, and he largely ignores the Continental invaders that dominate Skinner's conception of grand theory, but he does address the issues raised by the Skinner volume, especially in his responses to the writings of Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty. He perceives Kuhn and Rorty as "historian's philosophers" who articulate and defend "in a circle beyond the historical profession a basic historicism with which most historians are generally quite content."40 But, while historians may be quite content to assume a radical historicist perspective on truth and value in their professional work, they may find themselves less content when the historicist rejection of a transcendental ground is asserted as a general philosophy and applied to their own activity as truth tellers and reconstructors of meaning, as well as to their everyday practice as cultural beings in need of cosmic supports for their ethical commitments.

In his essay on Kuhn, first published over a decade ago, Hollinger seemed to share Kuhn's assumption that "the invitation to forsake at last the fictional absolutes of natural theology" in favor of practically effective, consensually constructed standards and traditions, the "transition from transcendent objectivity to socially grounded objectivity," did not imply either for historiography or for life that "terror and caprice" would succeed rational and empirical grounding in the production and reproduction of knowledge and value. In fact, Kuhn's strong affirmation of the value and effectiveness of the scientific enterprise pursued under the aegis of consensually constructed communal standards seemed to provide a model not so much for undermining objective standards as for redescribing them in ways that could protect us from unwarranted skepticism. The historicization of natural science implied the principle that "community sanction" was "essential to knowledge" and thus pointed toward the need for disciplinary communities to set goals and standards in all fields of inquiry.41

In a discussion of Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Hollinger approaches the iissue of the communal validation of knowledge and value from a slightly different angle. He clearly sympathizes with Rorty's historicization of philosophy, with his critique of the "epistemological" project of ascertaining the conditions of objective knowledge, and with his proposal that philosophers should join the general interdisciplinary project of historical hermeneutics, interpreting various forms of knowledge as cultural constructions, describing the ways in which these various constructions might hang together, and thus gathering them into "the general conversation of mankind." "If Rorty's reform of his own discipline were to be actually carried out," Hollinger claims, "the voice of philosophy would begin to sound rather like the voice of intellectual history."42 But Hollinger also expresses two reservations about Rorty's radical hermeneutics. First, Hollinger is uneasy with the demotion of science to just another voice in the cultural conversation. Hollinger does not believe in the need to preserve some place where

10 Hollinger, In the American Province, 167.

41 Hollinger, In the American Province, 124, 128-29.

42 Hollinger, In the American Province, 169.


universal standards still apply, but he does believe that the kind of effective knowledge promoted by the disciplinary community of natural scientists should not be slighted. Although he would rather see intellectual history denned as part of an interdisciplinary "commons"—"an intellectual expanse occupied periodically by scholars operating out of many networks and possessed of a variety of skills"— than as a professional subdiscipline or "estate," the occupants of this commons could still form a community able to give shape to inquiry on the basis of certain shared commitments. He proposes three such commitments that he believes are already implicitly shared: first, the insistence that thinking is neither a transhistorical essence nor an epiphenomenon reducible to something else but a real historical activity with events and structures organized in discourses that are related in complex ways to other forms of social action; second, the claim that the historical activity of articulating arguments in discourses by those who are producers and reproducers of meaning by vocation or profession the intellec tuals—is historically significant; and third, the operating assumption that social action takes place within enabling and limiting linguistic structures that, at the level of public discourse, implicate all inhabitants of an organized political community
but are also connected in intimate ways to the discourses of intellectuals. Such commitments, he claims, are sufficient to frame the activity of a community of inquiry, delimiting problems, directing research, and establishing criteria of judgment. Only from a base in such a community of discourse and action can intellectual historians enter into the interdisciplinary and ultimately public
discourse of cultural criticism with a distinctive voice.43

Hollinger's concern for the relationship between the discourse of intellectuals and the public discourse that informs the collective activity of politically organized communities is the basis for his second reservation about Rorty's stance—its political implications. The notion of general cultural critique is not an adequate basis for public discourse. Because community, discourse, and effective social action are intimately related, the question raised by Hollinger is actually whether consensual communities able to engage in public discourse and direct action can exist or whether consensus on the validity of knowledge and substance of value is always imposed, hegemonic, or repressive. Hollinger certainly agrees with Rorty that it is no longer historically possible or desirable to establish consensus by appealing to some metaphysical foundation; consensus must arise from within the communicative interaction of discourse itself. Rorty, much like Derrida, suggests that the only consensus possible in a post-metaphysical culture is agreement that the contest of interpretations, the play of meanings, must not be dosed, that the conversation of humankind must be kept open. Hollinger, however, notes the critical importance of at least some element of substantial consensus if effective action, whether in scholarly research or in public policy, is to be possible. Both turn to the tradition of American Pragmatism to ground their perspectives. But Hollinger is more concerned than Rorty about the ways in which Pragmatist critical stances toward the epistemological project of grounding truth and value in a

43 Hollinger, In the American Province, 177—81.


transcendent sphere were tied to positive attempts to create a "culture of inquiry" modeled not on the metaphysics but on the social organization and effective practice of natural science, and in the ways in which a professionally confined discourse merged into a more general discourse among intellectuals and finally affected the form and content of public discourse.44

The issues at stake in the disagreements between Hollinger and Rorty should not be construed simply as differences in the professional perspectives of a historian and a philosopher. Philosophy in History, a volume of essays both exemplifying and advocating the "historicization" of philosophy, edited by Skinner, Rorty, and J. B. Schneewind, reveals the extent to which an expanding group of Anglo-American philosophers have become involved in similar debates. The striking thing about Philosophy in History is that, despite the inevitable differences in perspective one should expect in a wide-ranging book of sixteen articles by different hands, the need for a historicization of philosophy and thus for a more intimate relationship between philosophy and other social or cultural studies—and especially intellectual history—is assumed rather than debated. There is a consensus, at least among this select group of philosophers, that the discipline of philosophy as recently practiced in the Anglo-American context has been much too narrow in scope and outrageously pretentious and anachronistic in its claims. It has focused on obscure linguistic and logical issues tied to the epistemological project of articulating the conditions of certain knowledge, defined these issues as the eternal questions of philosophy, and reconstructed the history of philosophy as successive attempts to answer these questions. The historical perspective is put into operation to reveal the historically contingent nature of this definition of philosophy and philosophical problems, to open up the discipline to a range of new questions (relating to the interpretation of meaning, ethics, and politics) as well as to methods for approaching and writing about such questions. At issue is not simply the revision and enrichment of the history of philosophy through the expansion of its canon of relevant thinkers and questions, but the reformulation of the nature of philosophy as a cultural activity. The conventional analytic distinction between the validity and the historical genesis of truth claims is rejected. This does not mean, however, that all of the historicist revisionists are willing to go as far as Rorty in transforming philosophy into a mode of cultural critique. In fact, the majority of the contributors seem, like Hollinger, to assume that the collapse of belief in the metaphysical foundations of knowledge and value, and thus of the epistemological model for doing philosophy, need not imply the impossibility of reconstructing knowledge and value on historicist foundations.

The case for the moderate historicist position is presented most clearly in the lead article by Charles Taylor, which directly challenges Rorty's assumption that the collapse of the epistemological model of philosophy implies acceptance of the relativity and incommensurability of all constructions of meaning. Against such

44 Hollinger, In the American Province, 3-43. See also Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, Minn., 1982), especially xiii-xlvii.


"non-realism," Taylor argues that the meanings constructed fay philosophers must be judged in terms of their relationship to the historical reality of social practices. The epistemological model, he contends, was an abstract, universalizing, and thus self-justifying description of a form of social action implicitly embedded in a wide range of technological, ethical, and political practices. Criticism of this mode! originated in the encounter with the practices it justified and the growing recognition and self-assertion of alternative forms of social practice that the epistemological model could not assimilate or make intelligible. Philosophical activity as the historical criticism of cultural assumptions brings to articulation kinds of experience that have been repressed or ignored in the conventional culture, ft refutes the previous model by demonstrating its inability to provide experience with intelligibility. Skepticism and "undecidability" could only arise from a critique of a cultural framework claiming exclusivity if the critic were without communal ties, without a historically situated life in specific social practices. But criticism of the epistemological model is also a criticism of the possibility of such a historically disengaged, culturally "homeless" stance. The recognition that philosophy is "inherently historical" is also a "manifestation of a more general truth about human life and society." Taylor thus argues that it is possible to attain rational consensus or at least maintain a rational discourse about the relative validity of alternative patterns of cultural meaning. This possibility in turn is based on the intimate connection between meaning and experience, between discourse and communal practices.45

Taylor's critique of rorty brings us back to the major issues raised by the linguistic turn in intellectual history. There can be no question that this turn has enormously enriched our historical understanding of the complex ways in which meaning is constituted, transmitted, and transformed in the heterogeneous, compound, interrelated worlds of meaning we call culture. The tides of psychological and sociological reductionism seem to have been dammed and turned back. The history of meaning has successfully asserted the reality and autonomy of its object. At the same time, however, a new form of reductionism has become evident, the reduction of experience to the meanings that shape it. Along with this possibility, a new form of intellectual hubris has emerged, the hubris of wordmakers who claim to be makers of reality. Modern European intellectual historians seem especially sensitive to these trends and the pretensions and anxieties they encourage. If the books under review are any indication, current work among intellectual historians of the younger (post-1968) generation reveals a pressing need to rethink the relationship between experience and meaning with the same critical intensity and sophistication that has been devoted to exploring the ways in which meaning is constituted in language. Such reconsideration will also entail greater attentiveriess to the continuities that join the work of the younger generation, in both methods and problems, to the so-called conventional history

45 Charles Taylor, "Philosophy and Its History," in Rorty, Philosophy in History, 17-30. An essay by Alasdair Maclntyre in the same volume makes a similar argument.


of older generations. Renewed focus on the experiential component in the dynamic, mutually implicated polarities of meaningful experience is not simply a matter of reclaiming a balance lost in recent oscillations between opposing reductionisms. It is essential for our self-understanding, and thus also for fulfilling the historian's task of connecting memory with hope, that we recognize and examine the recent turn away from experience as a specific response to particular events and developments in the history of experience, a response, to be sure, burdened, limited, and shaped by the already constituted, inherited world of meanings in which, and from which, it was constructed.


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