A historian delves into “some of the most compelling episodes and abiding preoccupations in American intellectual history.”
The term “intellectual,” used to designate a professional thinker’s “relationship to a broader public” was not coined until the turn of the 20th century, and then as an import from France. In this brief but academically dense survey, Ratner-Rosenhagen (History/Univ. of Wisconsin; American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, 2012, etc.) considers American intellectual history in the form of a survey of the broad, influential ideas that have held sway over the public mind and related institutions since America’s inception, from the Puritans’ highly literate sense of “moral mission and exceptionalism” to today’s postmodern clash of identity politics. Of course, the early definitions of “American intellectual life” are problematic: The Native-Americans left very little record of how they “made sense of the arrival of Europeans,” and then bloody warfare with them “drove their ways of understanding to fade from historical memory.” Furthermore, early European arrivals “did not belong to ‘America’ but rather to their home countries and to their local companions in their tiny enclaves.” The author emphasizes that the early colonists’ embrace of religion (“moral sense”) gave their views a distinct form from those of the European Enlightenment. However, enlightened early Americans retained crucial “blind spots”—e.g., regarding the role of women and blacks. Ratner-Rosenhagen dashes through history, picking and choosing important protagonists and movements to illustrate particular striking currents. These include Thomas Paine’s ignition of revolutionary republicanism; Noah Webster’s use of his standardizing dictionary to shape a distinct American identity; Ralph Waldo Emerson and his transcendental movement’s ability to forge an individualistic “vision befitting the experience of the new nation”; John Brown’s abolitionism; and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The book assumes that readers possess a solid grounding in American history and epistemology.
A valuable civic exercise that invites “thinking about thinking.”