American Intellectual History

  • 0/5 Stars
Course Level:
Course Length:

American Intellectual History

  • I. Syllabus
  • II. Schedule of Readings
  • III. Reading Questions
  • IV. Sample Midterm
  • V. Sample Final Exam

  • I. Syllabus
  • Course Description

This course concerns the history of intellectual life in the United States since 1830. For our purposes, the term intellectual will be broadly defined to include artists, essayists, journalists, philosophers, social critics, novelists and other figures who have contributed to the nation’s intellectual life since the middle of the nineteenth century. After briefly considering the American founding and a sampling of antebellum figures, the course will turn to the Victorian context of Postbellum America and the challenges posed by Darwinism to the realms of science, theology and social thought. As we journey into the twentieth century, we will consider the influence of modernism on American art, literature and morals through the Second World War. Finally, we will consider the shape of American thought from the Cold War to the present with a focus on (among other things) Postmodernism, Feminism, the meaning of Civil Rights, Anti-Communism, the New Left, Neo-Conservatism and Libertarianism.

Throughout the semester, two main themes will remain central to our engagement with the history of American thought:

-American intellectual history is comprised of a series of ongoing debates about the nature of truth, knowledge, being and the American experience.

-Though these debates encompass a wide array of thinkers and movements, American intellectual history comprises an ongoing narrative of a perpetual, though continuously contested, march towards secularization.

  • Course Objectives

In addition to providing students with a basic knowledge of the main events and trends in American Intellectual History, this course will give students an opportunity to think critically about issues that shaped the past and to consider how that past affects the present. The objective is not simply to memorize "material," but to think and talk about why things happened as they did and what they mean. It is therefore expected that students will attend class regularly. (It is difficult to interact with American history if one is not present when it is being discussed.) It is also expected that reading assignments will be completed on time. (It is difficult to interact with the past if one is not informed.)

  • Required Reading

Hollinger and Capper, Eds, The American Intellectual Tradition: Volume II, Fifth Edition (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Carl Richard, The Battle for the American Mind (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004)

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002)

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Bellamy, Looking Backward

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

  • Attendance and Requirements

You are expected to attend class regularly, to arrive on time and to complete the reading assignments in a timely manner.

The following scale reflects the weight of each element to be considered in your final assessment.

Midterm 20%

Final 20%

Journal/Short Papers 20%

Book Review/Presentation 20%

Class Participation 20%

  • Exams

There will be two exams: a midterm and a final. They will be a combination of in-class and take-home exercises. You will be given plenty of guidance as to what is expected of you on these exams.

  • Book Review/Presentation

In consultation with me, each student will select an important work, an important figure or an important theme in American intellectual history, compose a 10 page review/analysis and present the work to the class.

  • Journals/Short Papers

Each student will maintain a journal in this course which will include their observations and insights into the history of American thought. Weekly entries should contain evidence of your engagement with the readings and of your engagement with class discussions over the course of the semester. These entries will be collected weekly and should be between one and two pages typed and single-spaced. Each week, I will provide some questions for reflection to assist you with these papers.

  • Class Participation

You are expected to not only be here, but to be alive and engaged with the classroom discussion. The success of the class (and your grade) depends on your contribution. Please turn off all cellphones and pagers.

  • Grading Scale

A: 90-100 B+: 87-89 B: 80-86 C+: 77-79 C: 70-76 D: 60-69 F: Below 60

  • Grading Guidelines for Term Papers, Book Reviews and Essay Portion of Exams

A- An "A" paper is superior quality work. It stands out from the work of classmates. It is well written. All general conclusions have ample supporting evidence. "A" quality works demonstrates mastery of important themes and an understanding of how these themes relate to one another. It is well organized. It has impeccable sentence and paragraph structure. It is also free of factual errors and grammatical mistakes.

B- A "B" paper is above average. It shows a firm grasp of important themes and is well-organized around a clear thesis with sound sentence and paragraph structure. It demonstrates an advanced understanding of important themes. It is free of factual errors, but may contain one or two grammatical mistakes.

C- A "C" paper is average work. It shows that you grasp the main themes and have capably completed the assignment. However, it is lacking in one or more of the following areas: persuasiveness, organization, presentation, factuality and grammar.

D- A "D" paper is below average work. It shows that you have put forth minimal effort in completing the assignment. The work lacks a clear thesis with little evidence that you grasp the themes of the assignment. It may have several grammatical errors.

F- This is failure. The work demonstrates a lack of effort and/or an inability to follow directions

  • Honor System

I support the University Honor System and the honor code applies to all quizzes, papers, and exams in this course. Plagiarism (trying to pass off someone else’s ideas as your own) will not be tolerated.

  • Course Web Page…

Please acquaint yourself with the course web page. The site contains an expanded syllabus with a reading schedule.


Introduction: Studying American Intellectual History

Readings: Richard, The Battle For The American Mind, "Introduction" and "The Age of Theism," xiii-xviii, 3-72 (Online) McClay, "Do Ideas Matter in America"

“What then is the American, this new man?”

Readings: (Online) Crevecoeur, "What is an American"; Winthrop, "A Modell of Christian Charity"; Jefferson, "The Declaration of Independence"; “The United States Constitution, "Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address"


Humanism, Republicanism, Romanticism and Reform in the Antebellum Period Readings: Richard, The Battle for the American Mind, "The Age of Humanism," 73-236

Idealism, Conservatism and Realism: Emerson, Tocqueville, Thoreau, Calhoun and Hawthorne

Readings: (Online) Emerson, "The American Scholar"; Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience"; Tocqueville, "The Philosophical Method of the Americans" and "Of Individualism in Democratic Countries"; Hawthorne, "Earth’s Holocaust"; Calhoun, Excerpt from "Disquisition on Government"


The Victorian Context of Postbellum America

Readings: Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapters 1-Chapter the Last


Secularism, Skepticism and The Darwinian Challenge Part I

Readings: Richard, The Battle For The American Mind, "The Rise of Modern Skepticism," 237-278 Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part One: Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

Secularism, Skepticism and The Darwinian Challenge Part II

Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part One: Gray, "Review of Darwin's Origins of the Species"; Briggs, "Biblical Study",; Adams, "The Dynamo and the Virgin"; Santayana, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy"


Pragmatism Part I Readings: Menand, The Metaphysical Club, ix-xii, 151-200 Richard, The Battle For The American Mind, "Pragmatism," 279-310 Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part One: James, "The Will to Believe"

Pragmatism Part II

Readings: Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 347-375, 435-442 Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Two: Pierce, "The Fixation of Belief"; James, "What Pragmatism Means"


Race and Gender in the Gilded Age Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part One: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "The Solitude of Self" and "Selections From The Woman's Bible" Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Two: Jane Addams, "The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements"; W. E.B. Du Bois, "Selections From The Souls of Black Folk"

Economics and Society in the Gilded Age

Readings: Bellamy, Looking Backward Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part One: Gillman, "Women and Economics"; William Graham Sumner, "Sociology" Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Two: Thorstein Veblen, "Selections from Theory of the Leisure Class" (Online): Andrew Carnegie, "Wealth"


Modernism: Cosmopolitanism

Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Two: Woodrow Wilson, "The Ideals of America"; John Dewey, "Philosophy and Democracy"; Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Natural Law"; Mead, "Coming of Age in Samoa" Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 3-69, 235-253, 409-442.

Modernism: Provincialism

Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Two: Mencken, "Puritanism as a Literary Force"; Ransom, "Reconstructed but Unregenerate" (Online): Babbitt, "What is Humanism"; Twelve Southerners, "Introduction: A Statement of Principles"



Modernism and Morality

Reading: Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapters 1-9

Film: Arguing the World: Part One (TBA)



American Thought in the Interwar Years: Red Scare

Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Two: Sidney Hook, "Communism Without Dogmas"; Thurman Arnold, "Symbols of Government" Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Three: Bell, "The End of Ideology in the West"

American Thought in the Interwar Years: Response to Totalitarianism

Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Three: Niebuhr, "Children of Light and Children of Darkness"; Chambers, "Witness" (Online): Faulkner, "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech"; Weaver, "Up From Liberalism"


Science and Knowledge in Postwar America Readings: Richard, The Battle For The American Mind, "American Thought Since World War Two," 311-333 Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Four: Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"; Rorty, "Science as Solidarity"; Rostow, "The Stages of Economic Growth" Outside of Class: Watch Adam Curtis' "The Century of the Self", Parts One and Two (Available online through Google Video)

Social Protest in Postwar America

Reading: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Four: Chomsky, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals"; King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"; Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet" (Online)Hurston, "Letter to the Orlando Sentinel"; Mills, "Letter to the New Left"


Self and Society in Modern America Reading: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Three: James Myrdal, "An American Dilemma"; Arendt, "Ideology and Terror" (Online)Whyte, "Introduction" to The Organization Man; Carter, "Malaise Speech"; Solzhenitsyn, "Harvard Address/A World Split Apart" Outside of Class: Watch Adam Curtis' "The Century of the Self", Parts Three and Four (Available online through Google Video)

Feminism and Multiculturalism

Readings: The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Four: Friedan, "The Feminine Mystique"; Sontag, "Against Interpretation"; Said, "Orientalism" (Online): Fox Genovese, "Feminism and the Unraveling of the Social Bond"; Butler, "Women as the Subject of Feminism" from Gender Trouble (TBA) O'Connor, "A Memoir of Mary Ann" from Mystery and Manners


American Wayfarers: Walker Percy, Richard Rorty and American Thought Reading: Percy, The Moviegoer (Online) Percy, "Interview at the Jefferson Lecture"; Rorty, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids"

Film: Arguing the World: Part Two


Varieties of American Conservatism: Neoconservatism, Libertarianism and Traditionalism Readings: The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Three: Bell, "The End of Ideology in the West" ; Friedman, "Capitalism and Freedom" (Online): Kristol, "The Neoconservative Persuasion"; Kirk, "Why I am a Conservative"; Rothbard, "Are Libertarians "Anarchists"?"; Tonsor, "Why I Too Am Not A Neoconservative" (TBA)Sam Francis, "Beautiful Losers"



Major Currents in Post-Cold War American Thought and Culture

Readings: Hollinger, The American Intellectual Tradition, Part Four: Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations"

(Online): Ryn, "The Ideology of American Empire"; Neuhaus, "Our American Babylon"; Rieff, "Multiculturalism's Silent Partner"; Steele, "The Age of White Guilt and the Disappearance of the Black Individual"; Fish, "Save the World on You Own Time"; Johnson, "Blowback", Berry, "Faustian Economics"


Paper Presentations

Final Exam (TBA)

  • Week One: “What then is the American, this new man?”

1. Describe the general tone and temperament of John Winthrop’s address to the Puritans. What does he mean by the metaphorical "City on a hill"?

2. Is the "Declaration of Independence" best described as an advertisement, a political treatise or, perhaps, a little of both?

3. In what sense, can the "Declaration of Independence," "the Constitution" and the "Gettysburg Address" be viewed as building upon one another? In what sense, can they be said to have little or nothing to do with one another?

4. How do Crevecoeur's observations on American identity comport with our vision of the same in the twenty-first century?

  • Week Two: Idealism, Conservatism and Realism: Emerson, Tocqueville, Thoreau, Calhoun and Hawthorne

1. In what sense can Emerson's "The American Scholar" be described as a "Declaration of Intellectual Independence" for New England and the United States in general?

2. Describe the meaning of Hawthorne's "Earth's Holocaust" as it relates to the American character?

3. What does Tocqueville mean when he says that Americans tend to be "confined within the solitude of their own hearts?" Do you agree or disagree that Americans are naturally inclined towards "loneliness?"

4. After reading his essay "Civil Disobedience" would you describe Thoreau as a quintessential democrat or anarchist? Why?

5. Though composed around the same time as the other readings for this week, Calhoun's "Disquisition on Government" is, in a strict sense, a political treatise in a manner that the pieces by Thoreau and Emerson are not. How are we to account for this difference? What does it say about the differences between New England and the South in the antebellum period?

  • Week Three: The Victorian Context of Postbellum America

1. Twain once described The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a tale of what happens "when a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat." What does Twain mean by this?

2. Is Twain's book "racist" or "subversive of racism"?

3. In what sense is the Mississippi River both a character in the book as well as its setting?

4. In the conclusion to the novel, Huck proclaims that: "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before." While Huck seeks a literal escape from Aunt Sally, it could also be argued that he is plotting a spiritual or metaphysical escape as well. From what or whom could Huck, in a symbolic sense, be fleeing?

  • Week Four: Secularism, Skepticism and The Darwinian Challenge

1. Does Frederick Jackson Turner’s "Frontier Thesis" represent more of a "challenge to" American exceptionalism or an "extension of" the idea of American exceptionalism?

2. How do Briggs and Gray deal with the supposed Darwinian challenge to religious faith?

3. What is the general disposition of Henry Adams, the great grandson of John Adams, in the selection from his autobiography? What is the reader to make of the fact that Adams speaks of himself in the "third person"?

4. What does Santayana mean by the "genteel tradition"? How would you describe his outsider's perspective on "the mind" of late 19th and early 20th century America?

  • Week Five: Pragmatism

1. Using the selection by James or Peirce answer the following: Is Pragmatism an affirmation or a denial of human reality? Is Pragmatism closest to idealism, realism or nihilism?

2. What does Menand mean when he says that everything James and Dewey wrote about Pragmatism boils down to the single claim that "people are agents of their own destinies"?

3. Menand claims that Pragmatism was intended to make it harder for persons to be "driven to violence by their beliefs." What does he mean by this? Is this possible? If it is possible, is it desirable? Why or why not?

  • Week Six: Race, Gender, Economics and Society in the Gilded Age

1. In what sense can Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" be described as a secularization of the Puritan idea of "the elect"?

2. In Chapter 26 of Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy presents something he calls "Barton's Sermon" which includes "The Parable of the Rose Bush." Provide a brief sketch/outline of Barton’s message and place it within the larger context of American exceptionalism as it was understood in the late 19th century.

3. The Gilded Age was a period of social, moral, political and economic upheaval. The readings for this week provide a number of perspectives on this era. Of the eight writers that were assigned, which two or three would you characterize as "indispensable" to understanding this period in American history? Why?

  • Week Seven: Modernism: Cosmopolitanism and Provincialism

1. Woodrow Wilson stands as one of the most influential American Presidents especially in regard to his sense of "mission" in foreign affairs. In light of his essay "The Ideals of America," how are we to account for the perpetual appeal of his worldview to Americans both then and now? Generally speaking, does his appeal reflect positively or negatively on the American character?

2. From reading Menand and the selections by Holmes and Dewey, which has been more important to American intellectual history: Pragmatism's influence on American law or Pragmatism’s influence on American education?

3. What does Irving Babbitt mean by "Humanism"? What, in his opinion, are the main enemies of humane learning?

4. Is the "Statement of Principles" to I'll Take My Stand essentially "radical" or "reactionary"? Another way of putting this might be: Does the "Statement of Principles" owe more to Thomas Jefferson or John C. Calhoun?

  • Week Eight: Modernism and Morality

1. Most readers of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby agree that it is some sort of commentary on that elusive phrase "The American Dream." In the final analysis, does Fitzgerald approve or disapprove of something called "the American dream"?

2. Fitzgerald, late in life, observed that "the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." How does this pertain to the story of Gatsby? How does this pertain to the American character in general?

  • Week Nine: American Thought in the Interwar Years

1. What does Daniel Bell, who is among those featured in the documentary Arguing the World, mean by the "end of ideology"? Is the "end of ideology" an extension of American exceptionalism or is it corrosive of the idea of American exceptionalism?

2. David Hollinger describes Sidney Hook as the "most systematic and resourceful student of Marxist thought in the United States during the 1930s" Does the excerpt from "Symbols of Government" support Hollinger's contention? Is Marxism intrinsically compatible or incompatible with the American experiment?

3. During the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama disclosed his admiration for the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. This was among the most interesting things said by either candidate this year.

However, can Niebuhr's ideas, like those expressed in "Children of Light and Children of Darkness," play even a minor role in a presidential agenda or, for that matter, the life of the nation? (Note that Niebuhr also once wrote that "The nation is as much the servant of the devil as the servant of God....The nation is ethically ambiguous . . . it belongs to the Devil precisely because it claims to be God.")

4. Richard Weaver, like many of the New York intellectuals featured in Arguing the World, was initially taken with socialism. Also like them, he abandons it. From reading "Up From Liberalism," what does Weaver see as the problem with socialism? What, in his opinion, is the antidote? What role does his Southern identity play in his shifting intellectual allegiances?

  • Week Ten: Science, Knowledge and Social Protest in Postwar America

1. What are the implications of Thomas Kuhn's challenge to the "objectivity" of science and scientific discourse? Are those implications essentially radical or reactionary?

2. As he readily concedes, Richard Rorty's "antifoundationalist neo-pragmatism" owes a great deal to Thomas Kuhn. What, according to Rorty, are the implications of Kuhn's ideas for the humanities?

3. What, according to C. Wright Mills and Noam Chomsky, is the final responsibility of the intellectual in post-World War Two America?

4. What are the similarities/differences among MLK's, Malcolm X's and Zora Hurston's visions of America?

  • Week Eleven: Self and Society in Modern America

1. The overarching theme for this week is "Self and Society" in Modern America. Generally speaking, what is the "self"? How does the "self" differ from or pertain to notions of the "individual", the "person" or the "citizen"? Thinking back to Democracy in America, could the documentary The Century of the Self be described as a 20th century elaboration of Tocqueville's description of the inherent tension between individualism and commitment in American life?

2. Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Address and Carter's Malaise Speech are both from the late 1970s. One was a communist dissident and the other, at the time, was President of the United States. What are the differences and similarities between their "diagnosis" of what might best be described as the "Modern American Malaise"? Are there echoes of the present in their critiques? Are their speeches reminiscent of Tocqueville, Crevecoeur, Niebuhr or other intellectuals that we have studied to this point? How so?

3. What are the differences/similarities among the feminist perspectives of Betty Friedan, Judith Butler and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese? Does one of them come across as more "convincing" than the others as to the nature of differences/similarities between women and men?

4. What does Susan Sontag mean by an “erotics of art”? How does this pertain to Richard Rorty's ideas as expressed in "Science as Solidarity"?

  • Week Twelve: American Wayfarers: Walker Percy and Richard Rorty

1. In what sense could it be said that Richard Rorty and Walker Percy, through the medium of Binx Bolling, are in search of the same thing? How do their respective "searches" pertain to/deviate from the narrative of American intellectual history that has been studied to this point?

  • Week Thirteen: Varieties of American Conservatism

1. This week's readings deal with the "varieties" of American Conservatism. In some respects, the attempt to articulate a viable conservatism in the American context is a futile endeavor. At the same time, the intellectual labor expended in such an effort is, perhaps, unsurpassed in American intellectual history. With this contradiction in mind, what do the proponents of traditionalism (Kirk, Tonsor, Bradford), neo-conservatism (Bell, Kristol-"Arguing the World") and libertarianism (Friedman, Rothbard) share in common? What are the most obvious differences among the three? Do they ultimately have more in common than not?

  • Week Fourteen: Major Currents in Post-Cold War American Thought and Culture

From very different perspectives, all of the authors for this week are, in one way or another, dealing contemporaneously with issues pertaining to the ongoing debate over the notion of American exceptionalism.

Of the various readings for this week, does one stand out as more important than the others? Why?

As you read and reflect upon each essay, consider each author's intellectual influences. In other words, what other American writers, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, inform the views of Huntington, Ryn, Neuhaus, Steele, Rieff, Johnson and Berry?

  • IV. Sample Midterm Exam

1. Argue for one of the following statements on the impact of Darwin's theory of evolution on American thought and culture. Of course, arguing for one of these can also mean arguing against the other one. (5 pages)

a. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Darwin's theory of evolution was a destabilizing influence on American thought and presented an insurmountable challenge to Victorian morality and certitude.

b. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Darwin's theory of evolution, though presumably a destabilizing influence, was actually readily absorbed into a spirit of self-confidence in the inevitable progress of culture and morality.

2. To this point, we have surveyed a number of important works in American thought. In thinking about the writings that you have encountered to this point, answer the following: (5 pages)

If you were to characterize one the figures and/or one of the pieces of literature that you have read to this point as "indispensable" to understanding the American character which one would you choose and why?

  • V. Sample Final Exam

1. One of the persistent themes of the course has been the nature of the American character and the American penchant for loneliness in the midst of abundance.

Is this tendency, as Tocqueville suggests, inherent in the American founding or is it, as some of the modern figures in American thought suggest, more a product of "over-civilized" life in the twentieth century? (4-5 pages)

2. Of the 20th century figures you have encountered, which one or two provide the best means for understanding the modern American character? Why? (2-3 pages)

3. What is your view of the American experience from the perspective of intellectual history in 2008. Place yourself within a school or outside a school of American thought. Or, place yourself in several or none at all. (4-5 pages)