In 1982 the University of Chicago created graduate workshops to encourage intellectual exchange among students and faculty in the humanities, social sciences, and religion. Widely replicated at other universities, the workshops sponsor talks, provide a forum for our students to discuss their research, and are a place to meet like-minded scholars from other disciplines.

Existing workshops evolve and new workshops emerge to meet changing interests. The Department of History is pleased to announce two new workshops—Intellectual History and Historical Capitalisms—and a new reading group, the Environment, Energy, and the Anthropocene, which may become a workshop in the next academic year.

I had a chance recently to interview graduate students Oliver Cussen and David Gutherz about their motivations for forming the Intellectual History Workshop. Below is a summary of our conversation.
—Joanne M. Berens, MFA '93, web editor

What prompted you to launch a new workshop?

We both took a class with Professors Jan Goldstein and Jim Ketelaar, who are the workshop's faculty sponsors, on intellectual history a couple of years ago. The readings and discussions were consistently fascinating, in part because we were able to hear from students in a wide range of departments. Outside of that class, though, there wasn't a space to connect with people who, while studying topics that can seem far removed, were drawn to the same basic questions of methodology and craft that anyone doing intellectual history inevitably confronts. We thought it would be interesting to recreate that kind of space in a workshop. The idea of the workshop grew out of conversations with friends and colleagues in English, Anthropology, Political Science, History, and Social Thought who were working on projects that sounded a lot like intellectual history but who were answering questions that were quite different from those that professional historians tend to gravitate towards.

In the 1980s, when debates about method and historical theory were perhaps more hotly contested, Professors Keith Michael Baker and Harry Harootunian ran an intellectual history workshop, so there is a precedent at the University of Chicago! It's reassuring that the underlying curiosity is still there, and we're hoping to use some skepticism to sharpen our sense of where intellectual history should be going today.

S. F. Wise once said that writing intellectual history is like nailing jelly to a wall. How do intellectual historians make an asset out of this slipperiness?

A good work of intellectual history can expose the contingency in "common sense." It's not so much about nailing down the meaning of a particular idea (we leave that to philosophers) as showing the means by which certain images, ideas, practices, etc. come to seem perfectly "natural." We're often repurposing tools developed for one type of history (social or political) for ends that previous generations would have considered absurd (artists making jello sculptures or social theorists defending Internet privacy).

More recently, Peter Gordon said that intellectual history "functions as a kind of preserve for interdisciplinarity within an increasingly streamlined and regimented university system." If this is so, is Chicago a particular good place to study intellectual history?

We appreciate the sentiment but object to the imagery: it makes intellectual history sound like a nature preserve to ogle at the Last Surviving Humanists. One reason Chicago is such a good place to study intellectual history is that we have so many great interdisciplinary centers and workshops, as well as faculty with a fierce commitment to resisting the kind of regimentation Gordon decries.

If you had to write a history of intellectual history, where and when would it begin? Where is it now? Where do you see it heading?

It is important to distinguish between intellectual history as a discipline and fact-based accounts of value systems and the people, tools, and institutions who spread them. If we’re talking about the latter, some version of intellectual history is present in every society we know of, whether it’s the “heroic histories” of the Fijians that Marshall Sahlins has written about, the Talmud, Hadith, the Popol Vuh, or Plutarch’s Lives.

Since the Renaissance, European and colonial elites distanced themselves from "the people" and "popular culture." Something resembling professional intellectual historians began writing about predominantly white, male Europeans who were dedicated to "Art" or the "life of the mind." From here, it's a short step to disembodied histories of ideas that many people still associate with the discipline.

Over the past fifty years or so, intellectual history has undergone a crisis, because of the challenges presented to this paradigm. "History from below," cultural history, and postcolonial and poststructuralist social theory made it hard to avoid admitting that there are no disembodied ideas. This necessary crisis has given intellectual history a chance to re-start. There's great work being done right now in global intellectual history, tracing the connections and movements of ideas between cultures and nations; social, material, and intellectual histories are being integrated in exciting new ways; and finally, contemporary crises in politics, economics, and the environment are forcing all historians, intellectual historians included, to revise how we think about the past accordingly.

Tell me something about your own research.

Oliver Cussen: I'm finishing the research for my history dissertation about the ideas and practices of French commercial imperialism in the eighteenth century. By focusing on case studies of how the French managed various of colonial commodities, I'm trying to show how global commerce shaped some of the central debates in the Enlightenment about political economy, entrepreneurialism, slavery, and the "improvement" of the natural world.

David Gutherz: My research in the John U. Neff Committee on Social Thought focuses on European attempts to develop scientific approaches to "Other Peoples' Culture," whether anthropologists studying "primitive religion," folklorists gathering ballads, or English professors analyzing "mass culture." I'm about halfway through a dissertation on mid-twentieth-century Italy, a time when Fascists and anti-Fascists were fighting over the right to define and defend "popular culture."