Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Forum: Ideas and the City: Introduction

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Forum: Ideas and the City: Introduction

Article excerpt

The first essay in this forum opens with an epigraph taken from Robert E. Park's landmark 1925 study and proposed method for urban sociology, The City.1 In this well-known passage, the co-founder of the ethnographic Chicago school of urban sociology defines "the city" not as the physical construction that its dwellers inhabit, but as the sum of their own customs, habits, and mental states. For Park - as for Georg Simmel, with whom he studied - ideas and the city were deeply involved with one another. It makes sense that in the passage from theoretical urban sociology to intellectual history this axiom would take on the dimensions that historians regard as our métier: specificity of place and change over time.

What is the relationship of ideas to the city, and how do these papers help us rethink the "urban model" of intellectual history? Are we experiencing a resurgence of a model of European intellectual history focused on cities? If measured by periodic waves of book-length studies of ideas coming out of particular cities - not merely Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin, but Munich and Basel, Prague and Warsaw, Florence, Trieste, and Barcelona - then the amplitude of such studies has certainly swelled. But does this measure tell us that the "urban model" of intellectual history is rebounding, or under reconsideration? Is there in fact an "urban model" for cultural and intellectual history?

In the Germ an -speaking Central European context, the epicenter of fervent rumination on the connection between ideas and the cities from which they seem to emerge has a location and a moment: Vienna 1900. The question of whether specific urban environments - not individual courts, institutions, or intellectual circles, but particular urban cultures as a whole - can explain the emergence and shape of certain ideas harkens back to an old and unresolved quarrel. At the high-water-mark of North American cultural histories of German-speaking Europe, a debate emerged concerning the question of whether the concentration in one place and period of so many of the products of the mind that we associate with modernism in wide-ranging disciplines - architecture, literature, psychoanalysis, the philosophy of language, and so on - could be contingent on that time and place, or whether their convergence there might be casual. At least, in the words of Carl Schorske's powerful critic Peter Gay, fin-de-siècle Vienna as a culture-producing milieu of a particular kind was nothing more than "an invention of cultural historians in search of quick explanations."2 Certainly, as Gay remarked in specific reference to the case of Sigmund Freud, the international context of science and medicine informed the creation of psychoanalysis more than Vienna did. Much of this, it should be remembered, was less an attack on the contextualization of ideas within specific urban cultures than it was a defense of Sigmund Freud from either absurd misuse or else contemptuous dismissal by historians of his generation.3 Lurking behind Gay's criticisms of Schorske & co. was the suspicion or fear that if Freud/psychoanalysis was produced by "Vienna 1900," then it could not be of universal significance, or perhaps even be genuine knowledge. An idea that could be "explained" by a city was not an idea at all.

Gay's critique was not the genesis of this complex of anxiety and disavowal about cities and ideas, or even this particular city and set of ideas. Freud himself regarded contemporary permutations of what would become the Vienna 1900 thesis as "quite exceptionally stupid, so stupid, in fact, that I have sometimes been inclined to suppose that the reproach of being a citizen of Vienna is only a euphemistic substitute for another reproach which no one would care to put forward openly."4 The characterization of the uniquely "Viennese" context of psychoanalysis was suspect of being a code for its Jewishness, a reproach threatening foremost because it consigned the young science to the ghetto of minority culture. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.