Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought

By Adolph Reed Jr.; Kenneth W. Warren et al. | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren

The academic practice of intellectual history is itself a historical phenomenon. Questions and topics take on interest for scholars because they connect with contemporary concerns and perspectives. Interpretation is enmeshed in evolving cultural and ideological dispositions, “ways of seeing” that generate discrete patterns of discourse, which in turn yield distinct questions and concerns, distinct focal points for investigating events, ideas, and relations in the past. Although thematic and focal shifts in intellectual-historical interpretation do not track ideological currents typically in intentional or self-conscious ways, scholarly discourse is at least as likely to follow broader ideological conventions and trends as to shape them. The questions that scholars ask, and where and how they seek answers to them, are refracted more or less obliquely through the wakes those currents leave as common sense—the baseline of premises and propositions whose validity is assumed without reflection, as selfevident. This is true not only of historical scholarship but also of intellectual life in general, and the intellectual history of black Americans as a field of study is not exceptional in this regard. Neither are this volume and its authors.

Renewing Black Intellectual History represents a discrete interpretive orientation, one that proceeds from the assumption that understanding ideas, formulations, stances, and debates in the past requires examining them first of all within the practical milieu—the contexts of discourse, debate, and action—within which they were embedded. From this perspective the individual chapters are case studies exemplifying how a historicist approach can illuminate significant features of black American thought in particular historical moments. They examine either the thinking of individuals or the mentalités of discourse communities in ways that emphasize their historical specificities—their sources and foundations within the matrices of material conditions and ideological forces that constituted their contexts of interpretation and action. Warren’s two chapters are illustrative. His chapter on Douglass shows that reading Life and Times in relation to contemporaneous liberal reformers’ concerns about democracy, popular politics, and the ambiguities of representation broadens

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