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The End of An Era?

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
The Sea Change. The Migration of Social Thought, 1930—1965 By H. Stuart Hughes. Harper & Row. $10.00.

HISTORIANS of the ancient world are fortunate; because so much has been lost, their sources are finite and manageable. So there is a premium on their ingenuity in the elaboration of new conceptual approaches and on their ability to squeeze every possible drop of relevance from the evidence. Modern historians, on the other hand, find themselves drowning in the quantity of actual and possible evidence, and their problem is to devise ways of processing large quantities of data, or alternatively to specialize narrowly in a tiny fraction of the historical legacy. As one approaches strictly contemporary history, the “archive” becomes for all practical purposes inexhaustible and literally incomprehensible. Yet what is an historian to do, if he believes that historiography should—at least sometimes—attempt to delineate the great secular curves of historical change? A thousand monographs do not of themselves aggregate to a narrative which sorts out the eventful from the episodic, or the parabola of change from the datapoints scattered on the grid of historical interpretation like stars in the sky. Yet history in the grand style seems irresponsible to the extent that it neglects the thickened detail of past actuality which somewhere or other is accessible to inquiry.

The chief interest, and disappointment, in “The Sea Change” is the strategy it adopts to deal with the historian’s problem of selection and perspective. H. Stuart Hughes is a modern European intellectual historian, who set himself to be (among other things) the chronicler of European social thought in the twentieth century. In “Consciousness and Society” (1958), he marked out this field in a controversial but promising way. By “social thought” he did not mean the ideas popularly diffused in society at large; nor did he mean the ideologies associated with the organization of social and political movements. Rather he focused entirely on a small group of thinkers who in the generation from 1890 to 1980 critically examined the presuppositions about man and society inherited from the Enlightenment, and whose ideas were original, intellectually elevated, generally accessible to the educated public, and influential on governing élites. His study was not organized in terms of kinds of ideas, theories, or “schools,” but told a story of individual thinkers concretely situated in their own lives and times. Judging both the quality and the influence of social thought in this epoch, Hughes found the leadership in social thought in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, rather than in England, Russia, or America; and in the end, the three towering figures of this post-Darwinian epoch were Freud, Weber, and Croce.

Considering a sequel to “Consciousness and Society,” Hughes came to see that in the three decades after 1930 there were two important but quite separate continuations of European social thought, one in France and the other among the refugees from a Europe beset by fascism and war. “The Obstructed Path” (1966) is devoted exclusively to French thought of these decades. In this book Hughes has no difficulty finding something interesting to say about writers as diverse as Bloch, Maritain, Sartre, and Lévi-Strauss. But the interesting comments are as diverse as their subjects and the connection with “Consciousness and Society” is slight, because France was oblivious to Freud, Weber, and Croce—indeed, to most of the dynamic “reorientation of social thought” which Hughes had discerned in his earlier book. At first glance, “The Sea Change” (which the author promises is the third and last of his trilogy) seems to return to his main project of tracing the path of development of the most powerful ideas by which Western society’s consciousness of itself has been changed. It deals with the emigration of social thinkers to the United States beginning in the 1930’s, and purports to ask how European social thought continued and how it changed during its American sojourn. The experience of cultivated Old-World intelllectuals in the land of cowboys, Indians, and empirical social science is an intrinsically fascinating subject, and Hughes does not make it less interesting; but “The Sea Change” unfortunately reveals the extent to which his strategy as an intellectual historian has proved inappropriate to his subject. It has been not so much overtaken by events as undercut.

Most of the émigrés discussed in “The Sea Change” have died within the last decade, but almost every reader of the book will have had personal experiences with émigré intellectuals which can confirm how extraordinary their American experience was, how difficult it is to probe to the bottom, and how easy it is to believe that one has understood it when in fact one hasn’t. How is an historian to encompass that experience? On the one hand, there can be biography in depth, tracing in detail the actions and passions of an individual mind compelled either to modify or to resist changing its conceptual map of culture ; on the other hand, there could be studies of the entire relevant group : of their occupations, locations, associations, changes of field and interest. How many emigres were there, and where did they come from, and when? After the Second World War, who returned to Europe, and to what, and who stayed? Who became American “fathers” and who did not? One may prefer biography to sociology or vice versa; but “The Sea Change” falls between them (though it leans toward the former), and answers fully the questions posed by neither.

In the first chapter, Croce is briefly described as having through his influence discouraged psychology and sociology in Italy, and as having made “social thought” innocuous enough that it could survive under Fascism without supporting it. Thereafter, Croce and his influence disappear from Hughes’s history. The second chapter is about Wittgenstein in Vienna and in Cambridge; it is an intellectual portrait of Wittgenstein which can be recommended as a first introduction, but it quite cheerfully admits that Wittgenstein had nothing to do with either social thought or the emigration to America. The inclusion of this isolated set-piece remains puzzling until almost the last page of the book, when the author, faithful as ever to what he discerns as the quality of thought, judges that Wittgenstein alone of the émigré generation “went beyond” the work of Freud and Weber. But of course this is an admission that “The Sea Change” is otherwise about a generation of epigones. And in fact the central and relevant figures with whom the book deals are treated with a mixture of personal sympathy and intellectual disappointment. In “The Critique of Fascism,” the main figures are Gaetano Salvemini and Franz Neumann; in “The Critique of Mass Society,” Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse (the Frankfurt Institut in exile) ; and in “The Advent of Ego Psychology,” Heinz Hartmann and Erik Erikson. As in the other books of the trilogy, there is also a cast of supporting characters, who receive less biographical and critical attention and who seem introduced mainly as illustrations of social thought gone wrong: e. g. , Borgese as unable to go beyond conventional ideas in his opposition to Italian Fascism; Mannheim as theoretician turned propagandist with his move to England; Erich Fromm as psychoanalyst turned popular moralist; Hannah Arendt as deliberately blurring the differences between Fascism and Communism in the service of the Cold War.

But even the leading characters of “The Sea Change” fall short of their predecessors. As Hughes began his intellectual history, European social thought in the first third of the century seemed the most important and interesting of topics. On a broad and influential scale it had ventured into territory unknown to the Enlightenment heritage of rationalism, idealism, positivism, and utilitarianism, discovering for the first time the complex psychological and sociological bases of social behavior, attitudes, and institutions; and it was powered by such giants as Weber and Freud. But in the second third of the century, as Hughes sees it now that he has entered the last third with the rest of us, the initial promise faded, and was not in any significant way revivified or transmuted by transportation to America. (This is the risk that every contemporary historian takes: if one tries to tell the story before it is actually over, one may discover that the end reveals that the beginning was not what one thought.)

In the course of things, we learn a good deal about the author’s opinions. Marxism does not figure at all as a possible locus of creative thought in the twentieth century. The revisionist Marxism deriving from Marx’s “humanist” writings of the 1840’s is really a re-Hegelizing of Marx, and Hegel is everywhere and always a baleful influence on social thought. Phenomenology is never mentioned (and the omission of any reference to the New School for Social Research, the most famous of all refuges for émigré intellectuals, is surprising unless one remembers that Husserl was barely mentioned in “Consciousness and Society”). Nietzsche was the nineteenth-century precursor of the main line of twentieth-century social thought, but perhaps only Thomas Mann felt (rather than thought) the force of Nietzsche’s critique. Empirical social science as practiced in America is a salutary supplement to continental speculation, but many emigres, like Salvemini, ignored it, others, like Neumann, rejected it, and only Horkheimer and Adorno were instructed by it. There are still open possibilities for the development of Freudianism based on early Freud (“The Interpretation of Dreams”), but among the émigré Freudians Hartmann was too faithful in tidying up Freud’s later theories (Hughes is especially illuminating in his conceptual analysis of this), and Erikson diverged into idiosyncratic and unsystematic innovations. Language is important, and not merely because the emigres had in fact to learn to think anew in English or else to cling to their native language (usually German), thereby insulating themselves from their new environment. For Hughes, the style is the man, and his most unfavorable judgments are reserved for those whose style (and therefore thought) is “elusive,” “elaborate,” “metaphorical,” “ambiguous,” “mannered,” “freighted with existentialism,” or “Hegelian.” He has read widely in three languages beside his own; but one suspects that, since an intellectual historian must perforce read so widely, he wishes that all of his subjects would only be “elegantly simple,” like Freud, or at least “blunt.”

Yet all these opinions, and others, which do give life to a variety of comments, comparisons, and evaluations, do not in the end disguise the problem of the strategy of inquiry. One must conclude that the trilogy ends with a dying fall: the line of European social thought, ascending in the early part of the century, turned down with the sea change. Yet perhaps this is an illusion which follows from the initial choice to focus on the creative ideas of a few men, however engaging or influential. If one looks for the Weber of the recent past, of course one will be disappointed (even by Talcott Parsons). But it may well be that the path of development of social thought has shifted from towering leaders (with disciples, schismatics, and critics) to a more diffuse but possibly even more powerful process of interaction among an astonishingly extended number of professional intellectuals, impinging more or less directly on each other and on the education of an expanding segment of society. It may well be that social thought has been socialized, and is in the making all around us, not only in the seminars and studies of a celebrated few. Weber and Freud, like Churchill and deGaulle, may have no successors, or rather may have too many to be identified. But if this is so, then “The Sea Change” marks the end of an era in historiography as well as in social thought, and the modern intellectual historian must devise new approaches in order to have a subject at all.


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