Joseph M. Levine

(Flying to Albuquerque, NM) I was in Atlanta over the weekend. A panel discussion at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies was devoted to my father’s work. It seemed fairly miraculous that he could attend the session, since he has had major surgery five times within the last year and was still in the hospital only one month ago. But the prognosis is good, and he was able to participate actively in the discussion. Seven peers and former students gave short papers about aspects of his work.

My dad’s colleagues and students described an empirical historian, a painstaking scholar with a very concrete, pragmatic bent. His field is intellectual history (also known as the “history of ideas”), with a focus on the history of historical thought in England. His job is to interpret books, letters, speeches, and works of art. Many of his readers are literary critics and art historians who are interested in these texts and objects. Dad treats the works that he studies as events–akin to battles, expeditions, trials, or legislation. In other words, he understands cultural products as intentional human acts, occurring for specific, traceable reasons in particular contexts. That assumption drives him to consider local and specific historical circumstances. Unlike the “new historicists,’ who often understand books as examples of periods, “discourses,” cultures, or traditions, my father tends to see texts as acts performed for specific purposes under specific conditions–for example, to counter something that another author has said. That was how he was taught to practice history even before he decided to specialize in the history of ideas.


Often, great authors were not merely influenced by canonical figures who still interest us today because of their intrinsic merits. Most of the famous authors were also involved in debates with allies or adversaries who were not geniuses and who are mostly forgotten today. Books like Utopia, The Prince, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were written for, against, or in response to much more ordinary contemporary works. An empirical intellectual historian reads those other works and uses them to reconstruct the intentions of the authors of the classics.

An empiricist is someone without strong ideological or philosophical motives, one who merely describes some external reality and follows the evidence where it leads. My dad is not a positivist, because he is a narrative historian, and a narrative is a form of interpretation. But his colleagues and students described him as someone who has no agenda other than to recover past thinking and to make it coherent through narrative.

I think in this respect they may have overlooked a certain political purpose. After all, even a pure empiricist must choose which topics to study. Dad’s work reconstructs the origins of some of our contemporary institutions, such as academic history and intellectual freedom. He studies them because he values them. A particular kind of skeptical but humane liberalism is also implicit in his effort to recover the intentions of past human beings without quickly imposing grand ideas on them. Even my father’s method, which encourages him to study quarrels, controversies, and debates, reflects an enthusiasm for free speech and the marketplace of ideas.

Liberalism is an ideology, to be sure. The very idea that individual human beings’ intentions are important rests on metaphysical and moral assumptions. Still, there is a skeptical form of liberalism (well developed in our time by Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty) that makes minimal presuppositions and that shuns abstractions in favor of deep respect for varied human individuals in their particular contexts. That kind of liberalism is not only implicit in my father’s method; it is also the subject of his work. One of the main sources of such liberalism was the skeptical, empirical, pragmatic, human-centered, literal, narrative form of history that arose with Renaissance humanism.

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1 Response to Joseph M. Levine

  1. Peter Levine says:

    From Nicholas Jackson, a panelist, via email:

    I enjoyed your review of the session’s proceedings. I would quarrel with the suggestion that as a participant I thought or think of JML as an empiricist without ideology. As a nominalist/functionalist/behaviorist (Wittgensteinian and B.F. Skinnerian) I don’t usually think in terms of empiricism at all–too imprecise. And in the case of your father’s work, I fully agree with you that there can be no doubt that he can be classified as an ideologue, like anyone else. To echo your point, people talk about the “importance of history”. But _which_ history? The subject that the “empiricist” takes up is rather revealing. That is, it points to his own particular cultural experience and social identity (including his peers/boss). So, yes, your father’s choice of work may well be classified as, say, ideologically akin to classical liberalism ( J.S. Mills’ and twentieth-century epigones). My work or mode might be labeled empiricist like your father’s, but in the same way, my choice of Hobbes declares many things about me, and also, willy-nilly, detracts from the importance of other philosophers–past and present. (There’s always an opportunity cost to be incurred, and implicit insult, in choosing to study X rather than Y.) Furthermore, the notion that an empiricist somehow freely “follows wherever the evidence leads” does not survive scrutiny. One might easily argue that the empiricist’s analytical attention is circumscribed and controlled by certain psychological and sociological views and assumptions. One empiricist goes left where another goes right in the analysis because they are conditioned to view the same “facts” differently.

    As I would not consider myself a classical liberal (the only label I can bear without intense discomfort is “Max-Stirnerian”), it made sense for me not to take up the implicit “ideological” position of your father on such an occasion. Not that your father isn’t aware of my unsound liberal credentials–for we have sometimes argued a little along those lines. He could quite rightly associate me with, say, Kirillov, from Dostoevsky’s Demons.

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