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Interview by Craig Mattson and Michael VanderWeele


Why Intellectual History Matters

A conversation with Susan Schreiner.

When Susan Schreiner came to speak at our college, we noticed that, even more than the orderly arguments of her guest lecture, her mid-afternoon chat with the faculty offered the observations, shrewdly penetrating and wryly seasoned by turns, that made for a good interview. Some months later, Michael and I sought that interview over a shared dinner with Susan at the Thai Smile in Palos Heights, Illinois. We sat talking long enough that the evening sun moved from being a powerful glare through the restaurant's western windows to being a kindlier glow at the dinner's end—an apt scene for talking about living between the glare of polarized oppositions and the gentle uncertainties that come with cultural eventide.

Michael: Would you talk a bit about the relationship between the history of ideas and cultural studies? How much has cultural studies been affected by the return of more phenomenological studies? How is the history of ideas, which we haven't ever really got over, been altered by cultural studies?

Sometimes intellectual historians are dismissed because they deal with written texts, literate classes, the educated, the elite, etc. And sometimes those who are very adept at looking at other aspects of the past get impatient with us. What's at stake in that debate is, I think, assumptions about what's real, who is more real. Instead of just admitting that there are different contexts in every society, you are supposed to choose one or the other. The common person—or the little people, or whatever they're called—they're more real somehow than the elite. And that's a judgment call.

There's no doubt that the peasants of Germany in the 16th century—or at least a lot of them—didn't know much of what was going on at all in the course of the Reformation. That doesn't make them more real than those who did. So it's not a question of whether they're less important or more important. Social history matters—so does intellectual history.

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