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Showing posts from November 7, 2010

Doing intellectual history: the Great and Little Tradition

Is intellectual history about intellectuals? Or is it about the intellectual spirit of a given epoch and culture, the mix of ideas and assumptions? Is it, in other words, about what James Scott has called the Great Tradition and the Little Tradition? Recall what Scott says about the two traditions in his seminal essays about peasant revolts from the seventies: the Great Tradition, which is usually developed in the urban setting by ‘high culture’ intellectuals, then spreads out into the rural setting, where it encounters the set of beliefs and symbols held by peasants, or the Little Tradition. The process of dissemination, however, is full of slippages: “My contention … will be that there is something systematic about this slippage between religious and political ideas as understood and practiced in the city and their little tradition variants in the countryside. This slippage, I argue, is scarcely random or accidental - quite simply because the social characteristics of an idea's g

logic and strategy

The other day, a friend told me about a class she is teaching. The students had to make presentations, and two of them presented about South Africa. Oddly, she said, these student seemed barely aware that once upon a time, South Africa had a racist, apartheid regime. I said (falling into my old codger routine) that I remembered the day I protested the University of Texas' investment in South Africa, along with hundreds of other students. And then I said, I now think that was a mistake. And then I thought about it and said, no, it wasn’t a mistake. It was right to protest. It was wrong for U.T. to have that investment. But it was, at the same time, good that U.T. had an investment we couldd protest. My reactions led me to reflect on the difference between strategy and logic. To illustrate that difference, take the 'human rights' game. Say that there is a country - call it, a U.S.-like country, that is, one that doesn't torture and invade countries illegally, but that is