Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Studying the Early Life of Great Intellectuals

How does the early life--the childhood or the adolescent years--shape the mature thought of American intellectuals?  Over at U.S. Intellectual History Paul Croce, a historian at Stetson University, thinks it is very important for seven reasons.  Here is a taste of his post:

Historians pay attention to change. Students of the past need no reminding about the evolution of societies, the relationship of ideas to their times, and the contingencies of life. But some unhistorical thought can slip into historical study with exclusive focus on the finished products of a thinker’s work without considering the evolutionary steps toward those creations.
Such a focus can be very tempting; after all, those later productions are generally the most thought out and refined; in the same spirit, who would consider submitting a first draft for publication? But in the course of a life, the equivalents to those early drafts are more than just messy versions of later productions; they can harbor clues to a thinker’s drives and goals, often presented in still more raw form than later texts and creations.
I call this “developmental biography,” the method of attention to an intellectual’s creations over time, in development; the method involves placing an idea not only in contextual history, but also in the thinker’s own history. Consider then these reasons to take a closer look at early life when evaluating the figures of intellectual history:
1-Examining an idea in development, especially through the life path of the idea’s creator in development, brings attention to the choices made during stages of thinking, and to the contexts surrounding those choices. This focus can reveal not only the influences on thought, but also the development of commitment. The culminating theory itself remains important, generally with greater depth and nuances, but the path of development shows how the composer cared enough to create it.
For the other six reasons, read Croce's entire post.  

This kind of developmental biography is not easy. Primary materials on the early life of intellectuals--or any figure in history for that matter--is difficult to find.  My biography of Philip Vickers Fithian (who was certainly not a famous intellectual) could only gesture toward the kind of culture in which he was raised due to lack of documentary evidence.  If he wrote anything prior to the age of eighteen it does not exist.