Exceptionality vs Exceptionalism (Comment at S-USIH Blog)

Ben Alpers at the Society for US Intellectual History Blog provides a useful capsule history on American Exceptionalism:

For most of the history of the term – which originally emerged in the 1920s in debates between Lovestoneites and Stalinists over the future course of socialism in the U.S. – “American exceptionalism” was principally used to designate the belief that the U.S. was unlike other countries is some fundamental way. Of course, the word “exceptional” has at least two distinct meanings: 1) unusual and 2) outstanding. And though “American exceptionalism” tended for most of its history to be used in the first sense, that second sense always lurked in the shadows of its usage.

Alpers also notes that the idea of a special American destiny or predicament long pre-existed the introduction of the term, but the main purpose of his post seems to be to concede defeat in his efforts as a history professor to distinguish other exceptionalisms from the version of it adopted by the contemporary American right as a central creedal tenet:

In recent years, however, I’ve noticed the newer sense of “American exceptionalism” creeping into our class discussions and the students’ papers. I’ll try to ask about the changing ways in which people have understood the U.S. to be different from other countries, and my students will answer with a litany of ways in which the U.S. has been awesome (frequently in their own views, occasionally in those of the people we’re reading).

It now seems to me that I’ve lost this terminological battle. For the moment, at least, I think I’m going to remove the term “American exceptionalism” from my syllabus, outlines, essay prompts, and exams. I’ll have to use a few more words to get my meaning across. Rather than write “American exceptionalism,” I’ll write something like “the belief that America is fundamentally unlike other nations.”

In my comment I proposed he consider a distinction between exceptionality and exceptionalism, a distinction that I’ve previously tried to advance in various posts also in relation to neo-imperialism and a somewhat geographically deterministic shaping both of American political culture and of American grand strategy – which I also believe converge in unique (or exceptional) ways for America as world-historical power of our era:

I’ve taken to referring to #1 as “exceptionality” – which can refer to a set of readily identifiable geographical and historical facts taken together – and to reserve #2 for “isms” that tend to be associated with one or another #1.

Belief in American exceptionality always implies belief in some other, relatively more normal historical tendency or predicament, but it also just means that we can treat North America as in many ways, materially and concretely, the globe’s prime developable real estate for the entirety of the modern period up to the present, at least initially without prejudice in regard to the form that that development took or its conceivable moral import. I also believe, however, that it will prove impossible for us, either as Americans or as inhabitants of “the world America made” to avoid attributing values of some type to the facts.

Predictably, many of the fiercest opponents of the type of contemporary rightwing exceptionalism described in the post become or turn out to have been not just philosophically anti-exceptionalist or anti-”American exceptionalism” but “anti-American” exceptionalist. It’s also not surprising that people devoted to the view that a nation is not special, is not admirable, is not chosen for a special fate by God, or perhaps is remarkably evil and dangerous (seat of imperialism, militarism, global capitalism, ecological destruction, genocidal colonialism, etc.) will in normal times have difficulty attaining power and influence, since they are denied or deny themselves the indispensable political resources of good honest demagogy.

Further discussion of this topic, as I have previously stressed, requires a return at some point to philosophy of world history as Hegel understood and explained it, and where the idea of a finally necessary link between exceptionality and an exceptionalism other than vulgar right exceptionalism may receive its best defense. We cannot, or anyway I do not, presume that the political right has the idea entirely wrong.


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6 comments on “Exceptionality vs Exceptionalism (Comment at S-USIH Blog)

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  1. America, is an idea, that goes back long before the 13 colonies were
    even adopted. William Bradford was the quintessential representative
    of this view

    • Yes, I believe that’s clearly correct. The term “New World,” which precedes the European naming of the continents, also already begins to convey something quite profoundly exceptional. So, originally, a study of American exceptionalism could start as an analysis of all of the ways that occupying a New World would tend to differ from occupying the Old World. A true exceptionality would be conceptually prior to whatever exceptionalisms.

  2. I find this discussion kinda vague. And maybe this comment covers no new ground, and is in general agreement with this post.

    What unites the various beliefs “that the U.S. was unlike other countries is some fundamental way” other than there is something? Can Turner for example be said to be a proponent of the idea if he thought that America might be (ie that it’s possible) loosing its “fundamental” exceptionalism? For that matter what’s “was” doing in that quote rather than “is”? If it can be lost while life goes on, what does “fundamental” mean?

    Every place on earth has exceptional geography. Certainly it’s possible to imagine dystopias in which Anarctica has the most awesome geography from which to launch world domination, or at least survival.

    Certainly incoherent ideas can be taken as true, and certainly such beliefs can have historical significance. But given the historical variety of what has been meant by AE, I don’t find “awesome” to be particularly vulgar or historically unimportant.

    • It’s possible to imagine Antarctic world domination, but if it were concretely possible to realize Antarctic world domination, then perhaps we would be under the domination of Antarctica. Put abstractly: Any concept of exceptionality presumes ordering principles that make the world a world at all, the universe a universe at all, or comprehensible at all as other than a chaos of equally unique, indifferently different events.

      I’m having some difficulty putting your other criticisms together with their origins, but, in general, I don’t see a problem with the exceptionality or exceptionalisms we discuss as being both fundamental and subject to change or loss, since even fundamentals are subject to change, or are always merely relatively fundamental from some next higher level of abstraction.

      On the exceptionality question, the banal facts of long coastlines communicating with the two major oceans, on a relatively easily traversable yet vast and, again, relatively thinly populated, mostly temperate and resource-rich interior, will continue to matter very much, as far as the practical requirements of trade, warfare, and economic development go. At the point, whether through technological advances or cataclysm, that this all is no longer exceptionally important to a real-existing human species and its real-existing capacities, then the era of American exceptionality would be over, but probably not before.

      As for types of exceptionalism, the considerations are more complex, since they will rest on different theories of human collective agency. It’s an adapt/adopt variant of the usual chickens and eggs: Did we adopt a liberal-democratic political culture because liberal-democracy proved adaptive for us, or have we managed to adapt because we adopted liberal democracy?

  3. I’ve been reading Tsong-Ka-Pa’s commentary on Nargajuna, so “fundamental” appears to me more as “irreducible”, “inherent”, or “non-contingent” or even “soul”. If we accept a “the sun rises” level of discourse as true, then “fundamental” as “basic to this level of abstraction” is just fine. But then what’s the point? why not just say that? “Fundamental exceptionalism” seems to point to some irreducible element, some kind of God given soul that is above mere contingency.

    The coastline/ocean/interior analysis is much more clear in its boundaries, says something specific not given to emotional/political vagaries. Of course these virtues are exactly what is being avoided in the phrase.

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