Intellectual history

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Intellectual history, also known as the history of ideas, refers to the study of the history of human thought and thinkers. This history cannot be considered without the knowledge of the humans who created, discussed, wrote about, and in other ways were concerned with ideas. Intellectual history as practiced by historians is parallel to the history of philosophy as done by philosophers. Its central premise is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who developed and use them, and that one must study ideas not only as abstract propositions but also in terms of the culture, lives, and historical contexts.[1]

Intellectual history aims to understand ideas from the past by putting them into political, cultural, intellectual, or social context. One can read a text both in terms of a chronological context (for example, as a contribution to a discipline or tradition as it extended over time) or in terms of a contemporary intellectual moment (for example, as participating in a debate particular to a certain time and place). Both of these acts of contextualization are typical of what intellectual historians do, nor are they exclusive. Generally speaking, intellectual historians seek to place concepts and texts from the past in multiple contexts.

It is important to realize that intellectual history is not just the history of intellectuals. It studies ideas as they are expressed in texts, and as such is different from other forms of cultural history which deal also with visual and other non-verbal forms of evidence. Any written trace from the past can be the object of intellectual history. The concept of the "intellectual" is relatively recent, and suggests someone professionally concerned with thought. Instead, anyone who has put pen to paper to explore his or her thoughts can be the object of intellectual history. A famous example of an intellectual history of a non-canonical thinker is Carlo Ginzburg's study of a 16th-century Italian miller, Menocchio, in his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.

Although the field emerged from European disciplines of Kulturgeschichte and Geistesgeschichte, the historical study of ideas has engaged not only western intellectual traditions but others as well, including those in other parts of the world. Increasingly, historians are calling for a global intellectual history that will show the parallels and interrelations in the history of thought of all human societies.[2][3] Another important trend has been the history of the book and of reading, which has drawn attention to the material aspects of how books were designed, produced, distributed, and read.

History of the discipline[edit]

Intellectual history as a self-conscious discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has precedents, however, in the history of philosophy and in cultural history as practiced since Burckhardt or Voltaire. The scholarly efforts of the eighteenth century can be traced to Francis Bacon’s call for what he termed a literary history in his The Advancement of Learning. In economics, John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was both a historian of economic thought himself,[4] and the subject of study by historians of economic thought because of the significance of the Keynesian revolution.[5]

However, the discipline of intellectual history as it is now understood emerged in the immediate postwar period, in its earlier incarnation as "the history of ideas" under the leadership of Arthur Lovejoy, the founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas. Since that time, Lovejoy's formulation of "unit-ideas" has been developed in different and often diverging directions, some of which more historically sensitive accounts of intellectual activity as historically situated (contextualism), and this shift is reflected in the replacement of the phrase history of ideas by intellectual history.[6]

Intellectual history includes the history of thought in many disciplines, such as the history of philosophy, and the history of economic thought. Analytical concepts, such as the nature of paradigms and the causes of paradigm shifts, have been borrowed from the study of other disciplines, exemplified by the use of the ideas of Thomas Kuhn as presented in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to explain revolutions in thought in economics and other disciplines.[7]

In Britain the history of political thought has been a particular focus since the late 1960s and is associated especially with historians at Cambridge, such as John Dunn and Quentin Skinner. They studied European political thought in its historical context, emphasizing the emergence and development of such concepts as the state and freedom. Skinner in particular is renowned for his provocative methodological essays, which were and are widely read by philosophers and practitioners of other humanistic disciplines, and did much to give prominence to the practice of intellectual history.[8]

In the United States, intellectual history is understood more broadly to encompass many different forms of intellectual output, not just the history of political ideas, and it includes such fields as the history of historical thought, associated especially with Anthony Grafton of Princeton University and J.G.A. Pocock of Johns Hopkins University. Formalized in 2010, the History and Culture Ph.D. at Drew University is one of a few graduate programs in the US currently specializing in intellectual history, both in its American and European contexts. Despite the prominence of early modern intellectual historians (those studying the age from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment), the intellectual history of the modern period has also been the locus of intense and creative output on both sides of the Atlantic. Prominent examples of such work include Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club and Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination.

In continental Europe, equivalents of intellectual history can be found. An example is Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte (history of concepts), though there are methodological differences between the work of Koselleck and his followers and the work of Anglo-American intellectual historians.


The Lovejoy approach[edit]

The historian Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) coined the phrase history of ideas[citation needed] and initiated its systematic study[9] in the early decades of the 20th century. Johns Hopkins University was a "fertile cradle" to Lovejoy's history of ideas;[10] he worked there as a professor of history, from 1910 to 1939, and for decades he presided over the regular meetings of the History of Ideas Club.[11] Another outgrowth of his work is the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Aside from his students and colleagues engaged in related projects (such as René Wellek and Leo Spitzer, with whom Lovejoy engaged in extended debates), scholars such as Isaiah Berlin,[12] Michel Foucault, Christopher Hill, J. G. A. Pocock, and others have continued to work in a spirit close to that with which Lovejoy pursued the history of ideas. The first chapter of Lovejoy's book The Great Chain of Being (1936) lays out a general overview of what he intended to be the programme and scope of the study of the history of ideas.[9]


Lovejoy's history of ideas takes as its basic unit of analysis the unit-idea, or the individual concept. These unit-ideas work as the building-blocks of the history of ideas: though they are relatively unchanged in themselves over the course of time, unit-ideas recombine in new patterns and gain expression in new forms in different historical eras. As Lovejoy saw it, the historian of ideas had the task of identifying such unit-ideas and of describing their historical emergence and recession in new forms and combinations.

The unit-idea methodology, intended to extract the basic idea within any philosophical work and movement,[9] also has certain defining principles: 1) assumptions, 2) dialectical motives, 3) metaphysical pathos, and 4) philosophical semantics. These different principles define the overarching philosophical movement within which, Lovejoy argues, one can find the unit-idea, which can then be studied throughout the history of that idea.

Quentin Skinner criticizes Lovejoy's "unit-idea" methodology, and he argues that such a "reification of doctrines" has negative consequences.[which ones?] [13] He emphasized sensitivity to the cultural context of the texts and ideas being analysed. Skinner's own historical methodology is based on J.L. Austin's theory of speech acts. Skinner's approach has been criticized in turn by scholars who have pointed out his inclination to reify structures and sociological constructs over individual actors. Notably, Andreas Dorschel criticizes Skinner's restrictive approach to ideas through verbal language, and points out how ideas can materialize in non-linguistic media or genres such as music and architecture.[14] The global historian of ideas Dag Herbjørnsrud writes that "the Skinner perspective is in danger of shutting the door to comparative philosophy and the search for common problems and solutions across borders and time."[15] Skinner's idea has also been criticised as too context sensible and thus unable to provide any unified accounts of the development of ideas over time.

The Harvard historian Peter Gordon explains that intellectual history, as opposed to the history of ideas practiced by Lovejoy, studies and deals with ideas within a broader context.[16] Gordon further emphasizes that intellectual historians, as opposed to historians of ideas and philosophers (History of Philosophy), "tend to be more relaxed about crossing the boundary between philosophical texts and non-philosophical contexts...[they regard] the distinction between "philosophy" and "non-philosophy" as something that is itself historically conditioned rather than eternally fixed."[16] Thus, intellectual historians who see intellectual history as a means of reproducing a historically valid interpretation of a philosophical argument, tend to implement a contextualist approach when studying ideas and broader philosophical movements.

Foucault's approach[edit]

Michel Foucault rejects the idea of the traditional way historians go about writing, which is a narrative. He believed that most historians preferred to write about long periods of time instead of digging deeper into a more specific history.[17] Foucault argues that historians should reveal historical descriptions through different perspectives. This is where he comes up with the term “archaeology” for his method of historical writing. His historical method differs from the traditional sense of historical writing and is divided up into four different ideas.

The first is that "archaeology" seeks to define the history through philosophical means, which is to say the discourse between thought, representation, and themes. The second is that, in "archaeology," the notion of discontinuity assumes a major role in the historical disciplines. The third idea is that "archaeology" does not seek to grasp the moment in history at which the individual and the social are inverted into one another. And finally the fourth point is that "archaeology" does not seek the truth of history, rather it seeks the discourse in it.[18]

Global Intellectual History[edit]

In the 21st century, the field of global intellectual history has received increased attention. In 2013, Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori published the anthology Global Intellectual History.[19]

In 2016, the Routledge journal Global Intellectual History (ed. Richard Whatmore) was established.[20] J. G. A. Pocock and John Dunn are among those who recently have argued for a more global approach to intellectual history in contrast to Eurocentrism.[21][22]

Prominent individuals[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anthony Grafton, "The history of ideas: Precept and practice, 1950-2000 and beyond." Journal of the History of Ideas 67#1 (2006): 1-32. online
  2. ^ "The Invention of Humanity — Siep Stuurman | Harvard University Press". Retrieved 2019-06-24.
  3. ^ Herbjørnsrud, Dag (2019-05-10). "Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method". Global Intellectual History. 0: 1–27. doi:10.1080/23801883.2019.1616310. ISSN 2380-1883.
  4. ^ E.g. John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Biography, Macmillan, 1933.
  5. ^ E.g. Peter Clarke (historian), The Keynesian Revolution in the Making, 1924-1936, 1988. Donald Markwell, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  6. ^ Melvin Richter, "Begriffsgeschichte and the History of Ideas." Journal of the History of Ideas (1987): 247-263. in JSTOR
  7. ^ E.g. Ghanshyam Mehta, The structure of the Keynesian Revolution, 1977.
  8. ^ Melvin Richter, "Reconstructing the history of political languages: Pocock, Skinner, and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe." History and Theory (1990): 38-70. online[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ a b c Arthur Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), ISBN 0-674-36153-9
  10. ^ Ronald Paulson English Literary History at the Johns Hopkins University in New Literary History, Vol. 1, No. 3, History and Fiction (Spring, 1970), pp. 559–564
  11. ^ Arthur Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-313-20504-3
  12. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-691-09026-2
  13. ^ Quentin Skinner (1969). "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas". History and Theory 8 (1): 3–53.
  14. ^ Andreas Dorschel, Ideengeschichte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010. ISBN 978-3-8252-3314-3
  15. ^ Herbjørnsrud, Dag (2019-05-10). "Beyond decolonizing: global intellectual history and reconstruction of a comparative method". Global Intellectual History. 0: 1–27. doi:10.1080/23801883.2019.1616310. ISSN 2380-1883.
  16. ^ a b Peter E. Gordon, "What is intellectual history? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field". Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  17. ^ Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On History". Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.
  18. ^ Foucault, Michel. "Archaeology Of Knowledge, Introduction", edited by A. M. Sherida Smith. Vintage, 1982.
  19. ^ Moyn, Samuel; Sartori, Andrew, eds. (June 2013). Global Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231534598.
  20. ^ "Global Intellectual History: Vol 4, No 2". Retrieved 2019-06-24.
  21. ^ Haakonssen, Knud; Whatmore, Richard (2017-01-02). "Global possibilities in intellectual history: a note on practice". Global Intellectual History. 2 (1): 18–29. doi:10.1080/23801883.2017.1370248. hdl:10023/17249. ISSN 2380-1883.
  22. ^ Dunn, John (2013-11-21). "Why We Need A Global History of Political Thought". Retrieved 2019-06-24.

Further reading[edit]



  • Noam Chomsky et al., The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years, New Press 1997
  • Jacques Le Goff, Intellectuals in the Middle Ages, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)
  • Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.
  • Toews, John E. "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn. The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience", in: The American Historical Review, 92/4 (1987), 879-907.
  • Turner, Frank M. European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche (2014)
  • Riccardo Bavaj, Intellectual History, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte (2010), URL:

Primary sources[edit]

  • George B. de Huszar, ed. The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960. anthology by many contributors.

External links[edit]