What is Intellectual History?
Distilled 'spirit of the age' or a branch of sociology? Great men and their thoughts - with a lucky dip for culture vultures - or elite ideas whose time had come? Five historians discuss ground rules for the study of intellectual history.
Single-sentence answers to such definitional questions rarely get us very far. The labels of all the various branches of history are flags of convenience not names of essences, and the real question concerns the distinctiveness and validity of their claims to occupy a separate room in Clio's spacious house. For intellectual history most certainly is a part of history, part of the attempt to understand past human experience.
Its role in the division of labour is the understanding of those ideas, thoughts, arguments, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and preoccupations that together made up the intellectual or reflective life of previous societies. This intellectual life was, of course, continuous with, and not rigidly separable from, the political life, the economic life, and so on, of the same societies, but in practice a rough and ready distinction is intuitively recognisable: where the economic historian may, for example, want to know about the kinds of crops grown on the lands of medieval monasteries, the intellectual historian will characteristically be more interested in the ideas to be seen at work in the monastic chronicles or in the theological basis of ideals of the contemplative life.
Similarly, it is true that all historians are in practice interpreters of texts, whether they be private letters, government records, parish registers, sales lists, or whatever. But for most kinds of historians these texts are only the necessary means to understanding something other than the texts themselves, such as a political action or a demographic trend, whereas for the intellectual historian a full understanding of his chosen texts is itself the aim of his enquiries. For this reason, intellectual history is particularly prone to draw on the contributions of those other disciplines that are habitually concerned with interpreting texts for purposes of their own, such as the trained sensibilities of the literary critic, alert to all forms of affective and non-literal writing, or the analytical skills of the philosopher, probing the reasoning that ostensibly connects premises and conclusions. Furthermore, the boundaries with adjacent sub-disciplines are necessarily shifting and indistinct: the history of art and the history of science both claim a certain autonomy, partly just because they require specialised technical skills, but both can also be seen as part of a wider intellectual history, as is evident when one considers, for example, the common stock of knowledge about cosmological beliefs or moral ideals of a period upon which both may need to draw.
Like all historians, the intellectual historian is a consumer rather than producer of 'methods'; similarly he ran claim no type of evidence that is peculiarly and exclusively his. His distinctiveness lies in which aspect of the past he is trying to illuminate, not in having exclusive possession of either a corpus of evidence or a body of techniques.
That being said, it does seem that the label 'intellectual historian' attracts a disproportionate share of misunderstanding, and the term 'the history of ideas' is sometimes used as a less eyebrow- or hair-raising alternative. But there is a double hazard in this. First, the emphasis of the 'history of ideas' may suggest that we are dealing with autonomous abstractions which, in their self-propelled journeyings through time, happened only accidentally and temporarily to find anchorage in particular human minds, a suggestion encouraged by the comparable German tradition of Geistesgesrhichte or Ideengeschichte which drew upon the history of philosophy in general and Hegel in particular. By contrast, the term 'intellectual history' indicates that the focus is on an aspect of human activity, in the same way as the terms 'economic history' or 'political history' do.
Secondly, 'the history of ideas' was the label chosen in the 1920s and 1930s by the American philosopher-turned-historian, A.O. Lovejoy, to designate his own idiosyncratic approach to the life of the past, an approach which consisted essentially of isolating the universal 'unit-ideas' out of which, he claimed, all more complex doctrines and theories were composed. Through his many pupils and his founding in 1940 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Lovejoy's approach dominated the field in American universities for at least a generation, leading to the compilation of immensely thorough but essentially arid lists of the sightings of particular 'unit-ideas'. Lovejoy's own practice was, as is so often the case, better either than his preaching or than the imitative practice of his disciples, and his most famous work, The Great Chain of Being (1936), remains an extremely impressive tour de force. Though his influence has fallen away in recent decades (and the journal he founded has become less mechanical and sectarian in its approach), the term 'the history of ideas' is, at least in the United States, still sufficiently often identified with his work as to cause misunderstanding all of its own.
Purely terminological matters aside, it is still the case that much of the suspicion or hostility directed at intellectual history arises out of misconceptions about what it involves, and at this point the most profitable way to respond to our initial question may be to confront these misconceptions directly.
The first alleges that intellectual history is the history of something that never really mattered. The long dominance of the historical profession by political historians bred a kind of philistinism, an unspoken belief that power and its exercise was what 'mattered' (a term which invited but rarely received any close critical scrutiny). This prejudice was reinforced, especially where the spirit of Namier was received at all hospitably, by the assertion that political action was never really the outcome of principles or ideas, which were, in the gruff demotic of the land-owning classes, as mimicked by Namier, 'mere flapdoodle'. The legacy of this prejudice is still discernible in the tendency to require ideas to have 'influenced' the political class before they can be deemed worthy of historical attention, as if there were some reason why the history of art or of science, of philosophy or of literature, were somehow of less interest and significance than the history of parties or parliaments.
Perhaps in recent years the mirror image of this philistinism has become more common in the form of the claim that ideas of any degree of systematic expression or sophistication do not matter because they were, by definition, only held by a minority. As an objection, there is none more worthy of extended rebuttal than its parent prejudice (against which it is in full Qedipal revolt). Needless to say – at least, it ought to be needless to say it – much that legitimately interests us in history was the work of minorities (not always of the same type, be it noted), and, if I may repeat an adaptation of a famous line of E.P. Thompson's that I have used elsewhere, it is not only the poor and inarticulate who may stand in need of being rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity.
The second misconception is that intellectual history is inherently 'idealist', where that term is used pejoratively to signify the belief that ideas develop by a logic of their own, without reference to other human activities, or to what is loosely called their 'social context'. There was possibly some truth to this as a criticism of some of the work written a couple of generations ago, particularly that deriving from the largely German-influenced history of philosophy; but it is simply false as a description of what intellectual history must be like. In the search for fuller understanding, the intellectual historian may well inquire into, say, the economic conditions of certain kinds of authorship, such as aristocratic patronage or serialisation in popular periodicals, just as the economic historian may have to attend to, say, the role of scientific inventions or beliefs about the legitimacy of profit.
There is no reason, however, to accord any explanatory priority to such matters. If, for example, the historian is seeking a deeper insight into the writings of David Hume, it will profit him very little to know more about the economic circumstances of other younger sons of minor Scottish land-owners in the early eighteenth century, whereas his interpretation will gain immensely from knowing something about the writings of a French soldier, an English doctor and an Irish bishop during the previous hundred years (Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley respectively). And, in general, the 'social context' of intellectual activity turns out to have a limited explanatory role in practice, however enthusiastically one may endorse a 'sociological' approach in principle, and this is particularly true the more one grapples with the details of any particular episode in the intellectual life of the past: however much we may know about the social position of the man of letters in Victorian England, we shall have to look to a quite different kind of evidence to achieve a sensitive understanding of the critical controversies between Matthew Arnold and Fitzjames Stephen.
The third misconception, one of more interest and subtlety than the previous two, is that intellectual history is nothing more than the history of the various disciplines of intellectual enquiry. This obviously has some plausibility for the most recent periods, where one could imagine an intellectual history of the nineteenth century being constructed by stringing together the history of science, the history of political economy, the history of philosophy, the history of the novel, and so on. But, other difficulties aside, this would only be to provide the raw materials for an intellectual history of the period, and might, moreover, present them so much with an eye to subsequent developments in each of these fields as to get in the way of a properly historical understanding of what it meant to think such thoughts at the time.
And what about the 'spaces' between these particular activities, or those bits of the intellectual life of the past that have not happened to mutate into labels over the doors of late-twentieth-century university departments? Who, for that matter, has a proprietary right to write the histories of these subjects? An economist may be able to reconstruct the proto-economic thought of the seventeenth century in a way that is not distorted by twentieth century professional concerns, but should we really look to a professor of medicine for an informed and historically sensitive account of the theory of the four humours? And what about those parts of past thought that have not issued in modern academic disciplines: are we really to leave the history of astrology, so influential on so many of the most sophisticated minds of the Renaissance, to be written by gypsy ladies in tents? The intellectual historian obviously cannot be confined by such subject-divisions, and insofar as he takes any cognisance of them it may well be above all to explain the mixture of logic and accident that has led to their assuming their present form.
The fourth misconception which it is worth addressing here is that intellectual history must have a method or theory or set of concepts that is distinctively its own. Indeed, in these methodology-conscious and discipline-proliferating days the very fact that I am identifying it as a practicably separable and intellectually justifiable activity may give the impression that I am advocating a tight theoretical programme of how it should be done. But this is not so. Mannheim's Wissensociologie, Lovejoy's history of 'unit ideas', the Annales school's Histoire des Mentalites, Foucault's Archeologie du Savoir – each has proposed its own special vocabulary and its own theory of the only possible way to understand the thoughts of the past, and each has been found wanting. Good work has certainly been done under the agis of these different theories, and they have helped inoculate historians against their occupational disease of mindless empiricism. But, as always, the merits of the history written depends on qualities which no theory can adequately prescribe, and it can be argued that the richness of characterisation and fineness of discrimination needed to do justice to the expression of human consciousness, past or present, are unlikely to be encapsulated in the rigid conceptual boxes of some purpose-built vocabulary.
'By their fruits ye shall know them.' In the end, it is the very tangible merits or recent works in this field (some outstanding examples are mentioned in the following contributions) that constitute the most persuasive argument for recognising intellectual history's title to a room in Clio's house, and they suggest that the throng in the attic study is no less brilliant than that in the political historians' drawing-room, that it is discussing matters no less vital than those treated in the basement kitchen of the economic historians, and that it is dealing with human passions no less profound than those engaged in the back-bedroom of the social historians.
Let me try to reply more in personal than abstract terms, simply hinting where fuller answers might be found. My own efforts to promote understanding of the complexity, even the disorder, of our past development as thinking beings – the central aim of intellectual history – have concentrated chiefly on Europe over the last 250 years. Yet I became drawn to this genre of scholarship by confrontation, towards the end of my schooldays, with lastingly instructive problems belonging to earlier periods.
One case was my first reading of Plato's Republic. Its perennial relevance seemed, in some curious way, just as indubitable as its remoteness from much of our twentieth-century world-view. The book led on quite naturally to fascination with the problems of evidence surrounding Socrates, who wrote nothing and whose ideas survive in the record only via Plato and an awkwardly diverse band of other witnesses. Patchiness of sources was plainly a difficulty for medievalists too. But, once I had read the sections on 'climate of thought' in Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (my introduction to the indispensable Annales concern with mentalites) and the later chapters of Richard Southern's Making of the Middle Ages, I realised how much imaginative insight into medieval thinking might be attained.
My undergraduate studies at Cambridge in the earlier 1960s found their centre of gravity in the Enlightenment. No aspiring intellectual historian could fail to benefit from engagement with such features as Voltaire's version of histoire totals or Hume's insistence on constant scrutiny of everyone's assumptions – especially one's own. Moreover, having chosen a 'special' on the movement in Scotland, I was able to sharpen my appreciation of the complex ways through which ideas (moulding, yet also moulded by, their social setting) might interact with a particular political and economic environment. On the European Enlightenment generally, I thought Ernst Cassirer the most stimulating commentator. His central distinction between critical and mythical thinking (soon reflected also in Peter Gay's grand survey of the philosophes' epoch) is one which, albeit with qualifications, I have continued to find useful in my subsequent writing on the two succeeding centuries.
Much of this work has dealt with something which, while indebted also to romanticist impulses, forms one kind of sequel to the Enlightenment's quest for 'a science of society'. I refer to the development of ideas about the pivotal role played by racial differentiation and inequality in explaining the fate of states and peoples, and the impact of this biological determinism on political behaviour. Here is a field in which we are reminded sharply, for instance, that much of what counts as science changes over time; that intellectual history yields no general law allowing us to make simple correlation between the intrinsic worth of ideas and their practical influence; that judgments about such worth have to be subordinated to properly historical explanations as to how, why, and in what degree these notions became current. Hitler and his death-camps are certainly part of this particular story. But among the methodological challenges it presents is precisely that of avoiding the temptation to view all that went before simply through the lens of Auschwitz. Thus the racist ideology of Gobineau, for example, must be treated principally in its contemporary context, as a response (how like Marx's, once we have substituted class for race?) to certain pressures evident in the years around 1848 rather than as a manifestation of 'proto-Nazism'.
In recent years I have also been operating on a broader canvas, composing two volumes (one still in progress) for a series on European Thought. Between them, these try to survey the leading features of the relationship between ideas and society from the French Revolution until our own epoch. This experience has strengthened my view that the scholarly taste for sub-disciplinary labels ('political', 'social', 'urban', or whatever) ceases to be defensible whenever it threatens to obscure the fact that history is ultimately seamless in genre as well as chronology. It seems clear, for example, that an intellectual historian's ability to assess responses to phenomena such as the Great War or the Great Depression ought, in principle, to benefit from dialogues with colleagues specialising in military or economic history who may possess extra insights into the nature of these upheavals.
Less immediately obvious perhaps is the requirement that bold breadth of concern must apply also on the interdisciplinary plane (Isaiah Berlin, George Steiner, and Jacques Barzun are exemplars here). The Annales achievement in promoting study of popular ideas, for instance, owed much to a pioneering awareness of methods and questions current in fields like sociology and anthropology – a liaison fruitfully continued by figures such as Robert Darnton and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
Moreover, any general survey of intellectual history must now take account not simply of political and social ideas but also of their interaction with developments in the natural sciences, in philosophy and religious thinking, and, not least, in literature and the arts where the overlap with 'cultural' history becomes clearest. Where words do remain the principal vehicle of discourse in our sources we have much still to learn from our neighbours, in sociolinguistics especially. And where the evidence of language, in the ordinary sense, is merely secondary – in mathematics and much of physics, or in musical and pictorial modes of expression – the imperfections in our techniques of historical integration continue to be even more glaring.
The study of the great religious and philosophical systems of the past; the study of ordinary people's beliefs about heaven and earth, past and future, metaphysics and science; the examination of our ancestors' attitudes towards youth and age, war and peace, love and hate, cabbages and kings; the uncovering of their prejudices about what one ought to eat, how one ought to dress, whom one ought to admire; the analysis of their assumptions about health and illness, good and evil, morals and politics, birth, copulation and death – all these and a vast range of kindred topics fall within the capacious orbit of intellectual history. For they are all instances of the general subject matter that preoccupies intellectual historians above all: the study of past thoughts.
Given the almost bewildering variety of topics that intellectual historians have considered, it is hardly surprising to find that the subject has been practised in a correspondingly wide range of intellectual styles. I shall confine myself to examining a number of approaches commonly adopted by historians of social and political theory, this being the corner of the discipline in which I am mainly interested myself.
Some choose to focus their attention on the very general concepts nr 'unit ideas' which have appeared and reappeared throughout our history in many different theories of social and political life. As a result, they have provided us with histories of such concepts as liberty, equality, justice, progress, tyranny and the other key terms we use to construct and appraise our social and political world.
This approach, often associated with the name of the American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy, has given rise to a great deal of valuable scholarship, including Lovejoy's own classic work, The Great Chain of Being. Of late, however, this kind of history of ideas has been much criticised. One worry has been that it tends to leave us with a history almost bereft of recognisable agents, a history in which we find Reason itself overcoming Custom, Progress confronting the Chain of Being, and so forth. But the main doubt about the method has been that, in focusing on ideas rather than their uses in argument, it has seemed insensitive to the strongly contrasting ways in which a given concept can be put to work by different writers in different historical periods.
Another method, currently far more popular with historians of social and political theory, consists of singling out those texts which have been most influential in shaping our western political tradition and offering as careful as possible an account of how they are put together. This too has given rise to a distinguished literature, including many classic monographs on such major figures as Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and their contemporary followers.
At the same time, however, this approach has also fallen under suspicion in recent years. Critics have pointed out that if we wish, say, to understand a work such as Hobbes's Leviathan, it cannot be enough to furnish an analysis of the propositions and arguments contained in the text. We also need to be able to grasp what Hobbes was doing in presenting just those propositions and arguments. We need to be able, that is, to recognise how far he may have been accepting and reiterating accepted commonplaces, or perhaps rephrasing and reworking them, or perhaps criticising and repudiating them altogether in order to attain a new perspective on a familiar theme. But we obviously cannot hope to gain such a sense of the identity of a text, and of its author's basic purposes in writing it, if we confine ourselves simply to analysing the contents of the text itself.
The danger with both the approaches I have singled out is obviously anachronism. Neither seems capable of recovering the precise historical identity of a given text. For neither seems sufficiently interested in the deep truth that concepts must not be viewed simply as propositions with meanings attached to them; they must also be thought of as weapons (Heidegger's suggestion) or as tools (Wittgenstein's term). It follows that to understand a particular concept and the text in which it occurs, we not only need to recognise the meanings of the terms used to express it; we also need to know who is wielding the concept in question, and with what argumentative purposes in mind. What kind of intellectual history can hope to do justice to this insight? Among those whose particular interest lies in the study of social and political ideas, a new and challenging answer has been emerging over the past two decades. The suggestion has been that we need to focus not on texts or unit ideas, but rather on the entire social and political vocabularies of given historical periods. Beginning in this way, it is claimed, we may eventually be able to fit the major texts into their appropriate intellectual contexts, pointing to the fields of meaning out of which they arose, and to which they in turn contributed.
By now it is possible to point to a number of distinguished practitioners cf. this approach. John Dunn's classic monograph, The Political Thought of John Locke, shows how far the familiar understanding of Locke's politics as 'liberal' derives from an anachronistic misreading, failing as it does to take account of the context of Calvinist natural theology which alone makes sense of Locke's Two Treatises. Donald Winch in Adam Smith's Politics similarly shows how much we misunderstand The Wealth of Nations if we treat it simply as a 'contribution' to classical economics, while ignoring the context of moral theory to which it was addressed. A further example is the book that Winch recently wrote with John Burrow and Stefan Collini, That Noble Science of Politics. This provides us with a fascinating survey of what the idea of political science meant to those who first conceived of the discipline, a survey completely free of the gross anachronisms that generally mark the history of the social sciences.
A similar approach to intellectual history has been emerging of recent years in France, especially under the impetus of Michel Foucault's sensational announcement of 'the death of the author' and his allied demand for a study of 'discourses'. Finally, no survey of what has been called 'the new history o f political thought' can ignore the work of J.G.A. Pocock. In a series of influential pronouncements about method, Pocock has called on historians of political ideas to concentrate not on texts or traditions of thought, but rather on what he calls the study of political 'languages'. At the same time, he has brilliantly practised what he has preached. His major work, The Machiavellian Moment, has uncovered the elements of a Machiavellian moralism at the heart of the republican political tradition in the United States, and has thereby pointed to a need to rewrite the entire history of American liberal thought.
I have ended, inevitably, not just by saying what I think intellectual history is, but how I think it ought to be practised. Certainly I think that, if the history of ideas is to have a genuinely historical character, the new approach I have mentioned is the one that most deserves to be followed up.
What is intellectual history? You may well ask, but I am not sure I can tell you. I think it was in 1967 that the late Hajo Holborn was President of the American Historical Association, and gave 'The History of Ideas' as the title of his presidential address. I went to hear it – breaking a rule about presidential addresses – and did not understand a word, as far as I remember; indeed, the only two words I do remember of it are 'Wilhelm Dilthey.' Yet it was clearly a learned and sensitive discourse, deeply intelligible and informative to those who understood it; I was just not one of them.
Two admirable collections of essays have just appeared. One is edited by Preston King and is called The History of Ideas (Croom Helm, 1983); the other is edited by Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan, and is called Modern European Intellectual History (Cornell University Press, 1982; La Capra has since published two books of his own on the same topic). I recommend reading them, but after doing so myself I am persuaded that whatever 'intellectual history' is, and whatever 'the history of ideas' may be, I am not engaged in doing either of them.
The two terms appear in fact to mean about the same thing: a species of metahistory or theory of history, an enquiry into the nature of history based on various theories about how 'intellect' or 'ideas' find a place in it, with the result that what you usually get is the philosophy of history or the history of philosophy. l do not mean to speak disrespectfully of this pursuit. It was developed by Germans in the nineteenth century, and recently there have been the inevitable French – Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – who set out to destroy the enterprise altogether and succeeded in perpetuating it instead. All these have been profound, subtle and sensitive minds, but they live several crystalline spheres further out than I do. I do not share their concerns; I am not sure I can state what these are; and I have not succeeded in learning very much from them which illuminates what I think I am doing. Nevertheless, I find myself classified as 'an intellectual historian' or 'a historian of ideas', and asked to answer questions like the one History Today has put to me. The best I can do is describe my own practice, in the hope that it will prove informative.
I think I am a historian of a certain kind of intellectual activity, which used to be and some times still is called 'the history of political thought' – though I would like to find a replacement for the last word, not because thought wasn't going on, but because it doesn't adequately characterise the activity whose history I aim to write. I would like to use instead the word 'discourse' – meaning 'speech', 'literature' and public utterance in general, involving an element of theory and carried on in a variety of contexts with which it can be connected in a variety of ways. The advantage of this approach is that it enables one to write the history of an intellectual activity as a history of actions performed by human beings in a variety of circumstances; actions which have affected other human beings, and have affected the circumstances in which they were performed (if only by making it possible to talk and argue about these circumstances).
Human beings inhabiting political societies find themselves first surrounded by political institutions and conventions, second performing political actions and third engaging in political practices. In the course of doing so they speak, write, print, appear on television, and so on; they employ words and other sign systems; and language is not just a means of talking about these actions and institutions, but a means of performing the actions and operating the institutions. And vice versa: when you speak (or write or print) you not merely perform an action, but talk about the action you are performing. (J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Wards, Oxford University Press, 1962.)
Political societies generate a constant flow of language and discourse, in which actions are both performed and discussed. Language furnishes not only the practice of politics, but also its theory. The language-using agents not only utter, but argue; they reply in speech to one another's speech acts, challenge one another's use of words and demand clarification of one another's meanings. As a result there arises what is known as second-order language or theory; speech about speech, in which language is used not only to practise politics and to discuss the practice of politics, but to discuss the ways in which language itself is used to do both these things. This is a point of departure at which one can take off from politics to arrive at 'intellectual history' and 'the history of ideas' in the high and far-off senses mentioned earlier. It is also the point at which the historian finds that a great deal of the discussion in the history of politics has been discussion of how language is and ought to be used in the contexts furnished by particular political societies. And it is the point at which one moves from political theory – the discussion of how political systems work and how words work in them – to political philosophy: the discussion of how statements made in political societies can have any meaning, and of how the political societies themselves look in the light of the theories of meaning and truth thus arrived at. The historian of political discourse does not have to be a historian of political philosophy, but he/she will notice that philosophy is one of the activities generated by political discourse.
And that is really all there is to it; at last, to what I claim to be doing. People develop political languages and say things in them; saying things leads them in various directions. I do not claim to be a hard-headed practical man with no need of theory; for one thing, I am writing the history of an activity which includes the generation of theory, and for another I need some theory to explain what my practice is. I have tried to supply one in the introduction to Virtue, Commerce and History (Cambridge University Press, 1985). I am reasonably content with what I am doing, but like Odysseus I have to sail between Charybdis and Scylla. Charybdis, the all-engulfing whirlpool, stands for the philosophers of history who complain because I have no general theory of history; Scylla, the monster with many barking heads, stands for the bullying social realists who think they already know what social reality is, assume that it is more or less misrepresented in the languages used in society, and nevertheless demand that language shall be connected with it at every possible point. I can disagree with the former and remain on good terms with them; the latter are impossible because I am already doing what they ask for and they won't see it.
Intellectual history as it has come to be practised has defined itself as an amorphous field unified only by historians' emphasis on the importance of consciousness or ideas in understanding the past. Thus scholars are likely to consider themselves intellectual historians if they study world views, Weltanschauungen, or mentalites – the assumptions that guide ordinary people in everyday life. Indeed, the study of 'popular culture' of this sort dominates intellectual history in preference to studies of 'high culture', the abstract conceptions of 'intellectuals'.
This comparative 'lowering' of what constitutes the purview of the study of ideas in intellectual history reflects the professional importance of the field of social history. Intellectual historians have come to believe that in order to be legitimate, their field cannot restrict itself to the rarified and abstruse; the notion of the mental cannot be limited to what goes on in a ghostly realm in the heads of a few great minds. Moreover, what is studied must somehow be connected to mundane realities. For reasons of this sort the methodological crown prince of intellectual history is Clifford Geertz whose collected essays, The Interpretation of Culture, provided a framework for identifying the study of culture with the study of a community of consciousness, and for asserting that consciousness is not a separate realm but a way of being in the world.
Compared to the way intellectual history has recently been practised, my own work is somewhat out of the mainstream. I have been interested in reconstructing the dialogue among small groups of people of ideas – philosophers, theologians, men of letters. My concern has been with interpreting the intentions of gifted authors of difficult texts, and with recapturing the dense intellectual network in which texts have been written – the web of assumptions, accepted arguments, standard distinctions, ceremonial issues. The colleagues with whom I have the most in common are often not other intellectual historians, but more usually scholars in departments of philosophy and divinity, and political and social theorists.
At the same time my self-definition as an intellectual historian is affirmed by the impact that social history has made on me. Although explaining 'high ideas' is primary, I have found it impossible to do such explaining without examining the social context in which ideas flourish. Coteries and institutions are fundamental. Colleges, divinity schools, coffee house groups, research centres, academic departments, scientific societies, and the like are the locus of intellectual life. Even arcane thinking occurs in organised communities existing in a specific cultural milieu. Investigating these communities inevitably involves the intellectual historian with social history. Moreover, factors like the professionalisation of scholarly careers and the social niches into which knowledge fits need to be considered even in writing the history of 'pure' thought. Quentin Skinner's theorising in the periodical literature best exemplifies the method that frames my work, although I am more sceptical than Skinner and many who have followed him of our rapacity to nail down the social context in which we are to examine ideas.
Many historians are suspicious of 'high' intellectual history, correctly linking it to what they believe to be discredited conceptions of elitist history, history written from the 'top down'. It is surely true that what I would call the history of ideas tells us little about the dramas of everyday life or even, I believe, the 'real' factors in human motivation. This sort of history will also not make us morally or materially better – it does not contribute much to a science of society, nor would it even claim to do so. Nonetheless, the historical study of what often amounts to perennial human problems does have compensations. It can provide hope in time of trouble, and a measure of humility in time of hubris, and these are not minor virtues.
What is Intellectual history? The best approach is to begin with what might be considered the inner sanctum of the subject and to work outwards from there.
At least as it has been habitually practised, the focus of intellectual history is the study of the 'high' ideas of past periods, the views of intellectuals who participated in the learned culture of their time, writers who - in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - often wrote their books in the international learned language of Latin. Attention has been paid both to the philosophical and other theoretical ideas of an era and to its erudition - whether in history, science or even a subject like demonology - and the characteristic techniques deployed include the exact analysis of authors' arguments and methods, the assessment of their background, sources and originality, and hence the reconstruction of the process of intellectual development at the time.
Such studies' frequently focus on specific authors, if only as a means of building up a broader picture, and the writers typically selected for such analysis are thinkers and scholars singled out for the quality of their intellect rather than for their literary gifts or the size of their readership.
Classic examples would include Anthony Grafton's recent study of the great historian and chronologic, Joseph Scaliger (Joseph Scaliger: Study in the History of Classical Scholarship, 1983), which resurrects a whole world of complex ideas which would otherwise have remained buried in voluminous, unread tomes. Equally characteristic is Richard H. Popkin's History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, originally published in 1960 (retitled :A History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, 1980), or D.P. Walker's learned study of the magical ideas of thinkers ranging from Cornelius Agrippa to Francis Bacon in Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (1958).
But, if this is the area in which the subject-matter of intellectual history is most clearly defined, its boundaries are far from precise, as high ideas merge into middle-brow ones, and as one moves from thinkers in the vanguard of contemporary thought to others who purveyed less original notions. After all, intellectual history has a less forbidding synonym in the form of 'the ‘history of ideas’, and this is a term which is in many ways preferable, implying as it does a broader range of subject-matter of which the most abstruse ideas form only a part.
The ideas of a mediocre intellect may teach us as much about contemporary thought as those of the most original: my own study, John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning (1975), might be placed in this category, since Aubrey is interesting as much for the commonplace ideas to which he gave memorable expression as for his originality on some of the topics he studied. In addition, there is an important place for the study of the shared ideas of a larger historical group in the form of the literate class as a whole. Here one thinks of E.M.W. Tillyard's famous essay, The Elizabethan World Picture (1943), as exemplifying a whole genre which has sought to reconstruct the commonly accepted ideas of a period, often in an attempt to make sense of assumptions underlying contemporary literature.
The work of Keith Thomas, and perhaps particularly his recent study of Man and the Natural World (1983), falls into a comparable category, chronicling widely held ideas rather than erudite ones, but ideas which, it can be argued, were frequently more significant than those of ivory-towered intellectuals. Here, different techniques may come into play, particularly the juxtaposition of statements by a range of interlocutors to give a sense of shared opinions of the time, a technique which Keith Thomas' writings exemplify well.
Worms (English translation, 1980), in which many of the skills of the intellectual historian are deployed. The proliferation of radical ideas during and after the English Civil War is a comparable instance, reflected by a plethora of studies of which perhaps the most notable is Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down (1972).
Indeed, if anything there is currently a danger of such ideas receiving disproportionate attention while those of the learned are fashionably disdained. But this would be a mistake. In fact, a proper understanding of the thought of any period will depend on knowing about all ideas that were current, from the popular to the erudite. Moreover the spectrum of ideas thus laid out should not be taken for granted but should be the subject of investigation in itself. The inter-connection of ideas among different cultural strata in society cries out for attention: a study which does justice to that will have the best claims to be called the true intellectual history of its chosen period.
University, and co-author with Donald Winch & John Burrow of That Noble Science of Politics: a Study in Nineteenth Century Intellectual History (Cambridge U Press, 1983).
Europe since 1870 (Penguin, 1977).
Michigan, and author of In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Indiana university Press, 1985).
Cambridge, and author of Machiavelli (Oxford University Press, 1981).
University, Baltimore and author of Virtue, Commerce and History (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Pennsylvania, and author of Churchmen and Philosophers (Yale University Press, 1985).
England (Cambridge University Press, 1981).
- The Archive
- Medieval (4th-15thC)
- Early Modern (16th-18thC)
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology
- Central America
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Kings & Queens
- Prime Ministers
- US Presidents
- Special Series
- Student Advice
- Browse Back Issues
- History Review
- Digital Edition