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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. 

Stefan Collini

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.

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