Intellectual history

Intellectual history (also the History of ideas) is the study of the history of human thought and of intellectuals, the men and women who conceptualised and discussed, wrote about and concerned themselves with ideas. The investigative premise of intellectual history is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who conceptualised and applied the ideas; thus the historian of intellect studies ideas in two contexts: (i) as abstract propositions for critical application; and (ii) in concrete terms of culture, life, and history.[1]

The purpose of intellectual history is the study of texts (written, visual, etc.) in order to understand ideas from the past, by placing those ideas in the pertinent, sociological contexts of the politics and the culture of the society of the intelligentsia who produced the texts. In the study of ideas, a text can be read in chronological context (as a contribution to an academic discipline) or a text can be read in a contemporary context (the intellectuals’ participation in debate at a given time and place); each critical action that places ideas in different contexts is the work of the intellectual historian. As practised by historians, intellectual history exists in parallel to the history of philosophy as practised by philosophers.

As a field of intellectual enquiry, the history of ideas emerged from the European disciplines of Kulturgeschichte (Cultural History) and Geistesgeschichte (Intellectual History) from which historians might develop a global intellectual history that shows the parallels and the interrelations in the history of critical thinking in every society.[2][3] Likewise, the history of reading, and the history of the book, about the material aspects of book production (design, manufacture, distribution) developed from the history of ideas.

The concerns of intellectual history are the intelligentsia and the critical study of the ideas expressed in the texts produced by intellectuals; therein the difference between intellectual history from other forms of cultural history that study visual and non-verbal forms of evidence. In the production of knowledge, the concept of the intellectual as a political citizen of public society dates from the 19th century, and identifies a man or a woman who is professionally engaged with critical thinking that is applicable to improving society. Nonetheless, anyone who explored his or her thoughts on paper can be the subject of an intellectual history such as The Cheese and the Worms (1976), Carlo Ginzburg’s study of the 16th-century Italian miller Menocchio (1532–1599) and his cosmology, which falls within the genres of cultural history, the history of mentalities, and microhistory.[4]

History of the disciplineEdit

Intellectual history developed from the history of philosophy and cultural history as practiced since the times of Voltaire (1694–1778) and Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897). The scholarly efforts of the eighteenth century can be traced to The Advancement of Learning (1605), Francis Bacon’s call for what he termed “a literary history”. In economics, John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) was both an historian of economic thought,[5] and the subject of study by historians of economic thought, because of the significance of the Keynesian revolution.[6]

The contemporary understanding of intellectual history emerged in the immediate postwar period of the 1940s, 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” was developed in different and divergent intellectual directions, such as contextualism, historically sensitive accounts of intellectual activity in the corresponding historical priod, which investigative shift is reflected in the replacement of the term “history of ideas” with the term “intellectual history”.[7]

Intellectual history is multidisciplinary; thus 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 application of the ideas that Thomas Kuhn presented in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) to explain intellectual revolutions in economics and other disciplines.[8]

In continental Europe, the pertinent example of intellectual history is Begriffsgeschichte (History of Concepts, 2010), by Reinhart Koselleck. In Britain the history of political thought has been a particular focus since the late 1960s, and is especially associated with historians at Cambridge, such as John Dunn and Quentin Skinner, who studied European political thought in historical context, emphasizing the emergence and development of concepts such as the State and Freedom. Skinner is known for provocative, methodological essays that give prominence to the practice of intellectual history.[9] In the United States, intellectual history encompass different forms of intellectual production, not just the history of political ideas, and includes fields such as the history of historical thought, associated with Anthony Grafton (Princeton University) and J.G.A. Pocock (Johns Hopkins University). Formally established in 2010, the doctorate in History and Culture at Drew University is one of few graduate programs specializing in intellectual history, in the American and European contexts. Despite the pre-eminence of early modern intellectual historians (those studying the age from the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment), the intellectual history of the modern period also has been very productive on both shores of the Atlantic Ocean, e.g. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001), by Louis Menand and The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–50 (1973), by Martin Jay.


The Lovejoy approachEdit

The historian Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) coined the phrase history of ideas[citation needed] and initiated its systematic study[10] in the early decades of the 20th century. Johns Hopkins University was a "fertile cradle" to Lovejoy's history of ideas;[11] 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.[12] 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,[13] 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.[10]


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,[10] 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?] [14] 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.[15] 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."[16] 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.[17] 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."[17] 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 approachEdit

Michel Foucault rejected narrative, the historian’s traditional mode of communication, because of the shallow treatment of facts, figures, and people in a long period, rather than deep research that shows the interconnections among the facts, figures, and people of a specific period of history.[18] Foucault said that historians should reveal historical descriptions through the use of different perspectives of the “archaeology of knowledge”, which historical method for writing history is in four ideas.

First, the archaeology of knowledge defines the period of history through philosophy, by way of the discourses among thought, representation, and themes. Second, that the notion of discontinuity has an important role in the disciplines of history. Third, that discourse does not seek to grasp the moment in history, wherein the social and the persons under study are inverted into each other. Fourth, that Truth is not the purpose of history, but the discourse contained in history.[19]

Global intellectual historyEdit

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.[20]

In 2016, the Routledge journal Global Intellectual History (ed. Richard Whatmore) was established.[21] 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.[22][23]

Prominent individualsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Grafton, Anthony. “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. ^ Julie Fox-Horton (November 2015). "Review of Ginzburg, Carlo, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller". H-Net Reviews. Retrieved May 10, 2019.
  5. ^ John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Biography, Macmillan, 1933.
  6. ^ Clark, Peter. The Keynesian Revolution in the Making, 1924–1936 (1988); Donald Markwell, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace (2006) Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Richter, Melvin. “Begriffsgeschichte and the History of Ideas”, Journal of the History of Ideas (1987): 247-263. in JSTOR
  8. ^ Mehta, Ghanshyam. The Structure of the Keynesian Revolution (1977).
  9. ^ Richter, Melvin. “Reconstructing the History of Political Languages: Pocock, Skinner, and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe”, History and Theory (1990): 38–70. online[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ a b c Arthur Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), ISBN 0-674-36153-9
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Arthur Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-313-20504-3
  13. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-691-09026-2
  14. ^ Quentin Skinner (1969). "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas". History and Theory 8 (1): 3–53.
  15. ^ Andreas Dorschel, Ideengeschichte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010. ISBN 978-3-8252-3314-3
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ a b Peter E. Gordon, "What is intellectual history? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field". Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  18. ^ Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On History", Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.
  19. ^ Foucault, Michel. "Archaeology of Knowledge, Introduction", A.M. Sherida Smith, Ed. Vintage, 1982.
  20. ^ Moyn, Samuel; Sartori, Andrew, eds. (June 2013). Global Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231534598.
  21. ^ "Global Intellectual History: Vol 4, No 2". Retrieved 2019-06-24.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ Dunn, John (2013-11-21). "Why We Need A Global History of Political Thought". Retrieved 2019-06-24.

Further readingEdit



  • 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 sourcesEdit

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

External linksEdit