Intellectual history  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Intellectual history refers to the historiography of major ideas and thinkers. This history cannot be considered without the knowledge of the men and women 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, and is more akin to the the history of ideas. Its central premise is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who create and use them and that one must study ideas not as abstract propositions but in terms of the culture, lives and historical contexts that produced them.

Intellectual history aims to understand ideas from the past by understanding them in context. The term 'context' in the preceding sentence is ambiguous: it can be political, cultural, intellectual and social. 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, but not limited to, 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. 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.

Intellectual historiography

Intellectual history as a self-conscious discipline is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has precedents, however, in the history of philosophy, the history of ideas, and in cultural history as practiced since Burckhardt or indeed since Voltaire. The history of the human mind, as it was called in the eighteenth century, was of great concern to scholars and philosophers, and their efforts can in part be traced to Francis Bacon’s call for what he termed a literary history in his The Advancement of Learning. However, the discipline of intellectual history as it is now understood emerged only 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 discredited and replaced by more nuanced and more historically sensitive accounts of intellectual activity, and this shift is reflected in the replacement of the phrase history of ideas by intellectual history.

In the United Kingdom, the history of political thought has been a particular focus since the late 1960s and is associated especially with the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, where until recently such scholars as John Dunn and Quentin Skinner 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. The University of Sussex in the UK has also achieved a reputation in this field of study, and the Sussex emphasis on broad interdisciplinary study has been particularly useful in relevant teaching and research.

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.

Prominent individuals

See also




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