Intellectual History for Beginners
This article is intended for graduate students and young researchers who have just started to take an interest in intellectual history or are considering dipping their toe into the subject. This is neither a scholarly article nor a condensed lesson on the subject; this article simply highlights the necessary preliminary knowledge you should have when entering the small world of intellectual historians, and before engaging with the necessary first readings (important authors and concepts are marked in bold). I will confine myself to sharing my (very recent) experience as a beginner and first-year PhD student working on intellectual history and offering some useful tips and insights.
Like any other branch of historiography, intellectual history has a long and rich tradition. But a quick overview of the secondary literature reveals that its place in the pantheon of historical disciplines has often been contested, as it’s always suspected of being less “seriously” historical. The introduction to the recent edited volume Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History argues that intellectual history has been undermined in recent years by a “decline in self-reflection”, despite its prominence as a field . Let’s dive in the intricacies of this insubordinate yet fascinating discipline.
What you need to know: the basics
- Intellectual history is not the history of ideas. The extensive literature available on the matter cautions us not to confuse these disciplines. When doing intellectual history, you’re not only looking at ideas as abstract entities existing in theory; rather, you’re explaining a multi-dimensional phenomenon involving men and women, society as whole, endowed with various political and cultural representations, that led to the emergence of a specific way of thinking at a certain point in time, or what is called the zeitgeist, the “spirit of the age”.
- As such, intellectual history is by definition interdisciplinary. which unveils intellectual history’s inherent paradox: it has acquired an identity as a separate branch of the humanities since the 1950s while maintaining its interdisciplinary nature. Following a wave of game-changing criticism, historians easily agree today on the benefits of borrowing techniques from neighboring disciplines such as sociology, linguistics, cultural studies and others. It won’t demean the “historicity” of you work!
- Your main material is texts. This may seem self-evident, as history in general relies on the textual scrutiny of past documents, but where other historiographical branches use texts as means to understand something else, for intellectual historians they are both the tools and the objects of study. Naturally, this doesn’t preclude the use of oral, visual and other supplementary sources, especially in the case of contemporary history. Incidentally, I would recommend digitizing your texts as much and as soon as possible, especially if they’re not concentrated in one archival center.
- In recent years, intellectual history has been marked by a greater focus on popular ways of thinking. A wave of democratization shook the field in the 1960s, with many scholars denouncing the excessive attention to elite discourse, and pleading for the right of minority groups to be the objects of inquiry. As a result, “normal” and common ways of thinking are now studied more extensively, a trend which distances intellectual history as a sub-field from the history of political thought, which focuses chiefly on the corpus of 17th- and 18th-century philosophical texts (Hobbes and the gang, in other words).
The discourse on the method
“So I don’t aim here to teach the method that everyone must follow (…), but only to display how I have tried to direct my own.” – René Descartes
There is a broad consensus among scholars on the lack of consensus itself concerning the techniques and the goals of intellectual history. So do not worry if you don’t find during your preliminary work a clear and precise method to guide your first steps. Discussions over the very definition of intellectual history have always been marred by polemics – a situation which, paradoxically, has allowed more room for methodological experimentation.
In this regard, it is hard not to find a mention in the existing literature of the most notorious debate in the field, sparked by Quentin Skinner, of the Cambridge School of Intellectual History, and his context-bound theory . Criticizing Arthur Lovejoy’s “idea-unit” theory, which advocated tracing an idea from its original roots through the centuries in both its philosophical and its literary manifestations, Skinner proposed a paradigm shift by focusing on social context as a means of understanding an idea.
For some time, contextualism became the “the spontaneous philosophy of the historian” (thanks to Althusser for the re-usable fancy formulation), but as Justin Timberlake famously sung, “what goes around comes around”, and it became Skinner’s turn to face his theoretical detractors. Indeed, critics have highlighted the risks of an approach overly dependent on context, which would lead to an excess of holism and historicism: the insistence that an idea could be grasped only through the reconstitution of its “original context” would make any derivative idea illegitimate while decreasing its longevity by relegating it to bygone eras. Too much of anything is bad, even in the realm of methodological puritanism (intellectual history is no exception!), and so it’s safe to say today that ideas are both context-transcendent and context-bound.
But the most enduring attacks have come from neighboring historiographical fields since intellectual history has come to be seen as the prestigious study of “important ideas” produced by “great thinkers”. The “new social history” movement of the 1960s and the “new cultural history” of the 1980s introduced innovative methodological tools within the field: intellectual historians were compelled to take the inner mechanisms of language into greater consideration, especially with the rise of post-structuralism and the influential work of Michel Foucault, and adopted as their own many social theories and sociological approaches.
Therefore, to thrive as an intellectual historian, it would be of great benefit to familiarize yourself (you’re probably already a pro) with some precepts of literary analysis or linguistics and read more about concepts such as representation, social imaginary, champ littéraire and habitus (special shout-out to Bourdieu). And as far as method is concerned, no one says it better than our old pal Descartes: there is no unified methodology in intellectual history (I can confirm that many university professors had the exact same answer to my anxious inquiries), and you should be able to develop your own to suit your research by mixing and matching the eclectic range of techniques available.
European peculiarities vs. global intellectual history
Your understanding of intellectual history will also depend on the tradition followed by your institution and the country where you’re studying or conducting your research. European and western universities in general have been pioneers in the field of intellectual history, though this doesn’t mean a common framework of study exists. As a result, you will probably have a different approach to intellectual history than another scholar working on a very similar topic. Indeed, whereas UK (and US) universities have recognized it as a separate academic subject for a long time now, their curricula even offering specialized masters in the field, it has also often been integrated into other subjects, such as cultural studies or political thought and philosophy.
In France, for instance, intellectual history has only very recently been accepted as a worthy historical subfield. Because of the pre-eminence of philosophy as an academic discipline, a proper history of ideas never really developed in French universités. French intellectual history was also heavily influenced by social history, the best illustration of this being the rise of the Annales school, which famously fostered the study of mentalities. In addition, the continual influence of post-structuralist sociology in France has shifted the focus from intellectual history per se to the human actors responsible for it: recent years have seen a host of brillant studies on intellectuals, men of letters and the intellectual society as a whole.
In Germany, it was conceptual history which was at the core of intellectual history. Begriffsgeschichte (I concede that the word may seem terrifying at first, especially for those unfamiliar with German, but it’s actually a very valuable tool) is being revisited and dissociated from its western European background to be used as an instrument for comprehending the lived experiences of non-elite groups through the concepts and vocabulary they use. In short, a multitude of traditions and approaches combine to make intellectual history a comprehensive and promising field.
But the dominance of European scholarship in the field is becoming increasingly contested, as it’s indirectly responsible for erecting the European corpus as the universal norm to which all traditions must be compared. This explains the wide propagation nowadays of “global intellectual history”, which has allowed other national and non-European schools of thought to develop in the field of intellectual history.
But the definition of global intellectual history itself is still subject to debate. It has been suggested that the “global” in intellectual history does not necessarily refer to the scale of inquiry, but rather relates to the study of travellers, and the ways in which they allow mutual intellectual influence to flourish across boundaries. In this respect, friendship has become an unavoidable trope in intellectual history. Of course, mobility does not induce imitation. Oriental and Eastern thought can thus escape the traumatizing “impact and reaction” trope – as “words and concepts [may be] lost in translation” . What is at stake here, if you’re interested in non-European intellectual history, is the potentiality represented by errors and imprecision in translation, from one tradition to another, which indirectly transforms any “initial” idea into a whole new concept, more suitable to the non-native context. And thus, intellectual historians are encouraged today to explore the growing mobility of concepts and ideas as another way to tell the captivating story of our increasingly more “global” world.
Some readings to start with
Feature image references
‘Portrait of French philosopher Michel Foucault taken on December 16, 1981’ by Alexis Duclos/AP, provided via France Culture
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