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Intellectual history as an academic discipline is nowadays taken for granted: learned journals are devoted to it and universities in the UK and the US offer a variety of graduate and postgraduate courses in the field. However, this was not always the case. After a brief panoramic account of its historical development on both sides of the Atlantic, this research paper will focus on the main work carried out in intellectual history in the last few decades. Particular attention will be given to some practitioners (e.g., Quentin Skinner, John W. Burrow, Stefan Collini) and their methodological approach to the study of past ideas. By concentrating on the practice and role of the intellectual historian, the object ‘intellectual history’ will be presented not only as a vibrant scholarly activity but also as a valuable attempt at understanding our society from a plurality of perspectives. In order not to sound too optimistic about this intellectual enterprise, attention will equally be paid to the French case as an instance of a country where intellectual history is still seen with suspicion, and of an academic world where it is not that much studied nor practiced.
- A Historical Take
- The Cambridge School
- German Begriffsgeschichte, Michel Foucault, and French Dismissal
- Sussex, Burrow, and Collini
- Intellectual History and Its Future: The Practitioner
To be asked ‘what do you do for a living?’ might be an occasion for displaying one’s pride in himself/herself, a way of showing one’s ambitions, a source of embarrassment or, less dramatically but perhaps more interestingly, a chance of reflecting seriously on how one spends his/her days. Historians are people who are particularly prone to embark upon this self-examining journey: what instruments do they use when studying the past? What kind of material do they work on? Why do they choose one methodological and/or historiographical approach instead of another?
Intellectual history offers the paradox of a field of research whose practitioners, despite constantly addressing this type of questions, often find themselves under attack for pursuing a historical enterprise which is not, and cannot be, clearly defined; for lacking rigor as well as a recognizable identity; and for being amateurs allergic to archives. A frequently heard refrain has it that, because of its shifty nature, intellectual history is like “nailing jelly to the wall” (Parageau, 2010). In order to tackle these claims, and reveal their manifest narrowmindedness, this research paper traces some key historical developments in intellectual history and casts new light on the work of some of its most significant practitioners.
A Historical Take
What is now commonly referred to as ‘intellectual history’ has a precursor. That precursor took the name of ‘the history of ideas’ with at its head the American philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) – founder of the long-standing Journal of the History of Ideas (1940) – who first used the phrase in 1919. Before then, one needs to go back a good couple of centuries and consider the lesson of the German Aufklärung, Giambattista Vico’s elaboration of his New Science (1725) and the Eclecticism of Victor Cousin in nineteenth-century France (Kelley, 2002). Cousin (1792–1867) developed the history of ideas as an independent discipline associated with philosophy, but one where the prevalence was of history rather than of ideas in the Platonic sense. The ideal and the real found thus a bridge, first, in the history of ideas and, subsequently and more cogently, in intellectual history. At the discipline’s inception, a crucial discussion saw those who regarded ideas as exclusively the product of the mind (‘internalist’ perspective) opposed to those for whom ideas had to be placed in their cultural, political, social context (‘externalist’ perspective). This exemplifies the contrast between the notion of the timelessness of ideas and their transcendent validity, and that of their inescapably historical and contextual nature.
On the basis of this brief – and inevitably selective – account, we can agree with Anthony Grafton that the history of ideas was always practiced, even before becoming part of the discipline of history (Grafton, 2006). In this respect, in the current panorama of higher education the existence of academic chairs as well as of undergraduate and postgraduate courses dedicated to intellectual history, especially in British, North American, and Australian universities, might be taken for granted. Similarly given is that recognition has also been conferred upon it by the foundation of specialized publications such as History of European Ideas (1980) and the more recent Modern Intellectual History (2004) and Intellectual History Review (2007). Intellectual history – we may dare say – has never had it so good. And yet this achievement took a long time to be accomplished and was never short of impasses (Mandelbaum, 1965).
The cornerstone of Lovejoy’s work was the investigation of conceptual problems derived from, and intertwined with, history and philosophy. He contested William James’ proposition that consciousness and ideas do not have an existence, and argued that there were unit-ideas, which remained constant throughout history but to which varying historical circumstances gave different answers. Unit-ideas framed all great works of literature, art, science, and philosophy in the West (e.g., the great chain of being). They constituted an intellectual continuum recoverable thanks to the critical selection of texts (Lovejoy, 1964). For Lovejoy this did not mean to deal exclusively with the great thinkers, but it entailed to extend research to popular opinions, so as to grasp problems, questions and experiences of the time under scrutiny (Kelley, 2002).
According to Felix Gilbert, in the late 1930s in the US the term “‘intellectual history’ had not yet become a household word”, even though it had ‘gradually’ entered scholarly parlance. Gilbert identified Perry Miller’s New England Mind (1939) as the first work, which could be properly defined as “an ‘intellectual history’”. One distinct feature of the discipline was its ‘search for precision’ in reaction to accusations that intellectual historians used words like “‘influence’ or ‘dominating trend’” too loosely. On Gilbert’s account, focus on ‘exactitude’ suggested intellectual historians’ willingness ‘to compete’ with social historians. As a result, intellectual history acknowledged the existence of ‘political, economic, and social forces’ and underscored its relation to them. For the intellectual historian, this meant to work at the ‘crucial point of the historical process’ where ‘long-range factors’, on one side, and ‘the individual event’, on the other, became connected by ‘human consciousness’ (Gilbert, 1971).
Turning to Britain in the 1930s, we find another famous historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin (1909–97), experience a large dose of intellectual loneliness in that “intellectual history fell between two stools, neglected by philosophy, history and politics alike”. In fact, at that time “the study of the history of ideas [.] barely existed at Oxford”. This is why Berlin accepted more and more invitations to lecture in the US, where “intellectual history, especially of the Russian nineteenth century, had academic standing” (Ignatieff, 1998). On the whole, it is undeniable that in Britain a major contribution to the discipline was given by émigré scholars like Berlin himself and Arnaldo Momigliano (1908–87) – and closer to us by, e.g., Istvan Hont (1947–2013). And this in a climate of open hostility to it shown by other émigré scholars like the antiintellectual Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton (Young, 2006).
With the 1950s (notably, in the US) came the rise of intellectual history as a prominent discipline until its phase of ‘decline’ in the late 1960s, followed by a full-on ‘crisis’ in the 1970s and early to mid-1980s, when a new style in the ‘rethinking’ of intellectual history and its identity was fostered by scholars like Hayden White (1928–) and Dominick LaCapra (1939–) (Jacoby, 1992). Writing in 1977, Paul. K. Conkin stated that in the US “[i]ntellectual history now seems as dated as narrow ties”, to the extent that only “a peculiarly reckless graduate student” could “don the label and move with it into a perilous job market” dominated by fashions (Conkin, 1977). Ten years later and in Britain, John W. Burrow too spoke of the lack of ‘recognition’ accorded to intellectual history (Cuttica, 2014). So much so that he epigrammatically declared that “the fate of an intellectual historian” was “to feel at best marginal in the company of ‘proper’ historians and, when giving talks, to be playing what Donald [Winch] calls ‘away matches’” (Burrow, 2009). In a similar vein, Stefan Collini has pointed out that while historians of philosophy work on past texts, which have been reputed to be philosophically interesting, intellectual historians are condescendingly given the task to deal with the rest, that is with the less interesting philosophical writers or ideas of the past (Collini, 2001).
Significantly though, Burrow’s contribution to assessing the status of the discipline written almost 20 years later offered a much more optimistic picture. In fact, he spoke of the ‘revolution’ that had occurred in ‘the academic standing’ of intellectual history in England (Burrow, 2006). A key role in this important change has no doubt been played by the Cambridge School (a misnomer) principally identified with John Dunn (1940–), John G.A. Pocock (1924–), and Quentin Skinner (1939–) and by the University of Sussex among whose original members were Burrow himself (1935–2009) and Collini (1947–).
The Cambridge School
The 1960s and, above all, the 1970s saw the emergence of the contextualist approach to the history of ideas pioneered by Dunn, Pocock, and Skinner (scholars engaged in the history of political thought). Shifting the traditional focus from the great authors of the past taken as immortal and coherent voices of eternally valid truths, the history of ideas became the history of languages, discourse, paradigms, vocabularies, ideologies in historical context. Instead of being seen proleptically (as the anticipation of other doctrines in the present) or anachronistically (as the projection in the past of concepts elaborated now), ideas were interpreted by placing the texts in which they were conveyed within their intellectual milieu. Dunn adopted this method to study John Locke (1969), while Skinner set forth this way of reading past authors in articles on Hobbes (1960s) and in The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978); as for Pocock, one needs to consider his influential The Machiavellian Moment (1975). Despite sharing a general methodological take on the past, these scholars hold by no means the same views.
In particular, whereas Pocock studied the theories expounded by thinkers at different times by capturing the various languages they spoke (e.g., the language of the ancient constitution, natural law, classical republicanism, politeness, and civility (Pocock, 1985, 2009)), Skinner concentrated on the intentions of the authors. This means to look at texts as the articulation of stances in a dialogue in which a great role is played both by the exchange of ideas and by the constant invention of arguments and counterarguments in controversies. Endorsing this view enables readers to ask which works and which theorists certain texts responded to and why specific languages were chosen to defend a specific political position. Skinner’s reelaboration of the theory of ‘speech acts’ – formulated by J.L. Austin and John Searle – helps to grasp authors’ concepts by paying attention to the multifarious ways in which language(s) and discourse(s) function. Moreover, Skinner stressed the importance of considering the doing(s) when exploring the meaning(s) of texts.
The Cambridge School forcefully criticized Lovejoy’s ‘unitideas’ for failing to explain how these were used and interpreted by those who did so in their contexts. Ideas (and concepts) mean something for people and their audiences, and are connected to the authors’ goals and vocabularies (synchronic approach). Ideas also change over time and patterns of new meanings intervene in different historical phases (diachronic approach). Most importantly, the linguistic approach to political texts pursued by Pocock and Skinner (influenced by authors like R.G. Collingwood and Ludwig Wittgenstein) differs from the perspective of Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte (whose influences lie with Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer).
German Begriffsgeschichte, Michel Foucault, and French Dismissal
Begriffsgeschichte (the history of concepts or conceptual history) originated in the late 1960s and it is generally associated with Otto Brunner (1898–1982), Werner Conze (1910–86), and, above all, Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006). Their attempt was to connect concepts with social history, examining structural modifications in politics, economy, society. They paid attention to semantic change (‘keywords’) within social and political contexts. Their Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1972–97) placed the language used to discuss the state, society, and economy in relation to the strata, groups, and orders that employed or rejected such a language (Richter, 1987). For Koselleck, the fundamental moment in old- Europe German-speaking history was what he called Sattelzeit (1750–1850) that signaled the transformation of concepts used in political and social language. This involved the advent of modernity whose key concepts were identified with ‘historicization’, ‘ideologization’, ‘democratization’, and ‘politicization’ (Cuttica, 2012).
By focusing more on the practical implications of concepts rather than on their linguisticality, Koselleck’s perspective incurred the criticism of the Cambridge School. The divergence between the two methodologies recalls what Pocock defined as the problem of the separation/unity of social structure (manifested, for instance, in official languages) and discourse (intended as speech and intertwined with debate) (Pocock, 1987). As for Skinner, Begriffsgeschichte detaches concepts from their specific historical settings. It also undermines the role of human agency in the formulation of opinions and theories. According to Skinner, the problem with Begriffsgeschichte is its identifying a text as the byword of a static mentalité which, in turn, is the expression of a given social formation (Bevir, 2000). Nonetheless, the two approaches share a vigorous rejection of those historiographical currents, which see ideas as passive utterances of a specific social reality or as eternal essences (Tully, 1988; Skinner, 2002).
If this account shows some differences between conceptual and intellectual history, it is also worth recalling that Michel Foucault (1926–84) – well known for his genealogical method – distinguished the history of thought (implying a process of detachment from one’s convictions), the history of ideas (the analysis of systems of representations through which we see the world), and the history of mentalities (the analysis of the type of action and attitudes which give meaning to it). Thought expresses our freedom in relation to what we do, so as to establish this as an object and reflect on it as a problem. Hence Foucault referred to a ‘history of problematics’. This approach does not entail deconstruction, but a critical analysis where one tries to see how different solutions to a problem have been constructed, and also how these solutions stem from a specific form of problematization. Foucault analyzed discourse as the totality, which characterizes our horizon in history. In other terms, he argued that there is no unified subject whom we might take as an agent of meaning. Rather, there is a dispersion of the (historical) subject. According to its critics, the history of discourse erases the singularity of the individual and his/her creativity (Rabinow, 1991).
The reference to Foucault serves to introduce the historical neglect of the history of ideas in the French academic world. As François Azouvi piquantly remarked more than 20 years ago, outside France to be an intellectual historian does not make one a source of national disgrace (Azouvi, 1992). A key reason for this situation has to do with the predominance of philosophy not only as an academic discipline but also as a fundamental subject in the French teaching system. The history of philosophy has been regarded as having more ‘substance’ than the history of ideas, as if the object of study attended to by the former had more dignity than that pursued by the latter. While for the history of mentalities and for social history, the history of ideas is too little anchored in the institutional scaffolding of a society, for the history of science and for the history of philosophy it turns out to be too little abstract. The history of ideas has also been accused of spreading some sort of idolatry of the influence and for being deprived of any normative guidance (Azouvi, 1992).
Undoubtedly, the strong role played by the Annales school (1950–80) has prevented the development of research in intellectual history, and in the best of cases has tied it heavily with cultural and social history (Roger Chartier). Perhaps, the tendency on the part of (many) French historians to worship archival work might have had something to do with their ignoring intellectual history. It is also important to point out that in France intellectual history has often been confused with the history of the intellectuals, a tradition which has been particularly strong from the affaire Dreyfus (1894– 1906) and Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (1927) up to the controversies between Camus and Sartre, and then on to Bourdieu and the philosophers of the so-called French Theory such as Althusser, Deleuze, and Derrida (Dosse, 2003). More interest has thus been poured into a sociology of the intellectuals than into genuinely critical studies of past ideas in context. This series of factors is thereby behind the still very uncertain status assigned to intellectual history, and the hostility with which it is frequently portrayed, in France.
This being said, new generations of – bi/multi-lingual – scholars are now engaging with intellectual history in refreshing fashions (Vincent, 2003; Parageau, 2010). As Sandrine Parageau has recently observed, intellectual history is criticized for its ‘obsession’ with methodological issues. It is accused of being parasitic with regard to traditional history and it is dismissed as “[a] cuckoo in the historical nest”. After all, Foucault attacked the history of ideas for being confusing in terms of disciplinary boundaries, for its extensive borrowing from other disciplines, and for its lack of soundness. According to Foucault, it was not a discipline, but “un style d’analyse”. In fact, as Parageau maintains, intellectual history moves fruitfully across disciplines in a transdisciplinary rather than simply interdisciplinary manner: while interdisciplinarity “invites exchange between disciplines”, transdisciplinarity “goes further, and trenchantly proceeds to pursue a true break in the global conception of the world and of science”. Therefore, for Parageau this “freedom and creativity cannot be practiced but on the fringes of academia and its organization, that is to say there where it is still possible to get rid of disciplinary habits and dare undertake new approaches of research” (Parageau, 2010).
This view was first taken 50 years ago across the Channel in Brighton.
Sussex, Burrow, and Collini
Almost from its foundation (1961), the University of Sussex developed a congenial environment in which to pursue interdisciplinary research. With ‘an independent syllabus’, separate ‘admissions’ and ‘examinations papers’, intellectual history at Sussex ‘was at one time the only undergraduate degree of its kind’ in the UK (it was preceded by an MA program). The first lectureship in intellectual history was assigned to Larry Siedentop in 1972 and was taken up by Stefan Collini 2 years later (Collini, 2000). Thanks to courses like ‘Concepts, method, and values in the social sciences’ (CMV), Sussex benefited from a system of joint teaching involving literature, history, philosophy, and the history of science. The CMV’s threefold methodology drew on “the history of ideas or intellectual history”, attempting “to establish the filiation of particular ideas or schools of thought, their origins and lines of mutual interaction”; on “the approach of the social historian” investigating “the link between social science and the efforts of particular groups or individuals” to improve society and implement ideals into practice; and on “the social scientists approach to the history of social science” (Cuttica, 2014). Together with Siedentop and Collini, Hellmut O. Pappe, Donald Winch, John W. Burrow, Michael Moran, and others formed ‘a group of like-minded scholars’ who carried out research and teaching, which refused to embrace academic tribalism and departmental straightjackets. Interestingly, according to Collini, to speak of a ‘Sussex School’ would be ‘a culpable form of exaggeration or reification’ in that there never was such a programmatic adherence to one ‘explicit and exclusive’ method (Collini, 2000). Such an idyllic situation lasted until the axe of the government fell on small departments which were by decree incorporated within larger academic units (Cuttica, 2014).
The best way to sketch the significance of the Sussex experience is by illustrating some of the most original ideas on the métier d’historien elucidated by Burrow (who moved to Oxford University in 1995) and Collini (who moved to Cambridge University in 1986). The former was a prolific author of monographs devoted to unravel the complexity of many intellectual aspects of modern European culture. Averse to methodological abstraction, Burrow pursued history knowing that the latter – following Burckhardt’s maxim – is “the record of what one age finds of interest in another” (Cuttica, 2014). Elegant, sharp, and erudite, Burrow’s writings championed the importance of history as a narrative of the past according to its actors in contrast to readings of it imbued with presentism-tailored goals. With Collini and Winch, Burrow explained that the intellectual historian ought “to be alive to the several dimensions of the thought and feeling of the past”. This means to be receptive to ‘the sensibilities’ of various authors; ‘to the emotional and aesthetic satisfaction’ past theorists ‘derived from their views’; to their ‘styles’; to the ‘genres’ through which they conveyed their principles; and to the tension between their search for ‘coherence’ and their ‘deeply felt intuitions’ (Collini et al., 1983).
Burrow viewed the practitioner as an explorer whose adventure consists in a ‘genuine negotiation’ with past utterances, whereby he/she both listens and speaks to them. To listen to past dialogues is a way of overcoming ‘the parochialism of the present’ and of enabling one’s audience ‘to listen with an understanding which is not superficial but intimate’. For Burrow, we need to pursue a ‘two-sided’ engagement with historical phenomena whereby we retain the ability to be surprised by them and their unexpected tonalities. In an equally intriguing fashion, Burrow portrayed intellectual historians as both eavesdroppers on the conversations that went on in the past and translators (Burrow, 2006). As eavesdroppers, they mingle opacity and clarity. As translators, they do not play the role of sympathetic actors reexperiencing events, but focus on transmission. They are a sort of go between bringing to life the voices of the past. To study history means to travel back in time (and then forward into the present) equipped with concepts, which are our own and through which we attempt to make some sense of what took place before. To do so thoroughly is to rethink the categories we apply in our exploration of past ideas and events. All historical reconstruction has thus to be informed by a certain amount of creativity. From this reconstructive attempt emerges an intellectual historian who ‘can be bothered to disturb’ the ‘oblivion’ to which too many opinions – now unfashionable, when not disparaged as absurd – have been, and are, confined. To write intellectual history has nothing to do with what we think to be important at a given time, but it concerns what past actors considered relevant then. Therefore, its practitioner is more interested in highlighting ‘intellectual dead ends’, which were once fostering debate, than in concentrating on ‘portentous moments, which were then not recognized as such’. To undertake this scholarly route means to descend closer to the pulse(s) of the intellectual life of past epochs (Burrow, 2000).
From nineteenth-century historical studies to analyses of the current state of affairs in our universities, Stefan Collini is an eclectic intellectual historian and a widely read author of critical essays and reviews for a multiple range of English-speaking publications. At home in different genres and styles, as well as in a broad spectrum of chronologically disparate topics, Collini writes about complex themes in a manner which, without losing in depth or elegance, is capable of reaching a public vaster than that usually addressed by the majority of academics. Collini has defined his intellectual trajectory as follows: “My formation is very much that of an historian, trained in England and the United States, working primarily on English intellectual history; after doing some work on the history of political thought and the history of sociology, my interests have moved more towards the history of cultural and literary criticism” (Collini, 1988). For Collini, “labels like ‘intellectual history’” are thus no more than ‘flags of convenience’: they are not ‘names of essences’. Hence ‘those who apply the label to themselves’ do not have ‘any monopoly on right-minded historical practice’. Like Burrow, Collini prefers the term “intellectual history” to “the history of ideas” because the former underscores the involvement with a ‘human activity’ rather than with mere abstractions taken as independent and a contextual object of study. This is why “the best work in intellectual history precisely attempts to give their proper place to.social forces, institutional frameworks, political pressures” in the life of thought and its agents.
In Collini’s view, one central concern for the intellectual historian is the instability of all disciplinary boundaries. Disciplines are complex compounds of different ‘practices’ assembled as a unity thanks to intellectual coherence just as much as to ‘historical accident or institutional convenience’. Their multifarious developments and the ways in which they change are the object of research in intellectual history. Thus, intellectual history-driven questions concentrate on why and how a certain label has been assigned to a certain scholarly activity, and consequently this leads to delineate the ambitions, interests, and convictions prevalent in a given society at a specific historical juncture. Collini calls for historians to emancipate themselves from the strictures informing ‘disciplinary history’ (Collini, 2001). In fact, whereas “discipline-history bores a ‘vertical’ hole in the past (with all the consequent dangers of ‘tunnel-vision’), intellectual history attempts rather to excavate a ‘lateral’ site, to explore the presuppositions, ramifications, and resonances of ideas, which may often involve pursuing them into neighboring fields” (Collini, 1988).
Drawing on his critical assessment of C.P. Snow’s famous and controversial 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures, Collini invites scholars to confront ‘larger questions’, which have to do with society, so as to expand a dialogue that is not confined to the frequently navel-gazing specialism of one’s own profession. In this respect, he refers to ‘brilliant individuals like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Hawking’ as men of science and authors capable of engaging wide audiences without diminishing the degree of creative thinking and scientific rigor of their work. In so doing, it is possible to communicate clearly with ‘a nonspecialist readership’ and transmit to it the importance of highly specialized and ‘technical research’ (Collini, 1998).
Another major feature of Collini’s writings is their demythologizing a series of idées recues, which hinder genuine historical understanding. This practice has been applied to debunk what he has called the ‘absence thesis’ whereby Britain is traditionally depicted as a land lacking intellectuals or one inhospitable to them compared to other countries. Collini has shown the paradoxical nature of many culturally ingrained claims about an object of study, a fashion, a tendency, or a situation. In this respect, he is a dismantlercum- flair of all rigid assumption impoverishing the historical perspective (Collini, 2006). Allergic to the blinkered theoretical imperatives imposed on historical research, Collini has made clear that “the merits of the history written depends on qualities which no theory can adequately prescribe” (Collini, 1985). In line with this idea, and thanks to a prose sparkling with piercing irony and impressive learning, his writings embody the vocation to abandon ‘the ghetto mentality’ stifling academic research and to move away from specialists’ entrenched ‘disdain for communicating’ the results of their work more broadly. Indeed, this openness is part and parcel of the type of intellectual history originally made in Sussex whose brand was the promotion of “a public language in which nonquantifiable considerations can be given their proper weight” (Collini, 1988, 1998). Perhaps, Collini’s pursuits help delineate a new identity for the practitioner as critic – literary, political, cultural – whose feet are well-grounded in the sticky fields of historical narrative and whose voice reaches audiences not confined to the usual arenas of intellectual exchange.
Intellectual History and Its Future: The Practitioner
Taking the cue from Lovejoy’s dictumthat “the history of ideas is no subject of highly departmentalized minds” (Lovejoy, 1964), it would be professionally parochial and scholarly unhelpful to prescribe a series of criteria or, worse, rules enabling to identify true intellectual history from fake ones. Perhaps, less arrogantly but more usefully, one could point to some – nonexclusive nor exhaustive – traits that inform the practice of intellectual historians now working on varied topics from a plurality of perspectives. To do so might dispel some of the confusion that often shrouds all attempt at drawing intellectual history’s (very mobile) borders. It might also provide an idea of future research directions likely to be taken by a large number of those who to the question opening this research paper would be brave enough to answer ‘I do intellectual history’.
- Rigorous analysis of texts and critical examination of their content combined with close attention to the material conditions of their production and literary forms; their cultural and sociopolitical contexts; and their assumption about, e.g., gender, race, and identity.
- Interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinarity.
- Focus on the linguistic behavior of agents in the past.
- Insistence on the contextual dimension of ideas.
- Analysis of locutionary and illocutionary acts (the doings of the agents when performing linguistically), which involves a good degree of attention to the web of meanings, which gave a particular utterance or text their contemporary significance (importance of historical distance in that one deals with assumptions, opinions, references that are not his/her own).
- Equal relevance to failed ideas just as much as to successful and coherent ones. Intellectual history studies wrong principles and does not seek truth in the same way as it is often pursued by philosophers.
- Study of the (long-term) consequences, implications, and legacy of ideas, which, in turn, leads to concentrate on their being distorted, manipulated, or simply adjusted to new epochs and/or cultural milieus.
- Rejection of periodization as a way of fixing the boundaries between, say, ‘medieval’, ‘modern’, and ‘contemporary’, and consequently establishing strict areas of competence expertise between historians.
- Interplay of diachronic–synchronic approach.
- Criticism of anachronism and prolepsis.
- Writing of intellectual biographies where the life of ideas receives as much heed as the personal sphere of the individual( s) treated.
- Interest in the materiality of things-objects charged with cultural significance (e.g., museums, houses, villas, monuments, scientific instruments, places of science).
- Expansion of the range of sources considered as valuable objects of critical exploration (e.g., poetry, fiction, paintings, nature, photographs).
- New consideration for gender and the role of women as agents of intellectual creation as well as for noncanonical authors or once-marginal topics (rejection of elitism).
- Extension of intellectual history studies to non-European, and non-Western, materials, topics, cultural regions (e.g., recent developments in Middle-Eastern, Chinese, and pre- Columbian civilization studies).
These features are intertwined with what Donald Kelley saw as the opening up of intellectual history to new avenues of research: namely, a move from thought to discourse; from the conscious to the unconscious; from creation to imitation; from intention to meaning; from authorship to readership; from the history of ideas to the social history of ideas; from tradition to canon formation; and from the sociology of knowledge to the anthropology of knowledge (Kelley, 1987). Similarly, David Harlan explained that intellectual history cannot ignore the salient part that ‘postmodern literary criticism’ plays in the investigation of the past and the questions it raises about the conceptual foundations on which historical work stands (Harlan, 1989). Hence intellectual historians’ engagement with the issues of ‘representation’ and ‘narrative’. By and large, these considerations confirm the central position held by language in the field: after all, as Kelley once wittily put it, “language is an ocean in which we all swim and where we are fishes and not oceanographers” (Kelley, 2002).
Having delineated (by no means exhaustively) the past, the present and the future of intellectual history through the careers and works of a number of historians, a few final words might be spent in sketching a – modest – picture of the practitioner in the here and now. Opponent of the banal, iconoclast of the simplistic and promoter of the obsolete, the intellectual historian unmasks ideology and refutes the truth of a (pretended) fact. As critic, he/she turns into debunker of the accepted, dismantler of clichés, saboteur of the assurances of his/her readers, trespasser of academic nomenclatures. Most importantly, given that – as Brian Young has argued – intellectual history contributed ‘to shape’ the twentieth century just as it was molded by it, with both positive and tragic consequences, and that intellectual historians underwent on their skin the brutality of actions which derived from the ideas of historical figures as much as of fellow practitioners (Young, 2006), it is all the more decisive to reflect on their role in our contemporary society. In a(n academic) world increasingly dominated by the dictates of managerial leadership and by the disconcerting assertions of market-driven philistinism, the intellectual historian has the urgent task to alert a wide(r) public to how concepts and ideas (e.g., immigration, wealth, education, toleration) are nowadays employed in an uncomprehending and historically distorting manner by those in charge of the common good. As a stylist whose trained imagination has the liberating power of bringing together the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, he/she might begin by rethinking the conditions of knowledge available to twenty-first-century men and women.
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