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March 29, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
‘Intellectual history’ is a label applied to a wide range of enquiries dealing with the articulation of ideas in the past. At its core has been the close study of written expressions of thought, especially those crafted at a fairly sophisticated or reflective level. A constitutive part of such study is the attempt to recover the assumptions and contexts which contributed to the fullness of meaning that such writings possessed for their original publics.
It may be that there is no longer any need to justify the term ‘intellectual history’ or the practice for which it stands. If this is so – experience can, alas, still occasionally cause one to wonder – then it is a relatively recent development, at least in Britain. Only three or four decades ago, the label routinely encountered more than its share of misunderstanding, some of it rather wilful, especially perhaps on the part of some political and social historians.
There was, to begin with, the allegation that intellectual history was largely the history of things that never really mattered. The long dominance of the historical profession by political historians tended to breed a kind of philistinism, an unspoken belief that power and its exercise was what ‘mattered’ (a term which invited but rarely received any close scrutiny). The legacy of this prejudice is still discernible in the tendency in some quarters to require ideas to have ‘influenced’ the political elite before they can be deemed worthy of historical attention, as though there were some reason why the history of art or of science, of philosophy or of literature, were somehow of less interest and significance than the histories of policies and parliaments.
In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the mirror-image of this philistinism became common, particularly in the form of the claim that ideas of any degree of systematic expression or formal sophistication did not merit detailed historical scrutiny because they were, by definition, only held by a small, educated minority. The fact is, of course, that much which legitimately interests us in history was the work of minorities (not always of the same type, be it noted), and it remains true, to repeat an adaptation of a famous line of E. P. Thompson’s that I have used elsewhere, that it is not only the poor and inarticulate who may stand in need of being rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity.
A further, related misconception has been the charge, which still has some currency, that intellectual history is inherently ‘idealist’, where that term is used pejoratively to signify the belief that ideas develop by a logic of their own, without reference to other human activities or to what is loosely called their ‘social context’. There was possibly some truth to this as a criticism of some of the work written a couple of generations ago, particularly that originating in the history of philosophy, but it is simply false as a description of what intellectual history must be like. The intellectual historian is someone who happens to find the reflective and expressive life of the past to be of interest: it is the vulgarest kind of reductivism or ideology-spotting to presume that this betrays an unspoken belief in the superiority of one form of human activity, still less an underlying commitment to a monocausal view of history.
In some quarters, the very term ‘intellectual history’ itself generated unease, with the result that ‘the history of ideas’ has sometimes been preferred as an alternative label. However, the danger here is that the emphasis on the ‘history of ideas’ may precisely suggest that we are dealing with autonomous abstractions which, in their self-propelled journeyings through time, happened only contingently and temporarily to find anchorage in particular human minds, a suggestion encouraged by the long German tradition of Geistesgeschichte or Ideengeschichte which, revealing its Hegelian ancestry, looked to the history of philosophy to provide the pattern of human history as a whole. By contrast, the term ‘intellectual history’ signals more clearly that the focus is on an aspect of human activity and is in this respect no different from ‘economic history’, ‘political history’, and so forth.
One final, more local, form of resistance took the form of the suggestion – only partly facetious, one fears – that there is no need for intellectual history in the case of Britain since it, at least in the modern period, has been a society with no worthwhile or significant ideas, or – in another version – one where ideas are of no consequence, or – marginally less crass – one where the preferred idiom is that of the practical or the implicit (as though these, too, were not susceptible of historical analysis). In each of these claims, not only is the premise deeply disputable but the logic is, anyway, plainly faulty, as though one were to conclude that there could be no economic history of sub-Saharan Africa or no constitutional history of post-war Italy.
Given this still-recent history of prejudice and misunderstanding, one of the striking features of the best current work in intellectual history is its lack of defensiveness: it is written as a contribution to an area of scholarship which is already rich and complex, and its tone does not suggest any felt need to justify the larger enterprise. And it is indeed the case that the last couple of decades have seen an impressive efflorescence of work in intellectual history understood in the broad terms sketched here. Where previously the ‘history of ideas’ was often, especially in the modern period, a pursuit cultivated by philosophers, political theorists, literary critics, social scientists and others pursuing the ‘pre-history’ of their own disciplines, recent work in ‘intellectual history’ is much more likely to be done by those with a trained and cultivated interest in a particular period of the past, seeking to apply the same standards of historical evidence and judgement to the intellectual life of that period as their colleagues have traditionally displayed towards its political, social and economic life.
Adapted from The Institute of Historical Research.
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This was an article on History.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.