'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.
Instead of works which cut a 'vertical' (and often teleological) slice through the past with titles like 'The history of sociology from Montesquieu to Weber', 'The growth of economic theory from Smith to Keynes', 'The making of modern historiography from Gibbon to Braudel', and so on, the tendency of recent work has been towards excavating a more 'horizontal' site, exploring the idioms and preoccupations of a past period as they manifest themselves in thought and discussion about various issues that cannot readily be assigned to current academic pigeon-holes. In other words, rather than constructing a 'history of ideas', where the emphasis is on the logical structure of certain arguments that are seen as only contingently and almost irrelevantly located in the past, the informing aspiration has been to write an 'intellectual history', which tries to recover the thought of the past in its complexity and, in a sense which is neither self-contradictory nor trivial, as far as possible in its own terms.
In a quite different vein, the work of Michel Foucault and his followers has encouraged a radically contrasting form of engagement with the 'discourses' dominant in past societies, one which often displaces purposive historical agents from the scene altogether, and more recently still, styles of work deriving from literary theory and cultural studies have attempted to shift attention yet further away from the meaning-laden utterances of those who can be identified as members of some kind of 'elite'.
This brief characterisation necessarily condenses and simplifies a complex story, and several caveats must be entered. To begin with, these remarks only refer to recent developments in Anglo-American scholarship. A focus on other national cultural traditions would produce a very different account. The traditional centrality of philosophy in German thought, for example, continued to inflect scholarly engagement with past intellectual life throughout the 20th century, just as in France the field tended to be divided between the formalist studies by historians of philosophy and the more anthropological enquiries by social or cultural historians attempting to reconstruct the 'mentalités' of entire communities.
A fuller account would also need to discriminate more carefully among the various traditions which have tended to dominate at different periods within American and British scholarship. A preoccupation with 'American exceptionalism' has generated major studies of the distinctiveness of intellectual life in the United States, from Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington early in the 20th century, through Perry Miller's The New England Mind (1), to the work of a distinguished group of recent scholars including Thomas Bender, David Hollinger, James Kloppenburg, Bruce Kuklick, Daniel Rodgers and Dorothy Ross.
Almost all these scholars and their leading students have held academic posts in history departments, whereas in Britain for at least the first two thirds of the 20th century the major contributions tended as often to come from those working in neighbouring fields. For example, the rich cultural enquiries growing out of the Warburg Institute's focus on art history issued in major works by Frances Yates, D. P. Walker and others, while the history of science has proved fertile ground for wide-ranging work by scholars as diverse as Herbert Butterfield in the middle decades of the century to Simon Schaffer more recently.
The history of political thought has provided a particularly strong base within British academia; for contingent reasons, this was the form in which intellectual history – often in unstable compounds with elements of political theory, moral philosophy and political history – achieved a certain level of scholarly and institutional recognition in the first two or three decades after 1945, and those who have contributed to intellectual history more broadly from a starting point within this disciplinary identity include, notably, Isaiah Berlin and Quentin Skinner. The emancipation of intellectual history from domination by, or exclusive identification with, the history of political thought has been one of the most significant recent developments.
Labels are only labels, but the term 'intellectual history' is now extremely common, part of the furniture of at least the Anglo-American academic world, regularly appearing in the titles of books, journals, posts, and so on. The enhanced sense of legitimacy and shared values consequent upon the flourishing of intellectual history in the last couple of decades is itself an enabling condition for further good work. This healthy state is perhaps particularly evidenced by the cluster of journals that now serve this field. Intellectual History Review is the most recent, launched in April 2007, but it joins Modern Intellectual History, launched in April 2004, History of European Ideas, re-founded on new lines in 1995, and the Journal of the History of Ideas, which is more venerable but which has also recently undergone a welcome re-shaping of its identity (I should declare an interest here, since I am on the Editorial or Advisory Boards of these last three journals). Of course, good work in intellectual history is also published in a variety of other journals; I single out the above quartet simply because their simultaneous flourishing is a new phenomenon, and because they provide places for intellectual historians to publish without having to adapt to the protocols or expectations of scholars working in other disciplines or sub-disciplines.
However, there have certainly been some countervailing trends at work which should constrain any triumphalist note in this account. One is that developments growing primarily out of literary theory, and sometimes summarised as 'the linguistic turn', have meant that all kinds of opportunist uses of texts from the past, primarily fuelled by ideological or deconstructive purposes, have increasing presented themselves under the title 'intellectual history' even though they are not part of any sustained attempt to recover and understand the intellectual life of the past in its knotty, irreducible pastness. The potential for misperception and misidentification has correspondingly increased, as anecdotal evidence about reviews, invitations, appointments and so on abundantly illustrates.
Another constraining development is institutional. For all the good work that is being done in intellectual history in Britain and America at present, there is still a paucity of established posts in the field. Very often, again especially in Britain, a scholar initially appointed to teach some other area (and themselves sometimes coming from a background in another discipline) makes a mark in the field and adopts 'intellectual history' as part of the description of their chair or other senior appointment, only for their post to revert to its original disciplinary allegiance upon their departure or retirement. There are very few institutions where one can properly speak of a succession or a continuing graduate programme.
Insofar as the activity of intellectual history has received institutional embodiment and cultural recognition as an academic discipline or sub-discipline in Britain in the last generation or so, it has been particularly identified with the University of Sussex. Sussex was the first British university to offer a degree programme in the subject and to establish posts explicitly defined as being in the field of 'intellectual history'. In the course of the 1970s and 1980s, some observers, claiming to find certain shared characteristics in the work published by some of those responsible for this programme (most notably John Burrow and Donald Winch), began to refer to 'the Sussex school'.
This label can, at best, only ever have served as a piece of academic shorthand or argot: no such 'school' exists or ever existed if that term be taken to imply common adherence to an explicit and exclusive methodological programme. It would be more accurate to say that the comparatively flexible and interdisciplinary structure of Sussex in those decades provided a congenial berth for a group of like-minded scholars whose interests typically tended to fall across or between the domains of the better-established academic disciplines. Something similar might be said of other universities which developed programmes in this area, with the lead being taken by literary scholars at Cardiff, cultural historians at the University of Northumbria, political theorists at Queen Mary, University of London, and so on.
However, although I have been suggesting that intellectual history is now becoming an established and, on the whole, accepted sub-discipline even in Britain, it would be a disagreeable consequence of the hyper-professionalism of modern academic life were this to result in the formation of a new disciplinary trade union, with all the characteristics of parochialism and exclusiveness, together with the attendant demarcation disputes, that threaten to characterise such bodies in their militant phase. It is surely a sign of cultural health rather than of corporate weakness that the authors of some notable recent contributions would not wish to be constantly or exclusively classified as 'intellectual historians', and indeed that their institutional affiliations span several academic departments, including English, history, politics, law and religious studies.
Overall, the result of the developments sketched here has been an inevitable and largely healthy pluralism of approaches: now that the legitimacy of the activity itself no longer needs to be argued for, intellectual historians can be allowed the same luxuries of disagreement and rivalry as have long been enjoyed by the more established branches of the historian's trade.
The following does not constitute a full bibliography or list of exemplary works; it merely provides a few starting points for readers curious about the history of this field and the major recent developments within it. A large-scale overview is provided in Donald Kelley, The Descent of Ideas: the History of Intellectual History (Aldershot, 2002).
For the dominance of the history of political thought, see The History of Political Thought in National Context, ed. Dario Castiglione and Iain Hampsher-Monk (Cambridge, 2001). For the United States, see New Directions in American Intellectual History, ed. Paul Conkin and John Higham (Baltimore, 1979); and David Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington, Ind., 1985).
For contributions from a more Foucauldian or Deconstructive perspective, see Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives, ed. Dominick LaCapra and Steven Kaplan (Ithaca, NY, 1982). For the work of those associated with the so-called 'Sussex school', see Economy, Polity, and Society and History, Religion, and Culture: British Intellectual History 1750–1950, ed. Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young (Cambridge, 2000); the present article draws on the 'General introduction' to these volumes.
Stefan Collini is Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature in the University of Cambridge.