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Terminology: The History of Ideas May 19, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

One of the drums I like to beat is that historians’ methodological toolkit is well developed, but that we do not use this toolkit as cooperatively and as productively as we might.  Part of making good use of tools is having good terminology, which helps us to understand and talk about what tools we have and what they’re good for, and how they can be used selectively and in chorus with each other.  It also helps avoid needless disputes, where vague language leads to perceptions of wrong-headedness and naiveté.  For example, I like to talk about the need for “synthesis,” which I take to mean an interrelating of historians’ works at the level of their particulars (rather than mere thematic similarity).  For me, synthesis is a sign of a healthy historiography, but such calls could be dismissed by others as a call for “Grand Synthesis,” which all right-thinking historians have been taught to shun.

For this reason, I thought it might be useful to suggest some definitions, which I personally follow.  In some cases, these are the result of extensive reflection, and, if you go into the archives of this blog, you will find I do not use the terms consistently.  And, of course, I don’t suppose my terms are the final word on the subject.  The best thing would be if they opened the door for debate and clarification.  In this post, I want to talk about:

The History of Ideas

The history of ideas is sometimes regarded as a subset of intellectual history, and is sometimes understood to mean the history of Big Ideas, like democracy, or, in geology, uniformitarianism.  Ideas might also mean some discrete object appearing (and, perhaps, evolving) through a body of texts. Think Arthur Lovejoy’s classic work in the history of ideas on the “great chain of being”.

However, I take the landscape of ideas to be much larger, so that the history of ideas is more properly synonymous with the history of thought.  It may include explicit ideas, but it can also focus on the implicit ideas that inform speech and action: values, ideals and ideologies, preoccupations and obsessions, etiquette and customs, prejudices, “mentalités,” “ontologies,” etc.

Traditionally, I think there is a revisionist tendency to oppose the histories of explicit, intellectualized ideas with histories of implicit ideas.  Identifying implicit ideas underlying explicit ideas can remove their power and their claims to historical centrality.  Here we can look to the Marxian interest in identifying the class interests underlying “ideology,” and to Freudian psychoanalysis.  This concentration on the underlying idea could be extended to ideas that appeared to permeate societies.  One might look to Nietzsche’s explorations into the history of morals, as well as to the anthropological/sociological imperative to ascertain the relationship between ideas and social structures.  Both projects would inform the work of Michel Foucault, who held a chair in the “history of systems of thought”.

At the same time, cultural history can use non-intellectualized ideas to open up a world beyond the realm of established ideas, where ideas are more important for their “meaning” and the diverse values those meanings reveal, than for their strictly functional role.  Anthropologist Clifford Geertz is often cited on this score.  On a somewhat different point, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms is often cited for its depiction of its protagonist’s idiosyncratic appropriation of ideas from the canon.  His ideas seemed to defy the power of the Church’s overarching system of ideas, even though those ideas held sway over his life and death.

I think the allure of the history of ideas is two-fold.

First, ideas often seem like the most important thing we can study, because they serve as a sort of engine (or navigation system, perhaps) for history. Whether we are dealing with a small group of intellectuals, the membership of a political party, or a culture of millions of people, by attempting to encapsulate those groups’ ideas, we suppose we can explain their behavior.  Moreover, by understanding those ideas, historians can purport to intervene by identifying those ideas’ ongoing (quite likely pathological/ideological) role in today’s society.

Second, ideas can seem very easy to study.  A body of ideas does not necessarily grow in proportion to the size of the community holding them, meaning we can attempt to encapsulate an entire society just by studying the ideas pervading it.  Moreover, one can attempt to read the history of ideas as they are exhibited within a relatively small sample of texts.  These two strategies, of course, court problems of interpolation and extrapolation, respectively.  But, given standard caveats about the unknowability and contingency of history, such interpolation and extrapolation may be easily justified.

To be more blunt about these points, the history of ideas—particularly the history of invisible implicit ideas—can seem like an easy path for lazy historians to exert their own importance as intellectuals.

However, this is not an innate feature of the genre.  While I would agree that historians are forced to extrapolate ideas from texts, and to interpolate them in populations, responsible historians recognize that this inevitability must be accompanied  by the proviso that we must never rest content.  If we can develop accounts with finer grains, then we should.  This, of course, necessitates mechanisms for consolidating our gains, that is, making sure we know the fineness of the grain we have already achieved.

Furthermore, I woud hasten to point out, systems of ideas can be both deviously subtle and monstrously complex.  Very good histories of ideas require deft critical skills.  Maintaining a historiography of ideas in its full depth and complexity requires the maintenance of a strong critical community as well as excellent and patient pedagogy, which can accommodate the need to keep track of a wide array of ideas and the places and purposes of their expression.

The most important caveat I would suggest with respect to the history of ideas is that we need to be more conscious of its dominance in our methodology.  In the mid-20th century the history of ideas was extremely popular among high-ranking intellectuals.  Today it remains popular among historians of all levels, except that most historians who practice the history of ideas do not describe what they do as such.  This, perhaps, makes us too negligent of “non-idea” objects in history.  The history of ideas is not, I think, well-integrated with histories of economies, institutions, demographics, geography, and even—God forbid—chronology.  The historiography that can pull off such an integration is a very good historiography indeed.

Next in this series: Intellectual history as a sub-genre of the history of ideas.

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1. Michael Weiss - May 19, 2013

Just my off-the-cuff reactions—

You start with the laudable goal of increased linguistic precision. It seems an odd choice then to stretch the net of “ideas” as far as the elastic limit allows, subsuming “values”, “ideals”, “prejudices”, “etiquette”, … wait, “etiquette“?!

Perhaps you wouldn’t need the implicit/explicit distinction if you used “idea” less embracingly.

Also, taking a phrase with a well-established history (namely “history of ideas”) and endowing it with a rather different meaning, doesn’t seem the best route to reducing confusion. Especially if it results in what was a superset (“intellectual history”) becoming a subset.

I know, I’m being a negative nag. That’s because I really like the direction your thoughts (ideas, values, mentalities…) seem to be taking; I’m just not thrilled with your terminology.

Will Thomas - May 19, 2013

Hi Michael — thanks for the comments. No worries about being a negative nag here, since this is precisely the sort of conversation this post is supposed to prompt.

As I say, this is mainly just how I tend to think of these things, so I’d be open to different terminology, especially if it was more apt to result in some sort of consensus. To me, “ideas” has such an open connotation that I tend to prefer it for the general term, and it gives you a better sense of what one is tracking than just “thought”. But, it is, of course, bound up with Lovejoy’s “unit-ideas,” as well as other established definitions, so it could easily sow confusion as well.

I think I’m getting “etiquette” from Steven Shapin, though I can see how it seems weird. I do like Shapin’s emphasis on the way ideas and arguments have to be presented in accord with some broader code of conduct in order to be given credence; see also Mario Biagioli on Galileo.

2. Michael Weiss - May 19, 2013

I think discussing the role of etiquette in the history of science is great; but saying that henceforth “idea” will include “etiquette” as a subcase strikes me as inviting confusion.

Let’s test it out, with a couple of made-up quotes.

“Galileo’s ideas encountered resistance among the Jesuits: not the explicit ideas, but the implicit ideas.”

“Galileo ideas encountered resistance among the Jesuits, not because of their content, but because he displayed a lack of etiquette in how he expressed them.”

Does Shapin use “idea” to include “etiquette”? If so, I’d have to see the exact quote to make a judgment.

Btw, I certainly see how “idea” can be stretched to include “etiquette”. But is that a good move to make when refining one’s terminology?

Will Thomas - May 20, 2013

In the case of your quotes, I think it’s important to separate the genre of history from the objects that Galileo is trying to communicate. In your first quote, I wouldn’t say Galileo is trying to communicate some complex of ideas, composed of some combination of explicit and implicit elements. Rather, historians are studying (1) the explicit ideas that Galileo is trying to communicate, and (2) the implicit ideas permeating the intellectual culture in which Galileo and the Jesuits participate, and which seemingly govern whether Galileo’s explicit ideas are acceptable.

The likelihood of confusion is abundantly clear, though. I do think it’s useful to have some very general catchall term for the study of “things of the mind,” as I don’t think the subsets of the genre will divvy themselves up into well-organized slots. Is “etiquette” a standalone concept, or is it a subset of some mid-level genre of history, culture perhaps, which is, in turn, to be separated somehow from the intellectualized world of scientific arguments?

My fear is that we could be stuck with some ugly and opaque term like the History of Mental Constructs. As I say, I remain open to suggestions, but for the purposes of this series, I’ll continue to use History of Ideas in this way for the time being.

3. Michael Weiss - May 20, 2013

“Things of the mind”. Hmm. (Swishes it in the glass, savors the aroma, takes a sip and rolls it around in the mouth.) Nice earthy terroir, piquant aftertaste. I like it!

“History of Mental Constructs”. (Peruses up close, then walks backward to gaze at from a distance.) Not very inviting, maybe even a bit ugly. (Walks around the rest of the exhibit, then wanders by for a second glance before leaving the exhibit.) It’s starting to grow on me.

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