Terminology: The History of Ideas May 19, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: Arthur Lovejoy, Carlo Ginzburg, Clifford Geertz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud
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.