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Terminology: Intellectual History May 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.

This post continues my discussion of historiographical terminology.  All definitions are ones I personally adhere to, but the idea is to open questions about useful distinctions and the terms used to describe them.

My previous post was on the “history of ideas,” which I take to be a very general category, applying to the ideas of populations of all sizes, and encompassing both explicitly held ideas, as well as those ideas that reside implicitly in texts and other works (e.g., worldviews, ideologies, customs, values, etc…).  In this post, I’ll discuss a subgenre of the history of ideas, intellectual history.

Intellectual History

I take “intellectual history” to refer specifically to the study of texts and even some non-textual works (certain kinds of art and architecture, for instance) that consciously build on and respond to other people’s works.  These texts often, but not necessarily, develop their ideas in the form of arguments. I would refer to texts to which the methodology of intellectual history applies as “intellectualized” rather than “intellectual” texts, so as to avoid any implication that non-intellectualized texts are somehow not the product of the intellect.

Intellectual history need not involve—and may, in fact, be severely limited by—the establishment of a canon.  I would take the selection of a relevant body of texts for analysis to be one of the greatest challenges of intellectual history.

Analysis in intellectual history can involve the elucidation of arguments, which can involve:

1) analysis based on evidence from within texts or from within a particular author’s oeuvre,

2) finding a contextualized meaning in texts by placing them in the context of other texts with which they were explicitly or implicitly in dialogue, and/or

3) finding meaning in texts by placing them in various (political, social, economic, cultural…) contexts to which they refer directly, or to which they seemingly respond.  (3), of course, necessitates hybridizing intellectual history with other forms of history.

Analysis can also involve charting continuities and discontinuities in unit-ideas, terminology, concepts, concerns, arguments, argumentative forms, and uses of particular pieces of evidence.  It can also involve attempting to discern an author’s intentions (stated or unstated), but it can also study reception and appropriation.

Some, but not all, of these analytical tools overlap with those used in the general history of ideas.

Intellectual History vis-à-vis the General History of Ideas

I would consider intellectual history to exist as a subset of the history of ideas, and is distinguishable by certain methodological peculiarities.

Although communities participating in a particular intellectualized discourse are fairly small (let’s estimate under 1,000, though most intellectual historians concentrate their attention on only a handful), to my mind, intellectual history cannot be reliably distinguished by the authorship of intellectualized texts. As a tautology, intellectuals tend to write intellectualized texts, but, in principle, anyone could have written a text requiring the tools of the intellectual historian.  The utility of these tools depends only on if they are fitted to the nature of the text to which they are applied.

What is this nature?  I do not believe complexity is a good guide to identifying intellectualized texts.  Although intellectualized texts might, as a general rule, be more complicated than non-intellectualized texts, intellectualized texts need not necessarily be very complex.  Likewise, non-intellectualized systems of ideas can actually be very complex, requiring deep and flexible critical insight.

Rather, I would draw the distinction in that intellectual history can reward attention to textual specifics in a way that more general histories of ideas would not.  In intellectual history it would be entirely possible for a historian’s argument to hinge on a particular passage of a particular text.  Ideas in non-intellectualized texts, on the other hand, would be more diffuse, and would be apt to be found throughout a body of works.

A couple of months ago Nils Gilman (who has written on modernization theoristsgot himself into trouble at the U. S. Intellectual History blog for trying to define a place for intellectual history by creating a zone of exclusivity around the texts to which intellectual history can be applied.  I would have to agree that not all texts reward the use of the tools of the intellectual historian, but I believe that he focused wrongly on the quality of texts and their likely authorship, as opposed to some more generic intellectualized characteristic.  This led inevitably into discussions of the relative worthiness of “high” and “low” culture, which were certainly tendentious, but did not strike me as especially productive.

It seems to me that Gilman (as well as the other bloggers at USIH) are trying to maintain a place for intellectual history of the kind defined here, while reserving the right to work in the more general history of ideas.  Such a defense seems necessary because the genre is often viewed as old-fashioned amid the more general sorts of histories of ideas that now prevail.  This seems pretty uncontroversial to me.  Personally, I don’t think the disputants were so very far apart, and think the whole dispute might have been avoided by paying more explicit credence to the complementarity of intellectual history with the broader—and certainly just as important and interesting—history of ideas, while maintaining the need for the specialized study of intellectualized works.

Next: Domains associated with intellectual history, including: art and literary history, the history of philosophy, and the history of scientific knowledge (as distinct from the history of science, which is two posts away).

For the truly interested, some extraneous thoughts relating to the flow of ideas and the notion of an intellectualized discourse developed here.

Could we apply the tools of the intellectual historian to the comments section under a newspaper story?  I would say “yes,” in that a comments section or any other instance where ideas are debated and discussed can be said to constitute an intellectualized discourse.  However, one should recognize a one-way flow of ideas from high-profile intellectualized discourses (say, Sunday talk shows) into local intellectualized discourses where they become bound up with other ideas in circulation there.  Thus, while one could use the tools of intellectual history to analyze a local intellectualized discourse, one might find it more fruitful to employ more general tools from the history of ideas (say, analyzing the flow of ideas about Barack Obama’s agenda, rather than the evolution of specific arguments in support of this or that perspective on his agenda within this or that comments section).

Now, certainly high-profile intellectualized spaces are apt to obtain ideas from more general discourses.  For this reason the general tools of the history of ideas can and should be applied to high-profile intellectualized discourses as much as they are to local intellectualized discourses or to non-intellectualized discourses.  The same, or similar, ideas can be just as present in an intellectual’s work as in song lyrics, advertisements, property records, and other non-intellectualized works preceding his or her work.

Do, then, intellectualized works carry any special importance or “authority” at all, making them worth study?  I would say “yes,” but with hesitation.  For example, I would point to the influence of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in present political discourse, because it gives libertarianism much of its voice and confidence.

Yet, contrary to the claims of a lot of authors, I tend to be skeptical of the capacity of intellectualized texts to legitimate ideas by virtue of their intellectualization (which is a big issue for those of us in the history of science).*  The Road to Serfdom, I would say, is not influential especially because it was written by an economist, or even because its ideas were worked out with some degree of rigor, but because it gave some substance to the idea that state encroachment on private affairs is a snowballing process.  Our understanding of that idea’s career in the broader population is increased if we understand Hayek’s text, its origins, and its appropriation.  That said, non-intellectualized works can have similar galvanizing effects, and it would be, I think, misleading to single out intellectualized texts as peculiarily influential or legitimating on this score.

*Legitimation is often said to occur when a text or author is invoked as justification for some statement or action.  However, I would hesitate to draw a strong link between justification and legitimation.  I feel that actors do feel obligated to justify their ideas, but that the particular claims that are used to justify ideas are less important than the fact that the actors are confident in offering some rationalization. Thus, since any given justification can be criticized or nullified without invalidating the statement or action, its legitimizing power is suspect.  The connection is doubtless closer within expert communities, where independent assessments of justifications are made.  But, again, in this case, legitimation is not in the justification, but in the assessment.


1. Michael Weiss - May 22, 2013

It seems you’ve found the perfect solution to my concern over confusion with the usual meaning of History of Ideas: “General History of Ideas”! Simple and elegant.

If I follow, then, intellectualized texts are defined as those “to which the methodology of intellectual history applies”, and you describe this methodology at some length. The only direct aspects I noted of intellectualized texts are that they “consciously build on and respond to other people’s works,” and that they “often, but not necessarily, develop their ideas in the form of arguments.”

Is it possible to reverse the definitional flow, first describing with some precision what qualifies as an intellectualized text, and then making intellectual history the study of these texts? Or does the nature of subject somehow dictate the priority of the methodology?

What would a paradigmatic[*] example be of a non-intellectualized text?

(*) in the original, non-Kuhnian sense!

2. Patrick McCray - May 23, 2013

So – how does the “history of scientific thought” differ from something like “the history of scientific ideas” (or intellectual history)? I ask not to be a pain but because this was the subject of a tortured discussion at a recent dept meeting here.

3. Will Thomas - May 23, 2013

Thanks for the comments

Michael, I think the character of the text necessarily comes first. That certainly is under-described here, and could no doubt be expanded upon. The burden of this post, I suppose, was to figure out in addition to standard tools (e.g., articulating ideas, tracing their continuities) what extra tools you need to address intellectualized texts (e.g., working out how passages in one text relate to passages in another). This is better than putting a methodological definition first, since I’m not sure an intellectual history would be very good if it proceeded using only the “extras” that are peculiar to the sub-genre.

My mention of “song lyrics, advertisements, property records…” were intended to be examples of non-intellectualized texts. One might include things like a company’s annual reports. I was trying to think if any published non-fiction text would not be an intellectualized text, and, oddly, I kept thinking of things that are the product of heavily intellectualized activities, but are not obviously themselves intellectualized, like routine statistical reports, but, then, I think you could argue that one the other way, too. Anyway, that’s one I’d like to chew on further, and if you have any thoughts, I’d be glad to see them.

Patrick: As I mentioned to Michael last time, such questions are an intended result of the post, and certainly not a pain. I’m going to be taking my best crack at the various genres of history of science and their relations to other genres like intellectual history over the next two posts, so I’ll definitely take your question into account as I cook them up.

4. Michael Weiss - May 23, 2013

“Fun with Dick and Jane”? (I.e., reader.) Worksheets. Railway timetables. Questionnaires? Assembly instruction sheets.

5. Will Thomas - June 13, 2013

A quick note to mention that the essay “What is Intellectual History?” available at Harvard professor Peter Gordon’s home page, is worth a look for its explanation of the relations between different genres of history, as well as between intellectual history and political theory.

6. Giants’ Shoulders #60 Part II: The Present | The Renaissance Mathematicus - June 21, 2013

[…] As a genre intellectual history is important, but defining it is a challenge […]

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