Terminology: Art, Literary, and Music History; History of Philosophy; and History of Scientific Knowledge June 12, 2013Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
Tags: Andrew Warwick, David Hollinger, David Kaiser, Lev Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot
When we start dividing up sub-categories within the history of thought or the history of ideas, we make distinctions of convenience: between explicit and tacit ideas, for instance, or between different genres of thought. These distinctions do not get at some internal essence of a form of thought. What they really do for us is provide us with provisional guidelines as to what forms of analysis are likely to lead to insights into things like: the genesis of an expression (“where did this weird idea come from?”), the circumstances bearing upon the form of expressions (“why did the author choose to publish that pamphlet at that time?”), and its relations with other expressions (“what did that film have to do with that book that appeared a couple of years earlier?”).
In my last post in this series, I marked out “intellectual history” as a sub-genre that can derive insight from the analysis of particular details of particular works, and that is centrally occupied with how works and their creators respond to prior and contemporaneous works. In this post I will look at some areas that fit in and around the sub-genre of intellectual history: art/literary/music history, the history of philosophy, and the history of scientific knowledge. As always, no historian need confine themselves to a particular genre, and the comments are open for clarification, dissent, and debate.
Art, Literary, and Music History
If intellectual history is partially the study of the way works respond to other works and operate within broader contexts, then surely art, literary, and music history are prime examples of it. A significant part of these genres involves the identification and intensive study of influential artists, authors, and their works, and tracing lines of influence.
That said, most of the time, these influences are not so direct as in an essay with explicit arguments, though one can think of exceptions of heavily intellectualized works, such as T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Lev Tolstoy’s use of fiction to explore philosophical ideas. One could easily discover that local circles of artists operated in a similarly intellectualized way. However, one might also use strategies more reminiscent of the general history of ideas to study the more ethereal flows of influence in areas such as folk art, amateur poetry, or the design of mass-production goods, which one could also, of course, do with higher-profile figures and works.
Thus, historians of art, literature, and music could be said to exist somewhere at the confluence of intellectual history and the general history of ideas. Some of the tools of the intellectual historian are bound to be of use, but perhaps more sporadically than they would be in intellectual history. By the same token, some of the peculiar technical tools of the art/literary/music historian—e.g., analysis of brush strokes, musical patterns, poetic forms, and narrative tropes—surely have useful analogues for the intellectual historian, the history of a philosophical turn of phrase, for instance. But these tools would probably also be of more sporadic use.
The History of Philosophy
I am kind of up in the air as to whether, on a methodological basis, it is useful to maintain a distinction between intellectual history and the history of philosophy, since the latter seems to be distinguished mainly by the supposition that there exists a canon of works deemed to be “philosophy”. Distinguishing the genre seems to open the door to pointless discussions, for instance, about whether “critical theorists” are properly “philosophers,” or whether a philosopher’s work as a “public intellectual” constitutes a part of their philosophical oeuvre, and so on. At the same time, it is not hard to see that the depth and difficulty of the content of much philosophy requires a specialized training, much in the way that art, literary, and music history do. This is reflected in the fact that historians of philosophy tend to associate with philosophy departments (much in the way that the history of economic thought is still bound closely, if rather uncomfortably, to economics). On a practical basis, therefore, the distinction of the history of philosophy makes sense.
The History of Scientific Knowledge
In my next post in this series, I want to discuss terminological problems peculiar to the history of science. Traditionally, the history of science has had very tight connections with the history of philosophy. But there is also a strong “craft” component in the history of scientific experimentation and its links with engineering, which lends itself to analysis along the lines of the technical components of art/literary/music history. (Here it is worth noting that recent studies in the “craft” of theory, such as in the work of Andrew Warwick and David Kaiser, as well as more general inquiries into the “history of the book”, provide us with a sense of the craft component of apparently more intellectualized activities. Nevertheless, I think we can feasibly gauge a stronger depth and complexity of this component in more “hands on” activities.)
Historians of science have not locked themselves together in a room to agree on a term for the more “intellectualized” component of their subject matter, which is often regarded as old-fashioned anyway. A lot of this component shares space with general intellectual history (on this blog, this is basically what Chris Donohue analyzes), some of it with the history of philosophy (for the subject of “natural philosophy” good insights have been derived from treating natural philosophy as contiguous with early modern philosophy more generally). Yet, there are a lot of peculiarities in many scientific forms of argument that risk being smoothed over if no independent distinction is recognized.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have spoken of the “intellectual history of science” in this capacity, but I am now shying away from the term after conversations with Michael Bycroft in the comments on his and my blogs. I would now apply that term to intellectualized ideas about science. David Hollinger’s “Science as a Weapon in Kulturkämpfe in the United States during and after World War II” (1995) would be exemplary of work in that vein. I would draw no distinction between this intellectual history of science and intellectual history more generally.
If we are to abstract the intellectualized component of science from its history for particular analytical purposes, I would recommend the “history of scientific argument and knowledge” or, more compactly, the “history of scientific knowledge”.
Next post: Facets of the history of science