Connecting Ideas in The History of Ideas

Preface from Conversations About The History Of Ideas

Definitions are often thorny things to be dealing with, not infrequently raising nearly as many difficult questions as they were invented to deal with.

So it is with “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas”. What does it mean, exactly, to be engaged in “the history of ideas”? It is hardly as simple as just coolly observing how a particular concept, like “genius” or “freedom”, methodically unfolds down the ages like some curious sort of intellectual baton in a grand historical relay race.

Indeed, precisely those sorts of caricatures have oftentimes resulted in serious scholars beating a hasty retreat from anything that deigns to call itself “the history of ideas”, as Darrin McMahon, Dartmouth College, explains.

“I was interested in intellectual history at a time when to do it was slightly looked askance at. And to do the history of ideas, in the way that I’m doing it now, really was taboo. There was a lot of good work done in the 60s and 70s that debunked an older approach to the history of ideas. The “great torch theory”: the idea that one great thinker — Plato, say, — hands the torch to Aristotle and so on down the ages. That work seemed superficial, it seemed overly idealist in the philosophical sense, and it seemed removed from reality and the lives of ordinary people. So it was cast aside as no longer interesting.

“But I’m trying to recover a type of history that takes on board many of the criticisms that have been levelled at the history of ideas — good criticisms — over the last several decades and yet recaptures this sense of the longue durée, recaptures some of the genuine excitement of the play of ideas over the ages. This kind of history of ideas does have the capacity to open up sightlines over the centuries that you would miss if you didn’t do it in this way. That’s one of the things I find redeeming about this kind of work.”

Another problem with establishing subdisciplinary boundaries — hardly limited to a topic like the history of ideas — is not only meaningfully describing what it is, but almost equally challenging, also what it is not.

After all, might it not be reasonably proposed that every historian who is diligently trying to rigorously interpret and investigate a given set of past events from their remote historical antecedents to their present-day implications is engaged in “the history of ideas”? How reasonable, then, is it to posit the existence of “non ideas-oriented historians”? Not very.

But that, I think, is not a terribly helpful point. Of course any serious, thoughtful historian — and in my experience most historians tend naturally to be serious, thoughtful types to begin with — will be strongly motivated to appreciate the prevailing ideas and beliefs of the period they are investigating and their consequent influence on the hearts and minds of their historical subjects, but what seems to set the history of ideas apart from other domains is a certain distinctiveness of approach, a determination to use historical investigation as a means to better appreciate and contextualize our current beliefs and attitudes.

And so you will find, in Ideas Roadshow Collection called Conversations About The History Of Ideas, Stefan Collini, University of Cambridge, returning to The Two Cultures “confrontation” between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, not only deepening our historical awareness of the issues of the time well beyond a pat dichotomy between the “arts” and “sciences”, but to better inform our present understanding of societal appeals to authority and celebrity culture; Martin Jay, UC Berkeley, examining the intersection of lying and politics to demonstrate our perpetual conviction that things are getting worse, even as he probes the shifting boundaries of “the political”; Quentin Skinner, QMUL, methodically examining the implications of “arbitrary power” from Republican Rome to Renaissance Florence to the contemporary government surveillance of emails.

There is, then, a common vein of harnessing a careful investigation of the past to better comprehend our present that runs through all of these conversations. Of course any editorial decision is to some extent arbitrary, and it clearly could be argued that I could have grouped things differently.

Why not include the conversation with David Hollinger, universally recognized to be one of “America’s greatest living intellectual historians? Surely the conversation about democracy with John Dunn would also fit within a collection dedicated to examining how a historical understanding of “big picture” concepts can enhance contemporary understanding, as would the conversation with David Armitage on Civil War.

Well, one has to draw the line somewhere.

But there is another point, too, that needs to be stressed, a driving aspect of what clearly motivates Quentin Skinner in his historico-philosophical inquiries. As important as it is to try to fully appreciate where our contemporary beliefs and values come from, that is not enough, because a properly rigorous study of the history of ideas not only sheds light on why we believe what we do, but what we might have missed along the way:

“We tend to write history as the history of the winners. We write the history of wars as the history of the winners, but we also write the history of our culture as the history of the winners. But did the winners always deserve to win? It’s a huge question that historians ought to have at the forefront of their mind while working on anything which is a product of the human spirit and intelligence.

“We’ve talked a lot today about a particular way of thinking about freedom, where I think that we’re not the winners. We lost sight of something. And it’s quite easy to provide strong historical explanations of why we lost sight of a particular way of thinking about freedom and citizenship, but I’ve come to think that it is deeper and more powerful than what we’ve currently got on offer. So we ought to be recovering it, we ought to treat it as buried treasure, we ought to be bringing it to the surface, dusting it down.

“And once you begin to doubt our way of thinking about freedom, which I do, you’d start to doubt other things, because many of these terms are interconnected and inter-defined. You’d start to think differently about rights. You’d start to think differently about equality.

“So you begin to reshape a moral world for yourself. You’re not, of course, replicating a past moral world. You’re taking elements from that world which you might not have thought about and are trying to reinsert them into our world. And I’ve come to think that “that’s a very important part of the intellectual historian’s task.”

And here, finally, is why the conversation with Pankaj Mishra is included in this collection.

Pankaj, of course, is not even a professional historian, let alone a professional “intellectual historian”, but his captivating book on which much of our conversation was based, From the Ruins of Asia: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, is very much in the tradition of Quentin Skinner’s expressed desire to “recover buried treasure”.

And in my view, the very fact that Pankaj is not a career academic but a bestselling writer intent on directly influencing his surrounding society as strongly as he can, only emphasizes the enormous relevance of the history of ideas for all of us.

“As a writer, I feel my responsibility is to point people to particular aspects of our past which have not been written about, which have been ignored and neglected, and to encourage them to explore those aspects much, much deeper. The important thing is that all our histories, whether you’re in the West or in the East, are full of instances of journeys not taken, roads not taken, alternative modernities never really explored.

“It’s important to develop a historical awareness that, This is also how people once lived upon this earth: they were also violent, they were also greedy and selfish, but they devised certain political and economical mechanisms whereby those negative tendencies could be controlled and contained and the damage from them could be limited.

“That is what I, in my own very modest way, am trying to do: to point to particular instances of this — or even just to people who talked about those particular instances — and say, “Well, we just can’t stand here today and say there is no alternative but to go down this path of collective suicide and destruction of the planet.”

“We just can’t do that. That would be the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty, because there have been human societies before us, centuries and centuries of them, with their own ways of being, with their own ways of living.

“And this is what, I think, as a writer, I can do: I can simply point to them.”

Howard Burton

This is the preface of
Conversations About The History of Ideas, a five-part Ideas Roadshow Collection which includes enhanced books that have been developed from in-depth conversations between Howard Burton and Stefan Collini, Martin Jay, Darrin McMahon, Pankaj Mishra and Quentin Skinner.

Every individual book includes a detailed introduction and questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.

For further details about Ideas Roadshow Conversations in single book format and five-part collections, visit our website, here:

Uniquely engaging explorations of ideas