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Intellectual History

What role do ideas play in history? How can historians grasp their historical significance? Intellectual history has undergone dramatic methodological transformations over the course of the twentieth century, from Lovejoy’s ‘unit ideas’ and Koselleck’s ‘conceptual history’ to Skinner’s ‘ideas in context’ and Darnton’s ‘social history of ideas.’ Although intellectual history came under fire during the linguistic and cultural turns of the 1980s and 1990s, it has proved to be resilient and is currently undergoing somewhat of a resurgence.

This week’s readings focus on two influential developments in intellectual history: the Cambridge School’s ‘ideas in context’ and the ‘social history of ideas’, an approach pioneered by Robert Darnton. We also consider Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history), which is undergoing a revival.



  • How do recent approaches to intellectual history differ? (Cambridge School, Conceptual History, the Social History of Ideas)
  • What explains the turn away from the history of ideas toward 'discourse' and the social history of ideas?
  • What do you see as the explanatory limits of intellectual history? What can't it explain?


Essential Reading

Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8: 1 (1969), pp. 3-53.

Robert Darnton, ‘The High Enlightenment and the Low Life of Literature’, Past and Present, 51:1 (May 1971), pp. 81-115.

Optional: If you're interested in intellectual history, you might read the introduction to Authur Lovejoy’s seminal work on the history of ideas, The Great Chain of Being: A study of the history of an idea. New York, 1936.

Essential - Background

Overview: Beverly Southgate, ‘Intellectual history/history of ideas’ in Writing History: Theory and Practice, 2nd edition (London, 2010), pp. 268-285.


Further reading

Darnton, Robert. ‘Intellectual History’, The Kiss of Lamourette (London, 1990).
Castiglione, Dario and Hampsher-Monk, Iain, eds. The History of Political Thought in National Context. Cambridge, 2001.

Grafton, Anthony. ‘The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950-2000 and Beyond’. Journal of the History of Ideas 67: 1 (2006).

Jan-Werner Müller, ‘On Conceptual History’, ch 4 of Darrin McMahon and Samuel Moyn (eds.), Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, pp. 74-93.

Mark Philp, ‘Political Theory and History’, in David Leopold and Marc Stears (eds.), Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (Oxford, 2008), pp. 128-149.

Charles Walton, ‘Preface’ in Charles Walton (ed.), Into Print: Limits and Legacies of the Enlightenment, Essays in Honor of Robert Darnton (University Park, 2012), pp. vii-xviii.