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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 past century. This week focusses primarily on three different approaches to intellectual history developed over the past half century: discourse analysis, the social history of ideas, and, more recently, global intellectual history. The first two -- discourse analysis and the social history of ideas – emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Both were concerned with placing texts within historical ‘contexts’, but they had different notions about what constituted ‘context’. According to Quentin Skinner, historians should examine how texts speak to and echo other texts of the period. That is, historians should uncover the general ‘problems’ that texts were trying to address and tease out the ‘concepts’, ‘languages’ and ‘rhetorics’that developed around them. This approach requires moving beyond single authors to uncover those broader ways of thinking, or conceptualising, issues. In this approach, the ‘context’ consists of other texts.

The social history of ideas, on the other hand, centres on how ideas were produced, how they were diffused and how people responded to them. It is interested in the social, economic and technological dimensions of intellectual life, as well as anthropological questions about how cultures make and use ‘meanings’.

Two of the texts below discuss the origins of the French Revolution using one or the other of these methodologies. As always in this module, pay less attention to the historical particulars and focus on the questions and analytical approaches of historians.

In addition, you will read portions of a recent book on global intellectual history and the challenges it poses. This is a new strand of history, one that is in its infancy. It raises questions that chime with those encountered during the global history week: how to write the intellectual history of other cultures without lapsing into a Eurocentric epistemological imperialism.



  1. How do discourse analysis and the social history of ideas differ? Are they represent rival methodologies for answering the same questions or do they answer different sets of questions? Which ones?
  2. What do you see as the strengths and weakness of each of the two approaches (discourse analysis and the social history of ideas)? Keep in mind that there are more versions of each approach than what you have read this week.
  3. What are the challenges to doing global intellectual history? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the example of it that you have read?
  4. What do you see as the explanatory limits of intellectual history? What can't it explain?


Essential Reading

Keith Baker, 'On the Ideological Origins of the French Revolution', in Inventing the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 12-27.

Robert Darnton, ‘Political Libel’, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Prerevolutionary France (New York: 1996), pp. 198-216.

Cemil Aydin, 'Globalizing the Intellectual History of the Idea of the Muslim World', Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori (eds.), Global Intellectual History (New York, 2015), chapter 7 (Chicago, 2013), pp. 159-186. (Optional: you can read the introduction to the book as well, which nicely summarises the challenges and benefits of pursuing global intellectual history.)


Overview: Beverly Southgate, ‘Intellectual history/history of ideas’ in Writing History: Theory and Practice, 3rd edition (London, 2020), Chapter 19, pp. 405-423.

Truffle Hunt

Students interested in Intellectual history could choose a book, treatise, pamphlet or essay addressing some aspect of government, economics or society between 1500 and 2000. You should think about the approach you want to take to the history of ideas and identify the questions that approach would ask about how to confirm or challenge the reading of the text which you would wish to defend.
There is a list of databases on the Library site
You may also use primary texts that you have encountered in other parts of your course over the last 2 years.
If you wish to take an approach closer to the kind of social history of ideas practiced by Darnton, you may also consult primary sources of a less formal kind, including newspapers, ballads, and more literary products.
Again, the emphasis is not to undertake a fully substantive analysis of the text, but to think about problems and issues about interpretation, and to reflect on the kinds of materials that someone working in this tradition would bring to bear in their interpretation of the text.
Those interested in the Social History of Ideas would look for evidence that reveals something about the production, diffusion and reception of texts. Who produced the text (recall from the week on Roland Barthes that the 'author' is not a fixed category in history -- printers, patrons and censors all have an influence)? How was the text produced (its format -- is a collector's-item book read the same way as an ephemeral pamphlet)? How was the text diffused (markets, social networks, underground illegal channels, locally or transnationally)? Who read the text and what meanings did they give it (diaries, letters, fan mail, opinion pieces in newspapers, critical reviews, etc.)?
The sources related to production and diffusion are often buried in archives. Those may be difficult to access from home or from Warwick, though you may find relevent sources at the Public Records Office on campus. Evidence of reader reception and responses to texts, on the other hand, may be easier to track down. They can be found in critical reviews, newspapers, memoirs, published collections of letters by famous people, etc. One possibility is to identify a controversial tract (a novel, play or political tract) and compare responses to it found in newspapers and journals over time. Is there an evolution to the public's thinking about the text? Does a controversial text (or play or song) go from being scandalous to being accepted, or vice-versa? What do such changes suggest about changing 'zeitgeists'?


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).

Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A study of the history of an idea (New York, 1936).

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. (An overview of Darnton's work.)