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History of Ideas


The "history of ideas," phrase and concept, goes back almost three centuries to the work of J. J. Brucker (1696–1770) and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) in the early eighteenth century, followed in the nineteenth century by Victor Cousin (1792–1867) and his eclectic and "spiritualist" philosophy. The story begins with Brucker's Historia doctrina de ideis (1723), which surveyed the Platonic doctrine, and Vico's criticism, which rejected the idea of a Greek monopoly on ideas. For Vico philosophy was joined to religion in a larger and older tradition of wisdom and theology, "queen of the sciences," which, he wrote, "took its start not when the philosophers began to reflect [ riflettere ] on human ideas" (as, he added, in the "erudite and scholarly little book" recently published by Brucker) "but rather when the first men began to think humanly." Thus the history of ideas began not with Plato but with myth and poetry, and this poetic wisdom was the basis not only for Plato's theory of ideas but also for Vico's "history of ideas," which was one face of his "New Science." Victor Cousin and his followers also took a broad view of the history of ideas, from antiquity down to modern times.

The history of ideas was given new life in the twentieth century, especially under the guidance of Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962), one of the leading American philosophers of this time. Even before Lovejoy the phrase had been applied to a series of volumes published by the philosophy department of Columbia University between 1918 and 1935, which were devoted to "a field … in which it appears that ideas have a history and that their history is influenced by contact with lines of experience not commonly called philosophical." Lovejoy was more deliberate in applying the phrase to what he regarded as a new discipline distinct from the history of philosophy and the "new history," championed by James Harvey Robinson (1863–1936) and his followers. The History of Ideas Club at the Johns Hopkins University (where Lovejoy taught), which began meeting from 1923, was the scene of papers given by many distinguished scholars. The classic work in the field that since 1919 Lovejoy had been calling the "history of ideas" was his William James lectures in Harvard, which were published in 1936 as The Great Chain of Being.

In the history of philosophy, according to Lovejoy, "is to be found the common seed-plot, the locus of initial manifestation in writing, of the greater number of the more fundamental and pervasive ideas, and especially of the ruling preconceptions, which manifest themselves in other regions of intellectual history" (p. 8). Yet Lovejoy also aspired to make the history of ideas an interdisciplinary enterprise, accommodating also literature, the arts, and the natural and social sciences. Nor were Lovejoy's "unit-ideas" limited to formal concepts, for he also wanted to accommodate "implicit or incompletely explicit assumptions or more or less unconscious mental habits, operating in the thought of an individual or a generation"; "dialectical motives," or methodological assumptions (nominalist or "organismic," for example) also inexpressible in propositions; metaphysical pathos (which awakened particular moods, for example); and ideas associated with particular sacred words and phrases intelligible through semantic analysis. All of these "ideas," which were regarded as the expression of whole groups and ages, were interpreted mainly by literary texts, especially poetry, from several national traditions, in keeping with the international and interdisciplinary thrust of Lovejoy's agenda.

In Lovejoy's program the history of ideas extended its sway over no fewer than twelve fields of study, beginning with the history of philosophy and including the history of science, religion, the arts, language, literature, comparative literature, folklore, economic, political, and social history, and the sociology of knowledge. These fields were all disciplinary traditions in themselves; the novelty was treating them in an interdisciplinary and synthetic way for larger purposes. For Lovejoy (writing in the dark year 1940) the final task of the history of ideas was "the gravest and most fundamental of our questions, 'What's the matter with man?'"

Lovejoy's colleague George Boas (1891–1980) expanded on the idealist implications of his methods. For Boas ideas are basic meanings that lie behind—and that evolve independently of—words. "The history of ideas is not confined to historical semantics," he wrote and "a dictionary aims only to give the meaning of words, not of ideas, and sometimes a single idea may have two names" (1969, p. 11). Yet these are assumptions that cannot be expressed or communicated except through words and historical semantics—a paradox that neither Lovejoy nor Boas resolved, or chose to confront. As they acknowledged, "The history of any idea, or complex of ideas, is best presented through the citation of the ipsissima verba of the writers who have expressed it."

Lovejoy's agenda found an institutional basis when the Journal of the History of Ideas (JHI) was founded in 1940, the first issue being prefaced by his "reflections," which suggested the orientation of this periodical more or less down to the present, especially in terms of "influences"—classical on modern thought, philosophical ideas and scientific discoveries on all areas of study, other pervasive ideas such as evolution, progress, primitivism, and various ideas of human nature, on historical understanding. This program was also reflected in the old Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited in 1968 by Philip P. Wiener, first editor of the JHI (and succeeded, if not replaced, by the present work).

The history of ideas had counterparts in other European traditions, including German Ideengeschichte, Geistesgeschichte, and especially Begriffsgeschichte, and French mentalités. In the later twentieth century all of these approaches were affected by the "linguistic turn," which shifted attention from unproblematized "ideas" to language and discourse, since ideas, as Jorge Luis Borges (1889–1986) wrote, "are not, like marble, everlasting," and as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) put it, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Not that Lovejoy was unaware of such problems, for long before he had pointed out "the role of semantic shifts, ambiguities, and confusions, in the history of thought and taste," and he remarked that "nearly all of the great catchwords have been equivocal—or rather, multivocal." For this reason Lovejoy took pains to distinguish the varied meanings behind keywords such as nature, progress, perfectibility, romanticism, and pragmatism, as well as more inflammatory terms of ideological debate.

In the later twentieth century the history of ideas was invaded and shaken by a number of intellectual movements, including hermeneutics, reception theory, psych-history (and -biography), deconstruction, poststructuralism, constructivism, the new historicism, cultural materialism, the new cultural history, Derridean textualism, and various efforts of the "social history of ideas." Following the Nietzschean notion of "the interpretive character of all that happens" and the impact of literary theory, the history of ideas in its classic, spiritualist form also entered into decline, being superseded (except among philosophers) by intellectual history and deeper concerns of language and historical context as well as material culture.

One line of post-Marxian criticism was launched by Michel Foucault, who rejected a number of unreflective rubrics such as tradition, influence, development and evolution, spirit, pre-given unities and links, and especially the notion of the self-conscious agent, the "sovereign subject," and "authorial presence," which underlie the imaginary vehicle of "ideas." In the course of his intellectual iteration Foucault shifted from ideas to "discourse," from history to "archaeology," then to Nietzschean "genealogy," from development to "rupture," and from spirit or mentality to "episteme" and so to dismantle the history of ideas and to unmask the ideological surface of past and present culture. In his "grammatology" Jacques Derrida carried the critique of ideas beyond language to the world of textuality and intertextuality as the ultimate context of historicity and civil society. In the wake of such "litero-philosophy" many recent intellectual historians, including Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, Hans Kellner, Roger Chartier, and Frank Ankersmit have distanced themselves from the old tradition of the history of ideas, though without entirely abandoning it.

Intellectual history can no longer be studied without attention to these warnings about unexamined premises of the human sciences. Yet "ideas" remain an essential shorthand for history as well as philosophy and other human sciences, and the history of ideas continues in channels both new and old, with methodological debates recurring across the range of interdisciplinary studies. And the critical pursuit of the history of ideas, or intellectual history, continues not only among historians of culture but also among scholars in the history of philosophy, literature, art, science, and the human sciences.

Donald R. Kelley

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to Incompatibility