Darrin M. McMahon, Samuel Moyen, eds. Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 320 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-976923-0; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-976924-7.
Reviewed by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)
Published on H-Ideas (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Magdalena Zolkos (Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy, University of Western Sydney)
Reflection on the Intellectual Road Well Traveled
On any journey it is wise to pause and consider the route taken to that point. This holds true whether the journey is physical or intellectual. On the latter travels, historians often reflect on the meaning of specific ideas that change over time in response to new methods or as new evidence is uncovered. Such concepts, in recent years, include “atheism,” “orthodoxy,” and “radicalism,” to name only three. These words, and accompanying ideologies, have a history of usage and malleable definitions that are reflected within the context of their deployment. This sort of work is extremely fruitful. What may prove even more useful to the learned community, however, is when a specific discipline of history stops to consider what it has accomplished, the manner in which that was done, and whether the path traveled thus far is worth continuing or a different route should be adopted.
In December 2010, fifteen historians gathered at the Radcilffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, to consider the current state of intellectual history. The title of the seminar, “Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History for the 21st Century,” both conveyed that intent and suggested that something new was afoot within the discipline that merited introspection. The impetus for the seminar was twofold. First, the début of the journal Modern Intellectual History (Cambridge University Press) in 2004 sought to make intellectual history relevant to a wider community of historians. The inaugural editorial makes this purpose clear: “Not so long ago [intellectual history] was regarded by many as an endangered species, its natural habitat having been laid waste by social and cultural historians who rejected its elitism and by historians of ideas who preferred a habitat free of historical clutter. This prognosis notwithstanding, intellectual history has re-emerged as an expanded but still focused disciplinary enterprise, anchored in the belief that texts and the discourses in which they are embedded are multiple points of entry into human creativity in its profuse variety of historical forms, and that their study is essential to understanding the nature of cultural life and the meaning of civilization itself.” The seminar participants shared this assessment and wished to take stock of where intellectual history stood half a dozen years after the journal’s appearance. Related to this first raison d'être of the seminar was the reincarnation of the Journal of the History of Ideas by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2006. As a result of these two journals (amongst others) intellectual history grew in prominence.
Second, seminar participants noted that eighteen years had passed since the last reflection upon the state of intellectual history in a book edited by Dominick LaCapra and Steven Kaplan in 1982.. Critics of the LaCapra and Kaplan volume noted the overarching support for postmodern scholarship emboldened by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. One reviewer went so far as to call it a “manifesto.” Readers are directed to the somewhat acrimonious review offered by Anthony Pagden and the equally spirited reply by Lacapra in the Journal of the History of Ideas for examples of the tempers inflamed by the book.
Given the length of time and the dramatically different learned landscape of history writ large (postmodernism and Marxism are much less in favor than they were in the later 1970s and early 1980s, to cite only two instances), the time was ripe to pause and contemplate. The book that resulted from these papers shares a truncated version of the original seminar title: Rethinking Modern Intellectual History, edited by Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn. I did wonder if this current book would engender the same controversy over methods and approaches in intellectual history, as did the earlier volume. My feeling is that it will not: the essays are not unified (even loosely) around an ideology. Here the diet is more omnivorous. The fourteen chapters are organized around commonality of topics that are left unstated in the table of content but explained within the introduction. For the sake of avoiding tedium and taxing the reader’s patience, I will not detail the contents and arguments of each chapter. Rather I will touch on the highlights of the volume.
In the initial two chapters, for example, Darrin McMahon and Peter Gordon consider the lasting elements found in the two most important schools of thought within intellectual history by examining the work of, respectively, Arthur Lovejoy and Quentin Skinner. Both McMahon and Gordon argue that these paragons of intellectual history—Lovejoy, credited with founding the history of ideas itself, championed the notion of the “unit idea” (the “component elements” of “philosophical doctrines” in the way that chemical elements are the building blocks of compounds) as the rightful object of study and Skinner, whose work in the history of political thought led him to critique the methods of intellectual history by countering that the context in which ideas are created and used along with the historical conditions of authors are key to any attempt at understanding—are too often and too easily dismissed as unfashionable and outdated. While McMahon and Gordon each offer criticism of their intellectual forebears and resist wholehearted acceptance of either unit ideas or contextualism, each notes the lasting utility of the approaches.
What I appreciated about these chapters was that they encouraged me to go and reread both Skinner and Lovejoy. This, I think, is one of the greatest strengths of the book: the contributions encourage wider reading and, in my case, revisiting long-neglected intellectual haunts that the necessities of teaching preparation have made dusty through the absence of travel. I have often thought that the strength of a book is measured less in what it says than in how it makes you think. In this regard the first two chapters are valuable indeed. My only criticism, and it applies to much of the book generally and not these two chapters specifically, is that the critique of Lovejoy’s method is not always accomplished with the brevity and lightness of prose with which he expressed it. More generally, I fail to understand why it is often the case that intellectual historians write with a density of style that would lead even Kant wishing he had left of trail of breadcrumbs to find his way out of some sentences. While McMahon is certainly right to point out “that not all reading should be [easy],” it ought not to be purposely obfuscating (p. 27).
Antoine Lilti and Jan-Werner Müller expand the gaze of the volume away from Cambridge common rooms to the Continent. Lilti, former editor of the journal Annales, which advanced the longue durée approach to history found in the Annales school with its emphasis of long-term social factors explained through the lens of social science methodology, addresses why intellectual history found a hard perch in France. Müller provides readers a consideration of Begriffsgeschichte, conceptual history, with the intent of explain why it never proved attractive to American or British historians.
Following these more theoretical excursions into the history of ideas, the next chapters ask what the relationship of the field is to other related types of historical inquiry, particularly cultural and social. The answers offered by Judith Surkis and Samuel Moyn are less about barriers, which many might have found comforting, than about permeable membranes, wherein the subject of history passes between approaches and methods. Within this grouping is Suzanne Marchand’s chapter that looks at the “history of the disciplines” by joining attempts at historicizing academic territories to the sociology of knowledge. Related to this is John Tresch’s examination of distinctness of the history of science as a discipline precisely because it emphasizes the social practice of science found in experiment, for example. Toward the end of the chapter Tresch argues that “the new history of science examines ideas of nature in their complex and concrete ecologies, tracing their roots, movements, and mergers as they have coordinated actions and interventions” (p. 167). This notion—ideas are taken up for discrete purposes within a larger context—had me searching through old files to reread a few articles. Again, this is one of the strengths of the book. The works of Peter Barker, A. I. Sabra, and Margaret J. Osler, all historians of medieval and early-modern science, addressed these same issues nearly twenty years ago. Tresch does not reference these works, for which I do not fault him (you cannot be aware of everything), but his chapter might have been stronger with their support. Each of the three scholars discussed ideas as being appropriated by historical actors to solve specific problems rather than earlier accounts that implied ideas have an internal movement of their own. Agency is the key model in these pieces. While a seemingly simple concept, it is often overlooked as ideas are presented as inevitable in many popular histories—a fact that Shruti Kapila reminds readers of in her chapter, which I will address shortly.
Tracie Matysik and Marci Shore investigate the state of intellectual history within thematic areas that previous historians ignored but that may benefit from renewed interest with new intellectual tools. Central to their chapters is the history of gender as a subject of intellectual history. In Shore’s chapter I found her statements on method to be an important reminder of the mandate (for lack of a better term) for intellectual historians, whose work too often treads into the philosophical rather than the historical. It is not for the intellectual historian, she reminds us, “to make pronouncements regarding philosophical truth claims” (p. 194). Rather the task is to explain why specific patterns of thought held currency at particular times by particular thinkers. I readily applaud her statement that there are “no ideas produced outside of time and place and the lives of concrete persons. Ideas do not move around independently of people” (p. 195).
The final section of the book consists of studies that consider the state of intellectual history within transnational and global perspectives that run counter to the traditional Continental playground of intellectual historians. As historians shifted the locus of inquiry from the center to the periphery, that is to say from empire to colonies, ideas to dissemination, intellectual history with a European focus became more distant. The chapters by John Randolph, David Armitage, Shruti Kapila, and Warren Breckman each consider the new ethereal location of an intellectual history that knows no outmoded boundaries. Randolph asks, what is the space of intellectual history? Whereas previous generations would have considered “space” to be that through which they physically moved and acted, current undergraduates see “space” through the “spatial imagination” (p. 212) of Facebook and other media. It is helpful, he argues, to see space as “not simply a container for human action, but also an artifact of human existence” (p. 225). Somewhat less abstractly, Artmitage looks at intellectual history that moves away from “methodological nationalism” (p. 232) toward international history, or intellectual inquiry without borders, if you will. While Armitage is surely right to emphasize that intellectual history ought not to be confined within national boundaries—certainly the thinkers studied did not so restrict their movements—he might be overselling the point when he claims: “This international turn represents perhaps the most transformative historiographical movement since the rise of social history in the 1960s and the linguistic turn of the 1970s” (p. 233). Kapila scrutinizes how this new internationalized intellectual history will be portrayed. Ideas and concepts must be seen as being utilized and engaged with in periphery locations rather than centering the discussion around “derivation, influence, or exchange” (p. 270). Ideas may have originated in Europe, but how they are transformed in non-European locales for specific local purposes is a question worth asking. In the collection’s final essay Breckman reflects upon the location of intellectual history within interdisciplinary studies. The danger of interdisciplinary approaches, as he points out, is the descent into dilettantism. Intellectual history can avoid this by embracing its place as a “rendezvous discipline” where various historians may gather within the “eclectic discipline par excellence” (p. 290).
This collection is an important milestone because it presents a moment in time when some of the best scholars in the field considered what it means to practice intellectual history and how best to do it. Not everyone will agree with the assessments on offer, but that is not the point. How boring the academic world would be if we always reached consensus. The book should be very useful for students looking for a primer on current methods and best practices. It also will serve a variety of scholars who are interested in taking stock of the ground the long trail of intellectual history has already traversed and where it might be going in the future.
. “Editorial,” Modern Intellectual History 1 (2004): 1.
. Dominick LaCapra and Steven Kaplan, eds., Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives (Ithacaa, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982).
. Robert Alun Jones, “Review of Modern Intellectual History,” Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences 20 (1984): 365.
. Anthony Pagden, “Rethinking the Linguistic Turn: Current Anxieties in Intellectual History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 519-529; Dominick LaCapra, “A Review of a Review,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49 (1988): 627-687.
. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: The Study of the History of an Idea (1936; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 3.
. The most celebrated statement of this view is Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8 (1969): 3-53. A revised version appeared as “Meaning and Understanding the History of Ideas,” Visions of Politics, 3 vols., vol. 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 57-89.
. Peter Barker, “Understanding Change and Continuity: Translation and Appropriation in Sixteenth-Century Natural Philosophy,” in Tradition, Transmission, Transformation, ed. F. J. Ragep and S. Ragep (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 527-550; A. I. Sabra, “The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement,” History of Science 25 (1987): 223-243; Margaret J. Osler, “Mixing Metaphors: Science and Religion or Natural Philosophy and Theology in Early Modern Europe,” History of Science 35 (1997): 91-113.
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Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth. Review of McMahon, Darrin M.; Moyen, Samuel, eds., Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History.
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