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The history of ideas is a field of research in history that deals with the expression, preservation, and change of human ideas over time. The history of ideas is a sister-discipline to, or a particular approach within, intellectual history. Work in the history of ideas may involve interdisciplinary research in the history of philosophy, the history of science, or the history of literature. In Sweden, the history of ideas and science (Idé- och lärdomshistoria) has been a distinct university subject since 6 November 1932, when Johan Nordström, a scholar of literature, was appointed professor of the new discipline in a ceremony at Uppsala University (coinciding with that commemorating the 300-year anniversary of the Battle of Lützen). Today, several universities across the world provide courses in this field, usually as part of a graduate programme.

The Lovejoy approach[edit]

The historian Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) coined the phrase history of ideas[citation needed] and initiated its systematic study[citation needed][1] in the early decades of the 20th century. Johns Hopkins University was a "fertile cradle" to Lovejoy's history of ideas;[2] he worked there as a professor of history, from 1910 to 1939, and for decades he presided over the regular meetings of the History of Ideas Club.[3] Another outgrowth of his work is the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Aside from his students and colleagues engaged in related projects (such as René Wellek and Leo Spitzer, with whom Lovejoy engaged in extended debates), scholars such as Isaiah Berlin,[4] Michel Foucault, Christopher Hill, J. G. A. Pocock, and others have continued to work in a spirit close to that with which Lovejoy pursued the history of ideas. The first chapter of Lovejoy's book The Great Chain of Being lays out a general overview of what he intended to be the programme and scope of the study of the history of ideas.[1]


Lovejoy's history of ideas takes as its basic unit of analysis the unit-idea, or the individual concept. These unit-ideas work as the building-blocks of the history of ideas: though they are relatively unchanged in themselves over the course of time, unit-ideas recombine in new patterns and gain expression in new forms in different historical eras. As Lovejoy saw it, the historian of ideas had the task of identifying such unit-ideas and of describing their historical emergence and recession in new forms and combinations.

The unit-idea methodology, intended to extract the basic idea within any philosophical work and movement,[1] also has certain defining principles: 1) assumptions, 2) dialectical motives, 3) metaphysical pathos, and 4) philosophical semantics. These different principles define the overarching philosophical movement within which, Lovejoy argues, one can find the unit-idea, which can then be studied throughout the history of that idea.

Modern work[edit]

Quentin Skinner criticizes Lovejoy's "unit-idea" methodology, and he argues that such a "reification of doctrines" has negative consequences.[5] He emphasizes sensitivity to the cultural context of the texts and ideas being analysed. Skinner's own historical methodology is based on J.L. Austin's theory of speech acts. Andreas Dorschel criticizes Skinner's restrictive approach to ideas through verbal language, and points out how ideas can materialize in non-linguistic media or genres such as music and architecture.[6]

Another important development within the study of ideas has been within the academic discipline of Intellectual History. The Harvard historian, Peter Gordon, explains that intellectual history, as opposed to the history of ideas practiced by Lovejoy, studies and deals with ideas within a broader context.[7] Gordon further emphasises that intellectual historians, as opposed to historians of ideas and philosophers (History of Philosophy), "tend to be more relaxed about crossing the boundary between philosophical texts and non-philosophical contexts...[they regard] the distinction between “philosophy” and “non-philosophy” as something that is itself historically conditioned rather than eternally fixed."[7] Therefore, intellectual history, as a means of reproducing a historically valid interpretation of a philosophical argument, tends to implement a contextualist approach when studying ideas and broader philosophical movements.

Foucault's Approach[edit]

Michel Foucault rejects the idea of the traditional way historians go about writing, which is a narrative. He believed that most historians preferred to write about long periods of time instead of digging deeper into a more specific history.[8] Foucault argues that historians should reveal historical descriptions through different perspectives. This is where he comes up with the term “archaeology” for his method of historical writing. His historical method differs from the traditional sense of historical writing and is divided up into four different ideas.

The first is that “archeology” seeks to define the history through philosophical means, which is to say the discourse between thought, representation, and themes. The second is that “archaeology,” the notion of discontinuity assumes a major role in the historical disciplines. The third idea is that “archaeology” does not seek to grasp the moment that history at which the individual and the social are inverted into one another. And finally the fourth point is that “archaeology” does not seek the truth of history, rather it seeks the discourse in it.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Arthur Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), ISBN 0-674-36153-9
  2. ^ Ronald Paulson English Literary History at the Johns Hopkins University in New Literary History, Vol. 1, No. 3, History and Fiction (Spring, 1970), pp. 559–564
  3. ^ Arthur Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-313-20504-3
  4. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-691-09026-2
  5. ^ Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," History and Ideas 8.1 (1969), pp. 3-53.
  6. ^ Andreas Dorschel, Ideengeschichte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010. ISBN 978-3-8252-3314-3
  7. ^ a b Peter E. Gordon, "WHAT IS INTELLECTUAL HISTORY? A FRANKLY PARTISAN INTRODUCTION TO A FREQUENTLY MISUNDERSTOOD FIELD." Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts http://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/faculty/documents/pgordon-whatisintellhist.pdf
  8. ^ Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On History." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/newhistoricism/modules/foucaulthistory.html
  9. ^ Foucault, Michel. "Archaeology Of Knowledge, Introduction.", edited by A. M. Sherida Smith. Vintage, 1982. http://foucault.info/documents/archaeologyofknowledge/foucault.archaeologyofknowledge.00_intro.html

External links[edit]

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40 news items

The Seattle Times
Fri, 29 Aug 2014 21:49:03 -0700

Currently, classes in the discipline are offered as one-offs from graduate students, often in the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program, but there is no consistency or sustained structure for students. According to a recent study from the ...
IU Bloomington Newsroom
Tue, 19 Aug 2014 06:07:30 -0700

Calling the book “important and ambitious” and "a history of ideas in action," the society cited Mehrotra's analysis of the shift from the 19th-century "regime of indirect, hidden, partisan and regressive taxes” to today's "direct, transparent ...


Thu, 28 Aug 2014 05:00:00 -0700

“What is video?” isn't a question that—like “What is justice?” or “What is love?”—wears its complexity on its sleeve. Concepts can be tricky to define, we tell ourselves, but things are another matter. Things are easy. Nobody spends long hours ...

The News International

The News International
Sat, 30 Aug 2014 19:26:15 -0700

The history of ideas shows that expansion of mental horizon enabled the mind to encompass diverse and sometimes antithetical elements through creative imagination, and expand the meaning of everyday experiences, myths, symbols and metaphors.
Slate Magazine (blog)
Wed, 13 Aug 2014 11:02:38 -0700

... government did succeed in preventing unrest at the same time it postponed the internal reconstruction of society. It also contributed to a widespread sense of continued victimhood at Allied hands.” I first saw this memo on John Ptak's History of ...

World Magazine

World Magazine
Tue, 26 Aug 2014 07:29:36 -0700

I've just been reading through an interesting book by Luc Ferry, who's an atheist philosopher from the University of Paris. He's written a book on the history of ideas. He says Christianity introduced a concept of an inherent dignity, and that was ...
Huffington Post
Mon, 18 Aug 2014 07:18:02 -0700

At 17, they learn to use their judgment, ask the big questions and study the history of ideas. Descartes, Plato, Sartre and Kant are all part of the curriculum. The philosophy exam is the most feared among students at the Bac -- the French exam ...
Times Higher Education
Wed, 13 Aug 2014 16:15:00 -0700

Its other central theme, which is presented as its main purpose, is a much more ambitious venture in the history of ideas: an attempt to show that the main reason why the Holocaust happened lay not in a basically racialist anti-Semitic ideology, nor ...

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