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Intellectual history


Intellectual history refers to the historiography of ideas and thinkers. This history cannot be considered without the knowledge of the men and women who created, discussed, wrote about, and in other ways were concerned with ideas. Intellectual history as practiced by historians is parallel to the history of philosophy as done by philosophers, and is more akin to the history of ideas. Its central premise is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who create and use them, and that one must study ideas not as abstract propositions but in terms of the culture, lives, and historical contexts that produced them.

Intellectual history aims to understand ideas from the past by understanding them in context. The term "context" in the preceding sentence is ambiguous: it can be political, cultural, intellectual, and social. One can read a text both in terms of a chronological context (for example, as a contribution to a discipline or tradition as it extended over time) or in terms of a contemporary intellectual moment (for example, as participating in a debate particular to a certain time and place). Both of these acts of contextualization are typical of what intellectual historians do, nor are they exclusive. Generally speaking, intellectual historians seek to place concepts and texts from the past in multiple contexts.

It is important to realize that intellectual history is not just the history of intellectuals. It studies ideas as they are expressed in texts, and as such is different from other forms of cultural history which deal also with visual and other non-verbal forms of evidence. Any written trace from the past can be the object of intellectual history. The concept of the "intellectual" is relatively recent, and suggests someone professionally concerned with thought. Instead, anyone who has put pen to paper to explore his or her thoughts can be the object of intellectual history. A famous example of an intellectual history of a non-canonical thinker is Carlo Ginzburg's study of a 16th-century Italian miller, Menocchio, in his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.

Although the field emerged from European disciplines of Kulturgeschichte and Geistesgeschichte, the historical study of ideas has engaged not only western intellectual traditions but others as well, including those in other parts of the world. Increasingly, historians are calling for a Global intellectual history that will show the parallels and interrelations in the history of thought of all human societies. Another important trend has been the history of the book and of reading, which has drawn attention to the material aspects of how books were designed, produced, distributed, and read.



  • Horowitz, Maryanne Cline, ed. (2004). New Dictionary of the History of Ideas (6 volumes). New York: Scribner. ISBN . 
  • Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori (editors), Global intellectual history (2013)
  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas edited by Philip P. Wiener, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973-74. online: Volume 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Grafton, Anthony. "The history of ideas: Precept and practice, 1950-2000 and beyond." Journal of the History of Ideas 67#1 (2006): 1-32. online
  • Higham, John. "The Rise of American Intellectual History," American Historical Review (1951) 56#3 pp. 453–471 in JSTOR
  • Rahman, M. M. ed. Encyclopaedia of Historiography (2006) Excerpt and text search
  • Schneider, Axel, and Daniel Woolf, eds. The Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 5: Historical Writing Since 1945 excerpt
  • Woolf D. R. A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities) (2 vol 1998) excerpt and text search
  • Noam Chomsky et al., The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years, New Press 1997
  • Jacques Le Goff, Intellectuals in the Middle Ages, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)
  • Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.
  • Toews, John E. "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn. The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience", in: The American Historical Review, 92/4 (1987), 879-907.
  • Turner, Frank M. European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche ( 2014)
  • Riccardo Bavaj, Intellectual History, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte (2010), URL: http://docupedia.de/zg/Intellectual_History
  • George B. de Huszar, ed. The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960. anthology by many contributors.
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