Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Intellectual History as History

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Intellectual History as History

Article excerpt

It was my favorite philosopher, R. G. Collingwood, who wrote somewhere that "all history is the history of ideas." I think that he is right, as I shall try to explain, but I should like also to see just how far the converse is also true, that all the history of ideas is history. Why should these apparently tautological notions matter? Because, in a word, some historians practice their craft without much regard for ideas, and some intellectual historians practice their craft without much regard for the methods of ordinary history. In either case I think that that is too bad.

Perhaps I should make clear that my target is not so much those who underestimate or dismiss the value of knowing about the past when they write about the present state of things. My target rather is all those who do believe in the value of history in their present pursuits and employ it in their work but who take for granted, or sometimes misconstrue, the nature of the historiography that I believe must underlie their assertions. So I shall overlook for now those sometimes very sophisticated people who mistakenly deny that there is any point or possibility in distinguishing history from fiction, and I shall concentrate instead on a more elusive but more important target, namely, all those who practice intellectual history without much regard for the stringent historiographical conditions which must, I believe, regulate their activities.

I have already had a crack at this in a previous essay where I tried to amend the famous manifesto of that distinguished historian of political thought, Quentin Skinner, in his "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas."1 Skinner did a wonderful job in pleading for the value of history to the study of political thought and in showing what could go wrong in its misuse, but he neglected, so I thought, just how to put it right. I tried to show how in interpreting and using such texts as Machiavelli's Prince, or Thomas More's Utopia, it was first neeessary to fix them in the situation of their composition, before anything else could be done. Skinner saw only one part of this; he accepted the necessity of recovering what he called their "linguistic" context, but he pretty much overlooked (in his theoretical pronouncements anyway) everything else in the author's situation. I tried to show that before one could fix Thomas More (for example) in intellectual history, one had first to address the problem of what he was up to when he wrote Utopia, and that that could not be done on the evidence of the text alone or even in the context of previous texts that seemed to address the same subject. Was the Utopia a serious program of reform to be taken literally in its pronouncements? Or was it merely a criticism of contemporary life? Or was it perhaps only a humanist entertainment, or joke? All these interpretations have, among others, been offered as interpretative possibilities, so that it looks as though the problem of intention must first be resolved, if we want to discover the correct meaning of the original. And so I indicated how this might be done (using some of the suggestions of J. H. Hexter)2 by recalling the circumstances of More's actual life and the political situation at the time of the composition-by the work that I have called "ordinary history." Skinner read my essay and responded eventually; he thought I had missed the point of his essay; while I, of course, thought he had missed the point of mine.3

Skinner has gone on to a most successful career describing the history of early modern political thought, joined by colleagues like J. G. A. Pocock and by students in what has sometimes been called the Cambridge school, arguing, I think correctly, "that political theory and philosophy are to be understood as speech acts performed in history," but insisting, I think too one-sidedly, that that history (the context) must be the language of some "ongoing discourse."4 Skinner believes that the first task of the intellectual historian is to recover that discourse, while I shall argue that establishing the discourse must itself rest on a prior activity: recovering the meaning and intention of each of the many speech acts that constitute the discourse, by first placing each in its own situation-and by conceiving of ideas as the result of a process of thinking, not merely as a set of conclusions. …

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