Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Intellectual History in a Global Age

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Intellectual History in a Global Age

Article excerpt

The history of ideas began as an interdisciplinary field served by history but dominated by philosophy, which allowed "ideas," and even "unit ideas," to act as currency across time and space, between languages and traditions, churches and heresies, classes and nations, natives and Others. From the beginning, however, the history of ideas in Lovejoy's sense of the phrase was criticized for its neglect of historical context; for as Juan Luis Borges has written, "ideas are not eternal like marble," and the criticisms of Lovejoy have followed the spirit of this warning.1

In a famous exchange, recalling the ancient warfare between philology and philosophy, Leo Spitzer criticized Lovejoy for abstracting and dehumanizing "ideas" in order to show the parallels between Romanticism and Hitlerism divorced from the "climate" in which each phenomenon "organically" arose (alluding here to Joseph Glanvil's notion of a "climate of opinion").2 What Spitzer opposed to Lovejoy's analysis of ideas as "isolated units" was the literary and holistic method of Geistesgeschichte, yet tied as well to the premises of Ranke's scientific history, which viewed Romanticism and Hitlerism as terms not merely as philosophical interpretation but as "factually existent" phenomena, each with its own determinable but incomparable historical context, which resists logical and reductionist analysis.

In general the project of intellectual history has been carried on between two poles of inquiry which have been commonly known as internalist and externalist-or "intellectualist" and "contextualist"-methods.3 The first of these polar positions is located in individual psychology and mental phenomena, the second in collective behavior, inherited or learned practice, and cultural surroundings. For history this takes the form on the one hand of tracing ideas in terms of an inner dynamic, or familiar logic, similar to what the eighteenth century called "reasoned" or "conjectural" history, and on the other hand of trying somehow to place ideas in the context of their own particular time, place, and environment, without assuming continuities of familiar meanings.

One thing common to Lovejoy, Spitzer, and Marx is the effort to "get behind the back of language" (in the phrase of Gadamer). These scholars all operated before the recent linguistic turn, which has undermined the spiritualist conception of ideas and their history, the intuitions of Geistesgeschichte, and the simple correlations of vulgar Marxism. These days we seem to have moved beyond such short-cuts, for the past is indeed a "foreign country"; and while ordinary human communication may be the hermeneutical project of "finding the I in the Thou," intellectual history cannot be satisfied with finding the We in-or forcing the We upon-the They.4 Hegel to the contrary notwithstanding, it's not just about us. Historical meaning extends over many horizons, and a dictionary of ideas (not to mention a dictionary of intellectual historians) must be open not only to undefined and perhaps even undefmable cultural alterity but also to ambiguities, anomalies, and differences within many semantic fields.

There is nothing at all new in this suggestion, and indeed well over a halfcentury ago that forgotten prophet Benjamin Lee Whorf regarded his linguistic insights as a "new principle of relativity, which holds that al observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same pattern of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."5 Intellectual historians are limited by a similar principle of relativity in even more confusing fields of observation, nor can historical "meaning" be exempt from this condition. For Heidegger language is the "house of being," but for him the European house is altogether different than those of other cultures, and (as he concluded) "a dialogue from house to house is nearly impossible."6 Moreover, in our own "house of being," we are denizens, actors, and even creators but never quite masters, and this further complicates the quest for meaning. …

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