AHP HANDBOOK OF INTELLECTUAL HISTORY
What is Intellectual History?
Ideas, Thought, Philosophy, Intellectualism. In academia, these words are used to try to give description to immaterial human productions. The result is that we get the history of ideas, the history of political thought, the history of philosophy, and intellectual history. In the simplest of terms, the genre of history which houses all of these histories distinguishes itself by naming its principal protagonist as some immaterial change agent.
Many scholars have dedicated ample time to trying to prove that there is a difference between these histories. The result sometimes is a confusing hodge podge such that in universities, courses on these histories can be taught in completely different departments, ranging from philosophy, to political science, to literature, and of course to history itself.
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Let us begin by distinguishing between an idea, a thought, and a philosophy.
An idea is more elemental than a philosophy in that it does not rise to the level of a multi-nodal framework for reflection. For example, an idea could be that there exists a living affinity between Africa and her diasporas. The philosophy of Pan-Africanism would by necessity include a consideration of this idea. But so too would the philosophy of Black Consciousness and the philosophy of Black Nationalism. Studying the histories of these philosophies would involve a consideration of many more “ideas” than this single idea.
On the other side, studying the history of this one idea may involve studying its manifestations in all of the mentioned philosophies as well as separate from them, that is to say, studying the internal evolution of the idea without reference to the use made of it by any outside scheme. The feasibility of the latter is challenged by the doctrine of emergence, being the phenomenon seen in the chemical sciences, and considered by some to also manifest in the human sciences, when a compound possesses characteristics not found in its constituting elements. Furthermore, concepts such as that of “inner formative forces”, being the notion that philosophies, and by extension their constituting ideas, are not passive tools of enquiry but are themselves changed by their deployment in the consideration of various issues, further calls into question the ability to enquire into the “pure” history of an idea.
A thought “extends” further than an idea in that it is both multi-nodal and critical. Encased in it is a contention and even a conviction. However, it is often distinguished from a philosophy because of its greater reliance in defining itself on its materialisation through political praxis rather than on its justification through a priori reasoning. For example, while an idea could be that there exists a living affinity between Africa and her diasporas, a thought in this area could be that a living affinity between Africa and her diasporas is essential to the fostering of esteem among diasporans, while the philosophy of Pan-Africanism in this regard would consider and seek to define, using the principles of the Pan-African intellectual tradition, what constitutes “affinity”, “essentiality”, “esteem” and even “Africa” and “the diaspora” and to ascertain if indeed affinity is something that should be promoted, given whatever value the Pan-African tradition then holds to be most desirable.
It can thus be said that ideas are the launching ground of thought with the latter seeking its peak not in contemplation but in materialisation in political society. And, while philosophies seek more to explain societies, thought seeks more to influence them.
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If thought can be considered as giving political consciousness to idea, then intellectual history perhaps looks to locate the combined and interrelated cultural, political, and philosophical root-stock and propellant of idea. It de-centres the political as the sole plane of enquiry in the human condition, allowing for a wider variety of ideas to be elevated to the ranks of thought. It further de-intellectualises idea such that less abstract concepts can rise to the level of philosophy. This is perhaps why at the University of Cambridge their interdisciplinary masters in this genre of history is called “[The History of] Political Thought and Intellectual History”. The former is reserved for an exploration of the history of various “-isms”, while the latter considers the history of ideas that are not all inherently political, and where they have philosophical leanings, they veer to more tangible concepts than would be found in a pure history of philosophy course. For example, in the curriculum for the masters there is no reference to the history of ontology or metaphysics but instead to the history of concepts such as “civilisation”, “gender”, and “secularisation”.
Thus, intellectual history can be seen as the study of ideas as a function of their combined cultural, political, and philosophical root-stock and propellants. The ideas need not be inherently political, otherwise their study would veer into the history of political thought, nor philosophical, otherwise their study would veer towards the history of philosophy. Intellectual history is perhaps defined more by its methods than by its content, being an approach to the history of ideas that is distinguished by its ability to undertake a multi-pronged (cultural, political, and philosophical) consideration of all levels of immaterial human production, idea, thought, and philosophy.
Gordon, Peter E. “What is Intellectual History? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field”. https://ces.fas.harvard.edu/uploads/files/Reports-Articles/What-is-Intellectual-History-Essay-by-Peter-Gordon.pdf. 2012.
Mandelbaum, Maurice. “The History of Ideas, Intellectual history, and the History of Philosophy”. History and Theory, vol 5, no. 5, pp. 33-66, 1965.
Cite this article:
Umolu, Apeike. “What is Intellectual History?”. AHP Handbook of Intellectual History. 2022.