Intellectual History I Oxford Open Learning
Intellectual History

Intellectual History

Ideas as a rhetorical technique in modern politics are all around us. Perhaps that explains the growing popularity of the history of ideas, or intellectual history, amongst students.

The Study of Thought

The historical study of thought shot to prominence in the 1960s-70s, with the advent of the ‘Cambridge School’ or ‘contextualist’ approach espoused by Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. Skinner and Pocock show that to understand political philosophy you must identify what the author was attempting to do by promulgating certain ideas. This forces the student to pay attention to the contemporary debates and events thinkers were reacting to. This methodological shift is why universities normally teach ‘Intellectual History’ – which stresses the discipline’s historical credentials – over the ‘History of Ideas’. With flourishing departments at Cambridge, Queen Mary and Sussex, a new generation of intellectual historians are uncovering the forgotten ancestry of our ideas.

This uncovering is crucial because intellectual history has a normative purpose. By tracing how ideas developed, we’re equipped with tools to critique modern usage.

To illustrate – we often hear that something is ‘undemocratic’. And yet, ‘democracy’ is an incredibly contested notion. As many know, classical ‘democracy’ was limited to male citizens of a small city-state, given the leisure time for deliberation by a slave economy. Yet not everyone appreciates that when representative parliamentary government first emerged in modern times, it was conceptualized by many as an alternative to ‘democracy’. So the next time someone tries to close down conversation by charging something as ‘undemocratic’ – ask them what ‘democracy’ they mean.

Maybe even more obscured today is the conceptual history of ‘nation’. Casual parlance elides ‘nation-state’ into one, as if the natural order demands nations have separate governments. However, the rallying cry that ‘to every nation, a state’ is a 19th century phenomenon, furthered by the Italian unionist Mazinni among others. Previously, trans-national political states such as the British or Austro-Hungarian empire, or sub-national polities such as in Germany and Italy, were common.

Putting aside the moral failures of empire, the impact of this intellectual amnesia on discourse is evident today. An element of the Scottish independence debate is that once Scotland is recognised as a nation, we are almost conceptually forced into agreeing it should have a separate government. In the 21st century, we appear to have lost the intellectual apparatus to underpin a trans-national state such as the modern United Kingdom, in a way that would have been (literally) unthinkable to 17th century political writers.

The Flaws of Intellectual History

Intellectual History as an academic discipline has its flaws. Although some are disrupting this, it has too often been focused on politics, Europe and a small canon of white men.

But the central point remains – whatever side of a debate you are on, it pays to have a rigorous understanding of the terms you are using. And for that reason, we must never stop learning the history of our ideas.

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Andrew Hyams is a communications and digital consultant from London with a background in politics and campaigning, having worked for the UK, Australian and New Zealand Labour parties. He studied History and Philosophy at the University of Sussex and UCL. You can get in touch with him on

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