Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History

TitlePalgrave Advances in Intellectual History
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsScheibner, Tamás
Author(s) of reviewed materialWhatmore, Richard, and Brian Young(eds.)


PublisherNew York: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages 256
ISSNISBN: 978-1-4039-3901-2
Full Text

If there were no other essays in this book but only that of Professor John Burrow's, it would still be worth to purchase a copy. His witty opening piece not just outlines the concerns and context of intellectual history as a discipline in the English academic life with enviable elegance, but also proves that intellectual historians, in spite of rumors to the contrary, may well have a good sense of humor. This is certainly not a disadvantage in a volume which aims to introduce students to the serious field of intellectual history which can require much smelling of archives and may even impact their carrier-choice in a time when, to quote Robert Darnton often cited expression, 'grubbing' around in the archives is not the most tempting professional activity for younger generations, not even in departments of the Humanities. 
Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History promises to provide “students with a guide to the nature of intellectual history and its relationship to significant areas of academic endeavor, in addition to supplying an overview of the current state of research,” and, as stated on the back cover, to be “the first comprehensive survey of recent research in Britain and North America concerned with Europe and the wider world from the Middle Ages to the end of the twentieth century.” Accordingly, the book follows the usual structure of such introductory volumes dealing with any kind of interdisciplinary phenomena: the majority of the eleven studies present the relation of intellectual history to another (sub)disciple, such as literary studies, history of art, history of political thought, history of science, history of medicine, social and cultural history. 
It is clear that no publication could ever entirely live up to the high expectations created by the abovementioned promises, while such undertakings are unquestionably necessary for educational purposes. However, while the critic fully understands the difficulties of such a project, it should not prevent she or (in the present case) he to outline some notable absences in a hasty manner. First of all, despite the declared aims cited above, the volume focuses on British intellectual history, and tends to neglect the very promising recent initiatives for international cooperation in the field. While Brian Young excellently demonstrates that intellectual history in Britain is multi-centered, and beside the so-called 'Cambridge School' there are other equally important permanent workshops (e. g. in Sussex or London), surprisingly, he does not mention the International Society of Intellectual History, inevitably not strictly connected to a specific locus, but which was co-founded by well-acknowledged British scholars back in 1994 who continue to play a major role in the running of the Society. The journal Intellectual News, published in London from 1996, contained significant contributions to the field of intellectual history, and brought together scholars from all over the world, creating a virtual space for comparative approaches. (Since 2007, it has been published asIntellectual History Review by Taylor & Francis Group.) Such references would have reinforced Burrow's observation that in the past twenty years the field has undergone a 'revolution', became a highly respected discipline, mainly, as he rightly suggests, due to its methodological pluralism. This absence of a hegemonic approach, on the one hand, allows scholars to be highly responsive to ideas of other disciplines, while also maintaining the identity of the field as a historical endeavor; and on the other hand, this anti-dogmatism let several practical innovations emerge (manifested in various monographs), that have, of course, methodological and, often, theoretical consequences. 
Furthermore, it seems to me that North American scholars are underrepresented in the volume. It is striking that no discussion of Donald R. Kelley's ideas appears in the book, and his name is not even mentioned, save for a few footnotes. (Oddly enough, the index of the book does not contain the names in the footnotes, which would have made the book handier for students). This is a rather peculiar treatment of one of the greatest intellectual historians of our times whose The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History (2002) is not just a fundamental contribution to the field, but should also be essential reading and reference point for all students interested in the history of ideas. Similarly, one might miss from Abigail Williams's account on the relationship of literary and intellectual history the overview of the interesting debate between Lovejoy and the famous literary critic and linguist, Leo Spitzer, which already exposed what are the main points of disagreement of today between literary critics and intellectual historians. The controversy between Harlan and Hollinger in AHR is also left unmentioned, though it would have been worth revisiting the whole debate, including Quentin Skinner's essay on literary hermeneutics that provoked Harlan's article as it might have revealed some of the misunderstandings involved. Apart from these, there are other discussions on the relation of intellectual history and literary hermeneutics or poststructuralism that should have been considered – articles by Martin Jay, Martyn Thompson or John Toews provide just a few such examples. The methods employed by historians of ideas were also criticized by deconstructionist scholars, lately by the literary critic Timothy Bahti, not to speak of Megill's and Munslow's numerous publications. In the journals New Literary History and Critical Inquiry a series of contributions were explicitly related to intellectual history and historical methodology more generally.

As one may assume (although, it is not explicitly stated), the book is intended for British students, but that should not imply at all that its focus be restricted to British history of ideas. According to the blurb, the volume aims to cover only Anglo-Saxon developments in the field, however, fortunately, many of the scholars also touch upon other traditions. Mishtooni Bose, in her thoughtful chapter entitled "The Intellectual History of the Middle Ages," that excels in self-reflexive argumentation, extensively discusses the French contributions that could be compared to English-language intellectual history; and Lucy Hartley in the context of history of art presents the role Jakob Burckhardt and Aby Warburg played in intellectual and cultural history (at the same time, for some reason, she forgets about the immense impact of Johan Huizinga). If nothing else, Duncan Kelly's insightful essay on "The Politics of Intellectual History in Twentieth Century Europe" should remind students that the migration of ideas has never stopped at the borders, since most of the main thinkers spoke foreign languages (or were immigrants themselves) and imported thoughts from other traditions. Consequently, speaking about English intellectual history should necessarily involve extensive references to French, German and Italian intellectual history, not to mention the Russian, the Polish and several other cases. Furthermore, the traditional model of knowledge production seems to be increasingly untenable in the light of recent historical scholarship, and one needs to seriously reconsider the idea that knowledge is spreading only from the centre to the periphery. This, of course, postulates a careful reinvestigation of intercultural exchange, and a search for new models or metaphors to describe these processes. 
Although, Brian Young asserts that “British intellectual historians have not founded a cult around any of the prominent writers of the field” (p.42), one might wonder whether this is a detached description of the state of art, or rather wishful thinking? Or it might be that the stress is on British, in contrast to for example Finnish reception of practitioners. However it may be, it is hard to overlook that the volume is at least as much a struggle with Quentin Skinner's almost overwhelming personality and influence as it is an introduction for students. Many of the contributions criticise the methodology and practice of Skinner, from various angles and with different temperament. Brian Cowan, and the editors of the volume, Brian Young and Richard Whatmore, while recognizing the impressive accomplishment of Skinner, contrast his thinking with that of J. G. A. Pocock's, which proves advantageous for the latter. Whatmore, in his temperate and truly pluralist essay, gives arguably one of the best accounts up to date on the differences between the views of Skinner and Pocock, aside of Ian Hamphser-Monk's seminal essays or Pocock's own article in Common Knowledge, because he does not constrain himself to the theoretical aspects, but presents a detailed analysis of the differences in their praxis as well. While Rachel Foxley calls for more empathy on the side of Cambridge-style historians to the necessarily somewhat more present-minded feminist historical scholarship, James Livesey harshly denounces Skinner's image of Hobbes with reference to historians of science. However, his otherwise interesting essay contains a dangerous tendency of essentializing the history of ideas (and thus its methods), which should itself be seen as a changing phenomenon in space and time. However, Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History, apart from being a useful study-aid, somewhat unexpectedly, also appears to be the most significant collective endeavor (collective, since all authors were or are affiliated with the University of Sussex or Oxford) criticizing Skinner's methodology since the volume Meaning and Context, by editor James Tully from 1988. Even so, one is still tempted to conclude that while the volume contains several fascinating essays, there should be more than just these texts in the class, especially, but not only, outside the United Kingdom.