Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History

TitlePalgrave Advances in Intellectual History
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsScheibner, Tamás
Author(s) of reviewed materialeds. Whatmore, Richard, and Brian Young
PublisherPalgrave Advances in Intellectual History. Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN Number978-1-4039-3901-2
Full Text

If there were no essays other than the one by the late John Burrow in this book, it would still be worthwhile purchasing a copy. His witty opening article outlines with enviable elegance the concerns of intellectual history as a discipline in English academia, and proves that intellectual historians may indeed have a good sense of humor, despite rumours to the contrary. This is certainly not a disadvantage for a volume that aims to introduce students to the heady field of intellectual history, a field which, to borrow Robert Darnton’s expression, requires much time “grubbing around” in archives, perhaps not the most tempting activity for younger students, even those in humanities departments.

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, with the majority of the eleven studies presenting the relationship of intellectual history to other (sub)disciplines—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 meet such ambitious expectations created by the above-mentioned promises, although undertakings of this type are no doubt necessary for educational purposes. While the difficulties of such a project are understandable, there are some notable shortcomings in this text. First, despite its declared aim of presenting a broader survey of intellectual history, the volume focuses squarely on the British tradition(s), and tends to neglect promising international initiatives in the field. For example, Brian Young demonstrates that intellectual history in Britain is multi-centered, and that in addition to the so-called “Cambridge School” there are other equally important workshops in Sussex and London. Yet surprisingly, he does not mention the International Society of Intellectual History, co-founded in 1994 by well-known British scholars who continue to play a key role in that institute and in the broader field. Nor does he discuss the journal Intellectual News, first published in London in 1996 and renamed the Intellectual History Review in 2007. The journal contains significant contributions to the field of intellectual history and brings together scholars from all over the world, creating a space for comparative approaches. Such references would have reinforced Burrow's well-founded observation that in the past twenty years the field has undergone a “revolution,” and has become a highly respected discipline, largely as a result of its newfound methodological pluralism. This absence of a hegemonic approach has, on the one hand, allowed scholars to be inclusive of ideas from other disciplines while still maintaining the field’s identity as a uniquely historical endeavor. On the other hand, this anti-dogmatism has fueled the emergence of several practical innovations evident in various monographs, which have resulted in revelatory methodological, and often theoretical, consequences for the entire discipline.

An additional shortcoming is the under-representation of North American scholars. 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. The omission of one of the greatest contemporary intellectual historians, whose The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History (2002) is a fundamental contribution to the field and essential reading for all students interested in the history of ideas, is a key deficiency of this text. Similarly, a reader of Abigail Williams’s account of the relationship between literary and intellectual history will be struck by the omission of an overview of the well-known debate between Arthur O. Lovejoy and Leo Spitzer, which exposed the main points of contention between intellectual historians and literary critics. Also absent is the well-documented controversy between David Harlan and David Hollinger in the American Historical Review (1989; see also Joyce Appleby’s article in the same year), which is a constant reference point for American historians when it comes to the “linguistic turn,” and Quentin Skinner’s 1975 essay on literary hermeneutics that (among other texts) provoked Harlan's article, though it would have been worth revisiting the entire debate in order to reveal some of the misunderstandings involved. Apart from these, there are other discussions on the relationship of intellectual history to literary hermeneutics and post-structuralism that should have been addressed—articles by Martin Jay (1982), Martyn Thompson (1993) and John Toews (1987) provide just a few such examples.

Although, as I mentioned, the book focuses mainly on British perspectives on the history of ideas, several authors draw on scholarship outside of Great Britain. For example, Mishtooni Bose, in her thoughtful chapter, “The Intellectual History of the Middle Ages,” excels in self-reflexive argumentation, extensively discussing French contributions that could be compared to English-language intellectual history. Likewise, Lucy Hartley, in the context of art history, analyzes the role Jakob Burckhardt and Aby Warburg played in intellectual and cultural history (yet, for some reason, she seems to ignore the immense impact of Johan Huizinga). In addition, Duncan Kelly's insightful essay on “The Politics of Intellectual History in Twentieth Century Europe” should remind students that the migration of ideas does not stop at national borders: most of the key thinkers spoke foreign languages (or were immigrants themselves) and imported thoughts from other intellectual and national traditions. Hence, English intellectual history should necessarily involve extensive references to French, German and Italian intellectual history, not to mention Russian, Polish and traditions from several other countries. Kelly proves that the traditional model of knowledge production seems to be increasingly untenable in the light of recent historical scholarship, and calls for a serious reconsideration of the idea that knowledge spreads only from the centre to the periphery. This, of course, requires a careful reinvestigation of intercultural exchange, and a search for new models and 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,” (42) one might consider whether this is an objective description of the state of the field, or wishful thinking. It is also hard to overlook the fact that the volume appears to be as much a struggle with Quentin Skinner's almost overwhelming presence in the field as it is an introduction for students. Many of the contributions criticize Skinner’s methodology and practice, from various angles and temperaments. For example, although Brian Cowan and the volume’s editors, Brian Young and Richard Whatmore, recognize Skinner’s impressive accomplishments, they contrast his thinking to J.G.A. Pocock's—which proves highly advantageous for Pocock. While Skinner generally avoids religious issues when approaching past ideas, Pocock proves to be a good student of Herbert Butterfield in studying religion “as an element in political and historical thought” (38). As a New Zealander, Pocock’s more global perspective is praised by the editors in comparison to their perception of Skinner’s Eurocentric attitude (41). Whatmore, in his temperate and pluralistic essay, gives arguably one of the best contemporary accounts of the differences between Skinner and Pocock, which goes beyond the typical theoretical comparisons and presents a detailed analysis of the variations in their praxis as well. In addition, Rachel Foxley calls for more tolerance from Cambridge-style historians toward the necessarily more present-minded feminist historical scholarship. James Livesey denounces Skinner's image of Hobbes with reference to historians of science, an interesting essay that also contains a dangerous tendency towards essentializing the history of ideas—and its methods—which should be regarded as a dynamic phenomenon. Regarding this argument, it is worthwhile to mention Bose’s fine reflection on the difficulties of defining intellectual history (92).

In summary, apart from being a useful study guide, Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History, rather unexpectedly appears to be the most significant collective endeavor (all authors were or are affiliated with either the University of Sussex or Oxford) in criticizing Skinner's methodology since the 1988 volume Meaning and Context, edited by James Tully. Nevertheless, it is still tempting to conclude that while the volume contains several fascinating essays, any such course on intellectual history should include more contributions, especially but not only by scholars from outside the United Kingdom.


Tamás Scheibner,

Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest (ELTE)


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