What is Intellectual History Now?



It is always difficult to explain what one does for a living; still more so when one is asked in so crisp a manner, and with such apparent expectation of definitive response, as in the question ‘What is intellectual history now?’ I cannot hope to be comprehensive, and my answer will necessarily reflect my own particular specialism and interests. However, I shall attempt to be at least articulate in my reply; and I shall begin by saying that the question seems to me to involve in fact two questions: one, ‘What is intellectual history now?’ (as opposed to then); and two, ‘What is intellectual history now?’ (as opposed to any other kind of history). As we shall see, these two questions cannot be disentangled; for the very same history of intellectual history over the past few decades which has seen such a reinvigoration of the field has at the same time brought into question the distinctive boundaries of that field.


Cultural History Linguistic Context Language Game Intellectual History Text Producer 
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Notes and references

  1. 1.
    W.J. Bouwsma, The Waning of the Renaissance 1550–1640 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. ix.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    By Roger Chartier, in a wonderfully lucid and thoughtful overview of the problems involved. See R. Chartier, ‘Intellectual History or Sociological History? The French Trajectories’, in D. LaCapra and S.L. Kaplan (eds), Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Cf. N.J. Christie, ‘From Intellectual to Cultural History: The Comparative Catalyst’, in D.R. Woolf (ed.), Intellectual History: New Perspectives (Lewiston; Queenston; Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 1989), p. 82.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    A point very familiar by now, thanks to the seminal work of Quentin Skinner. For its original incisive and sparkling formulation see Q.R.D. Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, vol. 8 (1969), pp. 393–408CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, especially, Skinner, ‘Meaning and Understanding’, and Q.R.D. Skinner, ‘Motives, Intentions and the Interpretation of Texts’, New Literary History, vol. 3 (1972), pp. 393–408, reprinted in Tully, Meaning and Context. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a discussion of this issue see J.G.A. Pocock, ‘Concepts and Discourses: A Difference in Culture? Comments on a Paper by Melvin Richter’, in H. Lehmann and M. Richter (eds), The Meaning of Historical Terms and Concepts: New Studies in Begriffsgeschichte (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1996), pp. 47–58Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Skinner’s study of the Lorenzetti frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena: Q.R.D. Skinner, ‘Ambrogio Lorenzetti: The Artist as Political Philosopher’, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 72 (1986), pp. 1–86.Google Scholar
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    For these points see L. Giard, ‘Du Latin médiéval au pluriel des langues: Le tournant de la Renaissance’, Histoire, épistémologie, langage, vol. 6 (1984), pp. 35–55, especially pp. 40–1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  21. 28.
    I mean ‘paratext’ in Gerard Genette’s later sense of all the material which surrounds the text and affects how it is read (preface, titles, epigraphs, illustrations, notes, and so on). See G. Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (trans. J.E. Lewin) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In another context Michel de Certeau has analysed how consumption itself can be a form of production through strategies of appropriation and assimilation. See M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (trans. S. Rendall) (Berkeley, CA; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1984), pp. xi–xxiv.Google Scholar
  25. 34.
    For a thoughtful discussion of the possibilities for intellectual history ‘after the linguistic turn’ see J.E. Toews, ‘Intellectual History After the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience’, American Historical Review. vol. 92 (1987). pp. 879–907.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 37.
    Umberto Eco has developed the idea of an intention of the work, intentio operis, in his secod Tanner lecture of 1990. See U. Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); especially p. 64: ‘To recognise the intentio operis is to recognise a semiotic strategy. Sometimes the semiotic strategy is detectable on the grounds of established stylistic conventions … How to prove a conjecture about the intentio operis? The only way is to check it upon the text as a coherent whole.’ Eco goes on to discuss the relations between this intentio operis and the intentio of both lector and auctor. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 38.
    It seems to me that this is preferable to making a radical separation between ‘meaning’ in the sense of what the author meant, and ‘meaning’ in the sense of the signification of the text, leaving the first — the recovery of intention — to the historian and the second to the literary critic or the philosopher, as argued, for example, in M.P. Thompson, ‘Reception Theory and the Interpretation of Historical Meaning’, History and Theory, vol. 32 (1993), pp. 228–72. For one thing, the intentionality or ‘pointedness’ of the text itself (see note 12 above) lies in between these two poles, mediating between them. For another, it then becomes quite unclear why someone interested in what the text means should have any concern for what the author may have meant. I suggest rather that the task of the intellectual historian is both historical and critical-philosophical (see further above, p. 127).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 40.
    See Chartier, ‘Intellectual History or Sociocultural History?, pp. 18–32; R. Chartier, Cultural History: Between Practices and Representations (trans. L.G. Cochrane) (Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Blackwell, 1988), pp. 20–48Google Scholar
  29. P. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), pp. 162–82.Google Scholar
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    C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p. 452.Google Scholar
  31. 45.
    For a helpful diagnosis of their own enterprise, and its origins and effects, by two of the leading ‘new historicist’ scholars, see C. Gallagher and S. Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 1–19.Google Scholar
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    Cf. S. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
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    J. Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 196–212.Google Scholar
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    See R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), for the development of these views of what follows from accepting the radical ‘contingency of language’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002

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