History of ideas

The history of ideas is a field of research in history that deals with the expression, preservation, and change of human ideas over time. The history of ideas is a sister-discipline to, or a particular approach within, intellectual history. Work in the history of ideas may involve interdisciplinary research in the history of philosophy, the history of science, or the history of literature. In Sweden, the history of ideas and science or Idé- och lärdomshistoria has been a distinct university subject since 6 November 1932, when Johan Nordström, a scholar of literature, was appointed professor of the new discipline in a ceremony at Uppsala University (coinciding with that commemorating the 300-year anniversary of the Battle of Lützen). Today, several universities across the world provide courses in this field, usually as part of a graduate programme.

The Lovejoy approach

The historian Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) coined the phrase history of ideas and initiated its systematic study[1] in the early decades of the 20th century. Johns Hopkins University was a "fertile cradle" to Lovejoy's history of ideas;[2] he worked there as a professor of history, from 1910 to 1939, and for decades he presided over the regular meetings of the History of Ideas Club.[3] Another outgrowth of his work is the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Aside from his students and colleagues engaged in related projects (such as René Wellek and Leo Spitzer, with whom Lovejoy engaged in extended debates), scholars such as Isaiah Berlin,[4] Michel Foucault, Christopher Hill, J. G. A. Pocock, and others have continued to work in a spirit close to that with which Lovejoy pursued the history of ideas. The first chapter of Lovejoy's book The Great Chain of Being (1936) lays out a general overview of what he intended to be the programme and scope of the study of the history of ideas.[1]


Lovejoy's history of ideas takes as its basic unit of analysis the unit-idea, or the individual concept. These unit-ideas work as the building-blocks of the history of ideas: though they are relatively unchanged in themselves over the course of time, unit-ideas recombine in new patterns and gain expression in new forms in different historical eras. As Lovejoy saw it, the historian of ideas had the task of identifying such unit-ideas and of describing their historical emergence and recession in new forms and combinations.

The unit-idea methodology, intended to extract the basic idea within any philosophical work and movement,[1] also has certain defining principles: 1) assumptions, 2) dialectical motives, 3) metaphysical pathos, and 4) philosophical semantics. These different principles define the overarching philosophical movement within which, Lovejoy argues, one can find the unit-idea, which can then be studied throughout the history of that idea.

Modern work

Quentin Skinner criticizes Lovejoy's "unit-idea" methodology, and he argues that such a "reification of doctrines" has negative consequences.[5] He emphasizes sensitivity to the cultural context of the texts and ideas being analysed. Skinner's own historical methodology is based on J.L. Austin's theory of speech acts. Andreas Dorschel criticizes Skinner's restrictive approach to ideas through verbal language, and points out how ideas can materialize in non-linguistic media or genres such as music and architecture.[6]

Another important development within the study of ideas has been within the academic discipline of Intellectual History. The Harvard historian Peter Gordon explains that intellectual history, as opposed to the history of ideas practiced by Lovejoy, studies and deals with ideas within a broader context.[7] Gordon further emphasises that intellectual historians, as opposed to historians of ideas and philosophers (History of Philosophy), "tend to be more relaxed about crossing the boundary between philosophical texts and non-philosophical contexts...[they regard] the distinction between "philosophy" and "non-philosophy" as something that is itself historically conditioned rather than eternally fixed."[7] Therefore, intellectual history, as a means of reproducing a historically valid interpretation of a philosophical argument, tends to implement a contextualist approach when studying ideas and broader philosophical movements.

Foucault's approach

Michel Foucault rejects the idea of the traditional way historians go about writing, which is a narrative. He believed that most historians preferred to write about long periods of time instead of digging deeper into a more specific history.[8] Foucault argues that historians should reveal historical descriptions through different perspectives. This is where he comes up with the term “archaeology” for his method of historical writing. His historical method differs from the traditional sense of historical writing and is divided up into four different ideas.

The first is that "archaeology" seeks to define the history through philosophical means, which is to say the discourse between thought, representation, and themes. The second is that, in "archaeology," the notion of discontinuity assumes a major role in the historical disciplines. The third idea is that "archaeology" does not seek to grasp the moment in history at which the individual and the social are inverted into one another. And finally the fourth point is that "archaeology" does not seek the truth of history, rather it seeks the discourse in it.[9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Arthur Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), ISBN 0-674-36153-9
  2. ^ Ronald Paulson English Literary History at the Johns Hopkins University in New Literary History, Vol. 1, No. 3, History and Fiction (Spring, 1970), pp. 559–564
  3. ^ Arthur Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-313-20504-3
  4. ^ Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-691-09026-2
  5. ^ Quentin Skinner (1969). "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas". History and Ideas 8 (1): 3–53.
  6. ^ Andreas Dorschel, Ideengeschichte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010. ISBN 978-3-8252-3314-3
  7. ^ a b Peter E. Gordon, "What is intellectual history? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field". Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  8. ^ Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Foucault: On History". Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.
  9. ^ Foucault, Michel. "Archaeology Of Knowledge, Introduction", edited by A. M. Sherida Smith. Vintage, 1982.

Further reading

  • Horowitz, Maryanne Cline, ed., New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York: Scribner, 2004. 6 volumes. ISBN 978-0684313771.
  • Moran, Seán Farrell, "Intellectual History/History of Ideas," in: Kelly Boyd, ed., The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Routledge, 1999. ISBN 978-1884964336.
  • Wiener, Philip P., ed. (1973). Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas (5 volumes, inc. index)|format= requires |url= (help). New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-16418-3.

External links

  • Wiener, Philip P., ed. (2003) [1974]. Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas (online)|format= requires |url= (help). Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, Electronic Text Center. Each content volume has a separate URL:
  1. Volume 1: Abstraction in the Formation of Concepts TO Design Argument open access
  2. Volume 2: Despotism TO Law open access
  3. Volume 3: Law, Concept of TO Protest Movements open access
  4. Volume 4: Psychological Ideas in Antiquity TO Zeitgeist open access
Conservation of energy

In physics and chemistry, the law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant; it is said to be conserved over time. This law means that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another. For instance, chemical energy is converted to kinetic energy when a stick of dynamite explodes. If one adds up all the forms of energy that were released in the explosion, such as the kinetic energy and potential energy of the pieces, as well as heat and sound, one will get the exact decrease of chemical energy in the combustion of the dynamite. Classically, conservation of energy was distinct from conservation of mass; however, special relativity showed that mass is related to energy and vice versa by E = mc2, and science now takes the view that mass–energy is conserved.

Conservation of energy can be rigorously proven by Noether's theorem as a consequence of continuous time translation symmetry; that is, from the fact that the laws of physics do not change over time.

A consequence of the law of conservation of energy is that a perpetual motion machine of the first kind cannot exist, that is to say, no system without an external energy supply can deliver an unlimited amount of energy to its surroundings. For systems which do not have time translation symmetry, it may not be possible to define conservation of energy. Examples include curved spacetimes in general relativity or time crystals in condensed matter physics.


The Counter-Enlightenment was a term that some 20th-century commentators have used to describe multiple strains of thought that arose in the late-18th and early-19th centuries in opposition to the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Though the first known use of the term in English was in 1949 and there were several uses of it, including one by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Counter-Enlightenment is usually associated with Isaiah Berlin, who is often credited for re-inventing it. The starting point of discussion on this concept in English started with Isaiah Berlin's 1973 Essay, The Counter-Enlightenment. He published widely about the Enlightenment and its challengers and did much to popularise the concept of a Counter-Enlightenment movement that he characterized as relativist, anti-rationalist, vitalist, and organic, which he associated most closely with German Romanticism.

Cultural turn

The cultural turn is a movement beginning in the early 1970s among scholars in the humanities and social sciences to make culture the focus of contemporary debates; it also describes a shift in emphasis toward meaning and away from a positivist epistemology. The cultural turn is described in 2005 by Lynette Spillman and Mark D. Jacobs as "one of the most influential trends in the humanities and social sciences in the last generation". A prominent historiographer argues that the cultural turn involved a "wide array of new theoretical impulses coming from fields formerly peripheral to the social sciences", especially post-structuralism, cultural studies, literary criticism, and various forms of linguistic analysis, which emphasized "the causal and socially constitutive role of cultural processes and systems of signification".

Evolutionary ideas of the Renaissance and Enlightenment

Evolutionary ideas during the periods of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment developed over a time when natural history became more sophisticated during the 17th and 18th centuries, and as the scientific revolution and the rise of mechanical philosophy encouraged viewing the natural world as a machine with workings capable of analysis. But the evolutionary ideas of the early 18th century were of a religious and spiritural nature. In the second half of the 18th century more materialistic and explicit ideas about biological evolution began to emerge, adding further strands in the history of evolutionary thought.

Germ theory of disease

The germ theory of disease is the currently accepted scientific theory for many diseases. It states that microorganisms known as pathogens or "germs" can lead to disease. These small organisms, too small to see without magnification, invade humans, other animals, and other living hosts. Their growth and reproduction within their hosts can cause disease. "Germ" may refer to not just a bacterium but to any type of microorganism or even non-living pathogen that can cause disease, such as protists, fungi, viruses, prions, or viroids. Diseases caused by pathogens are called infectious diseases. Even when a pathogen is the principal cause of a disease, environmental and hereditary factors often influence the severity of the disease, and whether a potential host individual becomes infected when exposed to the pathogen.

The germ theory was proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546, and expanded upon by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762. Such views were held in disdain, however, and Galen's miasma theory remained dominant among scientists and doctors. The nature of this doctrine prevented them from understanding how diseases actually progressed, with predictable consequences. By the early nineteenth century, smallpox vaccination was commonplace in Europe, though doctors were unaware of how it worked or how to extend the principle to other diseases. Similar treatments had been prevalent in India from just before AD 1000. A transitional period began in the late 1850s with the work of Louis Pasteur. This work was later extended by Robert Koch in the 1880s. Viruses were discovered in the 1890s. By the end of the 1880s, the miasma theory was struggling to compete with the germ theory of disease. Eventually, a "golden era" of bacteriology ensued, during which the theory quickly led to the identification of the actual organisms that cause many diseases.


The Hermetica are Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts from the 2nd century AD and later, which are mostly presented as dialogues in which a teacher, generally identified as Hermes Trismegistus ("thrice-greatest Hermes"), enlightens a disciple. The texts form the basis of Hermeticism. They discuss the divine, the cosmos, mind, and nature. Some touch upon alchemy, astrology, and related concepts.

Historical theology

Historical theology is the study of the history of Christian doctrine. Grenz, Guretzki and Nordling describe it as, "The division of the theological discipline that seeks to understand and delineate how the church interpreted Scripture and developed doctrine throughout its history, from the time of the apostles to the present day. The twofold function of historical theology is to show the origin and development of beliefs held in the present day and to help contemporary theologians identify theological errors of the past that should be avoided in the present."As a branch of theology it investigates the socio-historical and cultural mechanisms that give rise to theological ideas, statements, and systems. The field focuses on the relationship between theology and its contexts, as well as on the major theological or philosophical influences upon the figures and topics studied. Its methodological foundation and aims are similar to those used by intellectual historians researching historical epistemology, particularly those such as Matthew Daniel Eddy, who investigate the cultural connections between theology and other disciplines that existed in the past.

Intellectual history

Intellectual history refers to the historiography of ideas and thinkers. This history cannot be considered without the knowledge of the humans who created, discussed, wrote about, and in other ways were concerned with ideas. Intellectual history as practiced by historians is parallel to the history of philosophy as done by philosophers, and is more akin to the history of ideas. Its central premise is that ideas do not develop in isolation from the people who create and use them, and that one must study ideas not as abstract propositions but in terms of the culture, lives, and historical contexts that produced them.Intellectual history aims to understand ideas from the past by understanding them in context. The term "context" in the preceding sentence is ambiguous: it can be political, cultural, intellectual, and social. One can read a text both in terms of a chronological context (for example, as a contribution to a discipline or tradition as it extended over time) or in terms of a contemporary intellectual moment (for example, as participating in a debate particular to a certain time and place). Both of these acts of contextualization are typical of what intellectual historians do, nor are they exclusive. Generally speaking, intellectual historians seek to place concepts and texts from the past in multiple contexts.

It is important to realize that intellectual history is not just the history of intellectuals. It studies ideas as they are expressed in texts, and as such is different from other forms of cultural history which deal also with visual and other non-verbal forms of evidence. Any written trace from the past can be the object of intellectual history. The concept of the "intellectual" is relatively recent, and suggests someone professionally concerned with thought. Instead, anyone who has put pen to paper to explore his or her thoughts can be the object of intellectual history. A famous example of an intellectual history of a non-canonical thinker is Carlo Ginzburg's study of a 16th-century Italian miller, Menocchio, in his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.

Although the field emerged from European disciplines of Kulturgeschichte and Geistesgeschichte, the historical study of ideas has engaged not only western intellectual traditions but others as well, including those in other parts of the world. Increasingly, historians are calling for a Global intellectual history that will show the parallels and interrelations in the history of thought of all human societies. Another important trend has been the history of the book and of reading, which has drawn attention to the material aspects of how books were designed, produced, distributed, and read.

John Gray (philosopher)

John Nicholas Gray (born 17 April 1948) is an English political philosopher with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He retired in 2008 as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer. He is an atheist.Gray has written several influential books, including False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), which argues that free market globalization is an unstable Enlightenment project currently in the process of disintegration; Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2003), which attacks philosophical humanism, a worldview which Gray sees as originating in religions; and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), a critique of utopian thinking in the modern world.

Gray sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion, and portrays humanity as a ravenous species engaged in wiping out other forms of life. Gray has written that "humans ... cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them."

Journal of the History of Ideas

The Journal of the History of Ideas is a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal covering intellectual history and the history of ideas, including the histories of philosophy, literature and the arts, natural and social sciences, religion, and political thought.

The journal was established in 1940 by Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press since 2006. In addition to the print version, current issues are available electronically through Project MUSE, and earlier ones through JSTOR. The editors-in-chief are Warren Breckman (University of Pennsylvania), Martin J. Burke (City University of New York), Anthony Grafton (Princeton University), and Ann E. Moyer (University of Pennsylvania).

Linguistic turn

The linguistic turn was a major development in Western philosophy during the early 20th century, the most important characteristic of which is the focusing of philosophy and the other humanities primarily on the relationship between philosophy and language.

Very different intellectual movements were associated with the "linguistic turn", although the term itself is commonly thought popularised by Richard Rorty's 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn, in which it means the turn towards linguistic philosophy. According to Rorty, who later dissociated himself from linguistic philosophy and analytic philosophy generally, the phrase "the linguistic turn" originated with philosopher Gustav Bergmann.

Magnificence (history of ideas)

The word magnificence comes from the Latin “magnum facere”, which means to do something great. The Latin word draws on the Greek “megaloprépeia”. This noun conveys the meaning of doing something great which is fitting or seemly to the circumstance. Magnificence is a philosophical, aesthetic and socio-economic notion deeply rooted in Western culture since classical antiquity. It regards the greatness of actions, courage, excellence, honour, generosity, and splendour of lifestyles of noble purposes.


Négritude is a framework of critique and literary theory, developed mainly by francophone intellectuals, writers, and politicians of the African diaspora during the 1930s, aimed at raising and cultivating Black consciousness across Africa and its diaspora. Négritude was founded by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor (the first President of Senegal), and Léon Damas of French Guiana. Négritude intellectuals disavowed colonialism, and argued for the importance of a Pan-African sense of being among people of African descent worldwide. The intellectuals employed Marxist political philosophy, in the Black radical tradition. The writers drew heavily on a surrealist literary style, and some say they were also influenced somewhat by the Surrealist stylistics, and in their work often explored the experience of diasporic being, asserting ones' self and identity, and ideas of home, home-going and belonging. Césaire's novel 'Notebook of a Return to My Native Land' is perhaps the most notable of Négritudist work.

Négritude inspired the birth of many movements across the Afro-Diasporic world, including Afro-Surrealism, Creolite in the Caribbean, and Black is beautiful in the United States. Frantz Fanon often made reference to Négritude in his writing.


A principle is a proposition or value that is a guide for behavior or evaluation. In law, it is a rule that has to be or usually is to be followed, or can be desirably followed, or is an inevitable consequence of something, such as the laws observed in nature or the way that a system is constructed. The principles of such a system are understood by its users as the essential characteristics of the system, or reflecting system's designed purpose, and the effective operation or use of which would be impossible if any one of the principles was to be ignored. A system may be explicitly based on and implemented from a document of principles as was done in IBM's 360/370 Principles of Operation.

Examples of principles are, entropy in a number of fields, least action in physics, those in descriptive comprehensive and fundamental law: doctrines or assumptions forming normative rules of conduct, separation of church and state in statecraft, the central dogma of molecular biology, fairness in ethics, etc.

In common English, it is a substantive and collective term referring to rule governance, the absence of which, being "unprincipled", is considered a character defect. It may also be used to declare that a reality has diverged from some ideal or norm as when something is said to be true only "in principle" but not in fact.


Progressivism is the support for or advocacy for improvement of society by reform. As a philosophy, it is based on the idea of progress, which asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.

The meanings of progressivism have varied over time and from different perspectives. Progressivism became highly significant during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, out of the belief that Europe was demonstrating that societies could progress in civility from uncivilized conditions to civilization through strengthening the basis of empirical knowledge as the foundation of society. Figures of the Enlightenment believed that progress had universal application to all societies and that these ideas would spread across the world from Europe.The contemporary common political conception of progressivism in the culture of the Western world emerged from the vast social changes brought about by industrialization in the Western world in the late-19th century. Progressives in the early-20th century took the view that progress was being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor; minimally regulated laissez-faire capitalism with monopolistic corporations; and intense and often violent conflict between workers and capitalists, thus claiming that measures were needed to address these problems. Early-20th century progressivism was also tied to eugenics and the temperance movement, both of which were promoted in the name of public health, and were promoted as initiatives toward that goal. Contemporary progressives promote public policies that they believe will lead to positive social change.


Rationality is the quality or state of being rational – that is, being based on or agreeable to reason. Rationality implies the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons to believe, and of one's actions with one's reasons for action. "Rationality" has different specialized meanings in philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, game theory and political science.

To determine what behavior is the most rational, one needs to make several key assumptions, and also needs a logical formulation of the problem. When the goal or problem involves making a decision, rationality factors in all information that is available (e.g. complete or incomplete knowledge). Collectively, the formulation and background assumptions are the model within which rationality applies. Rationality is relative: if one accepts a model in which benefitting oneself is optimal, then rationality is equated with behavior that is self-interested to the point of being selfish; whereas if one accepts a model in which benefiting the group is optimal, then purely selfish behavior is deemed irrational. It is thus meaningless to assert rationality without also specifying the background model assumptions describing how the problem is framed and formulated.


Sentimentality originally indicated the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth, but in current usage the term commonly connotes a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason.Sentimentalism in philosophy is a view in meta-ethics according to which morality is somehow grounded in moral sentiments or emotions. Sentimentalism in literature refers to techniques a writer employs to induce a tender emotional response disproportionate to the situation at hand (and thus to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments). The term may also characterize the tendency of some readers to invest strong emotions in trite or conventional fictional situations."A sentimentalist", Oscar Wilde wrote, "is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." In James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus sends Buck Mulligan a telegram that reads "The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done." James Baldwin considered that "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel...the mask of cruelty". This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald contrasts sentimentalists and romantics, with Amory Blaine telling Rosalind, "I'm not sentimental—I'm as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won't."


Thought encompasses an "aim-oriented flow of ideas and associations that can lead to a reality-oriented conclusion". Although thinking is an activity of an existential value for humans, there is no consensus as to how it is defined or understood.

Because thought underlies many human actions and interactions, understanding its physical and metaphysical origins, and effects has been a longstanding goal of many academic disciplines including philosophy, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, biology, sociology and

cognitive science.

Thinking allows humans to make sense of, interpret, represent or model the world they experience, and to make predictions about that world. It is therefore helpful to an organism with needs, objectives, and desires as it makes plans or otherwise attempts to accomplish those goals.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics (or aretaic ethics , from Greek ἀρετή (arete)) are normative ethical theories which emphasize virtues of mind and character. Virtue ethicists discuss the nature and definition of virtues and other related problems. These include how virtues are acquired, how they are applied in various real life contexts, and whether they are rooted in a universal human nature or in a plurality of cultures.

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