Intellectual history

From Academic Kids

Intellectual history means either:

  1. the history of intellectuals, or:
  2. the history of the people who create, discuss, write about and in other ways propagate ideas. This includes not only western intellectual traditions, but those in the far east, near east, mid-east and Africa as well.

Intellectual history differs from the history of philosophy and the history of ideas, although these fields are closely related and often overlap. Its central perspective suggests that ideas do not change in isolation from the people who create and use them and that we must study the culture, lives and environments of people to understand their notions and ideas.

Western intellectual history

The social/intellectual context in the writings of western Europeanhistory includes:

The Enlightenment - human rights, new science, democratic republic (scholarly sources Kant, Dilthey).

The Royal Society - a secular creation of an intellectual world led by figures such as Newton, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Joseph Addison, Bishop Sprat.

The Encyclopaedists - the creation of central repositories of knowledge available to all outside of academies, including mass market encyclopaedias and dictionaries: Diderot, Samuel Johnson, Voltaire.

Romanticism - individual, subjective, imaginative, personal, visonary (scholarly sources Carlyle, Rousseau, Hook, Herder).

Post-Romanticism/reaction to naturalism, opposes external-only observations by adding internal observations (scholarly sources Comte, von Ranke).

Modernism - rejects Christian academic scholarly tradition (scholarly sources Beard, Ferdinand de Saussure, Freud, Jung, Novick).

Existentialism - pre- and post-WW2 rejection of Western norms and cultural values Martin Heidegger Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Husserl, Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl L÷with, Herbert Marc, Claude Levi-Strauss, Martin Buber, Edmund Husserl, religious and cultural values that allowed Nazism to achieve intellectual prominence in Germany and France in the 1930s and 1940s. And which they saw needed both repudiation and study, as a way to re-establish the individual against the values of a hostile and destructive series of communities creating alienation, isolation, and individual meaninglessness. The anti-fascist, anti-Catholic elements of some these thinkers naturally led them to Communism and Socialism with Sartre himself a dedicated atheist and Maoist til his death. Heidegger on the othger hand was a member of the Nazi party.The inability to accept the implicit significance of western cultural values, from the Greco-Roman period onwards, led this group to fragment Western knowledge and approach it anthropologically, critically, and with a measure of hostility that spurred much academic debate against the established European power structure.

Postmodernism - rejects Modernism, meta-narrative - multiple perspective, role of individual (scholarly sources Lyotard, Foucault, Barthes).

Structuralism - many phenomena do not occur in isolation but in relation to each other (scholarly sources Geertz, Levi-Strauss).

Poststructuralism - deconstruction, destablizes the relationship between language and objects the language refers to (scholarly sources Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault).

Far eastern intellectual history

Central to development of intellectual history has been the birth of scholarship in ancient China, the creation of Confucianism with its extensive exigesis of the texts of Confucius, and the active part of scholars in governments. In Korea, the yangban scholar movement drove the development of Korean intellectual history from the late Goryeo to the golden age of intellectual achievement in the Joseon dynasty.


  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas ( edited by Philip P. Wiener, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973-74. online
  • Laura Fermi. Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930/41, Chicago: U of Chicago, 1971. Europe's loss, America's gain. Included are many scientists who were instrumental to the nuclear bomb project.
  • George B. de Huszar, ed. The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1960. anthology by many contributors.
  • Herbert Mitgang. Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against Americas's Greatest Authors, New York: David I. Fine, Inc, 1988. describes a strain of anti-intellectualism in the American culture, in this case within the FBI of Hoover. Describes files kept on several dozen writers and thinkers.
  • Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, New York: Simon and Schuster,ˇria intelectual

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