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Ideas in Time

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John Potts

Introduction

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1When I published A History of Charisma, in 2009, I noted in the Introduction that for cultural theorists and intellectual historians, the longue durée ‘remains largely unGoogled’ (Potts 2009 : 9). My study of the idea of charisma spanned a two-thousand year duration, encompassing transformations of meaning and even long periods where the idea remained dormant. At the time, there was little comparable work in intellectual history and cultural history. Discontinuity was the governing principle of intellectual history; historiography favoured the concepts of ruptures and epistemological breaks in the history of thought. There was a general aversion to grand narratives tracing extended historical spans. As I observed in 2009, most intellectual historians ‘mine [d] narrow patches of historical territory, with a tight historical focus and specificity’ (9). If the longue durée was visible at all in this environment, it was viewed with deep suspicion.

2In recent years, however, that environment has changed; and the longue durée is, I suspect, now more frequently Googled. In 2014, Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto advocated a return to ‘long-term thinking’ in the writing of history. This manifesto launched a trenchant critique of the ‘short-termism’ evident in historical studies since about 1975; the majority of history projects since that time had adopted ‘time-spans of between five and fifty years’ (2014: 7). Guldi and Armitage noted with approval ‘the return of the longue durée’ in numerous recent publications (8). Recent works in various disciplines of history indeed indicate a renewed interest in the longue durée – a span of many decades, centuries, even millennia – theorised by historian Fernand Braudel in 1958. Guldi and Armitage assert that if the longue durée has indeed returned, it is ‘in a new guise with new goals’ (118), bringing with it problems of historical methodology. One of those problems – the function of the longue durée in intellectual history – is one of the central concerns of this book.

Telescopes and Microscopes

3In an article published in 2012, Armitage observed that across the historical profession, ‘the telescope rather than the miscroscope is increasingly the preferred instrument of examination’ (Armitage 2012: 493). If the microscope had been prominent in those many works of ‘micro-history’ published since the 1970s, exponents of the historical telescope are now increasingly evident. Big history has emerged, equipped with the biggest telescope of all. Big history is based around the longest of longue durées: 13.8 billion years, or the time-span of the universe itself. As David Christian has remarked in his book Maps of Time (2011), big history differs from the earlier enterprise of world history in its interdisciplinary nature: big history ‘studies the past across physics, astronomy, geology, biology, and human history.’ (Christian 2011: xxiv) Christian defines the big history methodology as ‘looking at the past on all timescales’ (1), including a cosmological timescale when describing the origins of the universe. Within the narrative of big history, ‘human beings are encountered first as a single species, and only very late in such a survey do national or civilizational perspectives acquire salience.’ (xxv) Big history’s mighty telescope thus produces a historical image of an ‘inherently global nature.’ (xxv)

4Another branch of history – deep time – is less inter-disciplinary and less far-reaching than big history. Deep time concerns itself with ‘geologic time’, drawing on the work of eighteenth century geologist James Hutton. The timescale of deep time is roughly 4.55 billion years, or the age of the Earth; publications including Henry Gee’s In Search of Deep Time (2001) aim to probe ‘beyond the fossil record’ to describe a new history of life on earth. Concern over global warming and climate change has prompted the proposal of another timescale of longue durée proportions: the anthropocene. The anthropocene has been proposed as an epoch of geological time, to denote that timescale in which humans have made a significant impact on the Earth, primarily through anthropogenic climate change. This definition of an epoch has attracted scientists and scholars from many disciplines to the anthropocene as an idea; but as Jeremy Davies has demonstrated in his book The Birth of the Anthropocene (2016), this attention has come at the cost of a blurring of definition. There is considerable dispute as to the starting-point of the anthropocene epoch: the advent of agriculture, approximately 10,000 years ago, has been proposed, but so has the the invention of the steam engine – and the beginning of the industrial revolution – in the late eighteenth century. Yet another starting-point has been nominated as 1950, marking a spike in industrial pollution, the widespread use of plastics, and a surge in global population: the anthropocene so defined is too brief a period to constitute a longue durée.

5Still another mode of history, known as deep history, deploys a telescope without the cosmological power of the big history device, but neverthelss looks back a very long way. Deep history probes the distant past of the human species, drawing on the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, genetics and linguistics, among other fields. Publications including Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2008) and Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History (2010) venture into ‘pre-history’ to explore the origins of humanity. Deep history therefore develops a history of humanity based on sources other than the written documents of conventional history. As writing is a relatively recent human invention extending back only 5,000 years, the time-span of recorded history is far too brief to qualify as deep history.

6In Deep Time Dreaming (2018), Billy Griffiths looks back far beyond the two centuries of written Australian historical records to uncover the ‘ancient Australia’ expressed in traditional Aboriginal culture. Griffiths’ focus is ‘archaeological time’, in particular the dating in 2017 of the Madjedbebe rock shelter near Kakadu, confirming Aboriginal presence 65,000 years ago. Griffiths’ 65,000 year timescale is significant in establisihing the enormous depth of traditional Aboriginal culture, encompassing continuity and change over that period. This dating of Aboriginal occupancy of Australia also requires a revision of the narrative of human migration out of Africa and across the world.

7In the history of ideas, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has expanded the scope of the ‘idea’ along deep history lines in his popular work Ideas That Changed the World (2004). In this book, Fernández-Armesto includes ideas whose expression in the history of humanity need not have taken literate form, but may be evident in surviving traditional cultures as well as archaeological finds. Fernández-Armesto locates many of humanity’s most powerful and enduring ideas in pre-history, in ‘the mind of the hunter’ (9). These ideas include the symbol, magic, afterlife, heredity, and many others. Fernández-Armesto seeks to overturn historians’ prejudice against pre-literate cultures, by identifying enduring ideas which first occurred in the minds of hunter-gatherer peoples.

8Surveying the field of intellectual history in 2012, David Armitage noted the first signs of a return to the longue durée in a number of publications. Armitage (2012: 496-497) cited several works of cultural history and intellectual history that trace their subjects over long spans of history, including Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self (2005), Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History (2011), and Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius (2013). Other notable publications include Hugh Kennedy’s Caliphate: The History of an Idea (2016), which traces the transformations of the idea of the caliphate over fourteen centuries; and Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life (2016), a biography of the concept of democracy, considering its differing manifestations over two and a half millennia. Both these recent works appraise the transformations of ideas – religious and political – over the longue durée.

9In the Introduction to their edited book Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History (2014), Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn welcome the ‘revival’ of intellectual history in the twenty-first century, following a period of decline beginning in the 1970s. McMahon and Moyn celebrate

intellectual history’s role as a field that crosses disciplinary frontiers; a reinvigorated interest in intellectual biography and the self; a willingness to scale outward beyond the immediatre contextual confines of time or space; an unapologetic interest in the study of ideas for their own sake… (McMahon and Moyn 2014: 10).

10The revival of this ‘unapologetic interest’ in ideas and their history comes in different form, however, from earlier twentieth-century enterprises in the history of ideas. Armitage aims to distinguish his own work in intellectual history from the discredited ‘abstract, atemporal’ approaches to the history of ideas of the previous century. He proposes a model of ‘transtemporal history’, stressing ‘elements of linkage and comparison across time’ that should proceed by ‘serial contextualism’, thus rendering histories ‘time-bound not timeless’ (2012: 498).

11Armitage conceives of history conducted according to this model as a ‘history in ideas’, rather than a history of ideas. He cites as an instance of such a ‘history in ideas’ his own study of the history of the idea of civil war. This history has an identifiable beginning – with the Romans in the first century – but ‘as yet no discernible end’ (500). Armitage traces, over two thousand years, the conflict over civil war’s meaning, which has ‘characterised its history since the very beginning and remains a distinguishing feature of that history’s continuing force over the present.’ (500) Armitage’s book-length study, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017), demonstrates his model of a history in ideas: the book not only excavates the history of civil war, but points to ‘its significance in forming how we think about the world.’ (2017: 12) The virtues of an intellectual history traced over the longue durée are readily apparent for Armitage:

A historical treatment reveals the contingency of the phenomenon, contradicting those who claim its permananece and durability… what humans have invented, they may yet dismantle. (11)

12A history of ideas, that is, has lessons for the present.

The Aims of This Book

13Ideas In Time deals extensively with the history of – and in – ideas. This book attempts a systematic study of the ill-defined field known as ‘the history of ideas’, a discipline disparaged by Michel Foucault in the 1960s as ‘an uncertain object, with badly drawn frontiers’ and ‘methods borrowed from here and there.’ (Foucault 1972: 136) The aims of Ideas In Time are: to bestow upon the history of ideas some of the ‘rigour and stability’ identified by Foucault as missing from this field of inquiry; to provide a coherent theoretical account of the history of ideas; to emphasise the longue durée or long view in intellectual and cultural history; to develop a reconfigured history of ideas, attentive both to the endurance of certain ideas and beliefs, and to breaks and shifts in meaning over time; and to support this general ambition with studies of specific ideas over long durations, namely: the ideas of progress, democracy, zero, charisma, the Olympic games, and the idea of the West.

14Previous exercises in the history of ideas, particularly as practised by A.O. Lovejoy, emphasised the unchanging continuity of ideas over long historical spans; this approach was severely criticised by Foucault, Quentin Skinner and others in the 1960s, and by Armitage and others in the twenty-first century. Intellectual history under the influence of Foucault has accentuated epistemological breaks or ‘ruptures’ in the history of thought. Ideas in Time eschews a dichotomy between historical continuity and discontinuity, drawing on both perspectives in its reconstruction of the history of ideas. This theoretical model entails the possibility of tracing the history of certain ideas from their ancient origins to their present expression, while acknowledging alterations in meaning determined by changing social and cultural contexts.

15In the process, this book re-evaluates Foucault’s contribution to intellectual history, arguing that Foucault was not – as commonly supposed – a ‘philosopher of discontinuity’, but a theorist sensitive to continuities and gradual change in the history of thought. It also re-examines the influential theory of paradigm shifts proposed in the 1960s by Thomas Kuhn in the history and philosophy of science. The book re-visits the notion of the longue durée within cultural history and the history of ideas, incorporating aspects of more recent critical theory within this broader perspective. Ideas in Time develops a general argument – supported by detailed analysis of specific ideas – for the study of enduring ideas and their shifts in meaning over time. One of the ambitions of the book is to provide a theoretical support for the history of ideas spanning long durations.

A ‘Discontinuous History of Ideas’

16Given the complexity of the interdisciplinary field encompassing intellectual history, detailed in Chapters Two and Three, my project needs to operate within strict limitations. It cannot possibly address all the recent – or not so recent – developments within intellectual history, nor would it be wise to attempt such an undertaking. Stating my aims may, at this point, serve to delimit the scope of this work. In this book I am concerned with the history of individual ideas. Much of the theoretical discussion relates to the possibility of tracing the history of certain ideas from their origins to the present. I examine, therefore, the persistence of the past in contemporary culture – or, more precisely, the endurance of certain ideas in contemporary culture.

17At first glimpse, the methodology of this project may seem to concord with the history of ideas as practised by Lovejoy and others including Ernst Cassirer – but this is certainly not the case. Rather, this work is composed in an intellectual context that is radically different from that of Lovejoy and his contemporaries. If, in the 1940s, it was possible – and desirable – to chart the progress of great ideas as they were expressed in the works of great writers, such a project garners little support – and many more objections – today. The history of ideas that I am proposing, by contrast, must engage with those theoretical developments which have, since the 1960s, challenged the historiographic projects of previous eras. Such practices, once blithely pursued but now exposed to harsh critique, include the writing of ‘grand narratives’ of continuous history, in which unchanging ideas travel through the ages.

18The theoretical burden of my project is to confront those directions in intellectual history and cultural theory that most directly challenge such a project as the history of ideas. Put very briefly, these are: the emphasis on temporal discontinuity in intellectual history; the problematisation of historical interpretation, as shared by diverse forms of historiography, including intellectual history; and the widespread aversion to grand narratives of any kind. The various chapters of this book consider the claims of these arguments in detail, assessing their respective merits, and determining their impact on a contemporary version of the history of ideas.

19If Lovejoy’s history of ideas, then, may serve as a starting-point, I part company very quickly with the Lovejoy method. The abstracting of individual ‘unit-ideas’ from their context – whether social, discursive, textual or a combination of these – cannot be accepted. For my purposes, ideas are not rarefied or constant entities that may be tracked in their glorious trajectories across intellectual history. They are at all times – and all places – contextualised. In this respect, my method accords with the interpretation of texts espoused by Edward Said. For Said, texts are ‘worldly’, in that they are always part of a social world at a particular historical moment (Said 1984: 4). If one were to replace ‘texts’ with ‘ideas’ in the following sentence by Said, one would have an encapsulation of the approach undertaken in this book:

The point is that texts have ways of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place and society – in short, they are in the world, and hence worldly. (Said 1984: 35)

20In contrast to the ‘other-worldy’ unit-ideas mapped by Lovejoy as they are expressed in the works of famous writers, this book is founded on a conceptualisation of ideas as ‘worldly’. Such a contextualisation of ideas – emphasised by Armitage, McMahon and other recent theorists in intellectual history – is more conducive to explaining the transformations undergone by ideas in different historical periods. An idea may change, lapse or be revived, as its social and cultural context changes. These shifts in meaning may occur to meet specific social needs; they may reflect competing cultural interests waging a contest over meaning. Throughout this book, I argue for a renovated history of ideas based on an attention to this cultural dynamic.

21One other point of difference between the history of ideas as practised by Lovejoy and the version assayed in this book, concerns the status of the idea. The problems of defining ‘idea’ are elaborated in Chapter Two; no precise or even adequate definition has been universally accepted. My investigation of ideas is coloured by those developments in cultural theory that have elided distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Whereas Lovejoy wrote detailed analyses of grand ideas such as the great chain of being, as expressed ‘by the most refined philosophical minds’ (Poster 1997: 134), my conception of ideas is broader, and my analysis will find ideas expressed in media and popular culture as much as in learned discourse. The advantage of this conception of the idea is its dynamism; in allowing for change in the cultural responses to certain problems, it situates ideas firmly within specific cultures at specific times. It deals with ideas as worldly entities, rather than abstractions floating above the flux of culture. As worlds change, so do ideas.

22In seeking to elaborate a history of ideas, but one removed from earlier incarnations of this practice, my general theoretical approach resists a strict dichotomy between historical continuity and discontinuity. I do not take sides with either one of these perspectives. I argue that earlier projects such as Lovejoy’s emphasised continuity – in the form of transhistorical constants enduring across the ages – at the expense of radical change or discontinuity. On the other hand, intellectual history following Foucault has emphasised ‘ruptures’, breaks and discontinuities at the expense of gradual change or the persistence of very old ideas. In this play of the same and the different, both approaches have elevated one term while repressing its other. My goal is to integrate elements of both continuity and discontinuity, whenever they are relevant in the charting of intellectual history.

23I advocate, therefore, a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ approach, in the manner suggested by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘dialogic’ interpretation of language and culture. Bakhtin’s historical poetics proves pertinent to my project, due to its appreciation of both continuity and transformation of discourses through time. In the ongoing dialogue between the present and the past, previous meanings, according to Bakhtin, are ‘creatively transformed’ in new intellectual and cultural environments. Bakhtin’s dialogic theory is discussed in detail in Chapter Eight, along with the work of other theorists of continuity and change. These theoretical formulations – drawn from a diversity of disciplinary fields – have influenced my attempt to incorporate aspects of continuity and discontinuity into the history of ideas.

24I argue for the worth of the seemingly outmoded practice of tracing ‘the empirical progress of ideas’, as Foucault pejoratively describes it in The Archaeology of Knowledge (Foucault 1972: 63). As we have seen, David Armitage prefers to conduct ‘history in ideas’. An alternative, and perhaps more palatable, name for the ‘history of an idea’ may well be ‘the career of a term’; indeed ‘career’ seems a more apt description than ‘history’ when applied to the course of ideas charted in this book. The idea of zero, as an example, has had a career marked by false starts, opposition, resistance, belated acceptance (in the West), a flourishing, and then unexpected applications in mathematics and physics. The career of the idea of charisma is remarkable for its vicissitudes, featuring a long period of dormancy when the term fell into misuse, followed by its re-invention in Weber’s sociology in the early twentieth century.

25These brief examples indicate something of the tenor of the history of ideas outlined in this book. As a result of the engagement with pertinent critical theories of intellectual history, I propose a history of ideas marked as much by discontinuity as by continuity. It could be accorded the paradoxical description of the ‘discontinuous history of ideas’, in that it incorporates discontinuities of various kinds. These include the changes in meaning undergone by an idea as it is transformed by its historical and cultural context; there is also the possibility of a more severe discontinuity, in those instances when an idea becomes dormant or disappears altogether. I allow both for continuity, as ideas endure across centuries, and for discontinuity, as ideas are modified in specific cultural environments at specific times. There is temporal disjuncture – the idea transformed from one historical period to another – but also a form of continuity spanning extremely long durations. The history of ideas as proposed in this book is not, therefore, the tracing of universal ideas in their continuous progress from ancient origins to the present. It is rather the identification of the mutations, breaks, twists and turns undergone by ideas as their meanings shift according to historical and cultural context.

26As a result of this preliminary methodological endeavour, I hope that the exercise in the history of ideas constituted by this project will not trespass too severely in the manner so roundly castigated by Foucault. It is true that I use ‘methods borrowed from here and there’ – but in the eclectic domain of intellectual history, such a sin is exceedingly difficult to avoid. I can only hope that the frontiers mapped in the following pages will not be too ‘badly drawn’, and that the resulting theoretical approach will not be altogether ‘lacking in rigour and stability.’ (Foucault 1972: 136)

The Structure of This Book

27In the opening chapter, I use the short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’ by Borges to prefigure the themes and ambitions of the book. Much has been made in literary and critical studies of the lesson in historical discontinuity offered by this famous story: that the republishing in the twentieth century of Cervantes’ seventeenth century work renders the text a radically different entity. I propose an alternative perspective: that Menard’s act of re-writing constitutes a dialogue with the past, that the text allows seventeenth century ideas to travel three centuries, where they find a willing conversant, and that Menard is, after all, ‘tilting at twentieth century windmills’. Braudel’s notion of the longue durée, first proposed in 1958, is articulated. This chapter explores the relationship, and the potential relationship, between intellectual history and the longue durée.

28Chapter Two aims to clarify the murky and often confusing terrain occupied by the history of ideas. It begins by offering a definition of the idea, then traces a history of the discipline back to predecessors such as Vico. Lovejoy’s influential work in the history of ideas is discussed, including the various critiques of his concept of ‘unit-ideas’ and his biological metaphor for the life of an idea. In its place is proposed a formulation of the history of ideas that incorporates change in meaning according to social and cultural context. The history of zero is briefly discussed as an example of a discontinuous history of an idea. The contemporary notion of the ‘meme’, including the internet meme, is criticised as a modern version of the Lovejoyan unit-idea. In its place is proposed a formulation of the history of ideas that incorporates change in meaning over long historical spans, according to social and cultural context.

29Chapter Three describes my methodological approach with reference to broader problems of method in intellectual history. These include the eclectic, ill-defined character of the discipline; and the difficulties – thoroughly canvassed in post-structuralist critiques – associated with interpreting the past. In considering these deep-seated methodological problems, I indicate, first, the path I will take through the eclectic field of intellectual history, and second, my approach to interpreting the texts and thought of the past.

30There are two chapters devoted to Foucault, reflecting his influence on intellectual history. In Chapter Four, I argue that the association of Foucault with discontinuity largely derives from his 1960s works of intellectual history. His stress on historical discontinuity in those works was part of a critical reversal applied to the conventional intellectual history of the time. I propose in Chapter Five that discontinuity constituted only part of Foucault’s analysis of history. Foucault elaborated a theory of gradual change or transformation within intellectual history; he also acknowledged continuity within intellectual formations. Foucault frequently rejected claims that he was a philosopher or historian of discontinuity; particularly in the later stages of his career, he espoused a conception of history as a multiplicity of time spans, as propounded by Fernand Braudel. I draw on this conception – rather than on an unmitigated discontinuity – in my approach to the history of ideas.

31Chapter Six continues the discussion of discontinuity. It describes the models of historical discontinuity developed by Bachelard and Canguilhem within the tradition of French epistemology; by Althusser within Marxist theory; and by Kuhn in his paradigm shift model of the history of science. I offer a critical reading of Kuhn’s highly influential theoretical model. My analysis of these theories is particularly concerned with their provision for historical change – that is, how they purport to explain the transition from one ‘episteme’ or ‘paradigm’ to another. I also investigate whether they make any allowance for continuities within intellectual history.

32Chapter Seven is concerned with the suspicion of grand narratives that constituted a central platform of postmodern theory. I discuss the work of Lyotard, Hayden White and others in opposing teleological grand narratives of history, while surveying the consequences of this critique for intellectual history. I detail the construction and critique of the grand ‘Plato to NATO’ historical narrative in the twentieth century. The significance of this chapter for my project resides in its consideration of historical narratives in the light of these critiques. The histories of the West and of the Olympic Games are briefly discussed as examples of broken narratives, incorporating long periods of dormancy, before re-emergence in altered social and cultural circumstances. A refigured history of ideas needs to trace individual ideas over long historical spans, while avoiding the intellectual hazards exposed by critical theory of narrative and history.

33Chapter Eight surveys models of continuity and change in intellectual history. These models are taken from disparate sources, including philosophy and cultural history. They include Bakhtin’s conception of a ‘dialogue’ between past and present thought, Gadamer’s notion of an enframing tradition, and Collingwood’s ‘empathetic’ approach to intellectual history. In Chapter Nine, the return to a long view in recent thought, expressed in various modes of historical writing, is discussed as a significant development. The work of Hodge and Kress, of Serres, and Agamben is discussed, focusing attention on continuity in the transmission of cultural forms. A history of science privileging continuity instead of paradigm shifts is posited. This chapter also includes a brief discussion of the representation of duration in contemporary art. The work of several artists – including Bill Viola and Sue Ford – is considered, with a focus on the artworks’ depiction of the long, slow passage of time.

34Chapter Ten considers specific ideas in detail. The ideas of progress and democracy are central to debates on grand narrative and the history of ideas. The two have been linked, in the proposition that progress and democracy are both integral to modern Western thought. Democracy emerged in Athens two and a half thousand years ago; but a history of the idea of democracy must concern itself with discontinuity as much as continuity. That is, what are the differences between the democracy espoused in the fifth century BC and the democracy celebrated – and attacked – today? In this chapter I also criticise those histories of progress that construct a grand narrative from Ancient Greece to the present, arguing instead that progress emerged as an idea much later.

35The concluding chapter returns to the considerations proposed in the Introduction. It revisits the paradoxical Borges story, enlisting Bakhtin’s celebration of Don Quixote’s dialogue with earlier and later literary voices. Just as this character is ‘re-accentauted’ in later eras, so ideas are ‘creatively transformed’ in different historical periods. The conclusion argues for a reconstructed history of ideas, alert both to the persistence of ideas and to shifts or mutations of their meaning – that is, to both continuity and discontinuity.

© Presses universitaires de Provence, 2019

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