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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 2. Ideas, Concepts, Memes

A Brief History of The History of Ideas

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1My ambition in this book is to integrate continuist and discontinuist perspectives in a refigured history of ideas. My goal is a history of ideas that is able to trace an idea over long time spans while acknowledging breaks in its trajectory and shifts in its meaning, as the idea’s cultural context alters. First, however, I need to describe previous developments in the history of ideas, including A.O. Lovejoy’s notion of ‘unit-ideas’. The preliminary task in this respect is defining what is meant by ‘ideas’.

What is an Idea?

  • 1 This is the definition of ‘ideas’ given in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich (19 (...)

2The common philosophical definition of an ‘idea’ emphasises its non-physical dimension as a product of mental activity. Thus ideas are ‘entities that exist only as contents of some mind.’1 This provision allows ideas to be distinguished from Plato’s Ideas (or Forms), on the grounds that Ideas according to Plato exist independent of conscious minds. Another philosophical conception – the ‘simple idea’ expounded by Locke and Hume – was much narrower than the generally accepted contemporary sense of ‘idea’. These ‘simple ideas’ referred to qualities such as the idea of red or round or cold, whereas the more general meaning involves the act of invention. The philosopher Daniel Dennett nominates the ideas of the wheel, the alphabet and evolution as some of the many ‘distinct memorable units’ classified as ‘ideas’ (Dennett 1993: 201). Dennett contrasts the ‘simple ideas’ of Locke and Hume with a list of ‘complex ideas’ that also includes calculus, chess, perspective drawing and deconstructionism (201). Ideas are commonly understood as immaterial phenomena generated and received by minds.

3The immaterial form of ideas – as mental constructs – creates difficulties for any theory purporting to explain the history and communication of ideas. For Régis Debray, whose ‘mediology’ is a theoretical assay in this direction, the key question concerns ‘how meanings are materially transmitted’ (Debray 2000: viii). Ideas may be immaterial, but their transmission requires ‘incarnation’ in some form for them to be widely dispersed. Hence for Debray the idea of the nation is ‘perpetuated by flags and solemn commemorations of the dead’ (2000: 2); Christianity is conveyed with texts and rituals. Similarly, ‘Europe’ is an abstract political idea that achieves some material expression in the euro currency. Ideas are transmitted across time and space by ‘materializations’ including the forms of mass media. For the most influential and widespread ideas, there are always material consequences: No movement of ideas has occurred that did not imply the corresponding movement of human bodies, whether pilgrims, merchants, settlers, soldiers, or ambassadors. (2)

4As we shall see in this chapter, one of the contentious issues arising from the study of ideas concerns the means of their transmission – both between minds and across time. The temptation has been to construe ideas as biological identities (‘the life of an idea’) or as universals (unchanging ideas) or as self-replicating cultural units on the model of genetics (memes). All of these theoretical constructions are attempts to explain how ideas are communicated between minds at any particular time, and how certain ideas endure across significant periods of time. For my purposes, the diachronic aspect of the transmission of ideas is of greatest concern in this chapter.

  • 2 The reference is to Péguy’s ‘Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne’ in Œuvres en prose(...)

5Another contentious matter, however, is of more immediate interest. That is: how is one to interpret the term ‘idea’, beyond the narrow philosophical definition provided above? What constitutes an idea? Western philosophical thought has been concerned with grand concepts such as liberty, democracy, and progress; many exercises in the history of ideas have restricted themselves to examples such as these. They are considered ‘great’ ideas because of their influence, their longevity, and the stature of minds – the great Western thinkers – that have entertained them. A. O. Lovejoy typified this approach: for him the historian of ideas should be interested in ‘the ideas that produce effects in the history of thought’ (Lovejoy 1936: 5). Debray cites Charles Péguy’s contention that the major revolutions in thought – achieved when ‘a simple idea takes bodily form’ – are rare: ‘history can count only thee or four of these great, earthshaking transformations’ (Debray 2000: 29).2 For Debray, Christianity and Communism – the latter ‘on a smaller and more precarious scale’ (29) – constitute such grand, widely influential ideas.

  • 3 Rohmann, Chris (2000) The Dictionary of Important Ideas and Thinkers London: Hutchinson.

6But if these are some of the ‘great’ ideas of Western thought, what of lesser ideas? How is one to distinguish between ideas and other products of mental activity? A reference book of ‘important ideas and thinkers’, published in 2000,3 is unable to offer succinct answers to these questions. Rather, its definition of ‘idea’ is extremely broad, including: a theoretical construct, a belief or guiding tenet, an essential concept in a field of study, an ideological proposition, an influential thought or opinion. (Rohmann 2000: x)

7This wide-ranging definition draws ‘ideas’ from many categories of thought and cultural activity. An idea, according to this catholic perspective, derives not only from philosophy, politics and science, but also from religion, mysticism, art, and other forms of ‘belief’ or ‘influential thought’.

8This expansive conception of ‘idea’ reflects a contemporary sensibility influenced by cultural studies, discourse analysis and other developments in critical theory. The cumulative effect of these theoretical orientations has been a blurring of the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, so that popular culture is deemed to be as worthy of analysis as a work of high art. Accordingly, a contemporary history of ideas is likely to draw its subject matter from further afield than those ‘great’ ideas of Western thought – primarily expounded in philosophy – which occupied previous incarnations of the practice.

9Yet even those earlier versions of intellectual history – which tended to focus on the ‘great’ enduring ideas of political philosophy – remained vague concerning the definition of ‘ideas’. Isaiah Berlin, one of the few prominent Western philosophers to associate himself with the history of ideas, was no exception in this regard. Berlin published many essays in the history of ideas; one of the major emphases of his work was the ‘power of ideas’ to shape political change, as he argued in his book Two Concepts of Liberty (1958):

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation. (Berlin 2001: ix)

10However, when Berlin attempts to clarify what is meant by ideas, his efforts produce no more precision than is achieved in the ‘dictionary of ideas’ cited above. Berlin’s inability to arrive at a concise conception, indeed his unwillingness to distinguish intellectual history from the history of ideas, illustrates the lack of clarity within intellectual history as a discipline (discussed in the next chapter). In the first paragraph of an essay on Russian intellectual history, Berlin asks himself: But what is intellectual history? A history of ideas? What ideas and conceived by whom? Not ideas in any one well-demarcated province… (Berlin 2001: 68)

11Berlin characterises as ‘general ideas’ those concepts that do not belong to ‘specific disciplines’ such as economics, science or art. These general ideas are the proper subject of intellectual history, but an attempted definition can result in ‘no more than an approximation’:

By ‘general ideas’ we refer in effect to beliefs, attitudes and mental and emotional habits, some of which are vague and undefined, others of which have become crystallised into religious, legal or political systems, moral doctrines, social outlooks, psychological dispositions and so forth. (69)

12Berlin’s own excursions into intellectual history generally concentrated on the resounding ideas of political philosophy, as in his famous studies of liberty, Enlightenment and revolution. Yet his definition of ‘general ideas’ accommodates a much broader range of possibilities than he himself explored. General ideas, he claims, are to be found

in that intermediate realm in which we expect to find opinions, general and moral principles, scales of value and value judgements, mental dispositions and individual and social attitudes – everything that is loosely collected under such descriptions as ‘intellectual background’, ‘climate of opinion’, ‘social mores’ and ‘general outlook’… (69)

13Berlin’s range is here so wide that it equates, as he himself admits, with ‘ideology’. The cultural field in which general ideas may be discerned is, in Berlin’s account, difficult to define yet fertile: It is this ill-defined but rich realm and its vicissitudes that histories of ideas or ‘intellectual histories’ supposedly describe, analyse and explain. (69)

  • 4 These ideas are included as some of the 444 entries in Rohmann’s The Dictionary of Important Ideas (...)

14The looseness of Berlin’s conceptualisation of ideas, published in 1966, was prophetic of the intellectual developments of succeeding decades. Cultural history and cultural studies have blended elements from anthropology, sociology, history, semiotics and the study of popular culture in their analysis of the ‘climate of opinion’ of previous and contemporary cultures. A contemporary compendium of ‘important ideas’ is so elastic as to include market, artificial intelligence, feminism, kabbalah, animal rights and spirit, alongside the ‘great’ ideas of philosophy and politics.4

15If this elasticity entails a lack of definitional rigour, this is perhaps the corollary of the richness of this epistemological terrain. The meaning of ‘idea’ is now less well defined than ever. As noted in the Introduction, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto expanded the definition of ‘idea’, and the scope of the history of ideas, still further in Ideas That Changed the World (2004). While adhering to the simplest philosophical definition of ideas as ‘purely mental events’ (2004: 7), Fernández-Armesto locates many of humanity’s most enduring ideas – including the symbol and the afterlife – in pre-history, in ‘the mind of the hunter’ (9).

16One means of alleviating the ill-definition of ‘ideas’, however, is to consider the various methodological techniques constructed by historians of ideas. A study of the diverse methods adopted to deal with these things called ‘ideas’ may clarify the area in some small way; it will also prepare the path for my own venture into this domain.

A Brief History of the History of Ideas

17If one were hoping at least for some consensus concerning the history of this area of study, one would be dismayed by the disparity of opinions on this matter. In an introduction to a collection of Berlin’s essays in the history of ideas, Roger Hausheer states that ‘ [t]he history of ideas is a comparatively new field of study: it still craves recognition in a largely hostile world’ (Hausheer 1989: xvi). Yet Berlin himself looks back much further. He claims that

[t]he history of ideas, as a branch of knowledge, was born in Italy and grew in Germany (and to a lesser extent in France and England) in the eighteenth century. In due course interest in it spread both east and west. (Berlin 2001: 69-70)

18Berlin’s location of the discipline’s genesis in eighteenth century Italy is a reference to Giambattista Vico, whom he reveres as ‘one of the boldest innovators in the history of human thought’ (2001: 53). For Berlin, Vico’s many astonishing intellectual achievements include his attack on ‘current notions of the nature of knowledge’, in the wake of which he ‘virtually invented the idea of culture’ (53) as well as the history of ideas.

19If Berlin is explicit in his tracing of the discipline to the eighteenth century, it may seem astounding that Hausheer – while introducing Berlin’s work – seems oblivious to this assertion. Yet Hausheer’s assumption that the history of ideas is a ‘comparatively new field of study’ is a common one. It is often assumed, especially in the Anglophone world, that the history of ideas originated in the twentieth century as a sub-set of the history of philosophy. In the terms of this conviction, the new discipline is regarded as a difficult and rather obscure pursuit, which struggles to gain respect in the wider intellectual community. Hausheer contends that the demands made of a historian of ideas are ‘probably wider’ than those of any almost any other discipline; indeed, those demands are ‘special, and often painful’ (1989: xvii). They include ‘sharp logical skills of conceptual analysis’ as well as ‘vast powers of sympathetic, reconstructive imagination’ (xvii). As a result of these daunting requirements, there has never been – according to Hausheer – ‘more than a handful of genuine historians of ideas’; another result is that the history of ideas as ‘a reputable discipline’ must ‘still have to battle for recognition’ (xvii).

20Hausheer does not specify the identities of this elite ‘handful’ of ‘genuine historians of ideas’; presumably the handful includes Berlin, Lovejoy and – with the clue of ‘sympathetic, reconstructive imagination’ – R.G. Collingwood (discussed in Chapter 8). If the other two master intellectuals must remain unidentified, Hausheer is at least clear that for him the history of ideas is a relatively recent development, situated within the broader discipline of philosophy. However, the description given by Peter Burke of the background of the history of ideas is much closer to Berlin’s account:

The phrase ‘history of ideas’ is generally believed to have been launched by the American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy when he founded the History of Ideas Club at Johns Hopkins University in the 1920s. It had actually been employed two hundred years earlier, by Jacob Brucker, who referred to the historia de ideis, and by Gianbattita Vico, who called in his New Science for ‘una storia dell’umane idee’. (Burke 1997: 11)

21If commentators on the history of ideas cannot even agree on its genesis and history, it should occasion no surprise that the borders of this peculiar field are far from sharp. Fuzziness is experienced more often than clarity in discussions of the history of ideas. While Berlin, writing in the 1960s, equates the history of ideas with intellectual history, Mark Poster, writing in the 1980s, situates the history of ideas as one practice within the broader field of intellectual history (Poster 1997: 134). Foucault’s critical vituperation in the 1960s was directed against the history of ideas in the French context, which had been developed largely within the history of literature, rather than the history of philosophy as in the Anglo-American context.

22Because the history of ideas has functioned in different contexts, at different times, and within different disciplines, it is extremely difficult even to sketch a route that might lead from Vico to Eco and beyond into the twenty-first century (Umberto Eco’s 1995 book The Search For the Perfect Language is, he declares, an exercise in the history of ideas). George G. Iggers adds a few details to such a sketch when he nominates Croce, Collingwood and Lovejoy as exponents of the ‘classical history of ideas’ (Iggers 1997: 127). Yet Iggers confines the discipline within the bounds of political philosophy: the ‘classical’ practitioners, he remarks, attempt to ‘fathom the meanings’ of the texts ‘left by the great political theorists.’ (127) Ultimately, given that many commentators do not even recognise any pre-twentieth century precedents for the history of ideas, it is perhaps more useful to establish generally accepted characteristics of this nebulous discipline.

23Hausheer is helpful in this respect. The history of ideas, he declares,

attempts (among other things) to trace the birth and development of some of the ruling concepts of a civilisation or culture through long periods of mental change, and to reconstruct the image men have of themselves and their activities, in a given age and culture… (Hausheer 1989: xvii).

24Although this definition pertains specifically to the history of ideas as practised by Berlin (that is, in the Anglo-American tradition of the history of philosophy), it is general enough to embrace the history of ideas in literature, art or science. As broadly defined, the history of ideas is concerned with tracing individual ideas over significant spans of time. This characteristic distinguishes the approach from other practices within intellectual history – such as Foucault’s ‘systems of thought’ – or the history of philosophy, which may be concerned with individual philosophers or schools of thought.

25Certainly the history of ideas as defined by Hausheer is recognisable as the set of conventions thoroughly rebuked by Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge. Indeed Foucault constructs his archaeological method in direct opposition to the history of ideas, that ‘uncertain object’ of methodology from which he is determined to distance himself (Foucault 1972: 136). The activity of ‘tracing the birth and development’ of ideas (Hausheer) is anathema to Foucault, who has no interest in the genesis of ideas, nor in the charting of their continuous path ‘on a gentle slope’ through intellectual history (139). Similarly, the attempt to ‘reconstruct the image men have of themselves’ in a previous age is disparaged by Foucault as a futile – and worthless – ambition. As I detail in Chapter Four, Foucault’s ‘controlled use of discontinuity’ in his works of intellectual history was deployed against the history of ideas, with its ‘concern for continuities, transitions, anticipations and foreshadowings’ (170). Historical discontinuity in Foucault’s work is employed to challenge the assumptions underpinning the history of ideas: that ‘ruling concepts’ traverse vast expanses of time, largely unchanged or slowly evolving, and that the proper task of intellectual history is to trace the life-span of these great ideas.

26Foucault’s vitriolic – and influential – critique greatly damaged the prestige of the history of ideas as a practice within intellectual history. His reconstruction of intellectual history – first in the image of ‘archaeology’, then ‘genealogy’ or ‘power-knowledge’ – directed much theoretical attention away from the ‘empirical progress of ideas’ (Foucault 1972: 63), towards discourse analysis and the social construction of forms of knowledge. In the many academic disciplines and other theoretical pursuits influenced by Foucault’s work, the notions of continuity of thought, slow evolution of ideas, or grand unchanging Western concepts, came to seem obsolete. The history of ideas appeared out-dated at best and moribund at worst. Thus in the 1980s Mark Poster criticised the history of ideas – as pursued by Lovejoy and his followers – for its ‘evolutionary parade of great ideas’ (Poster 1997: 136), ideas understood as ‘eternal’ and expressed ‘by the most refined philosophical minds’ (134) throughout history. So too Dominick La Capra objected to the ‘unproblematic’ and ‘in the air’ status of ideas in these types of studies (La Capra 1983: 46).

27A similar criticism had already been mounted – from a different theoretical perspective – by the political theorist Quentin Skinner in 1969. According to Skinnner, ‘tracing the morphology of a given concept over time’ is a fundamentally mistaken venture (Skinner 1969: 48 cited by Spadafora 1990: 420). Skinner objects to the historical inquiry being directed at ideas, which for him are inappropriate as units of investigation. For Skinner the approach undertaken in the history of ideas suffers from its ‘tendency to hypostatize the idea in question’ (Spadafora 1990: 420). This means that the development of ideas is described in

the kind of language appropriate to the description of a growing organism. The fact that ideas presuppose agents is very readily discounted, as the ideas get up and do battle on their own behalf. (Skinner 1969: 48-49 cited by Spadafora 1990: 420)

28Skinner is adamant that a history of ideas cannot be written, because the ‘notion that any fixed “idea” has persisted is spurious’. Rather, it is only possible to focus on ‘the various agents who used the idea, and on their varying situations and intentions in using it.’ (Skinner 1969: 48 cited in Spadafora 1990: 420-421)

29The critiques of Foucault, Skinner and others were largely responsible for the ‘unfashioning’ of thehistory ofideas as a pursuitin the 1970s (McMahon 2014: 15). Yet David Spadafora, writing in 1990, was quick to reject Skinner’s argument, and to defend the validity of the history of ideas as a method within intellectual history. Spadafora points to the logical inconsistency of Skinner’s critique: if ‘there is no persistent fixed idea, how can “agents” have ‘used’ it?’ (Spadafora 1990: 421) Spadafora maintains that although the historian of ideas may regularly treat ideas ‘as if they were things’, this is merely a heuristic device, an act of ‘generalized definition’ necessary for the historical account. However, it is always understood that ideas ‘have no life apart from the men and women who think with and about them.’ (421) Spadafora’s own history of the idea of progress in the eighteenth century is conducted along these lines: the idea of progress was ‘molded by human minds and writings into many forms’ (421), yet it never lost its identifiable characteristics. For Spadafora, the history of ideas remains – despite Skinner’s attack – a ‘conceptually legitimate’ undertaking, in which the historian attempts to ‘search out these forms and to understand them in their unity and diversity’ (421).

30But if Spadafora defends the history of ideas against Skinner’s reproach, he readily acknowledges the force of two other strands of criticism levelled at the discipline since the 1960s. One is the ‘contextualist’ critique, which claims that the concentration on the content of ideas has – in many cases – ignored ‘the extra-intellectual context in which they arise, exist, and have effect.’ (417) This has been one of the charges levelled against the Lovejoy approach to the history of ideas, as we shall see in this chapter. It was also the central argument used by the Annales historians against the history of ideas in the French context. The Annales historian Alphonse Dupront in 1961 attacked the history of ideas for its pursuit of ‘the abstract life of the idea’, which was isolated ‘from the social milieux where it takes root’ (Dupront cited in Chartier 1982: 28).

31The emphasis within critical theory since the 1970s on the social construction of knowledge – an emphasis largely inspired by Foucault – has only intensified the force of this contextualist critique. Yet this has not meant that the history of ideas has been abandoned altogether. On the contrary, historians of ideas – such as Spadafora – are likely to have absorbed the contextualist criticism, thereby accentuating in their work the political, economic and cultural contexts of ideas. Spadafora is insistent on this methodological principle, declaring that ‘the dynamics of an idea’ may be fully comprehended ‘ [o] nly in the light of the social context’ (423). David Armitage, writing in 2012 of his ‘history in ideas’ project within intellectual history, made a similar commitment to ‘serial contextualism’ or ‘the reconstruction of a sequence of distinct contexts’ (Armitage 2012: 498). This meant for him that exercises in intellectual history should be ‘transtemporal’, and ‘time-bound not timeless’, thereby avoiding the ‘dangers of reification and denial of agency’ found in Lovejoy’s history of ideas (498).

32The second critique discussed by Spadafora – the ‘popular’ perspective – has emerged in the wake of the contextualist criticism. It argues that the conventional history of ideas failed to produce an adequate representation of the thought of the past, due to its reliance solely on ‘the works of famous and influential thinkers and writers’ (418). Elite figures – the ‘most refined philosophical minds’, in the words of Poster – are privileged, while the thoughts and attitudes of ordinary people are ignored. The ‘popular’ critique contends that such a method yields nothing more than a reconstruction of the elite’s mentality, which may be far from representative of the society of a given period. Indeed research motivated by this critique is likely to focus on the ‘multiple climates of opinion’ (418) operating at any one time, often in disharmony or open discord.

33While acknowledging the merits of this critique, Spadafora notes the extreme difficulty of exploring the ‘mental world of the non-elite’ of historical periods before the nineteenth century (424). The reality of literacy entailed that written records before this period represented the ‘mental outlook’ of only ‘a small fraction of the total population’ (424). Of course other methods besides analysis of written records may be used in the exploration of the thought of the past. Spadafora mentions in this regard the Annales’ pursuit of a period’s mentalité, the popular culture approach associated with Clifford Geertz and his followers, and the ‘social history of ideas’ developed by Robert Darnton, Peter Gay and others (418 n., 424). These and other approaches employ ‘some of the methods of the anthropologist’ in attempting to fathom a sense of the thought of the past (424).

34Spadafora welcomes these orientations as a response to the ‘popular’ critique; for him the history of ideas is strengthened by the adoption of any method that ‘enables us to understand more of the past’ (424). At the same time, he defends the older, conventional approach of ‘concentrating on great thinkers and their readers, opponents, and popularizers’ (424), which may yield important insights into the meanings associated with specific ideas. For Spadafora,

[t]he further a historian can proceed in discovering the extent to which an idea or climate of opinion permeated all levels of society, the better. But to advance only part way is ever the necessary precondition to reaching any final destination. (424)

35Spadafora provides a valuable appraisal of the history of ideas. By acknowledging and responding to the various strands of criticism directed at the discipline since the 1960s, he expands the conceptual framework supporting the contemporary pursuit of this activity. In addition, he offers a detailed justification of the history of ideas as a form of intellectual history. Spadafora avers that the practice remains a valid enterprise, despite all the criticisms directed at it: To write the history of an idea, even in less than a full-fledged way, is a historiographically feasible and legitimate endeavour. (424)

36The history of ideas, then, has survived as a ‘legitimate endeavour’, although there are doubtless many intellectual historians, philosophers and cultural critics who continue to doubt this legitimacy. Testimony to this survival may be found in two projects which emanated not from the traditional history of ideas as practiced by Lovejoy and Berlin, but from diverse fields. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), and the semiotician Umberto Eco, in The Search for the Perfect Language (1995), both explore the origins, development and ramifications of specific ideas. For Dennett, the idea of evolution by natural selection propounded by Darwin is ‘the single best idea anyone has ever had’, both for its explanatory power and its ability to unite disparate fields of knowledge: it ‘unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law’ (Dennett 1996: 21). Although Dennett’s analysis is not conducted in the manner developed by Collingwood or Lovejoy, the object of his inquiry is the genesis of the idea, its subsequent modifications, and – most importantly – the corrosive impact it has had on established pillars of thought. That is, it focuses on an idea as the unit of investigation (in the manner chastised by Skinner). The idea itself, rather than the social agents who express it, is at the centre of theoretical attention.

37Eco’s book is more explicitly aligned with the history of ideas as an intellectual method. His study of ‘the search for the perfect language’ traces this idea over a span of almost two millennia. Eco states early in the book that, were it up to him to decide how the work is categorised, he would choose neither ‘semiotics’ nor ‘linguistics’ but ‘history of ideas’. His project suits this classification because it aims at delineating, with large brushstrokes and selected examples, the principle of a story of a dream that has run now for almost two thousand years. (Eco 1995: 5)

38Eco charts the path of this idea as a ‘story’ of continuity and transformation. The idea of a perfect language recurs across time and space, yet its inscription within differing social and cultural circumstances modifies its significance. Eco is alert to the role of social context in shaping the invocation and reception of this recurring idea:

We shall see that the dream of a perfect language has always been invoked as a solution to religious or political strife. It has even been invoked as the way to overcome simple difficulties in commercial exchange. (19)

39Eco’s book, like Spadafora’s, exemplifies a contextualist approach to the history of ideas. Before elaborating on this approach in more theoretical detail, I need to consider that earlier – and greatly influential – model of the history of ideas, proposed and developed by A.O. Lovejoy. In particular, the critiques of Lovejoy’s technique have been instrumental in fostering a more contextualist – or ‘worldly’ – practice of tracing the history of individual ideas.

Lovejoy’s ‘Unit-Ideas’ and Their Critics

40Lovejoy has been described as ‘the chief inspirer of the history of ideas’ (King 1983: 8), his work amounting to ‘an intellectual orthodoxy in the academic appraisal of texts and their histories’ (Condren 1985: 104). In the Anglophone world, his name is readily linked to the history of ideas, through his active involvement with a club and journal of that name: The History of Ideas Club commenced at Johns Hopkins University in the 1920s, while the Journal of the History of Ideas, of which Lovejoy was a co-founder, began in 1940. He is also well established as the author of many essays on specific ideas and his full-length study of the Great Chain of Being. He published several general accounts of the history of ideas, in which he outlined his conception of the characteristics, tasks and demands of this discipline. An important legacy of Lovejoy’s work is the inter-disciplinary nature of intellectual history, of which he was a determined advocate. While he acknowledged that the history of philosophy was the primary locus of ‘the more fundamental and pervasive ideas’ (Lovejoy 1948: 9), he was insistent on the need for intellectual history to incorporate the insights of as many disciplines as possible.

41It is his concept of the ‘unit-idea’, however, which is most distinctive about his work, and which has attracted much critical attention. In the introduction to The Great Chain of Being (1936), Lovejoy elaborated his particular theory of the history of ideas, which centred on the ‘unit-idea’. Lovejoy’s definition of the history of ideas refers to the ‘character of the units with which it concerns itself’, which for him differentiates this discipline from the less ‘restricted’ history of philosophy (Lovejoy 1936: 3). The historian of ideas breaks up philosophical doctrines or systems into their ‘component elements’, which may be called their ‘unit-ideas’ (3). Lovejoy states that the thought of any philosopher or school is ‘almost always a complex and heterogeneous aggregate’ of such unit-ideas. Employing the analogy of analytic chemistry, Lovejoy describes any body of thought as ‘an unstable compound’, so that most philosophical systems are ‘original or distinctive rather in their patterns than in their components’ (3). For Lovejoy, change in the history of thought occurs at the level of these shifting aggregates, rather than at the level of the unit-ideas themselves.

42This aspect of Lovejoy’s model is made clear by his description of the ‘essentially distinct philosophical ideas’ as ‘decidedly limited in number’ (4). Lovejoy attributes the ‘seeming novelty’ of intellectual systems to ‘the novelty of the application or arrangement of the old elements which enter into it.’ (4) The historian of ideas, according to Lovejoy, searches for the changeless – the unit-ideas – beneath the apparent change generated by combinations of intellectual elements: To the common logical or pseudo-logical or affective ingredients behind the surface-dissimilarities the historian of individual ideas will seek to penetrate. (4)

43Lovejoy provides an example drawn from religious thought to illustrate his point. The idea of God, he declares, is not a unit-idea, because beneath any one belief in God may be discovered ‘something more elemental and more explanatory’ than the term ‘God’ (5). The God of Aristotle had little in common with the Old Testament God because Aristotle’s conception derived from a philosophical method – ‘a species of dialectic’ – that was ‘almost wholly foreign to the ancient Jewish mind’, which was concerned with questions of ethics and theology (5). Historians of ideas, therefore, should not direct their inquiry to ‘God’ but to the more fundamental ‘prior idea’ within compounds of thought (5). Similarly, idealism, romanticism and all other ‘-isms’ are compounds, while Christianity is ‘a very mixed collection of ideas’ shifting over time.

44Lovejoy, then, accommodates change in the history of thought, but only at the level of these compounds or complexes of elements. The unit-ideas, which for him are the ‘effective working ideas’ (6), remain constant beneath the flux of combinations. They are the ‘primary and persistent or recurrent dynamic units, of the history of thought’ (7). Mark Poster aptly describes the Lovejoy approach as the search for ‘shifting configurations of eternal ideas’ (Poster 1997: 134). For Lovejoy, the configurations – such as the various versions of Christianity – alter over time, as ‘the result of historic processes of a highly complicated and curious sort’ (Lovejoy 1936: 6). But the unit-ideas, which underlie the ‘dominant intellectual tendencies of an age’ (7), remain inviolate.

45What are the unit-ideas? In an essay on ‘the historiography of ideas’, Lovejoy characterises them as:

types of categories, thoughts concerning particular aspects of common experience, implicit or explicit presuppositions, sacred formulas and catchwords, specific philosophic theorems, or the larger hypotheses, generalizations or methodological assumptions of various sciences… (Lovejoy 1948: 9).

46This definition is as expansive – and as vague – as the other definitions of ‘idea’ quoted earlier in this chapter. The difference in Lovejoy’s case is that the unit-ideas are themselves indivisible while contributing to a wide range of intellectual ‘compounds’. The unit-idea consists of a ‘single specific proposition or “principle”’ (1936: 14). In practice, however, Lovejoy was inconsistent in his designation of ideas, unit-ideas and compounds. Even in his book-length study of the ‘great chain of being’, it is not entirely clear whether the eponymous entity is an idea, a unit-idea, a compound, one idea with corollaries (14) or an association of three ideas that ‘have often operated as a unit’ (20).

47If Lovejoy is guilty of a certain vagueness and inconsistency (a regrettable tendency shared by other intellectual historians – including Foucault), he is at least clear in his conception of the task required of the historian of ideas. It is to trace the specific unit-idea through ‘the provinces of history in which it figures in any important degree, whether those provinces are called philosophy, science, literature, art, religion or politics.’ (1936: 15) The ‘biography’ of a unit-idea must include ‘its interplay, conflicts and alliances with other ideas, and the diverse human reactions to it’ (1948: 9). The historian should be especially interested in those ideas that figure in ‘the collective thought of large groups of persons’ (1936: 19). In the manner of a ‘bacteriologist’, the historian isolates those units that then ‘attain a wide diffusion’, becoming ‘a part of the stock of many minds’ in the one generation or across many generations (19).

48Lovejoy’s method of tracing ideas through history and through their various ‘provinces’ – as demonstrated in his The Great Chain of Being – has been influential in many branches of intellectual history: Thomas Kuhn, for example, acknowledged the influence of Lovejoy’s work on his study of the history of science (Kuhn 1996: viii). However, Lovejoy’s conception of the ‘unit-idea’ has been heavily criticised. Even a supporter of his approach such as Maurice Mandlebaum had difficulties with ‘the continuities of the elements’ (the unit-ideas) at the core of Lovejoy’s methodology (Mandlebaum 1983: 200). For Mandlebaum, Lovejoy fails to distinguish between ‘continuing ideas’ (whose influence can be traced across time and space) and ‘recurrent’ ideas, which appear at many different times and places as a result of ‘independent invention’ (202). This conceptual blurring was, for Mandlebaum, part of the greater weakness in Lovejoy’s account: his tendency to attribute ‘continuous life-histories’ to unit-ideas, which are thought to somehow disseminate themselves (201).

49A more damaging critique of Lovejoy has been made by Louis Mink. According to Mink, Lovejoy’s approach is an unsuccessful attempt to fuse two incompatible strains of thought: a doctrine of elements (a positivist or scientific perspective), and a doctrine of forces (a historicist orientation). The paradox and central flaw of Lovejoy’s method results from the fact that while his doctrine of forces purports to describe historical change, the doctrine of elements – which renders unit-ideas as constants – ensures that ideas ‘cannot have a history at all, that is, undergo development and change’ (Mink 1987: 206).

50Mink argues that Lovejoy’s ‘atomistic’ conception of unit-ideas is modelled on the method of scientific analysis – a contention supported by Lovejoy’s own use of scientific analogies. Mink notes that scientific method requires the constancy of elements in the very concept of equations – that ‘something at t0 equals something at t1’ (214) – so that Lovejoy’s application of this ‘antihistorical’ method to the history of ideas is inappropriate. Like the elements of physics, Lovejoy’s unit-ideas have no specified origins – they are ‘simply there’ (209) – while their ‘history’ is in reality a ‘chronology of [their] belonging to this or that complex’ (208). This explains Lovejoy’s mistaken assumption that the idea of ‘nature’, for example, was the same from the third century to the eighteenth: like an element in physics, it belonged to different compounds in different environments, but ‘nothing in all that time happened to it.’ (209) Mink quotes Lovejoy’s Preface to his Essays in the History of Ideas (1960), in which Lovejoy asserts the ‘fundamental identity of the idea’ of nature as expressed in the third and eighteenth centuries. Lovejoy states that the ‘identity in the differences… is essential to an understanding of the historic role of the idea in question.’ (209)

51Mink contends that the ‘doctrine of forces’ – which Lovejoy applies to the shifting ‘idea-complexes’ and their changing meanings through history – is, unlike the doctrine of elements, pertinent to the history of ideas. For Mink – paraphrasing Ortega – ideas have no nature, only a history:

‘Man has no nature, ’ Ortega announced; ‘he has only a history.’ I suggest, against Lovejoy’s doctrine of elements, that this is true at least of ideas (and explains why Ortega’s dictum is true, if it is at all, of man himself). (210)

52Lovejoy’s histories contradict themselves because they do in fact incorporate change within long continuities, and nothing in them ‘requires the postulation of unit-ideas identical over time’ (212). If unit-complexes are shown to alter according to the dynamic process of history, then why not the elemental ideas as well? (213). Mink points to instances where Lovejoy identifies differences concerning the one idea at different times, thus contradicting his doctrine of elemental unit-ideas. Mink mentions Lovejoy’s differentiation, in The Great Chain of Being, between Schiller’s ‘sentimentalisch’ and Schlegel’s ‘romantisch’, as well as their different ideas of ‘questing after infinite realization’ (212).

53Mink regards an idea as ‘a time-located stage in a developmental process’; accordingly, there need be ‘no identity between earlier and later stages of the process or their constituent parts’ (212). For Mink, then, a ‘doctrine of forces’ is integral to any history of ideas, while Lovejoy’s ‘doctrine of elements’ is an obstacle to the appreciation of change within such a history.

54Mink’s emphasis on the dynamics of change – in opposition to Lovejoy’s ‘continuity of elements’ – represents one significant development in the post-Lovejoyan history of ideas. The other crucial development is the ‘contextualist’ critique, which charges the Lovejoy approach with treating ideas ‘largely in a vacuum, with little or no reference to the surrounding social environment’ (Spadafora 1990: 417). The dynamics of change and the importance of social context will be considered – in the rest of this chapter – as central components of a re-modelled history of ideas. Before leaving Lovejoy’s method, however, it is worthwhile noting those other models of cultural transmission which share some features with his doctrine of ‘unit-ideas’.

The Replication of Ideas: Memetics

55Mink asserts that the ‘elemental’ doctrine was derived by Lovejoy from the philosophy of science, as it had been developed in particular in C. G. Hempel’s Aspects of Scientific Explanation (1967) and Ernest Nagel’s The Structure of Science (1961). It should occasion no surprise, then, that other models devised to explain scientific development exhibit some similarities to Lovejoy’s method. Georges Canguilhem’s history of concepts, for example, distinguishes between concepts and the successive theoretical frameworks in which they are encased. As I detail in Chapter Six, Canguilhem traces concepts such as the reflex through a series of scientific theories developed around them. For Canguilhem, the concept – like Lovejoy’s ‘unit-idea’ – endures, as various theoretical structures are invented and rejected. This methodological similarity should not obscure the differences between Lovejoy and Canguilhem – differences most evident at the level of their primary orientation. Where Lovejoy searches for the constants beneath superficial change, Canguilhem – heavily influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s theory of epistemological breaks – identifies discontinuities in science history. Canguilhem was heavily critical of the ‘search for precursors’ in the history of ideas, for its attempts to establish spurious continuities. For him it was highly unlikely that scientists of different periods would be ‘asking the same questions and have the same research goal’ (Gutting 1989: 39). Nevertheless, both Lovejoy and Canguilhem focus their inquiry on elemental units – whether concepts or unit-ideas – that survive through time and are inscribed into greater, more complex, configurations of thought.

56A more contemporary theory along similar lines is the method of cultural analysis known as ‘memetics’. This approach has been inspired by the neo-Darwinian zoologist Richard Dawkins, who coined the word ‘meme’ in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins admitted in The Selfish Gene that his ‘development of the theory of memes’ remained ‘speculative’ (Dawkins 1989: 199); nevertheless this theory has gained a wide currency across a number of disciplines, partly due to its incorporation into a theory of consciousness by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. The term ‘meme’ is also widely applied to the transmission of ideas and information in internet culture.

57For the purposes of a history of ideas, Dennett’s enlisting of the meme theory is significant, in that he explicitly equates memes with ideas. The several full-length studies devoted to ‘memetics’ – including Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine (1999), Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996) and Limor Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture (2014) – have been concerned with the way memes are transmitted both ‘horizontally’ – to use Dawkins’ formulation, meaning synchronically within a cultural sphere – and, to a lesser extent, ‘longitudinally down generations’ (Dawkins 2000: ix). That is, they have addressed the diachronic transmission of ideas. Although the theory of memes has been elaborated within disciplines removed from intellectual history or the history of philosophy, it has engaged – in its own fashion – with the history of ideas; accordingly, it is of more than passing interest for this book.

58The meme is understood as the cultural equivalent of a gene. It has been rather loosely identified as a cultural unit such as an idea, a tune or a technique, which replicates through the cultural sphere in a way analogous to genetic replication in biology. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins nominates as examples of memes: ‘tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches’ (Dawkins 1989: 192). The meme was introduced as a concept by Dawkins toward the end of The Selfish Gene, in which book he starkly reduced the human condition to the level of ‘survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’ (v). Turning to the question of cultural transmission, Dawkins invents the term ‘meme’ to designate those ‘replicating entities’ which, like genes in the field of biology, propagate themselves through the medium of ‘vehicles’. For memes, the vehicles are minds – or, as Dawkins would prefer, brains:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. (192)

59Dawkins provides the example of ‘the idea of God’ (192), which has replicated within the environment of human culture. Dawkins does not concern himself with the origin of this idea: it is simply a meme with extremely high ‘survival value’ (193), which means that this idea has been readily copied ‘by successive generations of individual brains’ (193).

60In elaborating his meme theory, Dawkins defines an ‘idea-meme’ as an ‘entity that is capable of being transmitted from one brain to another’ (196). Memes compete for attention on mass media and other vehicles, but their goal as ‘selfish’ replicators is to ‘live’ in as many human brains as possible. To further this ambition, memes may combine into ‘co-adapted meme complexes’ such as the ‘religious meme complex’, which includes the idea of God, faith, and the threat of eternal punishment (197-198). For Dawkins, the diachronic dimension of memes is significant – even comforting – from a human perspective, given the radically anti-humanist orientation of his evolutionary theory. He argues that while human bodies and brains may be mere vehicles for the replication of selfish genes and memes, an enduring meme such as an idea or tune may at least survive intact – unlike one’s collection of genes, which is dispersed with each generation. Dawkins offers by way of curious consolation the reflection that ‘Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today’, but far more importantly, the ‘meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong’ (199).

61If Dawkins’ exposition of meme theory was undeveloped – even tentative – in 1976, the theory was enthusiastically taken up and developed by others. In Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, first published in 1991, the meme is accorded a significant role in Dennett’s theory of consciousness. Dennett equates memes, ‘roughly’, with ideas (Dennett 1993: 201). Memes are ‘the smallest units that replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity’, such as the ideas of the wheel, the alphabet, or (pre-eminently for Dennett) evolution (201). Dennett pushes the concept of meme evolution beyond the analogy propounded by Dawkins. For Dennett, memetic evolution is more than a process that can be metaphorically described in terms of genetic evolution: it is ‘a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly’ (202). Dennett embraces this theory as ‘a new way of thinking about ideas’, one which – he acknowledges – carries an ‘unsettling, even appalling’ charge (202). If ideas are to be understood as memes whose sole objective is to replicate within as many human brains as possible, this reduces minds to the level of storage facilities, and culture to the level of traffic routes. As Dennett phrases it: ‘ [a] scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.’ (202)

62Yet Dennett applies this ‘unsettling’ theory to both cultural transmission and the operation of consciousness. Memes act in the same way as genes in that they are invisible; they are carried by vehicles (languages, media, but also technological inventions); and they produce characteristic or ‘phenotypic’ effects by which ‘their fates are, in the long run, determined’ (203). As an example, a wagon with spoked wheels ‘carries the brilliant idea of a wagon with spoked wheels from mind to mind’ (204). This idea, like all others, needs ‘a physical embodiment in some medium’ to effect its replication (204). The ‘meme’s-eye perspective’ on culture entails, like Dawkin’s gene’s eye view of biology, the conviction that these units act in ways advantageous to themselves: their survival and replication is their sole concern. Any greater biological or cultural development is a side-effect of these ‘selfish’ forces. Thus for Dennett, consciousness itself is ‘a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains)’ (210). Thousands of memes ‘take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.’ (254)

63Dennett’s inscription of meme theory into a model of consciousness is taken to its furthest extreme by Susan Blackmore, who proposes in The Meme Machine that the self is ‘a vast memeplex’, the ultimate meme complex which she dubs ‘the selfplex’ (Blackmore 1999: 231). For Blackmore, the self, like free will, is an illusion masking the reality that ‘ “I” am the product of all the memes that have successfully got themselves inside this selfplex’ (236). The memetic theory of cultural transmission has had many advocates, particularly within the discourse on digital technology, internet culture and cultural change. John Perry Barlow invoked meme theory in his neo-libertine essay on ‘The Economy of Ideas’ in 1994, at the dawn of the internet. For Barlow, memes ‘propagate themselves across the ecologies of mind’, an act made easier by the swift diffusion of information across vast digital networks (Barlow 1994: 89). Barlow accentuates the immaterial form of ideas, which he links with the immaterial property of digital information; and in his declaration that ‘information wants to be free’, he draws on Dawkins’ memetic analogy. A resonant idea, image or song will reproduce itself in great numbers of minds, irresistibly: ‘ [t] rying to stop the spread of a really robust piece of information is about as easy as keeping killer bees south of the border.’ (90) This equation of ideas with living forms is consistent with Dawkins’ own account, which regards memes as ‘living structures’ that ‘parasitize’ human brains (Dawkins 1989: 192).

64The theory of memetics has attracted supporters in the inter-disciplinary zone forged by the fusion of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, with its computational theory of mind. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained – itself an exemplary text of this theoretical fusion – lent a certain credibility to memetics, which has many devotees in computer science and – as Blackmore notes – ‘a cult following in cyberspace’ (Blackmore 1999: 8). Yet even Blackmore admits that other leading evolutionary psychologists have rejected meme theory; indeed, it has been savaged by critics who regard it as a ‘meaningless metaphor’ (Stephen Jay Gould), or even ‘a useless and essentially superstitious notion’ (Mary Midgley) (Blackmore 1999: 17).

65Memetics is certainly open to criticism as a particularly reductionist form of analogy: in transposing the ‘gene’s eye view’ of biology to the cultural plane, it reduces the vast complexity of culture to a simplistic model of causality (the replication of selfish memes). As a theory of consciousness or of culture, it is too brutally reductionist to serve as an adequate account, even if one accepts the dubious meme/gene analogy. For my purposes, the interest of memetics lies in its attempt to theorise cultural transmission, in a manner that bears some similarities to previous efforts in the history of ideas.

66Dennett greets memetics as ‘a new way of thinking about ideas’ (Dennett 1993: 202), but it is in fact not dissimilar to the theory of ‘unit-ideas’ propounded decades earlier by Lovejoy. For Blackmore, ‘memetic selection drives the evolution of ideas in the interests of replicating the memes’ (Blackmore 1999: 24); but if one strips from this theory the ‘selfish’ motivation attributed to memes, one is left with a ‘doctrine of elements’ purporting to account for cultural evolution. The meme, like the unit-idea, is an inviolate element, unchanging, even potentially ‘immortal’. Memes are ‘simply there’ at the beginning, like unit-ideas; they travel through human history by attaching themselves to other memes and ‘living’ in human minds. Cultural and intellectual change occurs not at the level of the meme, but of the ‘memeplex’, the equivalent of Lovejoy’s ‘compounds’ of unit-ideas. Indeed, Lovejoy referred to ‘idea-complexes’ which shift throughout history, leaving the individual unit-ideas intact.

Going Viral: Internet Memes

67The attention given to internet memes is largely synchronic rather than diachronic: a meme that ‘goes viral’ is one that very quickly diffuses across the internet, as measured by the high number of ‘hits’. Indeed a viral internet meme is likely to cede its cyber-prominence to another meme almost as quickly as it emerged. In that regard, most internet memes are contemporary versions of the ‘hasty’ event disdained by Braudel as the shortest historical time-span, whose ‘delusive smoke… does not last’ (Braudel 1980: 27). The internet is itself so young that no internet meme can qualify as an instance of the longue durée. Various cultural critics and media theorists, however, have attempted to theorise the internet meme, in part by transforming the concept of the meme as introduced by Dawkins.

68In his book Memes in Digital Culture (2014) Shifman begins by acknowledging the ‘core quandary’ of memetics: the ambiguous nature of the term as defined by Dawkins (2014: 37). For Dawkins a meme could be ‘a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation’ (37); this ambiguity has generated divergent approaches in the study of memes. Shifman attempts to resolve this difficulty by proposing his own definition of an internet meme as:

(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which (b) were created with awareness of each other, and (c) were circulated, imitated and/or transformed via the Internet by many users. (41)

69Shifman provides examples of ‘viral’ memes, including a ‘Leave Britney Alone’ YouTube video which gained over two million views within twenty-four hours in 2007. In discussing this video meme, Shifman describes it as a ‘complex amalgam of ideas’ (44): his conception of the meme is more like the compound of unit-ideas proposed by Lovejoy than the single unit-idea. In Deleuzian terms, this meme resembles an ‘assemblage’ of cultural items. At least the composite nature of internet memes as defined by Shifman allows for the possibility of the meme’s transformation ‘in the course of its memetic diffusion’ (43). Shifman remarks that a meme may undergo ‘diffusion and evolution’ as it is re-transmitted, in the forms of parody, ironic quotation or critical commentary. The definition of memes as ‘groups of interconnected units that share common characteristics’ (53) – rather than as simple ‘unit-ideas’ – permits the possibility of an element of change affecting the composite-memes through time.

70Another theoretical study of internet memes was made in 2015 by media theorists Victoria Esteves and Graham Meikle. Like Shifman, Esteves and Meikle distance the contemporary application of the term ‘meme’ from Dawkins’ original formulation in 1976. Indeed, they are highly critical of Dawkins’ conception of the meme as an element of culture and communication. Esteves and Meikle profess that ‘as communication scholars rather than zoologists, we might wonder why Dawkins saw this as a word that needed to be invented in the first place.’ (Esteves and Meikle 2015: 562-563) They assert that this term adds little to the understanding of communication, and ‘most often works as an unacknowledged synonym of a perfectly good word that already existed’. That word, they note, is ‘idea’ (563).

71Esteves and Meikle are also critical of the ‘problematical biological equivalence that Dawkins established from the beginning between genes and memes’ (563). They point out that ideas created by humans are not viruses, and do not propagate themselves simply by leaping ‘from brain to brain’. Rather, ideas ‘circulate through being adopted and adapted by people.’ This is true of cultural exchange in general, but is especially true of internet culture, in particular social media. Esteves and Meikle emphasise the ‘remix culture’ of the internet, whereby memes are shared and ‘not only adopted but adapted and remixed’ (563). In this context of sharing, distributing and remixing information, Esteves and Meikle propose a definition of internet memes as ‘forms of easily remixed texts and images’ that are intrinsic to the social media environment (562).

72This definition of intenet memes as ‘complex social and cultural acts’ (568) is far removed from Dawkins’ simplistic biological model of the meme. Esteves and Meikle emphasise the cultural work that is done to internet memes, which for them are more complicated and mutable entities than the simple inviolate meme-ideas posited by Dawkins. The internet meme, they argue, is ‘something that users do’; it entails ‘an active engagement with digital texts and images, a critical understanding of their rules and grammar, the sharing and circulation of remixed ideas’ (564). Along with this cultural work comes the sense that meanings are made, rather than simply transmitted. Mutability is a crucial factor: the internet meme for Esteves and Meikle is not an unchanging online item but rather a cluster of items and ideas creating a form of ‘flexibility, mutability and popularity’ (565).

73Social media encourages the constant adaptation of memes, which may be altered by new context, parody, reference to popular culture, even private jokes, as users adapt memes as much as they adopt them. Esteves and Meikle therefore treat internet memes as idea-clusters or assemblages, as does Shifman. For them the compounds of elements constituted by shifting internet memes represent an ‘intercreativity’, the ‘collaborative processes of making and sharing.’ (568) Change across (virtual) space and through time is to be expected of internet memes, as they are incessantly shared and adapted. In this theoretical account, internet memes are much more complex than the meme as originally proposed by Dawkins, and more mutable than the ‘unit-ideas’ proposed by Lovejoy.

The Post-Lovejoyan History of Ideas

74Lovejoy’s scientistic approach – exposed by Mink’s critique – shares with Dawkins’ memetics a simplistic and ahistorical conception of ideas. By attributing a constancy to unit-ideas (or memes), these theories exclude the role of social context in shaping the idea. The unit itself – idea or meme – is given centre-stage (the meme’s eye view), detached from its context. The unit is the hero of the story; it is ascribed the characteristics of a living entity; its ‘life-history’ is written. The history of ideas becomes the history of those units that most successfully insert themselves into human minds; their history is the account of the various complexes or partnerships in which they are involved.

75The hypostatizing of ideas is one of the charges laid against Lovejoy’s method: for Mandelbaum, Lovejoy over-valued the power of ideas to shape subsequent thought, at the expense of the actual humans who use those very ideas. Lovejoy’s unit-ideas, like memes, live in successive generations of minds, enjoying their own ‘continuous life-histories’ (Mandelbaum 1983: 201). An adequate account of the history of an idea, by contrast, needs to step back from this ‘idea’s eye view’. Theoretical developments in intellectual history since the 1960s have accentuated – in a way that Lovejoy did not – the social and cultural context of ideas. One of the results of this emphasis has been a concern – again absent in Lovejoy’s work – with the reasons for an idea’s genesis. In the concluding section of this chapter, I consider other attempts at understanding why an idea might arise, and why it might change: these inquiries foreground the ‘worldliness’ of all ideas.

76Another critique of Lovejoy – made by Conal Condren – points the way to a history of ideas prepared to engage with ideas as entities subject to change, even discontinuity. Condren objects to the anthropomorphism inherent in Lovejoy’s method, which results from Lovejoy’s extraction of ideas from ‘the minds of men’ (Condren 1985: 104). Lovejoy’s technique is akin to biography: ideas are chronicled through their early years, then through their associations, their ‘various careers’, their fame and influence, finally their fall into obscurity (104). Throughout their lives, so assiduously traced by the historian of ideas, the ideas themselves are assumed to maintain continuous identities – again as if they were human – while the most influential ideas are like ‘great men’: ‘frequently robust and possessing their own “particular go”’ (104).

77In outlining a post-Lovejoyan approach to intellectual history, Condren mentions the influential work of Collingwood, Kuhn, Foucault and Joseph Levinson. Condren draws on Collingwood’s logic of question and answer to destabilise the status of the idea. Whereas the idea in Lovejoy is assumed to be ‘a replicated verbal formula’ (109), maintaining a continuous identity throughout its history, Condren installs both dynamism and context into the definition of idea. An idea, he states, may best be understood generically as an identifiable response in discourse brought about by a distinguishable conventionally circumscribed problem. (109)

78Or – more succinctly, and in more Collingwoodian terms – an idea is ‘a compound of question and answer’ (109). If ideas are answers to specific questions asked at specific times, then ‘only adequate contextualization… can elucidate them’ (Condren 1997: 51). The ‘verbal formula’ – or the name attached to an idea – may remain unchanged, but ‘if the problem to which it is addressed is altered, then so is the idea.’ (Condren 1985: 111) Condren cites Levinson’s example of the nineteenth century Chinese Confucian thinkers who re-affirmed old cultural values when confronted by Western technology (109): these ‘old’ ideas were in fact re-shaped to respond to a new context, in which new questions were being asked. Likewise, Foucault observes that the sentence ‘dreams fulfil desires’ may have been ‘repeated throughout the centuries; it is not the same in Plato and Freud.’ (Condren 1985: 111 citing Foucault 1972: 103)

79There are many examples of ideas that have undergone fundamental shifts in meaning. The political theorist Terence Ball nominates several: ‘ideology’, for example, referred in the eighteenth century to ‘the systematic scientific study of the origins of ideas’ (Ball 1997: 41). Similarly, a ‘patriot’ was once a citizen who ‘for the sake of his patria dared to be an opponent and critic of his government’ (104). After reviewing these and other key terms such as ‘rights’, ‘state’ and ‘revolution’ – all of which have had meanings significantly different to their present definitions – Ball concludes that words do not change, but concepts and meanings do. In an important sense, then, words do not have histories but concepts do (41).

80Indeed, change in meaning over time is so common that Condren finds the ‘conditions necessary for assertions of the continuous identity of ideas’ to be ‘impossibly rarefied’ (Condren 1985: 112). Mink’s inscription of change into the very nature of an idea is supported by Condren here. Both theorists inscribe ideas within an historical process – for Mink an idea is a ‘time-located stage in a developmental process’ – while both refute Lovejoy’s premise that an idea maintains a stable, constant identity over time. For Condren, Lovejoy was ‘doubly mistaken’ in identifying the same idea of the great chain of being in Aquinas and in Pope: the idea had changed over time, while the contexts of these two authors, and the problems that they were addressing, were widely divergent (113).

81Condren’s conception of ideas as compounds of question/answer historicises the study of ideas, because the questions asked in one historical period will be different to those posed in others. The idea cannot be assumed to be constant, in the ahistorical way presumed by Lovejoy (or memetics); rather, it is shaped by alterations in its social and cultural context. Condren cites Kedourie’s study of nationalism, which demonstrates the radical changes to certain Kantian principles motivated by their transfer to nationalist ideology: ‘continuity of vocabulary disguised discontinuity in the ideas expressed by Kant and by Fichte.’ (Condren 1985: 113) As well, the interpretation of ideas in the terms of question/answer helps explain the origin of ideas (they were answers to pressing problems), and the resistance to some ideas – even their repression – in certain historical and cultural contexts.

82The history of the idea of zero is indicative in this regard. Studies of the history of zero – from its earliest expression in Sumerian culture to its key role in contemporary physics – remark on the peculiar trajectory of this idea. For Robert Kaplan, zero is

an idea that someone strikes on, which then might lie dormant for centuries, only to sprout all at once, here and there, in changed climates of thought; an ongoing conversation between guessing and justifying, between imagination and logic. (Kaplan 2000: 2)

83For Charles Seife, the explanation for this stop-start ‘career’ resides in the ‘dangerous’ nature of the idea of zero – at least from a Western perspective. His ‘biography’ of zero emphasises the long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the West to ‘shield itself… from an Eastern idea’ (Seife 2000: 2). The ancient Greeks had become aware of zero by the fourth century BC, through contact with the Babylonian number system – but the idea was repressed because of its clash with ‘central tenets’ of Western thought (25). The number-philosophy of Pythagoras and the cosmology of Aristotle – the latter with its famous abhorrence of vacuums – had no place for zero or the void. Seife argues that it took two millennia before the West could accept zero – with disastrous consequences in the meantime for Western mathematics, science (and calendars) (25). Zero flourished in Indian mathematics, from which it was absorbed into Islamic thought. Zero was appropriated by the West only with the European acceptance of Arabic notation in the fourteenth century – but even then, the Church waged an Aristotelian defence against this unsettling concept.

84Zero, then, was initially an answer to a basic problem, that of counting. Yet its acceptance into Western culture was blocked by an intellectual and cultural context specific to the West. The orthodoxies of Greek and Christian thought rejected the answer provided by zero; indeed, they refused to allow the pertinent questions to be asked. Since there was no place in mathematics or in the approved world-view for the void, no question to which zero might be the answer was permitted to be asked. Seife remarks that even Descartes, who based his system of mathematical co-ordinates around zero, had such quantities of the Aristotelian cosmology left in him that he felt compelled to deny the existence of the vacuum (Seife 2000: 93-97).

85Zero is an idea whose history is marked by major discontinuity. The idea lay dormant for centuries, as a result of repression of the idea of zero; eventually the social, intellectual and cultural context became appropriate for the idea to re-emerge. As I have previously detailed, the history of the idea of charisma likewise features a long period of dormancy before a re-emergence. An ancient idea – charisma – re-emerged in the twentieth century after a long period of eclipse. Does it maintain most of the characteristics it possessed in the first century? Or is it a radically different entity – in effect a different idea? Paramount in this inquiry is the social and cultural context of the idea at different times and different places. Do these changing contexts so fundamentally alter the questions being asked that the answers – and hence the idea itself – are marked by a severe discontinuity?

  • 5 This last point is made by Régis Debray, with reference to intellectual historians such as Robert D (...)

86In pursuing this inquiry, I am operating in a post-Lovejoyan environment. Charisma is not assumed to be a ‘unit-idea’, changeless and indestructible. In the words of M. L. Brick, historians of ideas must prise the idea ‘out of the somewhat rigid and disembodied mold’ devised by Lovejoy, deploying the idea instead ‘more inclusively and concretely’ – that is, in the context of the idea’s material circumstances (Brick 1992: xv). Dissatisfaction with the methods of Lovejoy and other conventional historians of ideas has prompted many intellectual historians, following Skinner, to eschew the idea as a unit of investigation. Some intellectual historians concentrate on discourse analysis, or – following Foucault – systems of thought and power/knowledge, or – following the Annales School – the history of communication rather than ideas.5 I choose to persevere with the history of individual ideas, with the proviso that such ideas are understood as shaped by their worldly environment – and hence are both dynamic and subject to changes of varying degrees.

  • 6 This definition is provided in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (ed. Ted Honderich) Oxford: Oxfor (...)

87This treatment of the idea as dynamic entity is closer to the ‘concept’ as defined by Deleuze and Guattari than it is to Lovejoy’s ‘unit-idea. The concept, generally accepted as ‘the modern replacement for the term idea’,6 is installed by Deleuze and Guattari into the very basis of philosophy. For them, philosophy is ‘the art of forming, inventing and fabricating concepts.’ (Deleuze and Guattari (1994: 2) Deleuze and Guattari regard the concept – like the idea as defined earlier in this chapter – as ‘incorporeal’, as ‘an act of thought’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 21). But it is not abstracted; rather it is relative to ‘other concepts, to the plane on which it is defined, and to the problems it is supposed to resolve’ (21).

88In discussing ‘conceptual personae’ – such as the idiot as ‘private thinker’ – Deleuze and Guattari engage briefly with continuity and discontinuity in the history of philosophy. This figure of the private thinker, perhaps traceable to Augustine and the early ‘Christian atmosphere’, is invoked in Descartes’ Meditations as the cogito; it later re-appears in a Slavic Christian context as the ‘idiot’ – Dostoyevski’s private thinker as opposed to public teacher (62). Deleuze and Guattari note the differences between the old and new idiots: the old wants reason and the comprehensible, while the new wants the absurd and the incomprehensible. There is a discontinuity: ‘ [t] his is most certainly not the same persona: a mutation has taken place.’ (63) And yet, Deleuze and Guattari conclude, ‘a slender thread links the two idiots’, in their search either for reason or its absence (63). The slender thread is a continuity in the history of this conceptual persona.

89Writing in 2014, Darrin M. McMahon welcomes the ‘return of the history of ideas’, although that welcome is qualified by a question mark at the end of the title of his article. McMahon acknowledges that the history of ideas had been rendered ‘unfashionable’ as a pursuit in the late 1960s, largely as a result of the critiques levelled at the practice by Skinner, Foucault and others. Yet McMahon argues for a ‘refashioning’ of the history of ideas (2014: 21), and hopes for a ‘revivified’ version of this practice within intellectual history (27). McMahon proposes that a ‘reinvigorated’ history of ideas can have benefits for intellectual history:

… ideas, too, can have a longue durée, and […] tracing them has the potential to open up sight lines and reveal connections that are potentially obscured by a more intense focus on immediate context. (23)

90Ideas in Time proposes a ‘reinvigorated’ history of ideas along the lines recommended by McMahon. In contemporary exercises in intellectual history, the transformations within concepts or ideas are more likely to receive attention than any assumed Lovejoyan continuities. Thus Régis Debray, who reconstructs the history of ideas within ‘mediology’, accentuates the diachronic dimension of cultural transmission, with culture ‘developing and changing as it goes’ (Debray 2000: 3). His mediology project is attentive to the ways in which ideas – and other ‘data’ or cultural material – are altered by their transmission through various media, which are ‘veritable agents of transformation of the given content.’ (113) A history of ideas similarly needs attention to any transformations effected on the idea across its history. At the same time, it will attempt to discern any thread – slender or otherwise – linking the expressions of this idea across time.


1 This is the definition of ‘ideas’ given in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich (1995: 389).

2 The reference is to Péguy’s ‘Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne’ in Œuvres en prose (Paris Gallimard, 1992), 3: 1273.

3 Rohmann, Chris (2000) The Dictionary of Important Ideas and Thinkers London: Hutchinson.

4 These ideas are included as some of the 444 entries in Rohmann’s The Dictionary of Important Ideas and Thinkers (2000).

5 This last point is made by Régis Debray, with reference to intellectual historians such as Robert Darnton, who concentrate on ‘the history of communication’. As a result of such developments, ‘the sphere of ideas has happily been broadened’, conceived in terms of communication: ‘the force of ideas lies in how widely they are spread.’ (Debray 2000: 112)

6 This definition is provided in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (ed. Ted Honderich) Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995, p. 146. It proposes that the concept is stripped of the idea’s ‘imagist associations’ and is considered ‘more intimately bound up with language’ – hence more contemporary.

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