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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 3. That ‘Uncertain Object’

Methodological Problems in Intellectual History

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1In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault administered a scalding critique of that method of intellectual history loosely defined as the history of ideas:

It is not easy to characterize a discipline like the history of ideas: it is an uncertain object, with badly drawn frontiers, methods borrowed from here and there, and an approach lacking in rigour and stability. (Foucault 1972: 136)

2As discussed in more detail in the next chapter, Foucault’s vitriolic attack was motivated by several factors. One was his ambition to displace such a ramshackle methodology in favour of his own archaeological method of analysis. Archaeology was designed as a largely self-sufficient methodology, its frontiers sharply drawn, its techniques honed by the ‘rigour and stability’ in such short supply elsewhere.

3Another motivation, however, was dissatisfaction with the hybrid nature of intellectual history – a dissatisfaction hardly unique to Foucault. Intellectual history has drawn – and continues to draw – on so many disciplines, in such a bewildering array of combinations, that even defining the methodological problems pertaining to the field is a cruelly difficult task. Indeed, Roger Chartier has concluded that ‘ [p] osing the problems of intellectual history is surely one of the most difficult things in the world to do… ’ (Chartier 1982: 13). The history of ideas, to take one example, represents one practice within intellectual history, but it has meant different things in different places and at different times. In 1948, one of its most devoted and influential practitioners, A. O. Lovejoy, identified at least twelve academic disciplines pertinent to the ‘historiography of ideas’ (Lovejoy 1948: 1-2); his melancholy conclusion was that truly accomplished work in this field was beyond the capacities of one intellectual. In an attempt to overcome this difficulty, Lovejoy advocated an intensive collaboration between the various disciplines.

4The interdisciplinary field described by Lovejoy may be regarded as a strength of intellectual history, yet it may also be seen as the opposite. A harsher overview offered by Mark Poster finds that: ‘ [j] udged as a discipline with coherent standards, methods, and problems, intellectual history would not place high on many scholars’ lists.’ (Poster 1997: 134) In Poster’s opinion, the field is inhabited by a ‘disparate array of practitioners’ situated between polar extremes. At one of those poles is the approach developed by Lovejoy, characterised by Poster as the search for ‘shifting configurations of eternal ideas as expressed by the most refined philosophical minds.’ (134) At the other is a quantitative method employed by historians such as Robert Darnton in works such as The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie (1979). Poster finds ‘inexhaustible’ varieties of intellectual history between these extremes. The general object of study may be individual ideas, or individual thinkers, or disciplines, or intellectual movements, or other formations such as ‘mentalities’, collective consciousness or popular culture. The material objects of study may be literary works, philosophical treatises, journalism, art works, correspondence, political documents or marginalia. Poster lists, with a dash of irony, some of the possible methods of investigation as ‘philological, chronological, psychoanalytic, Marxist, anthropological, or, in extreme cases, historical.’ (134)

5The eclectic nature of intellectual history as a discipline is one of its defining features. Even Foucault, despite the rigour of his archaeological method, found himself accused of a fashionable hybridity, albeit by the decidedly unsympathetic Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre attributed the success of Foucault’s The Order of Things to its blending of topical intellectual methods:

Foucault gives people what they needed: an eclectic synthesis in which Robbe-Grillet, structuralism, linguistics and Tel Quel are used one after another to demonstrate the impossibility of historical reflection. (Cited in Macey 1993: 175)

6In the decades since the publication of The Order of Things, Foucault has himself become part of the complex – if not treacherous – landscape in which intellectual history is situated. History, a ‘debatable land’ for Thomas Macauley in the nineteenth century (Himmelfarb 1999: 80), has become a quarrelsome territory in the twenty-first. The impact on historiography of the the ‘linguistic turn’ and the ‘cultural turn’, among other theoretical turns – has been debated by proselytisers and opponents of these challenges.

7Intellectual history has been involved in this turbulent debate, while assimilating the influence of developments in other fields. Cultural history, one of those fields, has emerged as a flexible mode of inquiry into the intellectual and cultural practices of the past; cultural history in this regard has itself been influenced by tendencies in anthropology. As Peter Burke observes, the interdisciplinary nature of the ‘anthropological model of cultural history’ (Burke 1997: 194) is hardly unprecedented: semiotics developed in the 1960s as the ‘joint project’ of theorists of language and literature (such as Jakobson and Barthes) and anthropologists (such as Levi-Strauss) (Burke 1997: 192).

  • 1 Robert M. Burns traces a version of this pathway in his ‘On Philosophizing about History’, in Burns (...)

8If intellectual history occupies some of the ‘debatable land’ of history, it is, then, a crowded and confusing patch. Residents and visitors come and go in a flurry of shifting alliances, making claims and counter-claims. At least the neighbourhood cannot be accused of being dull; it is too rowdy and dynamic for that. Beneath its turbulent surface, there remain more enduring influences. Any examination of intellectual history must take into account its bedrock: the philosophy of history, as well as of the history of science. Epistemological questions concerning the nature of historiography have been explored within the philosophy of history since, at least, the publication of Giambattista Vico’s New Science in 1725. As Burke remarks, in the English-speaking world the phrase ‘history of ideas’ is generally thought to have been launched by Lovejoy in the 1920s; yet it was used two hundred years earlier by Vico (Burke 1997: 11). It is possible to outline a pathway from the eighteenth century to the present that would include the philosophy of history of Herder, Hegel, Rickert, and Dilthey; the ‘idea of history’ forged in the twentieth century by Collingwood; and hermeneutics as practised by Gadamer and Heidegger. Needless to say, this is a selective construction, but it serves the purpose of placing recent inquiry into the nature of historical interpretation in a more expansive context.1

The Heterogeneity of Intellectual History

9Of the many factors contributing to the great difficulty of defining intellectual history, Roger Chartier highlights the issue of national specificity. In no other branch of history, he claims, has there been such entrenched difference of approach, and even of vocabulary (Chartier 1982: 13). The history of ideas pioneered in the United States by Lovejoy was not identical to the history of ideas pursued, with a more literary orientation, in twentieth-century France. In other European cultures, the term has barely been used. Chartier discusses the Annales School in France, which developed, over several generations, an alternative approach to intellectual history, focusing not on individual ideas but on ‘the history of mentalities’. Chartier, himself influenced by this tradition, nevertheless admits that the term ‘history of mentalities’ has proved difficult to export, creating ‘considerable confusion’ in the attempts at translating and explaining it. Chartier concludes that the cultural specificity active in intellectual history imposes a ‘double uncertainty’:

each national historiography possesses its own conceptualisation, and in each one different ideas enter into play, each indistinguishable from the next to foreign eyes. (1982: 14)

10The cross-fertilisation of approaches in intellectual history, then, has been curtailed by these national differences. One striking instance of this concerns the pivotal figure of Gaston Bachelard. In the Anglophone world, Bachelard is well known as the author of The Poetics of Space, and of studies of the imagination such as The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Works such as these became available in English translations in the 1960s. But Bachelard’s significance in the Francophone world had been of a distinctly different order. In a series of books published in France from 1927, including The New Scientific Spirit (1934) and The Philosophy of No (1940), Bachelard developed an influential approach to the history and philosophy of science.

11A key concept within Bachelard’s theory of knowledge was the epistemological break, which functioned in both synchronic and diachronic modes. In the synchronic sense, the epistemological break separates scientific knowledge from other forms of knowledge or belief. The diachronic application of this concept relates to the way scientific knowledge breaks with previous scientific theories. As Gary Gutting observes, Bachelard’s notion of the epistemological break or ‘rupture’ preceded ‘by two or three decades similar discussions by Anglo-American historians and philosophers of science such as Kuhn and Feyerabend.’ (Gutting 1989: 16) However, much of Bachelard’s work on the history of science was untranslated and largely unknown in the English-speaking world. As a result, the epistemological approach in twentieth century French thought, linking Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Foucault, was little appreciated in the Anglophone domain.

12Foucault’s use of the epistemological break in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge created the impression, for many English-speaking readers, that he was the originator of this concept. The epistemological rupture was seen as a radical technique, deployed in a startling manner to reveal the discontinuities of intellectual history. Yet, viewed from within the French epistemological tradition, Foucault’s work in intellectual history was situated firmly within a context created by the works of Bachelard, Canguilhem and others. Gutting emphasises the crucial significance of Bachelard for Foucault’s intellectual history – an influence Foucault himself readily admitted. For Gutting, Foucault adopted the Bachelardian view of science:

[Foucault] accepts, for example, the essential historicity of scientific conceptions as well as the understanding of this historicity in terms of a discontinuous series of breaks. Indeed, all the talk of ‘rupture, ’ ‘coupure, ’ ‘mutation, ’ and so on, that Foucault and others (e.g., Althusser) made so fashionable in the 1960s derives directly from Bachelard. (1989: 52)

13Chartier remarks that theoretical blindness to potentially fruitful fields of study need not be the product of national difference. In his opinion, the Annales historians weakened their position by ignoring the epistemological inquiry initiated by Bachelard; this oversight deprived them of flexibility in theorising transformations within intellectual history. Chartier finds such neglect inexcusable in that – unlike intellectuals outside France – the Annales historians could not plead cultural or linguistic difference in their defence:

Had they listened to the epistemologists, the French historians might also have learned a different way to pose the problem on which all history of mentalities stumbles, that of the reasons for and modalities of the passage from one system to another. (Chartier 1982: 31)

14The examination in the next two chapters of Foucault’s approach to intellectual history is largely concerned with Foucault’s attempt to solve this problem. His respect for the epistemological legacy of Bachelard and Canguilhem was instrumental in Foucault’s efforts to reconcile continuity and discontinuity in intellectual history. According to Chartier, the epistemological blindspot evinced by the Annales historians prevented them from pursuing a similar direction. In other respects, however, their historiography served as an inspiration and model for Foucault, not least in their postulation of a collective ‘mentality’ regulating social subjects. In 1961 the Annales historian Alphonse Dupront criticised the history of ideas for its privileging of individual ‘great’ authors, and its abstracting of ideas from the social formation:

The history of ideas, as ever amorphous and capable of absorbing, a bit like a thirsty sponge, everything that traditional history cared so little about treating, leans too far toward pure intellectuality, the abstract life of the idea, often isolated beyond proportion from the social milieux where it takes root and which give varying expression to it. (Cited in Chartier 1982: 28)

15This attack anticipates, both in its object and its severity, Foucault’s critique with which this chapter began.

  • 2 A necessary qualification here relates to the heterogeneity within the Annales School. Iggers ident (...)

16The Annales School’s legacy for intellectual history, however, has been mixed. George Iggers credits their ‘stressing of the relativity and multilayering of time’ as a radical and profoundly influential modification of historical time (Iggers 1997: 51). Such an influence is evident – and acknowledged – in Foucault. Likewise, the ‘anthropological note’ (Iggers 1997: 63) in their histories, focusing on folklore, customs and art, provided a model for later versions of cultural history. Yet the ambition towards ‘the unity of history’ evident in later Annales projects, including Fernand Braudel’s work, has been decried as the very ‘totalizing impulse’ against which postmodern historiography later set itself (Hutcheon 1989: 63, citing LaCapra 1985: 25).2

17If the Annales’ influence on intellectual history is perhaps more implicit than readily apparent, a more prominent – indeed spectacular – French export is that aggregation of critical methods known as ‘post-structuralism’. Even though Roland Barthes was not a historian, and even though some of his most influential texts were published at a time when he aligned himself with structuralism or semiology, he is regularly cited as a chief inspiration for the ‘linguistic turn’ which shifted much intellectual history in a post-structuralist or postmodern direction. For Poster, Barthes’ late-1960s analyses of the ‘discourse of history’ were highly significant decodings of the ‘reality effect’ produced in historical texts. Barthes’ de-naturalisation of the representation process revealed, in Poster’s terms, the ‘uncanny metaphysical engine of historiography’ (Poster 1997: 110), in which the meanings of the past are organised and constructed. Hugh Rayment-Pickard comments that for Barthes history was ‘not the history of things that have happened, but history as a textual construct.’ (Burns and Rayment-Pickard 2000: 278) In this respect, history is regarded as ‘just another kind of literature’ (279), while the historian is defined as ‘not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers… ’ (Barthes 1970: 153, cited by Burns and Rayment-Pickard 2000: 275).

18The ramifications of this literary approach to the philosophy of history have been energetically pursued in intellectual history. Hayden White elaborated the theme of ‘narrativism’ in historiography, while maintaining the opposition to empiricism central to Barthes’ critique of history as a discourse. Dominick LaCapra delved more deeply into the ‘textual problematic’, inspired by the contributions of Bakhtin, Derrida, Ricoeur and others. For LaCapra, intellectual history may be re-figured as ‘a history of texts’ (LaCapra 1983: 35). From this perspective, the work of the intellectual historian is associated with the interpretation of texts and their various contexts. Intellectual history comprises a dialogue with the past, a notion LaCapra finds expressed – in varying forms – in Weber, Collingwood and Heidegger (31). LaCapra notes that in pursuing this dialogue, ‘it is the ability to pose the “right” questions that distinguishes productive scholarship.’ (31) In LaCapra’s view, such questions concern the relation of the text to certain contexts, which include the relation between the author’s intention and the text; between the author’s life and the text; the relation of society to texts; and between modes of discourse and texts (36-61).

19LaCapra’s textualist orientation is evident in his critique of the traditional history of ideas as practised by Lovejoy and others. Whereas representatives of the Annales approach rebuked the history of ideas for isolating the idea from its social formation, LaCapra is critical of this method for the manner in which ideas are

abstracted from texts and related to comprehensive, formalised modes of discourse or symbolic forms (philosophy, literature, science, myth, history, religion.) How these structures actually function in complex texts is often not asked or is given only marginal attention. (34)

20The ‘rethinking’ of intellectual history advocated by LaCapra is eclectic in its inspiration, deriving from literary criticism, deconstruction, hermeneutics and the philosophy of history. Its basic imperative is to foreground the ‘text’, in its expanded sense as developed by Barthes and other theorists of language and representation. For LaCapra, emphasis on the text serves to ‘problematize conventional distinctions and hierarchies’ (19) within such pursuits as intellectual history.

Interpreting The Past

21Despite the many criticisms aimed at deconstruction and other manifestations of post-structuralism, these forms of inquiry have coloured the philosophy of history – and intellectual history in particular – in a number of ways. The most pressing influence of post-structuralism on the theorising of history, and hence the history of ideas, concerns the crucial factor of the knowability of the past. That is, can the past ever be known? Can there ever be an accurate depiction of past events? Or is the past merely represented in various literary endeavours, each one bearing its own biases, narrative constructions and modes of interpretation? For Alun Munslow, the impact of the ‘deconstructing’ of history lies at the very heart of the historiographic project – the representation of the past. In the wake of deconstruction, the discursive functions and tactics of historiography are laid bare; indeed, they are foregrounded as the means in which knowledge of the past is constructed:

The deconstructive consciousness makes us epistemologically aware that the way in which we metaphorically prefigure, organise, emplot, explain and make moral judgements about the past is our only access to it. (Munslow 1997: 166)

22For Munslow, the adequacy of historical explanation must be assessed within a broader critique of representation, meaning and language. The implication of this is that ‘history can be no more, nor less, than a representation of pastness.’ (178) This is not to claim that the past never existed, or that we can never have any sense of it; it is to assert that there can be no one true account of the past. The thrust of such a conception is to reject the notion of history as an ‘empirical discipline that purports objectively to represent a presumed past historical reality.’ (178) A truly objective representation of the past is impossible, as any historical account is an act of interpretation. In Munslow’s terms, ‘the past becomes history only when it is construed through the filter of the historian’s strategies of explanation.’ (172)

23Munslow acknowledges, however, that such a relativist approach to historiography pre-dates the postmodern period. The assumptions of those ‘naïve empiricists’ who have practised conventional historiography were challenged well before the critiques of Foucault, White and LaCapra. Munslow mentions Croce, Collingwood and even E. H. Carr in this context (171). Collingwood’s philosophy of history, with its empathetic goal of ‘the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind’ (Collingwood 1946: 215), is significant in several ways, and is considered in detail in Chapter Eight. His rejection of positivist or ‘scissors and paste’ history, inspired by Croce, exerted considerable influence on both the philosophy of history and historiography. For Munslow, a radical interpretation of Collingwood’s treatment of history as a ‘web of imaginative construction’ feeds into later postmodern approaches to history and representation. On the other hand, a diluted version of Collingwood has filtered into mainstream historiography via the influential work of E. H. Carr. Carr’s moderate position holds that historians are ‘necessarily selective’, yet maintains that a form of objectivity is nevertheless possible. (Munslow 1997: 83; Carr 1987: 120).

24Munslow suggests that ‘moderate reconstructionist historians’ (83) have followed E. H. Carr’s temperate path, rejecting both a crude empiricism and the deconstructionist critique, while positing that history ‘can explain the past with a substantial claim to accuracy and truthfulness.’ (37) This approach exercises a ‘workable or pragmatic objectivity based upon a degree of self-reflexivity… ’ (83). Munslow identifies as occupants of this moderate position such ‘practical realist’ historians as Appleby, Hunt and Jacob, whose Telling The Truth About History (1994), admits that historical truth is ‘mired in time and language’ but is nevertheless attainable (Appleby, Hunt and Jacob 1994: 195-196, cited by Munslow 77). In a similar manner, Frederick Olafson insists that despite the pressures of deconstruction, it is not ‘possible to give up all truth claims… for historical interpretations.’ (Olafson 1986: 28-42, cited by Munslow 76) In Munslow’s view, social realists accept the premise that knowledge is socially constructed, while preserving the belief that not all truth – including the truth of historical interpretation – is relative.

25This moderate approach by some historians constitutes one response to the hermeneutic problems posed by the questioning of representation. Another response, of course, is to ignore the questions altogether. This is the strategy adopted, consciously or not, by the majority of practising historians. For Willem Frijhoff, this ‘epistemologically naïve’ approach to evidence and the construction of historical narrative is relatively untouched by developments in the philosophy of history. ‘Most historians, ’ he notes, ‘quite obviously trust in the self-evidence of their sources and their narrative… ’ (Frijhoff 1999: 84). If this untroubled positivism persists in mainstream historiography, then intellectual history and cultural history have been more receptive to the problematic of interpretation elaborated over the last few decades.

26One theoretical development in this respect concerns the relative status of available sources in determining a given culture’s intellectual climate. Specifically, this has entailed a shift in focus away from elite opinion as the exclusive marker of knowledge, opinion or attitude in a historical period. Frijhoff characterises this tendency as a ‘shift from the fascination for historical elites’ towards ‘a new interest in the people, in ordinary men and women, and in those without power… ’ (Frijhoff 1999: 89). Contributors to this ‘history from below’ method have been social historians such as E.P. Thompson, the cultural studies approach pioneered by Raymond Williams, and the influential social theory of Michel de Certeau. Burke credits the ‘reception theory’ of de Certeau with displacing ‘the traditional assumption of passive reception’ of culture, in favour of a ‘new assumption of creative adaptation.’ (Burke 1997: 196) This assumption is evident in de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, which locates the ‘quintessence of culture’ in the ‘coping tactics’, appropriations and negotiations of everyday activity (Frijhoff 1999: 97). The attention to popular belief and custom in works such as this has added another dimension to the task of researchers in cultural and intellectual history. According to this premise of cultural theory, it is no longer enough simply to relay the published opinion of historical elites – the ‘great men’ of letters or thought. A satisfactory representation of the diverse attitudes, beliefs or opinions at play in a historical period is consequently more elusive, and more difficult to achieve.

27Given the volume of problems concerning historical interpretation outlined above, how is the ‘epistemologically aware’ historian, particularly the historian of ideas, able to write any history at all? The narrative structure of a historical work may be granted greater prominence, as the story-telling at the core of all historiography is not concealed but highlighted. The ambition of achieving a grand, definitive historical vision is often ostentatiously abandoned, replaced by provisional, fragmentary, or poetic forays into specific terrains. Cultural histories conduct excavations into certain thematics, identifying previous expressions of a theme that have either persisted or been buried in the present. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1995), for example, is a work described by its author as a number of ‘burrows through time’ undertaken by a ‘curious excavator of traditions… ’ (Schama 1995: 16-17). Schama adopts the interdisciplinary methods of cultural historians Carlo Ginzburg and Aby Warburg, incorporating art historians, poets and visual artists into his study of the cultural significance of landscape.

28Many historians set out not to write an objective record of a distant and detached past, but to write a ‘history of the present’, as characterised by Foucault (Foucault 1977: 31) and practised by Giorgio Agamben in a number of works (discussed in Chapter Nine). A brief discussion of two other works – one of cultural history, one of intellectual history – may prove instructive at this point. Maureen Perkins’ The Reform of Time (2001) and David Spadafora’s The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain (1990) are both historical investigations which explicitly acknowledge the theoretical developments outlined above; they both include a meditation on their own methodology. Perkins’ book analyses changing attitudes to time in nineteenth-century Britain. It runs against the grain of previous studies, which have depicted Victorian Britain as a culture of optimism suffused with a positive belief in progress. For Perkins, such studies have based their overview on the writings of Enlightenment philosophers and of positivists such as Comte; popular opinion, however, has not been adequately surveyed. She suggests that nineteenth-century British culture contained a dialectic between ‘elite philosophy’ and ‘plebeian custom’. Her analysis

sets out to recapture some popular attitudes to time – beliefs of those who were excluded from wealth, power, and status – and it argues that a strong component of such beliefs was the fear that life might become even more difficult. (Perkins 2001: 11)

29In uncovering cultural attitudes previously neglected, Perkins draws on some of the aspects of cultural theory discussed in this chapter. Her ‘history of heterodox time’ (14) partakes of the postcolonial re-assessment of the nineteenth century, which has attended to those voices previously repressed in historical accounts. Perkins cites Dipesh Chakrabarty, who has stressed that postcolonial history means more than including those who have been excluded: it also involves a ‘methodological and epistemological questioning of what the very business of writing history is all about.’ (14)

30In practical terms, this means – in Perkins’ case – writing a cultural history of a social group which was much spoken of, but which rarely spoke in its own voice. The chief sources for her study ‘are records of educated commentary on popular culture, often disapproving commentary.’ (17) Perkins resists the temptation to find ‘some unmediated primary record of plebeian belief’ (17), because the risk of misinterpreting this belief – in the absence of substantial source material – is too great. Instead, she analyses middle class commentary, demonstrating that the determination to correct ‘irrational’ working class attitudes to time was part of nineteenth-century social reform policy. The goal of this policy was ‘temporal uniformity’ across the classes, accompanied by a ‘temporal superiority’ in the context of Empire. Perkins acknowledges that in conducting this analysis, she is combining postcolonial theory with ‘an empirically-based historical methodology’ (vii) – but she is far from apologetic about that. Academic debates, she notes, ‘have sometimes suggested that these two endeavours – theory and empiricism – might be mutually antagonistic.’ (vii) Perkins, however, is concerned to respect ‘the specificity of particular contexts’; this means that she fuses ‘an interest in cultural theory with a regard for accurate historical facts founded on textually based research.’ (vii) Her study is the stronger, and the more revealing, for this fusion.

31David Spadafora’s book is even more pertinent to the present study, as it is an exercise in the history of ideas. Like Perkins, his analysis is ‘founded on textually based research’ within an empirically-based methodology; he is like Perkins critical of previous scholarship into his chosen field of study – in his case the idea of progress in eighteenth-century Britain. Spadafora finds this body of scholarship ‘a badly flawed torso’ (Spadafora 1990: 3), in that it has ignored the wider social and cultural context of the time, contenting itself with merely relating ‘who believed in progress during a given period and [recording] the words into which those individuals put their belief.’ (6) Spadafora acknowledges that this tendency is symptomatic of a general shortcoming in ‘the historiography of thought’, which has ‘all too often unconsciously reified ideas, ignored their social context, and concentrated solely on the intellectual elite.’ (5-6)

32Spadafora goes further: he considers a range of critiques whose thrust is to discredit the entire project of the history of ideas, on the grounds that ‘it is either absurdly ambitious or conceptually illegitimate to attempt the reconstruction of the history of an idea… ’ (5). As noted in the previous chapter, Spadafora rejects Quentin Skinner’s critique of the history of ideas, with recourse to the contextualisation – or ‘worldliness’ – of ideas. A sophisticated history of ideas is possible, one which regards an idea not as a reification but as an entity ‘molded by human minds and writings into many forms… ’ (421). To understand these forms in both their diversity and their reference to the underlying idea – in this instance, progress – is the task of the intellectual historian. Such an undertaking, Spadafora remarks, ‘may well be ambitious, but it is as conceptually legitimate as pragmatic.’ (421) If it is impossible to recover precisely the intentionality of writers from previous epochs, it is nevertheless possible, Spadafora contends, to observe the spirit if not the letter of previous authors’ motivation. As much as possible, the historian of an idea must avoid ‘anachronistic misreadings of texts’, by immersing him/herself ‘in the parlance of the age’ under study. (423)

33Spadafora does not deny that this is an imperfect practice, but points out that historical scholarship is not an individual adventure. The intellectual historian ‘can make use of the work of other scholars, particularly those who have studied the aims and language of relevant individual authors or groups of authors in particular periods.’ (422) Intent on avoiding the reification of ideas, Spadafora situates them in their environment of ‘political and economic factors and language… ’ (423):

Only in the light of the social context is it possible to comprehend fully the dynamics of an idea, the human source of its birth and development and the human consequences of its existence. (423)

34In the specific case of progress, the complex social environment of eighteenth-century Britain shaped this idea into ‘a multitude of possible expressions of the idea… ’ (7, Spadafora’s italics). Spadafora explores the various intellectual contexts and social groupings in which these manifold expressions of the idea were articulated.

  • 3 These ideas are elaborated in the Second Part of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1984); an astute summa (...)

35Historical scholarship always entails interpretation, not an objective rendering of the past. It is partial in both senses of the word: necessarily incomplete; and bearing the attitudes and preconceptions of its time and culture. In the terms of Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose hermeneutics intersects with both the philosophy of history and critical theory, all understanding is interpretation; we never understand without prejudices (preconceptions); and each historical time we interpret the past, we do so from a different ‘horizon’, and hence with a different result.3 Gadamer’s subtle and suggestive theory of interpretation proposes a ‘conversation’ with the past; it dismisses the possibility both of an empathetic understanding (Collingwood) and a reconstruction of previous writers’ intentionality (Skinner). Gadamer’s hermeneutics encourages a wariness regarding the restricted and provisional nature of historical interpretation.

  • 4 Martin Jay, for example, argues that Gadamer is never able convincingly to explain how the ‘perfect (...)

36The post-structuralist intervention into the philosophy of history, however, found even Gadamer suspect, in his metaphysical belief that historical truth may ultimately be ‘disclosed’ in hermeneutic reflection.4 Following Foucault’s identification of the power relations at work in all discursive activity, many post-structuralists argued that the writing of history is less an act of interpretation than a construction of the past. Joan Wallach Scott expresses this argument in the context of gender. For Scott, ‘history’s representations of the past help construct gender for the present.’ (Scott 1988: 2) According to Scott, an intervention into this process entails analysis of how meaning in historical texts has been constructed. Post-structuralist theory is best positioned to achieve this, because ‘it addresses questions of epistemology, relativises the status of all knowledge, links knowledge and power, and theorises these in terms of the operations of difference… ’ (4).

37Indeed, whole areas of study or disciplines have been constructed at specific times and for specific reasons, only for those constructions to be dismantled by later generations. Charles Freeman has demonstrated that an idealised version of ancient Greece was invented by scholars in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: this ‘sanitized’ Greece flourished in German Romanticism and was upheld in the education of the English upper class into the twentieth century (Freeman 1999: 4-10). Similar analyses of the construction of the Middle Ages in nineteenth century scholarship have been undertaken by Norman Cantor – Inventing The Middle Ages (1991) – and David Matthews – The Making of Middle English, 1765 – 1910 (1999). The idea of ancient Greece, and the idea of the Middle Ages, are revealed in these works as nineteenth century intellectual constructions.

38For Freeman, once the assumptions behind this construction of ancient Greece have been broken, contemporary classical scholars may examine the ancient works without the distorting perspective imposed by earlier scholarship. While welcoming this challenge, Freeman also acknowledges its difficulty. Classical texts

can now be seen as products of their own time, with their writers having agendas of their own. The struggle of modern scholarship is to understand these agendas and to use the texts more creatively and flexibly to penetrate the assumptions within which the Greeks viewed their world. (16)

39The cumulative effect of this weight of theory concerning the interpretation – or construction – of thepast, isto createaheightened sense of the difficultiesinvolved in historical scholarship. But it is not so heavy a weight as to discourage such endeavour. Several commentators have referred to a remodelled historiography, one which accommodates lessons drawn from the postmodern critique while preserving the specificity of history as a discipline. Chartier, reflecting on ‘the time of doubts’ for historiography, claims that ‘even if the historian writes in a “literary manner”, he does not produce literature’ (Chartier 1993: vi-vii, cited in Iggers 1997: 140). Iggers concurs, pointing to the ‘criteria of reliability’ historians bring to sources, in which the forged and falsified are rejected. He maintains that historiography continues to operate with some notion of truth, ‘however complex and incomplete the road to it may be.”’ (Iggers 140) Ashplant and Smyth, having absorbed more of the postmodern dose, prefer to frame the question in terms ‘not of truth but of plausibility’ (Ashplant and Smyth 2001: 41).

40In this respect – the pursuit of plausibility – I follow Spadafora’s prescription to situate ideas as fully as possible in their social and cultural environment, drawing on previous scholarship where necessary. In Spadafora’s terms, an idea may have manifest diverse ‘expressions’ of its meaning. In attending to this play of the same and the different across time and place, a historian of ideas requires a vigilant stand against the anachronistic misreadings mentioned by Spadafora. It is imperative to avoid the mapping back onto a previous culture of a set of connotations operating in the present, or at another time. This is the most trenchant lesson to emerge from the post-structuralist critique, with its assault on teleological grand narratives of history. It is a lesson absorbed by Freeman, who warns in his book on ‘the Greek achievement’ that the ancient Greeks, in several fundamental respects, were not ‘like us’ (Freeman 1999: ix). If interpretation of the past is understood today as never innocent or transparent, any historical interpretation will come under scrutiny as a possible moulding – or perhaps massaging – of the past. Conal Condren remarks that to some extent anachronism is ‘pervasively awkward, even inevitable’, because ‘we have knowledge and perspectives alien to [the] times’ under study. He cites Joseph Levinson’s observation that ‘we cannot know the eighteenth-century Don Giovanni because we know Mozart is not Wagner’ (Condren 1997: 56). Nevertheless, Condren distinguishes between this ‘pervasive’ anachronism and that ‘avoidable anachronism’ produced by negligent scholarship.

41This chapter, and the previous chapter, have stressed the importance of social and cultural context in interpreting the significance of texts or ideas. In some cases, too little is known of this context, creating major difficulties of interpretation for historical scholarship. One instance of this is the speculation over the significance of The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the Christian scholar Boethius in the sixth century. Commentators have long been puzzled as to why Boethius’ text, composed in the shadow of his impending execution, is a consolation founded on philosophy and not on religious faith. V. E. Watts speculates that the question of Boethius’ Christianity may not have been ‘correctly formulated.’ It may well be, he suggests, that ‘if more were known of the intellectual climate of Roman society at the time the problem would appear in a different light.’ (Watts 1998: 32-33) Watts follows David Knowles’ suggestion that early mediaeval thought permitted a cohabitation between faith and reason, in which the philosophical tradition – although pagan – was considered ‘as valid in its degree as the revealed truths of Christianity.’ (Knowles 1962: 55, cited by Watts, 33)

42I have included reference to Boethius here to illustrate the importance of context in interpretation, an importance emphasised by Spadafora and Armitage among other historians. The text may be worldly, but that world needs to be understood in sufficient detail for an appraisal of that text’s cultural significance to be made. Even then, of course, interpretation will remain an imperfect, imprecise art. It will always be prejudiced; it will always be under the influence. Yet it needs, nevertheless, to be attempted. If the dialogue with the past is to occur, it requires pertinent questions to be asked in the present.

The Discontinuist Challenge

43To conclude this chapter, I wish to prefigure the theme to be explored in the next four chapters – that is, the pressure of temporal discontinuity on intellectual history. Historical discontinuity has come to exert a powerful influence not only on intellectual historians, but on cultural historians faced with describing beliefs and practices of the past. Under its influence, the difference or strangeness of the past is stressed, at the expense of historical continuity. Peter Burke uses the example of the great chain of being, a once compelling idea which now seems so ‘quaint’ that its very strangeness indicates ‘a major change in Western mentality since the sixteenth century.’ (Burke 1997: 167)

44Even those historians whose subjects seem to imply historical continuity are confronted by the force of discontinuity. Richard Stivers’ study of the magical residue in contemporary technology – Technology as Magic (1999) – implies the persistence of magical belief in the technologised present. Yet he acknowledges at the outset that theories of continuity in history have been ‘discredited’. As a consequence,

there is a reluctance to adopt a historical perspective other than that of relativism. Which is to say that we treat each historical period as self-contained and from a variety of theoretical perspectives without attempting to understand history in terms of the transitions between periods. (Stivers 1999: 14)

45Jeffrey Sconce, whose subject – ‘haunted media’ from telegraphy to television – is similar to Stivers’, is similarly cautious concerning the issue of historical continuity. Although stories of haunted media have persisted for 150 years, Sconce argues that

apparent continuity among these accounts is actually less important than the distinct discontinuities presented by the specific articulations of these electronic fictions in relation to individual media. (Sconce 2000: 10)

46Sconce insists that popular tales of paranormal media are most fruitfully analysed by respecting their differences, as determined by ‘differing historical and technological contexts.’ (10)

47In these two methodological statements, we glean something of the pressure associated with historical discontinuity. Historians and theorists such as those mentioned above have responded to an imperative to respect difference within history, while demoting – or even disregarding – the significance of continuity. Apart from the vigorous theoretical expositions of the concept (as discussed in the following chapters), historical discontinuity owes much of its prominence to other cultural and intellectual developments in the twentieth century. It is surely no coincidence that Foucault, Kuhn and Althusser all published their influential works propounding historical discontinuity in the 1960s. Theories of paradigm shifts, epistemological breaks and ‘ruptures’ all ensued from that turbulent decade of cultural and political upheaval. Indeed, Peter Drucker referred to the ‘information age’ commencing in 1960 as The Age of Discontinuity (1969).

48The notion of history – especially intellectual history – as marked by radical breaks has persisted in the wake of these theories, which were most forcefully articulated in the 1960s. The tendency is to identify abrupt breaks separating one age from another, especially when considering the specificity of the modern age. One instance demonstrating this tendency is Peter Watson’s book A Terrible Beauty (2001) on the ideas shaping twentieth century culture. Watson argues that ‘the twentieth century has been different from earlier times’ largely due to the achievements and authority of its science (Watson 2001: 3).

49Yet historical discontinuity is not unopposed in contemporary thought and culture. Several theorists adopt a viewpoint of history well removed from the models of cuts, breaks and ruptures professed in the 1960s. Theorists of technology and history such as Stewart Brand cultivate ‘the long view’, proposing that ‘the accumulated past is life’s best resource for innovation.’ (Brand 1999: 75) Certain theorists of science and technology evince a respect for the historical continuity supporting contemporary devices. Michel Serres offers the ingenious example of a late-model car, which is an ‘aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods’, including the early twentieth century and neolithic times (the wheel) (Serres 1995: 45). I consider these and other theoretical developments in Chapters Eight and Nine, along with a discussion of earlier models of tradition and historical continuity – as found in the philosophy of Collingwood, Gadamer and others.

50There is, then, an impetus behind a continuist perspective on intellectual history. But any advocate of such a view must negotiate the discontinuist challenge: this is what I propose to do in the next few chapters. I suggest that an intellectual history spanning long durations must forge a union of continuity and discontinuity. Charles Freeman produced something like that union in his appraisal of ‘the Greek achievement’: while emphasising the difference or otherness of the ancient Greeks, he nevertheless confirms that they ‘provided the chromosomes of Western civilisation’ in the form of their intellectual accomplishments (Freeman 1999: 434). Similarly, the historian Bob Chase asserts that ‘we must hold on to the notion of continuity whilst still realizing that the past remains other’ (Chase 1996: 80, cited in Ashplant and Smyth 2001: 43). Before attempting such an undertaking in the history of ideas, I need to consider those arguments that insist on the discontinuous nature of historical development. As these concepts are most often associated with Foucault, an assessment of his contribution to intellectual history is an appropriate place to start.


1 Robert M. Burns traces a version of this pathway in his ‘On Philosophizing about History’, in Burns and Rayment-Pickard (2000).

2 A necessary qualification here relates to the heterogeneity within the Annales School. Iggers identifies four different phases of Annales historiography, spanning most of the twentieth century (Iggers 1997: 58). A diversity of approaches stems not only from these divergent phases – Iggers notes as an example the turn towards quantification in the 1960s – but from differences in sensibility and emphasis between individual historians. Iggers contrasts the longue durée favoured by Braudel with the semiotic orientation of the later works of Febvre, or the mentalities approach pursued in the third Annales phase by Le Goff, Duby and others. (59-60)

3 These ideas are elaborated in the Second Part of Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1984); an astute summation is offered by Teigas (1997).

4 Martin Jay, for example, argues that Gadamer is never able convincingly to explain how the ‘perfect coherence’ of historical truth is to be verified (Jay 1982: 103n). Andrew Bowie simply claims that in the wake of Derrida, hermeneutics ‘has often been regarded as an approach to texts that is no longer methodologically defensible.’ (Bowie 1997: 241)

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