The History of Philosophy, History of Ideas & Intellectual History

what’s the difference between philosophy and the history of philosophy at first glance the distinction looks simple doing philosophy is an engagement with the ideas while the history of philosophy looks at how those ideas have changed over time and how the context influences the philosopher in history departments though what used to be called the history of ideas is now more commonly referred to as intellectual history and the change in name highlights a difference in approach no timely ideas in the history of ideas presupposes a metaphysical thing an idea to be studied while the intellectual in intellectual history refers to a person who is engaged with the idea producing an idea the distinction isn’t unimportant the ancient Greek philosopher Plato argued that ideas or universals preceded their particular incarnations for example there are many different triangles in the world physical triangles thoughts of triangles but the idea of a triangle is eternal this is a metaphysical sometimes spiritual way of looking at ideas for a platanus the idea of man precedes man himself but this creates a problem do ideas create things or do things create ideas which comes first in the 1930s the Harvard historian Arthur Lovejoy argued that the new field of the history of ideas should be approached by looking at what he called unit ideas and how they’ve changed over time for example how did the idea of totalitarianism develop the historian Jay L Talman described the 18th century philosopher jean-jacques Rousseau’s thought as the forerunner to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century fatale Minh Rousseau strictly you know philosophy that advocates for a single general will to guide a people is seen as the starting point of a philosophical train of thought that leads straight through to Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany similarly J W Chapman in 1956 had said that Rousseau should be given special responsibility for the emergence of totalitarianism Lovejoy’s approach focusing on grand ideas started to fall out of favor in the 1970s forgiving the ideas themselves too much power intellectual history takes on a different approach ideas must be studied in their context not as independent entities those studying ancient Greek philosophy started to engage with ancient Greek history looking for the social conditions Wars or culture that influenced the way the philosophers thought for Cambridge historian Quentin Skinner we have to avoid the cardinal sin of history present ism by ignoring what we know about the ideas in the present to try and understand how they were thought of at the time we have to try and understand the different ways language or humor or metaphor or art are used and you can’t do that just by reading one text Skinner argues though that it’s not enough to look at a philosophical text in itself and internalist approach but that equally we shouldn’t take externalism to the point where we’re speculating wildly without any proper evidence if we study just the text we have no way of knowing how it relates to or is a product of its time language meaning culture technology they all change and we have to have some points of reference but Skinner would ask how could Rousseau be responsible for something so far in the future totalitarianism has nothing to do with Rousseau all the time that he lived in so why read backwards and make wild speculations Skinner calls this mythology there is absolutely no evidence that Rousseau would have advocated for anything akin to modern totalitarianism the proof is simple if he did why didn’t he just say so Skinner says that history becomes a pack of tricks we play on the dead we should look just at what the author said for Skinner to claim that one person influenced the other there should be genuine similarities and that the person that’s been influenced couldn’t find those similarities elsewhere we have to look for clear evidence of intention

Skinner said there is no history of the idea to be written but only a history necessarily focused on the various agents who used the idea and on their varying situations and intentions and using it ultimately Skinner writes the understanding of texts I have sought to insist presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean and how this meaning was intended to be taken in the 80s and 90s Skinner’s method came under attack by new theories influenced by post-modernism the Domenic Like a Prayer Skinner’s approach doesn’t get us far enough ‘la Capra distinguishes between the documentary aspects of the text the context and the work that is the working with ideas and morphing them and changing them but even thinking about the context is problematic for Capra there are several context in the past and the present and a lot of interplay between them first there’s the relationship between the author’s intentions and the text second there’s the relation between the author’s life and the tax third the relation of society to tax fourth there’s the understanding that the text is sometimes saying more than that which is socially accepted at the time it is after all saying something new and so transcends the context 5 there’s the relation of the text to other texts by the author and 6 there’s the relation between different modes of discourse different ways of saying things in the past and the present and next itself fala Capra Skinner doesn’t dig underneath the surface enough limiting history to just that that can be seen assumptions about past contacts should be interrogated and deconstructed facts fight in tension for example can be interpreted in many different ways if we go back to our example of Rousseau he saw nothing but ills in the world around him but he himself was troubled frightening pathetic a madman and those were just the words of the woman he loved he probably didn’t intend for all those things to influence him but to understand how his personal life bled into his philosophy takes more than just looking at intention and context it means speculating it means maybe using modern psychology to try and understand the things that influenced Rousseau use mentality ‘la Capra’s way of doing things provides a bit more flexibility when exploring thinkers and ideas across time Edward Sayid for example has traced how the idea of the Orient has been used as a colonial tool of oppression over centuries or Michelle fuko’s looks at how the idea of discipline has changed over time these presumes something more than that which was intended by a single author all within a single time period but we should still be careful attributed ideas to thinkers centuries before Rousseau may have had some kind of totalizing element to his philosophy but it certainly wasn’t the 20th century totalitarianism we know today the trick is a subtle one to try and draw the balance between intention influencing context and acknowledge how they’ve changed over time if you want to support than an eye then there’s a few ways you can help you can of course subscribe like and share below and importantly click that Bell to be notified of new videos you can also support me on patreon where you’ll get access to scripts and audio early I answer questions and can put your name in the credits for as little as $1 per a month thanks to my existing patreon supporters also if you’re thinking of buying something on this topic if you do so through my amazon link below in the description I’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you all of which helps the channel act massively thanks for watching and see you next week