Intellectual History. Edited by Richard Whatmore and Brian Young


Pp. ix, 239 , Basingstoke , Palgrave Macmillan , 2006 , $38.95.

If Stephen Potter did not write about ‘lower casemanship’, then he ought to have done. To see the contributors to this volume, and the titles of the papers that it contains, listed, with never a capital letter among them, certainly gives one a frisson as of engagement with the cultural avant-garde. (How curious, by the way, that both of these locutions, which automatically spring to mind, are French.)

In his Introduction to this often infuriating collection, which all the same fairly bristles with points of interest, Brian Young tells us that it is its purpose to answer the question of what intellectual history is, and to bring out its relationship with other disciplines. It is ‘concerned with understanding how ideas originate and evolve in specific historical contexts,’ and with ‘tracing their histories within the broader histories of the societies and cultures which they have helped to shape, and which have also helped to shape them’ (p. 2). John Burrow comments on a revolution in the appreciation of intellectual history, which he takes to be synonymous with the history of ideas, that has taken place in academic life in britain (sic) over the last twenty years or so. (That is the last time that I shall defer to this peculiar convention.) It is of the essence of the subject, as he puts it, to attend to ‘the reflective communal life of human beings in the past; to their assumptions, arguments, enquiries, ruminations about the world and themselves, their past and their future and their relations to each other, and the various vocabularies and rhetorics in which they conducted these’ (p. 11). There can be a tricky question of who are the appropriate authorities; astrology was a stimulus to some of the finest minds of the Renaissance; but are we to have the matter written up for us by ‘gypsy ladies in tents’? (p. 15). (The transparently sexist flavour of this quotation is surprising, granted the sensibilities of some of the other contributors; but the point is a fair one. I suppose that it is least at least part of the job of the intellectual historian who approaches this issue to explain why such notions were once taken more seriously by intellectuals than they usually are now, and perhaps might have their innings again. C. G. Jung's work on alchemy, which shows some of its practitioners doing rather well work on psychic integration which is relevant to us now, rather than just incompetently anticipating modern chemistry, is admirable in this way.)

The object of the whole exercise might be described as ‘to extend and deepen our familiarity with the intellectual life of the past, and so enlarge the parochialism of the present’ (p. 22). (This was C. S. Lewis's view.) As Brian Young sees it in his article, intellectual history in Britain has often seemed something of a foreign import, practised largely by refugees from other cultures in which it was a more generally recognized and widespread activity (p. 25). He follows with instructive and readable notices of the work of Isaiah Berlin, Noel Annan, Maurice Cowling and others; and with the thought-provoking suggestion that ‘(t)he cultural understanding required of emigre's makes them great interpreters of cultures, and Britain has been deeply fortunate in acquiring such scholars’ (p. 41). The reciprocal relationship between literary and intellectual history is stressed by Abigail Williams, who illustrates what she has to say by taking three ‘snapshots’ of literary studies, from the 1940s, the 1970s, and the 1980s; according to her, ‘each illustrates a significant shift in the literary critical understanding of historical context’ (p. 49). Marilyn Butler is cited as pointing out an interesting incompatibility between the ‘preconceived and inflexible’ morality of Jane Austen on the one hand, and on the other the ‘psychological truthfulness and forgiveness of human error’ that one might assume to be of the essence of a great novelist (p. 57). (In my view, the adduced instance falsifies the stated assumption. And the assumption is also shown to be wrong by Anthony Trollope's brilliant depiction, from inside as well as outside, of such evil characters as Ferdinand Lopez and George Vavasour; while Shakespeare's Iago is substantially a counter-instance though not formally so. I must admit that I myself take it as a merit in Jane Austen, rather than a limitation, that she has not ‘seen through’ the distinction between good and evil.)

In connection with the history of art, Lucy Hartley pertinently reminds us that ‘(m)ost of the disciplines that are established in universities today have their origins in a gradual ossification of tacit distinctions between kinds of knowledge and modes of intellectual enquiry.’ As she sees it, it was from the middle third of the nineteenth century that what could be known about nature and culture began to be divided up into distinct fields of study (p. 67). (Hegel asserted, very wisely in my opinion, that the business of philosophy was to articulate not the whole of knowledge but the whole in knowledge; such ‘totalizing’ ambitions for the subject are hardly in fashion nowadays.) She then treats us to a very useful discussion of what John Ruskin was up to; and includes a splendid quotation from his work. This is to the effect that, when public taste is degraded, and the press – nowadays he would have mentioned other media – only worsens the situation, it is the duty of all those who have any conception of what is great in art ‘to come fearlessly forward … to declare and demonstrate … the essence and authority of the Beautiful and the True’ (p. 74). (This sentiment, for all that many of our contemporaries would dismiss it as contemptibly e'litist, is at least as worthy of promulgation now as it was in 1843. One is credibly informed, God help us, of ‘anti-bard’ scholars teaching university courses about Shakespeare.)

The appearance of the intellectual in the thirteenth century is alleged, in Mishtooni Bose's account of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages, to have been a decisive moment in Western history; here were people who were ‘mediators between different social worlds … at once closely bound up with, and distant from, the worlds of commerce and politics, simultaneously admired and distrusted, consulted and controlled’ (p. 92). Christine de Pizan, a striking predecessor of modern intellectual historians, shows how academic disputation promoted the advancement of learning at that time (p. 93). Here was a ‘society which made of its past … not a sterile or static cultural icon but a catalyst, promoting change and modernization from within’ (Marcia Colish). Jacques Le Goff, who may be said to have pioneered application of the methods of intellectual history as a self-conscious discipline to the Middle Ages, confined his attention to the Schoolmen (94); but Alain de Libera casts his net more widely, and is closely concerned with the problematic place which philosophy held in medieval life, due especially to its difficult relations with theology (p. 99). In regard to political thought, Richard Whatmore writes on the importance, and deservedly wide influence, of the work of Quentin Skinner, who has emphasized the dangers of anachronism when one attends to the work of past writers on matters political; the language of therir times cannot but limit what authors said, intended to say, and were taken by their contemporaries as saying (p. 111). Similar attention is directed to the writings of J. G. A. Pocock and the ‘Cambridge school’, and the manner in which their rigorous ‘contextualism’ attracted the ire of Marxists, Straussians, post-structuralists and others without axes to grind (pp. 111–2).

James Livesey finds the relation between intellectual history and the history of science confused and confusing; the history of science being organized, as he sees it, round the claim ‘that there is nothing specific to the sciences that cannot be understood through the common working practices of the historian.’ It has also, in marking out its turf, had to distinguish itself from accounts of their own work given by scientists, who are inclined to think of what they do as an ‘autonomous, self-correcting endeavour’ (pp. 130–1). The claims of the ‘strong programme’ of the sociology of knowledge, that the truth-value of scientific ideas is social in origin, has shocked practising scientists on the ground that it undermines their claim to ‘represent reality’, thus generating the ‘science wars’ in which peace has by no means yet been declared (p. 132). (In this matter, my sympathies are with the scientists; the ‘strong programme’ is self-destructive, as I have tried to show elsewhere.) Largely as a consequence of this, ‘(t)he interaction of intellectual history, particularly the history of political thought, with history of science, has been so fraught with misunderstanding and incomprehension that one is tempted to abandon the terrain altogether’ (p. 142). (At this rate the outcome might be a bit like the Battle of Sherriffmuir, where, as I was once told, and do in part believe it, both sides fled.)

As several authorities see the matter, apparently with Livesey's approval, ‘the distinction between nature and culture has always been ideological and cannot be used as a strong analytic position’ (p. 143). (This seems to me pernicious rubbish. Objectivity about ‘how things really are’, often prior to and independently of culture, is available at least as an ideal, and one well worth striving for. The properties of white dwarf stars, and the migratory habits of the yellow-browed warbler, are aspects of nature, not of culture; though it requires a certain level of culture for the relevant specialists to get to know about them. In another but related sense of the distinction, that human children need one particular adult at least with whom to form a bond, lasting over many years, is an aspect of human nature neglect of which, however convenient for the adult concerned, is apt to cause acute suffering and permanent psychological damage to a child.) Advances in medicine, as Deborah Madden points out, might have led us to expect a future free of disease, if it were not for the evolution of new viruses like HIV/AIDS, and the unexpected revival of old scourges such as malaria and tuberculosis. It seems a lamentable fact that only 10% of the immense amount of money spent by the US on medical research is addressed to the problems of disease which affect 90% of the world's population (pp. 147–8). In this article too, the problem of nature and culture raises its ugly head. We are informed that while ‘cultural historians believe that “nature” has no independent reality’ (this, apparently, is intended to be taken seriously), traditional historians of science have taken science ‘to be concerned with an independently existing universe’(p. 160) (and a good thing too).

Brian Cowan seeks to relate intellectual, social and cultural history; only thus, he feels, can intellectual history be set in a sufficiently wide context. Skinner and Pocock are again presented to the reader, as pre-eminent in the field. Cowan reminds us that, while according due weight to the great classic texts and their authors, we should spare an occasional glance for the also-rans, not only to add background to the frontrunners, but also in case some of them should be closer to the frontrunners than had been thought (pp. 171–3). (The history of music has to attend to its Fingers as well as its Handels, its Dittersdorfs in addition to its Beethovens, its Dargomizhkys alongside its Mussorgskys. It may well be that some composers, like Vivaldi a generation ago, will prove their capacity to move up nearer to the front of the class and add to the richness of our lives.) The minefield of gender and intellectual history is courageously assayed by Rachel Foxley, who concentrates, no doubt wisely, on questions which the historian, rather than the philosopher, tends to ask of ideas from the past (p. 189). (When I was in the British army over fifty years ago, there was in force a detailed fire-drill, and failure to recall the complete rigmarole was a chargeable offense. Yet the only thing anyone could remember about it was, that in assembling the firefighting equipment, you had to ‘put the male into the female.’)

Duncan Kelly concludes the collection with an essay on intellectual history in twentieth-century Europe. He alludes to our old friends Skinner and Pocock as displaying distaste for the notion that political ideas might be ‘read off against a matrix of unchanging questions and perennial problems, practically as if all the “classics” (!) of political theory really were engagements with a set of timeless questions that could be understood purely textually as many earlier histories of political thought had suggested’ (p. 218). (I think this is a very good way of reading them. My late friend Martin Milligan once described to me how first-year undergraduates in political theeory, when told to read Plato's Republic, used to complain at first, ‘Why should we have to plough through this old stuff?’ But very soon they were smitten with enthusiasm by the sheer excitement and perennial relevance of Plato's discussion.)

Readers will see that the reviewer finds a great deal that is admirable in this collection. But it has one great defect. Writers on the history of ideas seem to oscillate between positivism at one extreme, and on the other half-conscious proximity to the self-destructive position that every judgment we make, or could possibly make, is equally vitiated by ideological distortion. The contributors here appear mainly to tend to the latter point of view – as is at present fashionable in the humanities, though not, fortunately, in the hard sciences. (It is not a very good basis, to say the least of it, for sending astronauts to the moon, or bringing them back safely.) The only way through this impasse is an adequate epistemology, which the present-day academic community needs as scurvy needs greens. For one thing, it would soon broker an armistice in the tiresome and quite unnecessary ‘science wars’ alluded to by one of the contributors. Such an epistemology has in fact been publicly available for just half a century, but would be rejected as a matter of course by most of the authors here, not because they could refute or replace it, but for purely ideological reasons.