Review: Why Intellectual History?

Richard Whatmore, What is Intellectual History? (Wiley, 2016) 180pp.

Clare Francis

[This article was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) is often held to have single-handedly shaped modern democratic thought and catalysed that most iconic of democratic uprisings: the French Revolution. However, in What is Intellectual History?, Richard Whatmore unravels this characterisation with pin-point precision. He notes that Rousseau condemned democracy as a "government for gods rather than for men"; that he nursed such a deep-seated hatred for the depravity and corruption of modern states like France that he would have thought their revolution a folly; and that his ideal world was far from some democratic utopia — rather, Rousseau supported aristocratically governed city-states in which the people had only enough power to collectively accept or reject legislation, a model which paralleled that of his birthplace, Geneva. “If we only read Rousseau’s Social Contract”, Whatmore writes, “we construct a Rousseau who never did exist. Worse still, we fail to understand any of his arguments.”

Whatmore’s introduction to the field of intellectual history references a definition by the late, pre-eminent intellectual historian J. W. Burrow, who describes intellectual history as the study of “what people in the past meant by the things they said and what these things ‘meant’ to them”. To be an intellectual historian is to be a translator between worlds, eras, and cultures; in the same way that the translator must understand the linguistic and cultural complexities of language, so must the intellectual historian convey the context that surrounds a single idea. Without studying Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s other works and acknowledging the circumstances — political, social, economic, personal — which shaped him, we cannot hope to build a whole and nuanced picture of his beliefs. It is through this lens that What is Intellectual History? answers two questions fundamental to our understanding of intellectual history: firstly, why should we take care when applying the ideas of the past to the problems of the present? And given this, what is the relevance of intellectual history to the present day?

On this first question, Richard Whatmore presents the compelling argument — illustrated by his dissection of democratic argumentation within Rousseau’s Social Contract — that ideas must be analysed within their original context in order to be fully understood. “The point”, we are told, “is rather that we should not be simplifying the history of democracy or of politics more generally by presenting Rousseau’s ‘contribution’ to the subject founded on the assumption that what he meant by democracy is directly relevant to what we are doing today”. Indeed, it seems ill-advised that many schools and university departments dedicate vast swathes of their curriculum around applying past philosophical theories to present-day debates. How much does this add to our understanding of the individual philosopher or the contemporary political question?

More broadly, an intellectual historian’s rejection of these oversimplified connections supports a general public rejection of such generalisations as they apply to modern political argumentation. Discourse surrounding gun reform in the USA, for example, would be improved by a more complex understanding of the context in which the second amendment existed — a newly-born America, a constitution which asserted the necessity of a "well regulated militia" — as opposed to the more secure, exceptionalist USA of the twenty-first century. Intellectual historians thus contribute to a productive public mindset and nuanced debate.

Conversely, it should be noted that even the fact that Whatmore must answer this question — why should we take care when applying the ideas of the past to the problems of the present? — speaks to the fact that humanists of all disciplines face increasing pressure to prove a "net benefit" to their work. Asking "would Adam Smith have voted Trump or Clinton?" thus becomes a mechanism through which students are easily engaged and the university bureaucracy appeased. The burden of the intellectual historian is to refute this crude demonstration of utilitarian gain; to read the work of historical authors in order to “find out what they thought about the issues that mattered to them”, rather than in search of an ever-elusive and indirect link to the present.

On the other hand, a less cynical argument could be made that many thinkers write with the intent of creating a lasting legacy. Their works are intended to be read for centuries to come; works like Marx’s The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital were intended to incite critiques of capitalism and rally support for Marxism long after the author’s own death. In such circumstances, is it not obvious that comparisons should be made between past and present? What relevance does intellectual history hold here? I believe that in cases like this, Whatmore’s logic still offers us an important lesson; after all, intellectual history does not totally reject such comparisons, but instead teaches us to embrace nuance and complexity when making them. It encourages students to research Marx’s lesser-known works and to avoid slapdash generalisations about his views. If we return to the example of Rousseau, intellectual history also does not prevent us from utilising his arguments in support of democratic reform. Rather, it enables us to gain a better understanding of his background and other works so that when these arguments are made, they are made in the spirit of informed debate. As Whatmore notes, “getting a deeper sense of what an author in history was doing will ultimately yield a more sophisticated view of their politics and ideally the limits upon present politics”.

The second overarching question addressed in What is Intellectual History? — what is the relevance of intellectual history to the modern day? — may appear to exist in opposition to the necessity of avoiding non-analogous comparisons with the present. Certainly, intellectual historians are regularly accused of being out-of-touch, antiquarian, and irrelevant. They hold the dubious distinction of being perhaps more plagued by this characterisation than any other humanist discipline. However, Whatmore’s text reveals that intellectual history is a source of inspiration and renewal; through its study we unlock the capacity to re-shape forgotten, marginalised beliefs for use in modern political discourse and discussion. Rather than attempting to apply their principles directly to the present day, we should appreciate such ideas as potential stimulus for academics, philosophers, and politicians alike. As Quentin Skinner writes in Liberty Before Liberalism:

The intellectual historian can help us to appreciate how far the values embodied in our present way of life, and our present ways of thinking about those values, reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds. This awareness can help to liberate us from the grip of any one hegemonic account of those values and how they should be interpreted and understood. Equipped with a broader sense of possibility, we can stand back from the intellectual commitments we have inherited and ask ourselves in a new spirit of enquiry what we should think of them.

Ideas are more than just the study of history, philosophy, or politics — they are the study of the ways in which our circumstances shape us, the opportunities we have seized or squandered, and all the infinite possibilities which lie ahead. Intellectual historians are the link between past and present; but they also have the potential to inspire new and brighter futures, if only we would let them.


About the author: Clare Francis reads Human, Social, and Political Sciences at Cambridge University.

Recent Posts

See All