Skip to main content

Philosophy, History of


A respected Princeton philosopher keeps a sign on his office door forbidding the discussion therein of any philosophy more than ten years old. At this late stage in his career the restriction includes a good deal of his own work. This may well be the limit case of the antihistorical attitude that prevailed throughout much academic philosophy of the twentieth century, motivated by the view that philosophy, as an academic discipline, need have no more connection to its past than does any other positive domain of inquiry. A physicist, for example, may be interested to know how exactly Newton came upon his discovery of the laws of gravity. But this interest is, as it were, extracurricular, not a necessary part of the specialized knowledge of a competent physicist. It will be enough that the physicist learn the relevant laws in a textbook; Newton's name need not appear at all, much less the details of his distinctly seventeenth-century concerns.

Can philosophy be understood in the same way? At the other end of the spectrum from our Princeton philosopher, we find some maintaining that philosophy is entirely constituted by its history, that the study of philosophy can never be anything but the study of the history of philosophy. Between these two extremes, there are a vast number of intermediate positions concerning the value of philosophy's history to its present practice. Among those who accept that this history is in some degree valuable, moreover, there are vastly different conceptions of the nature of this value. What follows is a review, with the help of some slightly cumbersome "-isms," of some of the possible perspectives on the history of philosophy from within philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with an eye toward the deeper understanding of the nature of philosophy itself that informs these perspectives.


Indifferentism is plainly summed up in the message on the Princeton office door. But this label does not tell all, for indifferentism's vociferous defenders are anything but indifferent about what philosophy (as an ahistorical discipline) is, and about what philosophers ought to be doing. Most likely, the indifferentist would like to see philosophy come forward as a science, to adapt a phrase of Immanuel Kant's (17241804), and believes that it can do so by simply focusing on an appropriate, rather narrow set of questions. In the twentieth century, these were questions arising in the analysis of language and the methodology of science, and so it has been with some justice that indifferentism has commonly been associated with analytic philosophy.

Around the turn of the twenty-first century, though, most philosophers working in this tradition had come to recognize the usefulness to their own work of the history of philosophy, and particularly of the history of analytic philosophy itself. It has become rare that a philosopher of science or language who does not also have some competence in the history of these subdisciplines will find a job. Some of the best contemporary analytic philosophers choose to congregate at meetings of the History of the Philosophy of Science group to discuss, among other things, the revision of our understanding of the very notion of "analysis" as it was understood in early analytic philosophy by, for example, Rudolph Carnap (18911970) or Otto Neurath (18821945). What is sometimes described as "post-analytic philosophy," then, might better be thought of as analytic philosophy after its historical turn, and is in any case a sure sign that strict indifferentism is on its way out.

Indifferentists tend to believe that philosophy, like any other discipline, has seen some progress over the past few millennia. One standard example is the resolution of the paradoxes of Zeno of Citium (c. 335c. 263 b.c.e.) with mathematical tools that had to wait until the nineteenth century to see the light of day. On another understanding, though, what happens when a philosophical question is "solved" is that it ipso facto ceases to be a philosophical question at all and becomes a mathematical or scientific one. Thus, any philosophical question is by definition unanswerable, and the history of philosophy becomes but the prehistory of science, the initial recognition that a problem exists without any clue as to how to render it scientifically tractable. It may be impossible to say which perspective is right; but those who believe that the mathematization of Zeno's paradoxes was an instance of philosophical progress will likely think that there is no reason to dwell too much in the past. Why waste our time on those who hadn't yet figured out as much as we have? We may be grateful to past philosophers for having discerned the problem and taken some initial stabs at solving it, as a twenty-first century astronomer might appreciate Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100c. 170), but there is no pressing need to figure out the details of their theories and how they came up with them.

Those who believe philosophy is cumulative and progressive, then, will likely incline toward indifferentism in some degree. Others, though, believe that what makes philosophy unique is that it never really gets anywhere. There may be personal progress that comes from studying it and learning how complex the problems it addresses are, but the discipline as a whole witnesses no real progress over the course of centuries. On this view, history will be of tremendous value, because it is only through the study of philosophy's history, the way it keeps circling back around the same challenges, always coming up with solutions from within a limited range of options, that one can experience personal progress out of an adolescent optimism, or even arrogance, about these problems' facile solvability.


Appropriationism may describe any approach to the history of philosophy that seeks to take from it tools that may be of service to one's ahistorical philosophical task. An appropriationist asks of the history of philosophy: What can it do for me? Representatives of different strains of appropriationism will have different answers to this question.


This breed of appropriationism searches philosophy's past for arguments that have stood the test of time and can still be of service in defense of some philosophical position advocated by the appropriator. For instance, a reconstructionist who believes that no better account of personal identity has been offered since the late seventeenth century than that presented by John Locke (16321704)who roots it in continuity of memorywill cite Locke's argument for this theory in support of his or her own, similar one. The same reconstructionist, though, will not feel obligated to adopt, or even take an interest in, Locke's support of, say, a cosmological argument for the existence of God. Reconstructionists take piecemeal from philosophy's past what is useful for their own projects, and will generally not feel obligated to consider whether the argument borrowed from a past figure was really offered in response to concerns similar to theirs. As Jonathan Bennett approvingly describes this approach to history, dead philosophers should be approached as colleagues, with the one minor but not insurmountable difference that they are, well, dead. In this spirit, twentieth-century scholars of the philosophy of René Descartes (15961650) have been able to portray him as engaged, to use Bernard Williams' phrase, in a "project of pure enquiry," without acknowledging that he was also engaged in a project of empirical physiology, and other areas of seventeenth-century philosophy that have since been outsourced to the appropriate science departments.


An absolutely dogmatic Marxist would be an entirely uninteresting character, not because Karl Marx (18181883) was wrong, but because a follower who adheres utterly to every aspect of his predecessor's thought is in essence only a relay station for that thought's dissemination, not a thinker in his own right. Any noteworthy Marxist thinker, other than Marx himself, will be in his or her unique way a neo- Marxist, even if the prefix remains only implicit. Thus V. I. Lenin (18701924), a Marxist if there ever was one, nonetheless modified some of Marx's central doctrines concerning the essential class-rootedness of conflict to account for the new phenomena of imperialism and the growing antagonism between the colonizing and the colonized parts of the world that at least the early Marx could not possibly have foreseen. Similarly, Jacques Lacan (19011981) adopts the basic categories developed by Sigmund Freud (18561939) for the analysis of the psyche but explicates them in terms of a poststructuralist philosophy of language. Lenin and Lacan are not reconstructionists; they do not pretend that Marx and Freud were concerned with the same problems they themselves face or even that their predecessors would approve of the way they are tackling these problems. But they are appropriationists of a different stripe, mastering and defending the ideas of a predecessor, while showing how these ideas can be of use in application to new and unforeseen problems.

Neo-x -ists will speak of working within a "broadly x -ian framework" while dealing with questions that admittedly did not concern x. Conversely, a reconstructionist will find and extract passages in which some predecessor x dealt with the same questions that interest him or her today, without, in performing this extraction, feeling obligated to confess to any broadly x -ian framework or world-view.


A contextualist will, to the extent possible, let philosophical predecessors speak for themselves through the texts they have left behind. If a great thinker from some bygone era turns out to have believed in ghosts or astrology, then so be it; these features of his or her thought need to be acknowledged and understood just as much as those that have stood the test of time. Facing up to these odd and sundry concerns of our predecessors, a contextualist thinks, has more than just the virtue of shocking our shockingly narrow colleagues. Contextualism, in its honesty about the distance between our concerns and those of our predecessors, reminds us that past philosophers were not just early models of ourselves, but were concerned with a largely different set of problems and saw their role and responsibility as thinkers very differently. In this way, contextualism can help overcome the tendency to see the past as a mere prelude to the present. And this benefit may be of more philosophical significance than it first appears.

Contextualism, understood as the "merely" historical study of the history of philosophy, helps history to be something more than history of the present, in the same way that the study of natural selection in now-extinct evolutionary lines can help to drive home the important point that evolution is not a teleological process that has as its end its crowning accomplishment, homo sapiens. The present state of philosophy is not the end toward which the past has been striving, just as human beings are not the end toward which evolution has been striving. Against this view, it might be pointed out that the tradition of philosophy has been a common project, whereas evolution has been a blind and stumbling affair. But the contextualist will remind us that, even if we might recruit the dead to help us with our philosophical tasks, this does not mean that they would recognize as much commonality with us as we claim with them if per impossibile they could have been given advance warning about their posthumous affiliations. Among the contextualists, we may mention, by way of example, the names of Dan Garber, Roger Ariew, Lloyd Gerson, and Michael Frede, each of whom seeks, to a greater or lesser extent, to reveal the circumstances of time and place that help to shine light on the philosophical thought of that time and place.


A constitutivist tends to believe that philosophy just is a particular tradition, fundamentally rooted in history and comprehensible only synchronically. For the constitutivist, it is our primary task today to investigate how we came to inherit the philosophical concerns we have, rather than to continue to seek answers to questions as though they were timelessly meaningful. Thus for Marx, each era's philosophy is one of the superstructural reflections, along with other outcroppings of culture, of the class relations that fundamentally define that era; for Michel Foucault (19261984), philosophy as the contemplation of timeless questions is in need of replacement by a genealogy of the concepts that came to predominate, mostly in only very recent history, in philosophical discourse. There is an air of subject-changing in these accounts of the history of philosophy: they want to reveal the true nature of philosophical discourse, rather than to continue to participate in it. For instance, when Frederic Jameson describes Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1991) as an allegory of late capitalismas outlined by Slavoj Zizek in the London Review of Books ("Bring Me My Phillips Mental Jacket," 22 May 2003)he is not engaging with Dennett's arguments in a way that could even permit the author to respond. He is explaining Dennett's concerns, his very conception of philosophy, as the product of a history of which Dennett need not be at all aware. Dennett may say this is unfair (though more likely he will not say anything at all); Jameson, for his part, could respond, true to his Marxist constitutivist convictions, that the deepest and most fundamental account of the philosophy of any era, including recent analytic philosophy, will be one that roots it in its time and place. Any account that does not do this will fail to grasp what the theory it is studying is really "all about." And any constitutivist would insist that such a failure is a philosophical failure, perhaps the cardinal one.


Most scholars working in the history of philosophy will combine in varying degrees some or all of these various approaches. Many scholars believe that, qua historian of philosophy, one is required to accomplish some serious historical research, preferably involving archives and manuscripts, in order to claim any expertise on the subject studied. A real historian must know at least a few languages, understand the basics of historiographical method, and know at least a bit about the social and political background of the era in question. But, qua philosopher, at the end of the day one must also prove able to do what other philosophers demand of their colleagues: namely, offer some insight into the essences of things, or show that what was thought to have an essence lacks one, or show, as the American philosopher Wilrid Sellars says, how things hang together in the broadest sense. This may be done simply through the discussion of what some past thinker thought on these topics, but the crucial thing is that essences, hangings-together, and other such philosophical staples be tackled directly or through the mediation of one who has gone before, rather than resting content with, say, a tally of the dates and recipients of some seventeenth-century philosopher's letters.

Some historians of philosophy might not be exactly sure what they're doing. While many of us know of no other way to talk or write about the history of philosophy than by purporting to explain what the philosopher in question actually meant, we are too sophisticated to believe that this is what we are really doing. We claim to be setting the record straight, but sense that at least to some extent we are pushing our own agendas. These need not be mutually exclusive tasks, however. A feminist historian of philosophy may wish to push her worthy agenda, for example, by setting the record straight concerning the great number of largely ignored women active in the central philosophical debates of the seventeenth century, such as Anne Conway (16311679) and Damaris Masham (16581708). And yet, even after this correction to the record is made and women gain their rightful place in the canon, it would be naïve to think that the record has been set straight once and for all. A future generation will undoubtedly discover something else that has remained sub-rosa in earlier generations' reception of our shared past. There are ever new and previously undetected angles from which to consider philosophy's past. So long as it interests us, we will never cease to find new ones. The ones we find, moreover, will always be at least partially a reflection of our own interests, even if we hold out just letting the texts speak for themselves as the soundest methodology. We might worry that this is to allow rather too much "as if" to enter into our understanding of our own projects: know that you can never do more than reflect your time and place in your reception of the past, but approach the past as if you had the power of discernment to say once and for all what it was all about. This and similar worries, far from indicating professional incompetence, might be better understood as proof that the study of the history of philosophy is a quintessentially philosophical endeavor, and carries with it all the aggravation and perplexity one might expect from any endeavor deserving of this label.

See also Historiography ; Ideas, History of ; Philosophy .


Bennett, Jonathan. Learning from Six Great Philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1946. Reprint, edited by Jan Van Der Dussen, Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock, 1970.

Gracia, Jorge J. E. Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Hutton, Sarah. Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Rorty, Richard, Jerome B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Philosophy in History: Essays in the Historiography of Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Tully, James, ed. Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.

Justin E. H. Smith

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Philosophy, History of." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 29 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Philosophy, History of." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (April 29, 2017).

"Philosophy, History of." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved April 29, 2017 from

Ideas, History of


The "history of ideas," phrase and concept, goes back almost three centuries to the work of J. J. Brucker (16961770) and Giambattista Vico (16681744) in the early eighteenth century, followed in the nineteenth century by Victor Cousin (17921867) and his eclectic and "spiritualist" philosophy. The story begins with Brucker's Historia doctrina de ideis (1723), which surveyed the Platonic doctrine, and Vico's criticism, which rejected the idea of a Greek monopoly on ideas. For Vico philosophy was joined to religion in a larger and older tradition of wisdom and theology, "queen of the sciences," which, he wrote, "took its start not when the philosophers began to reflect [ riflettere ] on human ideas" (as, he added, in the "erudite and scholarly little book" recently published by Brucker) "but rather when the first men began to think humanly." Thus the history of ideas began not with Plato but with myth and poetry, and this poetic wisdom was the basis not only for Plato's theory of ideas but also for Vico's "history of ideas," which was one face of his "New Science." Victor Cousin and his followers also took a broad view of the history of ideas, from antiquity down to modern times.

The history of ideas was given new life in the twentieth century, especially under the guidance of Arthur O. Lovejoy (18731962), one of the leading American philosophers of this time. Even before Lovejoy the phrase had been applied to a series of volumes published by the philosophy department of Columbia University between 1918 and 1935, which were devoted to "a field in which it appears that ideas have a history and that their history is influenced by contact with lines of experience not commonly called philosophical." Lovejoy was more deliberate in applying the phrase to what he regarded as a new discipline distinct from the history of philosophy and the "new history," championed by James Harvey Robinson (18631936) and his followers. The History of Ideas Club at the Johns Hopkins University (where Lovejoy taught), which began meeting from 1923, was the scene of papers given by many distinguished scholars. The classic work in the field that since 1919 Lovejoy had been calling the "history of ideas" was his William James lectures in Harvard, which were published in 1936 as The Great Chain of Being.

In the history of philosophy, according to Lovejoy, "is to be found the common seed-plot, the locus of initial manifestation in writing, of the greater number of the more fundamental and pervasive ideas, and especially of the ruling preconceptions, which manifest themselves in other regions of intellectual history" (p. 8). Yet Lovejoy also aspired to make the history of ideas an interdisciplinary enterprise, accommodating also literature, the arts, and the natural and social sciences. Nor were Lovejoy's "unit-ideas" limited to formal concepts, for he also wanted to accommodate "implicit or incompletely explicit assumptions or more or less unconscious mental habits, operating in the thought of an individual or a generation"; "dialectical motives," or methodological assumptions (nominalist or "organismic," for example) also inexpressible in propositions; metaphysical pathos (which awakened particular moods, for example); and ideas associated with particular sacred words and phrases intelligible through semantic analysis. All of these "ideas," which were regarded as the expression of whole groups and ages, were interpreted mainly by literary texts, especially poetry, from several national traditions, in keeping with the international and interdisciplinary thrust of Lovejoy's agenda.

In Lovejoy's program the history of ideas extended its sway over no fewer than twelve fields of study, beginning with the history of philosophy and including the history of science, religion, the arts, language, literature, comparative literature, folklore, economic, political, and social history, and the sociology of knowledge. These fields were all disciplinary traditions in themselves; the novelty was treating them in an interdisciplinary and synthetic way for larger purposes. For Lovejoy (writing in the dark year 1940) the final task of the history of ideas was "the gravest and most fundamental of our questions, 'What's the matter with man?'"

Lovejoy's colleague George Boas (18911980) expanded on the idealist implications of his methods. For Boas ideas are basic meanings that lie behindand that evolve independently ofwords. "The history of ideas is not confined to historical semantics," he wrote and "a dictionary aims only to give the meaning of words, not of ideas, and sometimes a single idea may have two names" (1969, p. 11). Yet these are assumptions that cannot be expressed or communicated except through words and historical semanticsa paradox that neither Lovejoy nor Boas resolved, or chose to confront. As they acknowledged, "The history of any idea, or complex of ideas, is best presented through the citation of the ipsissima verba of the writers who have expressed it."

Lovejoy's agenda found an institutional basis when the Journal of the History of Ideas (JHI ) was founded in 1940, the first issue being prefaced by his "reflections," which suggested the orientation of this periodical more or less down to the present, especially in terms of "influences"classical on modern thought, philosophical ideas and scientific discoveries on all areas of study, other pervasive ideas such as evolution, progress, primitivism, and various ideas of human nature, on historical understanding. This program was also reflected in the old Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited in 1968 by Philip P. Wiener, first editor of the JHI (and succeeded, if not replaced, by the present work).

The history of ideas had counterparts in other European traditions, including German Ideengeschichte, Geistesgeschichte, and especially Begriffsgeschichte, and French mentalités. In the later twentieth century all of these approaches were affected by the "linguistic turn," which shifted attention from unproblematized "ideas" to language and discourse, since ideas, as Jorge Luis Borges (18891986) wrote, "are not, like marble, everlasting," and as Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951) put it, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Not that Lovejoy was unaware of such problems, for long before he had pointed out "the role of semantic shifts, ambiguities, and confusions, in the history of thought and taste," and he remarked that "nearly all of the great catchwords have been equivocalor rather, multivocal." For this reason Lovejoy took pains to distinguish the varied meanings behind keywords such as nature, progress, perfectibility, romanticism, and pragmatism, as well as more inflammatory terms of ideological debate.

In the later twentieth century the history of ideas was invaded and shaken by a number of intellectual movements, including hermeneutics, reception theory, psych-history (and -biography), deconstruction, poststructuralism, constructivism, the new historicism, cultural materialism, the new cultural history, Derridean textualism, and various efforts of the "social history of ideas." Following the Nietzschean notion of "the interpretive character of all that happens" and the impact of literary theory, the history of ideas in its classic, spiritualist form also entered into decline, being superseded (except among philosophers) by intellectual history and deeper concerns of language and historical context as well as material culture.

One line of post-Marxian criticism was launched by Michel Foucault, who rejected a number of unreflective rubrics such as tradition, influence, development and evolution, spirit, pre-given unities and links, and especially the notion of the self-conscious agent, the "sovereign subject," and "authorial presence," which underlie the imaginary vehicle of "ideas." In the course of his intellectual iteration Foucault shifted from ideas to "discourse," from history to "archaeology," then to Nietzschean "genealogy," from development to "rupture," and from spirit or mentality to "episteme" and so to dismantle the history of ideas and to unmask the ideological surface of past and present culture. In his "grammatology" Jacques Derrida carried the critique of ideas beyond language to the world of textuality and intertextuality as the ultimate context of historicity and civil society. In the wake of such "litero-philosophy" many recent intellectual historians, including Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, Hans Kellner, Roger Chartier, and Frank Ankersmit have distanced themselves from the old tradition of the history of ideas, though without entirely abandoning it.

Intellectual history can no longer be studied without attention to these warnings about unexamined premises of the human sciences. Yet "ideas" remain an essential shorthand for history as well as philosophy and other human sciences, and the history of ideas continues in channels both new and old, with methodological debates recurring across the range of interdisciplinary studies. And the critical pursuit of the history of ideas, or intellectual history, continues not only among historians of culture but also among scholars in the history of philosophy, literature, art, science, and the human sciences.

See also Cultural History ; Enlightenment ; Historicism ; Humanism ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Philosophy: Relations to Other Intellectual Realms ; Science, History of ; Tradition .


Boas, George. The History of Ideas: An Introduction. New York: Scribners, 1969.

Boas, George, et al. Studies in Intellectual History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953. Includes studies by Arthur O. Lovejoy, George Boas, Harold Cherniss, Ludwig Edelstein, Leo Spitzer, Gilbert Chinard, Philip Wiener, Dorothy Stimson, Erich Auerbach, Carl Becker, Charles Beard, Niels Bohr, John von Neumann, Hans Baron, Owen Lattimore, Lionel Venturi, Samuel E. Morison, Americo Castro, Charles Singleton, Hajo Holborn, Don Cameron Allen, Basel Willey, Alexandre Koyré, and Eric Vogelin.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Kelley, Donald R. The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002.

. "Intellectual and Cultural History: The Inside and the Outside." History of the Human Sciences 15 (2002): 119.

. "What Is Happening to the History of Ideas?" Journal of the History of Ideas 51 (1990): 325.

Kelley, Donald R., ed. The History of Ideas: Canon and Variations. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1990.

LaCapra, Dominick, and Steven L. Kaplan, eds. Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. Essays in the History of Ideas Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1948.

. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Lovejoy, Arthur O., and George Boas. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1935.

Studies in the History of Ideas. Edited by the Department of Philosophy of Columbia University. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1918, 1925, 1935. Includes papers by John Dewey, Frederick Woodbridge, John Hermann Randall, Richard McKeon, Sidney Hook, Herbert Schneider, and Ernest Nagel.

Tobey, Jeremy L. The History of Ideas: A Bibliographical Introduction. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio, 19751977.

Wiener, Philip P., ed. Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 6 vols. New York: Scribners, 1968.

Wilson, Daniel J. Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Quest for Intelligibility. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Donald R. Kelley

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ideas, History of." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 29 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Ideas, History of." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (April 29, 2017).

"Ideas, History of." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved April 29, 2017 from