Why study European intellectual history at the EUI?

Written by Author on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions

IMG_2783Ann Thomson is Professor of European Intellectual History and co-editor the forthcoming book, Scotland and Enlightenment. National and International Perspectives, which will be published in 2015.

This term, Alexander Etkind and I are giving a Department of History and Civilization (HEC) seminar on Intellectual History. Many of those outside the HEC Department might be forgiven for thinking that it is a rather esoteric and irrelevant exercise, far from their own concerns. They would, however, be wrong. Our course, subtitled ‘The East, the West, and the Rest’, tries to do something very different from the dominant Anglophone tradition of Intellectual History. A tradition largely concerned with certain traditions of thought, like republicanism or liberalism. Although we do not deny the usefulness of that tradition for thinking about certain notions taken for granted today (or the appropriateness of studying Machiavelli in Florence).

Intellectual History is today breaking out of its relatively narrow confines. It is itself subject to the critical study of its own history, in particular the way its main preoccupations have been linked to those of the Cold War. It is interested in a wider range of questions. More attention is being paid, for example, to emotions or religion. We are trying much harder to understand how and why people have thought as they did about a variety of questions in a variety of past situations. That means looking at the practical constraints on that thinking, and the concrete circumstances shaping public debate. We are also broadening the geographical scope of our studies. European intellectual history cannot be only that of Western Europe, nor can it remain in isolation from that of the rest of the world. The certainties of the past, the belief that ‘modernity’, ‘civilisation’ or ‘enlightenment’ radiated outwards from the (Western) European centre to the rest of the world are being questioned. We are studying the mechanisms by which arguments and notions circulate and are appropriated and re-worked in different places, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Intellectual history shows us that we cannot take for granted such concepts  and that they are not the exclusive property of (Western) Europe. It shows us how the terms and implications of debates are transformed by the particular circumstances in which they take place and the concrete interests at play. Intellectual History helps us refuse simplistic discourses about civilisation versus backwardness, enlightenment versus fanaticism. It also subjects to critical scrutiny the use of overworked categories like Orientalism. It thus has a vital role to play in helping us to understand the confrontations we see today — both inside Europe and between Europeans and others — and the discourses that feed them.