Recently I found an essay by Peter Gordon titled “What Is Intellectual History? A Frankly Partisan Introduction to a Frequently Misunderstood Field.” Gordon answers this question by comparing intellectual history to other disciplines: history of ideas, philosophy, political theory, cultural history, and various aspects of sociology. His main point seems to be that intellectual history draws on multitude of methodologies and often overlaps with other disciplines (and he sees this as a good thing). Intellectual history is distinct because as its primary goal is takes the study of ideas and intellectual life. Also, intellectual historians find this study intrinsically interesting. For example, evaluating the relationship between cultural and intellectual history, Gordon writes: “Cultural historians pay attention to ideas mainly because they are seeking evidence for larger patterns of culture; intellectual historians pay attention to ideas for their cultural significance but also because they find the ideas themselves of interest.”
I found the essay interesting for two reasons. First, it reminded me of the discussion on this blog about what is U.S. intellectual history. Second, it increased my understanding of the field of intellectual history. Since my training was in the history of science department, I bring different assumptions and different understanding of what is intellectual history than many of this blog’s other contributors and readers. Consequently, I often lack the knowledge which is assumed by others. For example, after reading Gordon’s essay, I finally understand something that always puzzled me: the source of intellectual history’s heavy focus on political thought.
I am curious what others think of Gordon’s assessment of intellectual history? Also, Gordon, who studies European history himself, draws on examples from European intellectual history. I wonder if his essay would be different if Americanist perspectives were included.