U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Five Influential Books—For Intellectual Historians

The end of the year is a traditional time in journalism to offer up various “best books” lists. Here are a few for your reading pleasure.

Today, however, I want to offer something a bit different. An online magazine called The Browser has a regular series titled the “Five Books Interviews.” The series has attracted some intriguing folks, such as Lynn Hunt offering her best of five on the French Revolution, Judith Flanders on the Victorian Age, and Woody Allen discussing the books that have inspired him. Recently The Browser created a list of the five best philosophy books, recommended by philosophers, on “the big questions of morality, suffering, and meaning.”

That list inspired me to think about the five works of intellectual history, broadly defined, that have been the most inspirational, or personally influential, to me. What follows are my five, offered in no particular order and only briefly annotated. In the comments I invite you to offer your own choices—with explanations, if you’re so inclined. Here goes:

1. Frederick Copleston’s eleven-volume A History of Philosophy series. I remain amazed at the depth and breadth of this project, covering philosophy from Greece and Rome up to Existentialism. I don’t know how intellectual historians and philosophers get along without this set.

2. Arthur Lovejoy‘s The Great Chain of Being. I finally read this for the first time early in 2010. I promised Dan Wickberg a series of reflections here on that reading, and I’ve never followed through. Part of the reason I broke that promise was finding a place to start in the context of USIH. Perhaps I should’ve started with Lovejoy himself, in whom I believe we have something of a paragon for historians of thought/intellectual historians/historians of ideas.

3. Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Here’s a review for a taste of the book’s contents. I love the combination of dealing with great books and working class thought, which came together as a kind of intellectual-history-from-below. I loved this book at the first read, and have lost no admiration since.

4. Henry F. May’s The End of American Innocence: The First Years of Our Own Time, 1912-1917. This is one of those early books—and a book I read early on—that showed me how one artfully combines intellectual and cultural history. This book inspired me to search for more like it—and to want to write my own some day.

5. John Tracy Ellis’s American Catholics and the Intellectual Life. As a Catholic, this short book—which is both a primary source and a work that dealt with a useable past—alerted me to the existence of a critical intellectual tradition within the Church. And I loved learning that one of the main cogs of that tradition was a Church historian, an ecclesiastical historian, who did not explicitly claim to write intellectual history. The link above is an assessment of that book’s place in Catholic intellectual history.

And—an unconventional bonus choice:

6. William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. Although Cronon is not normally recognized as either an intellectual historian or a philosopher (though he qualifies, I think, as a kind of environmental philosopher-historian), I find his combination of deep reflection, archival work, analysis, and storytelling inspirational. That book is, to me, one of the highest models of historical thinking for all kinds of professionals. The link I provided is to January 2007 summary review of the book that I have found useful for teaching about the book. – TL

[Update: Here’s another book list of interest—not really for 2011 alone, and deserving of another post entirely. – TL]

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, have you read Sir Anthony Kenny’s history of philosophy? If so, how does it compare to Father Copleston’s? I ask because Kenny’s has just been reissued in an omnibus edition. Even in its four separate volumes, it’d still be shorter than Copleston, so understandably I’ve got my eye on it.

    Interesting observation about Cronon being “a kind of environmental philosoher-historian” as opposed to a standard intellectual historian. I’ve only read Changes in the Land, and it’s not a strict intellectual history, but there is definitely a lot of intellectual history stuff going on in it, especially how the landscape was theorized/interpreted by Indians and then colonists.

    “Perhaps I should’ve started with Lovejoy himself, in whom I believe we have something of a paragon for historians of thought/intellectual historians/historians of ideas.”

    He’s generally considered the George Sarton of intellectual history, no? That is, the father of us all.

    Since you’ve invited nominations from us, I’ll make some.

    Drew McCoy’s The Elusive Republic. After I read it I said, I’d like my book to be like that.

    The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, by Henri Frankfort et al. This came out in the 1930s, and is no doubt hopelessly outdated. It is about the “speculative thought of the Ancient Near East” (sayeth the subtitle), or to put it another way, how the human “I” triumphed over the supernatural “thou” to become the dominant force in the world. A work of unalloyed brilliance, and one of my favorite books ever.

    R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History.

    Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History.

    Arguably the two most influential works in the philosophy of history published in the English language in the last century. Collingwood’s argument for the identity of history with philosophy is one all historians should be familiar with. Just as they should be acquainted with Sir Herbert’s elucidation of the perils, likely inevitable, of the historian’s retrospective gaze on his/her attempts to illuminate the past.

  2. Both Kenny and Copleston write from distinctly Catholic perspectives. What are the leading non-Catholic (or even non-Christian) histories of Western philosophy? I should say that I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve never really used such a book in my work … unless you count the Strauss/Cropsey Purple Bible, which is very much a primary, rather than a secondary, source for me (and which I wouldn’t recommend for the purposes for which Tim apparently uses the Copleston).

  3. Here’s how I read Copleston (in the interest of advancing a potentially interesting side discussion here on what Harold Bloom called “anxiety of influence”):

    After being inspired by the depth and breadth of Copleston’s work, I use it still, in my work today, because I remain impressed by his willingness to go beyond any “parochial” Catholic or theological interests. Yes, that “flavor” is evident in the his set, as Ben notes. But it’s not overpowering, in my judgment. Copleston explores all sorts of nuances that would be very tertiary to any seminarian or theologian, Catholic or otherwise—things that interest philosophers and intellectual historians.

    To be quite frank, I use Copleston because I’m a human being with regular memory and limited time on this earth. Hence I am unwilling to read every primary philosophical source, in its entirety, to come up with my own distillation of any one philosopher’s thought. I usually combine my reading of Copleston with some limited exploration of the primary source of interest.

    In relation to my work, I know that Adler himself used a history of philosophy set (Kenny’s, I’m fairly sure) to back-check his explorations alongside his readings in the “Great Books” canon (meaning Britannica’s). So my reading in philosophy at least corresponds with my subject’s.

    – TL

  4. Correction: Adler used *The Encyclopedia of Philosophy*, published by Macmillan under the editorship of philosopher Paul Edwards in 1967.

    I also use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) for reference work, as well as the *Oxford Companion to Philosophy* (Ted Honderich, editor).

    So there you go. That’s the three-legged philosophical reference stool on which I rest—Copleston, SEP, and Honderich. – TL

  5. Thanks for that, Tim!

    Just to clarify the nature of my question:

    I haven’t read either Copleston or Kenny, so I’m in no position to say that they’re parochial. And I certainly don’t think that a Catholic perspective is necessarily parochial or that it would more likely be parochial than any other perspective (and I also don’t think that one could write a perspective-free, “objective” history of philosophy).

    In fact, if I were to put together a list of works in intellectual history that were particularly important to me, Edward Purcell’s The Crisis of Democratic Theory would be on it. And though Purcell certainly doesn’t write from an explicitly Catholic perspective, I remember that one of the first things that Dan Rodgers (who introduced me to the book while I was in grad school) said (approvingly) about Purcell is that his work reflects his Catholic background, which gives him an interestingly different perspective on his material from most 20C US intellectual historians.

    There’s probably a valuable conversation to be had about how historians’ religious / cultural backgrounds affect the practice of intellectual history. I wouldn’t be surprised if Catholics (and lapsed Catholics) are overrepresented among those working in the history of philosophy. I know that Jews (like myself) are overrepresented in intellectual history (though perhaps no more so than we are in history and academia in general).

  6. Yes, SEP is super. When I can understand it, that is.

    As for philosophical surveys, the only ones I’ve read are Roger Scruton’s A Short History of Modern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. The former is short indeed, but covers all the highlights. It does shortchange the twentieth century, though. The latter has a great reading list at the end, and touches on all the main areas of philosophical argument in the twentieth century. It’s meant to be a guide for intelligent outsiders such as ourselves (i.e., non-professional philosophers), but it can be heavy going at times. For me, that’s whenever he brings logic into it. It’s not often, but for mathphobes like me, there’ll be a few patches where you’ll be reading a bit more quickly to get back to the interesting stuff/stuff you can understand.

    Scruton writes from an avowedly analytical/Anglophone perspective, so those more sympathetic than he is to so-called Continental philosophy will likely feel aggrieved at certain points. I did not mind the barbs at all, as they are mostly aimed at the varieties of Continental philosophy (postmodernist literary criticism) that do most to bring it into disrepute.

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