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]