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  • The History of Ideas:Precept and Practice, 1950–2000 and Beyond
  • Anthony Grafton

In the middle years of the twentieth century, the history of ideas rose like a new sign of the zodiac over large areas of American culture and education. In those happy days, Dwight Robbins, the president of a fashionable progressive college, kept "copies of Town and Country, the Journal of the History of Ideas, and a small magazine—a little magazine—that had no name" on the table in his waiting room. True, Robbins did not exist: he was the fictional president of Randall Jarrell's equally fictional Benton, a liberal arts dystopia where "[h]alf of the college was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe."1 But Jarrell's notation of the Journal's status was accurate nonetheless.2

The Journal, in the twenty years or so after its foundation, attracted attention from many quarters, some of them unexpected. And it occupied a unique position, between the technical journals of history and philology, [End Page 1] each firmly identified with a discipline, in which professional humanists normally published their results, and the quarterlies, often based not in disciplines but in liberal arts colleges and universities, which cultivated a mixed readership to which they offered fiction and poetry as well as essays. By contrast with both, the JHI fifty years ago ran on a rich mix of technical articles and wide-ranging essays that could easily have attracted the attention of a sophisticated administrator—or at least made a good impression on his coffee table. Bliss was it to be a subscriber in that happy day when the JHI glowed with something of the luster that haloed Representations in the 1980s and Critical Inquiry more recently.3

The main reason for the Journal's prominence was that it represented a new field, appealingly located between disciplines as the Journal was between other sorts of periodical. In its postwar heyday, the history of ideas was not a dim subdivision of history, itself a discipline whose luster has worn off with time, but an intellectual seismic zone where the tectonic plates of disciplines converged and rubbed against one another, producing noises of all sorts. In recent years, it has sometimes seemed impossible, even to the best informed observers, that intellectual history, or the history of ideas, ever enjoyed this sort of prestige. A quarter century ago, Robert Darnton surveyed the state of intellectual and cultural history in the United States in an informative and influential essay. Using a language more resonant of the historical President Carter than the fictional President Robbins, Darnton detected "malaise" everywhere he looked. In the fifties, he noted, intellectual historians had seen "their discipline as the queen of the historical sciences. Today she seems humbled." True, desperate cries for help were not yet called for. Historians continued to write histories of ideas, and even to cast them in the technical languages of A.O. Lovejoy or Perry Miller: "one still finds 'unit-ideas' and 'mind' among the trendier terms." The just-published Dictionary of the History of Ideas, moreover, offered a vast selection of Lovejoyan formal analyses, systematically organized, to the reading public.4 [End Page 2]

But for the last ten years, Darnton argued, younger scholars, especially graduate students, had been scrambling over the gunwales of the good ship History of Ideas, abandoning the effort to converse abstractly with the mighty dead, and clambering in hordes over the side of a newer vessel, Social History, which boasted a Hogarthian passenger list of heretics, misfits, and military women. At the level of the dissertations written in history departments, social history was outpacing intellectual, by a proportion of three to one. At the level of the scholarly journal, too, social history had forged ahead, though by a smaller margin. In the murkier, but no less significant, world of opinion, finally, the decline of intellectual history appeared clearest. History of ideas no longer occupied the cutting edge in young scholars' mental vision of their discipline.

Social history, after all, had captured the minds of a generation—or a large percentage of it—in the 1960s, thanks both to the power of...


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