Responding to the recent exhortation by the historian David Armitage to return to a history of "big ideas" traced over long periods of time, this paper examines reasons for the resistance to his advice voiced by both textualist and contextualist intellectual historians. Discussing the alternatives to traditional history of ideas in "conceptual history" and "metaphorology," it argues for the virtues of a method that acknowledges, even welcomes semantic ambiguity and the dynamic force field of relations in which ideas are historically embedded. Rather than settling for the smoothing out of differences entailed in "distant reading" techniques based on the digital retrieval of long-duration tendencies, it argues for attentiveness to the ruptures in meaning and unanticipated innovations that prevent the history of idea being an exercise in meta-narratives of growth, development and dissemination.