To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The history of ideas: a discipline for all

Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to write this column for a while. Alas, for all the time that I’d meant to write it I’ve been, shall we say, compromised. From August 2022 to January 2024, I was the History of Ideas (HOID) Program’s Undergraduate Department Representative (UDR). I surmised that the sincerity of my admiration for the field and encouragement for students’ pursuit of it might have been jeopardized by my function to represent HOID before undergraduates. Nevertheless, rest assured, I am on sabbatical from my UDR post as I’m abroad for the term. So, consider me an independent advocate for the intellectual development of all students.

To get our bearings: the history of ideas, or, as it is alternatively referred to, intellectual history, is the study of influential concepts, theories and thinkers over time. It encompasses any thinker(s) of any field(s) who forged any influential idea(s). You get the picture. It’s very broad, and as you may have guessed, it’s very interdisplinary. For instance, an intellectual historian looking to analyze “The Phenomenology of Spirit” by German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel may approach the project through any combination of lenses: from the philosophy of science, theology, epistemology, traditional history, classics or moral philosophy. There’s no universal methodology to doing intellectual history. Much of it is self-determined as every intellectual historian is trained in a different combination of fields that equip them with a diverse array of analytical tools to approach the dissection of existing—and the creation of new—scholarship.

There’s little that is “off limits” in intellectual history. It’s a very liberal field, wherein if you capture enough interest and market your findings persuasively enough, you’ll likely be rewarded with some kind of recognition. Case in point: “The Journal of the History of Ideas.” Behold the most esoteric publication known to man. Featuring the Owl of Minerva (which represents wisdom in Ancient Greek mythology) on its front cover, the Journal—first printed in 1940—publishes articles from cultural studies, literature, philosophy, science and mathematics, to linguistic studies. E.g., in its fourth 81st volume from October 2020, the issue was comprised of an analysis of the dialectic between political legitimacy and the contemporary state militia, naturalism in 19th century Scottish literature, amending our conception of the function of poetry in utilitarian ethics as demonstrated in the work of J.S. Mill, a critical study of Clarkean economics and a work on the regenerative effects of the Charkha. Trust me when I assure you that your area(s) of interest will find a home in this discipline.

To my mind, among the foremost public-facing advantages studying intellectual history provides is that, after a while, one finds themselves able to have an intelligible conversation with nearly anyone about nearly anything. Because you’re exposed to so many different and influential ideas, you’re able to talk about them with people who likely have a deeper understanding of them than you. But you’re able to follow along because you have a grasp of the historical context of those ideas, theories and thinkers. For instance, because you’ve been exposed to the ideas of German Idealism in the late 18th century, you can have an intelligible conversation with someone who is a scholar of Fichte or Schelling irrespective of whether you’ve even read (or heard of) either. And this is because you can contextualize those ideas. You can grasp why Fichte or Schelling’s ideas propagate a particular world view or how they fall in line with the cultural and political hegemonies in the German-speaking world at that time because you have an idea of what was traditionally held to be true or morally precise in the era.

This leads me to what is my favorite aspect of studying this field: over time, you acquire the capacity to make historical connections; to synergize one system of ideas with another; to grasp how paradigms of thought rise and fall … and, importantly, why it is that they do so. It is not enough to merely grasp an idea in isolation. Ideas in isolation do very little to further our understanding of what moves societies or of what makes individuals change their understanding of what is before them. Being mono-disciplined is great—don’t get me wrong. Being specialized is important. But having tunnel vision vis-à-vis your area of study limits your understanding of how your field emerged, developed, how it is presently progressing and where it is likely to go.

What we are told too little in economics classrooms and too often in politics ones is that context matters. Systems of thought are just that: systems. Ideas develop by reacting to others. Akin to a chemical reaction, one idea fuses with another within the relevant field to create a new link in a dynamic chain of thought. Hence, the ability to pull ideas from one theory and apply them to another; understanding why a thinker, living in a particular time ruled by certain socio-cultural hegemonies, came to one set of conclusions and not another is critical. These capacities will always serve you well. If not for scholastic purposes, then for personal ones.

In a course I took last year with the director of the program, he told our class, “studying history makes life more beautiful.” He’s a historian, so yes, he’s partial—but it’s nonetheless true. There’s an indescribable sense of comfort and belonging when you can identify the little things in life and make ideological connections. Whether it be while you’re reading a book or walking along the streets of an old European city. When you can look at the world around you and understand, for instance, why an author assumes some base level of specialized knowledge or walk through a city and know why its architecture has a particular style, life is more charming. The world appears less chaotic and random. Things fall into place much more gracefully.

And in case you need any further convincing: Brandeis is the place to do intellectual history. The program was once headed by the incredibly influential Frankfurt School philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, who not only mentored Angela Davis when she was a student here but also gave the student movement in the late ’60s its much-needed ideological legitimacy. Moreover, he dedicated his famed essay, “Repressive Tolerance” (1969), to his students at Brandeis. The Program is now headed by an equally outstanding director and is staffed with the very best faculty Brandeis has to offer. Every single class I have taken within HOID has left me better off and made me a more well-rounded thinker. I have never regretted taking a course with a HOID faculty member; in fact, my favorite and most-memorable courses have all been under the HOID umbrella.

I began my journey as a HOIDster the first term of my freshmen year. The field has indisputably made me a sharper thinker. It has forced me to try new disciplines, to cast a wider net and move beyond what I deem to be my intellectual safe zone. And this is critical. True growth, the kind that shakes you to your core and transforms you, can only happen in areas of uncertainty. And intellectual history is riddled with those.

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