History of Ideas


A specific and important field of research in intellectual history is the history of ideas. It has been viewed by historian Mark Bevir that ‘to study the history of ideas is to study meaning, and so culture, from a historical perspective.’ The history of ideas is a way in which we can explore the history of people’s minds in the past. We look at separate concepts such as: Race, The Development of Empire, The History of Ideas, The Role of Individuals in History and the Role of the State in the Age of Antiquity. The History of Ideas states that ideas must not be studied as abstract concepts but should be understood in terms of the culture and historical context that produced them in order to study their development fully. For example, many ideas such as the state and the individual can be studied within the context of the French Revolution and by doing this we can better understand how the meanings of such concepts developed. Studying intellectual history also can involve looking at the history of philosophy, science and literature. 

Interested in reading more?

George Boas, The History of Ideas: An Introduction, Scribner, 1969 

Edward Hallett Carr, What is History?, Penguin, 2008 


Definition of race: ‘A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them. A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution.’

In the 21st Century the concept of race (being defined biologically) is something that has been disregarded by social scientists and historians, however this has not always been the case. Throughout history the concept of race and how it has been understood has constantly changed and these changes can be put down to a variety of factors including, politics, culture and science. Michael Yudell suggests that race is socially constructed and that the biological meaning of race has been constrained by the social context in which racial research took place.  

Yudell says that most scholars now accept that in the ancient world of the Greeks, Romans and early Christians there was no real concept of race. Instead, the divisions were between the political citizen and those not part of politics rather than divisions based on skin colour or blood. The term race was not introduced to the sciences until 1749 by French naturalist Buffon. He saw distinctions between people which was cause by a varied climate and he merged this discovery with beliefs of European superiority. The need to explain the diversity of humankind in the 18th Century was due to colonial expansion and the need of the explorers to rationalise and state the inferiority of the colonised.

The 20th Century saw genetics become the basis of modern racism as racial differences became rooted in biology. This in turn led to the eugenics and sterilisation programmes of the 20th Century, most notably those in Nazi Germany and America. By the 60s and 70s scientists were able to reveal the downsides to those arguments that race was a concept of biology and instead scientists and historians began to focus on the biological nature of racism instead.

Interested in reading more?

A Short History of the Race Concept, Michael Yudell (PhD, MPH). 

There are various definitions of the term race, usually race is a way of categorizing humans into specific groups by specific physical features and their genetic and biological background.  

The Development of Empire

The word ‘empire’ is derived from the Latin term ‘imperium’ which means sovereignty – something ruled by an ‘emperor’, usually a victorious general. Such a man would become the ruler of vast territories and surround a word with a militaristic tone.[1] A general description of an ‘empire’ is of a large, multi-ethnic or multi-national political unit that is usually created by conquest, hence the words empire and imperialism are both used to refer to the relationship between two states, where one exercises a greater power over the other. This idea of power and domination has contributed to the fact that the word ‘empire’ has a complicated history, with many different meanings which are surrounded by conceptual, emotional and political difficulties. There are many other terms which are often associated with this idea of empire, such as: imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and globalisation, which again complicated the idea of empire as each term has their own sub-categorised with labels attached to them (i.e. history and ideology).[2]                                                                           

Over the last 100 years, reactions to the idea of empires have changed from approval to disapproval, and there has been a firm focus on the negative results of imperialisation.  This idea of Empire being regarded negatively has been spread through both literature and film, as well as the affecting the definitions of words such as ‘imperial’ and ‘colonial’ – both of which consequently carry negative connotations of hostility and superiority.[3] There is often seen to be a sense of domination when talking about empires, with the idea that cultures were partially lost or suppressed due to the ruling styles of the Empires cores. Another negative connotation recently linked to the idea of empire is exploitation, as many remember how the indigenous races were often exploited by the conquerors of the country.  Despite this negative belief, empires such as Britain did try to reduce the exploitation within their empire as they had abolished slavery in British colonies by 1833, but the focus still remains on the negative connotations which surround empires.[4] This exploitation is represented by a more modern view on empire, that empires were mainly of white rule over non-Europeans; a rule with a racial hierarchy and racist beliefs.  On top of this, empires, such as the British Empire, became so wide spread over a vast expanse that they were hard to control, creating an anti-colonial tradition in places like Australia and Ireland – where they were once described as the ‘imperialists’. Now they may refer themselves more as victims of imperialism.[5]  This can help show how mentalities around the term empire have developed over time.

Over the centuries empire has also come to be associated with nationality and race. It is a large political body that rules territories outside its borders (land coming from inter-marriage). These territories tended to be vast and ethnically, nationally, culturally and religiously diverse, where the core of the empire is culturally and politically different to the periphery, and involves both direct and indirect rule (no empire could last solely on central power). Maintaining these territories often involved violence as well as migration. Three kinds of migration were involved in empires: voluntary (i.e. Jews moving from Nazi controlled areas), involuntary (i.e. slavery) and ecological (i.e. plants, animals and microbes).[6] This migration, especially the involuntary form, can help stress why such a negative view on empire has developed in recent years, especially as people have gained greater rights, and so are more likely to be ashamed of past actions of their empire.

 The idea of an empire has also developed. There is a belief among historians that in the nineteenth century a new politics of empire was created, seeing large areas being brought under the authority of a small number of states, such as Napoleon’s attempted supremacy over Europe or the scramble for Africa.[7]  Europeans elites in the nineteenth century believed that they were superior and hence were confident that they should dominate over others.[8] Modern imperialism has strong links with capitalism and focuses more on the power of raw materials than the power of land. This can be seen as, despite empires breaking up, there are still important trade connections which have survived. Some modern ideas relate to previous, medieval ideas of conquest. Empire, therefore, has developed, both in terms of its meaning, but also in terms of people’s reaction to it. 


Interested in reading more?

http://works.bepress.com/christopher_wadlow/16/ Article The British Empire Patent 1901-1923: The "Global" Patent that Never Was by Christopher Waldow.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/European-empires-people-imperialism-Netherlands/dp/0719079950 European Empires And The People by John M. MacKenzie.

[1] Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002), 9-34

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jane Burbank “Imperial Repertoires and Myths of Modern Colonialism”, in Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, ed. Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper (United States: Princeton University Press, 2010), 287-329.

[5] Howe. Empire: A Very Short Introduction, 9-34.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Burbank “Imperial Repertoires and Myths of Modern Colonialism”, 287-329.

[8] Ibid.

History of Ideas: History

E.H.Carr suggests that ‘ History is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts’, History means many different things depending on which perspective is used, what facts are used and what the historian hopes to achieve by research and documenting.  Some discredit the past and only look forward, others suggest that history holds the key to the future of the human race. With intellectual history drawing from other disciplines such as sociology, psychology and theology, it could be suggested that history is a flexible subject that is influenced by the context and period it is being used and studied in.

Medieval thinkers thought that history would reveal God’s plan for the future and could be used to determine the ‘End of Days’ and wrote about the larger issues of the day and the progression of the country, ruler or what was considered to be important in that period. Yet, in the eighteenth Century with the enlightenment and rationality movement there came a shift away from this form of metahistory toward the notion that humans effect their own future rather than divine predetermination and the need to research and quantify the statements made by historians Marxism became a favourable idea in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx gave historians another angle at which to interpret what they knew, by using the Marxist view that history can show that life is simply progression from a lower to higher form of progression (historical materialism) This idea is applied to many genres within historical studies such as economic, class and gender. Though as time had passed so has historians interest in historical materialism, yet Marxism is still a popular metahistory.

There are some who reject the notion that history can teach anything, two perspectives purport this; during the Cold war historical influence and evidence was rejected and called a defence against totalitarianism. History was also rejected to aid anti- communists who wished to deny credibility toward any argument against them. There is also as mentioned the modernist approach that commitment to the future, progression and a new way, why would the past be required as there is no good to come from looking behind.

Interested in reading more?

http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-History-E-H-Carr/dp/B0017XX47A What is History? By E. H. Carr

Each generation interprets historical evidence in their own way. Whether influenced by politics, experience, economics or gender. This is the same with the history of ideas, Ideas are simply that. They are open to interpretation depending on the context in which they are used.

The Role of Individuals in History

The role that individuals play in history is a much debated topic, known as the great man theory. It can be hard to measure the significance of one individual in a range of historical events; for example, Hitler is often blamed for the start of World War II, such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is given as the reason for the beginning of World War I. However, blaming individuals for these events ignores other factors which play a role, such as the political, economic and social standings at the time and in a particular country. Of course, it would be unfair to completely rule out the significance of individuals as certain charisma of political personalities and leaders have had an effect on the outcome and course of various historical events. This may be seen particularly in wars and major conferences, notably the Treaty of Versailles, and the ‘Big Three’, of Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson – perhaps if Clemenceau had not sought such harsh reparations as vengeance on Germany for French losses, then the outcomes of the peace treaty would have differed.

Different historians and schools of thought have separate views on the importance of the roles that individuals play in history. While the majority agree with the fact that they do have to play a role, some groups believe that individuals have no significance in history or historical events, and that it is more like their ‘strings are pulled by invisible hands’[1]. This is perhaps implicit of the fact that the social climate and cultural factors are a greater influence in historical events, rather than a specific individual.

It may be difficult for us to understand how particular individuals wouldn’t have had an effect on particular events or eras, such as Lenin in the October Revolution, or his successor Stalin in the shaping of the USSR through rapid industrialisation, modernisation and collectivisation. It may be argued that without Lenin, a revolution could still have occurred – but it would not have been the same ’October Revolution’ that we have come to know. The shape of the revolution would have been different.  Yet, it is important to understand that the majority of historians believe that individuals play a significant role in history, as the actions of the masses do, too. The relationship between the individual and the rest of society allows us to build up a clearer understanding of how particular events such as revolutions occurred; these aren’t done by individuals alone.

The significance of an individual also depends on the personality of the given figure. For example, harsh regimes in history are remembered by their leaders, such as: the high authority Nazi members Hitler and Goebbels; fascist leader Mussolini of Italy, or Communist leader of Cambodia, Pol Pot. However, taking the example of Nazi Germany, other factors, like: the importance of social structures; the economic depression, and disillusion of the public with the system of government at the time, also played a role in events and the way that history eventually panned out. This point was discussed by the historian Plekhanov who stated:  ‘individuals can influence the fate of society by virtue of definite traits of their nature.’[2] In some situations, individuals have been the driving force behind these ideas, in others, the role of the individual is necessary in a particular circumstances.


Interested in reading more?

http://www.marxist.com/role-individual-history091205.htm - Marxist History Site

http://www.historytoday.com/story/11119 - History Today article on the role of individuals in history

The Role of the State in the Age of Antiquity

Definition of state: a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government.

The Age of Antiquity is commonly referred to as the era before the Middle Ages, which centred on the area of the Mediterranean, summing up the cultures and thoughts of the Greco-Roman world. In both the society of the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans the role of the state and the form it took constantly changed and thus remained important.

Ancient Greece

Greece had various city states. One of the most well known was Athens. The role of the state in Athens followed the agenda of ‘rule by the people.’ In this case the state, rather than in the Roman Empire, is more about the people and less about the individual as a state ruler. Athens used democracy, where every non foreign, free man had a vote and in which five hundred men sat on a ruling council for a year at a time, yet all men were able to vote on all issues. The nature of this state is more inclusive to the people of state, rather than remaining separate to the people such as in the Roman Empire. The peoples voice was so important, that citizens were able to get rid of politicians that they didn’t like. If a politician gets more than six hundred votes they are banished from Greece for ten years. This would suggest that Greece built their state and the running of the state on the approval of its citizens.

Ancient Rome:

One key shift in Rome’s history was the shift in the type of state. The shift was from the Roman monarchy to the Roman Republic. A republic is a form of state where individuals in power are elected by citizens and govern by the rule of law. The Roman Republic grew by conquest and alliance. However, the role of the state changed again. In 27AD the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, with Julius Cesar, changing into becoming a dictator rather than an elected individual. The role of the state in Rome shifts from a functioning system of electing a legitimate ruler to an individual as ruler of all. The thoughts at the time were centred on faith and the loyalty to various deities, a notion that took inspiration from the Greeks. Due to this, people had a moral duty to the state to partake in public worship of these various deities. The idea of a state in an Empire such as Rome can be seen to not also be mechanical but as a source of identity. For instance, the large area that Rome’s empire spanned meant that two individuals who may be so different still saw themselves as Romans despite being so far apart geographically and culturally.

By authorities and writers the role of the state appeared to be more about the emperors and their central to the empire rather than the idea of the state meaning a collective identity of the people. The Wars resulted in the destroying of the Jewish temple that had been key to faith since the time of Moses. In this instance it can be seen that rather than the state pulling people together and creating a sense of national pride, the state in the Roman Empire was not something that every group identified and wanted to be part of.

The State in the Middle Ages:

The state in the middle ages was merely an association between people, for example between a leader and his vassals who had to obey their leader’s authority. During medieval times the State was tightly linked to the Church. Depending on what religion was practiced in a particular country determined the way in which people led their lives. For example, Henry VIII break from Rome changed the way people worshiped God, they no longer heavily relied upon going to church, because their state showed them that in order to have a relationship with God they did not have to support corruption of the churches. However, the kings rarely had such huge impact on the regular people’s lives. The feudal system of the middle ages implied that smaller landlords and elites shaped the lives of peasants. The state gave them the power to restrict peasants from moving freely by making peasants the property of the feudal lords. 

The State in the Early Modern Times:

During the early modern times the state increased its governance. For example, in England the four chains of command improved the communication of new orders to the localities: the lieutenancy, commissions, circuit changes and articles of inquiry.

The state in early modern society, however, did not increase its governance in order to oppress society, in fact it increased its powers in order to respond to the growing needs of a society. The state started working on how social life might have to be ordered, as the result development, innovation and articulation of relationships between state and society took place.

During this period the state worked on how to eradicate the gains of individuals in power in order to create a more peaceful existence for the ordinary people.

The evolution of the state in reference to modernity has been highly theorised and by many thinkers has been critiqued. With the period of enlightenment drastically changing the way people saw the importance and role of the state. Important is the development of nation-states which emerged from the process of industrialisation and the distancing from empires and imperial rule.  Weber understood the move to a modern, industrial state and the distancing from religious ideological rule to open up a period of rationalisation. Yet, despite the initial, offering the illusion of personal freedom, Weber argues that due to the situation of a modern state, this freedom gets lost in the bureaucratic situation and people just become elements in the mass production of modern society.

Interested in reading more?

Anter Andreas, Max Weber’s Theory of the Modern State: Origins, Structure and Significance, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Cooper Robert, Conflict Resolution and Sustainable Peace Building, The Post-modern State, http://www.world-governance.org/article86.html?lang=en, 1st published April, accessed: 24/02/2016. 

Hobsbawm Eric, On history, UK: Hatchette, 2011. 

Karl Marx is a key figure in regards to theories exploring and explaining the role of the state and the consequences the modern state brings. Marx takes a negative viewpoint on the role of the state and its economic aims, resulting in a class structure analysis which is still significant to today. Marx makes two class distinctions within a capitalist state; the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) and the proletariat (the workers), his theory explores the exploitation placed upon the workers by those of the bourgeoisie. How the state is a function for capitalism, and how those submitted to the state are purely cogs in a machine for mass production.

In regards to post-modernism, the state holds less dominance on a single level with the creation of entities such as the European Union, creating a lesser distinction between domestic and foreign affairs.[1] Focussed on social security, borders significance is lessened matched with a higher mutuality and connection between nations.  Largely in aim of the avoidance and prevention of large-scale world war.


[1] Cooper Robert, Conflict Resolution and Sustainable Peace Building, The Post-modern State, http://www.world-governance.org/article86.html?lang=en, 1st published April, accessed: 24/02/2016.