Schools of Intellectual History


Historicism was an approach designed to stress the importance of historical understanding in the development of individuality and uniqueness. In Germany there were various schools of intellectual history all of which used different methodologies, such as inductive and deductive processes to study their national history. The same process was also used by historians across Europe.


Troeltsch suggested that ‘historicism entailed a fundamental historicisation of all our thinking about man kind, its culture and values’. Other historians suggest that historicism is more than just the development of new historical methodology. It can also be linked to politics and in this sense it can explain why the rise of history in the 19th century was explicitly linked to explanations of the rise of nationalism.

One of the principle reasons behind the development of such a predominantly historical approach to the study of political theory in post-war history was a reaction against the idea that historical study was only useful to social sciences and the arts and humanities so that universal generalisations could be informed from its premises. Whilst during the 20th century there was a tense interrelationship between intellectual history and Marxism, the politics of intellectual history in 20th century Europe could equally be seen as a structural reaction against political authoritarianism in general.

In terms of the politics of intellectual history there were two developments in French and German academic circles particularly that related to an attempt to overcome authoritarianism. The first development called into question traditional ways of conceiving history itself, it stressed the importance of focussing on the moral implications and approaches to political history as well as the practice of writing history. The second development saw an increased focus on the writing of history.

The conditions under which intellectual history and its focus on different disciplinary fields developed worked around questions of the historical meaning and interpretation of intellectual phenomena, such as key texts, writers and images.

Thus history has ultimately been bound to political considerations and this is especially true of the 20th century. 

Cambridge School of Thought

Main Ideas

For British ‘Intellectual history’ it wasn’t until 1997 that a supposed natural break occurred and the school of developed, Skinner the Regis Professor of Modern History at Cambridge disregarded many of Sir Geoffrey Elton’s condemnations of the subject in the process illuminating it as a highly useful historical tool building on from the foundations of intellectual history that had been slowly surfacing in British intellectual thought.

The Cambridge School of Intellectual History is considered more of a collaboration of Cambridge intellectual historians attempting to combine an intellectual context with the study of major philosophical works rather than being a set ‘school’ itself. This deviates from the traditional study of philosophy where major works such as ancient philosophical works like Plato’s ‘The Republic’, Medieval works such as Thomas Aquinas’: ‘Summa Theologiae’ or modern works or perhaps most famously Karl Marx’s: ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (Manifest der kommunistischen Partei) were scrutinised and examined for clarity in the truths they attempted to ascertain.

Main philosophies for the study of ‘intellectual history’:

  • Avoid treating authors and notions ‘out of context’, i.e you cannot consider the diary of a factory worker without considering his exact relationship with his boss and in relation to the current socio- political climate of the time.

  • Avoid treating political ideas as a superstructure, instead consider real life structures. A Russian factory worker may be seeking a ‘revolution from below’ but at the end of the day they have to eat and therefore be paid. In reverse this principle works too a ‘Bourgeoisie’ manager may be fearing a ‘revolution from below’ displacing his social status but he still has to pay his workers in the meantime to keep them happy.

  • Avoid treating texts in terms of influences/anticipations risking anachronistic attributions by those subscribing to later theories. These often leads to distortions in historiography as these influences are built upon and become more susceptible to further anticipation from those historians building on existing work.

  • Avoid marginalising intellectual elite and unduly downplaying their role. Especially when considering contexts (a key study in intellectual history) their power to influence the masses is often understated.

Main Intellectuals

The Cambridge School of Intellectual History is represented by three major historians, John Greville Agard Pocock, Quentin Skinner and John Dunn. They lead this faculty and have become internationally acclaimed for their advancement in the subject. The Left were thought to have instigated the ‘history of ideas’ in the 1930s with Edmund Wilson during World War two producing the history of socialist thought inclusive of works drawn from Marx and Buchmann. Despite this, often this subject has been beheld in British culture as inherently ‘foreign’. The French and Germany adaptations of intellectual history ‘Histoire des mentalities’ and ‘Begriffsgeschichte’ respectively have existed for longer and came to both national and international prominence with a far higher pedigree from respective contemporary historians domestically.

Quentin Skinner

Significant publications:

  • Quentin Skinner, 'Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas', History and Theory, 8 (1969), 3–53
  • Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 1978)

Skinner’s works on intellectual history have helped transform the way the subject is regarded in the academic world. He has stressed the need to appreciate the context in which ideas are produced as opposed to the previous methodology of simply observing the idea itself. Skinner suggests that in order to understand the past better ‘wider discourses or intellectual contexts’ must be observed to give us more understanding to the ‘web’ not single meaning. This breaks from the typically English conception which is heavily reliant on continuity and ease of access to the past with the rejection of these ‘wider contemporary intellectual contexts’.

Professor John Greville Agard Pocock

Significant publications:

  • J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957) - J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time (New York, 1971)
  • J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, NJ, 1975) Pocock along with Skinner rose to prominence for his work in the development in the way we consider history. He works like Skinner’s helped to develop the idea of contextualism, Pocock considered more precisely the study of language, concluding language along with contexts is one of many things a historian ‘learns’ and therefore can inform us so much more of the contexts of a particular piece or study.

John Dunn

  • John Dunn, The History of Political Theory and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • John Dunn, The Politics of Socialism: An Essay in Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)
  • John Dunn, The Political Thought of John Locke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)

Dunn, unlike Skinner and Pocock, is considered more of a political theorist rather than an intellectual historian but due to the nature of ‘intellectual history’ there is of course a natural overlap. Dunn’s works have included consideration of the weaknesses of socialist and liberalist theories on political value and responsibility and in doing so explanations of the ‘political trajectories’ of modern states. Socialist and Liberalist influence has effected Dunn’s explanations of state trajectory and thus again is beheld as a contextualisation of history therefore explaining cause, outcome and effect.


The most prominent criticism of this school came from Sir Geoffrey Elton, in fact many of the subsequent ideas formulated by the Cambridge School of Intellectual History have come as a backlash in response. Elton’s ‘Return to Essentials’ (1991) proposed history was about examination and interpretations of text as opposed to the study of the contexts these texts were produced in.

Further Reading:

Derose, Keith. Contextualism: An Explanation and Defense. n.p.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Klosko, George, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. (Chapter 1)

Scheibner, Tamás. ‘Whatmore, Richard and Brian Young, Eds. Palgrave Advances in Intellectual History. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 256 Pp. ISBN: 978-1-4039-3901- 2’. East Central Europe 37, no. 2-3 (March 25, 2010): 398–401.

Skinner, Quentin. ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’. History and Theory 8, no. 1 (1969): 3. doi:10.2307/2504188. - Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 

The German School of Thought: 

Main Ideas

German intellectual history has undertaken some mass advances in the past three-hundred years and this has been integral for understanding the history of Europe on a much broader scale. In Germany the school of thought is named ‘Begreiffsgeschichte’ and the school focuses largely on conceptual history and the semantic change of historical concepts. ‘Begriffsgeschichte’ sees the changing concept of ideas as the forming of contemporary culture and deals with the change in systems, for example liberty or reform. It also argues that social history is vital in understanding how the world works and how history has evolved over the centuries in regards to the ideas of different historians. This is because all history must begin with a basic understanding of individuals for that time in history and such an understanding can change in regards to context and other cultural changes.

One main idea surrounding the school of thought is of words and their historical meaning. ‘Begriffsgeschichte’ shows how two histories, conceptual and social, may be used together as a way to identify language as an agent and as an indicator of change. Some changes it focuses on are the change in the meanings of terms. The changing meaning of terms creates a crucial basis for the understanding of contemporary cultures, concepts and also the contemporary linguistic choices. This focus on change allows the ability to analyze different linguistic contexts, however, conceptual usage ought to be analyzed by using a broad range and variety of materials.

Another key thought of the German school is the evolution of the paradigmatic idea as well as the evolution of the system of value. It appears that social history must begin with an understanding of historical, contingent cultural values. ‘Begriffsgeschichte’ looks at the understanding of meanings of words from classical, medieval and modern languages, as well as looking at the uses of these words and the concepts that surround them. The standard for the historical study of concepts is revealed when looking at the vocabulary in these languages – looking at their philosophical, political, social, legal and economic terms and how these terms and the meaning of the words have changed. Overall the German school of thought appears to focus on linguistic change, looking at social and conceptual history to help identify the changes and ideas that lead to these changes.

Main Intellectuals

Otto Brunner

There are a range of leading scholars in the German school, the main ones include the philosopher Joachim Ritter, the sociologist Erich Rothacker and the historians Otto Brunner and Reinhart Kosellek. Otto Brunner published Land and Lordship, Noble Rural Life and European Culture and New Paths of Social History. However to understand how Brunner contributed to the German School of thought one must look at his work towards the late 1930s. Brunner had the belief that the nineteenth century resulted in the radical break with the past. Brunner had the idea that the liberal-bourgeois order of the nineteenth century would be taken over by Hitler and National Socialism. This belief it can be argued stems from Brunner’s ideas that there are stages and it is these new terms that identify the separation from the past where there was different political and economic structures. This liberal bourgeois structure reflected the same mentality and thus schools of thought. In short, the way in which society was structured reflected the way in which schools of thought developed their ideas about history. The idea behind Brunner’s critique was that one saw history in their own terms and understanding.

Reinhart Koselleck

Reinhart Koselleck best displays his thoughts on Begriffsgeschichte in his eighteen essays in his book The Practise of Conceptual History. The historical process, he
believes is found and marked by a temporality of ideas that are not found naturally, acting as a force in how social reality is. Historical reality is much like social reality in which one must measure what went wrong and what does this mean to
determine how significant the conflict in itself was. Conflict through history and society is seen as when the rights and
interests of one group converges on another. Despite this, he still employs key ideas from the German school of thought, where the historiography is a history of the evolution of language used by historians. The language used reflects the time it was written along with the contemporary ideas, society and knowledge. Modernity is only the discovery of histories concept.

Both of these men led the way in different aspects of conceptual history, a history which is made up of such varying features that cannot be explored by historians alone. The reason Begreiffsgeschichte does so well at defining the ideas of conceptual history is because it changes over time, as history progresses so does the school of thought. Begreiffsgeschichte focuses closely on the idea that it is possible to create ‘temporal constructions’ of the past and at the same time it is possible for historians to convert these into basic principles and methods of historic enquiry. Within this and the idea of Begreiffsgeschichte as a school of history it was possible to create an abundance of ideas and concepts as opposed to the usual catalogue of past events and ideas that had been created.

Main works

There are three major key works in Begriffsgeschichte. One of these key works is ‘Historiches Worterbuch der Philosophie’ (‘a Dictionary of Philosophy on Historical Principles’). This looks at the definition of philosophy and includes political, legal and social documents. Looking at constructive and regulative rules relating to philosophical definitions, it is the most extensive treatment of philosophical terms. The work begins with classical Greek philosophy, though various people wrote the articles within the document, including Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gerth and Mills and Roth and Wittich. The document allows the reader to learn what the technical terms in German philosophy, law, theology and linguistics mean and meant, adding to the readers’ contextual, political and social knowledge. Historical meanings, it seems, are far less presented than in the next key work.

Begriffsgeschichte links the history of concepts to social, economic and political history – this key work usually does not.

Another major work is ‘Geschichtiche Grundbegriffe. Historiches Lexicon zur Politisch-Sozialen Sprache in Deutchland’ (‘Basic Concepts in History. A Dictionary on Historical Principles of Political and Social Language on Germany’). It provided the most insensitive history of political and social concepts ever attempted – it is a new standard for the history of political and social vocabularies by its method, scale and specialized techniques of investigating changes in the meaning of concepts. The work addresses the inadequacies of national dictionaries. The text written by Peter Ludz and Christian Meier is an account of conceptual history, combining reliable summaries of existing scholarly monographs with substantial additions to existing knowledge of political and social usage in classical Greek and Latin, Medieval Latin and vernacular languages as well as modern European languages. Both the key works previously mentioned have relatively small working groups – united by common interests and assumptions – historians combined interests in intellectual, economic, social and administrative history.

The final of the three main key works is the ‘Hanbuch Politisch-Soaliar Grundbegriffe in Frankreick, 1680-1820’ (‘A handbook of Basic Politcal and Social Concepts in France, 1680-1820’). This work was edited by Rolf Reichardt and subordinated conceptual to social history. The conception of social history is different to the ‘Geschichtiche Grundbegriffe’ – the avowed goal is to provide materials for the history of mentalities meaning the two key works have democratic, sociological and economic differences. The ‘Handbuch’ disallows for the conceptual analysis of major political, philosophical or legal theorists; it is any attempt to track classical, medieval and early modern uses of political and social concepts evident in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary France. The work attends to more political and social languages and is organized in terms of concepts – it is treated as an ideal. The real focus of this document is on previous conceptualizations of the political and social worlds, containing a few references to ‘Geschichtiche Grundbegriffe’, though mainly to the alteration of German and European political and social concepts.

Further Reading

Richter, Melvin. “Begriffsgeschichte and the History of Ideas”. Journal of the History of Ideas 48 (2). University of Pennsylvania Press 247–63.

Richter, Melvin. The history of political and social concepts : a critical introduction. New York ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1995 p.3-6

Richter, Melvin. "Conceptual History (Begriffsgeschichte) and Political Theory." Political Theory, 1986. 604. 

The French School of Thought: ‘Histoire des mentalités’ 

Main Ideas

The ‘Histoire des mentalites’ des mentalites’ looks at French thinkers, focusing on a particular way of studying history. It concentrates not on the wars, or great men, which have been the subject matter of the most European history, but on the mind-sets of people, and thought. An example of how works is by looking at death. The perception of death changes through time due to different factors, for instance death was not merely the end in the medieval era; it simply signified the next step to Heaven, Hell or purgatory. This way of seeing death as the next step was because of the imposed Christian religion at the time. However our perception of death changed in the wake of the scientific revolution with many who turned to science over religion, saw death as final. One of the key parts of the French school of thought was the Annals school, this was a group of historians which looked at the long term themes running through history, such as the example given above. 

Main Intellectuals

There are 3 key individuals in the French school: Jacques Le Goff (1 January 1924 – 1 April 2014), Philippe Aries (21 July 1914 – 8 February 1984) and Georges Lefebvre (6 August 1874 – 28 August 1959). 

Jacques Le Goff

Philippe Aries

Georges Lefebvre

Le Goff argued that the Middle Ages had its own civilization different from the antiquity and the modern world. He challenged the very name ‘Middle Ages’ and its chronology and the achievements that were made during this period, particularly 12th century. He was heavily involved in Annales School. The school was mostly interested in medieval and early modern Europe.

Philippe Aries was a medieval historian concerned with the common daily life. One of his famous works talks about the change in attitudes towards death. In fact, he is remembered for the invention of the history of attitudes to death and dying. He was better known in the English speaking world than in France.

Lefebvre was concerned with French Revolution and peasant life. Very well known for his term ‘history from below’ which means people’s history and the accounts of common people rather than political authorities. He often wrote from their viewpoint as if it was the peasants that were writing his work. Just like Le Goff he was also involved in Annales School. In 1937 he became the chairman of the history of the French Revolution. 

Main Works

There are several key works from the French school of intellectual history. Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie are four authors who are considered to be a 'must read'. 

Lucien Febvre

Marc Bloch

Fernand Braudel

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

Febvre's early work showed his commitment to the French school approach of contextualizing events, using other disciplines such as psychology and culture. Febvres thesis Philippe II et La Franche-Comté (1912), tried to demonstrate e events in a more realistic way by reconstructing residents lives in a provincial area using geography and environment.

Bloch's most important work was his study on feudalism (Feudal Society (Routledge Classics)), this was published in two volumes. This was a study of agrarian reformation. Combining politics, culture and economics to give a context to the argument that peasant exploitation led to revolution.

Braudel has been considered to be one of the greatest historians of the modern era. The Mediterranean & the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip was written using geographical time, also social, economic and cultural history.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s key work was Montaillou, Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294- 1324. Montaillou was written using various documents such as Inquisition reports to construct a picture of daily life within a village. There is also the use of economic and cultural ideas to produce a rounded basis for the context.

Further Reading

Antoine Lilti, “Does Intellectual History Exist in France?: The Chronicle of a Renaissance Foretold”, in Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, ed. Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn (Oxford)

Patrick H. Hutton, “The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History”, History and Theory 


Intellectual history and the history of ideas is the study and understanding of past human experience, through contextualisation and observation of such entities as the common ideological stance, social and political influences and values. For example, popular literature and how it manipulated people’s ideas and the consequent experience reflected through events, in brief the study of how people thought and the experiences they led, how ideas of the time influenced the situation, thus how it reflects in terms of history. The study of history is heavily manipulated by the ideology and the benefit of the country or civilisation of which it stems. Often concerning the positive aspects of history, such as new discoveries geographically, scientifically or socially. Importantly to note is how the focus of a study of a particular history often lies in the positives, plagued with bias and exaggeration commonly excluding important events or impacts which are vital to the study. Often in order to build a reputation or to cling to one that pre-exists. An example of such could be the history of the western nations which often fall into the trap of orientalism. For instance, the experience of European colonialism around the world.

How history is studied and the interests change in relation to the experiences of the time, what the trends are within society at one time will reflect on what history is studied. Often there are returns to subjects due to a rekindling in interest. Today history can often get caught up in boundaries, the revision of intellectual histories opens up the possibility of looking at things from a new and abstract perspective, perhaps resulting in new outcomes and perceptions. Particularly in the case of intellectual history which can be seen as an interdisciplinary subject. Advances in technology and resources which were unavailable to those of times before allow for an extension of study, however, one must consider the limitations of the capabilities of one’s study even with the societal and technological advances. It would be impossible for one individual to encompass and unlock everything single-handedly. Intellectual history allows the writing of history through the use of multiple contexts, thus unlocking perceptions which may have been hidden previously.



Historian, Author and Professor Darrin M. McMahon believes that many historians have become too concerned with what is going to happen, instead of what has happened. McMahon illustrates that one must acknowledge discoveries of a certain era before ‘breaking new ground’. McMahon explains that much of what is to await us in the future of history, is indeed a product of the past, as many trends and interests repeat themselves throughout history. McMahon opens this chapter with a quote by historian Arthur Lovejoy on the return of the history of ideas ‘One of the safest (and most useful) generalisations resulting from a study of the history of ideas is that every age tends to exaggerate the scope or finality of its own discoveries, or re-discoveries...that it fails to discern clearly their limitations and forgets aspects of truth against prior exaggerations of which it has revolted.’ This reveals how historians tend to generalise ideas from an era and by doing this Image 15 - it can cloud one’s judgment and stop them from discovering new trends within Lovejoy the history of ideas.


However, McMahon believes that there was one particular defining period that enlightened the future and opened up and ‘unexplored horizon’, the eighteenth century. A century that witnessed ‘progress and originality’ as many intellectuals ‘developed alongside it.’ McMahon explores the idea that in this century, it was after the Enlightenment that the ‘history of the doctrine of ideas’ and the ‘history of human ideas’ was explored. (Often intellectual history explores the influences of the times in order to analyse the reactions and try to understand the thought process of those who are connected to events which create or dissemble a society.) McMahon recognises the influence the intellectual elites had on the general public and how ‘once they became absorbed in the body politic, they stimulated a revolutionary spirit.’ In this chapter McMahon refashioning the history of ideas recognising ‘the process by which the history of ideas...tends to exaggerate the scope or finality of its own discoveries, distorting what it rejects in the range to be new.’