October 11, 2004

And Just Where Did You Get That Idea?

This is very cool, for a geeky intellectual value of cool: the 1973--1974 Dictionary of the History of Ideas is online. There's an immense amount of good stuff in there, from people who really knew what they were talking about. Some highlights:

Kenneth Arrow on Formal Theories of Social Welfare
Isaiah Berlin on The Counter-Enlightenment
George Boas on Macrocosm and Microcosm, on Primitivism, and indeed on Idea
Lewis Coser on Class
René Dubos on Environment
Mircea Eliade on Myth in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Clarence Glacken on Environment and Culture
Sidney Hook on Marxism
Max Jammer on Entropy
Stu Kauffman on Biological Homologies and Analogies
Maurice Kendall on Chance
Frank Knight on Economic History
Dick Lewontin on Biological Models
G. E. R. Lloyd on Analogy in Early Greek Thought
Oskar Morgenstern on Game Theory
Arnaldo Momigliano on Freedom of Speech and Impiety in classical antiquity
Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the Islamic Conception of Intellectual Life (with a special emphasis on his conception)
Marjorie Hope Nicolson on Literary Attitudes Toward Mountains, the Sublime in External Nature and Newton's Opticks and Eighteenth-Century Imagination
Richard H. Popkin on Skepticism in Modern Thought
Ernest Tuveson on Millenarianism
Aram Vartanian on Man-Machine from the Greeks to the Computer
René Wellek on Literary Criticism

Of course, there has been a lot of criticism of the old-fashioned historiography of ideas, mainly on the grounds that it's too Eurocentric and too elitist. The charge of Eurocentrism is definitely true. For instance, aside from an entry on Buddhism, I don't think there's anything on Indian thought, and East Asia shows up only there and in an entry on China in Western Thought and Culture. (The Islamic world does better; Africa south of the Sahara, or the Americas, not at all.) Even if you just want to study the history of European ideas, this is inadequate.

The charge of elititism also has merit, but isn't as serious to my mind. Without necessarily going so far as to say, with certain nineteenth-century elitists, that "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas", there is certainly something to this contention. In a society which is sufficiently differentiated to have an elite, it's a very good bet that those who are not in the elite have disproportionately little access to the means of cognition and communication, especially leisure, which means they are at a disadvantage when it comes to forming and articulating intellectual traditions. At the same time, it's another very good bet that the traditions they do have access to will be heavily slanted towards those which circulate among the elite. Weak and derivative intellectual traditions are one aspect of subordination. Still, this doesn't mean non-elite intellectual traditions are non-existent or uninteresting. The fact that the cognitive value of the ideas entertained by, say, 16th century millers from Udine is approximately nil doesn't, in fact, make them any worse than many of the respectable ideas in the Dictionary; to repeat one of my favorite lines from E. P. Thompson, "After all, to any rational mind, the greater part of the history of ideas is a history of freaks."

To the now-traditional criticisms of the old-fashioned history of ideas, I'd like to add another: it engages in type thinking when what it really needs is population thinking. In fact, much of the work by critics of the old historiography of ideas seems to me to suffer from the same weakness. For now, I will just leave this as a pointer to Dan Sperber's various works, but I hope to say more about that later, and in the process redeem promissory notes to Razib, Scott Martens and Drapetomaniac all at once...

Writing for Antiquity; Philosophy; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at October 11, 2004 11:26 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth