During the #BlkTwitterstorians chat on AAIHS a few days ago, we began by discussing what intellectual history is, as well as what it means to study African American intellectual history. The 140 character limit on Twitter, as well as the 15 minutes we spent on each question, did not allow me to answer as fully as I would have liked. I did offer a few thoughts on common approaches in the broader field of intellectual history but want to develop those just a bit.
My view of what intellectual history, as I noted in the chat, is that it is the sub-discipline of history that deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this sub-discipline is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another assumption of intellectual historians is that human beings cannot live in the world without theories about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which again, depends upon symbols and language. So intellectual history is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought they were doing.
By nature, intellectual history is an interdisciplinary field, and there are many approaches that scholars take to studying the history of ideas. I would like to outline five of the most prominent of these approaches. Continue reading