1. The Pursuit of the Millenium (Norman Cohn)
Title: Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.
Why you should read it: Norman Cohn’s excellent study of medieval revolutionary cults and secret societies quickly became established as canonical within the field of medieval intellectual history. His work expertly discusses the Albigensians, Waldensians, Joachimites, Beghards and Beguins with great detail and analytical sensitivity. Most notably, his description of Joachim of Fiore’s prophecies proved especially perceptive in Chapter Six.
He rightly notes the Joachite prophetic and eschatological utterances regarding the resurrection of Friedrich Barbarossa. Cohn also discussed the Anabaptist occupation of Münster and their efforts to create a revolutionary society until its brutal destruction by military and prelatic authorities. Although dated and indirectly influenced by Voegelinian misconceptions of Gnosticism, is still proves worthwhile reading in order to understand the manifold varieties of medieval heresies and resultant efforts by the Dominican Order to remove them from intellectual culture. Order online
2. The Genesis of German Conservatism (Klaus Ebstein)
Title: Epstein, Klaus. The Genesis of German Conservatism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Why you should read it: First published in 1966 by the brilliant Harvard-trained intellectual historian Klaus Epstein, this monograph endures as a masterwork within the field of German intellectual history. Dr. Epstein began his analysis through intensively reviewing anti-Josephinian literature in the Hapsburg lands before proceeding to a larger discussion of the Gegenaufklarüng authors. In particular, he also critiques the political writings of Karl von Eckhartshausen and notes his sympathy for Rosicrucianism as oppositional to Illuminism.
His narrative begins in the mid Eighteenth century and continue to the Napoleonic invasion and the Holy Roman Empire’s downfall. A planned second volume covering the intellectual history of post-Napoleonic Germany never saw publication as Dr. Epstein died in a tragic car accident. Such a second work rightly needs to be written. If I were to take this project on, I would make excellent use of the Berlin-based Library of Conservatism, founded by the aristocrat Caspar Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing. It would be a worthy project and bring scholarly attention to an understudied intellectual tradition. Order online
3. Beyond Liberty and Property (J. A. W. Gunn)
Title: Gunn, J. A. W. Beyond Liberty and Property: The Process of Self-Recognition in Eighteenth-Century Political Thought. Kingston [Ont.]: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983.
Why you should read it: J.A.W. Gunn served as the Political Science Chair of Queen’s University in Ontario. Intended as a sequel and rejoinder to Dickenson’s Liberty and Property, this work contained excellent chapters on Eighteenth century English intellectual history. I am very impressed with Gunn’s chapter, The Spectre at the Feast: The Persistence of High Tory Ideas. It’s a fascinating study which offers a revisionist account of the period in the model of Jonathan Clark’s English Society 1688-1832 and Linda Colley’s In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party, 1714-1760.
I strongly agree with Gunn as to the persistence of jure divino monarchic ideas despite the 1688 revolution and appreciate his successful efforts to delineate the intellectual history of Toryism during a period of Whiggism and Hanoverian ascendency. Currently, I am finishing two academic journal articles on the 1750s Tory polemicist John Shebbeare (1708-1788) and the Jacobite and nonjuror Charles Leslie (1650-1722). Gunn’s article proved very important as a lighting guide for my own researches.
4. The Descent of Ideas (Donald R. Kelly)
Title: Kelley, Donald R. The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, 2002.
Why you should read it: In this work, Donald R. Kelley offers his own interpretation of the discipline’s development since the European Enlightenment. Kelly served as Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas for seventeen years and made a lasting impact on the field. Kelley is an authority of the academic development of intellectual history and interestingly places its modern genesis within the work of Victor Cousin and French Eclecticism.
He contends that their methodological inquiries created a ‘chronicle of inquiries’, which engendered greater professional interest within intellectual history as an academic influence. Kelley also rightly analyses the influence of Arthur O. Lovejoy and his The Great Chain of Being (1936). Kelley’s grand narrative attempts to encompass the complete history of the discipline. Whether readers decide whether this was successful or not, his effort ought to be read for greater understanding. Order online
5. Critique and Crisis (Reinhart Koselleck)
Title: Koselleck, Reinhart. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1988.
Why you should read it: In this 1988 monograph, Reinhart Koselleck sought to apply the methodological practices of German Begriffsgeschichte to the Enlightenment’s effects on the French Revolution’s origins. Written in a distinctly German academic form, Koselleck’s grand work masterfully dissects the intellectual framework of the Bourbon absolutist state and its increasing opposition during the Eighteenth century. In particular, Chapter Seven provides a reflective and neutral analysis of Freemasonry and Illuminism during this.
The book’s excellent organisation contributes to its effectiveness with Part I devoted to an analysis of French absolutism, Part II expertly critiques the self-perceptions of Enlightenment thinkers and their response to the absolutist Bourbon monarchy and Part III discusses the crisis of Enlightenment thinkers as political revolution soon appears within the political sphere in 1789. Critique and Crisis stands as one of the best examples of German conceptual history and Koselleck’s most accessible work. Order online
6. The Great Chain of Being (Arthur O. Lovejoy)
Title: Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being; A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1936.
Why you should read it: In this canonical work, Johns Hopkins Professor Arthur O. Lovejoy sought to delineate a precise definition of the medieval ‘Great Chain of Being’. Originating within Platonic thought and also expressed by Aristotelians, it reached its apogee within medieval Neoplatonism. The concept posited a teleological organisation of the universe with God as its summit, seraphim and ordered angels below, mankind further down and then the world of animals and plants.
This concept repeated expressed itself within medieval theology as well as subcultural Esotericism. Lovejoy first explored this concept in his 1933 William James lectures at Harvard before producing a single volume study. He also discussed the usage of the concept within medieval political theology and its support of a sacral monarch such as France’s Saint Louis. Although dated, Lovejoy’s work proved influential and remains an important text within the history of the discipline. Order online
7. Rethinking Modern Intellectual History (Darrin M. McMahon)
Title: McMahon, Darrin M., and Samuel Moyn. Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Why you should read it: In this recent revisionist and programmatic work, two Ivy League professors offer a prognosis of intellectual history as a discipline and augur possible future directions for it within worldwide academe. Both Darrin McMahon (Dartmouth) and Samuel Moyn (Columbia) are respected intellectual historians of Modern Europe. Their work begins with a positive observation that the discipline is rapidly expanding after a generation of relative stagnation. New journals have been founded and older journals currently continue to produce excellent articles.
Monograph series are available for young scholars to publish their work and collaborate on research projects. The authors discuss such intriguing topics as the legacy of Foucauldian thought within the discipline, the new trend of writing a more comprehensive global intellectual history and interdisciplinary engagements in order to further scholarship. The authors rightly observe that the discipline will grow larger with increasing subcultures of researchers and methodological practices. Order online
8. Die These von der Verschwörung (Rogalla von Bieberstein)
Title: Rogalla von Bieberstein, Johannes Rogalla. Die These von der Verschwörung, 1776-1945: Philosophen, Freimaurer, Juden, Liberale und Sozialisten als Verschwörer gegen die Sozialordnung. Bern: Herbert Lang, 1976.
Why you should read it: This remarkable work by a German academic and aristocrat provides an intellectual history of conspiracist thought and secret societies from the eve of the French Revolution to the collapse of the Third Reich. While J.M. Roberts’s The Mythology of the Secret Societies also constituted a remarkable monograph within his field; Rogalla von Bieberstain expanded his chronology to include the later Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. He correctly begins with a discussion of the Aufklaerung and Gegenaufklaerung along with Weishaupt and Wöllner but his narrative moves further into conspiracist literature current with the Kaiserreich.
Interestingly, his later chapter also does the conspiracist theme of Jüdischer Bolschewismus; a subject Von Bieberstein further studied in his later work Jüdischer Bolschewismus: Mythos & Realität (2010). The work expertly analyses myths regarding purported secret societies and plots intended to overthrow Western European government and cause the downfall of Christianity. Von Bieberstein’s treatment of such intellectual subcultures constitutes an academically sophisticated critique of neglected material. I highly recommend his work. Order online
9. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Quentin Skinner)
Title: Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Volumes I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Why you should read it: In this major two volume work, the respected intellectual historian Quentin Skinner sought to explore the complexities of Renaissance and Reformation political thought. Along with J.G.A. Pocock and John Dunn, Skinner represents the founding generation of the Cambridge School of political thought. These men argued for a contextualized reading of political thought and intellectual history rather than a narrow selection of ‘great texts’ removed from social and political origins and read in abstraction. This methodological approach required far greater reading with intellectual history in order to arrive at a more detailed understanding of the chronological era.
I strongly sympathize with this methodology because it rightly situates vital intellects within their respective milieus and thus generate accurate analyses of their works. Skinner’s two volume work on Renaissance and Reformation thought does precisely this by discussing major as well as minor figures. For example, Chapter Five: The Revival of Thomism in his second volume expertly discusses Counter-Reformation theologians in great detail; expansively rather than reductively. It provides the reader with a panoply of Catholic Thomists and anti-conciliarists to read and learn about. Skinner’s insistence on precision, thorough research and deeper understanding of the past’s complexities proves admirable and highly influential for students of intellectual history. Order online
10. What is Intellectual History? (Richard Whatmore)
Title: Whatmore, Richard. What Is Intellectual History? Polity Press: Malden, MA. 2016.
Why you should read it: Professor Richard Whatmore currently edits the internationally recognised journal History of European Ideas along with directing the Institute of Intellectual History at the University of St Andrews. I am grateful for his given opportunity to regularly publish review essays in History of European Ideas. Additionally, it has proven a great professional pleasure to attend and participate in the Institute’s biweekly seminars. Professors regularly visit from Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge and their participation makes the Department one of the most powerful centers in the academic world for the study of intellectual history. I am very pleased to be in the best Department possible for my studies and professional development.
Professor Whatmore’s recent work What is Intellectual History? provides an introductory guide to the academic field along with a history of its development and biographies of major contributors. Dr. Whatmore discusses the Johns Hopkins academic community centered about the Journal of the History of Ideas with Arthur Lovejoy as its leader. He also discusses the Cambridge school with its major proponent Quentin Skinner. Additionally, he also critiques German academic development within intellectual history and discusses Begriffsgeschichte and the achievements of Reinhart Koselleck. What is Intellectual History? also wisely provides a list of further reading within the field for curious students. I definitely recommend his book as an appropriate and comprehensive introduction to this sub-discipline. Order online
Prior to beginning doctoral studies at St Andrews, he held adjunct faculty appointments at Providence College and the University of Rhode Island. He currently holds active memberships in several professional associations including the Northeast Conference on British Studies, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Berlin-based Bibliothek des Konservatismus, the International Society for Intellectual History and the University of St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History.