If you find yourself at a dinner party with a group of historians and the conversation begins to lag, fill your glass to the rim and ask your dining companions to define intellectual history. For decades historians have debated the field’s elusive definition and relevance. Broadly speaking, intellectual historians study ideas that have shaped politics, culture, and economics; the men and women who put such ideas to paper; and the circles in which such thinkers traveled. Beyond this list, however, intellectual historians and their critics agree on little. Some have suggested that intellectual history helps explain key moments in national and world history. Others accuse its practitioners of honoring the philosophical lives and ideas of elites while ignoring how little great ideas mattered for disempowered minorities or an intellectually unengaged majority. At the heart of debates about the...


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