Rethinking modern European intellectual history by Darrin McMahon & Samuel Moyn, eds.

Author:Bailey, Stuart
Position:Book review

McMahon, Darrin M., and Samuel Moyn, eds. Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xi + 305 pages. Paper, $35.00.

This collection of essays constitutes a long overdue reassessment of the field of intellectual history. Within its pages some of the most important questions concerning the state of the field, intellectual history's place in the wider discipline of history, and its possible futures are posited and explored. Historians Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn employ "rethinking" in the title of their newest edited volume not only to suggest corrective action to current trends but also to indicate the process each author takes in tracing historical developments in the field. Taking these two definitions as implied goals, the book succeeds much more in the latter than the former.

According to McMahon and Moyn, the imperative for reassessment comes from twin paradoxes: if everyone's methods are accepted as valid, then no one's methods are valid, and as more studies incorporate intellectual history, the sub-discipline may be diluted out of existence. The editors maintain that with the linguistic, cultural, and global turn the field took, it became turned around without consistent goals and common methods, effectually transforming intellectual historians into masons at the Tower of Babble. This sense of crisis is tempered by a certain amount of ambivalence that the editors allow in the collection of essays, which allows for the entirety of the work to be seen as a springboard for further discussion rather than a manifesto. What results are fourteen short essays that deftly articulate the history of intellectual history and its consequences for the sub-discipline today.

While the authors embark on separate paths, they have the common goals of distilling intellectual history as a separate and unique practice and expanding the ground intellectual history can cover geographically and through time. For some this means revitalizing elapsed methods and finding missing opportunities (McMahon, Marchand). For others this means disentangling intellectual history from neighboring fields (Moyn, Lilti). Still others demonstrate the proximity of other sub-disciplines, including cultural history (Surkis), the history of science (Tresch), and the history of sexuality (Matysik), in order to show how they are related. A final category of essays ties intellectual history recent developments in history, such as...

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