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History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41


Why history of ideas at all?

Melissa Lane
King’s College, Cambridge CB21ST, UK
Accepted 8 January 2002


This article suggests that the enterprise of Mark Bevir’s book (The Logic of the History
of Ideas, Cambridge, 1999), is the reverse of what his title implies. Bevir seeks not to delineate
the peculiar logic of a specialised subfield of history called the ‘history of ideas’, but rather the
logic which underlies historical pursuit considered in general as the ‘explanation of belief’. If
this is so, then the relationship between belief, meaning, and speech act in intellectual texts,
and the task and method of the intellectual historian, must be reinterpreted along lines closer
to those of Quentin Skinner than Bevir would allow. Indeed, Bevir’s criticism of Skinner,
which hinges on his own account of malapropism, is shown here to fail. The article concludes
with brief reflections on the purpose and nature of studying the ‘history of ideas’. r 2002
Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Bevir; Belief; Meaning; Skinner; Collingwood; Malapropism

I proposed this title originally because it seemed to me strange that Mark Bevir’s
book had little to say about the question of why to study the history of ideas,
conceived as intellectual history, as distinct from any other kind of history. It seems
to me now, having read the book again and having profited from the symposium on
it published in Rethinking History [1], that Bevir is in fact engaged in a different and
much more general enterprise from that of thinking about the history of ideas as
standardly conceived, and that understanding the difference will improve our
understanding of both projects. In the first part of my paper, I will therefore explore
these differences, to set out why I think Bevir has little or nothing to say specifically
about the history of ideas in the usual sense, before turning to the question which I
set myself originally with my choice of title.
The preface to the book itself provides both clues and confusion with regard to the
nature of the enterprise. The confusion comes from the fact that Bevir acknowledges

E-mail address:, (M. Lane).

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34 M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41

that his interest in the topic was originally prompted by the work of Quentin
Skinner, thus suggesting that he is engaged in a similar enterpriseFeven though he
then provides a clue by distinguishing Skinner’s ‘heuristic’ question of ‘how we can
grasp the meaning of a text’ from his own ‘logical’ question of ‘how we can explain
the beliefs we postulate as the meanings of past works’ [2, p. x]. The significance of
this clue is now easier to grasp in light of Bevir’s opening contribution to the
Rethinking History symposium. He opens his summary of the book by stating that
‘The meanings or beliefs that constitute cultural phenomena [and which the ‘history
of ideas’ studies] enter into almost every area of historical scholarship...[h]ence,
almost all historical studies rely at least implicitly on an analysis of the nature of the
history of ideas’ [3, p. 295].
Here, the scope and generality of Bevir’s actual project in the book become
apparent. He is concerned with an analysis of beliefs in generalFin fact, the argument
could apply as readily to the interpretation of the beliefs of our contemporaries as to
the beliefs of people in the past. His use of the phrase ‘history of ideas’ is not, then
(pace the initial appearance of the book’s preface), the standard demarcatory use by
which certain kinds of historians distinguish themselves from other kinds. The history
of ideas is for Bevir the history of beliefs and so is common to all (or rather, as above,
‘almost all’) kinds of history. The history of ideas is for him simply history, which is
simply the explanation of belief, rather than being the specialised pursuit of
‘intellectual history’ as that is commonly understood. Thus his enterprise is in fact
the reverse of what his title would to the untutored reader imply. It is not to delineate
the peculiar logic of a specialised subfield of history, but rather the logic which
underlies historical pursuit considered in general as the ‘explanation of belief ’.
I will call the ideas which concern Bevir ‘small-i ideas’, and distinguish them from
the ‘large-I Ideas’ with which the specialised history normally called ‘history of ideas’
is concerned. Large-I Ideas are those ideas which are proffered to others in order to
explain, exhort, reimagine, intervene, assess, as opposed to those quotidian small-i
ideas which would be ordinarily called simply beliefs, such as ideas about where the
laundry is best hung, when it is safe to cross the street, etc. Bevir would want to say, I
think, that large-I Ideas must be a logical subset of small i-ideas. My suggestion is
that even if this is true, to treat large-I Ideas simply as an ordinary case of the larger
set is unilluminating, and can even be misleading, when one’s concern is to
understand the specialised subfield of intellectual history as opposed to other kinds
of history. So while I consider his enterprise to be of value as an abstract account of
belief, I would contest his claim that such a logic can illuminate the practice of the
historian, and in particular, that of the intellectual historian.
In the ‘reply to critics’ portion of the symposium, as in the summary-introduction
to it, Bevir himself expresses such a distinction at certain points more clearly than I
have found it in the book. Consider the following statement, responding to the
critical charge that he has underestimated the role of rhetoric: ‘Whereas historians
such as Quentin Skinner and historiographers such as [Hayden] White can explore
the ways in which political theorists or historians have tried to persuade and impress
others, logic unpacks universally applicable forms of explanation for beliefs’ [4,
p. 348]. This statement is followed by a brief account of Skinner’s book on
M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41 35

Hobbes, purporting to show that Skinner’s suggestion as to why Hobbes reconceived

the role and use of eloquence in Leviathan exemplifies Bevir’s abstract model
of how to explain changes in belief. I will return to the workings of this model
in a moment. Here, the point to grasp is that the project which Skinner sets himself in
that part of his book does not exhaust the project of the specialised ‘history of Large-
I Ideas’, and may not even be typical of it. The primary task of such histories is the
explication of texts rather than the explanation of why and how an author came to
hold the large-I Ideas (Bevir would call them beliefs) expressed in that text.
Let me unpack this statement a little further. By explication in contrast to
explanation, I mean that historians of large-I Ideas are not solely or perhaps even
usually concerned to offer biographical explanations of why, when, and how an
author formed the views that she did. Rather, their first concern must be to figure out
what the text is up to, what its point is, what the author meant to be saying in saying
what she did. What we have are not ‘webs of beliefs’ but written texts which may or
may not be straightforward records of belief. And this is done by employing the
ordinary methods of historical research: by trying to understand the discourses
operating at the time which the author may have meant to use, explore, expose, or
challenge, and by trying to understand the purposes which the author had
(intellectual and/or political) in so doing.
Bevir tries to anticipate such an objection in the book, when he rejects any sharp
distinction between ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation’, of the kind which I invoke
above. He sugggests there that historians who merely stare at a text in a library
cannot ever achieve explanation, which is done (in part) by comparing their
explanation with that of other historians and assessing which comes out best. I do
not quarrel with this account of explanation. My point is that in order to compare
explanations, one must have produced an explanation to begin with, and that such
an explanation in intellectual history will normally be an understanding of the text
rather than an account of the beliefs of its author.
However, recall that Bevir distinguished the Skinner/Pocock question which he
called in his preface (as quoted above) the ‘heuristic’ attempt ‘to grasp the meaning
of a text’, and which he would contrast with the properly ‘logical’ concern with ‘how
we can explain the beliefs we postulate as the meanings of past works’. Yet what is
the difference between ‘grasping the meaning’ and ‘explaining the beliefs we
postulate as the meaning’?
At least three issues are at stake here. The first is the fact that explanation, which I
think Bevir takes to be a very general characterisation of the historian’s concern,
may in fact miss out a large part of the historian of large-I Ideas’ project, as
described above. The second is the link between ‘beliefs’ and ‘meaning’. Bevir, I
think, believes this again to be a purely logical relation: because of his individualist
proceduralism and rationalist presumption, he holds that what someone normally
means to express is what she believes (and so treats cases of deception, self-
deception, and irrationality as caused by ‘rogue pro-attitudes’ which muddy or
distort this natural link [3, p. 300]). The identification of ‘meaning’ with ‘belief’ is
meant by Bevir to be a wholly general point. But in fact the belief/desire model of
mental life is rather a crude one (as is shown also by the simple gumming-up-the
36 M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41

works criticism of rogue pro-attitudes noted above). And what authors of large-I
Ideas are up toFwhat they meanFis often far subtler than that.
In other words, I would question how well texts in the history of large-I Ideas are
captured by the completely general notion of a ‘belief’. Consider for example the
hoary problem of Plato’s dialogues. Can we be sure that these dialogues express
what Plato believes? Can we even be sure that we know what this question means?
(Siep Stuurman offers the comparable example of a moral ideal in the service of a
similar argument [1]). One might say that the problem with Bevir’s use of ‘belief’ is
similar to the problem with Bentham’s use of ‘pleasure’: as an early critic of
Bentham’s pointed out, to say that humans are motivated exclusively by pleasure
and pain is either tautologousFinsofar as we can redefine any motive as a case of
seeking pleasure, even that of the martyr who seeks pleasure from his horrible
deathFor false. Similarly, to call every large-I Idea a ‘belief’ fails to help us
understand the range and nature of the things people in the past sought to
communicate to one another. Such a general all-purpose treatment of belief can offer
little guidance to the historian.
The third problem with the aim of ‘explaining the beliefs which we postulate
as the meanings of past works’ is that, on Bevir’s account of hermeneutic meaning,
there is no single meaning of Leviathan: Leviathan has a different meaning
for its author, for each of its seventeenth-century readers, for each of its twentieth
century readers. Now on one level, this must be true, and Bevir is right that each
author and reader will bring her own particular hermeneutic to bear on the
encounter with a particular text. But, as Robert Pippin has observed [5], Bevir is
remarkably cavalier about the relationship between author and reader. Why should
modern readersFbe they innocent interested parties, or historians of large-I
IdeasFdo any work to grasp the meaning of the text if they can simply read
it and establish a meaning of it for themselves, purely at face value? The problem
here is that Bevir’s concern with the explanation of belief has reverted to what I think
is its true home, the general account of belief and meaning, indeed the account of
that in the minds of our contemporaries (‘other minds’, the Davidsonian
problematic). There is nothing in his account to fit the peculiarly historical interest
in a past social world, in which authors wrote intending and expecting to be
understood in a particular way by particular groups of readers, thus generating a set
of meanings which it is the peculiar provenance of the historian of large-I Ideas to
In all these cases, I think there is something to be said for Bevir’s points when they
are considered as purely abstract and general points about the nature of belief. The
difficulties arise when we try to interpret them as useful points for the specific
discipline of the history of past large-I Ideas. Either their generality is simply too
great for his strictures to be at all illuminating, or worse, what is meant as a kind of
skeletonFproffered as a backbone for historical practiceFsometimes turns into a
The latter difficulty afflicts Bevir’s account of changes in ideas. He wishes to
explain changes in ideas by means of a universal and general notion of a dilemma.
Dilemmas are said to arise every time an individual forms a new belief: ‘A dilemma is
M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41 37

a new belief, where any new belief, merely by virtue of being adopted, poses a
question of the web of beliefs into which it is inserted’ [2, p. 243]. Both dilemmas and
the response to them are in Bevir’s account irreducible and new. The response to a
dilemma is (or can be) a new idea, which cannot be explained in terms of convention
or context, precisely because it is new. So for example, Bevir’s discussion of the
invention of the theory of marginal utility, in which he argues that Jevons’
innovation is simply a creative innovation which historians cannot explain further,
because his beliefs must only be explained in relation to his other beliefs and not in
relation to ‘things such as social epistemes, paradigms, or languages’ [2, p. 217].
Here, rather oddly, Bevir’s driving concern with explanation suddenly sputters out;
and his logical strictures really do become a straitjacket for the historian, who as
Stuurman again has noted, would be derelict were she not to investigate the relation
of Jevon’s ideas to those of Bentham and Condorcet.
The problem here lies, I think, in Bevir’s having turned what was meant to be a
procedural individualism into a substantive one. A more truly Wittgensteinian
approach would acknowledge that concepts (a term which Palonen notes is strikingly
absent from Bevir’s account of conceptual change, symposium [6, pp. 307–308] can
be manifested in a family of resemblances of individual hermeneutic meanings of
that concept, and that each speaker of the language will accent different aspects of
that concept, to the point where she or we may cease recognising it as the same
concept and begin to identify it as a different one. Thus the beliefs, concepts, and
large-I Ideas of one person can and must be explained partly in relation to the
beliefs, concepts, and large-I Ideas of others, without violating the procedural
individualism which Bevir champions. In this case, Bevir could learn from Bentham:
if Bevir wishes to use ‘belief’ as a completely general term for the elements of mental
life, just as Bentham wanted to use ‘pleasure’ as a completely general term for human
motivation, then he should allow that my beliefs about others’ beliefs will
legitimately bring others’ beliefs into the explanation and content of my own, just
as Bentham must allow that pleasure in altruism (for example) brings altruism within
the ambit of hedonistic theory.
With this kind of modification, the distance between Bevir’s account and those of
Skinner and Pocock, when applied to the specialised pursuit of the history of large-I
Ideas, begins to collapse. His critique of Skinner in particular hinges on the case of
malapropism, which Bevir believes to be a case of language being used in an
‘unconventional’ way, as opposed to the explanation which he attributes to Skinner
of Mrs. Malaprop merely ‘challenging’ linguistic conventions [2, pp. 44–45, 50–51,
cf. pp. 83–85]. I suggest that malapropism is better and more naturally explained as
involving conventions rather than rejecting them altogether. It is just that the
convention involved is the convention of what we might call conversational charity,
that is, that we try to make sense of what someone else means when they say
something strictly meaningless. And this leads to a more general criticism of Bevir’s
attack on Skinner. Bevir would hold that the meaning of a statement can and should
be severed from its status as a speech act, urging this against Skinner’s contention
that understanding the illocutionary force of an utterance is necessary for grasping
what the utterance means. Far from proving Bevir’s point against Skinner,
38 M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41

malapropism shows in fact that the meaning of a statement, and its status as a speech
act, cannot be severed (at least not in all cases).
More generally still, the suggestion that historians like Skinner and Pocock
prescribe an ‘unswerving adherence to method’ which amounts to stipulation of a
fixed ‘logic of discovery’ is exaggerated [2, p. 240]. Their comments about method are
better understood, to pick up the word from Bevir’s book preface once again, as
heuristic, in the sense that they counsel historians how to proceed rather than
guaranteeing them success. Indeed, as David Wootton has observed, Skinnerian
precepts ‘represent merely the application of the methods and values of professional
history to the history of ideas’ [7, p. 12].
Why, then, should we be interested in studying the history of large-I Ideas? Let me
narrow the question to the relevance of the history of political ideas, since that is
both my own area of expertise and also the area of intellectual history about which
most on this question has been written. I suggested earlier that many of the large-I
Ideas and their elements are not simple beliefs, but hypotheses, myths, stories, and
the like. In texts of political thought, these Ideas compose imaginative reconstruc-
tions of political understanding which are exercises in persuasion of the reader’s
imagination, for some illocutionary purpose which can broadly be called political.
It is, or should be, obvious that the relevance of historical texts in political thought
cannot consist in the provision of blueprints which are self-evidently desirable and
unproblematically applicable to present problems. The history of political thought is
a reflection on reflection, even where that reflection involved activity, and as such it is
better suited to the reflective component in our own action than to direct that action
simpliciter. In brief, the history of political thought is a form of (historical)
understanding which can also contribute to forms of political understanding. It is
not a recipe for action.
To take Plato’s Republic again as an example. In Plato’s Progeny: how Socrates
and Plato still captivate the modern mind, I consider the heated twentieth-century
debates between Popper and others about whether Plato was a totalitarian [8]. One
point cited by those who say that he was, is the deep and comprehensive concern for
education and culture shown in Plato’s works to be the key to political stability and
success. But this is better understood as a point of political reflection rather than as a
prescriptive element of a political blueprint. Rousseau and Montesquieu understood
this when they celebrated Plato for having seen ‘that no change can be made in music
which is not a change in the constitution of the state’ (Montesquieu, Spirit of the
Laws, Book II.8) and for having composed in his Republic ‘the most beautiful
educational treatise ever written’ (Rousseau, Emile, Book I). To think about political
matters is a holistic endeavour in that it involves reflection on how the elements of
society and culture interact. Such a holistic theory is indispensable for political
understanding, even though the attempt to put it into practice may be fraught with
dangers, and even though the purpose of such a theory may be purely understanding
rather than any particular political action.
Some of these imaginative, holistic reconstructions still have us in their grip.
Others have lost their grip on us: we find them relics of the past rather than elements
continuing to play a role in our own thinking. The Cambridge School approach has
M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41 39

sometimes been taken to suggest that all past political thought, by virtue of
belonging to its past context, can only be of this second kind: showing us alternatives
which are no longer ours, and so enlightening us at best only negatively. Some
moments in the early manifestoes of the school did signal such a strong claim, for
example, John Dunn’s suggestion [9, p. x] that ‘I simply cannot conceive of
constructing an analysis of any issue in contemporary political theory around the
affirmation or negation of what Locke says about political matters’. But Dunn, of
course, explicitly retracted this view in 1990, when he wrote that we ‘have good
reason to nerve ourselves for the full unfamiliarity of his [Locke’s] visionFits
unblinking historical distanceFand to use it in all its integrity and imaginative force
to help us to think again’ [10, p. 25]. And I believe that the best way of understanding
the approach to the history of political thought generally is that the decision as to
whether an idea is still alive for us, and how far its history extends, is one of the
things which only the historian can decide. The history of some ideas will teach
contingency, while the history of other ideas will teach continuity, and if that were
not so then the piecemeal emergence of the present from the past could not have been
possible, as it was.
But will we get it right? There is an ideal type here, which F.H. Bradley called ‘the
historian as he should be’ [11, p. 78], but no method or doctrine can guarantee that
the historian as she is will be in all respects the historian that she should be. In any
case, both kinds of ideasFdead and aliveFcan contribute to our self-knowledge,
which is enriched by knowledge of alterity as much as by knowledge of what is
properly its own.
It has been suggested that the historian of political thought R.G. Collingwood
forms a common intellectual background to both Skinner and Bevir. And so perhaps
it is appropriate to close by highlighting a common element in his thought which I
believe applies equally well to both of their projects (projects which I hope I have
shown not to be divided by the specific points Bevir would claim, but which I do
recognise as belonging to different levels of abstraction). For Collingwood, the
knowledge provided by intellectual history comes from the enlarged experience
which the historian gleans by thinking his way into the mind of someone in the past.
As he wrote in his Autobiography:
‘If he is able to understand, by rethinking them, the thoughts of a great many
different kinds of people, it follows that he must be a great many kinds of man.
He must be, in fact, a microcosm of all the history he can know. Thus his own
self-knowledge is at the same time a knowledge of the world of human affairs’ [12,
p. 115].
In the fifty-odd years since Collingwood wrote, we have learned to be sceptical of
such statements, not least because the reference to ‘man’ jars with contemporary
awareness of the habitual historical exclusion of women from the scope of political
thought. To say too quickly that the traditional canon provides ‘our’ history or
enriches ‘our’ ‘self-understanding’ overlooks the fact that the relations of the
colonised or excluded to the canon will be more complicated than that. Nevertheless,
the history of political thought as taught todayFthe great processionFdoes include
40 M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41

ideas and interventions engagement with which has shaped the self-understanding of
modern politics in most places on the globe, whether through a direct lineage or
through importation and cross-fertilisation. In this sense the colonised and the
excluded cannot afford to ignore it. And with a sophisticated view of identity in
relation to otherness (in fashionable jargon, ‘alterity’), one may yet rescue something
in the aim of self-understanding which Collingwood proclaimed.
Consider the stance taken by Michel Foucault, whose works grew out of a
different (Nietzschean) tradition from those discussed above, but whose approach to
the study of past thought has inspired many historians of political thought (not least,
Quentin Skinner and his former student James Tully). Foucault saw power and
liberty, power and knowledge, power and resistance, not as antithetical extremes, but
as mutually constituting forms of interaction. There is no power without resistance,
but there is also no idyll of liberty free from power. Many left-wing thinkers have
therefore criticised his work for slamming a door on the possibility of action for
political change. But as David Halperin has urged, queer theorists and gay and
lesbian activists are among those who have found political inspiration in Foucault’s
emphasis on strategic forms of resistance. Such resistance can engender the kind of
self-knowledge which consists in exploration of one’s limits and of new forms of
creative action and interaction. As Foucault put it: ‘I aim at having an experience
myselfFby passing through a determinate historical contentyAnd I invite others to
share the experience, that is, an experience of our modernity that might permit us to
emerge from it transformed’ (remarks by Foucault reported by Pierre Hadot and
quoted in Halperin 1995 [13, p. 104]). Historical understanding reveals, in Halperin’s
words, ‘our own otherness to ourselves’, and by showing us ourselves as ‘sites of
difference’, therefore shows us ourselves as sites of ‘possible transformation’
(Halperin 1995 [13, p. 105]).
History, and history of political thought in particular, will sometimes appear as
radically other in relation to the present, sometimes as the germ of what ‘we’ have
become. Both, despite appearances, are forms of alterity; both can help to constitute
a richer form of self-understanding. And while changed understanding does not
always or only inform changes in action, it is a creative andFimportantlyFan
unpredictable way to do so. On a suitably broad account of self and of
understanding, self-understanding may indeed be one rich fruit of the interpretation
of past thought.


I wish to thank Robert Burns, Mark Bevir, and the other participants in the June
2001 Goldsmiths colloquium on Bevir’s book for the stimulation provided there.


[1] S. Stuurman, On Intellectual Innovation and the Methodology of the History of Ideas, Rethinking
History 4 (3) (2000) 311–319.
M. Lane / History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 33–41 41

[2] M. Bevir, The logic of the history of ideas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
[3] M. Bevir, The logic of the history of ideas, Rethinking History 4 (3) (2000) 295–300.
[4] M. Bevir, Philosophy, rhetoric, and power: a response to critics, Rethinking History 4 (3) (2000)
[5] R. Pippin, The logic of the history of ideas, Mind 110 (2001) 163–168.
[6] K. Palonen, Logic or rhetoric in the history of political thought? comments on Mark Bevir,
Rethinking History 4 (3) (2000) 301–310.
[7] D. Wootton, Preface, in: D. Wootton (Ed.), Divine Right and Democracy, Penguin, London, 1984,
pp. 9–19.
[8] M. Lane, Plato’s Progeny: How Socrates and Plato still captivate the modern mind, Duckworth,
London, 2001.
[9] J. Dunn, The political thought of John Locke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1969.
[10] J. Dunn, What is living and what is dead in the political thought of John Locke?, in: J. Dunn (Ed.),
Interpreting Political Responsibility, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Polity, 1990, pp. 9–25.
[11] F.H. Bradley, The presuppositions of critical history, in: Lionel Rubinoff, Donn Mills (Eds.),
Ontario, J.M. Dent, 1968 (1984).
[12] R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939.
[13] D.M. Halperin, Saint Foucault: towards a gay historiography, Oxford University Press, Oxford,