Intellectual History

This strand of our one-year MSt or two-year MPhil in History is the equivalent of a free-standing Master’s in the intellectual history. For more details on the organisation of these programmes, click the links above.

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Other Masters Strands

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This strand offers a uniquely inter-disciplinary approach to Intellectual History, and one with chronological and global reach. Graduate students have the opportunity to study thinkers and ideas from the fourth to the twenty-first centuries, in diverse transnational geographical contexts. The course is designed to encourage students to work in and between areas such as Global Intellectual History, the History of Scholarship, the History of Science, the History of Art, Historiography and the History of Political Ideas, to name but a few of the many areas of specialism available. In the strand’s core course students will have the opportunity to experience and to combine a variety of approaches to Intellectual History in creative and innovative ways, and in doing so help to shape the future of this dynamic and exciting field. The MSt can be taken either as a free-standing degree course or as the first step towards doctoral study.

Oxford is home to one of the largest communities of intellectual historians in the world, with expertise in every major area of Intellectual History. These scholars are supported by world-class libraries (the Bodleian, the major resource for intellectual historians), museums (the Ashmolean Museum and the Museum of the History of Science), centres, institutes and dedicated Intellectual History lecture series (the Berlin and Carlyle Lectures), and are engaged in exciting projects to create major digital resources in the field (Cultures of Knowledge).

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods course, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography. This course, taught across eight seminars, will offer an introduction to the philosophical background and methodological approaches to Intellectual History. Students study a combination of key thinkers (central figures might include, for example Michel Foucault, Arthur Lovejoy and Quentin Skinner) and new approaches to the discipline (eg. comparative, feminist and global intellectual history).                   

Meanwhile, in the ‘Skills’ component of the course, you will be able to learn a language – such as Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish and many more. You can take dedicated Languages for Historians classes, specifically targeted to the needs of History scholars. You will be able to learn palaeography so that you can read manuscript and archival source materials. We have some of the most advanced digital humanities resources in the country, and you will be able to acquire the technical skills you need. You can also work on manuscripts and books with the guidance of leading scholars.

In the second term, students take one of a wide portfolio of Option courses.  Those particularly relevant to the intellectual history typically include:

 

The Twelfth-Century Renaissance is an interdisciplinary paper in intellectual history designed to give students a broad overview of the content and applications of learning in the twelfth century. It therefore covers a wide range of different curricular subjects from the perspective both of their sources (the classical textual tradition of ninth-century learning; the impact of newly translated texts; the consequences of personal contact with Muslim and Jewish scholars in Sicily and the Iberian peninsula; the influence of empirical discovery) and of their application through cathedral schools and royal courts to society at large. The course comprises eight classes, organised around the seven liberal arts (the trivium and the quadrivium) and the three higher faculties of the medieval schools. 

 

 

The ‘globalization’ of history has been the most visible and significant development in historical scholarship of the past decade or so. Historians are increasingly aware of the need to place their work in a context that spills over national, regional, or civilizational boundaries. Some of the most exciting work has emerged from probing the global dimensions of the ‘early modern period’ before the rise of European world domination. This course will introduce the two principal methodologies involved in doing this new large-scale history – the connective and the comparative – through a series of seminars led by one European historian and a different specialist in cultures outside of Europe each week. In pursuit of the connective we will consider what happened when Europeans began to traverse the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and became entangled in a newly diverse range of societies. For example, what kind of architecture resulted when Portuguese ecclesiastical styles were transplanted to the tropics? Other weeks will take a more comparative approach. Considering the way in which Chinese intellectuals turned to classical texts in formulating ‘Neo-Confucianism’, for example, should help us see the over-familiar European themes of Renaissance and Reformation in a new light.

 

 

How have people understood the self in the past? How have they conceptualized emotions? Is there a self before 1700? How do different cultures conceive of the self and how do they understand spirituality? What is the relation between the individual self and the collective? This course seeks to understand ways of approaching the self and psychology in different times and places. It also seeks to explore ways of incorporating subjectivity and emotions of people in the past in how we write history; and to question the sociological, collective categories of analysis that historians often employ. Each session will take a particular example of a cultural context and explore how historians could write the history of subjectivity. The sessions will draw on different types of source material – diaries, letters, visual sources, material objects, travel writing, memoirs, court records, micro-historical material, oral history – and consider the problems and possibilities they offer. Four of the sessions will be on the early modern period; four will be on the modern period; however, in their assessed essay, students may concentrate on either the early modern or the modern period. The course deliberately bridges the early modern and the modern because the historiography itself does. This enables productive comparisons. 

 

 

Creating the Commonwealth looks at the intersection of religion and politics in the work of three of the most important early modern intellectuals: Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The course begins with an examination of Grotius’s approach to the problems of religious and political division within Europe and the challenges brought by Dutch expansion in the New World. Grotius argued that political communities could be built upon principles which all human beings held in common, while allowing scope for different kinds of churches and religious groups. We will consider how he made this case, drawing upon classical, historical and religious arguments. Hobbes was a follower of the Grotian project, in that he recognised the foundational importance of natural law principles. But Hobbes was also critical of the thought that the Grotian scheme might be sustainable without a radical reconstruction of the natural law ideas that Grotius had proposed, and in the seminars on Hobbes we examine the character of his controversial response in De cive and Leviathan. Turning finally to Locke, we examine a thinker dealing with the legacy of the ideas of Grotius and Hobbes, and examine the ways that he sought to mediate their influence in the political theory of the Two Treatises of Government and his powerful work on religious toleration. Studying these three thinkers together reveals the dialogical features of some of the most important texts in the western intellectual tradition, and casts new light upon some of the ideas regarded as foundational to modern political thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

This option offers the opportunity to engage with a range of exciting new scholarship on the Enlightenment, covering the period from the second half of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. It takes inspiration from recent rebuttals of the postmodern critique of the ‘Enlightenment project’, and addresses the subject in comparative and transnational perspective. We shall cover Enlightenment both as an intellectual movement and as a social phenomenon, examining how thinkers across Europe engaged with new publics. For the first four weeks we shall explore the major interpretative issues now facing Enlightenment historians, including:

  • the coherence of Enlightenment – whether we should think in terms of one Enlightenment or several;
  • the importance and duration of ‘radical’, irreligious Enlightenment;
  • the relation between Enlightenment, the republic of letters, and the ‘public sphere’;
  • the politics of Enlightenment: public opinion, reform, and revolution.

During the second half of the course, participants will be encouraged to set their own more precise study agenda, related to the topics of their course papers. They may explore in more detail the intellectual content of Enlightenment, its various contexts, its social framework, and its impact, within and across national and political frontiers. Topics which might be studied at this stage are:

  • Enlightenment contributions to natural philosophy, and the ‘arts and sciences’;
  • the Enlightenment ‘science of man’, as pursued in philosophy and political economy;
  • writing sacred, civil and natural history in the Enlightenment;
  • women, gender and Enlightenment.

Participants will also be encouraged to attend the research-oriented Enlightenment Workshop, which meets weekly in Hilary Term.

 

 

The field of this paper is the history of 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, as seen through the eyes of leading political and social theorists. The central intellectual tradition represented here is that of 19th century European liberalism. It is central because it enjoyed an undoubted cultural hegemony — although Anglophone liberalism, a rather different set of ideas, also comes into view. It hinged around the development of ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ in constitutional, political and civil law; in religion; and in academic ‘science’. Concomitantly it promoted all that was ‘bourgeois’ at the expense of what was ‘feudal’. This major tradition is represented above all by Hegel, Durkheim and Weber. Standing outside it there were of course a number of alternative points of view: most obviously radicals, romantics and socialists who dissented from, but inevitably engaged with, the hegemonic liberal position, as well as the semi-detached Anglophone tradition already noted. Notwithstanding the hiatus inflicted by Fascism, Nazism and world war, and later talk ca.1990 about ‘post-modernity’ and the ‘death’ of Marx, attempts by later 20th and 21st century writers to theorise society and politics without substantial reference to their 19th and early 20th century forebears have proven largely unsuccessful hitherto. The period covered in this course remains the starting point for an understanding of modern social and political theory.

So far as the method of study is concerned, the paper is designed for theoretically concerned historians rather than pure theorists. This historical approach should not be seen as anti-theoretical – quite the reverse – but it should be understood as a distinctive and (as we like to think) more accurate, more realistic and lifelike path to theoretical understanding. Its outer limit is the understanding of the place of ideas and intellectual tradition within societies taken as a whole, i.e. something much larger than the world of texts alone. However, its pragmatic starting point is the study of individual texts and authors deemed to be of outstanding merit and rich in meaning. The class programme tries to capture both the macro- and microscopic perspectives.

The overall aim of the course is to gain a broad understanding of the subject as a whole: let us elevate our sights just as the thinkers under study would have expected us to do. To this end there will be five “core” classes with a specified programme (as below). In the last three weeks of term you are then required to write one essay of 6-7,000 words, when class meetings are intended to service the needs raised by essay-writing. The title of the essay must be submitted to, and agreed with, the course convenor by the end of 6th week of Hilary term; the essay must be submitted on Monday of 9th week. Essay subjects need not be confined to topics covered by the “core” programme; the essay must however take in at least two distinct subject areas or bodies of literature (for examples of which see the bibliography below), which may be treated either comparatively or sequentially (or both). Of these subject areas at least one must be taken from Continental Europe. This course makes no linguistic requirement, and the use of sources in translation is entirely legitimate. However, command of a European language or languages will expand the range of materials open to you, while awareness of linguistic difference is at all times a fundamental datum of historical study. 

 

 

Interest in human rights has exploded in recent years, as human rights has emerged as one of the most prominent international trends following the end of the Cold War. The early 1990s sparked renewed debate about the role and mission of the United Nations as a global mediating force in matters of war and peace, and human rights became for many a new yardstick with which to assess post-Cold War international politics and proper state formation. Yet this idea of what Hannah Arendt has called "the right to have rights" is a relatively recent historical development. This course endeavours to trace the origins of human rights as a modern political ideology from the French Revolution to the present day.

It will explore the extent to which the idea of human rights underwent radical transformation over the 19th and especially 20th centuries, entangled as it was in shifting notions of civilization, empire, sovereignty, decolonization, minority protections and international justice. It will also investigate to what extent human rights arose as a direct response to the legacy of man-made mass death associated with World War I and World War II, and in particular to the Third Reich's genocidal politics and destruction of unprotected civilians.

What is more, the course will also pay particular attention to how these new norms of justice were globalized over the course of the second half of the century. Just as non-Europeanists interpreted Wilson's notion of self-determination in broad ways to suit various emancipatory causes beyond Europe in the interwar years, rights activists from India, South Africa, the United States and later Eastern Europe seized on human rights after 1945 as something that went far beyond simply internationalizing American New Deal policies. From this perspective, this course aims to locate the history of human rights at the very heart of the broader story of modern moral politics and changing international perceptions of the relationship between law and citizenship, war and social justice.

 

 

The study of belief in the modern world is amongst the most dynamic and interesting fields of research currently being undertaken by historians. It draws on a huge range of sources and intersects with the work of sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and other disciplines. This option will thus be of interest both to students researching the history of religion and those who work more generally on social, cultural and intellectual history. It will give a good grounding in the various theoretical approaches to, and methodological problems presented by, this type of research and will draw on the work of participants in seeking to define new and interesting areas of analysis. This course is explicitly global in its focus and will draw comparisons between different faiths, escaping the narrow, Eurocentric models so often adopted by writers on this theme. The option is intended for those who have no background in this area of research as well as for those who are already engaged in it.

Topics to be covered will include:

  • Modernism
  • Nationalism and Transnationalism
  • Fundamentalisms
  • Consumerism
  • Gender, Generation and Sexuality
  • Contesting religious authority
  • Postmodernity
  • Declines and Revivals

 

Faculty and Research Culture

The Faculty and University have particular strengths in Global Intellectual History, Historiography, the History of Art and Culture, the History of Political Thought, the History of Religion, the History of Scholarship and the History of Science.  We have a very lively research culture, with seminars involving leading international scholars just about every day of the week. The History Faculty is home to the major international project Cultures of Knowledge: Networking the Republic of Letters 1550-1750, and has close links with the Voltaire Foundation.

Faculty postholders working in relevant fields include:

See all their websites for more details of their research interests, and for the full range of topics on which they would be interested in supervising graduate students, only partially captured by the brief descriptions above.

Faculty seminars bring together staff, doctoral and master’s students working in the field, to hear speakers including doctoral students, external and internal to the university.

Seminars relating to this strand include: 

  • The Early Modern Intellectual History Seminar
  • The Enlightenment Workshop
  • The Historiography Seminar
  • The History of Pre-Modern Science Seminar
  • History of Science, Medicine and Technology Seminar
  • History of the Exact Sciences Seminar
  • The Oxford Political Thought Seminar
  • The Relation of Literature and Learning to Social Hierarchy in Early Modern Europe

Admissions Questions

We normally take about MSt students and one or two MPhil students in this area, but numbers vary from year to year and we are able to be flexible.  If you have any questions about our admissions procedure, please check the University admissions pages and/or contact Graduate Admissions. If you have any questions about studying this topic at Oxford, please contact the Convener.

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