Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Ann Thomson

Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz
Brixius, Dorit

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization' (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research' wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
geschichte.transnational veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Where Intellectual History Is and Is Going Today. Interview with Professor Ann Thomson
by Alexandra Ortolja-Baird and George Souvlis, 28 November 2013*

Ann Thomson undertook her studies in History and French at the University of Oxford. During her doctoral research, Professor Thomson spent much time as the English lectrice at the École Normale Supérieure, before accepting a position as lecturer in British History at the University of Algiers after completing her PhD. She returned to France to become senior lecturer at the Université de Caen and remained to complete the Habilitation à diriger des recherches in 1991. From 1998 Professor Thomson was Professor of British History at the Université Paris 8 Vincennnes - Saint Denis and now holds the chair for Intellectual History at the European University Institute.

How did you become involved in intellectual history?
I have always had problems fitting my interests into existing disciplinary frontiers. I began my studies at Oxford with Philosophy, Politics and Economics, but I quickly changed to History and French. At that time such joint degrees were very new and were regarded with a certain suspicion. I chose to do my thesis on a French ‘philosophe’ (Julien Offray de La Mettrie), a subject which could only be accepted in the French Department, and even there it encountered some difficulties. As I began my research, I realized that the only category which described what I was trying to do was that of intellectual history, but not as part of any particular school. At that time there was in Oxford an Intellectual History Group, organised by mainly American postgraduates, which provided somewhere to talk about what we were doing but was not dominated by any particular approach. I had little sympathy with the traditional history of ideas, but in view of the subjects I was working on, and the people I was in contact with, I was not then aware of the work of the contextualist school in Cambridge or the work of Quentin Skinner. When I went to France, I found a certain affinity with some (but by no means all) of those specialists of eighteenth-century French literature doing history of ideas, but also with some practitioners of the history of philosophy. More recently, I have distanced myself somewhat from the historians of philosophy and am much closer to historians. As you can see, my experience is very different from most of those doing intellectual history in the English-speaking world.

Considering your experience at the Université Paris 8 could you reflect on the nature of institutional influence on the forms of intellectual history being practiced today and your personal experience of national attitudes towards the discipline? Would you say that there is a degree of disciplinary asymmetry between France and the UK where you originally studied?
The situation in France is rather particular, as although there was a tradition of the history of ideas practiced, for example as I just said, by those working on eighteenth-century French literature, it was radically criticized by Foucault, whose ‘Archéologie du savoir’, in particular, had a huge influence in the 1970s and 1980s. I too was very much excited by these works, although I’m not sure how much lasting influence they have had on me. There is in fact no French school of intellectual history, which has generally been viewed with great suspicion by French historians, in view of the long dominance in France of economic and social history and of the Annales school.
When I arrived at Paris 8 in 1998 I created a research group in intellectual history (which is now part of the Paris 8 history research centre), with a monthly seminar which was attended by people from different universities, mainly in Anglophone studies. This at least put the subject on the map. It is significant that it should have been in the field of Anglophone studies, as it has for some time more or less been accepted as a strand within these studies, and the set syllabus for the all-important ‘agrégation’ regularly includes subjects that could be classified as falling within intellectual history. Some of the most influential of the French specialists in the history of British thought, both historians of philosophy and ‘anglicistes’ have, however, been very hostile to the ‘Cambridge School’. The history of political thought is in fact often done by historians of philosophy, who rarely have a contextualist approach.
More recently, however, attitudes among French historians have started to change a bit. The seminar of the Paris 8 Intellectual History group is now run conjointly with historians from the Sorbonne. Especially interesting is the fact that the 2012 symposium of the ‘Société d’histoire moderne et contemporaine’, which resulted in a special issue of the ‘Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine’, was on intellectual history. It is, however, difficult to find a place for the field within the existing structures, a fact which also emerges from that special issue, dominated by cultural historians. Those who now take an interest in it (including some who not so long ago expressed mainly contempt for it) tend in fact to pull it in the direction of cultural history and do something very different from the history of political thought which has dominated in the UK. Some scholars now define themselves as intellectual historians, or rather historians of ideas (few make a clear distinction between the two and the former label is rarely used in French) but it has no institutional recognition. There are no jobs in history departments advertised as being for specialists in intellectual history or the history of ideas, and young scholars who define themselves as intellectual historians do not have an easy time. Finally, it’s worth noting that when the expression is used it is often in order to refer to the history of a particular notion or discipline, in a way that is closer to the history of ideas than to either intellectual history or Begriffsgechichte (for example, Jean-Claude Perrot, Une histoire intellectuelle de l’économie politique).
So the situation is clearly very different from that in the UK, where it is established in several universities, with specific MAs, even if it currently seems to be in difficulty at the University of Sussex, a pioneer and for long a recognized centre in intellectual history. I would also like to mention Italy, of which I have a certain experience, where many historians do something that seems to me to be intellectual history, without defining themselves as anything other than historians. There seems to be no particular institutional problem here, as far as I can see.

Intellectual history embraces a diverse and often antagonistic set of approaches, and is constantly extending its boundaries to engage with newer trends in global, comparative and transnational history. How would you define the identity of the field today, and can one even attempt such a definition, now that the discipline is no longer so rigorously tied to those methodological bastions such as the Cambridge School? Is current intellectual history an autonomous field or are its boundaries now well and truly blurred up against those of cultural and social history?
We are at the moment in a very interesting place, with what I see as a renewed interest, at least if you consider the number of books or journals discussing it. The most recent book, entitled ‘Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History for the Twenty-First Century’, and edited by Darrin McMahon and Samuel Moyn, is due to be published by Oxford. But it is very difficult to define its identity in view, as you say, of the many different approaches that exist. Do intellectual history as practised in the United Kingdom and German Begriffgeschichte form part of the same or different approaches? Is the American Intellectual way to be distinguished from the British variety? I would say yes. In that case it is indeed difficult to define what exactly it is. My own understanding of the field tends to be very wide. For me it is the study of past thinking, in a broad sense, that tries to understand it in its own terms, in relation to the circumstances (again broadly defined) in which it developed. I believe that this study must inevitably be in dialogue with cultural and social history, a branch of history that has close affinities with other branches. Like other branches of history, it therefore inevitably needs to think in global, comparative and transnational terms, which is of course much more challenging and requires wider language skills.

Quentin Skinner, in the introduction to his text, “The Foundations of Modern Political Thought”, gives an account of his method that seems directly antithetical to Leo Strauss' methodology. Though, what emerges from Skinner's assault on the abstract history of ideas is yet another kind of textual history. Is such a methodological approach sufficient in providing an adequate understanding of the intellectuals of the past?
First of all, I’m wary about limiting the study to that of the ‘intellectuals of the past’, in part because the notion of an intellectual is problematical before the nineteenth Century, but also because it seems to me to limit the scope of what we should be concerned with, namely all aspects of past thought, including of those who can in no way be defined as ‘intellectuals’. I do not think that intellectual history and the history of intellectuals are synonymous, despite obvious extensive overlaps.
To come back to Quentin Skinner, like many others, I do feel that, however refreshing his original attack was on the history of ideas as it was being practiced, a lot of his work has indeed been too confined to textual analysis, despite the huge interest of these analyses. To repeat, I really do feel that intellectual history must be in dialogue with other branches of history. It also needs to go beyond the text alone and look at the more concrete circumstances of the production of texts as well as the way in which they were read and in what conditions. If we are serious in trying to understand what someone was doing when they produced a text or an utterance, then we need to take all these things into account. When I began my doctoral research, I spent a lot of time worrying about how to link the thought I was studying with the social and economic base, finding that the then existing attempts to do so were very simplistic, involving broad generalisations, and were totally unsatisfactory. As soon as one goes into details and looks at particular cases, such generalisations do not hold water. It becomes clear that the variety of factors that played a role in the production of particular texts or arguments at a particular moment were extremely numerous and interrelated in complex ways, and that any attempt to isolate some of them and ignore others (whether we are talking about discursive traditions or the economic system) precludes a real understanding of the past. We therefore need, in a way that is often difficult to theorize and often involves a sort of intellectual ‘bricolage’, to try to look at all the factors that seem relevant. That is why I believe that the study of controversies is particularly interesting. A controversy reveals what people at a particular moment, in particular circumstances, sometimes in a particular place, found important. In order to understand it, and to understand the arguments being advanced, we need to look at all the aspects of the circumstances in which it developed, which takes us far beyond the analysis of a few texts or their situation within a particular tradition or language.

Many have argued that the focus of contemporary intellectual history is disproportionately aimed at the time period preceding the "short twentieth" century, resulting in the neglect to sufficiently examine the century’s dominant ideologies of Fascism, Marxism and Liberalism. Do you believe it is possible to create histories of their trajectories utilising the analytical tools of contemporary Intellectual History?
I really do not see why not. The fact that the dominant school of British intellectual historians has tended to focus on early modern political thought, and in particular the republican tradition, does not mean that these are the only subjects that can be addressed. It is worth noting that the two volumes on British Intellectual History produced in 2000 by Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young, who were all at one time connected with Sussex, cover the period 1750-1950 – although it is true that the different contributions deal overwhelmingly with the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. There is of course no lack of studies of Fascism, Marxism and Liberalism, and of individuals who defended one of these ideologies. Your question seems to assume that very few of these could be classified as intellectual history. I’m not sure that it is the case.

Your own recent work has focused, amongst other topics, on cultural transfers. How, would you say, has your involvement in such research been influenced by changing attitudes within the field of intellectual history and could you tell us a little about how your own approach has evolved or altered alongside the changing face of the discipline, especially perhaps with regards to the types of sources being used?
The study of cultural transfers was developed by German scholars in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who would not necessarily call themselves intellectual historians, although I think you could say they were influenced by German Begriffsgeschichte. My interest in cultural transfers arose from the type of subjects I have been interested in. After starting, in my thesis, with a study of a particular French thinker, La Mettrie, I became more generally interested in materialism, the tradition of which he was part, and irreligious thought in general. This study took account of various philosophical traditions and a large number of somewhat obscure works which are completely forgotten today, but which were important vectors for the often clandestine diffusion of this largely forbidden thought. I was thus always interested in minor thinkers and works, as well as the study of their circulation, which involved taking account of the concrete form in which they circulated, including manuscripts and periodicals, as well as the question of clandestine and pirated editions, false imprints, and so on. The supervisor of my Oxford Thesis, Robert Shackleton, who was a specialist of Montesquieu, very quickly pointed out to me the importance of material bibliography for understanding the books I was working on. So the type of sources I have been using has always been broad and gone beyond what is often seen to be the subject-matter of intellectual history. But my interest in cultural transfers arose from my (perhaps somewhat belated) realisation that it was not enough to study this French irreligious tradition and its link to and appropriation of certain intellectual traditions dating from the classical past, such as Epicureanism. I realised that I also needed to look at developments within Protestant thought and in particular at certain controversies in the British Isles exacerbated by the deep political divisions of the Seventeenth Century. I needed to understand the interest in these debates, the way that information about them reached the French reading public, and the way that the arguments were used and transformed in very different political and religious circumstances. For this the writings on cultural transfers seemed to me to be particularly appropriate. The result of this study can be seen in my book Bodies of Thought, but my interest in the various aspects – particularly the concrete aspects – of cultural transfers between British and France in the long eighteenth centuries led to a research project for which I received funding from the French ‘Agence national pour la recherche’, and a collective volume published in 2010.
I think this shows that it was more the requirements of this research that led me to cultural transfers rather than developments specific to intellectual history. In fact, I am not very sure that intellectual historians as such have up until now been particularly interested in the question of cultural transfers, although this is probably changing now.

Questions of circulation and networks are of particular interest to you, which by their very nature stand at the crossroads of various historical subfields. Could you give some reflections on your own experience in addressing these issues and perhaps comment on the current relationship between European and Atlantic Intellectual History?
As you can see from what I have said, circulation and networks have been at the heart of my recent research. I have always been interested in aspects of circulation, in particular the role played by periodicals in making works known (this was already part of my thesis and the research I did at that time led to my contributions to the French ‘Dictionnaire de la presse’). But I have become increasingly interested in the way information, ideas, arguments, etc. are known about, the circumstances determining the form in which they circulate, the concrete conditions of this circulation. The study of circulation is one of the areas in which intellectual history meets cultural history, as without at least these two branches of history it is impossible to understand this process. Intellectual historians have often looked for traces of the ideas of other thinkers in the writings of the people they are studying. Some have looked at the concrete evidence of knowledge of other writers, in particular the works they possessed, but there has been rather less interest in the other forms in which writings might reach people.
Here we come to the complicated question of networks. Intellectual historians, and in particular historians of science, are increasingly aware of the importance of networks in the way information circulated. These networks can be of many different types, and intellectual networks very often overlap with commercial, religious or other types of network, increasingly studied by economic, social and cultural historians. The study of correspondences is particularly useful for understanding how information about new ideas and publications circulated. Correspondences of all types also throw a particularly clear light on what was really being discussed and what preoccupied their authors, including some things that they did not choose (or dare) to publish. The correspondences of a certain number of leading thinkers and actors have been published, and many are now being put online; but there is a huge number of unpublished and sometimes unexploited letters which would yield a treasure trove of information and insights. A leading task is to make it available more widely, but that involves a huge amount of often fastidious work.
But when we go beyond the study of a particular correspondence, the study of networks in more general terms is fraught with problems, not least that of how to define a network. There is quite a lot of work being done at the moment on using these correspondences to map networks. Projects like the Stanford-based ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters, attract funding, can give spectacular results and do provide a better understanding of the ramifications of the networks of the leading figures whose letters have been published. But the picture is only partial, in view of the limited number of correspondences currently available, and because attention tends to be more focussed on European networks; although transatlantic connections are not absent, everyone is aware of the need to look more at Europe’s exchanges with the rest of the world. In addition, such maps only give us a limited type of information, and from the point of view of intellectual history we need to look more closely at the relationships between the authors of these epistolary exchanges and what they were actually discussing with whom.

After a long of period of negligence the issue of translation is again becoming central to intellectual historians. How does the detailed analysis of translations contribute to our understanding of intellectual exchanges?
An obvious element of the study of circulation that I have just been talking about concerns translation – a subject I am now particularly interested in. For a long time, there was surprisingly little interest in this question among intellectual historians, and it is also surprising to see that ‘Begriffsgeschichte’ tended likewise to ignore the problem, concentrating more on changes in concepts over time than between different linguistic areas. However, for any global, comparative or transnational approach to intellectual history, the question is crucial. On the one hand, we need to think about the meaning of particular notions in different languages, their different connotations, associations, intellectual baggage. It is clear that people apparently discussing the same notion or question in different language contexts are not necessarily really discussing the same thing and sometimes do not even mean the same thing. On a wider level, intellectual exchange between different cultures relies largely on the translation of texts. Translation is not an exact science, translators are forced to make choices which correspond not only to linguistic constraints but also very often to other types of constraints, whether ideological, commercial, religious, political - or even personal. We need therefore to look at these translations carefully to see how far they diverge from the original text, and to look at the translator’s choices, in order to understand what exactly was being conveyed to the readers in the target language. But in my opinion, this is not enough. We also need to look at the publishing history of the translation, at the reasons for the choice of the text to be translated, at the role of the publisher as well as the translator, the extent to which the decision to publish it was the result of pressure from the original author or publisher, or of a demand from the translator or the publisher of the translation, or other intermediaries, and how far it was the result of the activities of a particular interest group or network. Such details (and there are others) can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of a particular period as well as about how intellectual exchanges worked. For the period I work on at least, we also need to look at the role of journalists because of to the importance of translated extracts which enabled works that were never translated as such to be known by a foreign reading public. A large amount of work needs to be done not only on the study of translated texts (hitherto confined mainly to literary works) but also on translators. We still know very little about the people who translated texts, and we very often do not even know who translated certain works. Increased knowledge about them, would, I am convinced, throw new light on intellectual circulation and is really vital for a transnational, global or comparative intellectual history.

Looking to the future of intellectual history, what do you think is the political role of the intellectual historian on a wider platform, and do you see this position changing? Since the time of Max Weber one of the central epistemological concerns in the social sciences was the value-judgment dispute, leaving us to question whether it is possible to have a value-free intellectual history?
We need to distinguish different aspects of this question. The role of the historian is not to make value judgments. I am not interested in discussing whether a past actor was right or wrong, or in condemning the arguments advanced by a particular thinker. At the same time of course, as we all know, complete objectivity is an illusory goal. We are, for a start, influenced in our choice of research subjects by what we (or our contemporaries) consider important. But our first aim is to try to understand the past conversations on which we are, in the words of John Burrow, eavesdropping, and the reasons why they happened when they did and took the form they did. There has, for example, been a lot of heat generated by the attitude of Enlightenment writers towards slavery: they have been accused of condoning it, or on the contrary, praised for being the first to denounce it systematically. Both attitudes are in my opinion unhistorical. The first goal is to see what the different arguments were, to look at the complexities and contradictions we find, and to try to understand why these different, contradictory positions were held (often by the same person). Another example concerns Jonathan Israel’s books on the Radical Enlightenment, which provide a teleological history, in which his ‘Radical Enlightenment’ is said to be on the side, and at the root, of everything that we find positive in modernity, whereas both the ‘moderate Enlightenment’ and the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ are said to have been on the wrong side. The result is bad history and a caricature of the positions of many of these thinkers. But I don’t think that I am thereby condemning us to a purely antiquarian interest or to being irrelevant to today’s concerns. It seems to me, on the contrary, that understanding these past arguments can help us to understand these present concerns and to think more critically about our own certainties.
What I have just said does not mean either that intellectual historians should not intervene in public debates or refuse a political role, informed by their knowledge of the past. I am struck, for example, by the fact that the two most vocal, informed and convincing critics of the British government’s current reforms of Higher Education, Stefan Collini and Howard Hotson, are both intellectual historians. But this ‘political’ role, though informed by their study of history, is separate from their production as historians.

Finally, do you feel that the fate of intellectual history is tied up with that of the humanities as has been so hotly debated in recent years? Or, in contrast, is Intellectual History protected by its dynamic nature and ability to trespass into the domains of other disciplines?
Intellectual history is inevitably included in the debate on the humanities and their role today. Critics of the humanities as ‘irrelevant’ and pointless, and claims that humanities students are condemning themselves to unemployment generally tar all types of history with the same brush and do not make any distinction between its different branches. I fear that those who judge research on its ‘impact’, to use the term now favoured by the British REF, do not particularly care about how dynamic or interdisciplinary a particular study is if its immediate impact on the market or on policy is not demonstrable. My only hope is that the study of intellectual history can help to provide us with tools to counter these arguments. But I don’t think that it is particularly protected. One has only to look at what has happened at the University of Sussex.
But I do not want to finish on such a pessimistic note. If we look at the work currently being done in the field, broadly conceived, and the renewal of subjects and approaches, as well as the interest in it, that I can see amongst doctoral students at the EUI and elsewhere (who come from vary varied backgrounds and cultures), there is I think room for some optimism.

Many thanks for your time.
Thank you.

* Alexandra Ortolja-Baird is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute. She holds a BA in History from University College London and an MA in Intellectual History and the History of Political Thought from the University of London. Her PhD research focuses on the concepts of public utility and science in the works of the Italian Philosopher Cesare Beccaria.
George Souvlis is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute. He holds a BA in Sociology from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Crete and an M.Phil in Contemporary Greek and European History from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Crete. His PhD research examines the public discourse of antiparliamentarianism, in its various forms, produced by intellectuals in Greece from 1932 to 1940.


Dorit Maria Nicola Brixius
PhD Researcher
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute
Villa Schifanoia
Via Boccaccio 121
I-50133 Florence

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Ann Thomson, 01.06.2015 Florenz, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 10.07.2015, <>.
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