The Intellectual History of Europe

In the introduction to their 1984 volume on Philosophy in History, Richard Rorty, J.B. Schneewind and Quentin Skinner describe their vision of a comprehensive (and incidentally impossible) “Intellectual History of Europe”:

Imagine a thousand-volume work entitled The Intellectual History of Europe. Imagine also a great convocation of resurrected thinkers, at which every person mentioned in the pages of this work is given a copy and invited to begin by reading the passages concerning himself or herself, and then to read alternately backwards and forwards until he has mastered the full thousand volumes. An ideal work of this title would fulfil the following conditions:

  1. The person whose activities and writings are being described finds the description intelligible, except for the parenthetical remarks which say things like ‘This was later to be known as …’ and ‘Since the distinction between X and Y was yet to be drawn, A’s use of “Z” cannot be interpreted as …’, and he comes to understand even these remarks as he reads on.

  2. On finishing the book, everyone described endorses the description of himself as, though of course insufficiently detailed, at least reasonably accurate and sympathetic.

  3. The entire assemblage of the resurrected, at the point at which they have all read through the book, are in as good a position to exchange views, to argue, to engage in collaborative inquiry on subjects of common interest, as secondary sources for their colleagues’ works can make them.

This seems a plausible ideal for intellectual history because we hope that such history will give us a sense of Europe as (in the phrase which Gadamer has adapted from Hölderin) ‘the conversation which we are’.

“Introduction”, Rorty, Schneewind, Skinner (eds.),
Philosophy in History (Cambridge: CUP, 1984), p. 1.

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