Intellectual History and Post-Modernism: The Philosophy of History, The Cult of Rationalism and Approaches to Contemporary Political Thought

The rigidity of traditional approaches to intellectual history and political thought remain opposed to post-modern considerations of the philosophy and theory of history. Consequently, questioning theories of knowledge and narrative – like the discursive role of truth or the pre-eminence of interpretation within history – is not easily reconciled with certainist models of political thought. The philosophy of history thus poses several pertinent questions which frame reflections on historic and contemporary approaches to intellectual history and political thought.

The past-history dichotomy, which underlines the crucial separation between the realities of the past and the constructed discourse of history, is key in acknowledging that intellectual history is critiqued most frequently for its strict subscription to the cult of rationalism. Political thought appears to exist within a vacuum of literature and thinkers, almost entirely detached from both public reality and the philosophies of history. Principally reliant on developments in nineteenth-century political thought, such rational narratives of historical progress are teleologically self-serving. A form of Hegelian determinism characterises these considerations: history is perceived as a linear progression towards a deterministic and often utopian end in the context of the rise of the European nation-state. The ongoing seductiveness of this line of thought as a mode of comprehension is evidenced in the influence of Francis Fukuyama’s late-twentieth century notion of ‘the end of history’.

Thus, intellectual history is too often monolithic – certainly for a discipline which carries the cultural salience of a living entity. Freud’s theory of the unconscious offers one of the most potent critiques, challenging the fundamental perception that professions of belief are adequate in interrogating intent, given that the exploration of intent itself is often seen as epistemologically inviable. Methodological rigidity is perhaps more plausible in the context of considerations of early political thought given the elite character of available source material and the relative lack of diffusion of political thought into public spheres. However, in an age of emergent democracy, in which political thought is actively shaped by the public, intellectual histories beyond the early-twentieth century should acknowledge their public nature and the general ‘incommensurability of reality to concepts’.

In exploring historiographic tendencies, it is necessary to note that narratives of the history of political thought are also narratives with political intent, where philosophical and theoretical limitation. Hayden White notes that the only real distinction between history and the philosophy of history is the surface acknowledgement of its concepts by the latter, while in the former such concepts are buried within the narrative where they have consequential power as ‘a hidden or implicit shaping device’. The premise of Keith Jenkin’s Re-thinking history is the exploration of such a phenomenon. Placing a broad emphasis on the role of epistemology, methodology, and ideology, Jenkin’s thesis is one of interpretation, emphatically stressing the existence of history as ‘a shifting discourse…an inter-textual, linguistic construct’ which is continually ‘composed’ and ‘assigned’ and functions within a logic of construction, as mirrored by Natalie Zemon Davis’ desire to divulge the role of narrative in ‘making sense of the unexpected and building coherence into immediate experience’. Histories are stories, regardless of scientific or rational methodologies. As Jenkins notes, there is a direct relationship between history and material interests given their shared relationship with theory and ideology.

This is where Derrida’s notion of deconstruction is particularly salient. Coupled with Foucault’s theories of power and knowledge, intellectual history and political thought can be viewed as the historical field most susceptible to ideology. Political thought often works within the framework of objective truth, neglecting that truth itself has a discursive function within historiography and, by extension, a tendency to fetishise the document. A human need for relatively consistent perceptions of political thought may be preferable but these are innately unresponsive to past reality. Inspired by Christian and western philosophic traditions, science and rationalism are not just to be applied: history is a complex art, shaped most frequently by the functions of power in legitimating what is perceived to be historical truth.

Frank Bruni’s acknowledgment of ‘embarrassment, vanity, [and] viciousness’ as the historical forces which drive conflict, explored in his recent opinion piece for The New York Times, is essential in popularising the role of emotion within ideology and history, specifically the history of ideas. However, intellectual history too often fails to explore this relationship. To advocate a mode of political thought detached from emotion is to sever intellectual history from its humanity. Political thought must be both linguistically constructed and consumed by the polity and as a by-product of this process, becomes susceptible to a spectrum of interpretation. Pure ideology, the domination of thinkers, and the monolithic nature of standard approaches to intellectual history must be disputed in relation to the efficacy of historical study in an age in which ideology is total. Priding instead, as Tosh suggests, ‘the emotional, the instinctive and the implicit’ and acknowledging that history is a discourse which the public experiences, reflects, and acts towards, and as should be proposed, reacts to. It is also significant to note that actual consumption of ideology by the public is, in this case, the history of political thought, simply a theoretical history of political thought.

Accordingly, emotionality and the past-history dichotomy have the combined potential to explore new avenues of political thought. The link between politics, language, thought, and the practice of history as primarily a legitimating and locating exercise – a constructed narrative to be consumed – may allude to an area that exists in between the strict binaries of ‘the past’ and ‘history’. Areas of fantasy in which the past is both factual and fictitious, narrative elements combine to formulate stories not necessarily of literature or history, pacifying a nostalgic impulse which has profound political implications. As Jenkins suggests, history is a personal construct, a product of the historian’s role as narrator, which prioritises comprehensibility. Political nostalgia and associated thought systems are distinctly twentieth century modes of political thought which require a radical approach to intellectual history to be discussed.

Of primary concern within such a discourse is avoiding theoretical nihilism. Certain critiques of Jenkins’ Re-thinking history resent the fact that Jenkins’ theories flirt with the absurd. It is necessary to reconcile such theories and philosophies of history with historical practices to ensure the efficacy and continuing significance of the discipline, most potently in areas in which history is most contentious and directly impacts human life. Compromise, in all its elusivity, is thus essential. As with interrogating alternate disciplines, post-modern philosophies of history should be used to strengthen enquiry, not dispute its fundamental validity.

Written by Georgia Smith


Bruni, Frank. 2022. The New York Times. February 24. Accessed February 24, 2022.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. Aesthetics, Methods and Epistemology: Essential Works 1954-84. USA: New Press. 

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and The Last Man. USA: Free Press. 

Jenkins, Keith. 1991. Re-thinking History. New York: Routledge. 

Tosh, John. 1999. The Pursuit of History. United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited. 

Turner, Catherine. 2016. Critical Legal Thinking. 27 May. Accessed February 28, 2022.

White, Hayden. 1978. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

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