Readers of a certain age will no doubt remember the 1960s and 70s. Among many infelicities committed by American scholars and intellectuals in those decades was the demotion and near-dismissal of the study of intellectual history (the discipline which tells the history of major ideas and thinkers) from the American university.
Various motivations existed for this devaluation of the history of ideas. Michel Foucault declared that we must cut ourselves off from the traditional ideas and thinkers in order to free ourselves from intellectual, social, and moral oppression. Many other philosophers were condescending toward the history of thought because they found the older thinkers to be, well, outdated. What about Plato? He was beholden to ancient and outdated ways of thinking. Or, Aquinas? Corrupted by the pseudo-discipline of theology. Et . . . cetera.
The good news, however, is that intellectual history is making a comeback. Or, so say Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn in a recent article, “Ideas Still Have Consequences,” in The Chronicle Review. According to the authors, the comeback is more than a mere trend, and it is a much-needed development in Western universities. McMahon and Moyn argue that the study of intellectual history is helpful because (1) it helps brings various disciplines together over the course of history; (2) ideas matter for their own sake; and (3) ideas structure our experience.
But the authors do more than applaud the resurgence of intellectual history. They urge intellectual historians to take their craft seriously as a discipline that “ . . . reminds us where we have been, what we have discarded (perhaps mistakenly) and why, and how practical circumstances can both unleash and constrain our imaginations.” Further, intellectual historians should expand their discipline beyond the West in order to include global ideas and thinkers.
The stakes are high, according to the authors. If Americans were to take seriously historical ideas and thinkers they might be able to transcend their historical moment. They might be able to transcend, for example, the current fascination with economic necessity, utility, and “interest.” Similarly, they might be able to grasp the value of a classical education even when some parents advise their children to avoid the liberal arts in order to study only the “useful” subjects.
I agree with the authors and add several reasons that Christians should value intellectual history as a discipline, and the discussion of ideas and thinkers as a way of life for all people in general. I begin by noting that God is a self-revealing God. Between an infinite God and finite humanity is God’s self-revealing Word. His word has been written down such that the Bible contains within its pages the true story of the whole world. It tells us truth about God, his ways, and his world. So, among the many functions of Scripture is one significant function: to convey true ideas about God and his world. The study of ideas is relevant to the Christian life because God’s revelation of himself is, among other things, a revelation of ideas.
One of God’s revelations about humanity is that we—as God’s imagers—use the capacities with which we are endowed (e.g. spiritual, moral, intellectual, creative, relational, and physical) to “till the soil,” to bring out the hidden potentials of the world God has given us. One of the ways we do this is to study God and his world, articulating our conclusions about him and about it. In addition to being limited by our finitude, we are, after the Fall, limited also by our sinful inclinations. In other words, we are likely to be wrong when we set forth ideas precisely because we are sinners. Our wayward hearts distort our thinking. So intellectual history is relevant because we as Christians can discern when, where, and how human thinking has been derailed by human sin and rebellion.
Finally, way we can honor Christ by bringing our thinking in submission to him. We are now new creations in Christ. As we diagnose the myriad ways which sin and rebellion distort our thinking, we seek to redirect our thinking toward Christ. If the universe consists in him and he will, in the end, redeem and restore it (Col 1:15-20; Eph 1:3-14), then all of our thoughts about the universe somehow relate to him. So the study of intellectual history can be, for believers, a study of ways that we can redirect human thought toward Christ.
There are quite a few other reasons we benefit from the study of historical ideas and thinkers. But these are three that immediately resonate, I think, with a follower of Christ. For thoughtful Christians who are interested in the history of ideas and thinkers, I recommend, for starters, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s Living at the Cross Roads or Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (both of which contain a concise summary and evaluation of Western ideas or thinkers). As a complement, I recommend Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind (a more lengthy, but very accessible, summary of the history of Western thought, whose author does not write from a Christian perspective).