Friday, 30 November 2012

January meeting

Huge thanks to everyone who attended our first meeting last Tuesday. It was great to get the chance to talk about "History of Ideas", and we can all look forward to continuing our discussions.

Thanks also to those who passed on suggestions for future readings - please keep them coming!

This is all very *provisional*, but, as it stands, for our January meeting we will be reading an excerpt from Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies (1962).

In February, we will read something by Simone Weil (possibly an excerpt from Gravity and Grace (1947) or Oppression and Liberty (1955)).

Details and dates tbc. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

First meeting: Tuesday 27 November, 5pm

Our first meeting will take place at 5pm on Tuesday 27th November in Committee Room, Wolfson College. The Committee room is located on the first floor, up the marble stairs at the far end of the Berlin Quadrangle.

We are hoping to use this first session as an opportunity to meet and chat informally over wine about the set text (please see below), and also to ponder on future readings - so please do come with suggestions.

The reading is a very short piece (4 pages long) by Isaiah Berlin, which discusses the field of History of Ideas, and which also gives a useful insight into Berlin's style and “method” to those unfamiliar with his work: Part I of the 1949 article “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century”, reprinted in Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (OUP, 2002). The entire essay can be accessed here.

We can perhaps then head to the dining hall for dinner - so in case you can't make it at 5, you are welcome to join us afterwards.

Meanwhile, do get in touch if you have any questions:

Looking forward to seeing many of you on Tuesday!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Call to arms/Inaugural Meeting

Join us in setting up a History of Ideas reading group, here at Wolfson College.

Keeping the title of the reading group deliberately open and broad, our aim is to study “the intellectual conditions of intellectual life” (to use one, very loose, definition of History of Ideas) - or, to employ the terms of Isaiah Berlin, Wolfson's first President and one of the most eminent Historians of Ideas, we will aim to study the various “collisions of ideas” that have throughout history bred “intellectual climates” and that continue to inform our present-day thinking. 

Speaking about the field of History of Ideas, Berlin said: 

To write a good illuminating history of philosophy you must try to enter into what the ideas meant to those who entertained them, what were the kinds of things that were central to them. Without that there can be no true history of ideas. My interest was not centred on mainly philosophical ideas, but also on social, political and artistic ideas. Again, unless you are yourself involved in such topics and are puzzled by such problems, you cannot write a significant history of the similar preoccupations of others. The history of ideological positions cannot be written properly except by those who are themselves liable to think in ideological terms, and are aware that they are doing so.
My view of philosophy is coloured by my fascination with the genesis and development of general ideas. Let me explain what I mean. There are certain subjects which advance by accumulation: that is progress … Philosophy is not like that. It does not advance in that sense … The questions Plato asked can still be, and indeed are, asked today. The questions which Herder and Vico asked are still debated. Aristotle is a direct influence on present-day philosophers, not only on Thomas Aquinas. Philosophy is not a cumulative discipline. The major ideas, outlooks, theories, insights, have remained the central ideas of philosophy. They have a certain life of their own which is trans-historical…*

Taking inspiration - as opposed to affirming it as true - from Berlin's idea that to understand the "genesis and development of general ideas" one has to approach them trans-historically and from "within", our reading group will seek to engage rigorously with a variety of texts, across various periods and disciplines.

In essence, we are keen on reading influential texts from the fields of Sociology, Anthropology, History, Politics, Philosophy, Legal Studies, History of Science, and Literary and Art Criticism. These may include, for example, texts by Vico, Hegel, Marx, Smith, Keynes, Trotsky, Arendt, Luxemburg, Levi-Strauss, de Beauvoir, Collingwood, Popper, Wittgenstein. We are also keen on revisiting works that have either remained marginalised or that merit re-examination: for example, Gobetti, Sorel, Proudhon, Orwell, Gandhi, Tagore, Tawney. 

We will aim to meet monthly, choosing texts that are short, accessible and that lend themselves to broad, cross-disciplinary discussion. 

Above all, we hope to create networks between students and fellows at Wolfson (even though members of all other colleges and general public are welcome – so do spread the word!), from different backgrounds and disciplines. Although open-ended, there is also the possibility for our reading group to organise a workshop or conference at the end of the year, to which you are all invited to participate/help organise.

Please do get in touch if you are interested in participating, or if you have any questions:

*from Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (Peter Halban, 1991), 23-26