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

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