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History of ideas
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History of ideas

The history of ideas is a field of research in history and related fields dealing with the expression, preservation, and change of human ideas over time. The history of ideas is often considered a sister discipline to, or a particular approach within, intellectual history. Work in the history of ideas usually involves close research in the history of philosophy and the history of literature.

The phrase history of ideas was first used, and its systematic study was initiated, by the historian Arthur O. Lovejoy, who for decades presided over the regular meetings of the History of Ideas Club at Johns Hopkins University. Aside from his students and colleagues engaged in related projects (such as Rene Wellek and Leo Spitzer, with whom Lovejoy engaged in extended debates), continued work in a spirit close to Lovejoy's history of ideas has been carried out by scholars such as Michel Foucault and others influenced by his work.


The basic unit of analysis used by Lovejoy's history of ideas is the unit-idea, or the individual concept. These unit-ideas work as the building-blocks of the history of ideas: though they are relatively unchanged in themselves over the course of time, unit-ideas recombine in new patterns and are expressed in new forms in different historical eras. As Lovejoy saw it, the task of the historian of ideas was to identify these unit-ideas and describe their historical emergence and recession in new forms and combinations.

See also

See also: idea, and compare sociology of knowledge and intellectual history.

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