Roundtable What’s the Big Idea? Challenges and Prospects for Long-Range Intellectual History

AHA Session 177
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom F (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Lynn Hunt, University of California, Los Angeles
Civil War
David Armitage, Harvard University
James T. Kloppenberg, Harvard University
Darrin McMahon, Florida State University
Common Sense
Sophia Rosenfeld, University of Virginia

Session Abstract

What’s the Big Idea?

Challenges and Prospects for Long-Range Intellectual History

In 1958, Fernand Braudel addressed the need for historians to attend to long-term stasis and change in his celebrated article, “Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée.”  Social historians, in particular, have long heeded this call, but less often noticed was Braudel’s observation that the “same element of permanence or survival” that he identified in geography and social structure applied to “the vast domain of cultural affairs” as well.  Braudel cited that “magnificent book,” Ernst Robert Curtius’s Europaissche Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter as proof—high intellectual history, written by a literary scholar—to underline the point that “right up to 13th and 14th centuries ... the intellectual elite fed on the same subjects, the same comparisons, the same commonplaces and catchwords” that they had for much of antiquity.

Although this panel is not specifically oriented toward addressing the work and methodology of Braudel, it will engage with his insight nonetheless, considering the prospects for doing intellectual history over the longue durée at a time when the dominant methodological concerns among cultural and intellectual historians still tends to focus on much more restricted temporal contexts.  Each of the four panelists is currently writing histories of this type—on notions of democracy, common sense, civil war, and genius, respectively.  And so each will reflect on the challenges of undertaking this type of study in the context of their respective projects, considering potential pitfalls as well as payoffs, while seeking to justify their approaches methodologically.

See more of: AHA Sessions