Centre for Intellectual History

Obituary by Donald Winch

John Wyon Burrow, 1935-2009

John Burrow, who taught at Sussex from 1969 to 1995, died of cancer on 3 November at his home in Witney, Oxfordshire.  Sussex was the first university in this country to offer degrees in intellectual history, and John was the first to occupy the chair in this branch of history created for him in 1981. He held this post until he moved to the Chair of European Thought at Oxford in 1995, prior to his retirement in 2000.  Among several other honours that came his way was election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1986.  

John was the first person to be appointed to a 'contextual' post in the School of Social Sciences, where he taught the school's third-year course on the history and philosophy of the social sciences, otherwise known as Concepts, Methods, and Values (CMV).   He had already published a path-breaking book, Evolution and Society; A Study in Victorian Social Theory(1966)on the pervasive influence of a variety of evolutionary theories on the social sciences during the nineteenth century. It was to herald the arrival of a more sophisticated way of writing the history of the social sciences, one that did not treat the past as being of interest only in so far as it anticipated the present.   Alongside two Sussex colleagues with whom he taught CMV, Stefan Collini and Donald Winch, he went on to write a book on That Noble Science of Politics(1983) that extended this approach and laid the foundation for what later became known as the 'Sussex school of intellectual history'.  John's unparalleled knowledge of the Whig and Burkean component within English liberalism provided him with the theme of his Carlyle lectures at Oxford, Whigs and Liberals; Continuity and Change in English Political Thought (1988).

John was also one of the leading British exponents of historiography, the history of history.  In 1981 he published a book on A Liberal Descent; Victorian Historians and the English Past that was awarded the Wolfson Prize for History.  Based on his contribution to a series of centenary lectures given at Sussex in the 1970s, he was later to write a short and incisive book on Edward Gibbon (1985)The climax to this side of John's interests came in his last major work, AHistory of Histories (2007), covering the entire period from Herodotus and Thucydides to trends in twentieth-century history. 

There was always a strong European component to John's interests.  It was first expressed in a translation of and commentary on Wilhelm von Humboldt's Limits of State Action (1969); and was to blossom into The Crisis of Reason (2000), a wide-ranging study of European scientific thinking and cultural and artistic movements during the period 1848 to 1914.

Although John left Sussex in 1995, he retained a link through the Centre for Intellectual History, which he supported by participating in its symposia and as a member of its advisory board.  One of his last visits to Sussex was to attend the inaugural lecture given in 2008 by Knud Haakonssen, the present holder of the Chair of Intellectual History to which John's scholarship had first lent lustre. John is remembered with love and affection by several generations of Sussex students, and by colleagues with whom he taught and served in the old schools of Social Sciences and English and American studies.  In any future history of this university his career will be cited as vindication of the fluidity of the early structures and the distinction and distinctiveness of what could flourish within them.

Donald Winch