MA in Intellectual History
- Programme Structure
- Admission requirements
- MPhil and DPhil study
- Core faculty and their research interests
- Further information
Why is the modern West ideologically distinctive? Does the dominion of modern North America in military terms today rest upon distinctive European traditions of argument concerning philosophy, politics and the international world that can be traced to early modern times, and more particularly the period commonly termed ‘the enlightenment’? If the history of Europe is studied comparatively, which ideas and intellectual controversies can be identified as having done the most to shape modern life? What are the origins of contemporary notions of literature, science and religion? To what extent can we explain long and short-term historical change by reference to movements of ideas? What is the relationship between intellectuals and revolutionary movements, both in ideas and in politics? Is there a tradition of Western cosmopolitanism that can and ought to be defended? Such questions are addressed by the MA programme in Intellectual History, which provides a grounding in Western intellectual history from early modern to modern times.
Intellectual matters – ideas – can be seen both as events in time and as possessed of meaning. Intellectual history combines these two perspectives. It treats past ideas as historical phenomena just like battles or famines; but unlike famines, ideas have a meaning intended by their authors, and unlike battles, the meaning of ideas may have content beyond that intended by their perpetrators. This raises profound questions about the relationship between intellectual history and all other forms of history – political, social, economic, institutional. At the same time, intellectual history eschews the universalistic and a-historical pursuits of philosophy. This programme introduces the student to the methods of intellectual history through a historical overview of the actual practice of intellectual history, and focuses on the emergence of the modern West and the controversies that have made its intellectual life so distinctive.
The University of Sussex is a renowned international centre for the study of intellectual history with a long tradition in the subject. It is one of the few British institutions that encourage undergraduates and postgraduates to specialise in intellectual history, in the broad sense of the ideas and ideological movements that engaged thinkers in the past. The MA in Intellectual History is recognised internationally as a leading programme in the field. The programme is both international in scope and comparative in method. Each course includes the study of ideas across national boundaries, and offers comparisons with continents beyond Europe.
An additional major aim of the programme is to prepare students for more advanced study, and specifically for doctoral-level research. Students take a workshop on methods and approaches to intellectual history in the spring term of the programme. This provides methodological research training, utilizing the detailed knowledge major research areas of intellectual history provided in the rest of the programme.
The MA is housed in the Centre for Intellectual History, which arranges regular symposia on the latest research in intellectual history, in addition to being a home to significant research projects, editorial projects (including ‘The Newton Project’), and a leading academic journal (‘History of European Ideas’).
Full-time students take the following compulsory core courses in the Autumn term:
And the following compulsory core courses in the Spring term:
And attend the:
During the Summer Term students work under individual supervision towards a dissertation.
Part-time students take the MA over two years: Religion and Enlightenment and War and Empire in their first year; Toleration and Persecution and Democracy and Human Rights in their second year, in addition to attending the Workshop and completing their dissertation.
Each course is taught by weekly small-group seminars. Students are also expected to attend the weekly 'Work-in-Progress' seminar organised by the History Department, in addition to symposia organised by the Centre for Intellectual History devoted to cutting-edge research.
Autumn Term courses
Religion and Enlightenment (core course)
Half a century ago, friends and foes of the Enlightenment were at least agreed that this phenomenon in European history was characterised by anti-clericalism and some degree of critical distance to religion. Today – and for several years – many scholars are defending an Enlightenment that is, if not a religious movement, at least intimately intertwined with religion. So while the concept of ‘Enlightenment values’ has retained its colloquial meaning in ordinary language, its basis in scholarship has been steadily eroded. Those in need of a clear concept of Enlightenment that is serviceable for public debate may be excused for thinking that the state of scholarly work has become exceptionally divided and confusing, especially concerning the issue of religion. The scholarly discussion has been so intensive and complex, that often it can be hard to see the simpler and more basic issues, and one cannot help but get a feeling that scholars are talking past each other, because they try and fail to mean the same thing by Enlightenment and religion. Much of the work that has been done has consisted in using the relationship between Enlightenment and religion to re-define the concept of either or of both. In fact, much of the discussion has been a succession of encounters between different kinds of history. More particularly, it has become a debate about the role of intellectual history in our understanding of the past, and since this form of history itself has undergone quite fundamental changes in the same period, it is hardly surprising that the outcome has been as unhelpful for the beating of drums as it has been encouraging for the necessary scepticism of scholarship. This course examines the relationship between religion and enlightenment across the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and radical Protestant worlds, in addition to scrutinising the relationship between enlightenment and Judaism, Islam, and the forms of religious practice in the Orthodox world. Traditional perspectives on the relationship between enlightenment and atheistic or anti-religious beliefs with also been examined.
Toleration and Persecution (core course)
The main aim of this course is to provide students with sound knowledge of the most important turning points in early-modern controversies about the nature of toleration and persecution. The course will survey key texts in their historical context, and examine themes that organise our understanding of toleration and persecution from the fall of Rome to this day. At the end of the course, the student will be conversant with the great thinkers in this field, and will be able to identify historical trends, and to understand and contextualise current controversies.
The centralised state and its "monopoly on violence", in Max Weber's famous phrase, is a recent historical development. For most of European history, popes, church councils, kings, emperors, princes, greater and lesser nobility, and autonomous city governments vied for the right to lay down the law and to punish transgressors. When these authorities collided, the debate over toleration and persecution acquired complex layers of meaning. What the Church persecuted, the secular authorities sometimes preferred to tolerate, and vice versa. Their confrontations, which shook the whole of Europe, alternated with periods of co-operation. The Church established ethical and some legal standards, but on the whole had to rely on secular power for enforcement. The history of the interplay between Church and political authority illuminates all debate about persecution and toleration, from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment.
In order to understand these developments, special attention will be paid to the ideas of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Botero, Bodin, Beza, Thomas Munzer, Grotius, Hobbes, Milton, Locke and writers of the English, American and French revolutions. The themes that the course covers are The Two Kingdoms; Reason of State; the history of human rights; theories of just war; sects and heresies; docile minds and docile bodies; and salons, refugees and publications. Focus will be on early modern Europe, but with an eye on extra-European events, such as the role of persecution and toleration in the rise and demise of colonial empires.
Spring Term courses
War and Empire (core course)
This course seeks to provide students with foundational knowledge of modern political thought, by recovering some of the most influential debates between canonical and lesser-known figures, with the aim of listening to past voices and understanding them in their own terms. The focus of the course is the gradual superiority of early modern Europeans in the arts of war, which led to the establishment of global empires, and the associated sense that European political and economic life was different, and more especially its intellectual life. The course guides students through current controversies in the historiography of political thought from the Renaissance to the Cold War. Although social, economic and biographical information may be pertinent to the understanding of individual texts, the intention is to relate each author’s writings to the prejudices and presumptions of their own time; understanding what they were seeking to do not by criticising it, but by reconstructing the arguments deemed convincing and justificatory by the authors themselves. A selection from the following themes will be considered: Machiavelli and republican empire; Jean Bodin, absolutism and mixed government; Grotius, Hobbes and modern natural law theory and theories of war; Pufendorf, federal unions and commercial monarchy as the basis of modern empire; John Law, public credit and patriotism; Mandeville and Fenélon: Epicureanism and Augustinianism as the basis of imperial endeavour; Montesquieu, the science of legislation and the prospects for Europe; Hume and Rousseau: unsocial sociability and reform politics in republics and monarchical empires; Vattel, universal monarchy and perpetual peace; Frederick and Great and Voltaire: reason of state, war and empire; Adam Smith, the natural progress of opulence and opposition to radical projectors; Paine, Burke and the future of Britain question; Constant, the nature of the modern republic and British supremacy in Europe; Jeremy Bentham’s and James Mill’s ideas about utilitarianism, empire and the superiority of European nations; John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx on representative government and political economy as the basis for European empires; Tocqueville and North America; Weber, bureaucracy and the comparative study of religion and empire; Gramsci and Schmitt on liberal empire and cosmopolitanism in international relations; Chomsky, just-war theory and aspirations to global peace.
Democracy and Human Rights (core course)
In contemporary political philosophy rights are often described as the necessary foundation of democratic government. The democratic polity could not function, it is thought, without the establishment of and adherence to particular rights. Having respect for human rights enshrined in law is often said to ensure liberal governance. Equally, the democratic values of individual equality and of trust and compromise help to foster a political culture respectful of rights. This course scrutinises the presumed fit between rights and democracy, by looking at the origins of modern ideas about rights and about democracy, from the late seventeenth century onwards. During the enlightenment era, and especially in France and in Scotland, authors put forward programmes for reform, intended in part to curb the perceived excesses of commercial society, and at the same time to protect certain civil liberties. In the eyes of some reformers, such as the physiocrats, the assertion of rights was the key to French revival in economic and political arenas, but this was premised on the avoidance of democracy. For the physiocrats, as for so many early modern authors, there was no necessary connection between democracy and rights, and the main goal of politics was to avoid the kinds of violence and irrationality associated with mob rule, and with the active role of the people as political agents. The course commences with study of the first attempts to establish political systems based upon rights, and the very different contemporary criticisms and justifications of democracy. While democracy was often seen to be a source of internal division, a dangerous motor of extremism and unnecessary innovation, and a cause of international instability because of the usual support of the people for external wars, democracy could equally be described as a form of government both just and wise, sustaining a polity whose patriotic populace were devoted to the public good. The course goes on to study authors who saw democracy and rights as mutually sustaining, from Condorcet and Thomas Paine onwards, and how such authors addressed the issues of necessity in politics, and strove to secure national unity, commercial success and national defence.
Workshop on the Theory and Practice of Intellectual History
Particular attention is paid to the “Cambridge School” of intellectual historians (Laslett, Pocock, Dunn, Skinner et al.), set against the backdrop of contributions to intellectual history by Michel Foucault in France, Reinhart Koselleck in Germany, Franco Venturi in Italy, and the pragmatists in America. This is complemented by case studies of explanation and understanding in intellectual history. Through these, the variety of intellectual history in philosophy, political theory, science, literature and theology is illustrated.
During the summer term students work under supervision on a dissertation of up to 20,000 words on a topic they choose and agree with the intellectual history convenor and their supervisor. Part-time students are expected to begin background reading for the dissertation in their first summer term.
The MA is assessed by a 5000 word term paper for each of the four courses, which is written in the vacation following the end of the course, together with the 20,000 word dissertation, which is submitted towards the end of the summer vacation. A condition for being assessed is that the workshop has been followed satisfactorily.
Students should have at least an upper second honours degree in a related discipline.
MPhil and DPhil study
The University offers individual supervision of research leading to an MPhil or DPhil in Intellectual History, which is organised through the Centre for Intellectual History.
Core faculty and their research interests
The following faculty generally teach the programme:
Knud Haakonssen (Professor of Intellectual History) Research expertise: Early Modern European Intellectual History.
Rob Iliffe (Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science) Research expertise: Early Modern History of Science and Natural Philosophy.
Norman Vance (Professor of English) Research expertise: Victorian and Irish literature, religion and society, and biblical and classical influences on English literature. Irish intellectual and cultural aristocracies from the seventeenth century to the present.
Richard Whatmore (Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Political Thought) Research expertise: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British, French and Swiss Intellectual History, the history of political thought and the history of political economy
Information is also available at the University of Sussex website.