Right now, the way we teach the history of anything (especially concepts) is through people rather than the concepts themselves. We look to individual people for inspiration, and trace a history of something from the person who first introduced it. We don’t often cover its evolution outside of a particular context. e.g. modernism in India might not be the same as it’s perceived in Barcelona or Turkey.
Ideas don’t grow linearly, and most can’t be traced back to one person
It might be far more interesting to map how a single term has evolved over time rather than limit our sense of understanding to only what a few “pioneers” have done
prioritising a history of ideas might also help us better acknowledge and identify those who don’t get enough credit
- e.g. in movies, the actors are almost always in focus even though they’re just one part of the process
- e.g. software like arena and sane, which depend entirely on people to make them useful. When we chronicle the evolution of that idea, should we focus only on the creators, but also on the ideas and use cases that made these worth noticing?
What is the history of ideas?
- History textbooks largely exclude ideas — history is usually presented as an endless series of events, figures and dates
- The history of ideas provides much needed context because ideas:
- have a profound influence on individual actions
- provide us with a sense of flow that singularly studying dates and people can’t provide
- humanise the past’s people by showing they were complex and changed over time.
- The history of people, on the other hand, characterises people as one dimensional and larger-than-life.
- chronological depictions often happen in a very narrow context
- non-linear studies can make it easier to draw parallels between seemingly unconnected events in seemingly unconnected parts of the world
- Ideas might have their seed in one point i time but they manifest in multiple and varied ways
- A history of ideas becomes a crossroads meeting point for many disciplines
- formal treatment and analysis meets attempts to situate these ideas in appropriate context across political and geographical boundaries