Modeling the History of Ideas

Hein van den Berg

University of Groningen/Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The history of ideas has long been a discipline in disrepute. It has been criticized as involving an improper historical method that does not provide understanding of historical texts. In particular, holists object that the notion of one idea traceable through history is illusory, for ideas cannot be studied in isolation from their context, for their meaning is in constant flux (Skinner 2002). We propose a method for the history of ideas, the model approach to history of ideas, that has none of the shortcomings traditionally ascribed to this approach. We argue that a satisfactorily worked out and implementable method to trace (dis)continuities in the history of human thought (or concept drift) requires historians to use interpretive conceptual frameworks. We call these frameworks models, i.e., fully explicit and revisable interpretive frameworks or networks of concepts (Betti & van den Berg 201X). Our model approach is preferable to existing defenses (Kuukkanen 2008) because the latter have two major limitations: (i) they do not provide a proper implementable method for history of ideas, but only a vocabulary; (ii) they do no satisfactorily address (a) holistic objections, nor Skinner’s criticism that history of ideas yields (b) biased accounts and (c) arbitrary narratives. Ad (i): Our model approach provides an implementable method for the history of ideas by construing ideas or concepts as (parts of) complex relational frameworks (models) that combine both stable parts (continuities) and variable parts (discontinuities). Models thus provide specific tools for studying continuities and discontinuities in history. Ad (ii): We counter (a) holistic objections by adopting a neutral stance with respect to the metaphysical nature of ideas. We counter Skinner’s objection that (b) the history of ideas yields arbitrary narratives by arguing that the historian must commit to the claim that the results of applying interpretive models in history are empirical hypotheses, and that models are revisable. We counter Skinner’s objection that (c) using models in the history of ideas results in biased accounts by arguing that the best defense against biases is to make them explicit. We illustrate our proposal by discussing a model of the concept of axiomatic science (de Jong & Betti 2010). We also argue that models should be understood as cognitive schemas in the sense of the so-called schema theory of knowledge (Anderson 1977), i.e., networks of (sub)concepts that facilitate the understanding of texts.