Core research themes

Our three core research themes are:

  • Biography and the rethinking of individual lives
  • Sensibility and reason
  • Economics and politics.

Biography and the rethinking of individual lives

The ways that biographical approaches can help to rewrite intellectual history is now evident in a number of areas. It is particularly prominent in the history of science where many scholars are now looking at individuals and the networks in which they lived to question the idea that great major scientific advances come from the mind of an individual genius, stressing rather the importance of class, family, friendship networks and particular relationships in enabling epoch-making ideas to emerge.

Janet Browne's biography of Charles Darwin is perhaps the most interesting work of this kind, in its insistence that the Origin of Species cannot be seen as an individual triumph. Darwin set up a series of on the 'hierarchical collaborations', she suggests, 'acting as a greedy spider ' gathering up the things his friends presented to develop his own ideas.

Sophisticated biographical approaches that explore not only the emergence of an individual personality, subjectivity, and intellectual outlook, but also their epistolary and social networks are also being used to re-write the intellectual history of feminism, in ways that stress its international rather than national character

In this project biographical approaches will be directed towards the history of political thought in ways that demonstrate the hitherto neglected place of women in the articulation and promulgation of liberalism and other important political theories; to imperial thought and the question of how colonies were understood; to the history of subjectivity and sensibility through an analysis of the way the self is constructed in autobiography.

Sensibility and reason

The Enlightenment has been called the age of reason, but if there is one single idea that dominates exploration of human nature from the middle of the eighteenth century it is not reason but its nemesis: sensibility.

Sensibility occupies the core around which basic theological, metaphysical, scientific, anthropological and aesthetic questions were disputed. It opened up affective dimensions of life, such as the emotions, and its proponents argued that reason had been incapable of exploring these dimensions, as a result providing a wholly distorted picture of our mental life. At the same time sensibility usurped the claims of reason to underlie cognition: our grasp of the world as something external to and independent of us was something that could never be established by reason, but was rather a matter of sensibility.

Developments in neuropsychology and neuropathology over the last half-century have explored the intimate connections between our cognitive and emotional lives. Awareness of such connections first became a topic of concerted attention in the developments that we are concerned with in this project, and there is much to be learned from how the connections were originally made, especially if we can identify the assumptions guiding the projects, and how they differed from those of their predecessors and contemporaries who attempted to deal with cognate problems in metaphysical or theological terms.

Economics and politics

After decades of preoccupation with culture, during which economic history was left to a specialist cohort who applied economic analyses to the past, historians are beginning to discuss how to put economics back into the study of society and politics, and, in particular, intellectual history.

This strand will focus on the intimate links between economics and politics, on the understanding that since the eighteenth century, and until economics became thought of as a distinctive scientific discipline, reflection on economic life was intimately connected with broader philosophical thinking.

Our approach situates the study of economic ideas in social and political contexts, as the provenance of economic theorists and economists, but also medium level economic thought articulated by public officials, entrepreneurs, and publicists, amongst others. It also answers the current calls for the revitalisation of intellectual history by introducing the international as a vital context of economic thinking and change.

One of its concerns will be the fundamental change in social, political, economic, intellectual and cultural frameworks that created the 'international' and the global as sites for political deliberation and action. It will draw together the fragments of a complex cultural history of the role of economic thought in the perpetuation of international ideals, including humanitarianism, democratization, liberalism, nationalism and imperialism.