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HandWiki. Global Intellectual History. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/36565 (accessed on 24 April 2024).
HandWiki. Global Intellectual History. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/36565. Accessed April 24, 2024.
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Global Intellectual History
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Global intellectual history is the history of thought in the world across the span of human history, often understood from the invention of writing to the present. The discipline is part of the field of intellectual history, also known as history of ideas, and can also be termed global history of ideas. In recent years, historians such as C. A. Bayly have been calling for a global intellectual history to be written. They stress that to understand the history of ideas across time and space, it is necessary to study from a cosmopolitan or global point of view the connections and the parallels in intellectual development across the world. Yet these separate histories and their convergence in the modern period have yet to be brought together into a single historical narrative. Nonetheless, some global histories, like Bayly's own Birth of the Modern World or David Armitage's The Declaration of Independence: A Global History offer contributions to the huge and necessarily collaborative project of writing the history of thought in a comparative and especially connective way. Other examples of transnational intellectual histories include Albert Hourani's Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. In 2013, Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori published the anthology Global Intellectual History. In 2016, the Routledge journal Global Intellectual History (ed. Richard Whatmore) was established. In January 2019 the historian J. G. A. Pocock stated in that journal: "The beginnings of the ‘global’ critique are well known and may as well be accepted as common ground. They reduce to the assertion that ‘Cambridge’ scholarship in this field is ‘Eurocentric’; that is, that it has dealt exclusively with the ‘political thought’ generated in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, transmitted to medieval and modern Europe, and taken up in the Euro-colonized Americas and a world (or ‘globe’) subjected to European or ‘western’ domination. This is obviously true, and calls for reformation." It has been argued that the historians of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy and Hajime Nakamura should be read as modern founders of the discipline global intellectual history. Other recent contributors are Siep Stuurman, Sanjay Subrahamnyam, and Martin Mulsow. The origins of human intellectual history arguably began before the invention of writing, but historians are by definition only concerned with the eras in which writing was present. In the spirit of a historiographic project that is relevant to all human beings and that has yet to be completed, the sections that follow briefly review currents of thought in pre-modern and modern history of the world, and are organized by geographic area (and within each section, chronologically).

global history intellectual history intellectual development

1. Europe and the Americas

The modern intellectual history of Europe cannot be separated from various bodies of ancient thought, from the works of classical Greek and Latin authors to the writings of the fathers of the Christian Church. Such a broad survey of topics is not attempted here, however. A debatable but defensible starting point for modern European thought might instead be identified with the birth of scholasticism and humanism in the 13th and 14th centuries. Both of these intellectual currents were associated with classical revivals (in the case of scholasticism, the rediscovery of Aristotle; in the case of humanism, of Latin antiquity, especially Cicero) and with prominent founders, Aquinas and Petrarch respectively. But they were both significantly original intellectual experiences, as well as self-consciously modern, so that they make an appropriate starting point for this survey.

What follows below is a selective and far from complete listing of significant trends and individuals in the history of European thought. While movements such as the Enlightenment or Romanticism are relatively imprecise approximations, rarely taken too seriously by scholars, they are good starting points for approaching the enormous complexity of the history of Europe's intellectual heritage. It is hoped that interested readers will pursue the listed topics in greater depth by consulting the respective articles and the suggestions for further reading.

The intellectual history of western Europe and the Americas includes:

  • Scholasticism: Associated especially with Aquinas and the recovery of Aristotle, a movement that was popular in universities and provided a new way of reasoning especially in law, philosophy, theology.
  • Humanism: Humanists were associated with the discipline of rhetoric but they were not just orators, they also learned ancient languages, especially classical Greek and created new knowledge about the secular past. The revival of ancient literature and philosophy was of immense importance for the further development of European thought. The first humanist is considered to be Petrarch. Later exponents of note were Leonardo Bruni, Lorenzo Valla, and Erasmus of Rotterdam.
  • The Renaissance: A movement in the arts and letters, it is associated particularly with humanism, but also with new trends in painting and with the efflorescence of a new courtly culture that from Italy (c.1350) spread across Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • The New Philosophy: The 20th century dubbed this the Scientific Revolution, but in the 17th century, the new science was more often considered to be a new way of doing philosophy. It is associated mainly with the thought of Francis Bacon and Descartes. Other important philosophers were: Hobbes, Gassendi, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz. Advances in astronomy were made by Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo.
  • The Royal Society: A secular creation of an intellectual world led by figures such as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Joseph Addison, and Bishop Sprat.
  • The Enlightenment: Key developments in thought included The rights of man, political representation, political economy, deism. Notable participants counted Bayle, Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Fontenelle, the Comte de Buffon, Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Moses Mendelssohn, Vico.
  • The Encyclopaedists: The creation of central repositories of knowledge available to all outside of academies, including mass-market encyclopaedias and dictionaries: Diderot, Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, and Ephraim Chambers.
  • Romanticism : Individual, subjective, imaginative, personal, visionary (scholarly sources Carlyle, Rousseau, Hook, and Herder).
  • Post-romanticism: Reaction to naturalism, opposes external-only observations by adding internal observations (scholarly sources Comte, von Ranke).
  • Modernism : Rejects Christian academic scholarly tradition (scholarly sources Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhardt, Charles Beard, Ferdinand de Saussure, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung).
  • Pragmatism : Links the meaning of beliefs to the actions of a believer, and the truth of beliefs to success of those actions in securing a believer's goals. Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, F.C.S. Schiller, Richard Rorty. Originated in late nineteenth century America.
  • Existentialism: Pre- and post-WW2 rejection of Western norms and cultural values. Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Löwith, Herbert Marcuse, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Martin Buber, Edmund Husserl. Engaged with the intellectual prominence of fascism and socialism in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, which they saw needed both repudiation and study, as a way to re-establish the individual against the values of a hostile and destructive series of communities creating alienation, isolation, and individual meaninglessness.
  • Postmodernism : Rejects Modernism, meta-narrative - multiple perspective, role of individual (scholarly sources Lyotard, Foucault, Barthes, Geertz).
  • Structuralism : Many phenomena do not occur in isolation but in relation to each other (scholarly sources Geertz, Lévi-Strauss).
  • Poststructuralism :Deconstruction, destabilizes the relationship between language and objects the language refers to (scholarly sources Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault).

2. South and East Asia

Pre-Modern East Asia

The intellectual history of China is connected to the birth of scholarship in ancient China, the creation of Confucianism with its extensive exegesis of the texts of Confucius, and the active part of scholars in governments. In Korea, the yangban scholar movement drove the development of Korean intellectual history from the late Goryeo to the golden age of intellectual achievement in the Joseon Dynasty.

In China , literati referred to the government officials who formed the ruling class in China for over two thousand years. These scholar-bureaucrats were a status group of educated laymen, not ordained priests. They were not a hereditary group as their position depended on their knowledge of writing and literature. After 200 B.C. the system of selection of candidates was influenced by Confucianism and established its ethic among the literati.

Confucianism (儒家, literally "scholarly tradition") is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system originally developed from the teachings of the early Chinese sage Confucius. Confucius is seen as the founder of the teachings of Confucianism, although he claimed to follow the ways of people before him. Confucianism is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and religious thought which has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East Asia. Some people in Europe have considered it to have been the "state religion" in East Asian countries because of governmental promotion of Confucianist values and needs.

Other ancient intellectual currents in East Asia include Buddhism and Daoism.

Modern East Asia

The modern intellectual history of China is considered to begin with the arrival of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. The Jesuits brought with them new astronomical and cartographic knowledge, and were responsible for new developments in Chinese science. Science in modern China has been the subject of the work of the historian Benjamin Elman.

Pre-Modern South Asia

Indian thought is a broad topic that includes the ancient epics of South Asia, the development of what is now called Hinduism and Hindu philosophy and the rise of Buddhism, as well as many other topics relating to the political and artistic lives of pre-modern South Asia.

Ram Sharan Sharma's work Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in India (Motilal Banarsidass is the most authoritative account of ancient Indian political ideas and institutions. It deals with the intellectual standards in ancient India in terms of political institutions.

3. Africa and the Middle East

Pre-Modern History

The culture of the ancient Near East and eventually of much of Africa as well was modified significantly by the arrival of Islam beginning in the seventh century CE. The history of Islam has been the work of many scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and including such luminaries as Ignác Goldziher, Marshall Hodgson and in more recent times Patricia Crone. Islamic culture is not a simple and unified entity. The history of Islam, like that of other religions, is a history of different interpretations and approaches to Islam. There is no a-historical Islam outside the process of historical development.

Islamic thought includes a variety of different intellectual disciplines, including theology, the study of the Qur'an, the study of Hadith, history, grammar, rhetoric and philosophy. For more information see the Islamic Golden Age.

Classical Islamic scholars and authors include:

  • Ali al-Masudi
  • Ibn Khaldūn
  • Al-Ma'arri
  • Taftazani
  • Muhammad al-Bukhari
  • Ibn Sina
  • Ibn Rushd
  • Ibn Arabi
  • Ibn Hisham
  • al-Tabari


Persian philosophy can be traced back as far as to Old Iranian philosophical traditions and thoughts which originated in ancient Indo-Iranian roots and were considerably influenced by Zarathustra's teachings. Throughout Iranian history and due to remarkable political and social changes such as the Macedonian, Arab and Mongol invasions of Persia a wide spectrum of schools of thoughts showed a variety of views on philosophical questions extending from Old Iranian and mainly Zoroastrianism-related traditions to schools appearing in the late pre-Islamic era such as Manicheism and Mazdakism as well as various post-Islamic schools. Iranian philosophy after Arab invasion of Persia, is characterized by different interactions with the Old Iranian philosophy, the Greek philosophy and with the development of Islamic philosophy. The Illumination School and the Transcendent Philosophy are regarded as two of the main philosophical traditions of that era in Persia.

Modern Near and Middle East

Islam and modernity encompass the relation and compatibility between the phenomenon of modernity, its related concepts and ideas, and the religion of Islam. In order to understand the relation between Islam and modernity, one point should be made in the beginning. Similarly, modernity is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon rather than a unified and coherent phenomenon. It has historically had different schools of thoughts moving in many directions.

Intellectual movements in Iran involve the Iranian experience of modernism, through which Iranian modernity and its associated art, science, literature, poetry, and political structures have been evolving since the 19th century. Religious intellectualism in Iran develops gradually and subtly. It reached its apogee during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1906–11). The process involved numerous philosophers, sociologists, political scientists and cultural theorists. However the associated art, cinema and poetry remained to be developed.

Modern Africa

Recent concepts about African culture include the African Renaissance and Afrocentrism. The African Renaissance is a concept popularized by South African President Thabo Mbeki who called upon the African people and nations to solve the many problems troubling the African continent. It reached its height in the late 1990s but continues to be a key part of the post-apartheid intellectual agenda in South Africa. The concept however extends well beyond intellectual life to politics and economic development.

With the rise of Afrocentrism, the push away from Eurocentrism has led to the focus on the contributions of African people and their model of world civilization and history. Afrocentrism aims to shift the focus from a perceived European-centered history to an African-centered history. More broadly, Afrocentrism is concerned with distinguishing the influence of European and Oriental peoples from African achievements.

Notable modern African intellectual include:

  • Taban Lo Liyong
  • Wole Soyinka
  • Frantz Fanon
  • Chinua Achebe
  • Yusuf Bala Usman
  • W. E. B. Du Bois spent his final years in Ghana
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