Bloomsbury Cultural History - Topic in Focus


A Cultural History of Ideas

How has the nature of ideas evolved over time? How have ideas been shaped, employed and received in different social and cultural contexts?

In a work that spans 2,800 years, these ambitious questions are addressed by 62 experts, each contributing an overview of a particular theme in a specific period in history. A Cultural History of Ideas explores the development of ideas, primarily in the West, from a range of disciplinary angles. Each volume explores the themes of knowledge, the human self, ethics and social relations, politics and economics, nature, religion and the divine, language, poetry and rhetoric, the arts, and history. Delve into the cultural history of ideas with this carefully curated collection of key eBook chapters, or explore the full content set here.

Knowledge in Classical Antiquity

The key issues that inform ancient approaches to knowledge are anticipated in the earliest remains of Greek epic poetry, which is explored further in this chapter by Thomas Habinek. The central concerns underlying early references to truth, falsehood, and knowledge are, first, a quest for strategic information that will allow individuals and communities to survive and flourish in the world and, second, a concern with the reliability of information transmitted by others. The archaic texts show little interest in debating the possibility of knowledge or in accumulating information for its own sake. They take it for granted that everything is known or knowable, at least by the gods. The problem for the average mortal is how to gain access to knowledge and whether to trust those who claim to have it already.

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Ethics in the Medieval Age

Philosophers trained in the history of Western thought are prone to dismiss medieval ethical thought as inferior to the Greek virtue ethics aimed at self-mastery, a theme common to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, and/or by contrast to Kant. In this chapter Eileen C. Sweeney aims to push back on this view, not by asserting the ways in which medieval thought actually exhibits the values of Plato, Aristotle, or Kant (though there are ways it does), but by pointing out some of the ideas and practices in which it is different than both ancient Greek and modern ethics, and which have continued to exert influence on Western culture down to this day. It is in a basic sense an ethics grounded on heteronomy—obligation to God and, hence, others, ultimately based on love more than reason.

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The Arts in the Renaissance

In This chapter from A Cultural History of the Arts in the Renaissance examines how the making, viewing, and discussing of artworks pertained to developments in early modern intellectual history and specifically to ideas concerning the processes of vision and observation. Rather than focusing in a circumscribed fashion on the achievements of canonical artists, this account of the visual arts in Renaissance Europe is based on the premise that the most advantageous way to understand the arts as a domain of the cultural history of ideas is to adopt a cross-disciplinary perspective. In doing so, Susanna Berger participates in a well-established strand of art history that combines visual studies and intellectual history, to explore what close analyses of certain Renaissance artworks reveal regarding shifts in early modern theories of observation.

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Historical Narratives in the Age of Enlightenment

During the period roughly 1650–1800, a new species of history emerged, called “philosophical” in its day and “Enlightenment” today. It molded the history of Europe and its empires into a narrative of progress from an irrational, barbaric past to a rational, civilized present epitomized by eighteenth-century Europe. Crowding out previous genres of history that had focused more narrowly on royal and ecclesiastic lineages and the detailed recounting of battles, philosophical histories offered something quite different and new. In this chapter, Caroline Winterer focuses on three major cultural sites that reveal in concrete ways the varieties of historical experience available to people in Europe and its colonies in the period 1650–1800: cities, classicism, and archives. None were new at this time, but all underwent profound transformations in size, scope, and purpose.

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Nature in the Age of Empire

For most people nature is both predictable and mysterious. The sun comes up reliably every day, weather patterns repeat, and objects unfailingly fall to the ground when released.This chapter is concerned with two grand visions of nature that characterized the West in the nineteenth century. One of these conceptions was inherited from the past, while the other was new with the coming of the century. Among the individuals who embraced each of these general ideas of nature there was often disagreement about its meaning. Finally, the two ideas each changed and developed over the course of the century. Frederick Gregory seeks not only to follow these general conceptions as the century unfolded, but to explain how and why each could mean different things to its adherents.

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The Human Self in the Modern Age

In his chapter Edward Baring explores two objectives. The first examines how older understandings of what it meant to be human were challenged over the course of the twentieth century by a number of political, social, and intellectual developments, including feminism, decolonization, animal rights, and technological advance. The diversity of these movements is enormous, and they developed on a global scale, but by discussing a few key examples, Baring shows how they undermined humanist traditions and helped promote forms of anti-humanism. The second half of the chapter reflects on the difficult ethical and political questions these developments have posed by examining the work of Jacques Derrida, who, perhaps more than anyone else, provided means to think through the mismatch between the epistemological weaknesses of humanism and its continuing moral and political force.

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