This chapter discusses the range of primary sources that can be used to write about intellectual history and the history of ideas. The two terms are not quite synonymous. The ‘history of ideas’ is traditionally concerned with the expression and transmission of specific ideas (such as ‘liberty’, ‘toleration’, and ‘justice’) in ‘great texts’ of the past; in recent decades, the term ‘intellectual history’ has been used instead to denote a broader interest in the whole history of human thought.
Intellectual history is not concerned solely with the ideas and lives of ‘intellectuals’ in the past; indeed, the professional ‘intellectual’ is a recent invention, and very few individuals were employed to think and write before the twentieth century. Intellectual historians can choose to work on famous thinkers of the past, but they can also be interested in anyone, of whatever social or cultural standing, who recorded and communicated their thoughts in any period of history. Similarly, although intellectual history may include complex ideas about politics, philosophy, or science, it potentially encompasses the more mundane set of beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, and preoccupations that came together to form the intellectual life of a previous culture.
While historians of any period can be interested in how people thought and what they thought about, intellectual history is a particularly important component of early modern history, because so many of the dramatic changes experienced in Europe and the European world in the period between 1500 and 1800 were driven fundamentally by new ideas. Thus, any student working on the Reformation, the British Civil Wars, the American and French Revolutions, or the growth of empire will come into contact with intellectual history in some form or another. A central question in each case is how far ideas helped to change behaviour – ideas about religious belief and authority, ideas about the right to exercise power, and ideas about how empires should be acquired and managed. As we shall see, intellectual historians have traditionally focused on textual evidence to address such problems, but they have increasingly broadened out the sort of textual evidence they are interested in and started to use non-textual sources to think about the relationship between ideas and the societies in which they circulated. This chapter will show you how to use primary sources to get beyond a ‘great text’ approach to studying intellectual history.
The history of ideas has traditionally focused on the historical development of specific ideas. Known sometimes as ‘unit-ideas’, these were chosen because of their alleged importance at the time and for their influence on subsequent thinkers. In practical terms, this usually involved historians studying what they considered to be the ‘great texts’ of the past, reading them repeatedly to understand their central ideas, and tracing how those ideas were then taken up by thinkers in subsequent generations. In time, especially with the emergence of new approaches to social and cultural history in the 1960s and 1970s, intellectual historians came to realise the limitations of such an approach. Focused on the famous sayings of a select number of disembodied ‘talking heads’, the ‘great texts’ approach to the history of ideas separated ideas from social context and involved historians deciding for themselves (often unconsciously) what ideas were most influential in history; unsurprisingly, these often tended to be those ideas that ‘won out’ in the end – those ideas that pointed towards defining features of modernity, such as religious and political freedom, human rights, equality, and justice. Such ideas formed an intellectual ‘canon’ of great thoughts considered worthy of study in their own right, which often bore no relationship to what contemporaries thought about them or what they thought were the defining ideas of their time.
The study of the history of ideas has transformed dramatically since the 1960s. In the first place, intellectual historians have broken down the assumed hierarchy of the ‘great texts’ approach, taking a more inclusive approach to the ideas considered important in any period rather than focusing on a select handful of famous ‘talking heads’. This can be considered a more ‘parliamentary’ or debate-driven approach, with lots of different historical voices talking to each other and jostling for our attention. Thus, while Jonathan Israel remains primarily interested in the ideas of a single philosopher, albeit one who rarely figured in conventional ‘great-text’ interpretations of the Enlightenment, Baruch Spinoza, he also looks at a very diverse range of texts. Israel tracks how Spinoza’s ideas about authority and equality were disseminated and taken up by a very wide range of thinkers (both well-known and obscure) who were involved in long-running debates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries about political power (Israel, 2002).
In studying a wider range of authors and texts, scholars associated with the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ are particularly interested in unpicking the ‘linguistic context’ within which authors wrote. These scholars study texts not as the product of great minds working in isolation, but as literary constructions which emerged from the precise vocabularies and linguistic conventions available to the author when the text was being written (Skinner, 1969). This sort of approach takes us away from the assumed pre-eminence of the ‘great texts’, because all texts written at any given moment in time are of equal significance in establishing what specific terms and concepts meant – how they were used, and how they were expected to be interpreted by contemporaries. Thus, John Locke’s use of the term ‘liberty’ in the late seventeenth century was fundamentally shaped by the linguistic conventions of Calvinist natural theology, and had yet to take on some of the more specific meanings assigned to the same term in later periods (Dunn, 1982).
Of course, language is just one of a number of contexts that are potentially relevant in studying the meaning of ideas in the past. Intellectual historians have also become interested in the sociology of knowledge, studying the relationship between human thought and the social, political, economic and cultural contexts within which it arises. This has led to an interest in studying ideas in ‘national contexts’, particularly in a series of volumes edited by Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, which draw attention to the local peculiarities and variants which shaped the international diffusion of the Reformation, Romanticism, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. Their contributors argue that the Enlightenment’s reach in Russia and North America was fundamentally shaped by the very different demographics of the two regions. Russia’s very uneven social landscape (with a majority of illiterate serfs dominated by a very small number of aristocratic families) produced a top-heavy Enlightenment driven personally by Empress Catherine II, whereas colonial America’s relatively even social landscape and more tolerant political and religious regime incubated a more inclusive Enlightenment where farmers, merchants and apprentice printers could make their mark on intellectual culture (Porter and Teich, 1981).
As well as being interested in the relationship between ideas and the societies that produced them, many intellectual historians have drawn attention to the wider communicative practices in which ideas were expressed and transmitted. Influenced especially by Jürgen Habermas’ ideas about the emergence of the ‘public sphere’ in the eighteenth century (Habermas, 1989), intellectual historians have become interested in the social and cultural institutions that allowed specific forms of intellectual exchange to take place, including the rise of coffee houses, newspapers, museums, theatres, libraries, reading societies and salons (e.g. Goodman, 1994; Pettegree, 2014). In thinking about when such institutions emerged, who was able to take part, and what sort of ideas were exchanged within them, this approach shows how ideas – including those expressed in the traditional canon of ‘great texts’ – were adopted, discussed and argued over by otherwise unexceptional people whose names are only rarely recorded.
Similarly, intellectual historians influenced by reception theory and associated with the rise of book history see the author as just one of many agents in the production and transmission of meaning within texts. Robert Darnton has suggested that each text follows a ‘communications circuit’ running from author and publisher, through a motley collection of printers, suppliers, compositors, shippers, booksellers, and binders, right the way through to readers (Darnton, 2007). Individual agents at each stage in Darnton’s circuit can have a formative role in shaping the ideas within the text (how they are articulated and presented, how they are interpreted and received), while ideas can also be adapted and new audiences reached when texts are reworked through new editions and new translations over several generations (Burke, 1995). Once again, this approach takes us far beyond the role of the famous ‘talking heads’ of conventional intellectual history, thinking instead about the impact of ideas in the past, about how they were packaged, distributed and popularised, and about how otherwise obscure people – whether at the elite level (Sharpe, 2000) or further down the social scale (Rose, 2001), whether men or women (Towsey, 2013), whether adults or children (Baggerman, 2009) – read, responded to, and acted on ideas in the past.
This re-orientation of intellectual history from ‘great texts’ to ordinary people is reflected most dramatically in work that attempts to reconstruct the preoccupations, beliefs and assumptions that characterised popular culture. Influenced by the Annales School’s interest in L’histoire de mentalités and by the symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Robert Darnton famously explored popular culture on the eve of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution through a series of microhistorical ‘episodes’, each snapshot uncovering how the collision between new ideas and traditional customs was experienced at different levels of French society in the eighteenth century (Darnton, 1984). Many historians interested in popular culture adopt this microhistorical approach to reveal startlingly alien aspects of historical thought processes. Carlo Ginzburg’s classic study of the mental universe of a single, otherwise obscure miller burnt at the stake by the Italian Inquisition reveals some of the boundaries of what it was possible for ordinary people to think amidst the confusing intellectual tumult of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (Ginzburg, 1980). As the strange cosmologies of Ginzburg’s self-taught miller demonstrate, this type of work takes us very far indeed from the conventional canon of ‘great texts’ about ‘liberty’, ‘toleration’, and ‘justice’, revelling instead in the hidden contours of irrational, subversive and deviant thought that often gripped popular culture in the past. Rarely is this aspect of intellectual history more striking than in those studies which reveal the persistent power of astrology, mysticism, diabolism, demonology, and witchcraft right the way through the early modern period (Thomas, 1971).
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section discusses three broad types of source that are relevant to work on the history of ideas, each allowing us to approach the topic from a different perspective – how ideas were expressed; how they were packaged; and how they were received. It outlines the range of material available in each category, before reflecting further on the opportunities and limitations involved in using them to support historical arguments.
The main source materials for intellectual history are the texts in which ideas were articulated and transmitted, whether they be hand-written manuscripts or (after the invention of print in the fifteenth century) printed books, essays, theses, newspapers, or pamphlets. Your selection of texts will depend on the specific period or problem you are studying, and instructors will generally provide plenty of guidance on relevant thinkers. You will often be given short extracts taken from relevant primary-source texts to kick-start discussion; you can also take inspiration from the secondary sources you read, which will use plenty of quotations from relevant texts to support their arguments. It is perfectly acceptable to use all of this guidance to help you identify the particular authors and texts you are interested in, but to take your research further it is fundamentally important for you to engage with the texts for yourself.
Working with texts requires a specific kind of ‘close reading’; it is not usually necessary to read the entire text from beginning to end with the same degree of focus, although it is useful to get a general idea of the scope and argument of the entire text. Instead, you should focus particularly on those sections of the text that are most directly relevant to the specific issue you are working on. When close-reading a text, intellectual historians will be looking for the precise phrases and sentences that support the argument they want to make about what the text means; your main task is therefore to work out what is the main message of the text. This will take time and patience, not least because of the need to adjust to the antiquated language and sentence structures we sometimes find in historical texts. Read with pencil in hand, writing down those key phrases or words that you think are most interesting, then think about what your observations on the text mean about its cultural, social, political, or intellectual significance.
To supplement your close reading of the text, you need to think through contextual questions about why it was written and how it was meant to be received. This should certainly include researching the political and social context in which the text was written, asking yourself who the author was, what was happening when she or he wrote the text, and what the purpose of the text might have been. It should include deeper research into the author’s biography and circumstances – was the author paid by a wealthy, aristocratic or royal patron to write the text (as was frequently the case in the Renaissance), or was the author able to rely on book sales to guarantee his or her independence, as was the case towards the end of David Hume’s career in the 1760s? But, it should also include the ‘linguistic context’ within which the text was written, investigating what the words used in your source actually meant at the time. By tracing the origin and historical development of words in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary and other etymological reference works can be useful for researching how specific words have changed in meaning over time; thus important political terms such as ‘liberty’, ‘radical’, and ‘revolution’ took on significantly new meanings during the eighteenth century. You might also read other texts written by the same author, as well as texts by other writers our author might have read or known, to come to a more historically rooted understanding of what the author is actually trying to say.
Once you have completed your close reading of one ‘great text’, you should think about how other writers treated the same ideas, whether they agreed with our original source, and if not how they disagreed. This will help you situate the ideas expressed in your original source in their proper historical environment, revealing whether they were quite commonly held – indicative of a fundamental shift in how people in general thought about a specific issue – or whether the author was actually an unusual outlier or exception, thinking things that few if any other people were thinking at the time. Although the history of ideas was conventionally interested in key ideas associated with modernity (such as political liberty or religious scepticism), intellectual historians are now interested in texts that express quite different kinds of ideas such as fairy tales, popular piety and bawdy ballads. These sources can sometimes be more difficult to track down and interpret, but they potentially give us access to ‘popular’ ideas – ideas held by the masses, rather than those held by famous philosophers.
Although texts represent the main stuff of intellectual history, the way in which texts are packaged and produced can also be helpful in addressing wider questions about how widely held or influential certain ideas were. Information about how a book was published, where it was sold and how many copies were in circulation helps us to understand how widely known and influential the ideas contained within it might have been. Evidence of print runs and distribution, on the very rare occasions where this does survive, is usually hidden away deep in archival collections. Undergraduate students will rarely be expected to undertake this sort of archival research unless engaged in advanced dissertation work, but there are an increasing number of reference works and digital resources which collate information of this kind and can be used to take further some of the arguments that can be built from close reading. For books published in English before 1800, the English Short Title Catalogue allows scholars and students to trace how many books an author published, and how many times each book was reprinted in separate editions. The Universal Short Title Catalogue aims to provide publication details of all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century, and is particularly useful for showing the movement of books across borders and language areas. The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe takes this approach a step further by including data on book sales, which allows researchers to track the movement of around 400,000 copies of 4,000 books across Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century.
All of this is tremendously helpful in showing how widely specific texts – and the ideas expressed within them – circulated, how often they were reprinted, and even (in the case of data on book purchasers, edition size, or sale price) how far down the social scale they penetrated. Conversely, if we find out that a text we are interested in was not reprinted very frequently, or sold very poorly, we can use this evidence to cast doubt on how influential the ideas expressed in it might actually have been. But the realisation that texts were often reprinted multiple times opens up one further possibility for research. Texts do not always remain exactly the same from one edition to the next, and authors frequently took the opportunity of a second or third edition to correct mistakes, add, remove or move material around to strengthen or clarify the argument they wanted to make, or indeed alter the text substantially to take into account negative reviews, new information or simply because they had changed their minds.
Although much of this work requires detailed comparative analysis of the different versions of the texts involved, spotting the differences between one edition of a work and another of the same work, we can actually find out quite a lot about how a text was packaged and presented to its audience from the layout of the text itself. Authors and publishers used a wide range of devices to signpost how the book should be interpreted, including title pages, forewords, prefaces, epilogues, contents pages, advertisements, indexes, appendices and footnotes. Known collectively as ‘paratexts’, these everyday aspects of a text’s presentation and packaging contain coded messages to the reader about how the text should be understood. Alongside valuable information about where the text was published, printed, and sold, the title page often includes the author’s qualifications and occupational status – lending an immediate air of authority and expertise to an author described as a University Professor, a doctor of philosophy, an ‘esquire’, or an MP. Footnotes show where ideas and information has come from, while prefaces often give very explicit information about how the text came to be written, about who its main audiences are intended to be, and about how it is expected to be received.
Reception is generally the trickiest aspect of intellectual history for students to engage with because the sources involved tend to be so disparate and difficult to access, but there are a number of steps you can take to find out something useful about how far a text circulated or was read in the past. There is a good deal of published information now available on the foundation and holdings of institutional libraries kept by governments, nobles, churches and universities throughout the early modern period, and historic library catalogues are useful for showing how far specific books were distributed both socially and geographically. Although there were very few free public libraries before the mid nineteenth century, more popular forms of library access did emerge from the beginning of the eighteenth century, including voluntary subscription libraries (essentially private membership clubs, where each member paid an annual subscription for use of the books) and commercial circulating libraries. Very occasionally, ‘borrowing’ evidence survives to show which books were taken off library shelves most frequently, and, at least as importantly, which ones were never borrowed. An easily accessible example is the New York Social Library, a private membership library whose lending records allow us to identify who borrowed Enlightened books by famous writers like Voltaire, Hume and Franklin, as well as those by much less well-known names.
Of course, although ownership and borrowing data is useful, it does not prove decisively that a book once bought or borrowed was ever actually read, nor does it reveal what readers thought of the books they read. One place to start looking for reader response is actually within the pages of published books, whose authors will often cite the books they have read, and engage in detailed discussion of their ideas and arguments [A]. From the mid seventeenth century onwards, published reviews also started emerging; for the earlier periods, these give very patchy coverage of the leading scientific and philosophical ideas of an age, but from the mid eighteenth century published book reviews become an increasingly reliable place to look for one specific form of reader response [B]. Reviews tell us not simply what a single reader – albeit a very highly qualified kind of reader who was a professional ‘critic’ in his or her own right – thinks of a specific book, they also reveal the sort of advice that general readers were receiving about what to read and what to think about what they read. It should also be noted that early modern book reviews are quite different from the reviews we are used to today, generally providing long extracts from texts in addition to advice and recommendations; this important difference means that readers of the period did not actually have to read challenging or controversial writers for themselves to get the gist of what was being said, because the review does this for them.
To move from the realm of book reviews to more personal reader response (for example, [F]) requires hard work and a large measure of good fortune because this sort of material is very rare and will generally be hidden away in archival repositories, but it also requires careful handling. The surviving instances of reader response we happen to find can never be considered in any way representative of what every reader at the time thought of a specific book, not least for the very good reason that countless responses to books have occurred to readers in the past without ever being written down and recorded for posterity. Nevertheless, as long as we are aware of the limitations of the evidence and how far we can push our analysis, evidence of personal reading experiences can at least help us to understand how it was possible to respond to a specific book at a specific time. The Reading Experience Database is a good place to start for known reader responses and is soon to be rolled out to countries other than Britain. It is also always worth searching in surviving copies of printed books for notes and comments made in their margins; only in recent times did it become frowned upon to write in books, and some intellectual historians have made great use of surviving marginalia in opening up historic habits of mind (Jardine and Grafton, 1990).
Published diaries and autobiographies can provide useful evidence, both for specific acts of reading and for more general insights into the life of the mind, although autobiographies necessarily have to be treated with caution because they are often composed many decades after the fact, sometimes with a specific audience in mind. Thus, many intellectual historians of reading try to track down more obscure manuscript reading notes (diaries, letters or commonplace books) in which individuals wrote down what they thought of the books they read. Such sources can be identified through archival finding aids (both published in hard copy and online), but a good place to start in the UK is The National Archive’s Discovery search engine, which covers many of the county and university archival collections across the country. Once you have managed to track down some interesting readers’ responses relevant to your project, you will then need to treat them in much the same way as you would a published text. This is not just a question of working out whether the reader thinks the text in front of her/him is enjoyable, repulsive or plain boring, but of researching how it was produced, why it was produced, and what kind of reading is recorded; finding out as much as you can about the reader and the context in which the reading encounter took place; and completing a close reading of the reader’s response, comparing it in detail to the arguments made in the text they are discussing. One crucial insight of the history of reading is that historic readers rarely pick out precisely those aspects of a text that interest modern intellectual historians; they sometimes misunderstand what they read or bring their own prejudices and preconceptions to bear on it, and often read rebelliously or subversively – rejecting key aspects of the text in front of them.
This section offers practical advice on using primary sources by working through a single case study in the history of ideas. The section works through each of the three categories of source material discussed above, and shows how they can be used to support arguments and to challenge historical interpretations. The case study focuses on ideas about religion and faith in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Following the Reformation and wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Enlightenment is traditionally thought to have introduced new ideas that questioned the traditional building blocks of religious belief, leading ultimately towards the secularism that is considered a defining feature of the modern world (Outram, 1995). This case study first adopts a ‘great texts’ approach to studying the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion, before showing the limitations of that approach by looking at how texts were packaged and read.
While other groups of historians would use different types of material to investigate this problem (a social historian would perhaps use church attendance records, a political historian evidence from Parliamentary legislation or petitions), an intellectual historian could use Enlightenment texts on religion to support arguments about the rise of religious scepticism. A key figure in this debate is Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711–76), who wrote a number of influential books and essays that cast doubt on traditional tenets of religious faith such as the immortality of the soul, the veracity of miracles, and the existence of God. An undergraduate essay on the relationship between religion and the Enlightenment could use quotations from Hume’s works to support an argument that the Enlightenment encouraged religious scepticism. The same textual approach could also be used to answer more general essay questions about whether the social significance of religion declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
To illustrate this text-centred approach, we can begin by looking in detail at Hume’s ‘Essay on Miracles’ [C]. In this essay, Hume sets out to undermine the traditional Christian argument – still quite widely held in the eighteenth century – that miracles prove the existence of God. To use Hume’s text to support an argument that the Enlightenment encouraged religious scepticism, we need to examine it closely, work out for ourselves what Hume is saying, and select those sentences and phrases that most clearly support the argument we want to make. Hume’s text is an unusually intimidating one, and it takes time and patience to ‘tune in’ both to the philosophical concepts he is using and to his formalised style of argumentation. But, by breaking the essay down and focusing on a couple of key passages, we can see that Hume is actually making quite a simple point, arguing that miracles cannot be independently verified – and that, therefore, the existence of God cannot be rationally proved by the existence of miracles. There are essentially three key parts of the text that I would use to illustrate this reading in an essay. (1) Hume defines miracles as ‘a transgression of a law of nature’; (2) Hume suggests that the fundamental laws of nature are so well attested by everyday experience and scientific observation that we require extraordinary proof to demonstrate that a fundamental law of nature has been broken (in Hume’s own words, ‘the miracle’ can only be ‘rendered credible … by an opposite proof which is superior’ to all of the evidence that we have gathered that, for instance, water cannot be turned into wine); (3) Hume concludes that ‘there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men’ of ‘unquestioned good-sense’ and ‘undoubted integrity’ to meet this test. These are the elements of the text that I would use to support the argument that Hume promoted religious scepticism, although an even shorter precis would be sufficient to support a more general essay on the declining social significance of religion in the eighteenth century. A common mistake would be to extract the whole passage; the more effective approach is to seize on those specific phrases or sentences (at most two or three lines) that support the precise point you are trying to argue, and to summarise the main thrust of the argument for yourself.
In doing so, it is important not to ignore those parts of the text that do not fit with your argument; indeed, when reading a text like this, I will be constantly on the lookout for ideas that do not fit with the generally accepted interpretation. So, for instance, at the end of his ‘Essay on Miracles’, Hume concludes with a paragraph that does not fit with the conventional claim that he was an atheist. By all means, Hume asserts quite frankly that Christianity ‘cannot be believed by any reasonable person’, and warns the Christian that his belief in God ‘subverts all the principles of his understanding’. But crucially, Hume never explicitly challenges those people who are ‘moved by faith to assent’ to Christian belief, because ‘reason’ and ‘faith’ are two fundamentally different approaches to knowing the world – the one requires hard, rational proof, the other requires unqualified belief in a principle we cannot prove to be true by scientific observation. Although we have therefore been able to show from the text how Hume sought to cast doubt on the claim that miracles proved the existence of God, we are also able to argue that he left the door open to the possibility that there might be a God; indeed, Hume is here articulating a classic agnostic position, that religious belief is fundamentally a leap of faith that can never be rationally proved or disproved.
This already gives our essay a healthy sense of balance, but there is much more that we can do to enrich the argument still further through a text-centred approach. For instance, we could compare Hume’s approach in the ‘Essay on Miracles’ to the approach he adopts to religious ideas in other texts, to find out whether his way of arguing against religion remained consistent throughout his career. Alternatively, we could compare Hume’s ideas to those of other thinkers who wrote at the time, rather than treating him in isolation. This might certainly include other great names of the Enlightenment who promoted scepticism, but it would also include now-forgotten writers who opposed scepticism – some of whom wrote very stridently against Hume himself. A powerful example of a text that argues against Hume is James Beattie’s Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth [D]. Even the title-page here signposts Beattie’s purpose effectively, showing the reader that he is defending the unchanging (immutable) ‘truth’ of Christian belief against ‘sophistry and scepticism’. The introduction then makes abundantly clear that his principal opponent ‘is a Writer now alive, of whose philosophy I have much to say’ – the author of A Treatise of Human Nature and Essays Moral and Political (Hume), whose ‘philosophy has done great harm.’ This is all very useful evidence to show that, while Hume’s writings can be used to support an argument that some Enlightenment writers advocated religious scepticism (if not atheism), there were other writers who were clearly very passionately opposed to religious scepticism, and leapt energetically to the defence of religious faith. Quoting some of Beattie’s deeply emotive final chapter (‘Ye traitors to human kind, ye murderers of the human soul, how can ye answer for it to your own hearts!’) will allow us to argue that some writers of this period felt very strongly indeed about the personal and social importance of religious faith and worried about the fashionable atheism of ‘a thoughtless and profligate age’.
As well as looking at the words writers like Hume and Beattie used to express their ideas, we can also find useful evidence to support and complicate our understanding of Enlightenment attitudes to religion by looking in more detail at how their texts were produced and packaged. Although only doctoral students can be expected to engage in the sort of detailed archival research that would be needed to uncover new information about the printing and distribution of Hume’s works, there are nevertheless a number of relatively straight-forward steps that an undergraduate student might take to find out something useful and relevant about their publication history. For instance, the number of times a book was reprinted is often taken to be a rough measure of the popularity of the work, its commercial success and influence. The English Short Title Catalogue can be used to show that the number of times Hume’s works were republished varied quite wildly between titles. A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume’s first and now most famous philosophical text, as well as the one where his religious scepticism was laid out in most detail, was published only once in 1739–40 and never reprinted in his lifetime. Against this, the collected Essays and Treatises were much more popular, appearing in at least twenty separate editions. This suggests that Hume’s ideas about miracles, presented as they are here in the collected Essays and Treatises [C] circulated quite widely in contemporary society.
In building up our understanding of the material environment in which Hume’s ideas were published and read still further, it is important to read what Hume himself said about how his ideas were packaged. The opening pages of the Essays and Treatises include a wide range of ‘paratexts’: bits of extraneous text that are not formally part of the main argument but that help frame it, signposting how the text should be read and received. In this case, the ‘Advertisement’ acknowledges that many of the individual pieces included in the Essays and Treatises have appeared in different guises in a number of earlier books, although it does not explain why this approach to publishing the work was thought necessary. The ‘Contents’ page [C] then shows us that Hume’s most controversial ideas about religion appear alongside a very wide range of much less immediately controversial material, including essays on economics, politics, society and culture. Taken together with the data on Hume’s publishing history from the ESTC, these two paratexts can be used to speculate that Hume adopted a deliberate strategy to repackage his most controversial ideas, taking them out of the underperforming (and intimidating) Treatise of Human Nature and presenting them instead in diluted and more approachable popularised form in his collected Essays and Treatises.
In another paratext – an autobiographical preface – added to the later editions of his History of England [E] Hume even tells us that this is what he has been doing. He regrets that ‘never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my “Treatise of Human Nature”’, which ‘fell dead-born [stillborn] from the press’; he soon speculates that this initial failure ‘proceeded more from the manner than the matter’, and admits that he had subsequently ‘cast anew’ parts of the Treatise in other philosophical works, ultimately brought together in the collected Essays and Treatises. This demonstrates the value of digging beyond the text, looking at how ideas were packaged, framed, and distributed, and considering how ideas moved between different books published by the same author. In this case, Hume’s ideas about religion – and about the veracity of miracles in particular – failed by his own admission to reach a popular audience in their original incarnation in the Treatise; by the time of his death, however, they had been repackaged several times alongside less immediately objectionable material and had formed part of the commercially successful collected Essays and Treatises.
Of course, to establish that Hume’s ‘Essay on Miracles’ [C] was widely sold as part of the collected Essays and Treatises is not to prove that it was widely read, still less that it was enthusiastically received by contemporary readers ready to embrace religious scepticism. In fact, by looking at surviving readers’ responses to Hume’s ideas on religion, we can confirm our suspicion that his collected Essays and Treatises was actually a cunning marketing trick, bundling together undesirable texts on religion with much less objectionable and more marketable material on society, politics and the economy – and that Beattie came far closer to reflecting contemporary attitudes towards religious faith (Towsey, 2010). Take, for instance, a manuscript letter [F] written by a mother trying in the strongest possible terms to convince her daughter of Hume’s atheism. Use of this type of material is fraught with difficulty, not least because it is so hard to track down and identify useable records of reading response; in this case, the address and signature are missing so we do not know for sure who the correspondents are, thus limiting what we can say about the context in which the book was read and discussed. Nevertheless, this letter could be used alongside other such material to argue that Hume’s ideas about religion were not well received by contemporary readers. In doing so, it is important to look beyond simple statements of approval or disapprobation; it is less useful for us to show that a reader in the past disagreed with Hume than it is to explain why the disagreement took place. In this instance, the letter is mainly concerned not with Hume’s philosophy, but with Hume’s widely admired History of England. What becomes clear, though, is that the mother’s misgivings about Hume’s History emerge from her near-hysterical fears about the tendency of Hume’s views on religion, which she believes will lead to immorality and insanity. She writes to her daughter that she ‘will heartily detest him as a philosopher’, responsible for
a collection of the most diabolical opinions that ever were published such as endeavour to overturn natural & revealed religion & all morality & to establish atheism ... He says if you pretend to know or believe anything you are fools & then adds as impudently as absurdly that he knows with the utmost certainty that his own opinions are true. You will doubt whether he is most mad or most wicked. [F]
Although you should generally avoid using such long quotations, the length of the quotation in this case is justified because the letter-writer so clearly disregards the textual evidence discussed above that Hume was not an atheist, with the ellipsis (represented by three dots) omitting words from the original document that are superfluous to the argument we want to make. The reading of Hume’s philosophy expressed in this quotation underpins our reader’s deep suspicion of the political intentions behind the History, making it easier for her to charge Hume ‘with want of veracity in not telling the whole truth but only as much as serves his purpose by which an action may be represented quite contrary to what in reality it would appear if the whole truth was told.’ [F] (At this stage, it would be well worth noting the repeated emphasis on the word ‘truth’ throughout our reader’s discussion of Hume.)
If this letter can be used as evidence to support the argument that contemporary readers not only disagreed with Hume’s ideas about religion but actually misunderstood them entirely, then the source also points to the wider forces that influenced how ideas were received and discussed within specific historical contexts. One reason why intellectual historians should avoid reading ‘great texts’ in isolation is that they were never actually read in isolation; this mother’s letter shows very clearly how readers’ engagement with one specific text can be fundamentally shaped by their earlier engagement with a competing text – in this instance, by none other than James Beattie. Beattie’s qualifications as stated on the title page of his Essay on Truth [D] are repeated in the letter (‘by Doctor Beattie Professor at Aberdeen in Scotland’) to reinforce his authority in not simple quoting ‘the meaning of Mr Hume’s words but the words themselves’ [F]. Our reader’s engagement with these writers thereby overturns the conventional hierarchy of the history of ideas (Hume as ‘great text’, Beattie as now-forgotten lost voice), but her reading experience also takes place within a wider community of readers, including the mother, her husband, her daughter and the daughter’s husband. It therefore allows us to glimpse the processes by which the precise meaning of Hume’s ideas about religious belief were interpreted, discussed and rejected within this specific reading community – processes which were repeated in many other communities reading these books at the same time. Thus, the ‘great texts’ approach to the history of ideas is shown to be fatally flawed, because the transmission, reception, and influence of ideas expressed in the past was always dependent on much more than the individual author alone, but potentially included other authors writing at the same time, as well as each reader’s friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbours. To return to the central question at stake in this case study, the readers involved in this particular episode were demonstrably interested in Enlightenment debates about religion, but they were certainly not led to scepticism by reading these books.
By leaving behind the traditional ‘great texts’ approach of the history of ideas, intellectual history has opened up new ways of thinking about the big questions of historical study. Although the textual basis of intellectual history can seem quite intimidating, it is a great way of understanding why people behaved the way they did in the past. Reading the texts they read, uncovering what they thought of those texts and how they talked about them helps us to understand dramatic moments from within the thought-worlds of the people who experienced them, whether as writers, readers, or disinterested observers.
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