Helge Jordheim

How Long Does an Idea Last? Ideas of Permanence – Permanence of Ideas


In this paper I want to discuss to what extent the history of ideas, Ideengeschichte, intellectual history is founded on a claim for continuity, in other words, for permanence. Or, indeed, to sharpen the claim somewhat: that the raison d’être of the history of ideas consists in establishing continuities across long time spans, for instance by tracing the ideas of democracy, citizenship, and political participation back to the Ancient Greeks or at least the Romans. Indeed, Arthur Lovejoy, the American godfather of the discipline, invests his unit ideas with a kind of permanence, which brinks on the immutable, the absolute, the eternal. However, since the 1970s some of the most path-breaking interventions in the field of history of ideas has amounted to rather vehement attacks on these ideas of continuity and permanence, most famously Quentin Skinner’s "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas", and Michel Foucault’s Archéologie du savoir, both from 1969. Then again, in their later work both Skinner and Foucault have given new life to notions of continuity, Skinner in his studies of republicanism, in terms of neo-Roman ideas, Foucault in his shift from archeology to genealogy. Today, intellectual history seems to be far from making the same claim; instead it happily takes part in the widespread, interdisciplinary search for breaks, moments of discontinuity, innovations and «innovative ideologists» (Skinner), speech acts that break with tradition etc. More and more, continuity is left to the biologists, archeologists, or anthropologists. Hence, in asking where intellectual history is going, we need to ask if the claim for permanence on behalf on this objectified product of human activity and communication called «ideas» is something we should get rid of, or maybe rather, keep out, or on the contrary, that the legitimacy of the history of ideas on the field of humanities consists exactly in its obstinate claim for continuity and permanence.