A brief history of the ISIH by its founder Constance Blackwell, Foundation for Intellectual History and Editor, Intellectual News (2006-2010).
The ISIH began on a sunny weekend in June 1994 when thirty-six of us came into my home on Gloucester Crescent for dinner. Everyone was immediately set to work, for at the door each was given a piece of paper on which they were to write a summary statement of the relationship of Intellectual History to their discipline. They were to read this statement the next day at the Italian Cultural Embassy; the results were published in the first issue of Intellectual News (the texts are available online). If one would search for the prehistory of the ISIH it would be found in the summer of 1993 at the Folger Library in Washington. There, a discussion about the timeliness of such a society took place between Ulrich Johannes Schneider, myself, and Donald R. Kelley at his seminar, supported by the Foundation for Intellectual History. It was a seminar during which none of the participants could stop discussing various papers, often until two o’clock in the morning.
As David Katz puts it, there was a real excitement among us all, as ‘there was a definite sense of not having missed the boat’. Many thought they were about to engage in something new. There had been other international societies formed, the History of Rhetoric, the Neo-Latin Society, and the Society for the History of Science, but the topic of Intellectual History went one step further. It invited the engagement of scholars from all disciplines not only to the analysis of concepts and the organisation of knowledge, but demanded that they develop refined techniques of criticism. Some began to reflect about their own thought patterns, about how they made history.
Most of the organizers of our conferences have worked to focus on topics from different perspectives. The History of Endings was the happy choice for the conference in Berlin organised by Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann and Ulrich Johannes Schneider in Berlin in 1998. Turning Points was the title of the meeting at University of Chicago, organised by Daniel Garber who helped to link our group with the active early modern philosophy group in the States. The Cambridge conference Quarrels, Polemics and Controversies, organised by Françoise Waquet and Eduardo Tortarolo in 2001, illustrated that it was interesting that people did not agree – that difference could be fascinating. Stephen Gaukroger in Sydney chose the Origins of Modernity (2002) and introduced several scholars working in the history of science who because of their relocation to Australia were learning Chinese to study Chinese History of Science. Alterity and the Experience of Limits by Levent Yilmaz was based at the Boğaziçi University. It was in December 2003 and Ramadan. In the evening we walked by the little stands selling sweets near the Blue Mosque sipping tea, and discussing serious thoughts.
Heikki Mikkeli’s Helsinki conference on the Uses and Abuses of Reason in the summer of 2004 made it possible for us to join in with the lively and rich and independent intellectual tradition of Finland. Rethinking Secularization (2005), organized by Allison Couder at Davis, drew us into an intensive discussion about religion and alternative worship. Stephen Clucas’ conference at Birkbeck on Models of Intellectual History (2007) brought us to London, and resulted in excellent discussions. Clucas not only edits our new journal Intellectual History Review, but also now directs a bimonthly seminar, EMPHASIS at Birkbeck, exploring the interconnection between alchemy and other earlier forms of knowledge and natural science. The 2009 conference was organised by Marco Sgarbi and Riccardo Pozzo and held at the University of Verona, on Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Bearers of Intellectual History. The next conference was in Bucharest, in May 2011, and was organised by Dana Jalobeanu and Sorana Corneanu, on Knowledge and the Emotions in Intellectual History. In Princeton in June 2013, the conference theme was The Importance of Learning: Liberal Education and Scholarship in Historical Perspective, organised by Daniel Garber and James A.T. Lancaster. The 2104 conference, Intellectual Hinterlands, was held at the University of Toronto and organised by James A.T. Lancaster, while that for 2015, on Rethinking Intellectual History, organised in conjunction with the Sydney Intellectual History Network, was held at the University of Sydney. Finally, the 2016 conference, organised by Spyridon Tegos, took the theme of Rethinking Europe in Intellectual History and was held at Remythnon, Crete.
Alongside these academic gatherings, through the Intellectual History Review, the ISIH has been party to projects that have created new fields of knowledge. Our membership and scope have developed in ways we had not planned, yet it has been a privilege to be part of the vibrant group of people who have joined the ISIH or participated in our activities.