Intellectual Biographies Workshop, Newcastle University 04.07.17

intellectualbiographiesprogramme.jpg

 Intellectual biography is in vogue at present. Edmund Burke, David Hume and Karl Marx have all been the subject of recent studies and these have been widely reviewed in academic journals and the popular press. There is also biographical interest in a number of seventeenth-century figures, as a workshop held at Newcastle University on 4 July testified. The aim was to explore intellectual biography as a genre or approach, and to consider the particular challenges it presents as well as the opportunities it offers. The discussion was stimulating and wide-ranging and has set me thinking about many issues.

One is the very nature of intellectual biography itself. A common approach to this, discussed at the workshop, involves a distinction between the work and the life, or perhaps even between the 'external life' and the internal 'life of the mind'. In these terms, intellectual biography can be contrasted, on the one hand, with critical commentary that focuses on published texts alone, and, on the other, with biographies focused exclusively on the private or public life of a subject who did not produce a corpus of published writings, or who is not examined in these terms. Despite this broad consensus, however, several participants at the workshop preferred to avoid the label. So Nick McDowell's study of John Milton will be an 'intellectual life' rather than an intellectual biography and Mike Braddick's biography of John Lilburne is to be titled a 'political life'.

Another issue concerns whether certain subjects are better fitted for intellectual biography than others. At the workshop it was noted that intellectual biographies are more common for the post-1800 period. One reason for this may be that in the early-modern period, generally speaking, the sources are more fragmentary, making it more difficult to recreate the inner life (and sometimes even the external life) from the source material. Sarah Hutton pointed out that this problem is frequently exacerbated where the subject is a woman, since they had fewer opportunities to express their ideas publicly and their private papers are less likely to have been preserved. This can encourage speculation in order to fill in the gaps, but another approach is to focus more on reconstructing the intellectual context around the subject from other sources, not just directly through the subject's own writings, public and private.

Also, in the case of early-modern studies the biographer is more remote from the mental world of the subject, making its reconstruction more difficult, but perhaps also requiring the biographer to build up the mental world from evidence rather than assuming that (s)he understands it. The particular character of the subject may further complicate this.

 John Milton by an unknown artist c.1629, NPG4222. Reproduced under the creative commons licence from the National Portrait Gallery.

John Milton by an unknown artist c.1629, NPG4222. Reproduced under the creative commons licence from the National Portrait Gallery.

 Nick McDowell raised the common objection to intellectual biographies of poets that this approach tends to turn poems into vehicles for ideas and downplays the timeless, creative, literary spark of such works. There was also some discussion at the workshop of the idea that a woman's intellectual life might be of a different character or quality from that of most men. This is certainly true in the case of Anne Conway, who, as Hutton explained, did not philosophise in a familiar way. In part this was down to the fact that she had not had the traditional classical education enjoyed by most of her fellow philosophers. The same could, of course, be said of a man like John Lilburne who, though he attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, did not go on to university or attend an inn of court. Lilburne, like Conway, had acquired his knowledge in more unconventional and autodidactic ways. Partly because of this, but also partly because of his role as an activist rather than a thinker, his thought is frequently inconsistent and his arguments are not always accurate, even when they were influential. It would be incorrect to suggest that such people as Conway and Lilburne did not have a mental life worthy of investigation, but it may be that different approaches and modes of expression are required in order to do justice to the lives and thought of such individuals.

 John Locke from the 1824 edition of his works. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

John Locke from the 1824 edition of his works. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

 Even in the case of those who might seem eminently suitable subjects for an intellectual biography, such as philosophers, problems still arise. There is, for example, a potential conflict between the discipline of philosophy, which explores timeless ideas, and the format of biography which is concerned precisely with setting events and ideas within a fixed chronology. Mark Goldie alluded to this problem in slightly different terms when he noted that most of those interested in leading philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are concerned with their canonical texts rather than with their more minor works, or the minutiae of their daily lives.

A major problem with intellectual biographies that participants at the workshop kept returning to is the danger of imposing consistency or coherence where it does not exist. This can take various forms. It might be that the biographer ends up creating coherence out of fragmentary evidence and then imposing it back onto the subject. However, it could equally be that a biographer has to engage with the subject's own self-fashioning, which may have created a coherence that is not, in fact, borne out by the evidence. Gaby Mahlberg's current project adds a further dimension to this problem in that she is writing the biography not of a single individual but of three English republican thinkers. Here, as in the individual cases, it is perhaps as much about understanding or making sense of disruptions and discontinuities as seeking to find unity or coherence.

 John Lilburne from  The trials of Lieut. Colonel John Lilburne  (London, 1649). Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

John Lilburne from The trials of Lieut. Colonel John Lilburne (London, 1649). Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

Despite the many problems facing the intellectual biographer, there was much agreement about the value of the approach. As I argued in my paper on James Harrington, this allows the relationship between the life and the works (the external and internal lives) to be explored and appreciated, and can result in revelations about the influence of an individual's life experiences on his/her thought or, conversely, the impact of their ideas on their political and social actions. Intellectual biography was also praised for encouraging the exploration not just of texts, but of the social context of their production, the networks (intellectual and practical) of their authors, as well as their audiences and reception. In this respect a contrast was drawn between those working on more well-known figures, who might want to merge the subject into the crowd, for a time, in order to be able to see and appreciate the context in which they were operating, and those working on more obscure figures, who need to be given the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. This is perhaps particularly important in the case of women, so long hidden within history. Sarah Hutton emphasised the importance of producing intellectual biographies of women in order to restore them to visibility and to demonstrate that women, even early-modern women, had mental lives worthy of exploration. It is equally important in the case of male figures too, though, and can be illuminating beyond the individual. MikeBraddick spoke of the value, to a self-confessed social historian with an interest in state formation and structures, of exploring a life such as Lilburne's within a changing sociological context and of using his life and ideas to elucidate the history of political engagement more generally. 

 Indeed if one thing was evident at our workshop it was that intellectual biography is an inherently interdisciplinary approach. Our speakers and panellists come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds (English Literature, Intellectual History, Philosophy, Social History, Modern Languages). The subjects they are working on are equally diverse (poets, political thinkers, philosophers, political activists). But, whatever the specific expertise of author and subject, it is almost impossible to produce an intellectual biography without drawing on more than one discipline.