In the history of ideas, no one stands taller than the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). To quote from a recent book by Marco Sgarbi, Locke was persuaded that it is sufficient to establish a connection between proofs to understand the validity of a logical conclusion.

John Locke

“Locke’s entire epistemology is based on the possibility of establishing these agreements or disagreements between ideas. It is necessary, therefore, to determine (1) by what way ideas are acquired and (2) by what way ideas are compared…The formation of these general and abstract truths follows for Locke a process that recalls Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics II.19:

   The Senses at first let in particular Ideas, and furnish the yet empty Cabinet: And the Mind

   by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in the Memory, and Names got

   to them. Afterwards the Mind proceeding farther, abstracts them, and by Degrees learns the use

   of general Names. In this manner the Mind comes to be furnished with Ideas and Language.”

John Locke is mentioned on 24 pages in A Cultural History of Ideas IN THE AGE OF EMPIRE, one book in a six-volume set covering the history of ideas from ancient times to the present. But in none of those entries is a direct link given between Locke and his work just quoted on the way ideas are acquired and compared. The first book in the series, on CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY, has a specific chapter on “Language, Poetry, and Rhetoric,” and in that chapter Aristotle is considered. The author does explore the path by which Aristotle linked symbols and experiences to the creation of name being attached to a form produced in the soul that had a likeness to a stimulus. It is a fine synthesis, but for sheer readability, offering the Aristotle quote just given would have been welcome to most potential readers.

Bloomsbury’s Cultural History of Ideas is the work of 62 scholars. Breathtaking in its scope, the six volumes (each about 230 pages) are collectively an extraordinary achievement. In the Preface written by the General Editors of the series, they make it clear a 1913 lecture by Arthur Lovejoy is their touchstone. There, he introduced “the field of the history of ideas. As he explained it, molecules combine and recombine to make compounds that vary over time. Yet the underlying stuff abide. The comparison gave him a way to recapture the dynamic properties of ideas.”

This series covers a sweep of 2,800 years, with each volume divided into the same nine topics which “are not presented as ideas in any simple sense.” This would appear to the reason that the description of ideas, as given by Locke, does not appear. It is a bold move on the part of the General Editors, and while such an approach has strengths (both obvious and novel), it does so at the expense of a direct engagement with ideas per se, which is what many potential readers likely expect to find.  

It is remarkable at the outset of the chapter in the Classical Antiquity volume that “underlying stuff abides.” Author Thomas Habinek writes “The human need for reliable information underlies the earliest programmatic announcements concerning truth and knowledge.” Hesiod, in his Theogeny, “describes the Muses as proclaiming their own access to truth…they are free of the human anxiety over the reliability or unreliability of information provided by others inasmuch as they preside over that very distinction.” In this era of AI-generated fake news, it is unfortunate we have no Muses to look to for help.

Attempting to review such a massive work must necessarily be approached with some method. I read it both horizontally (by studying chapter 7 in all the books), and also vertically, by reading one entire volume (IN THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT).

Chapter 7 is entitled “Language, Poetry, and Rhetoric,” which I have already mentioned in the context of Aristotle and the formation of language. The author in the first volume is Sean Gurd, Professor Classics right here at the University of Texas, Austin. He traces a key development in the work of St. Augustine. “The second book of Augustine De ordine offers a narrative in which reason rises through an educational curriculum entailing grammar, rhetoric, music and mathematics by means of a process of self-observation…It may be one of the signal developments of literary thought to have taken an experience that in the Hellenistic period was understood as a matter of passionate and in some degree untrustworthy perception and to have made that into a platform for searching inward investigation.”

Harkening back to the names given to things, as described by Aristotle, author Wesley Chihyung Yu (Mount Holyoke College) looks at Chaucer in the MEDIEVAL AGE volume. A statement made by the Franklin in Canterbury Tales “points to a role for rhetoric to investigate the relationship that can be said to exist between figurative language and the entities or things in the world that language names.” As is often the case, major advances can be made by peering into these liminal spaces.

Aristotle also had a creative influence on Christian sermons, but it took some time to be made manifest as it had to wrest control from rhetoric. While most people still dismiss the 8th century as the Dark Ages it was actually the time of the Carolingian Renaissance; it was here we witness “the nascent reclamation of rhetoric’s original civic scheme as it emerges in medieval ethics…Medieval rhetoric thus renews its communicative function in a political realm as ‘practical wisdom’ through its concern with secular virtues and ethics.” Up to the 12th century, the application of rhetoric spurred sermon writing, but by the 13th century “Aristotelian-influenced preachers adopt a logical emphasis in the new ‘thematic’ sermons, more systematic and structured than the simple homily.” This shift was spurred “by the Aristotelian leanings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and the Augustinian program of Bonaventure (1217-1274).” By the 15th century, Yu writes, this reached its ultimate expression in Humanism. “These Humanists sought to offer a simpler, purer Aristotle than the scholastics had recourse to. Humanistic rhetoric makes explicit the idea that arguments in a practical register may hold valid in ways that are not always expressible under formal, syllogistic procedures of argumentation.” Since such a form of argumentation had held sway for so many centuries, this was a major advance in the history of ideas.

Moving forward to the RENAISSANCE volume, Anthony Ossa-Richardson (University College, London) looks at the study of Latin some 1,500 years after the time of Cicero. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) “was preeminent among the humanists of the fifteenth century.” Valla “supported an anomalous attitude to Latin, attempting to understand it not by systemization, but by a survey of the best writers.” Despite his attachment to classical practice, he was not afraid to contradict Cicero. One of Valla’s pet peeves was the use of a certain pronoun. He “insisted it should only be used to denote the subject of a verb, even though Cicero flouted this rule.” Valla’s expertise achieved practical value in the power plays at work in the 15th century. There was a famous document known as the Donation of Constatine the Great, which “handed over the authority of Rome to Pope Sylvester I as the reward for a miracle worked on the emperor’s behalf.” It became a critically important document, used to support the notion of papal supremacy. Valla demolished the Donation, showing it to be a forgery. How did he do it? By the “evisceration of the document’s Latin…Valla focused his knowledge of the classical grammarians and commentators into a critique of a major support for papal power.” Valla wrote this critique for his patron, who was in conflict with the papacy over Naples. It was power politics, Latin-style, proving the pen is mightier than the sword. Ossa-Richardson, in what I think is the best of the Language chapters in the series, also explains another of Valla’s contribution to linguistic thought that “attempts a restructuring of medieval logic as derived from Aristotle, rejecting its abstract and artificial terminology in favor of a richer understanding of how reasoning is actually conducted in ordinary speech.”

Ossa-Richardson goes on to reveal the work of Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), whose influence on teaching was huge. Ramus framed his reforms as an attack on Aristotle and Cicero “which led to his formal, though temporary, censure.” It was during his time that the proverbial chick was pecking at the egg to make its presence known: despite the predominance of Latin, “the vernaculars exploded in the Renaissance.” Dante, for example, pioneered the analysis of Italian (even though he ironically wrote about it in Latin!). And Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous defense of poetry as a “certain fervor of excellent discovery and speech” ensured its major place in Renaissance thought and literature. The books Arte of English Poesie (1589) and The Defence of Poesie (1595) “both sought to rescue English poetry from what they perceived to be its literary crudeness and cultural neglect.”

In the fourth volume, AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, author Christy Pichichero (George Mason University) covers the period from 1650-1800. It is here we once again encounter John Locke, who highlighted a crisis of great moment. “He believed that words are incapable of fully representing the things and ideas that they are meant to communicate.” Since language had “fallen from grace” in the 17th century, it led to the search for a ‘universal language.’ Rene Descartes became interested in the concept, which it was hoped would be “capable of eliminating the muddying of knowledge, judgment and truth. Philosophical grammar emerged as a predominant trend in language studies.” Pichichero further explores studies in the 18th century on the origins of language; William Warburton (1698-1799) believed Egyptian hieroglyphs were representations of the world’s first language. Pichichero’s survey of rhetoric is fascinating; the rhetorical movement known as “belletristic rhetoric” (introduced on pg 155 but not explained until 156) saw a crossover with literary writers and artists “in attending to a series of questions with regard to beauty, the sublime, taste, genius, the picturesque and poetry.” One of these belletristic rhetoricians was Hugh Blair. The author’s statement that “Scholars have long criticized Scottish minister and rhetorician Hugh Blair (1718-1800)” for his open hostility to peasants and the working class is not supported by any footnote as to who was behind this criticism. Blair is also mentioned in chapter 4 of this book, but again nothing related to him is supported by any footnotes.

In THE AGE OF EMPIRE, author Patrick Macguinness (Univ. of Oxford) tells us that “by 1922 the nerves had displaced the heart, the mind, and even the body as the motor of literary sensation. Having more language than one had feelings had become a feeing in itself, and it, too, needed the right language to express it.”

Searching for the properly expressive language became a cottage industry. “Part of being eloquent is to advertise the inadequacy of our eloquence in the direction of our subject, of projecting a sense of language as shortfall, whose failure to match its subject becomes the proof of that subject’s worth.” One solution, elucidated a century earlier, was found in silence. Macguinness looks at the 1816 novel Adolphe by the French Liberal Benjamin Constant (pictured below). “There is a Romantic hero in the book, one for whom language is not enough to express feeling.” He refers to the heroine of the tale, Ellenore. “She exceeds and eludes language not just because of the intensity and authenticity of her emotions, but because she dies of them, and because her words become the unanswerable silence from which all language comes and to which it all returns.” In Adolphe, Macguinness writes, “words are not just a debased currency but a counterfeit one.” The author does a superb job in his final section at exploring this language of silence through such poets writers as Victor Hugo (his poem Le Silence du soir), Leopardi (his 1835 poem The Infinite) and Mallarmé’s 1897 poem A Throw of the Dice (which Jeremy Glazier called “the greatest literary gamble of its time” in The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015). Useful here in the books on ideas would have been Mallarme’s own words to describe his poem: “a prismatic subdivisions of the Idea,” with a capital I. This was a brilliantly enlightening chapter but I would like to have seen a more direct engagement with rhetoric. The word itself is used only once, even though it is in the chapter title.

Finally, in THE MODERN AGE, Christopher Nealon (Johns Hopkins Univ.) looks at ‘critical theory.’ A key player in this is the 1980s German philosopher Juergen Habermas. “For Habermas, European cultures since the Enlightenment had witnessed both a fragmentation of culture into separate spheres (isolated scientific, moral and artistic zones) – and a further separation of each of these spheres into expert and everyday knowledges and practices.” As a partial success in overcoming this, he points to a triptych by Peter Weiss, The Aesthetic of Resistance (published from 1975 to 1981). In these books, working-class German youth realise they must give art a value “quite different than those ascribed to the art by teachers and experts.” There is a typo here on pg. 130: struck should be stuck.

I found the discussion of modern rhetoric here to be most interesting. In 1987, Hans Blumenberg is quoted as writing “Rhetoric has to do either with the consequences of possessing the truth or the difficulties that result from the impossibility of obtaining the truth.” For those who read the section on rhetoric in the first volume of this set, one can see that the role of the Muses persist, even though they are not explicitly named anymore. As Nealon writes about the passage just quoted, “Blumenberg’s depiction of a split in conceptions of the human along this axis of attitudes about rhetoric provides an interesting alternative to the modernity discourses whose political concerns so quickly became epistemological worries.”


Now, to a survey at the entire AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT book, edited by Jack Censer (George Mason Univ.). In the Introduction that he co-wrote with Gary Kates, mention is made of a work by Abbé Raynal. In the third edition, printed in 1780, Raynal describes the spread of European trading to the entire world. What I found amazing is that this work spans 5,000 pages over 10 volumes! It is just a taste of the vast literature pertaining to just a single chapter in this book, the one on Politics and Economies.  

The chapter on Knowledge by Chad Wellmon (Univ. of Virginia) focuses on bibliographic completeness. Like a library of all books every printed, it is an impossibility, but that did not prevent several people from trying. The exemplar in this field was of course Diderot’s Encyclopédie; he actually acknowledged the impossibility of achieving completeness. From its first edition in 1715, the Compendious Lexicon of the Learned by Christian Joecher set out to provide a complete and coherent account of learning from ancient Greece to 18th century Germany. Wellmon says the Lexicon actually contained just metadata. “Little or no information or discussion about the content of the books is made available.” In 1733, in the third edition, Jocher admitted his Lexicon “remains incomplete.” In the last edition he edited, from 1750, he conceded none of the previous editions had been ‘complete.’ There were dual notions of knowledge in the 18th century: “the tension between knowledge as an objective reality and knowledge as a subjective capacity.” It was Wilhelm von Humboldt who realized that only a new kind of university could connect these two notions. The University of Berlin was born in 1810. As the first “modern research university” it embodied “a new conception of knowledge as research and the scholar as researcher…By the end of the 19th century, research universities would become the central technologies of knowledge around the world.”

In The Human Self chapter, Howard Brown (Binghamton Univ., New York) takes a close look at René Descartes who wrote the mind is wholly different from the physical world. “Thus, in Cartesian dualism, the mind belonged to an ethereal universe that was utterly distinct from the body…However, the radicalism of Descartes’ dualism prevented him from developing a persuasive explanation for just how an individual consciousness related to its corporeal container.” But ones gets the impression that what Descartes wrote was at odds with what he really believed. In light of what happened to Galileo (house arrest by the Church) “he was always wary of the consequences of his claims,” and thus tailored “his understanding of self that largely fit with Christian teachings.” By the late 18th century, 150 years after Descartes wrote Discourses on Method, an unmistakable cultural revolution was in full swing. “The ‘great chain of buying’ was replacing the great chain of being that assigned every individual a place in God’s Hierarchy.” There is a typo in this chapter: on pg 52, identity should be identify.

In the chapter on Ethics and Social Relations, Sarah Maza (Northwestern University), makes the case that “proponents of enlightened thought were from believers in a social hierarchy that kept the poor and ignorant masses firmly parked at the bottom of society.” Equality was only for those at the top, which gave novelists and playwrights lots of opportunities to write about a poor person marrying a wealthy man. In The Pauper, by L.-S. Mercier from 1772, the plot twist is that the poor woman turns out to be the long-lost sister of the rich guy, so instead of marrying her, he raises her to a proper position in life! The power of family love is one Maza delights in examining.

Gary Kates (Pomona College), in the Politics and Economies chapter, writes that “what strikes one most about Enlightenment political thought was its popularity. For the first time in the history of European culture, large and difficult works of political theory became bestsellers.” For example, when Napoleon went on campaign in Egypt, he took a travelling library with him; this included all 10 volumes of the History of the Two Indies, a history of European colonialism. It was published 57 times in the 18th century!

In the chapter Nature, Brian Ogilvie (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) examines the new concept of the law of nature which was even used retrospectively. “In the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert referred to ‘Kepler’s Law,’ a term Kepler himself never used.” In the chapter Religion and the Divine, Jonathan Sheehan (Univ. of California, Berkeley) identifies Johann Zedler as an author “apparently unknown to the editorial team” of the Encyclopédie. Between 1731 and 1754, Zedler wrote the Universal Lexicon of Science and Art. “In Zedler, we find a compendious description of God from many different theological, liturgical, polemical, and historical points of view. For the Encyclopédie, by contrast, the only meaningful thing to say about God was that He existed.” In his conclusion, Sheehan asks “So what finally happened to religion in the Enlightenment? It was dispersed and disaggregated, its conceptual archive reimagined in tandem with new genres of writing, new ways of telling stories, new practices of communication, and new philosophical commitments.”

In the chapter on The Arts, Douglas Fordham (Univ. of Virginia) looks at naturalism as exemplified by such disparate things as Robert Hooke’s investigations with the microscope, and David’s famous 1784 painting Oath of the Horatii with its evocation of the heroic male form. In the 18th century imitating ancient works in painting and sculpture was identified as a surefire way to become great. “This seeming paradox would inspire and frustrate contemporary artists for decades to come.”

Finally, in the History chapter, Caroline Winterer (Stanford Univ.) writes that “Philosophical historians revolutionized West thought by imagining that ‘history’ was largely a secular process that moved through universally shared stages from an age of barbaric unreason to one of civilized reason.” History from previous times, written to support dynastic interests, were replaced “to illuminate the canvas of all of humanity within the context of nations and empires, or even all humankind.” Even early in the 18th century, “one overwhelmed observer guessed that there were more than 30,000 works of historiography in print.” Like this six-volume work itself, only a small slice of such a vast written record can be considered in these books, or this review. Suffice to say, this is a very welcome and valuable addition to humanity’s cultural heritage, and I recommend it highly for any research library, as well as scholars in any of the fields of study it engages with. A great publishing effort.

A Cultural History of Ideas was published by Bloomsbury in 2022. The General Editors of the series are Sophia Rosenfeld (Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania) and Peter T. Struck (Professor and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania). Each book has its own editor. The set is priced at $550.

The Chapter headings in each book are:


The Human Self

Ethics and Social Relations

Politics and Economies


Religion and the Divine

Language, Poetry, Rhetoric

The Arts


By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.