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Dr Joel Isaac

Dr Joel Isaac

Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought

Christ's College
St. Andrew's Street


I was born in Devon and raised there and in the Netherlands.  I trained as an historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, and at Trinity College, Cambridge.  From 2005 until 2007, I held the Keasbey Research Fellowship in American Studies at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  I took up a lectureship at Queen Mary, University of London in 2007, and remained there until assuming my current post in the Faculty of History.  In 2011 I held the Balzan-Skinner Fellowship in Modern Intellectual History.  From 2016 until 2019 I will be a Pro Futura Scientia fellow, based at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study and at CRASSH in Cambridge.

Research Interests

My research focuses on the history of social and political thought in the United States.  I have a particular interest in the ways in which theories of knowledge drove a key set of conceptual changes in the human sciences during the twentieth century.  Much of my work in this area is presented in my first book, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), which was awarded the Gladstone Prize by the Royal Historical Society.

I am also much interested in how the Cold War shaped political ideologies in the United States.  I have co-edited a volume with Duncan Bell on this topic, Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).  I have also published a number of essays dealing with this topic.

My current research examines the revival of eighteenth-century categories of political and moral thought in the twentieth century. In the writings of a cohort of influential philosophers, economists, and political theorists, who published in the interwar and post-Second War decades, we can see attempt to rethink Enlightenment notions of sociability, practical reasoning, property, and the state.  This process of reappraisal was refracted through more modern idioms: neoclassical economics, analytical philosophy, decision theory, and empirical political science.  The ideas that resulted form the foundations of modern liberal and neoliberal thought.  I call the fruits of this intellectual culture 'the Cold War Enlightenment'.

Research Supervision

I welcome inquiries from prospective MPhil and PhD students wishing to work on topics in the history of late-modern philosophy and political in the English-speaking world (and connected developments on the continent).


My primary teaching interests are in the history of political thought and intellectual history.  In Tripos, I lecture and supervise for Paper 5 in Part II.  In addition, I teach a Special Subject on 'Liberalism and Constitutional Crisis in the United States, c.1930-c.1965'.  I also supervise for papers 20 and 24 in Part I.  Finally, I teach classes on methodology, Rawls, and bureaucracy for the MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History.

Other Professional Activities

Editorial Board member, Modern Intellectual History

Book series co-editor, Intellectual History of the Modern Age, University of Pennsylvania Press

Key Publications

  • Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • 'Pain, Analytical Philosophy, and American Intellectual History', in The Worlds of American Intellectual History, ed. Joel Isaac, James T. Kloppenberg, Michael O'Brien, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 202-217
  • 'Donald Davidson and the Analytic Revolution in American Philosophy, 1940-1970', Historical Journal 56 (2013), 757-79
  • 'Missing Links: W. V. Quine, the Making of "Two Dogmas," and the Analytic Roots of Postanalytic Philosophy', History of European Ideas 37 (2011), 267-79
  • 'Tool Shock: Technique and Epistemology in the Postwar Social Sciences', History of Political Economy 42 (Annual Supplement 2010), 133-64
  • 'Theorist at Work: Talcott Parsons and the Carnegie Project on Theory, 1949-1951', Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), 287-311
  • 'Tangled Loops: Theory, History and the Human Sciences in Modern America', Modern Intellectual History 6 (2009), 397-424
  • 'The Human Sciences in Cold War America', Historical Journal 50 (2007), 725-46
  • 'W. V. Quine and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy in the United States', Modern Intellectual History 2 (2005), 205-34

    Other Publications

    • (ed., with James T. Kloppenberg, Michael O'Brien, and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen), The Worlds of American Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)
    • 'Totalitarianism: A Sketch', in Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism, ed. Matt Ffytche and Daniel Pick (London, Routledge, 2015), 20-24
    • (ed., with Duncan Bell) Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)
    • 'Kuhn’s Education: Wittgenstein, Pedagogy, and the Road to Structure', Modern Intellectual History 9 (2012): 89-107
    • 'Epistemic Design: Theory and Data in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations', in Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature, ed. Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), 79-95
    • guest ed. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, special issue on The Human Sciences and Cold War America 47 (Summer 2011)
    • 'Introduction: The Human Sciences and Cold War America', Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, special issue on The Human Sciences and Cold War America 47 (2011), 225-31
    • Contribution to roundtable on David Engerman’s Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts, H-Diplo Roundtable, 2 (2011), 18-24
    • 'Intellectuals and Society: Sociological and Historical Perspectives' (with Patrick Baert), in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory (London: Routlege, 2011), 200 - 211.
    • 'The Curious Cultural Logic of Intellectual Migration: Rudolf Carnap and Leo Strauss', in The Legacy of Leo Strauss, ed. Tony Burns and James Connelly (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010), 161-80
    • 'Emplotting Analysis', Modern Intellectual History 4 (2007), 389-402
    • 'Why Not Lewis?' Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 42 (2006), 46-50
    • 'Republicanism: A European Inheritance?' European Journal of Social Theory 8 (2005), 73-86