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Political Thought and Intellectual History

Subject Group

Convenor: Professor Richard Bourke

Web Officer: Dr Tejas Parasher

The Faculty of History at Cambridge has long been distinguished for study of the history of political thought and the broad field of intellectual history. The interests of members of this subject group engage with the multiple contexts, intellectual, political, and institutional in which past political, historical and philosophical texts were written. Specific interests of Cambridge scholars include the interface between the history of political thought and modern political philosophy, the connections between legal, moral and political thought, the interface between the histories of international law and of political thought, the formation of political economy, historiography, the history of natural philosophy and the history of scholarship. Members of the Group remain at the forefront of teaching and scholarship in the field, continually taking the distinctive Cambridge approach to the history of political thought and intellectual history in new directions.


The Faculty is strong in many different areas of research in political thought and intellectual history, but there are particular concentrations of expertise in the medieval and early modern period, in the period of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recent appointments have given the group new strengths in the period after 1800, matching its established strengths in earlier periods. Members of the Department of Politics and International Studies add wide-ranging interests in contemporary political theory. A forum for the research of leading scholars in all periods, from Cambridge and from across the world, is provided by the weekly Seminar in Political Thought and Intellectual History.  There are frequent public lectures in the field, notably the biennial J. R. Seeley Lectures in Political Thought and the annual Quentin Skinner Lecture. The Seeley Lecturer for 2019 will be Professor Elizabeth Anderson (Michigan), on the subject 'The Great Reversal. How Neo-Liberalism turned Classical Liberal principles against workers'. The Seeley Lectures are published by Cambridge University Press: the most recent of these are Josiah Ober, Demopolis. Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice (2017), and Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign. The invention of modern democracy (2015). The 2017 Seeley Lectures on Professor Axel Honneth (Frankfurt and Columbia) on 'Recognition in three cultural contexts' will be published in 2019.  The Quentin Skinner Fellow in 2018 was Dr Avi Lifschitz (Oxford); Dr Emma Hunter (Edinburgh) was the Fellow for 2019. In 2020 the Quentin Skinner Fellow will be Dr Isaac Nakhimovsky (Yale). These lectures are published in the Historical Journal.

Further details of the activities of the Group, including the Seminar, the Seeley Lectures, the Quentin Skinner Lecture and other lectures and conferences, as well as of the publications of its members, can be found at the website of the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought.  

Members of the Faculty have also been closely involved in editing the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. This series, published in a characteristic blue design by Cambridge University Press, comprises a collection of the core texts in the Western political tradition, from ancient Greece to the early twentieth century. The Press also publishes a number of monograph series including Ideas in Context. Volumes of the  Cambridge History of Political Thought continue to be published, most recently The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought, edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys.

Graduate students in the Subject Group also produce Interventions, a podcast series that introduces intellectual historians from Cambridge and beyond to everyone with an interest in history and politics.

Graduate Teaching

The Faculty offers an intensive M.Phil Degree in Political Thought and Intellectual History. This interdisciplinary course is run jointly by the Faculties of History, Classics, and the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS). Each year around twenty-five to thirty students from all over the world are admitted for the nine-month course. After the M.Phil course, a good proportion of these students move on to doctoral study in Cambridge and elsewhere.

Students at Cambridge studying for the Ph.D. in the field of political thought and intellectual history are served by regular meetings with their Supervisor, by the weekly Research Seminar in Political Thought and Intellectual History, which has two strands, one for established scholars, and one organised by and for younger post-doctoral scholars, research fellows and senior graduate students.  In addition a Graduate Workshop in the field is convened by the students themselves.

Holders of a Ph.D. in the field from Cambridge have been successful in obtaining research fellowships and teaching positions in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere, in departments of both History and Politics. Research resources in Cambridge for work in the field are among the best in the world; they include the extensive library of rare books that Lord Acton collected for his projected history of liberty.

Undergraduate Teaching

The Group is responsible for several papers in Parts I and II of the Historical Tripos, offering undergraduates opportunities to engage with different dimensions of the field in each year of their study.

In Part I there is a Themes and Sources paper, studied in the First Year: 'Sacred Histories' (the historical and political thought of the Bible and the early Church), which will taught in 2019 by Dr Timothy Twining. 

The History of Political Thought can be studied in more depth in two papers normally taken in the second year: 'History of Political Thought to c. 1700' and 'History of Political Thought from c. 1700 to c. 1890'. One or both of these papers can be taken in the secoind year. They combine the close study of canonical texts with opportunities to explore topics which illuminate wider developments in the subject. Intensive lecture series by leading members of the Subject Group provide comprehensive cover of these papers.

The second of these papers, from 1700 to 1890, is also available in Part II, making it possible to progress from the first period to its successor. There are two other political thought papers available only in Part II. 'Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought since c. 1890' offers the opportunity to engage critically with modern political philosophy alongside study of the recent history of the subject; it is shared and co-taught with the Department of Politics and International Studies. A second, recently-introduced paper 'States between states: international political thought from the Roman Empire to the early nineteenth century', opens to undergraduates an exciting and fast-growing new field in the history of political thought. This paper is co-taught by Dr Brett (its convenor), Dr Ryan, and Dr Meckstroth.

In addition, the Subject Group sponsors a Part II Special Subject, 'The Kantian Revolution', on the transformations in German philosophy in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany, taught by Dr Meckstroth, and a Specified Subject, 'The Politics of Knowledge from the late Renaissance to the early Enlightenment', which introduces students to the inter-connected histories of science and scholarship in the early modern period; its teaching is led by Scott Mandelbrote, Dr Michael Edwards, and Dr Richard Serjeantson.


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