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Richard Serjeantson

richard serjeantsonName
Dr. Richard Serjeantson

Trinity College

What is your field of history?
I am principally interested in the period that historians tend to call ‘early modern’ – that is, the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Within this period, I specialise in what is sometimes called the history of knowledge: that is, I am interested in what people wrote and thought about the world they inhabited, and how they understood it. This takes me into a wide range of different areas: the history of political ideas, of philosophy more generally, religious and anti-religious ideas, the history of history, and also scientific ideas. I tend to write on British thinkers, but it is in the nature of intellectual life in this period that it was highly international, and so I am also interested in tracing the way books and ideas were transmitted around Europe and also to and from the Americas.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
It seemed to me (and still does) that this was an area of history that was foundational for understanding the culture and science of the world we inhabit today. But I was also fascinated by the richness and variety of the intellectual life of the early modern period, and the new sense of discovery and progress that it manifests.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
I draw upon a wide range of source material: printed books, manuscript treatises, papers and letters, and also images, such as maps, prints and paintings. The great advantage of the evidential foundation for this period of history is that there is enough surviving material that one can always be sure of finding new and interesting sources to shed light on the problems one investigates – but equally there isn’t an overwhelming mass of documentation such as one encounters when writing the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
The early modern period of history is characterised by a remarkable transformation in how people saw both the natural and the human worlds. In this respect, the grand developments are: a crisis of confidence in the authority and ideas of classical antiquity, to be replaced by a conviction of the possibility of the advancement of learning; an explosion in the reach and scope of intellectual investigation under the stimulus of geographical, historical and scientific discoveries; and the rise of naturalistic – that is, non-theological – interpretations of both the natural and human worlds.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
I’m still a little young to answer this question with conviction, but there do seem to me to have been a number of valuable developments in my field. Perhaps the most basic is the increasing willingness to treat thought and ideas as having a concrete historical existence rather than simply an abstract one; as intervening in the historical process in specific political and other ways. Another important development has been a broadening of the scope of inquiry away from a restricted canon of philosophers and scientists – but also seeing those figures who are obviously important, both in their time and ours, in the context of the intellectual culture that they inhabited more generally. A further important development has been a greater willingness to root the history of knowledge in specific geographical contexts, from the local to the global. Finally, we know a lot more now than we used to about the mechanisms by which ideas were produced and disseminated, by the printing press, in manuscript, and in the ‘republic of letters’; this is a vital part of the histories that are now written.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
There is a vast body of printed and manuscript knowledge generated by European intellectuals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of which only a small proportion is well-known to scholars. We need editions of unpublished manuscripts and letters; and critical editions of key texts.

What characterises good history?
A sense of discovery and even detection; a capacity to explain the significance of phenomena clearly and powerfully; depth of learning; imagination; surprise; immaculate scholarship; heroic labour; irony, wit, and style.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
I came to appreciate that history was more than a sequence of events: it comprised the development of human culture and self-understanding as a whole.

Where should somebody interested in your area of history go for further information?
To the ‘Past Masters’ series published by Oxford University Press; to the Texts in the History of Philosophy and of Political Thought published by Cambridge University Press; to the Journal of the History of Ideas, and also to more recent journals such as Intellectual History Review and Modern Intellectual History. But not to Wikipedia, which – although it can be an excellent source of information in other areas – is generally very dated and sometimes actually misleading in its treatment of the history of knowledge and ideas.