Political Thought and Intellectual History

Research theme

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 our researchers 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 dialogue 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 political thought, global intellectual history, historiography, and the history of natural philosophy and the history of scholarship. Our researchers 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 periods, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Recent appointments have delivered new strengths in the period after 1800 (particularly the 20th century), matching its established strengths in earlier periods. Members of the Department of Politics and International Studies add wide-ranging interests in political theory. The weekly Seminar in Political Thought and Intellectual History provides a forum for the research of leading scholars in all periods, from Cambridge and from across the world.  Our researchers are also major contributors to additional specialised seminars on Legal Histories beyond the State, International Relations and History, Contemporary Political Thought and Global 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 was Professor Elizabeth Anderson (University of Michigan), on the subject of ‘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); Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign. The Invention of Modern Democracy (2016); and Anne Philips, The Politics of the Human (2015). The Quentin Skinner Lecturer in 2018 was Dr Avi Lifschitz (University of Oxford), and in 2019 Dr Emma Hunter (University of Edinburgh). Dr Isaac Nakhimovsky (Yale University) and Dr Katrina Forrester (Harvard University) were appointed for 2020 and 2021 respectively.  The Skinner lectures are published in The Historical Journal.

Researchers in political thought and intellectual history have also been involved in organising a range of conferences, symposia and workshops. Recently these have included the ‘Political Thought, Time and History’ conference (2018), the ‘Global Carl Schmitt’ conference (2019), the DAAD-funded Reinhart Koselleck symposium (2019), and the AHRC-funded ‘History in the Humanities and Social Sciences’ network (2019–20). The ‘Anti-Colonial Political Thought’ conference is scheduled for 1–2 July 2021.

Further details about our work, including the seminars, the Seeley Lectures, the Quentin Skinner Lecture, and other activities, as well as  about the publications of our scholars, can be found at the website of the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought. The Centre is shared between History and Politics, and is co-directed by Professors Duncan Bell, Richard Bourke, Annabel Brett and Duncan Kelly.

Much of our research is produced in collaboration with Cambridge University Press. The Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought continues to expand the range of new and classic works in the field. Colleagues are involved in a number of monographic and collaborative series published by Cambridge University Press, notably Ideas in Context and the Cambridge History of Rights. Volumes of the Cambridge History of Political Thought continue to be published, most recently The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought.

Our graduate students  organise an annual conference in the field, and also produce Interventions, a podcast series that introduces intellectual historians from Cambridge and beyond to everyone with an interest in history and politics.



Research Area Contacts

Convenor: Professor Richard Bourke

Postgraduate Comms Officer: Elena Yi-Jia Zeng


Page credits & information

Banner Image: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948), Frantz Fanon (1925-1961).