An interdepartmental program in History of Ideas

Last updated: June 28, 2012 at 4:11 p.m.


Santayana put it well: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." To understand the significance of our beliefs and commitments—even to understand the significance of the questions and problems that beset us—we need to trace their sources and their history. Because ideas are expressed in social and political institutions as well as in philosophical, scientific, religious, and literary works, the program in the history of ideas (HOID) is distinguished by its multidisciplinary approach. Because political structures and institutions are themselves articulated in vigorous intellectual debates, we need to understand the ideas that have formed and that continue to form them. HOID proposes to provide students with the historical background of the issues and values that have shaped their interests. The program is intended to provide students with the skills and the knowledge, the guidance and the freedom to construct a focused and rigorous course of study, one that explores the historical transformation of a set of ideas and institutions across several traditional disciplines.

Learning Goals

The History of Ideas Minor was developed to help students explore the sources of human beliefs and commitments by tracing their development over time. Its goal is to deepen understanding of both the significance of familiar ways of thinking and the strengths of unfamiliar ways. Our courses help students broaden their perspective on important issues by drawing attention to the diverse and ever-changing ways in which human beings have tried to make sense of their world and its problems.

The History of Ideas minor has students take two different kinds of courses: electives from departments outside their major and 2 interdisciplinary seminars that act as capstones for the program. The electives allow students to exercise independent judgment in putting together a set of courses that pursue common themes within very different interdisciplinary settings. The seminars, in contrast, allow them to pursue intensive study of important issues or intellectual periods in an environment that emphasizes the development of verbal and written communication skills. The minor is constructed as an interdisciplinary supplement to students’ majors, one that broadens the range of approaches that students encounter, while still demanding rigorous intellectual engagement with key texts and thinkers. In addition, the History of Ideas Minor contributes to the university’s social justice mission in two ways: 1) intellectually, by deepening our students’ understanding of the nature and sources of our claims about morality and justice; 2) practically, by increasing appreciation and respect for the diverse and ever-changing ways in which these claims have been made over time.

Completing the History of Ideas Minor helps students develop the following core skills:

  • Critical thinking, based on close analysis of texts and comparison of different and changing expressions of ideas.
  • Ability to analyze and write about complex ideas.
  • Ability to read and analyze texts from diverse and unfamiliar traditions.
  • Judgment about how to make the best use of different methodological approaches to the same issue.

Our courses in the minor vary, with students selecting their own electives from a wide range of departmental offerings and with capstone seminars changing each year. So the minor does not claim to impart to students a single body of knowledge. All of our courses aim, however, to help students appreciate:

  • The development of ideas over time.
  • The nature and extent of cultural diversity.
  • The sources of familiar and canonical ways of thinking.
  • The diverse and often contingent sources of long established beliefs and commitments.

The History of Ideas minor is especially attractive to students interested in graduate study in Philosophy, History, and other fields in Humanities and Social Sciences. As a result, many of our students go on to earn Ph.Ds and become academics. But it also helps prepare students well for any field, such as law, that requires careful analysis of the meaning and development of written texts.

How to Become a Minor

In order to declare a minor, students should meet with the undergraduate advising head of the program, who will help them to plan a course of study tailored to their intellectual needs while meeting core and elective requirements.


Eugene Sheppard, Chair and Undergraduate Advising Head
(Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

David Engerman (on leave academic year 2012-2013)

Richard Gaskins
(American Studies)

Susan Lanser
(Comparative Literature; English and American Literature; Women's and Gender Studies)

Jennifer Marusic

Robin Feuer Miller
(German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)

Kate Moran

David Powelstock
(German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)

Bernard Yack

Affiliated Faculty (contributing to the curriculum, advising and administration of the department or program)
Susan Lanser (English)
Robin Feuer Miller (German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)
Kathleen Moran (Philosophy)
Bernard Yack (Politics)

Requirements for the Minor

The minor has three requirements:

A. Two history of ideas seminars. Two such seminars will be offered each semester. Topics and faculty for the seminars will change each year. Students should consult the schedule of classes each semester for the specific seminar offerings.

B.  Three courses selected in consultation with the HOID undergraduate adviser, at least two of which will be taken in departments or programs beyond the student’s major(s). When joining the program, students will write a brief statement explaining the intellectual relationships that connect the subject matter of these three courses. Only one course from a student’s major—or one from each major, in the case of double majors—may be counted toward the total of five courses required for the minor.

C.  Students will present a substantial research paper or project to HOID faculty and students at a spring colloquium. This paper or project may develop out of work done in a history of ideas seminar, but it can also be drawn from independent research, such as a senior thesis or independent study, or from other work that students have done since coming to Brandeis. The colloquium is designed to give students the opportunity to engage with each other about their creative work at Brandeis.

Courses of Instruction

(1-99) Primarily for Undergraduate Students

HOID 98a Independent Study
Usually offered every year.

HOID 98b Independent Study
Usually offered every year.

History of Ideas Seminars

ECS 110a Thinking about Infinity
[ hum ]
Explores the attempts of the finite human mind to think about infinity. Readings in mathematics, history of science, philosophy, literature, and art, including Euclid, Plato, Cantor, Poincaré, Einstein, Pascal, Kant, Hegel, Wordsworth, Shelley, Joyce, Beckett, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Flesch