An interdepartmental program in History of Ideas

Last updated: July 19, 2013 at 1:38 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.


David Engerman, Chair

Richard Gaskins
(American Studies)

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

Jennifer Marusic

Robin Feuer Miller (on leave academic year 2013-2014)
(German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)

Kate Moran

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

Eugene Sheppard (on leave academic year 2013-2014)
(Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

Bernard Yack (on leave spring 2014)

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

SOC 168a Democracy and Inequality in Global Perspective
[ ss ]
Prerequisite: SOC 1a, SOC 3b or IGS 10a.
Can democracy survive great inequalities of wealth and status? In authoritarian countries, does inequality inspire revolution or obedience? What role does culture play in determining which inequalities are tolerable and which are not? Cases include the United States, India, and China. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Rosenberger

History of Ideas Electives

AAAS 168b The Black Intellectual Tradition
[ ss wi ]
Introduces broad historical themes, issues and debates that constitute the black intellectual tradition. Examines the works of male and female black intellectuals from slavery to present. Will explore issues of freedom, citizenship, uplift, gender, and race consciousness. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Williams

COML/ENG 140b Children's Literature and Constructions of Childhood
[ hum ]
Explores whether children's literature has sought to civilize or to subvert, to moralize or to enchant, forming a bedrock for adult sensibility. Childhood reading reflects the unresolved complexity of the experience of childhood itself as well as larger cultural shifts around the globe in values and beliefs. Usually offered every third year.
Ms. Miller

ENG 78b Modernism, Atheism, God
[ hum ]
Explores European and U.S. literature after Nietzche's proclamation, at the end of the 19th century, that God is dead. How does this writing imagine human life and the role of literature in God's absence? How does it imagine afterlives of God, and permutations of the sacred, in a post-religious world? How, or why, to have faith in the possibility of faith in a secular age? What does "the secular" actually mean, and how does it persuade itself that it's different than "religion"? Approaches international modernism as a political and theological debate about materialism and spirituality, finitude and transcendence, reason and salvation. Readings by Kafka, Joyce, Rilke, Faulkner, Eliot, Beckett, Pynchon, and others. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Sherman

HIST 169a Thought and Culture in Modern America
[ ss wi ]
Developments in American philosophy, literature, art, and political theory examined in the context of socioeconomic change. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Engerman

HIST 181b Red Flags/Black Flags: Marxism vs. Anarchism, 1845-1968
[ ss ]
From Marx's first major book in 1845 to the French upheavals of 1968, the history of left-wing politics and ideas. The struggles between Marxist orthodoxy and anarchist-inspired, left Marxist alternatives. Usually offered every third year.
Mr. Hulliung

HIST 195a American Political Thought: From the Revolution to the Civil War
[ ss ]
Antebellum America as seen in the writings of Paine, Jefferson, Adams, the Federalists and Antifederalists, the Federalists and Republicans, the Whigs and the Jacksonians, the advocates and opponents of slavery, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Hulliung

NEJS 155b Introduction to Jewish Legal Thought
[ hum ]
Traces the history of Jewish law from the Bible to the present. Jewish law is indispensable for understanding Jewish life, past, present and future, and is a rich source of reflection on law, ethics and religion. This course examines contemporary debates and controversies and explores its spiritual dimensions. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Mirsky

PHIL 7a Science, Evolution, and Design
[ hum ]
This seminar considers several versions of the argument from design for the existence of God, culminating in a critical examination of the contemporary debate over intelligent design theory and the claim that it is a genuine science. Usually offered every second year.
Ms. Marusic

PHIL 107b Kant's Moral Theory
[ hum ]
An examination of the main philosophical issues addressed in Kant's Critique of Practical Reason from the perspective of their relation to works specifically belonging to his ethical theory: the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Metaphysics of Morals. Usually offered every second year.
Ms. Moran

PHIL 122a History of Ethics
[ hum ]
Explores several major ethical traditions in the history of modern philosophy/ Examines the natural law theories of Hobbes and Grotius; moral sense theory; Kantianism; utilitarianism; and Nietzsche's response to these traditional moral theories. Usually offered every third year.
Ms. Moran

POL 187b Conservative Political Thought
[ ss ]
Focuses on American and European thinkers, with an emphasis on critics of equality and unlimited commercial and civil liberty. Readings include political philosophy and literature. Authors may include Burke, Oakeshott, Calhoun, Conrad, Hayek, Macintyre, and Strauss. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Yack

POL 189a Marx, Nietzsche, and Twentieth-Century Radicalism
[ ss ]
Comparison of two powerful and influential critiques of modern politics and society. Explanation of Marx's work, both for its own insights and as a model for radical theorists; and of Nietzsche's work as an alternative conception of radical social criticism. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Yack

SOC 127a Gods and Nations: Identity in Global Politics
[ nw ss ]
Examines three sources of identity that are influential in global affairs: religion, ethnicity and nationalism. Considers theories of the relationship among these identities, especially "secularization theory," then reviews historical examples such as Poland, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Rosenberger

SOC 162a Intellectuals and Revolutionary Politics
[ ss ]
Examines the role of intellectuals in modern politics, especially their relationship to nationalism and revolutionary movements. In reading across a range of political revolutions(e.g. in Central Europe, colonial Africa and Iran), students will have the chance to compare the relative significance of appeals to solidarity based on class, religion, ethnicity, and national identity. Usually offered every second year.
Mr. Rosenberger