There is no more contentious and perennial issue in the history of modern Western thought than the vexed relationship between the genesis of an idea and its claim to validity beyond it. Can ideas or values transcend their temporal origins and overcome the sin of their original context, and in so doing earn abiding respect for their intrinsic merit? Or do they inevitably reflect them in ways that undermine their universal aspirations? Are discrete contexts so incommensurable and unique that the smooth passage of ideas from one to the other is impossible? Are we always trapped by the limits of our own cultural standpoints and partial perspectives, or can we somehow escape their constraints and enter into a fruitful dialogue with others?
These persistent questions are at the heart of the discipline known as intellectual history, which deals not only with ideas, but also with the men and women who generate, disseminate, and criticize them. The essays in this collection, by one of the most recognized figures in the field, address them through engagement with leading intellectual historians—Hans Blumenberg, Quentin Skinner, Hayden White, Isaiah Berlin, Frank Ankersmit—as well other giants of modern thought—Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Georg Lukács. They touch on a wide variety of related topics, ranging from the heroism of modern life to the ability of photographs to lie. In addition, they explore the fraught connections between philosophy and theory, the truth of history and the truthfulness of historians, and the weaponization of free speech for other purposes.