Sophia Rosenfeld and Peter Struck discuss 2,800 years of ideas through history

The Penn Arts & Sciences professors discuss editing their new book series, ‘A Cultural History of Ideas.’

How do you capture the nature of ideas over the course of 2,800 years? How do you adequately convey how each distinct time period and social, political, and cultural context shaped the development of those ideas?

These are the weighty questions that Sophia Rosenfeld and Peter Struck set out to answer as coeditors of a new series, “A Cultural History of Ideas.” The series features 62 expert contributors across six volumes covering classical antiquity, the medieval age, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, the age of empire, and the modern age. Each volume has identical chapter titles and themes that cohesively organize the series across volumes: knowledge; the human self; ethics and social relations; politics and economies; nature; religion and the divine; language, poetry, and rhetoric; the arts; and history.

Sophia Rosenfeld and Peter Struck.
Sophia Rosenfeld, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History, and Peter Struck, professor of classical studies. (Images: Winky Lewis; Lisa J. Godfrey)

“When Sophia came to me with the idea, I was delighted, but we both asked each other, ‘Is it crazy to think about doing almost 3,000 years of intellectual history in a coherent way—in a way that’s going to contribute something new to our field?’” says Struck.

“The scale of the project was enormous. We’re talking six books, but within the six books, a whole series of sub-editors of different volumes, and then in every volume, multiple articles,” Rosenfeld says. “None of us has the expertise to easily think about several thousand years of intellectual history and cultural history across a range of topics. But I knew that with Peter, who has a remarkable range over antiquity—Greek and Roman—and through the medieval and Renaissance period, I could dovetail my knowledge of the Renaissance onwards.”

Rosenfeld’s aim for the series is to encourage scholars and readers to not shy away from a broad view of history, but to use it as perspective. “In the best case, when you read good history, it makes you feel differently about the world in which you live right now and about your own surroundings,” she says. “My real ambition for these essays and for the volumes as a whole would be that they leave the reader thinking differently about the past but also, as a result of estrangement, about the contemporary and the familiar. What did it mean to think about religion in a world that doesn’t resemble our religious landscape? Or what did it mean to think about rhetoric and speech in a world that doesn’t treat speech the way we do? And what conditions are responsible for these differences?”

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA.