Let me begin with a caveat: when the topic of this paper was first broached to me by Professor Vansina, I was excited but at a loss as to what exactly it meant or entailed. Not being formally trained in the history of ideas, otherwise known as intellectual history, I wrote back requesting some explanation. Even though this was kindly provided, it did very little to relieve my uneasiness, especially as I recalled H. Stuart Hughes' (1961: 7) caution about writing the history of ideas: “The commonest error of the intellectual historian is to write about things he does not really understand — things he has not ‘internalized’ and thought through for himself.”
Equally disconcerting was the futurity aspect of the topic which, in traditional African terms, would have prompted a visit to the oracle or diviner. For in times of trouble, that is, when an African is confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem, the tendency would be to seek supernatural intervention. But alas, this is America! Thus I am left to rely so.
More seriously, let me emphasize the point that the task at hand is a difficult and ambitious one, at least from a conceptual standpoint. For our purposes, therefore, the approach to the subject is from the “bottom up” instead of from “above,” in marked contrast to the conventional practice in this field. As a result, we have posed some fundamental questions, not for the purpose of producing definitive answers but to use as the framework for our discussion. Accordingly: (1) What, exactly, do we mean by the history of ideas? (2) Whose ideas should we be concerned with? (3) What are the possible sources from which our data will be drawn? (4) What is the scope and objective of this historical exercise?