John Burrow: Leading scholar of intellectual history

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The Independent Online

John Burrow was one of the leading intellectual historians of his generation. His pioneering work marked the beginning of a more sophisticated approach to the history of the social sciences, one that did not treat the past as being of interest only in so far as it anticipated the present.

He was born in Southsea in 1935, his childhood and youth divided between the two sides of the River Tamar during and after the Second World War. He was educated at Exeter School and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he became a pupil of J H Plumb and obtained a First in both parts of the History Tripos.

Fellowships at Christ's and Downing Colleges enabled him to complete a doctorate within what was then still an unconventional branch of history. It involved a study of the attractions of evolutionary theories, chiefly those of Spencer, Maine, and Tylor, to 19th-century social theorists. He argued that they were a means of reconciling the disparate demands of romantic-historical and positivistic approaches to society. The result was Evolution and Society (1966). He was also an expert on Darwin and the potent racial theories that Social Darwinists drew from biological versions of the theory of evolution. His introduction to the Penguin edition of The Origin of Species is still an authoritative contribution to the cultural history of Victorian science.

Burrow's first permanent appointment was not in Cambridge, as he had hoped, but as lecturer in European studies at the University of East Anglia from 1965-69. From there he moved initially to a post tailored to his expertise in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Sussex, where he taught a cross-disciplinary course on the history and philosophy of the social sciences. The permanent fruits of teaching on this course with Stefan Collini and Donald Winch eventually found their way into the collaborative book they wrote on That Noble Science of Politics (1983), a work that extended the scope of the anti-teleological approach adopted in Burrow's first book. He later made use of his unrivalled knowledge of the Whig and Burkean component within English liberalism in his Carlyle lectures at Oxford, the results appearing as Whigs and Liberals: Continuity and Change in English Political Thought (1988).

Sussex was the first university in this country to offer an undergraduate degree in intellectual history, and Burrow became the first to occupy the chair in this branch of history created for him in 1981, the year in which his book A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past appeared and was awarded the Wolfson History Prize. To this elegant study of the monumental works of Macaulay, Stubbs, Freeman, and Froude he later added an incisive short book on Edward Gibbon (1985).

But the culmination of Burrow's interest in historiography came in what was to prove to be his last major work, A History of Histories (2007), covering the entire period from Herodotus and Thucydides to trends in late 20th-century history. Judged by this alone, the cruelly debilitating illness that led to a premature death had no effect on his capacity to sustain an ambitious and characteristically stylish historical narrative.

There was always a strong European component to Burrow's interests. It found early expression in a translation of and commentary on Wilhelm von Humboldt's The Limits of State Action in 1969. Towards the end of his teaching career in 1995, it provided one of the reasons for moving from Sussex to a chair of European Thought at Oxford. The unpleasant and often ill-informed public controversy that surrounded the initial funding of this post made him all the more grateful for the support given to him by Balliol College during this difficult period.

In 2000, the year of his official retirement, he was able to complete another significant scholarly work, The Crisis of Reason, a wide-ranging study of European scientific thinking and cultural and artistic movements during the period 1848 to 1914.

Burrow's scholarship combined wit with learning, with the latter being rewarded by election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1986. He formed a wide circle of friends among colleagues and students at Sussex and Oxford, by whom he is remembered with great affection. Those privileged to receive his letters – if they had acquired the gift of deciphering his handwriting – were treated to some hilarious and imaginative flights of fancy, especially when he recorded his first reactions to visiting California, Australia, or Japan. Two days before his death his friends were able to give him the pleasure of seeing copies of his privately published autobiography. Great though their sense of loss is, they will be able to remind themselves of the pleasure of his company by reading this and other works by him that are beyond the professional fashions of modern academic life. He is survived by his wife, Diane, his children, Laurence and Francesca, and two grandsons, Julian and Ryan, in whom he took great pride.

Donald Winch

John Wyon Burrow, intellectual historian: born Southsea 4 June 1935; fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1959-62; fellow, Downing College, Cambridge 1962-65; lecturer, UEA 1965-69; professor of intellectual history, University of Sussex, 1982-95; professor of European Thought, University of Oxford, 1995-2000; fellow, Balliol College, Oxford 1995-2000 (emeritus professor, 2000-2009); married 1958 Diane Dunnington (one son, one daughter); died Witney, Oxfordshire 3 November 2009.