BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
'Brains and Numbers': Intellectual Life in Victorian Britain

Unit code HIST31891
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


The nineteenth century has been long-established as a period of enormous social, economic, and political upheaval. This course aims to give students an overview of the transformation of intellectual life in nineteenth-century Britain as well as a sense of some of the dynamics of intellectual change in this period. It has been designed as a critical examination of key ideas and themes in the intellectual and cultural history of this period through primary and secondary material. The topics covered range from ideas about identity and history, through conceptions of progress in natural and social science as well as anti-industrialization and economic commentary, to questions of gender, race, and the avant garde raised at the fin de siècle. This course will equip students with skills in reading, analysing, and contextualizing texts in the history of ideas.


HIST31892 is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas (please check your programme structure for further details).

This module is only available to students on History-owned programmes; Euro Studies programmes; and History joint honours programmes owned by other subject areas. Available to students on an Erasmus programme subject to VSO approval.


  • To provide an intensive examination and develop foundational knowledge of the social and political thought of nineteenth-century Britain.
  • To examine the ways in which significant concepts, such as liberty, or powerful ideologies, such as liberalism and conservatism, were products of historical change and circumstance.
  • To explore established historical topics in Modern British History such as race, gender, and industrialization through the lens of published primary texts.
  • To challenge traditional understandings of the ‘History of Political Thought’ and reassess what and who counts in the history of ideas.


Indicative Seminar Schedule

  1. Introduction to the Study of Intellectual History
  2. Readers, Reading Culture and Ways of Learning
  3. The British Constitution in the Political, National, and Imperial Imagination
  4. ‘Mechanical Philosophies’: Utilitarianism and Political Economy
  5. Being Human: Critical Responses to Industrialization and Materialism
  6. Reading Week
  7. Evolution, Organicism, and Scientific Thinking
  8. The ‘Science of Society’ and the Progress of Mankind
  9. A Crisis of Faith?: Debating Religious Ideas
  10. The Challenge of Democracy
  11.  Idealism, Collectivism, and the Discovery of the ‘State’
  12. Fin de Siècle: the End of an Era?

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching will be a mixture of lectures for introductory and explanatory purposes, and seminar discussion for debate, discussion, and further exploration between students. Students will be expected to attend the lectures and the seminars and prepare adequately for the latter. Seminar preparation will require core and additional reading. Seminar participation will be required of all students – contribution to group discussions; in break-out groups, presentations, and debates.

  • Seminar reading lists and sourcebooks will be made available on Blackboard, as will links to digitized material and other online source/databases
  • Lecture slides will be uploaded onto Blackboard.
  • All Coursework will be submitted and returned via Turnitin

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate a broad understanding of some of the main ideologies and intellectual movements in nineteenth-century Britain.
  • Develop a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of key themes and concepts in modern political and social thought.
  • Understand the defining features and concerns of intellectual life in Victorian Britain, including the channels through which ideas were circulated and disseminated.

Intellectual skills

  • Critically assess the ways in which abstract ideas are generated in particular historical contexts.
  • Analyze primary source material from a variety of perspectives and genres in class and in written work.
  • Investigate and synthesize secondary scholarship on specific intellectual developments and their contexts, and deliver persuasive independent interpretations orally and in written work.

Practical skills

  • Confidently navigate relevant digital humanities resources (e.g. Nineteenth-Century British Library Newspapers, The Making of the Modern World, British Periodicals Online).
  • Independently synthesize and organize primary and secondary source material.
  • Communicate findings and interpretations in oral and written formats.
  • Contribute to large and small group discussions.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Articulate complex ideas to groups as oral presentations and seminar contribution as well as in written work.
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • Completion of independent research on an identified problem or question.
  • Engage collaboratively as part of a team.

Employability skills

Group/team working
Oral communication
Oral presentations and group discussions will prepare students for effective communication in the workforce.
In selecting, analysing, and synthesizing relevant published literature, students will cultivate the ability to perform self-directed research related to a definable problem, craft and test hypotheses, and articulate persuasive lines of argumentation.
Written communication
Due to its critical and historical focus on concepts and intellectual traditions that are still very much with us today, students pursuing careers in law, journalism, politics, and the civil service may find this course particularly valuable.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%

Feedback methods

Oral feedback on group discussions and presentations- formative

Written feedback on coursework submissions via turnitin, and on exam papers in hard copy - summative

Additional one-to-one feedback (during office hour or by making an appointment) - formative

Recommended reading

  • G. Stedman Jones and G. Claeys, eds., The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (2011)
  • H. S. Jones, Victorian Political Thought (2000)
  • Robert Saunders, ‘Parliament and the People: The British Constitution in the Long Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Modern European History, 6, (2008)
  • P. Mandler, ed., Liberty and Authority in Victorian Britain (2006)
  • Emily Jones, Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, 1830-1914: An Intellectual History (2017)
  • Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930 (1991)
  • S. Collini, D. Winch, J. Burrow, That Noble Science of Politics: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History (1983)
  • Christopher Kent, Brains and Numbers: Elitism, Comtism, and Democracy in Mid-Victorian England (1978)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Emily Jones Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Assessment Methods

Primary Source Analysis, summative, 1500 words, 20%

Essay, summative, 2500 words, 40%

Exam, summative, 2 hours, 40%

Return to course details