Joel Isaac trained as an historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, and at Trinity College, Cambridge.  From 2007 to 2011, he held a lectureship at Queen Mary, University of London.  He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought at the University of Cambridge.

Isaac’s research focuses on the history of social and political thought in the United States and Great Britain.  His earliest research examined how theories of knowledge drove important changes in the human sciences during the twentieth century.  Much of his work in this area is presented in his first book, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), which was awarded the Gladstone Prize by the Royal Historical Society.

During his Pro Futura fellowship, Isaac will be writing a book on the revival of eighteenth-century categories of political and moral thought in the twentieth century. Its principal thesis is that, in the writings of a cohort of influential philosophers, economists, and political theorists, who published in the interwar and post-Second War decades, we can see attempt to rethink Enlightenment notions of sociability, practical reasoning, property, and the state.  Crucially, this process of reappraisal was refracted through more modern idioms: neoclassical economics, analytical philosophy, decision theory, and empirical political science.  The ideas that resulted from this encounter of Enlightenment concepts and modern idioms provided the foundations of modern liberal and neoliberal thought.  The working title for this research project is ‘the Cold War Enlightenment’.


Key Publications

  • Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • 'Donald Davidson and the Analytic Revolution in American Philosophy, 1940-1970', Historical Journal 56 (2013), 757-79
  • 'Missing Links: W. V. Quine, the Making of “Two Dogmas,” and the Analytic Roots of Postanalytic Philosophy', History of European Ideas 37 (2011), 267-79
  • 'Tool Shock: Technique and Epistemology in the Postwar Social Sciences', History of Political Economy 42 (Annual Supplement 2010), 133-64
  • 'Theorist at Work: Talcott Parsons and the Carnegie Project on Theory, 1949-1951', Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), 287-311
  • 'Tangled Loops: Theory, History and the Human Sciences in Modern America', Modern Intellectual History 6 (2009), 397-424
  • 'The Human Sciences in Cold War America', Historical Journal 50 (2007), 725-46
  • 'W. V. Quine and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy in the United States', Modern Intellectual History 2 (2005), 205-34


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk