About James Thompson
Why I Write
When I write, I draw on interests I cultivated while studying Philosophy as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Virginia.
I understand now that I enjoyed Philosophy because I am interested in the History of Ideas. I write about Ideas, what they encompass, how they form, how they change as they move from place to place, what happens to them as they do, and the impact they have as men and women apply them.
In the real world, ideas advance from before to after, from back to front. My objective as an author is to follow them as they advance out of the thickets in one person’s mind and through the thickets of another person’s mind.
Ideas change according to the circumstances and purposes of the people who have them. I therefore get to know the people in my narratives and how they think. If they shout “Fire!” in a crowded room, I know whether they are being malicious or trying to save lives.
I want my readers to understand what the agents who communicate and act on the ideas I am following think they are doing! Put another way, I want my readers to be there with them as they play their parts in the History of Ideas.
I want my readers to understand the ideas I talk about the same way the people who carried them did. I want readers to be THERE, not looking at them from HERE.
To the extent I succeed in doing this, I avoid a problem that, in my opinion, degrades a great deal of today’s commentary about the past – ideology obstructs our understanding of what people in the past thought they were doing.
Commentators who write “big picture” histories, for example, typically suffer from what might be called All Roads Lead to Rome Syndrome. This happens when a commentator fills his or her narrative with analyses that validate his or her ideological optic. In my opinion, commentators who do this are advocates, not expositors. By advocating, they undermine the authority of the past to instruct the present. Historians allude to this when they say that “nothing changes faster than history.”
I aim to get beyond this barrier. I want my readers to join me on the other side so we can become acquainted with real ideas and understand their real significance!
What is the best way to communicate the “being there” dimension I am trying to capture? I wish I had a foolproof answer to this question, but I don’t. I call one of the methods I use “non-fiction narration”. To see what I am referring to, pick up a copy of my recent book, Thomas Jefferson’s
Enlightenment – Paris 1785.
History is a lot more interesting than ideology. Read my newest book, The First Revolution in the Minds of the People, and see what I mean.