In the last issue of Modern Intellectual History, one of the journal that I encourage you to look at from time to time I stumble upon an interesting review article by Daniel Geary. In this piece, he makes a distinction between “discipline history” and “intellectual history”, a distinction he borrowed from an earlier and interesting piece by S. Collini (the link is below). According to Collini, “discipline history… offers an account of the alleged historical development of an enterprise the identity of which is defined by the concerns practitioners of a particular scientific field”. It is clear to me, and I assume to most of my readers, that a large portion of history of political economy or of its variants, history of economics and history of economic thought, is still discipline history. Collini (and Geary) contrasts this with “an approach which attempts to treat the history of the social sciences as part of a wider intellectual history”. I have always found the preoccupations of intellectual historians not so different from those of historians of science narrowly defined (that is excluding sociologist and philosophers of science).
There are however some interesting twists. First, though there was an early version known in the US under the label “history of ideas” (and linked to the Journal of the history of ideas), intellectual history in the modern sense is very much linked to the English context (although one of its founding father, Pocock, is an american). It blossomed in Cambridge (Quentin Skinner, Istvan Hont) and Sussex University (Donald Winch, Knud Haakonssen), among other locations. Second, modern intellectual history has originated to a large extent from the refounding of the history of political ideas/thought in the 1970s and 1980s. This may explain why it had, from the beginning, a deep interest in political economy (most notably in Smith and the Scottish enlightenment), and very few institutional links with historian of science. Third, while historians of recent economics have been more open to history of science (broadly defined) as a heuristic model and to historians of science as people with whom to interact, historians of earlier periods, in a nutshell pre-marginal revolution, have been more likely to talk with and be influenced by intellectual historians. I wonder why.