• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Politics Recaptured

The Foundations of Modern Political Thought Volume One: The Renaissance Volume Two: The Age of Reformation

by Quentin Skinner
Cambridge University Press, 405 pp., $9.50 each (paper)

Although the history of political thought has long been a recognized subject for academic study, there has never been much agreement on how it should be approached. Most commentators have been content to treat the great books of the past as if they were timeless meditations on perennial problems, capable of yielding their full meaning to any modern reader prepared to peruse them carefully from cover to cover, however ignorant he may be of their historical context. “We learn more about their arguments,” wrote the late John Plamenatz of Machiavelli and Montesquieu, “by weighing them over and over again than by extending our knowledge of the circumstances in which they wrote.” In keeping with this maxim, generations of students have been encouraged to pore over The Republic or The Prince or Leviathan, confident that microscopic analysis of the text will ultimately unravel its true import. It is not surprising that they have often emerged with interpretations which, however persuasive exegetically, are as bizarrely subjective and historically implausible as some modern readings of Hamlet offered by literary critics equally unhampered by historical constraints.

By concentrating on the text and nothing but the text, reputable professors of philosophy have been led in recent years to argue, for example, that Thomas Hobbes, that bĂŞte noire of every pious seventeenth-century Englishman, was “really” a Christian moralist, an interpretation which would have astonished Hobbes’s contemporaries and afforded the sage of Malmesbury a good deal of ironic amusement. Yet Professor Howard Warrender arrived at his well-documented conclusion “on the strength of reading the Leviathan a number of times until its argument assumed some coherence”; and Professor F.C. Hood’s more extreme statement of the case rested on a similar conviction that “close examination of the relevant texts should yield increasing understanding.”1 It is this readiness of writers on political thought to offer a lawyer-like reading of a historical text, while utterly ignoring the context in which it was written or the way in which it was received at the time, that has made many historians impatient of the whole subject.

Not that historians themselves have always done much better. Only too often their efforts to put a political thinker back into his original context have had a dispiriting outcome. Some historical interpreters make the determinist assumption that every author must inevitably mirror the dominant social tendencies of his age, so that, for example, Aquinas can only be understood as the political theorist of feudalism and Hobbes as the spokesman of the rising bourgeoisie. Others manifest a hard-nosed contempt for political ideas of any kind. Like Sir Lewis Namier, they regard political thought as “cant,” an ex post facto justification for some political position already taken up. For them political philosophy is a glorified form of pamphleteering: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government becomes just another “Exclusionist tract” and Edmund Burke is dismissed as merely the hack journalist of the Rockingham Whigs.

It is against these equally unsatisfactory alternatives of crude context-making by historians and unhistorical textualism by philosophers that Quentin Skinner, a Cambridge historian-cum-philosopher, has, over the past fifteen years, waged a methodological battle of great eloquence and sophistication. Since 1964, when he published a review protesting against F.C. Hood’s highly unhistorical portrait of a devoutly Christian Hobbes,2 he has refined and developed his attack in a long series of closely argued articles.3

Drawing his intellectual inspiration from an eclectic mixture of R.G. Collingwood and modern British analytical philosophy, and often following a path closely parallel to that beaten by his intellectual associates J.G.A. Pocock and John Dunn, he has repeatedly urged that political texts must be understood according to their authors’ intentions and that those intentions can only be recovered by close attention to the linguistic conventions of the time. Works of philosophy or literature, he urges, should be seen as if they were speech acts, possessing what the philosopher J.L. Austin would have called “illocutionary force”; and it is that original “illocutionary force” which the interpreter must recapture. For this, wide reading in the writing of the period is essential. Otherwise it would be impossible to distinguish what was genuinely distinctive about an individual theorist’s work from what was merely commonplace. One would not notice when the theorist was significantly declining to employ some conventionally accepted argument, as when John Locke silently refused to base his politics upon a historical appeal to the true nature of the ancient English constitution. One would not even know whether the writer was being ironic. How naĂŻve a view of Gibbon’s religious beliefs might a reader not form if, knowing nothing of the eighteenth century, he embarked upon a close study of The Decline and Fall, taking every sentence at its face value?

Quentin Skinner does not therefore merely urge the value of a historical approach as against an exegetical one. His real point is that true exegesis is impossible without a knowledge of history. Perusal of the text alone will never tell us what its author was really trying to say; indifference to the wider context and to the linguistic conventions of the period can only lead to howlingly anachronistic interpretations. It is, therefore, not enough to read Leviathan by itself; one must also study the hundreds of other contemporary tracts. By following this method, Mr. Skinner has been able to point out that Hobbes’s actual political recommendations were common enough in the England of the 1650s, when many writers urged the advantages of submission to a de facto Commonwealth government. Hobbes’s distinctiveness lay not in his beliefs, but in his reasons for holding them; his political creed was not unique, but his epistemology was.

Some historians might reasonably retort that they have long been trying to proceed intuitively along much the same lines that Mr. Skinner advocates, albeit without such exquisite methodological self-consciousness. After all, J.W. Allen remarked fifty years ago in the preface to his A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (1928) that students of political thought would get nowhere if they confined their attention to a few outstanding texts; it was essential that they should soak themselves in the period as a whole.

Yet historians would be wrong to conclude that Mr. Skinner’s intricate philosophical arguments merely expound what they have already thought but never so well expressed. For he has lessons to teach historians, no less than philosophers. In particular, he argues that political ideas should not be written off as mere rationalizations of political action. On the contrary, prevailing ideas can themselves determine political behavior. He instances the case of the early eighteenth-century politician Bolingbroke, whose political ideas the Namierites dismissed as self-interested “flapdoodle,” though without pausing to ask why they should have been one kind of flapdoodle rather than another. In a penetrating essay Quentin Skinner has shown how Bolingbroke, when opposing Walpole’s ministry, was forced to base his case upon Walpole’s corruption and reliance on a standing army, because these were the tools which, in contemporary political theory, absolutist rulers employed to crush popular liberties. Prevailing political assumptions thus set limits to the kind of opposition Bolingbroke could conduct.4

Methodological debate can easily become an end in itself; and those who set out programs do not always put them into action. But any fears lest Quentin Skinner should devote all his energies to purely philosophical combats will have been totally dispelled by the appearance of these two splendid volumes on European political thought from the late thirteenth to the end of the sixteenth century. They triumphantly vindicate the judgment of the electors who recently appointed him to the Cambridge chair of political science; and for those who have followed his methodological campaign in the philosophical journals their appearance is a genuinely exciting event. These volumes will be scrutinized not just for up-to-date guidance to a long and decisive period of political thinking, but also for an exemplification of a novel and long-pondered methodology.

In his preface the author says his work has three purposes: to provide an authoritative account of the chief political texts of the period; to show the process by which the modern concept of the state was formed; and to exemplify a particular way of approaching historical texts. Of these the third is the most notable. For instead of concentrating on the great individual theorists, the book seeks to construct a general frame within which those theorists can be placed. By studying political ideologies rather than classic texts, the author aims at “a history of political theory with a genuinely historical character.” (The publisher’s blurb puts it more boldly: “the work aspires‌to give the first genuinely historical account of the political thought of the period.”)

Yet, in its main outlines, the outcome, for all its claims to intellectual novelty, is reassuringly (some might say disappointingly) familiar. There is nothing here which Otto von Gierke or John Neville Figgis or A.J. Cariyle or J.W. Allen would not have recognized as in direct line of descent from their own pioneering attempts to map out the political thought of the late medieval and early modern period. Even Mr. Skinner’s search for the origins of the “modern” concept of the state has recognizably nineteenth-century Whiggish overtones. He discusses few theorists whose works were not familiar to earlier scholars; indeed he omits some to whom they gave a good deal of attention and his treatment of some others is tantalizingly brief. Yet he is splendidly versed in the modern secondary literature, through which he picks his way with fastidious discrimination and to which he makes scrupulous and almost excessive acknowledgment (all the references appear, rather irritatingly, in parentheses in the body of the text and, since authorities are cited for even the best-attested historical facts, the parentheses are distractingly frequent).

Professor Skinner has worked through numerous untranslated theorists in Latin, French, and Italian, though he side-steps many of those modern commentators whose writings are available only in German. By contemporary standards, his learning is immense, even if it does not really equal the staggering range of acquaintance with late medieval canonists and legists displayed by such nineteenth-century scholars as the formidable Gierke. Quentin Skinner’s combination of historical scholarship with philosophical acumen makes his book both an indispensable piece of synthesis and an intellectual achievement of the first order. It is because he has built so skillfully upon the labors of his predecessors that his is surely the best account of early modern political thought yet written.

A work that covers three centuries and occupies over seven hundred tightly written pages does not lend itself to easy summary. But there are at least four separate features of the book that deserve particular mention. The first is the limpid clarity of the prose. Professor Skinner avoids the cloudy verbosity and mannered affectation characteristic of several contemporary writers on the history of political thought. Instead, he sustains a remarkable lucidity and evenness of tone. Every allusion is explained in such a way as to be fully intelligible to the beginner, without any loss of subtlety or nuance for the more sophisticated reader. In a book of such length there is inevitably some backtracking, repetition, and occasional inconsistency. But in general the work has been admirably shaped and digested.

  1. 1

    Howard Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 1957); F.C. Hood, The Divine Politics of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 1964).

  2. 2

    Quentin Skinner, “Hobbes’s Leviathan,” The Historical Journal, 7 (1964).

  3. 3

    See in particular: “History and Ideology in the English Revolution,” Historical Journal, 8 (1965); “The Limits of Historical Explanations,” Philosophy, 41 (1966); “The Ideological Context of Hobbes’s Political Thought,” Historical Journal, 9 (1966); “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, 8 (1969); “Conventions and the Understanding of Speech Acts,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 20 (1970); “On Performing and Explaining Linguistic Actions,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 21 (1971); “Conquest and Consent: Thomas Hobbes and the Engagement Controversy,” in The Interregnum, ed. G.E. Aylmer (Shoe String Press, 1972); ” ‘Social Meaning’ and the Explanation of Social Action,” in Philosophy, Politics and Society, series IV, ed. Peter Laslett, W.G. Runciman and Quentin Skinner (Barnes and Noble, 1972); “Motives, Intentions and the Interpretation of Texts,” New Literary History, 3 (1972); “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action,” Political Theory, 2 (1974).

    Some critical discussion of Skinner’s methodology may be found in Charles D. Tarlton, “Historicity, Meaning and Revisionism in the Study of Political Thought,” History and Theory, 12 (1973); Bhikhu Parekh and R.N. Berki, “The History of Political Ideas. A Critique of Q. Skinner’s Methodology,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 24 (1973); Jonathan M. Wiener, “Quentin Skinner’s Hobbes” and Gordon J. Schochet, “Quentin Skinner’s Method,” Political Theory, 2 (1974).

  4. 4

    The Principles and Practice of Opposition: The Case of Bolingbroke versus Walpole,” in Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society in Honour of J.H. Plumb, ed. Neil McKendrick (Europa Publications, 1974).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print