Politics as Language

Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century

by J.G.A. Pocock
Cambridge University Press, 321 pp., 12.95 (paper)

Of all the scholars who currently study the history of Western political thought, no one is more fertile, eloquent, and ingenious than J.G.A. Pocock, currently professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. Over the past thirty years he has published a remarkable sequence of books and articles which, though disparate in subject matter and visibly influenced by the changing intellectual fashions of the day, constitute an oeuvre of formidable consistency. His writings advance our knowledge of political thought and argument in Italy, England, and America between the early sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. More important, they provide an exemplary model of how historical study is the indispensable precondition for interpreting the political texts of the past.

Pocock’s central contention is that a work of political thought can only be understood if the reader is aware of the contemporary linguistic constraints to which its author was subject, for these constraints prescribed both his subject matter and the way in which that subject matter was conceptualized. The occasional “epic theorist,” like Machiavelli or Hobbes, may have succeeded in breaking out of these bonds by redefining old terms and inventing new ones. But most writers were confined by the verbal resources available to them. The task of the modern commentator on their works is thus initially a historical one. He has, as Pocock once put it,

to identify the “language” or “vocabulary” with and within which the author operated, and to show how it functioned paradigmatically to prescribe what he might say and how he might say it.

There is, of course, nothing very novel about this contention as such, for historians of literature and ideas have always been aware that writers work within particular traditions of thought. But its application to the history of political ideas forms a great contrast to the assumptions of the 1950s, when it was widely thought that the close reading of a text by an analytic philosopher was sufficient to establish its meaning, even though the philosopher was quite innocent of any knowledge of the period in which the text was written or of the linguistic traditions within which its author operated. Moreover, Pocock elaborates the theoretical underpinnings of his approach in a very explicit fashion. An acutely self-conscious writer, he is always happy to pause for reflection on his own methods.

In the introduction to his new collection of essays, Pocock meditates on the current state of his subject, which he tells us has now moved away from the “history of thought” or “history of ideas” to something more like the “history of speech” or “history of discourse.” His use of the currently fashionable term “discourse” is as typical of his readiness to follow the latest intellectual trend as was his eagerness fifteen years ago to embrace the concepts of “paradigms” and “paradigmatic structures” made popular by T.S. Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. So too is his bow to structuralism, when he tells us that the political writer inhabits …

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