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In the mid-twentieth century most Anglo-American historians regarded the study of political thought as a peripheral subject. At one extreme, Marxists often dismissed ideas of any kind as mere epiphenomena of history, the mental reflections of deeper material forces. At the other, the followers of Sir Lewis Namier cynically wrote off the political philosophy of eighteenth-century politicians like Edmund Burke and Lord Bolingbroke as “cant” and “flapdoodle,” the specious rationalization for self-interested political maneuvers. In the US and Great Britain the historical study of political thinkers tended to be left to German refugees like Leo Strauss or Ernst Kantorowicz, who came from a different intellectual tradition, or to Australians and New Zealanders, whose distance from European archives gave them no option but to fall back on easily available printed texts for their research.
Fifty years later, the situation has changed beyond recognition. Now that both Marxism and Namierism have lost their appeal, there is an enhanced preoccupation with the mental processes of the people of the past, a new concern to reconstruct the ways in which they viewed the world, and a greater readiness to take at face value the reasons they gave for their actions. For some historians, such as Natalie Zemon Davis or Carlo Ginzburg, this means exploring the values and unstated assumptions of the inarticulate. For others, such as Ian Maclean or Anthony Grafton, it involves close attention to the intellectual traditions which shaped the thinking of the sophisticated.
This shift from the material to the mental has affected most branches of history in most parts of the world. But a conspicuous beneficiary has been the history of political thought; and a key contribution to its renaissance has been made by the University of Cambridge. This association can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century, when F.W. Maitland, Cambridge’s professor of law, showed the importance of legal concepts for historical understanding, and when the Regius Professor of History, Lord Acton, devoted years of labor to an ambitious but never completed history of liberty. But the decisive decade was the 1950s, when J.G.A. Pocock, under the supervision of Sir Herbert Butterfield, wrote his study of seventeenth-century thought, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), and when Peter Laslett’s vigorous proselytizing activities on behalf of the study of political ideas culminated in his great edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1960).
In the past two decades, Cambridge University Press has published about seventy monographs in its series Ideas in Context, and over a hundred titles in Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Along with some important books in the collaborative Cambridge histories of philosophy and political thought, these series have served to disseminate several closely associated notions: that political thought is an important subject, that it needs to be studied historically, and that many of its central issues have been identified by the…
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