Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas by Quentin Skinner — A Summary

Skinner, Quentin. 1969. “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas.” History and Theory 8 (1). Wesleyan University, Wiley: 3–53.

  • Sections in monotype are verbatim extracts. They are not integral to the summary.
  • The examples have been reproduced in (almost) the same form that they appear in the paper.


How should a historian of ideas attempt to understand works of philosophy?

Two common strategies are contextual and textual reading. The former relies on the context to provide the ultimate framework with which to understand the work. The latter insists that text in itself is adequate for its own meaning.

Neither strategy is sufficient.

Part I

Past works are generally considered to contain certain timeless elements and fundamental themes which the historian must recover. It follows that the historian already knows (and therefore already has preconceptions about) what these elements/themes are. The danger is that the historian’s preconceptions and expectations about what a writer must be saying will determine what he understands the writer to be saying.

My procedure will be to uncover the extent to which the current historical study of ethical, political, religious, and other such ideas is contaminated by the unconscious application of paradigms whose familiarity to the historian disguises an essential inapplicability to the past.

This method has occasionally yielded distinguished results but it often lapses into historical absurdities and ends up creating mythologies instead of histories.

Mythology of Doctrines

This historical absurdity arises when scattered and incidental remarks of a writer are converted into a doctrine. Both intellectual biographieswhere the focus is on the varied ideas individual thinkers, and histories of ideaswhere the focus is on the idea itself as stated by many varied thinkers, are vulnerable to this kind of mythology.

In the former case, a certain view may be attributed to a writer based simply on some chance similarity of terminology. For example, Marsilius of Padua was credited with the doctrine of separation of powers because of his remarks on the executive role of a ruler compared with the legislative role of a sovereign people. But the doctrine itself emerged centuries after his death.

Also, a doctrine may be too readily extracted from simple statements. The author might have simply stated it (even believed in it) without intending to articulate a doctrine out of it. For example, Locke was credited with the doctrine of the political trust based on some scattered remarks about trusteeship.

In all such cases, where a given writer may appear to intimate some “doctrine” in something that he says, we are left confronting the same essential and essentially begged question: if all the writers are claimed to have meant to articulate the doctrine with which they are being credited, why is it that they so signally failed to do so, so that the historian is left reconstructing their implied intentions from guesses and vague hints? The only plausible answer is, of course, fatal to the claim itself: that the author did not (or even could not) have meant after all to enunciate such a doctrine.

In the second case, i.e. regarding histories of ideas, an ideal type of a given doctrine — separation of powers, for example — may be embodied in an entity with a history of its own. Such representation creates a form of non-history where writers are credited for their supposed foresight in anticipating later writers. As examples, Marsilius is notable for his “remarkable anticipation” of Machiavelli; Montesquieu “anticipates” the ideals of full employment and the welfare state. And so on.

Also, endless debates are generated about the incidence and emergence of a given idea in certain writers or during certain times. Is the doctrine of separation of powers perhaps already “there” in the works of George Buchanan? No, for he “did not fully articulate” it, although “none came closer.” But is it perhaps “there” by the time of the Royalists’ Defence of 1648? No, for it is still “not the pure doctrine.”

As a converse of the construction of doctrines out of scattered remarks, a historian might engage in another form of historical absurdity by castigating a writer for failing to come up with a recognizable doctrine regarding one of the fundamental themes.

A historian may speculate about a writer’s opinions regarding a topic which he (the writer) did not even mention by extrapolating from what he said regarding other topics. For example, Aquinas, it is said, even though he never pronounced on the subject of “foolish ‘civil disobedience’”, would surely “not have approved.” Marsilius would surely approve of democracy since “the sovereignty he espoused pertained to the people.”

Such exercises ... could always have a more sinister undertone ... a means to fix one's own prejudices on to the most charismatic names, under the guise of innocuous historical speculation. History then indeed becomes a pack of tricks we play on the dead.

A historian may also denounce a writer for omitting some doctrine which he thinks is integral to the subject. For example, Plato’s Republic is criticized for “omitting” the “influence of public opinion” and Locke’s Second Treatise for omitting “all references to family and race,” and for failing to make it “wholly clear” where he stands on the question of universal suffrage.

Still, a historian may rebuke a writer for not being comprehensive/systematic enough. For example, Machiavelli’s Prince is often attacked as “extremely one-sided and unsystematic.”

Mythology of Coherence

The historian’s preconceptions and expectations also leads to another historical absurdity, a mythology of coherence. There is, first of all, the tendency to find or even supply, by filling in gaps, a coherence to a text which may actually not be present. For example, if “current scholarly opinion” can see no coherence in Hooker’s Laws, the moral is to look harder, for “coherence” is surely “present.” This gives the thought of writers an al illusion of completeness which might not have been intended at all.

But if the aims and successes of a writer are so various as to defy coherence, the lack of coherence is criticised. For example, there is the criticism that Marx never managed to work out what is supposed to be “his” basic theory in anything but a “fragmentary manner.”

In all such cases, the coherence or lack of it which is thus discovered very readily ceases to be a historical account of any thoughts which were ever actually thought. The history thus written becomes a history not of ideas at all, but of abstractions: a history of thoughts which no one ever actually succeeded in thinking, at a level of coherence which no one ever actually attained.

In developing this mythology, it is common to see historians completely ignore statements of intention which the author himself may have made about what he was doing. It is also common for historians see contradictions in a writer’s work as barriers which should be accounted for to fit in the coherent system.

Part II

Part I looks at the mythologies that result from the historian’s existing preconceptions about the topic. What if a historian is simply describing — without looking for fundamental themes — the internal economy and argument of some work?

Dangers still persist.

Mythology of Prolepsis

This is characterised by a description of a work, being influenced by the historian’s biases, in such a way that it leaves no place for an analysis of what the author actually meant to say. This often happens when the historian is interested in the retrospective significance of the work he is analysing.

Such a historical absurdity is exemplified in the attempt to insist that Rousseau’s political views not only “provided the philosophical justification for the totalitarian as well as the democratic national state” but that the force of this “provision” is such that Rousseau should in effect be credited with just this intention, and should thus be “given special responsibility for the emergence of totalitarianism.” An account which might be true of the historical significance of the work becomes combined with an account of what Rousseau intended to do which could not be true.

The characteristic of the mythology of prolepsis is the conflation of the necessary asymmetry between the significance an observer may justifiably claim to find in a given statement or other action, and the meaning of that action itself.

And the surest symptom of this mythology of prolepsis is that the discussions which it governs are open to the crudest type of criticism that can be levelled against any teleological form of explanation: the action has to await the future to await its meaning.

Mythology of Parochialism

This historical absurdity occurs when sense and intention of a work, especially if the work is alien in origin, is wrongly described by seeing apparently familiar themes and providing a misleadingly familiar description.

The historian, for instance, may describe a familiar statement/argument in a text as referring/replying/refuting a similar statement/argument in another work. As an example, Locke is said to have been much influenced by Hobbes, to whom he must “really” have been intending to refer in the Second Treatise, or else is said to be concerned there to counter Hobbes’s influence.

Most of these explanations are purely mythological, as can readily be demonstrated simply by considering what the necessary conditions would have to be for helping to explain the appearance in any given writer B of any given doctrine, by invoking the “influence” of some earlier given writer, A. Such a set of conditions would at least have to include

(i) that there should be a genuine similarity between the doctrines of A and B;
(ii) that B could not have found the relevant doctrine in any writer other than A;
(iii) that the probability of the similarity being random should be very low.

The historian may also wrongly describe a given work by clothing its elements in a concept which is misleadingly familiar. For example, Locke’s arguments in the Second Treatise about the right to resist tyrannical governments may be merged to his arguments about the place of consent in any decent political community and then described by the notion of “Government by consent” as a paradigm for the description of Locke’s argument. However, Locke’s concern for consent pertains only to the origin of legitimate societies and is hardly an argument for consent.

The point is that even when a historian of ideas addresses himself solely to the description of a text, and even when his paradigms reflect genuinely organizing features of the text, the same essential danger still remains: the danger that the very familiarity of the concepts the historian uses may mask some essential inapplicability to the historical material.

If a statement or argument has been made by a writer and has a meaning for him, it follows that any plausible account of what he meant must necessarily make use of the range of descriptions which the author himself could at least in principle have applied to describe and classify what he was doing. Otherwise, the resulting account, however compelling, cannot be an account of his statement. This is why Marsilius of Padua, a 14th-century anti-papalist pamphleteer, can scarcely have been intending to contribute to the theory of separation of powers, an 18th-century French constitutionalist debate.

It is also a fact that thinkers may consciously adopt incompatible ideals and beliefs in different moods and at different times. And even if it there are thinkers with steady ideas and beliefs, there is still a second consideration that thinking out problems as a matter of common introspection and observation is hardly a patterned activity.

Part III

Notwithstanding the myriad dangers which have been outlined above, one could argue that, with sufficient self-consciousness, a historian may well hope to overcome them and write good histories. However, even if those dangers are avoided, a more crucial problem lies in differentiating between what a writer said and what he meant by what he said.

The obvious difficulty, first, is that the literal meanings of key terms sometimes change over time. A given writer may say something with a quite different sense and reference from the one which may occur to the reader. For example, Baxter and Reid remarked on the “egoism” of Berkeley’s outlook. However, when they spoke of his “egoism,” what they meant was something much more like what we should, in the current day, mean by solipsism.

Another difficulty is that the author may use various indirect methods (oblique strategies) in order to set out and at the same time to disguise what he means by what he says about some given doctrine. For example, Defoe’s proposed Experiment for dealing with dissenters, Hoadly’s Letter to the Pope about the powers of the Church, and Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration, written in response to English Toleration Act, all reflect a common intention to say something very similar about the doctrine involved but only Locke seems to be saying anything resembling what he seems to mean. Defoe’s is a parody of the arguments in favour of the act.

A problem about indirect methods also arises when there is confusion about whether a writer believed what he wrote or whether he wrote tongue-in-cheek. For example, Hobbes states that the laws of nature are the laws of God and that men are obliged to obey the laws of nature. Is this the sentiment of an arch-sceptic slyly using a familiar vocabulary? Or is Hobbes’ skepticism, as recent interpretations claim, merely a disguise?

The point is that..the text in itself is shown to be insufficient as the object of our inquiry and understanding. It raises issues which a study simply of the text itself becomes quite inadequate to resolve.

If indirect methods in intellectual biographies cannot be fully understood through textual reading, what about histories of ideas? The answer is that devotion to the idea itself as an entity, rather than the text, and tracking a grand theme over periods of time is also highly inadequate.

The notion that any fixed “idea” has persisted is spurious. My concern here, however, is not empirical but conceptual: not to insist that such histories can sometimes go wrong, but that they can never go right.

Also, any attempt to focus on an idea itself as an appropriate unit of historical investigation hides underlying conceptual confusion. To illustrate, if the history of the idea of nobilitas in the Renaissance were to be written, a historian might begin by pointing out the dual meaning of the term: as a moral quality and as membership of a social class. The problem is that it might not be at all clear which meaning we are to understand in any given case. The words denoting the idea may be used with varying and quite incompatible or even sinister intentions.

It is thus clear that to understand an idea, we cannot simply concentrate on the forms of the words themselves. The suitable method, rather the only proper method, of studying an idea would be to see the nature of all the various occasions and activities within which it might appear and to determine the uses of the words employed to present the idea.

The appropriate, and famous, formula ... is rather that we should study not the meanings of the words, but their use. For, the given idea cannot ... have any meaning that can take the form of a set of words which can then be excogitated and traced out over time. Rather the meaning of the idea must be its uses to refer in various ways.

But if that is the case — and it assuredly is — then histories of ideas are useless constructs because they are written by extracting occurrences of the statements relating to those ideas in various works. And such histories tell us neither the part that the given idea may have played in the thought of any individual thinker who happened to mention it nor what status the given idea may have had at various times nor what questions the use of the idea was thought to answer nor what meanings the given idea may have had nor even, eventually, any understanding even of the occurrence of the idea itself.

The nature of the criticism to be made of such histories is ... that as soon as we see there is no determinate idea to which various writers contributed, but only a variety of statements made with the words by a variety of different agents with a variety of intentions, then what we are seeing is equally that there is no history of the idea to be written, but only a history necessarily focused on the various agents who used the idea, and on their varying situations and intentions in using it.

Part IV

What about contextual reading?

It should be recognised that ideas often, perhaps always, emerge as responses to circumstances.  As such, a knowledge of the social context — the circumstances — in which a given text was written offers considerable help in understanding them (the ideas) and in avoiding the anachronistic mythologies which have been outlined above.

But the fundamental assumption of the contextual methodology that the ideas of a given text should be understood in terms of the context is gravely mistaken and is the source of further prevalent confusions in the history of ideas. This assumption misunderstands the nature of the relations between actions — which include the articulation of ideas — and circumstances by failing to properly account for the intentions behind the performance of actions.

Intentions are simply assumed to be contingently connected with actions, i.e. intentions are causal factors themselves which may or may not issue in an action. This is justified by the argument that an intention to do something may not result in an action. But there is also always an intention in doing something which is not contingently related with the action at all. The second form of intention characterises the purpose of the action. The significance being that while the context might reveal the contingent intention to do something, it does not help understand the intention in doing it.

Another problem is that meaning is taken to be strictly correlative with understanding i.e. a grasp of the meaning of a statement is the same as understanding it. But an understanding of a statement presupposes a grasp not merely of the meaning of the given utterance but also its intended purpose (its illocutionary force). The context could help decode what a given statement must mean but it leaves us short of its intended purpose. Even if the study of the social context of texts could serve to explain them, this would not amount to the same as providing the means to understand them.

Part V

Some positive conclusions flow from the current analysis.

The first points towards an alternative methodology. To understand a text is to grasp both what it intended to mean, and how this meaning was intended to be taken. The complex intention of the author must thus be recovered first. Then the whole range of linguistic devices and other communications available to the author must be determined. Using these devices as a guide, a historian must attempt to discover the actual intention of the writer. Any description of what the writer meant should be governed by what the writer could have meant. While this method may not be particularly novel, it nonetheless possesses conceptual propriety.

The second provides the chance of opening a dialogue between philosophical discussion and historical evidence. Not only will the distinctions established by philosophical enquiry help historians but the understanding of statements gained by historians will yield insights invaluable to philosophers.

Last but not the least, one has to realize that the classic texts cannot be concerned with our questions and answers, but only with their own. There are no timeless concepts but only the various different concepts which have gone with various different societies at various periods in history. The historical study of the ideas of other societies will always be limited by the constraints our own societies places on our imaginations.

Any statement ... is inescapably the embodiment of a particular intention, on a particular occasion, addressed to the solution of a particular problem, and thus specific to its situation in a way that it can only be naive to try to transcend.

To demand from the history of thought a solution to our own immediate problems is ... to commit not merely a methodological fallacy, but something like a moral error. But to learn from the past ... the distinction between what is necessary and what is the product merely of our own contingent arrangements is to learn the key to self-awareness itself.

Further Reading

For a critique, see  Bhikhu Parekh and R. N. Berki, ‘The History of Political Ideas: A Critique of Q. Skinner’s Methodology’, who criticize Skinner’s proposed methodology for the reasons:

  • that some of the basic assumptions entering into Skinner’s proposed methodology are either erroneous or too narrow or too ambiguous to be of any help to historians; and secondly that as a consequence many of his criticisms of other historians are misconceived.
  • that in fact a good deal of the practices which Skinner rules out as illegitimate and “improper” for the historian to engage in are the only legitimate practices, and conversely, that a number of practices that he recommends turn out on examination to be not only undesirable but even impossible approaches to the subject.

Also, check out Andrew Hacker’s rival normative view on the history of ideas in his essay “What is Political Theory?”.


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