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 available to him are contextual reading and textual reading. The former relies on the context ‘of religious, political, and economic factors’ 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 seems sufficient or even appropriate for properly understanding any philosophical work.

Both methodologies, it can be shown, commit philosophical mistakes in the assumptions they make about the conditions necessary for the understanding of utterances. It follows that the result of accepting either orthodoxy has been to fill the current literature in the history of ideas with a series of conceptual muddles and mistaken empirical claims.


First, consider textual reading. This approach tries to justify the subject [of the history of ideas] by claiming that the whole point of studying past works is because “they contain certain ‘timeless elements,’ in the form of ‘universal ideas,’ even a ‘dateless wisdom’ with ‘universal application’” which it is the task of the historian to recover. It follows that the  classic writers are must have explicated some determinate concepts on these fundamental elements/themes of perennial interest.

[T]here can be no question that the histories of different intellectual pursuits are marked by the employment of some ‘fairly stable vocabulary’ of characteristic concepts. ...[W]e are ... committed to accepting some criteria and rules of usage such that certain performances can be correctly instanced, and others excluded, as examples of a given activity. Otherwise we should eventually have no means — let alone justification — for delineating and speaking, say, of the histories of ethical or political thinking as being histories of recognizable activities at all. 

The problem is that if there are issues of perennial interest which the historian is looking to uncover, it necessarily means that the historian already knows and therefore already has preconceptions about what these elements/themes are. The danger is clear: the historian’s preconceptions and expectations about what the must be saying or doing will themselves determine that he understands the writer to be saying or doing.

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

“The most persistent mythology is generated when the historian is set by the expectation that each classic writer (in the history, say, of ethical or political ideas) will be found to enunciate some doctrine on each of the topics regarded as constitutive of his subject. It is a dangerously short step from being under the influence (however unconsciously) of such a paradigm to ‘finding’ a given author’s doctrines on all of the mandatory themes.” This mythology might be labelled the mythology of doctrines and it takes several forms.

[I] The first is the danger that scattered and incidental remarks are converted into doctrines regarding the mandatory themes of the subject. Both (A) intellectual biographies, where the focus is on the varied ideas individual thinkers, and (B) histories of ideas, where the focus is on the idea itself as stated by many varied thinkers, are vulnerable to this kind of mythology.

(A)(i) In the case of intellectual biographies, the first danger is that of sheer anachronism. A certain view or doctrine may be attributed to a writer based simply on some chance similarity of terminology even if he cannot have in principle meant to delineate. For example, Marsilius of Padua  is credited with the doctrine of separation of powers because of some remarks on the executive role of a ruler compared with the legislative role of a sovereign people. But the doctrine’s origin was traced to the Romans about two centuries after his death and would develop fully only in the 17th century.

(A)(ii) Also, a doctrine may be too readily extracted from or read into simple statements. The author might have simply stated the principle (even believed in it) without intending to articulate a doctrine out of it. For example, John Locke is credited with the ‘doctrine’ of ‘the political trust’ based on some scattered remarks.

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.

(B) In the second case, i.e. regarding histories of ideas, there is a tendency to embody an ideal type of a given doctrine — separation of powers, for example — as an entity, an organism almost, with a history of its own.

(B)(i) Such reification, first of all, creates a form of non-history of the doctrine where its history is that of writers ‘anticipating’ later writers and such writers being credited for their clairvoyance. As examples, Marsilius is notable for his ‘remarkable anticipation’ of Machiavelli; Montesquieu ‘anticipates’ the ideals of full employment and the welfare state.

(B)(ii) Second, 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.’

[II] 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) A historian may supply a theorist with a doctrine appropriate to the subject from his scattered remarks. He may speculate about a writer’s opinions regarding a topic which he (the writer) did not even mention by extrapolation. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, it is said, even though he never pronounced on the subject of ‘foolish “civil disobedience”’, would surely ‘not have approved.’ Marsilius, it is contended, 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.

(B) 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’.

(C) Still, a historian may rebuke a writer for not being comprehensive/systematic enough. The assumption here is that the writer intended his writing to be systematic. For example, Machiavelli’s Prince is often attacked as ‘extremely one-sided and unsystematic’ and Locke’s Two Treatises for not ‘advocat[ing] a world state’.

Mythology of Coherence

The historian’s preconceptions and expectations also leads to second type of mythology, a mythology of coherence.

(A) The first historical absurdity is 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 Richard Hooker’s Laws, the moral is to look harder, for ‘coherence’ is surely ‘present.’ This gives the thought of writers an illusion of completeness which might not have been intended at all.

(B) But if the aims and successes of a writer are so various as to defy coherence, the converse of the absurdity is generated and 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.

The mythology of coherence has developed in two directions which may be called metaphysical. “First there is the astonishing, but not unusual, assumption that it may be quite proper, in the interests of extracting a message of higher coherence from an author’s work, to discount the statements of intention which the author himself may have made about what he was doing, or even to discount whole works which would impair the coherence of the author’s system.” Consider Locke who set out in the beginning to defend an authoritarian position but whose corpus is considered the work of a ‘liberal’ political theorist.

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. “The explanation dictated by the principle of Ockham’s razor (that an apparent contradiction may simply be a contradiction) seems not to be considered.” Consider Marx who is “not allowed simply to have developed and changed his views from the humanistic strains of the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts to the apparently very different, far more mechanistic, system outlined over twenty years later in Capital.”


Part I surveyed 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

The mythology of prolepsis is characterised by a description of a work, being influenced by it’s significance, 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 Rousseau’s 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 mythology is created when the sense and intended reference of a work is wrongly described by the historian. It is quite obvious that any attempt to understand a work requires the historian to apply his own criteria of classification and discrimination without which there can be no understanding. The danger, and this is increased if the work is from an alien culture, is that the historian will see apparently familiar themes and thereby provide a misleadingly familiar description.

The historian, for instance, may misundertand the reference of some given statement in a classic work. He may come across a familiar statement/argument in a text, possibly seen elsewhere, and interpret it as referring to/replying to/refuting the similar statement/argument in the other work(s). The point is that the writer is understood to have intended to refer to the earlier text and thus is portrayed as being influenced by 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 the sense of a given work by conceptualising the arguments of a writer in a misleadingly familiar manner. 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.

And if such historical studies are not to be studies of what genuine historical agents did think ( or at least could have thought), then they might as well be turned into fiction by intention, for they must certainly be fiction by attainment.

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.


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 the dangers outlined 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.

[Explanation of the example: George Berkeley (1985–1853) was an Irish philosopher who advanced and defended the (seemingly unreasonable but philosophically cogent) ideas that everything that exists either is a mind or depends on a mind for its existence and that matter does not exist.

Andrew Baxter (1786–1750) and Thomas Reid (1710–1796) were Scottish philosophers who used the term ‘egoism’ to describe Berkeley’s curious ideas. Skinner’s point is that if we go by our understanding of egoism today i.e., as the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s own action, we would thoroughly misunderstand them as well as Berkeley’s ideas. Instead, today, ‘solipsism’ — the idea that existence is everything that one experiences — and not ‘egoism’ would be closer to Berkeley’s ideas.]

A second difficulty is that the author may use various indirect methods or “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.

Another problem about indirect methods also arises when there is confusion about whether a writer believed what he wrote or whether he wrote it ironically. 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 and tracking a grand theme over periods of time is also highly inadequate. Any attempt to focus on an idea itself as an appropriate unit of historical investigation hides underlying conceptual confusion.

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.

Consider the idea of nobilitas in the Renaissance. If its history 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. Renaissance moralist are known to have utilised this ambiguity in a studied manner. When Thomas More in Utopia speaks of the behavior of the military aristocracy as being fittingly noble, he intends to bring the whole concept of nobility into disrepute.

This overly simplified example brings out the following problems. First, it is clear that to understand an idea, we cannot simply concentrate on the forms of the words themselves for the same word(s) may be used for varying and incompatible intentions. 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 — as it assuredly is, which leads to the further problem — then histories of ideas are useless constructs because they are essentially written by extracting occurrences of the statements relating to those ideas in various works. Such histories tell us nothing of the ways in which and the purposes for which ideas were used by the particular authors. They tell us neither “what questions the use of the idea was thought to answer … [nor] what status the given idea may have had at various times … [nor even] what point a given expression might have had for the agents who used it, or what range of uses the expression itself could sustain … [with the result that] we cannot eventually be said to gain from such studies 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.


What about contextual reading?

It is 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.

[Comment: Get your thinking cap on.]

The appeal of the contextual method arises from the obvious fact that there must be some explanatory context and some set of antecedent causal conditions responsible for any work. But it is doubtful whether a knowledge of the context or the causal conditions is equivalent to an understanding of the work itself. That’s to say, it is doubtful whether the causal conditions of the action actually correspond to the point [i.e., purpose/intent/motive] of the action.

It could be claimed — by the contextualist(?) historian — that the point of the action is itself a cause: meaning that an intention to do something is itself a causal factor which may or may not issue in an action. This is all good. But there is also always an intention in doing something which is not contingently but instead necessarily related with the action at all. This second form of intention characterises the point of the action.

“Suppose … that Defoe had stated, as … he might have done, that his intention in the pamphlet which he did write on toleration was to promote this cause by parodying the arguments against it. What we have here is an intention not antecedent to and  contingently related with his actual statements at all: rather the statement of intention serves to characterize the action itself.” (emphasis added)

The significance of this claim is that while the context might reveal the contingent intention to do something, it does not help in understanding the necessary intention in doing it.

It might be countered that this argument that every action presupposes an intention in doing it says nothing with regard to understanding what the author might have meant. The problem here is that meaning is taken to be strictly correlative with understanding i.e. a grasp of the meaning of a statement is taken to be 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 “intended illocutionary force”). The implications are that (a) the question of intention is not so much about the meaning of the words as about the meaning [i.e., purpose] of the utterance and (b) the context could help decode what the former but not the latter. “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.”

[For a splendid example demonstrating this that unfortunately can’t be summarised or truncated, see pp. 46-47.]

It cannot in consequence be enough to study either what the statement meant, or even what its context may be alleged to show about what it must have meant. The further point which must still be grasped for any given statement is how what was said was meant, and thus what relations there may have been between various different statements even within the same general context.


Two positive conclusions flow from the current analysis.

The first points towards an alternative methodology. “The understanding of texts … presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean, and how this meaning was intended to be taken. It follows from this that to understand a text must be to understand both the intention to be understood, and the intention that this intention should be understood.” This requires that the whole range of linguistic devices and other communications available to the author be determined. This is because any description of what the writer meant should be governed by what the writer could have meant. Then. the relations between his utterances and the linguistic context be traced so as to decode the actual intention of the writer. While this method may not be particularly novel, it nonetheless possesses conceptual propriety.

The problem about the way in which these facts are handled in the methodology of contextual study is that they get fitted into an inappropriate framework. The “context” mistakenly gets treated as the determinant of what is said. It needs rather to be treated as an ultimate framework for helping to decide what conventionally recognizable meanings, in a society of that kind, it might in principle have been possible for someone to have intended to communicate

The second opens the “possibility of a dialogue between philosophical discussion and historical evidence”. The distinctions between causes and meanings of actions established by philosophers are not morely useful but quite essential for historians of ideas to grasp. Conversely, the understanding of statements gained by historians will raise special issues and yield special insights of interest and importance to philosophers.

The general conclusion is that the justification of the subject of the history of ideas in terms of the ‘perennial problems’ and ‘universal truths’ is “foolishly and hopelessly naive”.

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.

“The vital implication here is not merely that the classic texts cannot be concerned with our questions and answers, but only with their own. There is also the further implication that … there simply are no perennial problems in philosophy: there are only individual answers to individual questions, with as many different answers as there are questions, and as many different questions as there are questioners.”

“All I wish to insist is that whenever it is claimed that the point of the historical study of such questions is that we may learn directly from the answers, it will be found that what counts as an answer will usually look, in a different culture or period, so different in itself that it can hardly be in the least useful even to go on thinking of the relevant question as being ‘the same’ in the required sense after all. More crudely: we must learn to do our own thinking for ourselves”

This is by no means a denial of the philosophical value of the history of ideas. “[I]t is the very fact that the classic texts are concerned with their own quite alien problems, and not the presumption that they are somehow concerned with our own problems as well, which seems to me … the indispensable value of studying the history of ideas. The classic texts, especially in social, ethical, and political thought, help to reveal … not the essential sameness, but rather the essential variety of viable moral assumptions and political commitments. It is in this, moreover, that their essential philosophical, even moral, value can be seen to lie.”

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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