A lecture by Quentin Skinner delivered on 18 November 2014 during the conference “Ideengeschichte, Traditionen, und Perspektiven” [History of Ideas, Traditions, and Perspectives] at the Ruhr-University Bochum.
You could also read:
Quentin Skinner, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth,” in Visions of Politics, vol. I: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27–56.
Quentin Skinner, “Truth and Explanation in History,” in Truth in Science, the Humanities, and Religion: Balzan Symposium 2008, ed. M.E.H. Nicolette Mout and Werner Stauffacher (Dordrecht: Spriner, 2008), 89–97.
Lecture is embedded at the end.
We’ve been invited at this conference to reflect on the figure of the intellectual historian but all I shall have to say in general terms about this figure is that I assume that he or she is someone principally interested in texts, i.e. things like novels or plays, newspapers, court records, speeches [inaudible] That’s all I shall say about subject matter and what I principally like to try and do in these observations is to put forward and illustrate — I shall work through two main illustrations which I think is always the way to try to get a point across — where I am trying to say how it seems to me we shall proceed. And both of these suggestions and illustrations I am going to state negatively. That’s to say, in the form of a critique of some prevailing philosophical assumptions and some historical practices.
Here’s the first. It is often said that the project of the intellectual historian is that of identifying and explaining beliefs. Now that that should be the enterprise of intellectual history is certainly in the Anglophone world is what is currently simply assumed. So for example, Mark Bevir in a very influential book called The Logic of the History of Ideas insists on what seems to me the very strong claim that “Whenever people make an utterance, they express ideas or beliefs and it is these beliefs that constitute the object studied by intellectual historians.”
When people make an utterance, they express ideas or beliefs, and it is these ideas or beliefs that constitute the objects studied by historians of ideas. Historical meanings consist of expressed beliefs that convey the individual viewpoints of individuals.
Mark Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas, 2002, p. 142.
Now, practicing intellectual historians generally show themselves content to endorse that kind of point of view. So, for example to take an extremely distinguished Anglophone case, Keith Thomas, at the start of his masterpiece, Religion and the Decline of Magic, observes that what he is studying is systems of belief in the spirit of a cultural anthropologist. And while, as he puts it, many beliefs widely accepted in the past may now strike us as obviously false, the fact remains that in earlier times intelligent persons held them to be true and historian’s task is to explain why that should be so.
This book began as an attempt to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in sixteenth– and seventeenth-century England, but which no longer enjoy much recognition today. Astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts and fairies, are now all rightly disdained by intelligent persons. But they were taken seriously by equally intelligent persons in the past, and it is the historian’s business to explain why this was so.
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1973, Foreword.
By the way, Keith Thomas there is talking specifically about witchcraft beliefs. And there is an unusually distinguished literature both in German and in English on that particular theme. So, I have decided to take that as one of the examples that I shall work through in my remarks this evening. I’ll come back to that but for the moment, I just want to put forward my first negative suggestion which is that I do not myself think that we should take the project of the intellectual historian as that of identifying and explaining beliefs. I just don’t think that that should be our focus.
But why not? Well, one obvious reason is that much of the writing and speech encountered by intellectual historians is such that there’s no reason whatsoever to suppose that any beliefs are being affirmed. That’s surely true in the case where intellectual historians study literary texts. Admittedly, in the Anglophone tradition at the moment, there’s a strong tendency to suppose that we can often identify authors with some or other of the expressed beliefs of their fictional characters. And in an influential strand of recent Anglophone criticism, so-called New Historicism, something like a systematic attempt is made to recover authorial beliefs, especially beliefs of Renaissance early modern writers, from the evidence of the text that they write whether these texts themselves be plays, or poems, or, later, novels.
But to take an example which everyone will know, when Shakespeare in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice has Portia say that the quality of mercy is always greater than justice, that surely doesn’t give us any grounds whatever for supposing that William Shakespeare believed that the quality of mercy is always greater than justice. He was writing a play! Do we have to say this? If you read the scene carefully, you will not only find that there is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare is affirming a belief, there is no reason to suppose that Portia is affirming a belief! Even the fictional character is not affirming a belief!
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.
But you might say well literary texts are a special case. What about the philosophical texts on politics? Surely, we basically need to approach philosophical texts as statements of belief if we are going to interpret them. No. I don’t think so. I think that is also going to give you a very misleading picture and certainly impoverished hermeneutic. But obviously, that is a more contentious claim. And so, I want to try and illustrate this claim and defend it, try to show you what I have in mind because it’s meant to be what the French would call [per paradoxal]. So, let me give you a example and I am going to work through this for a few minutes.
It’s a familiar example from a celebrated political treatise which also happens to have been much in the news of late because there has just been the celebration of its 500th birthday: I am referring to Machiavelli’s Treatise Il Principe and I want to say a word about it. If you turn to or if you remember Chapter 18 of the Principe, you will find Machiavelli arguing, in what is probably the best known observation in that well-known work, that the political leaders who aspire to fame and glory must learn to imitate la volpe ed il lione [the fox and the lion].
You must know there are two ways of contesting [striving for masters], the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. … A prince … ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII.
Now, how is that passage best interpreted? The usual answer is that Machiavelli is claiming, that’s to say he is affirming the belief, that success in politics depends on realistically recognising the unavoidibility of force and fraud. That unpacks the metaphor and states the belief. I certainly don’t want to deny that that appears to be what Machiavelli believed. What I want to ask is how adequately you can hope to interpret that passage if you approach it with that as your basic question in mind?
Machiavelli’s contention was afterall not launched into a cultural void; it was part of an extensive Renaissance literature of advice books for rulers in which everybody had agreed that glory is indeed the proper goal of princes and that the means to acquire glory is to cultivate the quality which was called in the Renaissance writing, virtus in the Latin, or la virtu in the Italian. And by the use of that term, they sought to denote not merely the moral and political virtues but also took virtus to be obviously the defining quality of the vir — the Latin for man [Latin of course less sexist than English has two words, does it not?, homo means man or woman, but vir means man by contrast with woman, source of the English word ‘virile’]. So the Rennaisance writers are making it a defining characteristic of successful leaders that they should possess distinctively manly qualities.
Machiavelli, by contrast, is telling that if you want to achieve glory as a ruler, you will have to cultivate beastly qualities; so manly–beastly, we are back in the metaphoricality of the passage. So, he is thus opposing, in the passage I have quoted, the hitherto undoubted humanist piety that qualities of manliness form part of the key to political success. He is thereby questioning the adequacy of humanist accounts of virtue, and he is redefining what it means to speak of virtue as the name of the attribute that brings princely glory.
Furthermore, he launched that critique into a culture in which, unquestionably the most widely known and read treatise on political leadership was Cicero’s De Officiis and there Cicero had laid it down, I quote — I am translating obviously — “There are two ways in which injustice may be done. Either by force or by fraud. Both methods are bestial and unworthy of mankind. Force, because it belongs to the lion. and fraud because it belongs to the cunning fox.” So, Machiavelli, in the passage I cited also turns out to be quoting Cicero; thereby reminding his readers of the most respected authority on the question of political virtue while at the same time, repudiating, and indeed you hear the tone now, ridiculing Cicero’s moral earnestness.
While wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible.
Cicero, De Officiis, Book I, par. XLI.
My point here of the example is that Machiavelli in the passage I have cited is not merely stating an apparent belief, namely that force and fraud are indispensible to political success. He is also citing Cicero on the character of political virtue; reminding his readers of Cicero’s claim; questioning that claim; satirising that claim; thereby opposing a standard tenet of humanist political theory; and at the same time offering the counter virtus in which that central concept of classical moral philosophy is largely redefined.
You’ll have to agree that that gives you a rather richer interpretation of this famous passage. But for me, what is crucial is that in approaching in interpreting the passage in this way, I have not been treating it as an expression of belief. Rather I have been treating it as a quite complex intervention in a specific political debate and moral argument of the time.
Now, of course it is true that once you identify the character of the intervention, you may feel that it implies a number of beliefs on Machiavelli’s part, for example that Cicero is a silly old fool, [which you didn’t know of course when you first read that. You’re beginning to get the point…]. I am not asking here what is Machiavelli affirming in this passage, I am asking, what is he doing? What’s going on in this passage? is my question. Or to use a kind of slang in English idiom, what’s he upto? What is really going on in this passage?
To generalise the point I am ther illustrating, what I am proposing is that the vocabulary most appropriate to textual interpretation is the one that we use about actions, not beliefs. So, I am proposing that for intellectual historians, the activity of interpretation should focus less on what people affirm and more on trying to recapture the underlying purposes of those affirmations. That’s to say, thereby trying to elucidate what kind of a contribution they saw themselves as making to some pre-existing conversation or debate.
That is a polemical claim in as much as I wish to make it a claim about all texts, however abstract in character. And when I say all texts, I also mean all texts in the extended sense in which a symphony would be a text that could be read, or a building, or indeed the most abstract works of political philosophy. Let me give you an example of which I have thought about a bit, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the most important work of political philosophy of a completely architectonic kind in the English language. I like to think of it as a speech in parliament. It would have been a long speech, admittedly. But what I am trying to get at here is that that’s the character of the book that you have in you hand if you pick up Hobbes’ Leviathan. It is a polemical intervention in the debate of the English revolution in the immediate aftermath of the abolition of the institution of monarchy into the question, “Is political obligation due to a power that has come to authority by conquest?” That’s the question of the time. And he has a quite exceptional answer to that. The answer is Yes. It takes him a long time to give that answer but to understand the text, you’ve got to understand that that’s what he is doing. He is trying to produce an irenic work in conditions of revolution.
Or take another celebrated example, Plato’s Republic as an example of, well, “What?” Once you ask my question, you’ll see that you have very little chance of understanding Plato’s Republic. Because you’ve got very little chance of understanding the exact character of the contribution that he was making to the politics of Athens at the time simply because we don’t have the resources — we know he read Thucydides, we know he didn’t like the Sophists, but we can’t go much further that that; there is something tremendously threadbare about the context that interests an intellectual historian like myself. And I think that one consequence of what I am trying to say is that very frequently, you are going to find that there’s much less prospect of understanding these texts than you thought if you think them as forms of linguistic action instead of as affirmations of belief.
So, there’s my first commitment and I have to add that that has got me into a lot of trouble. I say in my Machiavelli example that I am claiming to have identified the specific intervention that he was making in the writing of this particular genre of political theory, that’s to say, handbooks of for princes of which the great example had been Cicero. And one thing you have to understand about that text is that it’s a satire not in the sense that he doesn’t believe it — it’s a passionate book! — but in the sense that there is much in that book of ridicule about it. To understand ridicule, you have to see the object of the ridicule, otherwise you’ve got no chance. So you have to move densely into the context of the Renaissance “Mirror for Princes” genre.
If you emerge from that engagement, then a number of postmodern critics have asked me — not always very courteously — “Are you seriously telling us that you have succeeded in recovering Machiavelli’s intentions?” Yes, of course. That’s the whole point! That’s what I have done. That is not just a polemical claim, but liable to look like an old fashioned claim. But I’ll need to say more about it by way of explanation and defence.
The claim that this is a recovery of intentionality is only contentious only if you believe, as a number of postmodernists so obviously do, that intentions are simply mental events. [We talked about intentions when Timothy gave his brilliant paper yesterday. And motivations, which I am not talking about at the moment, are plausibly mental events.] The notion that an intention is a exclusively a mental event is simply a philosophical error. But it is the error that leads postmodern criticism to suppose that you can’t interrogate the living about their intentions, let alone the dead. But the intentions I am talking about are not mental events. They are entirely publicly inscribed.
So, for example, Cicero says rulers must avoid force and fraud. Machiavelli says they must embrace force and fraud. And in doing so he quotes Cicero’s argument; he reminds his readers of it; he challenges the committment; he repudiates it; he ridicules the earnestness involved; he presents a whole new picture of political virtue. Now, those are all the names of linguistic acts. Notice we only have one sentence. There are half a dozen or more linguistic acts that are being performed in the writing of that sentence. But those linguistic acts, if we have correctly identified them, are the names of the acts that Machiavelli intentionally performed. They are the names of the intentions with which he wrote. They are claims, ideas about the force of his utterance. It has the force of being both a quotation and a response and a reminder and a challenge and a repudiation and an act of satire. All of those are accounts of what is going on in the passage and so they are accounts of the force of the utterance. Not the meaning of course! And the explanatory hypothesis has to be that he spoke with that intended force because that’s the inference to the best explanation.
But to arrive at that account of how you should understand that passage — and it is how I think you should understand that passage — there has been no attempt to get into Machiavelli’s head or whatever nonsense people talk about this in order to come forth with those claims. All that’s required is the public context of the utterance. If you get that right, you get the force of the argument. The whole thing is dialogical and the name of the game is intertextuality. Intertextuality gives you intentionality. That’s really a way of summarising my claim.
But as you will know, more serious postmodern critics, whom we must greatly respect, have a further objection to raise. And typically, they will want to say that this preoccupation with intentionality forgets the power of language itself in its state of continual and polysemic play. Although ‘play’ in Derrida, jeu, has been gravely mistranslated into English as if it’s ‘play’, as in playing, while of course, he mean jeu in the mechanical sense that there’s play in the machine: there’s always some play. And that’s going to, his point is, “write itself over” — there’s his wonderful phrase — any intention to communicate as a result of which you can’t get rid of the ambiguities due to the polysemy that is involved. So, the objection goes, equating the meaning of texts with the intended meaning is just an obvious mistake.
This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse — provided we can agree on this word — that is to say, when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.
Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” 1970.
That criticism has been levelled at me more times than I care to remember but it completely misses the point. I don’t know what it is that’s wrong about my writing but I don’t seem to be able to get my thoughts across. I’m having another go this evening. But that completely misses the sense in which I am interested in intentionality. It is true, and this is the way that Derrida and his followers are traditional hermeneuticists because they think, that one should be interested in recovering meaning. And their point is, that’s what you think hermeneutics is and we are here to tell you that you can’t do it. I never thought you could do it and I am not interested in doing it. That’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about something completely else. You could phrase what I am talking about as a claim about meaning if you liked because the English language is very poverty stricken here compared with the French. French has signification but it also has vouloir dire. I am talking about vouloir dire. I am talking about what people meant by what they said. That’s to to talk about the intentions with which they spoke. It’s not to talk about linguistic meaning which is something completely separate from speech acts. Speech acts are what you are doing. Meaning, if you are lucky, is what you have.
I am completely willing to accept the deconstructionist argument about polysemy and ambiguity. Anyone who engages in textual interpretation would be insane not to agree with Derrida about that. And serious literary critics of very complex texts have never not known that. I mean, imagine being an interpreter of Cervantes and not knowing that there are certain ambiguities and maybe jokes and things that you better know about. I mean it is quite primitive hermeneutics we are talking about really if you could imagine. There could be a strand of thought that made its living out of denying that. That’s been known at an intuitive level by serious students of literary texts always.
But I can accept that point, which of course I do, because I am making my central question one not about meaning but about linguistic action. Now, nobody, I take it, supposes that you can understand an action without invoking the intentionality that’s embodied in it because in the explanation of actions, we identify the action as being an action of a certain kind. And that’s how we individuate actions, in virtue of the intentionality embedded in it. If you give up that idea, you’ll find, you have given up a lot. For example, you have given up the idea of criminal responsibility straight away. It would be strange to deny that actions are the actions that they are in virtue of the intentionality embedded in them. And that’s all that I am saying. And that’s the claim about intentionality that I would want to defend.
So, there’s the first part of what I want to say. And you’ll be delighted to learn that the second half is shorter. Let me round off the first part of these remarks by drawing out some implications to see, if we can, what I say might matter. And I want to draw out three implications.
First, if there’s always some intervention that any text, however abstract, may be said to be making in the culture in and for which it was originally written or spoken, then there is no categorical distinction to be drawn between literature or philosophy on the one hand and ideology on the other hand. It will always be worth asking, in other words, about the ideological orientation of even very abstract texts as the Hobbes’ example was intended to illustrate. It’s true that writers often put forward as straightforward affirmations of belief statements which, in addition, have underlying ideological purposes which are often hidden and of considerable complexity. And what I am really suggesting is that if the attainment that we wish to acquire in the end is understanding, then it is to those underlying purposes that you’ve got to try and attune yourself. And if you ask, “Well how is that attuning to be done?”, I have a rather despairing piece of methodology, it’s really my only methodological advice to offer you, which is that there is no substitute for omniscience. You just got to know enough to know that Machiavelli was quoting Cicero. You just got to know enough about what the context was. If you read enough, you get the answers.
My second observation is that if you treat the texts we study as essentially social actions, one effect, and this is beneficial in my view and this goes with a kind of Foucauldian story about [indiscernible]…[ obviously Foucault as you will already have gathered is one of my heroes.] So the beneficial result is that this decenters authorship. It doesn’t of course abolish authorship; that was a provocation on Foucault’s part and people forget that he always distinguished the [indiscernible French terms]. He would … course have authors but they are authors within a structure of discourse. They are contributors to traditions of debate. That was the point that he was making and that’s the point that I would also want to make.
All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest sell did he express in his discourse?
Instead, there would be other questions, like these:
What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions?
And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”, 1969.
My third point is a cautionary one. It is that that kind of explanation that I am talking about here is clearly not a species of causal explanation. It solves puzzles by way of reidentifying speech acts. If the explanation is the resolving of puzzles, which of course is the pragmatic account we would want to give of what an explanation is, then these are explanations: they now solve puzzles, you now know what is going on. But they do so in non-causal mechanisms. Now that’s not to say, which was perhaps the mistake that a lot of Wittgensteinians made, that action–explanation is incompatible with causal explanation. That’s even arguably Wittgenstein’s view.
I certainly don’t think any historian would want to take that view because you may also want to enquire into the motivations that gave rise to the intentions that we are here isolating. I am here making a strong distinction between motives and intentions and that’s absolutely deliberate. I am not talking about motivation which is a very complex subject indeed but about intentionality. I am very content to assume that the motive with which you act is the cause of the action that you perform. There’s no problem about saying that and indeed, I would not only want to say that but, furthermore, you might also want to ask about the causes of someone’s having a certain motivational set which will lead you out then to the wider fields or, I should say, the explanatory swamps, of social history.
So far, this has been about a kind of challenge to the idea that the interpretive task is that of recovering and explaining beliefs. But obviously, I must not exaggerate. I am not of course denying that one task of the intellectual historian is that of identifying and explaining beliefs and so, one large question, and this is the question I want to address in the second half of these remarks, is how should that enterprise be undertaken if I now allow that that is part of the enterprise. So, now I need to ask “How should that be done?”
I want to proceed here, as in the first half of these remarks, by considering a widespread view. The right way to proceed, and this is a view that in the Anglophone writings of philosophy of history and writings of history is very widely agreed, is to begin by asking whether the beliefs you’re trying to explain are true or false beliefs. Now that is almost a kind of standard approach in Anglophone analytical philosophy of social science uniting such disparate authors such as Charles Taylor, Philip Pettit, and Steven Lukes.
Let me quote Philip Pettit: “The reason why we need to begin with the question of truth and falsity is that false beliefs point to failures of reasoning.” And that in turn means that we need to ask what kind of “social function or psychological pressure” may have served in the given case to prevent people from recognising the mistaken nature of their beliefs. So, notice a very strongly causal account that we are being given there. That’s fine by me but there’s the claim that false beliefs point to failures of reasoning. And, it’s a causal question to be asked about how you come to entertain that false belief. Once you have got that, you’ve got the explanation.
Our contention … is that one’s own opinion about the truth and falsity of the aliens’ beliefs will affect the kind of explanation one gives of them. A long standing problem in anthropology for example is the longevity of beliefs that appear to be manifestly false. This is a problem precisely because the beliefs are taken to be obviously incorrect: it would not arise if they were true, or were not so clearly false. …In some cases, a true belief maybe acquired‘accidentally’, i.e. in a manner in which the truth-conditions played no part, or did not play the ‘correct’ causal role. And even in cases where the true belief is properly acquired, causation still plays a role; in these cases the causal factors are usually sufficiently transparent not to require emphasis. What remains are cases where the mistaken nature of the belief is very much evident (in our opinion); here explanations by reference to social function or psychological pressure may be worth exploring.
Graham Macdonald and Philip Pettit, Semantics and Social Science, 1981, “Cross-cultural Understanding”.
Now, that view about how to proceed is very widely endorsed by practicing intellectual historians and I mentioned at the outset that a good way of illustrating this is through witchcraft beliefs. I am very anxious not to take strawman and, so, I shall actually take a really great historian, namely Emmanuel Bernard Le Roy Ladurie, the classic discussion of peasant witchcraft in Les Paysans de Languedoc [The Peasants of Languedoc]. Ladurie prefaces this wonderful analysis with the claim that the belief that it’s possible to cause harm by casting spells is false. Don’t worry. It is, isn’t it? And he is right to identify it as false. And so, what we are looking for, as Ladurie says, is that this is the product of some deep and distracting form of psychological pressure that the historian needs to identify.
Now, lets first ask, why do these philosophers and why does a great historian like Ladurie think it important to begin by considering the truth or falsity of beliefs as a way in to explaining them. Well, because of a strong distinction between reasons and causes. So, for example, Ladurie argues that to understand why witchcraft beliefs gained such widespread acceptance in France of the Reformation, what you need to identify, is what could have caused such a breakdown in the processes of reasoning.
I am not so interested in the actual explanation that Ladurie goes on to give but his, probably you know this, main line of explanation which has to do with the effects of the reformation in France: a time to breakdown of local consensus, especially in Languedoc which of course was becoming Protestant; a breakdown of trust between neighbours; a tendency to entertain new suspicions, new fears of your neighbours so when something goes wrong, there is a heightened proneness to ask whether someone might have caused you harm; heightened proneness to accept the possibility that that could indeed be done. So, notice that what Ladurie is doing there is as you might put it, what the philosophers ask. He’s begun by identifying the falsity of belief and he has given you a causal explanation of how that false belief came to be held.
That brings me to the second of my negative suggestions which is: don’t ever write history like that; don’t even think of it; this is… I am lost for words! Why not? To ask the question, to proceed in this way, as the philosophers would have you proceed and the historians do proceed, is to assume that when an historian encounters a belief that he or she judges to be false, the explanatory task is that of looking for the cause of a lapse of reasoning. But that is to equate the holding of rational beliefs with the holding of the beliefs that the historian judges to be true, and that excludes the possibility that even in the case of a belief that nowadays might strike us as obviously false, there may have been good grounds in earlier historical periods for holding that false belief to be true belief.
It seems to me, in other words, that the key explanatory distinction we need here is not between true and false beliefs but between rational and irrational beliefs. When we seek to explain a belief that we think is irrational, of course we are going to ask additional questions about how best to explain it. You’re gonna have to enquire into the sorts of conditions that may have prevented an agent from following accepted canons of evidence or argument, or maybe even supplied them with a motive for defying them. But, it’s always possible to follow the best available canons of argument in one’s society in relation to the formation and testing of beliefs and nevertheless arrive at a false belief. So, to equate the holding of a belief that seems to us false with a lapse from rationality is to foreclose before you knew that you should have foreclosed on a whole type of explanation.
So, to clarify that account let me go back to Ladurie on witchcraft. He not only begins by noting that witchcraft beliefs were false but he is also assuming that these beliefs are not rationally held; that they are beliefs which stem from very deep fears. That’s why they come to be held. So, his attempt at an explanation takes the form of an enquiry into the causes of a delusion. That’s what he takes historical task to be. But he’s thereby left himself no space to consider a different type of explanation along the following lines: that the peasants may have believed in the existence of witches, and therefore the power to cause harm, as a result of holding a number of other beliefs from which that conclusion might reasonably have been inferred.
So, he has excluded in advance the possibility that the belief in the power of witches to do you harm might be the product of a perfectly acceptable chain of reasoning. But that means that as the result the explanation he puts forth for the delusion — the story about the Reformation, for all he knows — that may be completely false. I mean it’s just invented history. And it also means that it’s bypassed number of question which you might think indispensable to enquire into about the rationality of the beliefs of the peasantry.
Well, I am sure you also know what I am about to say next which is that, it’s not — I mean this is a classic text of Ladurie — that this problem has not been identified. Some of the more recent literature on witchcraft has devoted itself to worrying about his lack of interest in the mental world of the peasantry. So, for example, another really extraordinary fine work of scholarship on witchcraft, Stuart Clark’s book called Thinking with Demons makes it the basis of that book, methodologically speaking, that we should seek to make the people whose witchcraft beliefs we are examining as rational as possible. So, I just want to comment on that historiographical development. Because, that doesn’t please me either. I just wanted to offer two observations and both of them I am afraid are critical.
I was influenced, in particular, by a remark of Alasdair MacIntyre’s: ‘To say that a belief is rational is to talk about how it stands in relation to other beliefs.’ It soon became apparent that demonology was a case in point, and that witchcraft beliefs at this level were sustained by a whole range of other intellectual commitments.
What follows … is a book about demonology, … set in a series of contexts drawn from early modern intellectual life as a whole. I have taken seriously the suggestion that the best places to gain historical access to a strange culture are those where its meanings seem most opaque. …. The witchcraft beliefs of early modern intellectuals seem to be in this category. My aim, therefore, is to make them more intelligible in themselves but, in doing this, to shed light on the larger intellectual histories to which they belonged.
Stuart Clark, Thinking With Demons, 2001, pp. ix and x.
One is, don’t forget to distinguish epistemic from practical rationality. Even great historians can look as if they have got into a muddle there. Consider, for example, Paul Veyne‘s great book on whether the Greeks believed their myths [Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination]. Veyne’s answer is, I am sure you know roughly, that the question as to whether it was rational for the ancient Greeks to accept the truth of their myths was a question that was seldom pressed. But that it was not irrational for them not to press it.
But what does he mean? Does he mean practically rational or epistemically rational? I mean it may have been a rational policy not to press the question of truth because the widespread acceptance of the myths had so many beneficial social effects. But if that is the argument, it leaves completely open the question as to whether if the ancient Greeks did believe their myths, it was epistemically rational for them to hold that belief. It may have been practically rational whilst being epistemically irrational. It is very hard to think it was. So, you really must not get those two confused.
But that’s not my main worry. My main worry about what’s happened to this literature is that it seems to me that we are taking too capacious a view about the rationality of historical agents. Stuart Clark, for example, argues that provided we an show that the beliefs about witchcraft held by early modern demonologists cohered with their other beliefs so that you got a coherent set of beliefs within which these withchcraft beliefs were nested, then that is sufficient for it to have been rational for them to hold the demonological beliefs that you have isolated.
Now, I agree that if my beliefs are to be rationally held, it is necessary that I should be interested in consistency. I mean if you are not interested in consistency, it is impossible for anybody else to recover your beliefs. If I affirm that I believe p and I affirm that I belief not-p, you have no idea what I believe and nor have I. But what I cannot see is how this can be a sufficient condition. It must also be a necessary condition that I should adopt my beliefs only in the light of a certain attitude towards the process of belief formation itself.
That’s to say, I can hardly be said to hold a belief rationally unless I am interested in the sort of evidence that gives me ground for concluding that my statements of belief can be justified. And that they are not liable to be overturned by further evidence. So, I just can’t agree in other words with the suggestion that once you have uncovered the inner acceptability of a structure of beliefs — I mean this view that became so fashionable in intellectual history and in cultural anthropology — you cannot then fail to count as rational a belief that coheres within the system that you’ve uncovered.
Now that doubt about the procedures of current intellectual history and some current cultural anthropology has is not very popular at the moment. Because we are frequently told that to argue what I have just done is to import alien and condescending views about our superior rationality into studies of the past.
But that’s a complete misunderstanding. If as an historian, I stigmatise some particular belief I am investigating as irrational, I need only be claiming that I have uncovered a prevailing norms for the acquisition, testing, and justification of belief in the community that I am investigating, and that the belief in question was upheld in the face of rather than in the light of some some agreed local norm. I am not claiming that the belief was irrational according to my standards of rationality, still less according to the standard of rationality, whatever that could possibly mean.
So, there’s my second negative claim. When intellectual historians seek to explain systems of thought prevailing in past societies, they should I think, avoid asking questions about truth and falsity altogether. The only point at which they should invoke the concept of truth is in asking whether our forebears or some other society had sufficient ground for holding to be true what they believed to be the truth even if we don’t agree that it is the truth.
Okay, there’s the second claim. And in a way that’s the end of the story. Do I have four more minutes? That’s really good because, here’s the point, if that’s the second claim, then as you will all be aware and I am only too well aware, anyone who argues in the fashion that I have just now argued is liable to be denounced in some quarters or, of course, commended in other quarters as a conceptual relativist. So, I want to end by saying a word about conceptual relativism in relation to the practice of intellectual history.
There’s obviously a sense in which my argument is relativist: I have relativised the notion of holding true a given belief. I have suggested that it may have been completely rational for a sixteenth century French peasant in Languedoc to hold it true that you can cause harm by casting spells even if I would not necessarily regard it as rational if you told me that that was one of your beliefs. Furthermore, I have argued that intellectual historians need to be relativist in that sense. You need to keep before you always the thought that you can hold a false belief with complete rationality. But it seems to me a misunderstanding to suppose that historians who espouse this position are embracing the thesis of conceptual relativism.
Conceptual relativism I take to be a thesis about the nature of truth. Roughly, it is the thesis that there is nothing more to truth than rational acceptability within a form of life. If you think, that is, that rational acceptability within a form of life, within a coherent structure of beliefs, is a sufficient condition, then you’re a conceptual relativist. You’re a relativist about truth if you think that is a sufficient condition of those beliefs being true.
So, for example, Richard Rorty in his great work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is definitely a conceptual relativist. When he discusses Galileo‘s dispute with Bellarmine, he insists that Bellarmine’s rejection of heliocentrism was no less objective than Galileo’s affirmation of it and to suppose otherwise is merely to endorse the rhetoric of modern science. There are just two worlds.
Obviously, the conclusion I wish to draw is that the “grid” which emerged in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not there to be appealed to in the early seventeenth century, at the time that Galileo was on trial. No conceivable epistemology, no study of the nature of human knowledge, could have “discovered” it before it was hammered out. The notion of what it was to be “scientific” was in the process of being formed. … We are the heirs of three hundred years of rhetoric about the importance of distinguishing sharply between science and religion, science and politics, science and art, science and philosophy, and so on. This rhetoric has formed the culture of Europe. It made us what we are today. We are fortunate that no little perplexity within epistemology, or within the historiography of science, is enough to defeat it. But to proclaim our loyalty to these distinctions is not to say that there are “objective” and “rational” standards for adopting them. Galileo, so to speak, won the argument, and we all stand on the common
ground of the “grid” of relevance and irrelevance which “modern philosophy” developed as a consequence of that victory. But what could show that the Bellarmine-Galileo issue “differs in kind” from the issue between, say, Kerensky and Lenin, or that between the Royal Academy (circa 1910) and Bloomsbury?
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1981, pp. 330–31.
Now I am not saying that at all. I take it that in the given case, there’s the fact of the matter. So, I actually believe that the earth goes round the sun and nor do I believe that it used not to. So, I don’t believe that was true then, and it’s not true now or any nonsense like that. I don’t want to make any of these points about truth and falsity. I don’t want you to ask if Bellarmine’s beliefs about heliocentrism were true. I mean actually they were false but these are not the questions we should be asking as intellectual historians.
So, that being my position, I am not even engaging with the thesis of conceptual relativism. I am just saying that the question of what it may be rational to hold to be true may vary with the totality of your beliefs. I am not putting forward what would be the wholly distinctive claim that truth can vary in the same way. By the way, if you did put forth that claim, I think it would be self-refuting because the proposition would present itself as true while affirming that there could be no such proposition.
I promised myself only four minutes and I have used up three. So here comes the fourth. I haven’t spoken here as a legislator. That is not a task in which I would feel comfortable. I haven’t tried to say how we should write intellectual history. Obviously, there are many valid ways of doing so. It is a house of many mansions and we practice it in different ways. It’s a large and it’s an open field. However, it is a field that contains some large potholes and I would like us to avoid these potholes and what I try to do in this talk is identify two of them and to show you I hope why it’s best not to fall into them.
Thanks very much.