Truth, Belief, and Interpretation by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript

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.

What is Political Theory? by Andrew Hacker — A Summary

Title: What is Political Theory?
Author: Andrew Hacker
Publication: Andrew Hacker (1961) Political Theory — Philosophy, Ideology, Science

Science, Philosophy, Ideology

In order to say anything on a subject, one has to be either an “expositor” or a “censor”. The former explains what is and the latter tells us what ought to be. This Benthamite observation, though his remarks were confined to the study of law, brings out the distinction between the two branches of political theory: political science and political philosophy. The theorist engaging in political science describes and explains political reality. Meanwhile, the theorist engaged in political philosophy prescribes the goals that should be pursued in the political reality.

However, every respectable political theorist fills both roles and divides his efforts between both pursuits, although which role gets more attention will vary. The important point is that without both ingredients, a lasting contribution to knowledge cannot be made because there is no “pure” or “objective” political science. The grounds for selecting the aspects of reality to be studied must eventually be philosophical. Equally, political philosophy is always informed by an understanding of political reality. As such, there is no “pure” or “objective” political philosophy. It is up to the student of political theory to determine where the scientific part stops and where the philosophical part begins.

There is a third variety of theory in which the theorist may prescribe a course of action, or means, if a certain result is to be achieved. This sort of prescription that specifies the means and leaves the ends to the reader may be called “policy science”. Such if-then statements are prescriptions only in a technical sense.

A theory, in ideal terms, is dispassionate and disinterested. As science describe political reality without trying to pass judgment on what is being depicted wither implicitly or explicitly. As philosophy, it will prescribe rules of conduct which will secure the good life for all of society and not simply for certain individuals or classes.

Theorists tend to be Utopians or ideologues. While the former build castles in the air, the latter are stuck in the soil. As beings of emotion and interest, all theorists are inevitably ideologues. As such, we have distortions and rationalisations instead of disinterested description and prescription.


But despite the inevitability of rationalisations and distortions, there emerges theorists who are able to transcend the ideological limitations and achieve a broader perspective and provide generalisations that stand the test of time. Those who achieve this may legitimately be called theorists.

The Search for Significance

The theorists of yesterday, as opposed to the theorists of today, are not much concerned with methodological rigor. When Rousseau declares that we must put the facts aside because they do not affect the issue and Machiavelli pushes only the unpalatable qualities of men, it is not because Rousseau fails to realise the value of facts or because Machiavelli is unaware of the complexity of human nature. It is because they are willing to stress dominant tendencies and speculate on major trends. The problem with too much rigor and too much information is that they make any significant contribution to political theory impossible.

A theory which says that men have equal proportions of good and evil in them is, in the final analysis, no theory at all. Generalisations are always risky, but to be meaningful they must come down on one side or another.

If theorists claim that their theories are scientific, their words should be viewed with suspicion and not taken seriously.

The problem with facts concerns their role in theory. Should they be used as evidence, as contemporary theorists do, or should they be used simply as illustrations, as many historical writers[1] did? The argument for the former is that facts lead to convincing and conclusive substantiations that supports the generalisations. The argument for the latter is reality is so subtle and complex to be factually verified.

But if the pursuit of significance requires the loosening of methodological standards, what is to stop the theorist from abandoning caution altogether? What is to stop him from creating fantastical edifices where all problems are solved or where everything is explained? There are a few of those in political theory. “Nevertheless, it must be remembered that if important issues are to receive discussion, then standards of logic and even veracity must be relaxed.”

Also, even if the full system propounded by a theorist may be untenable, it should not devalue the importance of “middle range” theories — theories that are a part of the general framework of a theorist. Examples are Aristotle’s theory of class, St. Thomas’ theory of law, Locke’s theory of property, Mill’s theory of representation. It is impossible to find a satisfactory all-embracing theory by a single theorist in this day. So, in the meantime, students of political theory must be willing to collect whatever they can from any source they find. Only, they must be sufficiently sceptical in temperament.

The History of Politics and
the History of Ideas

A knowledge of history understood in its broad conception as a growth and evolution of social classes, productive forces, and political institutions is essential for the political theorist. Without such historical knowledge, there can be no perspective for analysis or standard for judgement no matter how complete his knowledge of the present might be.

An illustration of this is the idea and fact of political liberty. Liberty as freedom from state and social restraint took birth in the context of a particular social structure and at a certain stage of economic development. The theorists who propounded this idea were situated in a certain point in time. The student of political theory cannot ignore these facts any more than he can deny that the social structure and the level of economic development has drastically changed today.

History in political theory is also pervaded by ideology. The ‘historical’ constructions of Rousseau, or Marx and Engels, or even Burke and Tocqueville, are filled with ideological overtones and are often distorted to make their arguments clear. These misdirections notwithstanding, the theories so created need not become valueless.

There is another form of history crucial to political theory, that of the history of ideas which concerns the political ideas set down in writing by men of ideas. The active relation between the history of ideas and the history of political action is stressed by most students. This gives rise to the common refrain that men of ideas must always be put in their proper historical context. But that amounts to wrongly denying that what they had to say has value and application that transcend their peculiar contexts.

The works of historical writers (see footnote), regardless of when and where they were written, can increase our understanding of the world. And their theories can and should be studied independent of the role they might have played in the ‘histories of ideas’. To defend this claim, seven points may be raised in the form of a rebuke against the ‘histories of ideas’:

1. “Capital” and Carbuncles

Biographical approaches tend to concentrate on how a particular work came to be written. Marx’s carbuncles are said to have made his attack on the bourgeoisie more vehement. Rousseau’s constricted bladder is said to have affected his writing in the Social Contract. It is not advisable to completely divorce the man from his work but to concentrate solely on the man and not what he wrote, as these biographical approaches do, is to do a great disservice to political theory.

2. Lost Laundry Lists

There is a tendency to look at everything that an author wrote — even laundry lists! — as important to the work of the author. An obscure Hegelian essay on the English constitution is thus criticised for not bringing anything original to the discussion. These are the lengths historians of ideas will go to. Obviously, if one wants to learn about the English constitution, Hegel is not whom he should be reading. In any case, those who look at laundry lists or incidental essays have ceased their study of politics.

3. The Pursuit of Pedigrees

Similarities in phrasing and emphasis in the writing of two or more writers are taken to imply the direct influence of the ones who came before on the ones who came after other. Hobbes is thus positioned as the precursor to the Utilitarians when there is no evidence to prove that this is actually so. Such positioning is highly speculative. It is not to say that ideas emerge in a vacuum but it is at the same time naïve to think that an intelligent theorist cannot come up with conclusions on his own.

4. Nothing New Under the Sun

A commentator pointed out that there is nothing new in the Communist Manifesto. It might be true. But the point is that Marx took the thought of the others and put them together in ways that had never been done before, much as Shakespeare used existing English words in ways that had never been used before. That Plato or Aristotle has already said a few generalised remarks about most, if not all, aspects of political theory need not discourage the theorist from exploring further and digging deeper.

5. Meaningful Misinterpretations

One historian of ideas bemoans the fact that Bodin’s legacy has been built upon a false reading of his theory of sovereignty. So what? What a work gains in truth by a thorough scholarly reading, it loses in significance. The significance of theory lies in the eyes of the reader. Historical texts are more useful if they are read as texts alone. The obsession with hidden intentions and hidden meanings contributes very little to the study of politics.

6. Representative Reflections

Historians of ideas try to understand through the works of historical writers what was going on in people’s minds. But political texts are rarely representative of the thinking of their times. Often, they are unorthodox, even radical, positions adopted by only a small minority. The great books of political theory do not tell us what happened. They show us how some people chose to view what they imagined had happened.

7. Influential Intellectuals

Historians of ideas are quick to suggest that works of theory have a direct influence upon political action. This contention is a serious one and it is true that men of action read in political texts — Jefferson had read Locke’s Second Treatise, and Lenin was highly influenced by Marx. But we must also realise that many significant events in the world were not inspired by any theory — Genghis Khan overran Asia without a theory to guide him.

The point is that instead of the theorist directing the practitioner, it is usually the practitioner who (ab)uses the words of the theorist to suit his purposes. Theory, in other words, gets diluted into ideology in order for the practitioner to use it to stir people into action. A serious student ought to recognise this fact and learn to negotiate the difficult terrain of ideology without becoming an ideologue.

The historical texts have their greatest allure in that the theories they offer transcend the times and the personalities which produced them. In this sense they are timeless and, in an important respect, anonymous.

Politics and Conscience

Political theory requires a political conscience — deep concern for the world in which we live. A student must be ready to be driven by emotion and to work conscientiously. The important matters are not historical erudition nor methodological precision. Too great a concern with the history of ideas will only limit him. Politics has timeless problems. Only a sustained and intense discussion of theory will help resolve those problems.


[1] By ‘historical writers’, Hacker means the writers of classic works on political theory who were not too concerned about methodological questions. He specifically mentions Burke and Tocqueville. He is not referring to historians.

For a differing view on the history of ideas, look at Quentin Skinner’s “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas


History and the Interpretation of Texts by Terence Ball — A Summary

Terence Ball, “History and the Interpretation of Texts,” in Handbook of Political Theory, ed. Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathas (London: SAGE Publications, 2004), 18–30.

I am revising this summary to add additional links and material. The reason is the sustained interest in this post which, I suspect, comes largely from undergraduate students  (from the University of Delhi, I further suspect. In any case, hello guys!).  The goal is to give more to chew for the inquisitive among you. The original summary is preserved. The less inquisitive should not bother with the additional material.

A student of political theory needs to have read, reread and reflected upon the many works that comprise the subject’s canon. There is not one but a diversity of ways in which these works may be read, interpreted and understood.

The Indispensability of Interpretation

Humans have always interpreted events, omens, and — with the coming of the written word — texts. Students of political theory read and adjudicate between rival interpretations of political texts.

As a subject perennially fascinated with its classic texts, political theory requires an interpretation of not just the words but also the meaning of these classic texts. Such an interpretation is necessary to understand the utterances made long ago in different contexts and also to make them familiar and accessible.

Interpretation does not preclude misunderstandings that may arise from wrong interpretations nor does it imply the existence of a neutral standpoint from which to analyse a text. What it does affirm is the simple fact that there can be no understanding without interpretation.

‘Schools’ of  Interpretation

Marxian Interpretation

The Marxian approach considers the legitimisation and perpetuation of class differences as the point and purpose of any mainstream ideology. Conventional ideas obscure the damning reality of class inequalities and paint false pictures of society’s fairness and justness.

The task of textual interpretation then is to expose the tawdry reality hidden behind the rosy façade. The goal is to unravel the fabric of illusion woven by the mainstream point of view and reveal the true hidden socio-economic reality.

Crawford Brough Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962) is an important Marxian interpretation that paints Locke as an extraordinarily clever propagandist for capitalism. Macpherson sees Locke’s discussion of private property in the Second Treatise — where he proclaims property as that part of nature which one mixes with one’s own labour — as a justification of the institution of private property.

Macpherson was apt to work from the particular text to the grand abstraction — from a passage in Locke to an implicit overarching conception of the political order — without then submitting this generic abstraction to further interactions with the complexities of the empirical world.

Ian Mckay, “A Half-Century of Possessive Individualism: C.B. Macpherson and the Twenty-First-Century Prospects of Liberalism”, p. 321. 

Marxists see all theories as ideological masks. How and why their own theory must be exempted is not explained (or explainable). Marxian interpretations also tend to be formulaic and deterministic seeing ideological trickery every which where.

‘Totalitarian’ Interpretation

The rise of fascism and communism prompted investigation into the philosophical roots of modern totalitarianism. The roots, once one starts looking, appears to be present everywhere. Plato’s philosopher king, Machiavelli’s ruthless prince, Hobbes’s all-powerful sovereign and Rousseau’s all-wise legislator all seem to be precursors to totalitarian rulers of the 20th century.

A prominent representative of this perspective is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). He interprets Hegel’s remark ‘what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational’ in the “Preface” to the Philosophy of Right as justifying everything that is now real (or “actual”) exists by necessity and must thus be reasonable and good (“rational”). Hegel is seen as giving his philosophical blessing to the proto-totalitarian Prussian state which existed at the time.

Was vernünflig ist, das ist wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts/Outlines (sometimes, Elements) of the Philosophy of Right, (1820).

A closer look, however, reveals Popper’s misinterpretation. Hegel uses the word wirklich which translates as ‘actual’ and means ‘realised potential’, and not what is “real”, as Popper supposes. Hegel’s remark would mean: “What is rational is that which fully actualizes its potential; and that which fully actualizes its potential is rational.” It is then is not the sinister justification of everything that is real (one of which was totalitarian Prussia).

The famous (or infamous) Hegelian statement ... may be expounded as follows. Since the rise of Christianity the Rational has become actual; but whereas Christian faith has from the start grasped the religious aspect of this event (that through the indwelling of the Spirit all is accomplished) it has been left to secular reality, often indifferent or even hostile to the Christian faith, to grasp its secular aspect (that through human action much, if not everything, is forever yet to be accomplished). Only the existence of these two aspects make the philosophical (instead of merely the theological) formula true. And only the existence of this truth renders possible the Hegelian philosophy — the recognition of the rationality in the Actual.

Emil L. Fackenheim, “On the Actuality of the Rational and the Rationality of the Actual”, p. 697.

The lesson to be learned from misreadings such as this is the critical importance of philosophical (in the considered case, conceptual and linguistic) contexts and the pitfalls of selective quoting and stitching in order to fit a preset thesis.

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

This approach owes its existence to Sigmund Freud who argued that our actions are driven by desires and fears we may not be consciously aware of. One can supply, the approach believes, psychoanalytic interpretations to all sorts of texts including those of political theory. This treatment has been given to thinkers like Machiavelli, Burke, Luther and Gandhi.

A prominent example of this approach, however, is Bruce Mazlish’s James and John Stuart Mill (1975). Mill’s On Liberty is cast as a personal appeal and a declaration of independence from his father who was exceedingly strict. Mill might not have consciously intended it but his unconscious desires shaped his work. He also had an illicit affair with a married woman named Harriet. Given that his mother’s name was also Harriet, this coincidence fits strikingly with what is known in psychoanalytic theory as the Oedipus complex. Unsurprisingly, Mazlish makes the most of it.

Through [his] sad and incomplete relationships, one can trace the growth of Mill's most permanent works, the essays “On Liberty” and “On the Subjection of Women.” His thought, as Mazlish demonstrates, was always rooted in the subsoil of buried emotions, which at times limited his achievement and at times nourished it.

Philip Rosenberg, “James and John Stuart Mill”.

Psychoanalytic interpretations, though occasionally insightful, are speculative, impressionistic and non-falsifiable. The approach also drives attention away from the text and onto the author which is hardly the proper method for any attempt at textual interpretation.

Feminist Interpretation

This perspective puts gender issues at the forefront and uses that vantage point to look at political theory. The general conclusion has been that, to use Susan Okin’s observation, “the great tradition of political philosophy consists…of writings by men, for men, and about men”. This neglect has led to Feminist rereadings and reappraisals of the classic works.

The approach began in the 1960’s with an earnest search for heroines and heroes who championed the cause of women. Figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Emma Goldman and even men like Bentham, Mill and Engels were singled out for attention and homage.

A second, angrier and arguably more accurate, phase followed which sought to expose the misogyny in the works of the greats of political theory including the ones who had in the first phase been venerated. The social contract was branded as a fraternal contract and the welfare state, as a patriarchal institution.

The third phase attacked the hitherto civic virtues of men — hunger for power, competitiveness, rationality. It turned the public/private distinction on its head and proclaimed the superiority of the private realm of the family to the public realm of politics.

Feminist critics have called for an active and engaged civic feminism. Such engagement should, however, come after embarking on a nuanced textual analysis and interpretation of western political tradition which is yet to come by.

‘Straussian’ Interpretation

This approach derives from the work of Leo Strauss who tried to locate the eternal truth of politics in the works of Plato and other ancient and preliberal era thinkers. These vigorous works were contrasted with the listless ruminations of modern liberal thinkers. Strauss bemoaned the weakening of normative foundations in the face of the violent winds of fanaticism. His experiences as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany puts his thought into context.

Having pointed out the crisis, Strauss and his followers attempted to trace the origins and diagnose the maladies of liberalism, relativism, historicism and scientism. Solutions were to be found by carefully rereading and deciphering the real meaning in the texts of the preliberal era.

The Straussian approach involved seeing through the exoteric disguise intended for the public and decoding the esoteric doctrine embedded between and hidden behind the lines.

This approach relies on some sort of insider’s knowledge which is available only to the initiated who in turn dismiss the uninitiated as hopelessly ignorant. Also, it just assumes that the esoteric doctrine does not correspond to the exoteric doctrine.

Postmodernist Interpretation

Postmodernism emerges out of the failures of grand narratives. It is a diffuse perspective shared by many different, even disparate, thinkers. Postmodernism stresses the incoherent and incomprehensible nature of the world and resists any attempt to find continuity and unity in the human condition. It also dismisses the idea of progress as merely an advance in one group’s power to dominate the others.

One version of this approach emerging from Foucault examines the ways in which human beings are normalised, i.e. made willing participants in their own subjugation (by power). It involves rereading texts from the perspective of the present and then realigning and relocating them according to new axes so as to reveal who contributed to the subjugation (Hobbes and Rousseau) and who resisted it (Nietzsche).

[T]he main objective … to attack a technique, a form of power [which] applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects.

Michel Foucault, “The Subject and the Power,” p. 781.

Another version made popular by Derrida aims to deconstruct or expose and criticize the arbitrariness of claims to truth by examining various binary oppositions or dichotomies such as knower/known, object/representation, text/interpretation, true/false. What is proclaimed as truth, including texts, is merely a representation which isn’t any truer or better than another. As such, all interpretations are necessarily indeterminate.

Deconstruction ... undertakes a double reading, describing the ways in which lines of argument in the texts it is analysing call their premises into question, and using the system of concepts within which a text works to produce constructs, such as differance and supplement, which challenge the consistency of that system.

Jonathan Culler, “Jacques Derrida”, p.  172. In Structuralism and Since: From Levi Strauss to Derrida.

The insistence on the indeterminacy of interpretations is an extremely pessimistic stance that does not advance our knowledge. But more dangerously, it legitimises or, at least, is unable to recognise propaganda and falsehood making it morally and epistemologically unsatisfactory.

Cambridge New ‘History’

The Cambridge ‘new historians’ see textual interpretation as uncovering the historically variable problems to which particular philosophers proposed particular answers and deny that there are eternal problems. Understanding meaning requires that we understand the problem being addressed.

[T]he 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.

Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” p. 50.

Peter Laslett, in his introduction to Locke’s Two Treatises [1960], restores the book to its political and historical context. It also shows that the volume had been written nearly a decade earlier than what was known paving the way for subsequent reinterpretations of Locke. This method of historical investigation has been forcefully promoted. Textbook approaches have been dismissed as insufficiently historical.

For the Cambridge historians, political theory is a form of political action. It is intended to warn, persuade, criticize, frighten, etc. Political theorists have always engaged in propaganda and persuasion. Textual interpretation is a matter of restoring texts to the historical contexts and understanding the question(s) to which the texts were offered as answers.

Conclusion: Pluralistic and Problem-Driven Interpretation

Any single method won’t suffice to get the answers we seek. A plurality of approaches which will not encumber us in the range of questions we can ask is preferable. In adopting this pluralistic approach, intellectual, political and linguistic contexts have to be kept in mind. Also to be remembered is the fact that texts take a life of their own once they are published. To concentrate solely on what the author intended in a particular text to the neglect of what other thinkers had to say about said text would not be helpful always.

Interpretative queries are problem-driven. Often, we turn to texts to clear doubts. These doubts may arise from anywhere but their interpretative solutions must be justified by stringent scholarly criteria. Interpretation triangulates between the text and two or more interpretations of it. And through reinterpretations and reappraisals, the classic works may be kept alive.

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. However it is doubtful whether a knowledge of the causes of an action is really equivalent to an understanding of the action itself. This is because such understanding requires not just a grasp of the context or the causal conditions of the action — even this is difficult to come by! — but it also equally requires a grasp of the point [i.e., purpose/intent/motive] of the action. The point of an action could never properly be explained by antecedent causes.

To rescue the idea that actions are the result of causes, it could be claimed — by the contextualist(?) historian — that the intention behind 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, i.e., this intention is contingent to the 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 intention in doing somethingnot the intention to do something, 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 the argument that every action presupposes an intention in doing it says nothing with regard to understanding what the author might have meant. The problem with this counter-argument 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?”.