A Genealogy of the State by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript

Title: A Genealogy of Liberty
Presented by: Quentin Skinner
Presented on: November 9, 2011
Presented at: Nicholas D. Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University

  • This is a highly sanitised transcript.
  • Sections in square brackets are (mainly) digressions which can be skipped. Those between curly brackets are additions made to ensure proper grammatical sense.
  • The video lecture is embedded at the end of the post.

Why Genealogy?

In the modern world, we are all citizens of specific states and I am going to talk about the state. But before I get going, I do need to make three remarks as quickly as possible of a methodological kind. First, it seems to me that the best way — not the only way but the surest way — of getting at concepts is through their verbal expression and that is what I am going to do. So, I am very specifically going to talk — this is really important to my talk — historically about just those writers who talked not about the concept of the state but who talked about the ‘state’, who used that term to express a concept. Of course, you could be in possession of the concept without being in possession of the term. That raises large questions and I am evading them very deliberately. I am talking about those people who talked about the ‘state’. The second point — and this is to keep the material under control — (is that) I am going to concentrate exclusively on the Anglophone tradition. And this happens to be a story in which the Anglophone tradition, especially the contemporary American tradition, is of supreme importance.

Third, I am going to talk genealogically. If you ask why, I feel strongly that — [I have goten into so many muddles about this and genealogy has been a method that has really helped me. I want to say (that)] — it is not a choice. That with certain concepts — and the state is one of those — there’s no option but to proceed genealogically. And the reason that this method is forced upon us is that there has never been any agreed concept to which the term state has referred. And that is one of the things that I am going to try to show. It continues to be an aspiration in political science to provide neutral operative definitions of the state. This is an illusion. That cannot be done. Everything you’ll find out to have done is ideological. And the danger of political science becoming ideology is ever present and a way to avoid it is by genealogy.

What I am really saying is that what genealogy shows you is that there is no essence to the concept of the state. It doesn’t have natural boundaries. It has been in continuous contestation how we should think about this concept no less than the closely associated concept of political liberty. That is not at all to say that one understanding of the term and thus of the concept has not come to predominate because of course it has. There is a very strong tendency in recent times, and I think especially in Anglophone thought, to accept that the term state is simply a synonym for government. The issue is whether our political thinking has impoverished as a result of that. A genealogy of the state will bring to light other highly normative understandings of the state. Is there any loss in our having abandoned those? Or does genealogy free us to reimagine the state in more fruitful terms than the ways that we currently talk about it. I think that the answer to that has got to be yes and I am going to return to that explicitly at the end.

But let me first turn to my genealogy. I very aware that the strands of thinking that I am going to talk about are in origin in the early modern world and they are, by origin, mainly European traditions of political theory. We reach an international stage and we reach the shores of the United States about halfway through the lecture. Genealogies don’t have clear beginnings. But the nearest to a clear beginning in talking about the genealogy of the state — the earliest moment, as far as I can see, in which you come upon widespread discussions of statehood, the state, the powers of the state: that whole vocabulary — is at sometime around the very end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. That is more or less firm.

The Absolutist View

Where we begin is that the term state in this first period is used to refer to a specific type of civil association in which the community of people live in subject to the sovereign authority of a recognised ruling group, usually a monarch, who is designated as head of state. That is not to say that, in this period, the term state is the only or even the most usual one used to refer to this kind of civil association. Some writers prefer to speak about realms; some even talked about nations in this context. But eventually the concept of the state and its expression in those terms wins out. And it does so by quite a simple process which is a kind of semantic drift — this is very common in terms which have very strong normative content — (which) works as follows: in Renaissance discussions about advice to princes, which is a very large scale genre in Renaissance political philosophy, the most famous example being Machiavelli’s Il Principe (1513)… what these discussions are about, and this includes Machiavelli, is how a ruler, a prince, a principe, should act in order to maintain his state. This phrase echoes through Machiavelli. An example is mantenere lo stato which means your status. The question is how should you act in order to maintain your status, your standing, your stato, your state as a prince.

It is generally agreed that one of the things that you got to do as a prince if you are going to maintain your standing, your status, your stato as a prince, is to look after the body of the people. Even Machiavelli is extremely keen on that: if you don’t do that you’ll be hated; if you are hated, you will lose your stato… you will lose your position as a prince. As the French have it, there will be a coup d’etat, a blow against your state i.e., your state as a ruler, your condition as a ruler [etat, stato, just meaning your condition, status].

But if you can’t hope to maintain your status as a prince unless you keep the people in the body politic in good health, in security and in prosperity, then there is something that you have to maintain in order to maintain yourself: you have to maintain that body politic in good health and prosperity. The semantic drift is that mantenere lo stato, to maintain your state, comes to mean your maintaining your position and your maintaining your position by maintaining this thing, the state. And I think the Italian language is the first one in which — stato, which is what the Italians still use as their word lo stato, meaning the state as we would say — we see that semantic drift. It then happens very quickly in French and in English. And much later in German (staat).

So, the term is originally used as a head–body metaphor. There is a head of state and he is head of the body of the state. Now, there is a very celebrated work of history that we come upon at exactly this moment, Ernst Kantorowicz’s masterpiece, The King’s Two Bodies. Kantorowicz’s saw himself in this great work as tracing the emergence of the modern idea of the state. And he traced it in the idea which you find in late 16th century English discussions, specifically English law discussions, that kings have two bodies. They have the natural body but they also have an official body as head of state.

I am going to call this view the Absolutist View of the state. It is the idea that the proper metaphor for thinking of the state is that it is the head of a body: the body is the state; the head is the head of state, and that is the ruler. This is the first way of thinking about the state that develops in European political speculation and it develops in two strands of absolutist thought in the early modern period. On the one hand are writers on sovereignty (souveraineté, summa potestas) of whom the pioneer is Jean Bodin in the Six Books of the Commonwealth published in 1576, first translated into English as early as 1606. In the 1606 translation, Bodin begins by asking, and I quote it: “What makes a city or state?” And Bodin answers: “It is not the walls and not the subjects that make a city or a state but the union of the people in submission to a single sovereign as head of state”. Absolutely unambiguous and an extremely influential statement there.

The other strand of thinking in which this head–body imagery is taken just as seriously is in the theory which we’ve tended to call the Divine Right of Kings. (It is found) in the speeches of some monarchs themselves and most notably, King James I of Great Britain who is very fond of haranguing his own parliament on his role.He tells his parliament in the speech of 1605 and I quote:  “Kings are appointed by god himself with supreme authority over their states, over the whole body of our state.” You’ve got that semantic drift but it has moved because he is head of our state and that is what gives him the state of being a king.

Kantorowicz supposes that with those two strands of absolutism, we have the modern concept of the state: the idea of a head of state and the body of which he is the head. The absolutist view is one view — [Kantorowicz was writing in Germany in the 1930s and that is certainly one view of the state and in our current vocabulary we speak of people as heads of state]— but I am bound to say, although this is to criticize a masterwork of history, that Kantorowicz should have continued. He stops just around 1600 and if you do that, then this is indeed the only concept of the state that was current in political speculation. He would only have to go on two generations to find it vehemently denounced by a completely different and rival view about the state to which I now want to turn.

The Populist View

I am going to call this rival view the Populist view of the state as opposed to the Absolutist View. Populists agree that when we speak about the state we are referring to a civil union: that is to say, a union of people under a government. But what it is to be a populist in my terminology is to repudiate the head–body metaphor. You want to say: The people is not this kind of torso without a head so that it can’t act without a head. Of course, that is the persuasive force of the metaphor: without the head, the body can’t act. What the populist wants to say is that sovereignty — they are all talking about sovereignty and the state is sovereign — is possessed not by the head but by the body. The body of the people is itself sovereign. There’s the rival claim. You don’t have to have a head. The body is the sovereign power.

So, you find the term state being used in this rival way to refer not to a sovereign head of a body but to a sovereign body. Who speaks in those terms? We need to single out two completely distinct but convergent views about the state which I am calling Populist. First, although early modern Europe is largely monarchical — [it is amazing how Europe is still monarchical: Scandinavia, Britain, Netherlands, there it all is] — but there were some very important republics and they have their own tradition of political speculation, especially in Florence and in Venice in the 16th century, not merely describing institutions of republics but vindicating the idea of the Populist theory of the state. And I suppose the most important of all these treatises in the 16th century is Machiavelli’s Discorsi written about the idea of the Florentine republic. Just to say a word about Machiavelli, he grounds his preference for self-governing republics — [which is very strong: although he wrote a book about the prince, really his major work is vindication of self-governing republicanism] — on a view about how it is possible to remain free as a citizen of a self-governing state.

And the view of freedom that he puts forward — [it is written all over the Discourses] — is the one according to which you lose your freedom if you become dependent upon an arbitrary will. But of course, what Machiavelli wants to say — [Discourse II, the two opening chapters, that is the crucial passage] — is that if you live under a monarchy, you do live in dependence upon somebody’s arbitrary will. So, all monarchies enslave. If you want to live a vivere libero — as he wants to say in the Italian, if you want to live a free way of life — then you must live without dependence politically and that can only be achieved if you rule yourself.

What is the constitution under which you can rule yourself? Only a very broad based republicanism. And that story becomes fantastically important in its Anglophone version in James Harrington and then Algernon Sidney and for the Founding Fathers of the United States. That is why in Early modern political discourse republics are called free state to contrast them with monarchies; the vivere libero, because you can live free if and only if you live in a state by contrast with a monarchy i.e., a free state. So, there’s another very important pun: if you want to live in a free state, you’ve got to live in a free state.

Secondly and yet more important as a challenge to view that I began with is the challenge that arises actually out of the religious wars in France — [and then you could think of the English Revolution of the 17th century maybe as the last of the great religious wars of early modern Europe] — in which the attempt is being made to stop the forcible imposition of just one religion upon bodies of people.

The way in which that politics was challenged, first in France and then in Great Britain, was to insist that although governments may be invested with sovereign power, such sovereignty was originally the property of the people. So, you get this contractarian tradition emerging in which what is envisaged is an ‘as if’ story — of course, but there’s a thought experiment going on here — that if you envisage us without government, how are we? You’d have a body of the people, a society or societas of people and they would of course have all power to dispose of themselves as they wish. Now, they can set up any form of government they want but the governments they set up are mere delegates of their sovereign authority and if they find that those delegates are not acting for the good of the sovereign body, they can remove them.

So, there you have the whole structure of radical contractarianism running right through to John Locke at the end of the 17th century in the Anglophone tradition where tyranny is the usurpation of the sovereign power, the original sovereign power that is granted for good use to the common good to a government. The property of sovereignty is here seen as the property of the people and the people are equated with the state. That is what you find in the most important founding text of this tradition, the so-called Vindication Against Tyranny, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, published at the height of the French religious wars as an attack on French monarchy in 1579. And it is the light of those same arguments that travels to Great Britain and becomes the foundation of the parliamentarian case against the Stuart monarchy in the 1640s and in 1649 when the British not only execute their king but abolish the institution of monarchy by an act of parliament — [they abolished monarchy forever in Great Britain and it lasted 11 years but they had a republic]. The great exponent of this exact view is John Milton whom we know as one of the greatest poets in the English language but he was also secretary to Oliver Cromwell and who was employed to write propaganda in favour of this radical image of the need to live in a free state and he publishes only months after the execution of the king his amazing tract called The Tenure of Kings and Majesties — here, we really do come to some of the texts which the Founding Fathers treated with such reverence especially this one. Of course, that is a joke in American universities because the point is kings and majesties don’t have tenure. You can get rid of them whenever you want. The tenure just means that they are tenants, they are not free holders. Who is the free holder? We are the free holders and I quote: “Sovereign power is held at all times by the body of the people or state nor can it be taken from them without a violation of their natural birth-right and it leaves them the authority to remove from power any ruler they judge to be a rebel to law and an enemy to the state.” So, there’s the Populist theory of the state. But what I want next to note is that no sooner has that vindicated the revolution in France and then the revolutionary movement in England than it in turn is vehemently attacked and we move into a third phase of the genealogy.

The Fictional View

Now, there are two prongs to this attack. One is that a number of writers just go back to the story about the Divine Right of Kings. The greatest exponent of that ideology, Sir Robert Filmer in the Anglophone tradition, has a final burst of energy after 1649 and writes his most important treatises between 1649 and 1651 — [not the one that John Locke replies to, Patriarcha, that is not published until much later] — denouncing the republic from the position of Divine Right theory. But I am more interested in the fact that there are some writers who denounce both the Absolutist theory and the Populist theory. They have nothing to do with either of these rival views about the state and the most important of those writers writing in the immediate aftermath of the English revolution — [think of this extraordinary confluence with John Milton who is his archenemy] — is Thomas Hobbes. And I want to talk about Hobbes’ theory of the state. It is his greatest contribution to Anglophone philosophy and it turned out to be fantastically influential. It is somewhat intricate and it will take me a few minutes to give you an exposition of it because, curiously, it is not part of his philosophy that I think has been well handled in the voluminous literature.

Hobbes opens his Leviathan — [1651, you see he writes at breakneck speed. He doesn’t begin writing until 1649. After the regicide, he has it published. He writes it in a year! He has it published by April 1651] — (or at least) the political part, Chapter XIII, by reflecting on what he calls the natural condition of mankind. And what that chapter is, and this isn’t often enough said, is a scathing attack on the Populist theory of the state. The Populist theory of the state says, by origin, that there was a society of people who had all sovereign power. Hobbes’ way of attacking that is to say that it can’t be that there is society of people with all sovereign power because there wasn’t a society. The natural condition of mankind is not a social condition. It is an anti-social condition. And he uses that vocabulary, he says — [of course, he’s famous for saying that it is nasty, brutish and short; it is a condition of war] — it is a non-social condition. It is asocial.

What’s wrong with the Populist theory of the state is that it is grounded on an illusion, according to Hobbes. There’s no such thing as a body of the people. That is just a construction. There’s no such thing in nature. In nature, there’s just each one of us at war with everyone else. So, there was no original possession of sovereignty by the body of the people because there was no original body of the people. Hobbes is a complete enemy of the Populist theory of the state. But also, a complete enemy of the Divine Right of Kings. He doesn’t like anyone! Because what Hobbes wants to say about sovereigns is that they’re just representatives. You’ll never find in Hobbes any of this genuflection towards monarchs — indeed he accepts a republic — that you find in theories of Divine Right. For Hobbes, there is no lawful authority unless you consent to it. He is a radical thinker. No lawful authority unless you have given your consent. And it has to be explicit consent. You have to have a covenant before you can become a subject. So, the notion that your subjection is owed to God having placed a political apparatus from heaven upon earth — Filmer’s kind of story — is, for Hobbes, a mere superstition. Politics is artifice; we make it. It is not God-given; it is man-made. That fundamental distinction is what we are seeing in the mid-17th century.

So, Hobbes repudiates both theories of the state and he has a rival view. His fundamental view is that a sovereign is just an authorised representative. That is what he wants you to understand. Sovereigns are very important: he’s an absolutist, no question. But sovereigns are just authorised representatives. So, he has to begin by telling us what he means by an authorised representative. What does it mean to be a representative? He has a very good answer. He is not interested in the visual notion of representation at all. For Hobbes, a representative is just like a court of law. A representative is someone whom you have authorised to speak in your name. Not just on your behalf but in your name. And the importance of the distinction is that when I authorise someone — [you know, I am in a court of law and I have committed a murder, this is a fiction of course, and I say to my counsel: Look, get me off. I don’t know how to do this. Speak for me. That is representation. And the judge says to me: Who represents you? I say: He’s the man. Listen to him. That is representation. It is as simple as that for Hobbes. It has to be an authorisation. I have to say: He is my representative. Now, what’s crucial about the notion is that] — he is not just speaking on my behalf but that he is speaking as me; his speaking in my name is that his actions are attributable to me. I am the author of his actions. So, I authorise him. I can only authorise him if I am his author. So, his actions as a representative are attributable to me as the represented person. That is sovereignty. The sovereign is an authorised representative and we do the authorising.

Now, here’s the question: if sovereigns are authorised representatives, what’s the name of the person they represent? It is very clear in a court of law. The judge says: Who do you represent? And he (the counsel) points to me. If a sovereign is the representative, who does he represent? You can’t say he represents the body of the people because there’s no such thing as a body of the people. So, Hobbes wants you to see that it is a big puzzle. To solve the puzzle, you have to focus on Hobbes’ idea of the political covenant. What he denies is the traditional idea of the political covenant which is the body of the people on the one hand and a designated and agreed sovereign on the other and they contract with each other on (certain) terms. [You can be king on (the) condition that ____. And in the famous Spanish oath which they gave to their kings, it ended with ‘and if not, not’ meaning you can do this if you are the king but if you (don’t) you’re not the king. That was the form of the oath.] That contract, Hobbes says, is just based on an illusion that the people is a legal entity. Of course, it is not. So, how can there be a covenant? Hobbes says there can be a covenant between each of us. [This is how you get a representative. You agree that way on a representative — you covenant with you and you and… or it could be some group of you or you could covenant… that is us, all of us are sovereign, that is called democracy that you can do; Hobbes thinks that is not a very clever idea because there’s too many of us but there’s nothing wrong with having a democracy, it is just that it is very hard to operate.] You covenant with each other as to choose and designate someone to be a representative. That analysis brings Hobbes to his central contention about the implications of the political covenant. And here’s the implication: when you do that (i.e., make the covenant and make a person the authorised representative) — [you each agree with the other that it is me, that is one possibility… probably not very wise but you might do that… by the way Hobbes has a mild preference for sovereigns being women because he says women are more prudent than men and that is what you want in a sovereign but men are stronger and that is why you get got kings. Here is what happens when you make that decision, man or woman, if it is a monarchy now you have decided. In making that person your authorised representative, you do something to yourselves] — from being a multitude, you (become) one, e pluribus unum. You were a multitude and now you’re one. What does that mean? It means you have one will because there’s one person here but his will now counts as your will because you authorised him to speak in your name and act in your name. His will in action is yours but that means that you now have one will. But if you have one will, then you are one person. I quote Hobbes: “A multitude of men are made one person when they are by one person represented”.

Now, I can go back to my original question. If the sovereign is a representative, what’s the name of the person he represents? Because it has got to be a person you’re representing. You can’t represent a multitude because they have a multitude of wills. You can only represent one will; one person. Hobbes gives an epoch-making answer to this question. He says: The person whom the sovereign represents is the person of the state. I quote: “The multitude so united in one person is called a Common-wealth, in Latin, civitas.” So, the sovereign represents the person of the state and that is what Hobbes calls it: the person of the state, quoting and translating Cicero, persona civitatis. Now, this person, Hobbes says, is a fiction. He’s not a real person. The state is not a real person. The state is a person, as Hobbes says, by fiction but, nevertheless, this fictional person is the sovereign, is the seat of sovereignty. The sovereign, the person we call the sovereign, is just a representative of this person. So, Hobbes categorically distinguishes the state not merely from the sovereign, who is the representative of the state, but also from the unity of the people, which changes all the time. Sovereigns come and go, individual members of the multitude or even the unus of the people are born and die, that is never unified, but the person of the state is always there. We have created, Hobbes says, a person with “an artificial eternity of life”. Or he says… it doesn’t actually work, states are not eternal but you want them to be eternal. You want them to be an artificial eternity.

Kantorowicz would say, and he does mention Hobbes, that this is precisely what the claims about kings in virtue of their having two bodies. So, Kantorowicz wants Hobbes to be in his story. He thinks it is a two-bodied story but if you have been following me, Kantorowicz is completely wrong here because we have got three bodies and that is what’s so crucial. This is why it is a separate theory. The first is the body of the sovereign, the man or woman in his or her natural person, that is to say of a certain age, of a certain demeanour [and that is actually quite important because kings should look like kings… the problem with Charles I was that he was only 4 foot 11; did you know that? It was a bit of a problem. Van Dyck had to be brought in with these enormous horses and then he was on top of the horses to make him look alright. So, there’s the king in his natural person.] But the king is sovereign, of course. So, he has, what Hobbes calls, an artificial person; that is to say, he is a representative. But he is a representative of a third person, it is a three-person story because the person he represents is the person of the state.

I am going to call this the Fictional theory of the state and before I leave it — [Hobbes’ great founding, it is a great moment in early modern political philosophy; massively taken up, as we are about to see, in continental European public law] — I want to underline two points about it. Notice that if you ask: What is the seat of sovereignty? On this account, the seat of sovereignty is the state not the sovereign although we call him/her sovereign. Secondly, notice that sovereigns are people with offices; they are representatives and just like in the court of law (where) my counsel has the duty to try to get me off, they have clear duties — Hobbes has a whole chapter on the duties of the sovereign. And what is the duty of the sovereign? The duty of the sovereign is to look after not the people — [you can’t look after all the people because they have different wills and different aspirations, but you can and you must look after the person of the people] —  but to look after the common good. Amongst the multitude, there is this person, there are things we will as citizens, there is a common good, there is a public interest. And the fundamental duty of the sovereign is to act in government such that all government actions are for the common good. If they are not, they are not acts of state because they do not procure the good of the person of the people. So, this is a view about what makes governments legitimate and that is what’s crucial about it. Government actions may or may not be legitimate. They are legitimate if and only if they are for the benefit of the person of the state i.e., for the common good of the people.

Alright, there’s Hobbes’ Fictional theory, I’ll call it. It is quite difficult to understand. It is quite intricate. I think it has been poorly understood in literature. But it was extremely well understood in European public law. And a group of absolutely crucial European writers on the jus gentium come forward with this theory. The first and in some ways the most important is Samuel Pufendorf in his great treatise on international law, the De jure naturae et gentium, 1672, in which he says: “My study is based on Mr. Hobbes’ ingenious draft of the person of the state.” I am quoting from the English translation of 1717. I quote Pufendorf again: “The state exists as one person endowed with its own understanding and will and performs particular acts distinct from those of the private members who make up its subjects. It is true that the state is just a moral person,” — what Rousseau is going to call a personne morale, quoting Pufendorf — “so, cannot act in its own name and stands in need of being represented. But the duty of the representative is to preserve the safety and tranquility of the state which is not merely the bearer of sovereignty but guarantees the legitimacy of government over time.”

Yet more important in the theory of International Relations, and indeed an absolute founder of the theory of International Relations and the greatest, according to Kant and Hegel, was Emer de Vattel in his book on the jus gentium called Le Droit des gens published in 1758, (translated into) English as quickly as 1760. I quote Vattel: “The state is a distinct moral person possessed of an understanding and a will peculiar to itself. This person is a fiction and may not act. If it is to speak and act, some agreed form of public authority must represent it. But the duty of that authority is to preserve the state i.e., the good of the people as a whole.” And that view of Pufendorf and Vattel comes into English common law and thus into American law with the extraordinary important date of 1765; (it is) beginning of the publication of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. These are philosophical preliminaries to that work which entirely take up this fictional theory of the state. The idea of a political contract, as Blackstone calls it, which issues in the creation of a sovereign state and he uses that vocabulary, of course. By that time, everyone is using this vocabulary. So, there’s the Fictional theory. And we have come to the mid-18th century.

Reactions to the Fictional View

But what happens now, and this is continuous dialogue I am talking about, towards the end of the 18th century (is that) this Fictional theory which holds the stage and is vital to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — [in fact, it sort of is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; the state as the name of a person with a real will of its own: that is the whole point taken, of course, from the tradition I have been talking about. But in the Anglophone tradition, it] — branches out very suddenly towards the end of the 18th century and an almost lethal attack is mounted on it. And the attempted murder is committed by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s first published work was an extraordinarily violent attack on Blackstone and this whole tradition that Blackstone stood for in Bentham’s mind. The attack on the Fictional theory of the state rolled forward in two successive waves. They overlap with each other but let me, for heuristic purposes, try to separate them out from each other.

And the first is associated not just with Bentham but with the rise of classical utilitarianism. Bentham’s first work, the Fragment on Government of 1776, is his scornful critique of the whole discussion in Blackstone’s philosophical preliminaries about the state of nature, the contract, the forming of the person of the state. What does Bentham want to say about this? I quote: “The season of fictions is over. The time has come to ground legal argument on observable facts about real individuals. And especially in their capacity for experiencing, in relation to political power, the pain of restraint and the pleasure of liberty.” So, Bentham’s response to this discussion of the state of nature, the body of the people, the creation of the state is to say: It is not that I disagree with that. It is completely meaningless. There’s nothing to disagree with it. It is complete rubbish. It is an extraordinarily violent attack on this whole tradition to say that fictions have no place in the law. And that is the whole burden of Utilitarian jurisprudence. No fictions in the law. And, of course, the greatest fiction in law, in public law, at the time was the fiction that the state is a person. That attack has an incredible influence on early utilitarian thought.

[Here’s something you can try for yourselves. Try this at home. I defy you to find in any of the early utilitarians, in James Mill, in Godwin, even in the early John Stuart Mill, any discussion of the theory of the state. They think of it as a fiction; they think they’ve got to keep away from it. The exception is John Austin’s Lectures on Jurisprudence — a classic text of Utilitarian legal philosophy published in 1853, very influential on the development of English common law and in this country in the 19th century. But Austin mentions the state in order to dismiss it. And I quote: “When we speak of the state, we must understand that we are merely referring to the actual bearer of sovereign power.” So, the state and the sovereign are just the same thing. The sovereign might be the people, it might be the monarch, or whatever you like but notice that he is already saying that the word state and the word government are just synonyms. Don’t get yourself tied up with anything fancy is what they are telling you as strongly as possible.]

It is true that in the generation after the high tide of utilitarian legal philosophy in the mid-19th in England, there’s an interesting moment of reversal and that comes with something which also preoccupied me, a very interesting moment in Anglophone political philosophy: a sudden insurgence of Hegelian theories of the state into Anglophone discourse. At the end of the 19th century, this suddenly becomes rather important. And by a curious irony, a theory which was Anglophone in origin — Hobbes’ theory of the state as the name of a person which will become central to Hegel’s theory of the Reichstaat — is brought back into Anglophone discourse as Hegelian theory and the leading exponent of it is Bernard Bosanquet in his book The Philosophical Theory of the State, 1899. The philosophical theory of the state, according to Bosanquet, is dual. This is where  he is a real Hegelian and not a Hobbesian. The state is the name of a person, a separate person; it is separate from the sovereign; it is separate from the people. But it is not the name of a fictional person. It is the name of a real person. The state is a real person with a real will of its own and the will of the state is your rational will. So, it gets very sinister at this moment. If you’re thinking rationally, you will obey the state because you’ll thereby be obeying your own true will. And that in German philosophy… it is very interesting that Carl Schmitt uses this way of thinking as a defence of Nazism in his book on the state in the 1930s. His hero is Hobbes. He is quite right about that. This is Hobbes’ theory. But, of course, it is seen as a Hegelian theory. The distinction is that Hobbes is quite clear that the state is a fiction. Whereas this tradition is quite clear the state is a real person. By the way, what do we mean by a real person? Philip Pettit has just written an amazing book on the identity of corporate persons in which he thinks that corporate persons are real persons and that the state is a corporate person. And is that a real person? We really have to think what we mean by a person before we dismiss too easily the notion that the state might be the name of a real person.

What happened in Anglophone political discourse is — I am sure you know all of this — that this is regarded as really obvious and very sinister nonsense, and there is a huge reaction especially after the First World War. Leonard Hobhouse, in his book The Metaphysical Theory of the State, which is a kind of satire on Bosanquet, says: I read this book in London and as the bombs were dropping I saw myself realise the folly of the Hegelian theory of the state. There’s the idea of the state as a real person and look what it did to London. “It is positively sinister,” I am now quoting Hobhouse “to think of the state as anything more than the name of a governmental organisation and its apparatus of power. When we speak of the powers of the state, we are simply referring to acts of government.” So, there it is. So too does Harold Laski, very influential in the early 20th century, say in his major work, Authority in the Modern State. I quote: “When we talk about the state, we are merely referring,” now he’s been reading Weber, listen to this, “to a prevailing system of sovereign authority together with an associated apparatus of bureaucracy and coercive force which operates over some determinate territory.” So, there’s Weber’s definition of the state, an attempt to insulate it and make it purely operational. So, there’s the first wave of the attack on the idea of the state as a person.

The second wave of the attack that I want to talk about was already well underway by this time. Notice that Laski in 1919 is still content to assume something that no theorist of the state that I have talked about so far has ever doubted which is that states are sovereign bodies. But by the time Laski was writing, it was exactly that union of the notion of the state and the notion of sovereignty which was beginning to be cast in serious doubt. If you think of early modern theories of sovereignty in relation to the theory of the state, what is the theory of sovereignty the Bodin initiates, that Hobbes takes up quite explicitly from Bodin, is that what it means to be sovereign is to be able to command without being commanded. That is Bodin’s epigram. That is sovereignty. So, it is unitary. And it is absolute. And it is lodged with the state. The e’tat of the state. The state commands but it is not commanded within its territory. That is sovereignty.

It began to be noted after the First World War that if that is sovereignty then states are not sovereign. And the best example in here, the United States’ President played an extraordinary role, is the establishment by the League of Nations in 1922 of the Court of International Justice because that court — of course after the First World War which in a way had been sort of civil war — was there in order to question the sovereignty of individual states and to insist that there was a legal authority threat had the right to infringe the legal sovereignty of states with its own superior jurisdiction. Reflecting on these changes, what you then find is that a growing number of political theorists in the 20s and 30s disjoin the notion of sovereignty from the state. They may be states but they can’t be sovereign, is what they are saying. I quote, for example A. D. Lindsay, a very influential programmatic statement of this in 1920. I quote: “The first thing to be said about the doctrine of the independent sovereign state is that political fact obviously outrun it We have lived on into a world where the state as the be all and end all of political theory is finally out of date. We now stand in need of a theory focussed instead in the international arena and on the prospects of a world-state.”

If you think of the closing decades of the 20th century, you find the decline and the fall of the sovereign state as an absolute cliché of political theory and International Relations theory alike. And in the last decades of the 20th century, a large literature especially in International Relations theory emerges. Some really important figures, Richard Falk for example, repeatedly draw our attention to the discrediting of the idea of state sovereignty. What discredited it? Well, various obvious things are pointed to, the most obvious being the rise of multinational corporations and other institutions of international reach. And multinational corporations especially in the developing world with their power to control investment and conditions of employment are visibly able to coerce local states into doing what they want and regularly demand special deals in relation to employment and, indeed nowadays, in relation to laws about the conservation of the local environment because if these special deals are not given, they will withdraw their capital. The state is powerless in the face of these in the developing world. The notion of state sovereignty has completely evaporated in the face of such international agencies.

But as well as these agencies, what we are continually observing now in our world — and here the extraordinary development, in my lifetime, of an overarching ideal of Human Rights (which) has played a very important role — in the increasing development of international legal organisations. [The United States has rather resisted these and you are not actually signatories to the Convention on Human Rights and to the law that underpins that because … let’s not go into that. But all other civilised states are. That is all I can say.] The crucial thing about this is that this is a jurisdiction which totally supervenes upon the legal jurisdictions of the member states. It totally supervenes upon it. The International Convention on Human Rights, for example, totally supervenes upon the common law of the United Kingdom and they are regularly in collision. It is very important that… it is a highly reformist thing having a convention on human rights because the convention on Human Rights prevents the discrimination for example on grounds of sex or age or religion. All of these are scheduled as Human Rights. All of these is jurisprudence which is international.

So, what has become of the sovereign state? It looks as if it has evaporated. And so, so great a writer as Richard Falk says, and I quote him: “The old statist categories that have informed diplomacy and statecraft for centuries are now so evidently superseded that we shall soon cease to describe political life in these terms at all. The power of individual states is in terminal decline. The state is shrinking, retreating, fading into the shadows and the concept has lost any theoretical significance.” Frank Ankersmit — an extremely influential the Dutch political theorist — in an article last year concluded, and I quote him, just to round of before I tell the moral of this tale: “Now, for the first time in more than half a millennium, the state is on the way out.” That was written last year and my genealogy comes down to today.

From Genealogy to Critique

I want to turn now from genealogy to critique. Genealogy is always critique. So, what is the relationship in this case? Isn’t it striking that we have an extremely complex intellectual heritage in talking about the state. And we have chosen to confront it in this extremely etiolated way in which what we want to say is: Well, it is just a way of talking about government if nothing else. This seems to be deeply unsatisfactory. Of course, states are no longer sovereign but don’t you feel that this announcement of the death of the state is a little bit premature. I mean the world’s leading states remain the principal actors on the international stage. How can that be denied? Furthermore, they are unquestionably the most significant political actors within their territories, at least in the developed world. It is a very different matter in the less developed world. But here states are more aggressive than they used to be. They’re patrolling borders with increasing attention and are maintaining unparalleled levels of surveillance and information about their citizens. They are also interventionist in interesting ways. [I was in the United States under the Bush regime in September 2008 when the state — although he didn’t call it that, he called it a republic— stepped forward as the lender of last resort to save capitalism. It had to be done.] Meanwhile, these states continue to print money; I mean more and more of it. They continue to impose taxes, to enforce contracts, to engage in wars, a lot of wars, to imprison and otherwise penalise errant citizens, they legislate with an unparalleled degree of complexity. What other institution in the world except states does any of those things legally? None. So, what is all this stuff about the end of the state? It is pure inattentiveness. Where are these people living?

The state exists. But the question that remains is: are we operating with the right understanding of the state? Have we lost something serious in political reflection by simply equating state with government? What about the Absolutist Theory of the state? What about the Populist View of the state? What about the Fictional View of the state?

I am quite clear that the Absolutist and the Populist View of the state are of no conceptual interest for us here and now. But the Fictional View of the state, in my view, should have never been set aside.  And that is a point that is being made now by a number of legal and political philosophers — Janet Mclean, Runciman, Philip Pettit, Brian Trainor. A number of legal and political philosophers just in these last four or five years have started to say that we really cannot do without the idea of the state as a fictional person. I completely agree.

I’ll make two points. One arises from the fact that, as we saw, a key contention of the Fictional theory is that the person of the state is,  by intention at least,  immortal. It is possessed, you remember Hobbes, with an artificial eternity of life. It seems to me that in the present state of contract law — we can imagine contract law very different, but in the present condition — I do not see how you can coherently do without that idea in talking about the actions of states. Let me take the most obvious example. It is very interesting how this example is now being talked about. It is only three years old, this example, but it is of overwhelming importance to all of us now: something that is now being called sovereign debt. Interesting. Sovereign debt. Who owns this debt? That is the question. We have these unbelievable burdens of debt in Europe and in the United States and who is the debtor? You can’t say: Well, it must be the body of the people.  Perhaps the most important fact about 2008 in the western world was that the people were not asked. There was no contract with the people. We cannot be the debtor. Furthermore, if it is claimed that we are the debtor, then it is very important that we can’t pay. The level of debt is such that it will have to be repaid over the lifetime of our children’s children. The people cannot pay. But also, they didn’t enter into this debt. So, who is the debtor? Not the people.  So alright we say: Government debt. Obviously, it is government debt. Well that would be nice. Because if the government was the contracting force when the government changes the debt goes. That would be good. But that is ridiculous. That is not going to happen. Changes of government do not produce changes of debt. That is why they are calling it sovereign debt. But sovereign debt is a very stupid way of thinking about it. It is state debt. That is the debtor. The state is the only person who can claim to be the debtor. Because the state has artificial eternity of life. We are all going to be dead long before this money is paid back if it is ever paid back. So, there must be a debtor who is there to do the paying. That can only be the person of the state.

But there is another point. And it is far more important than the first. Remember that the Fictional theory did not equate government with state because the reason it wanted to hold those apart was that it wanted to be able to judge the legitimacy of the actions of government. When we talk of the state as a fiction, we are not introducing any new material into the world. We are seeing ourselves under a special description. We are seeing ourselves as a union who have many different interests within the union but who have certain common interests. Those common interests of the people as a union are the interests of the person of the people. The person of the people is the name of the state. Government action is legal if and only if it is for the benefit of that person. And that is a view about how to judge the legitimacy of democratic governments which so powerful that I simply can’t imagine why we ever gave it up.


A Genealogy of Liberty by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript

Title: A Genealogy of Liberty
Presented by: Quentin Skinner
Presented on: October 27, 2016
Presented at: Stanford Humanities Center for the Harry Camp Memorial Lecture 

  • This is a sanitized transcript intended for reading. The video is embedded at the end if you’d rather watch it.
  • Sections in square brackets are digressions which can be skipped. Those between parentheses are corrective or complementary additions.
  • Images are screenshots from the lecture video.


As has been noted, the requirement of the occasion is that the lecturer should address “an issue concerned with the dignity and worth of the individual, both in its historical development and in its present significance”. And that was what decided me to try to say something about the concept of liberty which is surely the core concept in our thinking about the dignity and worth of the individual. Since, in speaking of liberty or freedom — I shall use those terms interchangeably — we are undoubtedly referring to one of our core moral and political values, it would be good if I could work towards a definition of the term on which we might, at least in principle, be able to agree.

But here, I am a Nietzschean and that’s, of course, reflected in my title. And what Nietzsche has to say about these definitions in On the Genealogy of Morality (is that) concepts that have histories cannot have definitions. This is a really deep point. Of course, some concepts have definitions but if they have a history, they can’t. Freedom is unquestionably one such concept because the meaning and the application of the term have been contested throughout the history of the modern world. So, there is a big methodological question how, in such a case, should we proceed. And I am going to follow Nietzsche’s suggestion: which is, by genealogy — trying to see how the concept evolved in our culture but also how it was contested, how rival understandings of how to think about it emerged and did battle.

[Nietzsche loves this idea that concepts… I mean Wittgenstein tells us that these concepts are tools. Nietzsche prefers to say: No, they’re weapons. We are doing battle here and these are all ideological conflicts. So, this kind of genealogy is what I shall attempt.]

However, this is obviously a vast undertaking and I am going to have to do something arbitrary to bring my materials under some kind of control. So, what I have decided to do — it is arbitrary — is to concentrate on the genealogy as it unfolds in the English language tradition of classical liberal political philosophy. Why? Because if I make that my focus, I am not simply tracing a descent or a series of descents. I am also pointing to a set of views that are alive in our culture here and now and which help to supply many of us with an element of our moral and political identity.

The Liberal Concept

To begin, within the classical liberal tradition, the earliest treatise in which the concepts of civil and political liberty are systematically analysed is also, as it happens, one of the most important works of political philosophy in the English language. And that is Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, first published in 1651. Chapter 21 of Hobbes’s Leviathan is entitled ‘Of the Liberty of Subjects’ and that really inaugurates the modern discussion. I don’t think that’s in dispute and that’s why I am going to start there.

A further merit of beginning with Hobbes is that his understanding of civil liberty has turned out to be extraordinarily influential so that his analysis is also a very familiar one as this shows us at once.

Quentin Skinner A Genealogy of Liberty 01

Within the classical liberal tradition, the earliest treatise in which the concepts of civil and political liberty are analysed is (in) Hobbes and we’re looking at the analysis. And I have called this ‘The Liberal Concept’.

And as you see, it’s a very simple concept: it just has two components. It proposes that for an individual to enjoy freedom as a citizen of a state, there must be power on the part of the individual to act in pursuit of a given option or, at least, alternative and there must be no interference on the exercise of that power by any external agency.

So, let me take these two ideas in turn. First, power. Hobbes insists — and this is a valuable insistence — that it makes no sense to talk about freedom except in a relation to whether you have a power to perform that action or not. That’s contrary to a very strong tendency in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy which is to suppose — I mean I quote Jerry Cohen, for example, in his essay Freedom and Money — that “inability is a sufficient condition of unfreedom” or — Amartya Sen makes the same claim in his great treatise, Development as Freedom. I quote — (that) “if you are unable to perform an action, you are unfree to perform it.”

Now, Hobbes suggests, avant la lettre obviously but usefully, that that is not a good way to think about the relationship. He would want to say that if you lack the power to act in a certain way — I don’t know what… the power to walk on water — then you are neither free to do that nor are you unfree to do that because you are simply unable to so it. And if you are simply unable, the question of freedom does not arise: you are not free but you are not unfree; we’re in the wrong discourse; you are just unable. You can put that point the other way around and if you do so, you bring out it’s philosophical significance; which is that if you are unfree to act in some particular way, that must be because you have been disempowered by some identifiable agency. This is the point that Foucault, in his discourses of power, has made important, made famous, in our time. All talk about freedom is nested within discourses of power and that seems, to me, right. And that’s the Hobbesian thought — Foucault, of course, taking it from Hobbes.

I turn secondly to this idea of interference. Hobbes’s claim, here, is, in effect, about how to understand this idea of disempowerment. You’re said to be disempowered, and hence unfree, if and only if someone has interfered with your capacity to exercise a power. So, on this analysis, freedom simply consists in absence of interference by such external agencies.

[By the way… I mean that explains why in current political theory freedom is so often defined as a negative concept. Not wrongly because the suggestion that we have got here is that the presence of freedom is always marked by an absence. And if you ask me what absence? the answer is absence of interference. That marks the presence of liberty.]

So, there’s Hobbes’s view. But obviously, that doesn’t get us very far because if freedom turns out to consist in absence of interference, then what is interference? That’s not a clear concept at all. But it turns out that freedom is the blank: freedom is the negative concept. What we’ve actually got to understand is interference. That’s where all the conceptual work is being done.

Of course, Hobbes hasn’t failed to notice that and he goes on to give us an account of interference. And again, it’s an extremely straightforward one. Here’s Hobbes’s understanding of the concept of interference.


External agencies are said to interfere when they act on the body of the individual in such a way that an action within the power of the individual is prevented or compelled. Notice (that there are) always two modalities for taking away freedom. You can stop someone from acting or you can prevent them from doing anything else. So, limiting choices. Two modalities of limiting choices due to the application of physical force by the external agency in such a way that any alternative is rendered impossible.

So, we have arrived at Hobbes’s definition of freedom. Freedom is, I quote the beginning of Chapter 21, “absence of external impediments to motion”. There is the Hobbesian analysis.

May we just contemplate it for a moment and as you do so, you’ll immediately notice one very important implication which I need to underline. It is said to be only bodily interference that takes away freedom of action. So, the implication here is that if it is only your will that is coerced… I mean, if, for example, you only obey the law because you are frightened of the consequences of disobedience — which is the state’s standard assumption about you — then what Hobbes wants to say is that when you obey the law, you are nevertheless acting freely and you are always free to disobey. Because this is only coercion of the will and that does not take away freedom.

Again, Chapter 21 of Leviathan, “Fear and liberty are consistent.” Hobbes really means that and he doesn’t illustrate but one can illustrate it with an example which is extremely common in early modern philosophy — John Locke, for example, uses it — and this is the example of the highwayman. The highwayman is the person who points the gun and says Your money or your life? Hobbes says You’re being offered a choice! That’s what you have to recognise. You’re being offered a choice. You could decide to hand over your money or you could decide to hand over your life. But choice is freedom and that’s a choice. And Hobbes summarises this in a nasty joke when he says that when you decide to hand over your money, you not only do it willingly, and therefore freely, but very willingly.

So, there’s the Hobbesian analysis of what I am calling the ‘Liberal’ view of freedom. It’s a version of that view. And it’s important for me to add because I am doing genealogy this evening, that this way of thinking remains widely endorsed in contemporary political philosophy. For example, you’ll find exactly this view elaborated and defended in two of the most ambitious recent works on the theory of individual freedom. I am thinking of Ian Carter’s book with Oxford, The Measure of Freedom, or Matthew Kramer’s book, also with Oxford, The Quality of Freedom. So, this genealogical strand runs right down into our own time.

Looking at this though, you might think, look, something has obviously gone wrong in the Hobbesian analysis because something is amiss with this analysis that there is compatibility of freedom with coercion of the will. And the view that there is something amiss with that thought was what got taken up in the next generation after Thomas Hobbes. So, I now… my genealogy is already on the move. I am moving down into this next generation and in particular in the criticism to be found in the most celebrated work of political philosophy in the Anglophone tradition of that next generation, namely John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government first published in 1689.

I want to say a word about Locke’s retort to Hobbes. Locke agrees, of course, that you’re unfree to act if you’re prevented bodily from exercising a power. It would be remarkable to deny that. You’d get into the Stoic paradoxes of freedom if you denied that. But Locke wants to insist that you will also be rendered unfree whenever your will is coerced. Here is Locke in Paragraph 176 of the Second Treatise: “Should a robber break into my house and with a dagger at my throat make me seal documents to convey my estate to him? Would that give him title?”

The question is purely rhetorical because what Locke wants you to agree is that in such a predicament, you really do not have an alternative. It’s really idle to say that you have an alternative. So, coercion of the will may not render the action impossible — which of course is Hobbes’s condition, the impossibility condition — but it certainly renders it, what Locke calls, “ineligible”. Ineligible: that’s to say, it’s not an object of choice. You’d never choose it. So, to that degree, you just are not free. The addition of Locke’s critique makes the genealogy look like this.


We now have Thomas Hobbes over on the extreme left wing — he doesn’t want to be there but that’s where I have put him. There is Hobbes’s analysis coming down on the left-hand side. — or most people within the classical liberal tradition have wanted to say that a bending of the will by coercion also takes away freedom of action. Notice, however, that we are now dealing with a concept that makes no appearance in Hobbes’s analysis as it’s coming down the left-hand side here — that of coercion. And indeed, according to this view, if you’re going to understand freedom, that is one of the fundamental concepts that you’ve got to understand.

Now, you see how clever Hobbes was. Because what do we mean by coercion? That’s not a clear concept at all but it’s suddenly being made central to the liberal analysis. You’d think that Locke — the founder, as it were, of the Anglo-American liberal story — would have something to tell us about coercion. He gives no analysis of this concept in the Treatises of Government. It is a very surprising omission. All he does is to give us some of what he takes to be clear examples of coercion. So — the usual fatal move in analytical political philosophy — he invites you to consult your intuitions and you think Yes, that’s definitely coercion. He gives four examples: threats, promises, offers, bribes. All of these, he says, ‘bend the will’ and, in that way, take away your freedom.

But don’t those examples point to the need for an analysis because if we were consulting our intuitions we would surely want to say This list is looking a bit dubious. Consider, for example, the fact that the list includes bribes. Is it really true that if I offer you a bribe I coerce you into acting in a certain way? Suppose a politician accused in court of having accepted a bribe assures the judge that he should not be held responsible because the sum of money involved was simply so enormous that he had no choice. (And that) he couldn’t fail to take it. That’s not going to be a legal defence, oddly enough. What this shows is that the Lockean account needs something that Hobbes deliberately keeps free of.  We’ve got to engage with this idea of what it means for the will to be coerced. That’s to say, what’s to count as the sort and extent of the bending of the will that we do want to say takes away freedom. That’s not something that Locke provides and as far as I can see, there’s no one in the Anglophone classical liberal tradition who really faces this squarely until Jeremy Bentham does in his great treatise written in the 1780s called On the Limits of the Penal Branch of Legislation.

So, the genealogy is now moving from the late 17th-century down towards the late 18th-century. Bentham proposes that we need to distinguish two different ways in which you can bend someone’s will. Fundamentally two opposed ways. One is that you can promise that you will reward them for compliance with your will. So, I say something like If you do what I want, I’ll give you a million dollars. Now, if you refuse you’re no worse off. If you accept you’re better off. You’re a million dollars better off. Contrast that, Bentham says — he doesn’t give the dollars example — with a case where I threaten you with penalties for non-compliance with my will. So, for example, I say If you don’t do what I say I’ll kill you. So, in that case you either comply with my will in which case you’re no better off or you don’t comply with my will in which case you’re substantially worse off. In fact, you’re dead!

Bentham’s proposal is that coercion, we can only properly speak of in the second type of case. The second type of case is coercion — that is, threatening me with penalties for non-compliance — as long, Bentham adds, as certain features of the threat itself are fulfilled. And these are, I think, ingenious and important. One is the threat must be credible. That’s to say, you’re going to have to avoid this threat. Secondly, the threat must be serious. That’s to say, well worth avoiding it. And thirdly, it’s got to be immediate. So to speak, you can’t run away; you’re going to have to face it. So, if there is a threat which fulfils those three criteria, then coercion is what we are facing.

Now, in contemporary political philosophy, there’s been a lot of work done on coercion. Some of the classic work was done by Robert Nozick, especially a major essay of his called Coercion. And he, of course, uses Bentham’s analysis — everyone has used Bentham’s analysis — and he ingeniously points out that it doesn’t quite work because you can think of cases where there would be a reward which is nevertheless coercive. But what I think we’d have to say — and which even Nozick agrees with — is that Bentham has isolated the paradigm case of coercion and so I think we can incorporate the refinement.


Coercion is rendering alternatives ineligible standardly and basically by means of threats so long as the threats are credible, immediate and serious.

Is that perhaps the analysis of freedom that you want? If so, this is a very short lecture. It’s worth asking that question because within the classical liberal tradition the answer that we have unhesitatingly been given for a long time was Yes, that is it. That’s the analysis we want of the idea of freedom. And indeed, you might reflect on the most celebrated single contribution in our time to my subject this evening, namely Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, Two Concepts of Liberty. Among the two concepts that he analyses, Berlin has a preferred account of freedom. So, what is his favoured account? You’re looking at it. That’s his preferred account. So, it’s entitled to our very respectful attention because notice again the genealogy has come right down to our time.

However, within the liberal tradition there arose a further complicating moment with the publication of what is undoubtedly the most celebrated text on my exact topic this evening, namely John Stuart Mill’s essay called On Liberty of 1859. One of the moves that Mill makes in that very original text is to point out that that the liberal tradition thus far — and he is thinking of what I have been talking… he’s thinking about Hobbes, he’s thinking about Locke, he’s thinking about the utilitarians, of course, and especially Bentham — endorses one principle that Mill considers questionable. And there it is … at the middle at the top of the chart: that freedom consists in the absence of interference with the exercise of your powers by external agencies. That’s to say, by another person, or by a group or, important of course for these writers, natural agencies: anything that threatens to leave you powerless.

But what Mill asks in Chapter 3 of the essay On Liberty is this: Is it true that freedom is necessarily interpersonal in this way that we’re looking at? or Could it be the case, somehow, that the agent who takes away your freedom could be you? It’s not interpersonal… that you could be the agent of the destruction of your own freedom. As soon as you entertain that thought, the liberal tradition begins to look a lot more complicated and this complication is one of the major nodes of late 19th-century social and political philosophy as people begin to ask Can we make sense of this radical extension of the classical liberal tradition? So here it is with the extension added.


No interference by external agencies or, some people want to add, by the self. The self can prevent or compel its own actions due to the operation of… what? How are we going to start to fill this out? That’s the analytical challenge that we now face. Here we are wading into extremely deep philosophical waters about the notion of the self. And is it a divided notion in the way that this is presupposing? But the writers that I am interested in this tradition this evening are resourceful about this and have a number of answers and here is the first.


The suggestion is that the will, so to speak, can ally itself either with reason or with some passion of the soul — as Descartes would call it, some passions de l’âme: anger or envy or hatred or something that just blows you away. Where the resulting action is motivated not by one of those passions but by reason conquering those passions, the resulting action is said to be free. That’s a free action. Notice very strong conceptual connection being suggested here between freedom and reason. Where on the other hand it is passion that has blown you away, the resulting action is held to be not fully free.

The writers who like to think in these terms from the 17th-century onwards make a distinction between liberty and license. If you’re acting out of passion, that is not free action. That is licentious action. It’s only if you’re acting according to freedom as your motive that you act freely. There are deep roots for that view. For example, what I just said is a paraphrase of what John Locke already says in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690. Mill certainly alludes to this idea especially when he is comparing the higher and lower pleasures when he is criticising Bentham. But Mill isn’t so much interested in (passions). Mill is much more interested in what he takes to be a second possible internal constraint on our freedom and it’s this.


Mill introduces this suggestion with the claim that, as he says at the start of the essay, “In our time,” — he’s speaking of mid-Victorian England — “the yoke of law has become lighter but the yoke of opinion has become heavier.” I think that’s right in as much as most of the protests that were offered in the name of freedom in the early modern period were offered in the name of freedom as against the state. But Mill, who is here closely following his elder contemporary Tocqueville, is much more impressed by the power not of the state but of civil society within the state to limit your freedom. And that that happens through demands for conformity to convention. Demands of civil society — they are implicit demands of civil society — for you to follow certain norms and conventions of behaviour. And Mill thinks that where that demand is very strong, as he thought it was in 19th-century Britain, then the effect will be to cause you inauthentically to internalise those social norms until you follow them in preference to your authentic desires. He is very concerned about this point. I quote Chapter 3 — it’s a beautiful epigrammatic passage of the essay On Liberty: “The people of England think themselves free but they choose what is customary in preference to their inclination until it does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary.”

So, people — this is Mill’s point — are not reflecting on their choices and if you don’t stand back in this Socratic way that he always asks you to do from your choices, then they’re not genuinely free choices because you’re simply allowing the circumpressures of your society to dictate what you think are your choices.

I have spoken of Mill as the great spokesman for that view in the Anglophone classical tradition of liberalism and I think that is correct. But notice that that came down to our time in existentialist moral philosophy which is an enormous extension of just that idea of how the self can enslave the self through inauthenticity.

Let me round up this part of my discussion by adding a word about one other possibility in late 19th-century social philosophy although I have to say that this will cause me to skid off my purely English language track just for a moment although the works I want to talk about are all translated into the English language. So here is the possibility that I want to put before you.


The idea that you might undermine your own freedom by acting with a consciousness which is false. False to what? False to your own true or real interests. Maybe not false to your phenomenal desires but false to your real interests. Notice how close Mill comes to this when he talks about the permanent interests of men — he’s talking about men always, I am sorry — as progressive beings.

But the classic expression in late 19th-century social philosophy of this view is in Karl Marx. And Marx’s key suggestion is, as you know, that social being determines consciousness. If your consciousness is determined by society in which freedom of action is conceived of in bourgeoise terms, then you will become the agent of your own servitude. Because you will be endorsing a bourgeoise — and Marx would wish to say a false — understanding of what is in your real interest. And I don’t need to tell you that that strand of genealogy has also come powerfully down into our own time especially through the German tradition. But Habermas — the great exponent of the distinction between phenomenal desires and real interests in social philosophy in our time — has of course been in the English language since the 1960’s and so this part of the liberal story also comes down to our time.

[I seem to be in a Foucauldian mood this evening — Foucault of course famous for the claim that there’s no such thing as an exhaustive taxonomy. That must be right! And in any case, I want to leave the enquiry as open as we can possibly leave it. We are talking about freedom. So, I would be very happy if people had more say about that in the discussion.

By the way, the most obvious thing that’s going to occur to us is the unconscious. Freud always saw himself as a theorist of freedom and very unfortunately sexist way of putting it but he said the aspiration of his theory was to make people a master in their own house again. That’s to say… well, you all know the theory and it skids away from social philosophy so I haven’t talked about it but there might be other candidates besides Freud’s theory.]

We know have — I think you’d agree — an array of different conceptions of freedom and it’s definitely beginning to look like a genealogy in that some choices are required, there are disputes here which are going to be irresolvable: some people are going to say We don’t want to add the self; some are going to say We have to add the self; some are going to say The external interference has to be only bodily; some are going to say It includes the will. So, there is no way of turning this into a narrative now. This is the collision that Nietzsche talks about.

However, we should notice that all of what you’re looking at have one basic element in common as they explicate freedom. They all think of it as absence of interference. Notice, interference turned out to be an incredibly complex concept. There it is at the top. It’s doing all the work. It’s all about what it means for there to be interference. Intrusions of various kinds — they may well up from you, they may be circumpressures of your society, they may come from the state: they’re all intrusions — are all interferences.

The Hegelian Concept

But towards the very end of the 19th-century — which is where my genealogy has now reached — a number of Anglophone political philosophers begin to argue that what you’re looking at is radically incomplete. And these are the people who are drawing on the philosophy of Hegel who had argued that to think of liberty like this — as Hegel says in a wonderful passage in The Philosophy of Right only the English could be so crude. This is freedom? You haven’t even started!

This is the negative moment of a dialectic. Freedom is a dialectical moment. You are free from something but you’re also free to do something. Of course, the liberal tradition is not without a response to Hegel. And you find the response at the top of the chart. We want to be impeded. If you ask impeded from doing what? The answer is impeded from doing whatever you want. That’s the glory of the liberal tradition. It doesn’t block that off.

You could say, therefore, that there’s always kind of positive element in the notion of freedom because you can always ask why you want to be free from impediments. I mean, what is this freedom for? Why is it a value for you? And that is a positive question. But I so think it’s a great strength of this tradition that I have so far laid out that it answers the Hegelian question with whatever you want. Although, of course — and Mill is famous for this — within the bounds of what he calls the ‘harm principle’: whatever you want, provided it doesn’t harm others.

But I need at this stage to notice a very different answer that rose to prominence in English language political philosophy at the very end of the 19th-century. And according to the view of things that I now want to say a word about, we want to be free not in order merely to act at will so that it’s a kind of blank space but rather, in order to act in such a way — and here’s the Hegelian thought — as to realise the essence of your nature.

In Anglophone political philosophy, the leading exponent of this view was the philosopher T.H. Green (and also) of course, F.H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet (and) a large number of philosophers at the turn of the 19th– into the 20th-centuries. Green wrote an essay called On the Different Meanings of Freedom. And he ends by saying: “To be free is to have realised that which we have in ourselves to become.”

So, being and becoming (are) very important in this Hegelian way of thinking about freedom. And according to this view, we ought, therefore, to characterise as free — that’s to say truly free, wirklich, real freedom as Hegel would say — only those persons who, as Green puts it, have in fact acted in such a way as to realise the essence of their nature.

Notice that a wide conceptual gulf has now opened up at this point between this view and everything that we’ve so far looked at. The Hegelians do not think of freedom as absence of interference on any understanding of interference. Rather, they’re claiming that freedom is self-realisation.


What has happened is that this tradition of thinking has helped itself to a massive additional premise which is that human nature is normative. There’s a normativity in human nature which this is saluting. And that’s Hegel’s objection to the liberal tradition. It doesn’t accept the normativity of human nature.

You may not think it makes sense to say that human nature is normative although we do talk like this. We say of certain things that is completely inhuman. So, it’s in our thinking that human nature might be normative. And if you’re willing to entertain that thought, then, obviously, there are going to be as many different theories of liberty as self-realisation as there are coherent views about what constitutes the essence of what it is to be truly human — that normative essence of human nature.

So, we need to ask what view about the normativity of human nature did these writers actually espouse. You could espouse many I guess but if you think about the western way of traditional thinking about this in very general terms, we really only ever espouse two large pictures at this point. One is classical and one is Christian. Now, Green is a Christian and he is very taken with the idea — this Christian paradox — that what freedom might be is service. Service to God might be freedom because it’s in service to God that you realise the essence of your nature.

There’s a very strong story. Of course, it’s the one the Nietzsche is denouncing, isn’t it? — in On the Genealogy of Morality, that’s the slave morality. But that’s not a political theory. On the contrary, that’s sort of a rejection of politics. If we’re talking about a political theory of this kind, then we are driven back into the classical story that the way in which we most fully realise ourselves — that’s to say, the arena for our talents, the arena for our virtues — is the civic arena. And it is not service of God but service of fellow human beings that discloses you as a free person. So, I am suggesting we’ve inherited two principle views about his idea that liberty has this positive concept and one is essentially the Arisotelian view that we are the ‘zôion politikòn’ or the political animal. And that’s what it is to be free — it’s to realise that that’s your nature.


And here of course is the superceding view that No, our true nature is spiritual.


Again, I want to emphasise that this way of thinking has come right down right down into our time. Amongst recent philosophers who have unambiguously taken up position A — which of course is all I am talking about because I am talking about politics this evening — the most prominent has been Hannah Arendt, hasn’t it? Especially in her wonderful essay called What is Freedom? I quote it: “Freedom is politics.” Now that is a wonderful remark. She’s not saying freedom requires politics or… she’s saying the activity of politics is the arena in which your virtues and your talents are put to work in such a way as to make you most fully the free person that you have it in yourself to become. So, there is your self, realised.

[Another Hegelian which… I mean…. I think this is… I suppose… mediated through Heidegger in Hannah Arendt’s case but] A pure Hegelian writing in the English in our time is Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor, in his great treatise Sources of the Self, has this distinction where he wants to say freedom is usually understood as an ‘opportunity concept’, as he calls it. That’s to say, to be free is just to have options which, of course, is what we are seeing all over the left-hand side of this genealogy. But he wants to say (that) that’s not how to think about freedom. Freedom is not an opportunity concept. It is an ‘exercise concept’. That’s to say, I can only tell if you are a free person once I have seen how you conduct yourself.


The Neo-Roman Concept

I want to pause at this juncture because I think it would be quite generally agreed — [and you’d have to be a quite wide minded contemporary analytical philosopher in political theory to think that we need to incorporate so much: I mean, what is the currently the latest and therefore in bold would be unhesitatingly crossed out by a lot of the people I have talked about down the left-hand side] — that this (is) where we’ve now got the genealogy.

If you think that, then, I think you’re missing an element in the genealogy which has indeed been largely successfully effaced by the ideological triumph of classical liberalism but which needs crucially, I think, to be added to the picture. And my desire to add something to the picture which is not there — we’ve left Isaiah Berlin very far behind, haven’t we? — is really my excuse for standing before you this evening and it’s with this further force that I want to end.

I can best begin by suggesting that we can see what’s missing by making a point about Hobbes’s argument that commentators on Hobbes philosophy never seem to point out which is that when he gives you this story — which I have put all the way down the left-hand side — this is extremely polemical. It begins a story which has become our story. So, we are prone not to see that this a fiercely polemical thing that he is doing in talking about freedom. He is trying to discredit a completely a completely different way of thinking about freedom. And look how successful it was. I mean, this is a story that rolls through right down into contemporary political theory. So, what Hobbes was objecting to has rather got effaced.

To see the contention that Hobbes is trying to discredit, I think the best thing to do is to go back to what is in fact one of the founding texts of modern western political theory. And that is The Codex of Roman law, which has an extraordinary influence in all our cultures, begins by making a distinction between the figure of the free man or woman, liber homo, and the figure of the slave.

According to this view, ex hypothesi, a slave is unfree. But notice that in order to understand what freedom is, on this account, what you crucially need to understand is what makes a slave unfree. Then, you’ll understand freedom. It’s crucial to see that the answer has nothing to do with interference. This was something that was very prominent in Roman comedy and in classical reflections on slavery. (We have) slave characters in Plautus whose master is either completely benign or is always away: they do whatever they want. This was put on the Roman stage. They’re not interfered with in the pursuit of their goals. But they are still slaves. That’s what makes those comedies so uneasy.

A slave who only ever did his master’s bidding and did it willingly would never suffer coercion and so you’d have a deep paradox of a free slave. By contrast, many free citizens in antiquity would have had extremely circumscribed lives, especially circumscribed by poverty. So, what is this distinction between the free and the slave? The answer given in the Roman law — and it’s extremely influential — is that it’s the mere fact of having a master that makes you unfree. The mere fact, that is, of living in a state of dependence on the arbitrary will of somebody else. As the digest of the Roman law expresses the point, it’s the fact of living in potestate, that is to say within someone’s power and hence at their mercy: that’s what takes away freedom. That’s what takes away your status as a liber homo — homo of course in Latin meaning man or woman — a free man or woman.


It’s nothing to do with non-interference. It’s absence of dependence. It’s the core idea of what it means to be free. And the reason is that you will not be a liber homo, free man or a woman, but you will be a slave if there could be interference contrary to your interests and undertaken with impunity because of your dependence on the arbitrary will of someone else. There’s the fundamental claim.


Notice here that there is a continuity with most liberal accounts of freedom, that’s to say the presence of freedom is still said to be marked by an absence. But it’s not absence of interference, it’s absence of dependence. But there’s also a major contrast here with the classical liberal story because it’s possible on this account to be unfree even if there is no interference with the exercise of your powers and not even any threat of any such interference. You could still be unfree. That claim looks absurd to some contemporary political theories. For example, Matthew Kramer, in his book The Quality of Freedom, which by the way is the longest book review I have ever received, says how can there be loss of freedom when there is no interference? How can that be?

According to the writers I am, talking about whom I want to call neo-Roman writers on freedom, it can be the case. And in two related ways. First, there’s an epistemological point to be made. If you are wholly dependent on the goodwill of someone else, then you never act according to your own will which is what freedom requires. Any action you perform will be the outcome both of your own will and of the silent permission of the person on whose goodwill you depend who could with impunity have stopped you but chose not to. That’s always going to be there. That permission. So, all of what look like free action are actually permissions. So, you never act autonomously. There’s the first claim.


It is the fact of dependence that takes away freedom. You’re never autonomous.

The second point that the neo-Roman writers make stems from the consideration that it’s obvious that you couldn’t live subject to the arbitrary will of someone in any domain of your life let alone if you are a chattel slave in every domain of your life… you couldn’t remain for long ignorant of being in someone’s power in any domain of your life without noticing it. You are quickly going to notice that. But as soon as you notice it, what’s going to happen? It’s going to generate self-censorship. It cannot fail to generate self-censorship. And there’s the second way in which your freedom is going to be undermined.


Let me just spell that out. This is really a core claim I think. The first claim is very important because it’s about how power is silent. You could say classical liberalism is very bad about power being silent. It always wants to see the interference… see the noise. But some power is completely silent. This is what this tradition is more sensitive to I think. And the way this core claim works is that if you know that your predicament is that you are in somebody’s power, you never know what might happen to you. You are in their power. You don’t know what could happen. Anything could happen. Maybe nothing will happen; or maybe nothing bad will happen; but anything could happen. You’re going to want to do everything, in respect of the person at whose mercy you’re living, to keep out of trouble. So, you cannot fail to self-censor systematically in the hope of keeping out of trouble. You don’t know what the trouble is but you have to mould yourself in such a way that you do your best to keep out of trouble. Summarised by Tacitus in a very unpleasant epigram — but you see what he’s saying, as he says — (that) there is no chance for a slave — he means a true slave, a chattel slave — not to be slavish. How could you be other than slavish? Because that’s your existential predicament.

As you have seen, with the rise of — what you’ve got on the board which I have now pushed over to the right wing which is where it all belongs — this story that I have told you, (the neo-Roman concept) mainly gets effaced but not entirely. There’s a kind of rocky descent that we can end this lecture by looking at. Because we can ask this question. I am not talking about chattel slavery. This is… the question is very precisely formulated.


Who live as slaves in some domain of their life(sic) — some domain or other — in someone’s power? If that’s true in any domain in your life, then you are living in that domain as a slave. Let’s see what the answers that were given to that question.

The main answer given in the 17th-century — the answer given by James Harrington to Hobbes in the most important English language 17th-century treatise on Republicanism, James Harrington’s Oceana of 1656 — was this: anyone who lives as the subject of a monarch lives as a slave in certain domains of their lives.


Because all monarchs — as Harrington says — have prerogatives; but prerogatives are, ex hypothesi, discretionary powers. To the extent that a monarch has discretionary powers, their subjects depend on that monarch’s will. It’s arbitrary. But to live in any domain of your life in the state of dependence on someone’s arbitrary will is what it is to lack freedom.

The next claim we find becomes very important with the emergence of the empires of the enlightenment period.


All who live in colonies under imperial powers live as slaves. That is the argument used against the British by the 13 American colonies in 1776. And it’s the argument used by such defenders as the American colonies in England as Joseph Priestly, Richard Price and, above all, Thomas Paine. The common core of their argument — best known as Paine’s argument — is that if you are governed, and especially if you are taxed, by a colonial power, and thus have no representation in the legislative that’s imposing those taxes, that’s to say that in that domain of your life, you are entirely dependent on the goodwill of that representative assembly for the level of taxation that is imposed.

But this dependency, as the colonists claim in the Declaration of 1776, serves in itself to take away freedom in that domain because they’re entirely at the mercy of the English parliament as to what level of taxation will be imposed and so their property is in permanent jeopardy: because they’re subject to arbitrary power.

So, that explains why the declaration of 1776 was called, and still is called, The Declaration of “Independence”. Independence from what? Well, from dependence, of course. Declaration of not being dependent on the arbitrary powers lodged the British constitution. So, notice that this country is founded on this view of what it is to be a free person.

Further quick answer comes powerfully to the fore in the revolutionary decades of the 1790s.


All women who lack independent means live as slaves. This is Mary Wollstonecraft’s central theme in the pioneering remarkable text of 1792, The Vindication of the Rights of Women. The starting point is with the fact that most women or at least very many women are or were at the time economically dependent on men. “The effect is that in order to survive, such women have to learn how to become the sort of people that men like.” And to the extent that that is how they are obliged to form their characters, they cannot act autonomously. In a number of domains in their lives, these people are not free.

John Stuart Mill writes the last of his major political texts in 1869, ten years after the essay On Liberty, and his tract as I am sure you know is called The Subjection of Women. It’s a little-observed fact about John Stuart Mill that he appears as the 19th-century apostle of classical liberty but he changes his mind. He comes over to this view and he begins the tract on The subjection of women by saying that because women do not have testamentary will — which was true in England at that time, they couldn’t make their own will, so he’s punning on will — they can’t make their own will. So, in that domain of their life they don’t have a will. And he says at the beginning of Chapter 1, “I see no such difference between the position of such women and that of bond slaves.” So, Mill, the great apostle of liberalism in his late life becomes what I am calling a neo-Roman theorist of liberty.

Now, how about this?


Have they been eliminated? What about this?


Deunionised labour forces, bosses who have it within their power to dismiss at will and with impunity — there are certain examples of that in my country, I am sure this is a more virtuous country than mine. We have to ask if these citizens are on this account living in that domain of their lives as free men and women. What about this?


Many democratic states — certainly mine and, again, I am sure America is more virtuous — possess extensive powers of surveillance over their citizens that can be exercised without the consent or even the knowledge of those citizens. So far, criticism has tended to focus on the exercise of those powers and it’s agreed that exercise of these powers is an affront to privacy. But that the payoff is security. And that’s a quotation from Obama. But on the view of liberty that I am now considering, this is not at all the right way to analyse the costs and benefits. On the neo-Roman account, it’s not exercise of these powers but the existence of these powers which matters and is the affront. And the affront is not to privacy, it’s an affront to liberty. Both because it is arbitrary — we don’t know what use could be made of it — and because since we don’t know what use could be made of it, we are very liable to start to self-censor. So, there’s a paradigm of unfreedom on this account.


Well here I draw to a close. In fact, I am a minute over 7 o’clock but I [have got one… Is that alright if I…? Because I really want this extra minute because I] want to place before you a compete genealogy with all the bits and pieces taken out — that’s to say all the bold which introduced each section and there it is.



And with the whole thing in front of us, the reason I want this final minute is to say: Well, what is the point of these remarks? What is the point of genealogy? I want to make two points here in fact and the first is that genealogy — in the way that I have been laying it out — is always critique. Genealogy is critique. Critique of what? Conceptual analysis. And the way that that works in the present instance is as follows. We are repeatedly told in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy that there is, I quote John Rawls, “one coherent way of thinking about liberty. It is a negative concept and it consists in the absence of interference.” That is the analysis of freedom that underlies Rawl’s account of justice as equal freedom.

But there isn’t just one way of coherently analysing the concept of freedom in our time. I have spoken of writers like Arendt and Taylor who don’t think about it in these terms at all but they think coherently. And I have spoken of a legal tradition which insists that even if liberty is seen as negative, it’s not to be seen in terms of interference but, on the contrary, of domination and dependence. Each of these positions — we end up with three major features of the genealogical tree — are, I think, coherent in their own terms.

My other and final point is that while each of these accounts is, I think, coherent in its own terms, you can’t combine them. This in genealogy. You can’t get it to be a concept… the concept of liberty. You’re going to have to make some choices because they don’t fit together. So, what choice should you make?

And that brings me lastly to the most important point I want to make in this lecture which is that I do not think that university teachers should go around telling people what to think especially not in very great universities like this one. You can all think. You all know this. This is what Wittgenstein calls ‘assembling reminders’. So, that’s what I have done. I have assembled reminders for a particular purpose. And that I think is the task of the teachers — to try to clarify what it is that one needs to be reminded of in order to think about it. And that’s all I have tried to do in this lecture. I have tried to present you with information relevant to answering the question: how should we think about freedom? But as to the answer, I leave that to you.

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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2504188.

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


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

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

Neither strategy is sufficient.

Part I

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

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

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

Mythology of Doctrines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mythology of Coherence

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

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

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

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

Part II

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

Dangers still persist.

Mythology of Prolepsis

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

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

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

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

Mythology of Parochialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part IV

What about contextual reading?

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

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

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

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

Part V

Some positive conclusions flow from the current analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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