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date: 17 February 2020

Theory in History Problems of Context and Narrative

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the context and narrative problems associated with the study of the history of political theory. It suggests that in order to study the relations between political theory and history, it is necessary to study these terms and reduce them to manageable forms. It explains that the histories of political thought/theory were canonically constructed and they arranged modes of discourse in an order which it had come to be agreed formed the history being presented.

Keywords: political theory, history, political thought, discourse, canons

1 The Problems of Terminology

To construct a study of the relations between “political theory” and “history”—as conceptualized phenomena or as disciplines we practice—it is necessary to study these terms and, if possible, to reduce them to manageable forms. The term “political theory” is imprecise; it has been used in a diversity of ways, and the contributors to this Handbook are probably not agreed on any single usage. From the standpoint from which this chapter is written, it is observable that “political theory” is often used as if it were interchangeable with “political thought,” a term equally inexact. In the first half of the twentieth century, there were written a number of “histories of political thought,” or of “political theory,” of which the subject-matter and the method were practically indistinguishable. By “political thought” (and therefore “theory”) were meant a number of intellectual disciplines—or alternatively, modes of rhetoric—which had from time to time been applied to a subject or subjects which it was agreed formed that of “politics.” The “history” of these modes of discourse was agreed to form the “history of political thought” or “theory.” They contained much that amounted to a “theoretical” treatment of an abstract concept of “politics,” and each of them—at least in principle—had generated a second-order discourse which critically examined its conduct, and so amounted to “theory” in a further sense of that term.

(p. 103) These “histories” of political thought/theory were canonically constructed; that is, they arranged modes of discourse—and above all, the major texts that had acquired classical status and authority in each—in an order which it had come to be agreed formed the “history” being presented. Classically—and, it should be emphasized, for historical reasons, many of which were good—they began with the invention in fourth-century Athens of what was termed “political philosophy,” so that “political philosophy” became a term of equal status (and imprecision) with “political thought” and “theory.” A historical grand narrative emerged, in which “the history of political thought,” “theory,” or “philosophy” moved from Platonic or Aristotelian beginnings through a medieval period in which “philosophy” encountered Christian theology, into one in which this encounter was liquidated and replaced by modes of thought, theory, and philosophy it was agreed to term “modern.”

It was a further characteristic of these “histories” that they were not written by historians so much as by “political theorists” and “philosophers” who held that the study of this “history” was in some way conducive to the enterprise or enquiry in which they were themselves engaged. To study “the history of political theory” was helpful to the practice of “political theory.” This assumption came, at and after the middle of the twentieth century, to be attacked in two ways. There arose ways of conducting both the empirical and the normative study of politics which claimed to have no need of historical knowledge—still described in its canonical form—because they possessed means of validating, criticizing, verifying or falsifying, the statements that they made, which depended upon the method that they practiced and not upon historical circumstance or character. This may be considered one of the moments at which the term “political science” made its appearance. Concurrently—and in some ways in response to this development—historians appeared who proposed (often aggressively) to reduce “the history of political thought” to a rigorously autonomous mode of historical enquiry. The writing of texts, the slower formation of belief systems or “philosophies,” were to be reduced to historical performances or “speech acts,” the actions of historical actors in circumstances and with intentions that could be ascertained. They were not part of a “theory of politics;” or if they were, the processes by which they had come to be so, and the very existence of “political theories” themselves, were historical processes in the performance of acts and the formation of languages, to be studied as such.

Important claims can be made about the increase and intensification of historical knowledge which this revolution in method brings about. The theorist or philosopher is faced with the question of whether “political theory” is or is not to be reduced to the knowledge of its own history. A typical response has been to treat this question as itself a problem in theory or philosophy, and it can be observed that more has been written about Quentin Skinner—a leader in the historical revolution—as political theorist or philosopher than as historian. The author of this article, however, treats Skinner’s work, and his own, as the construction of historical narratives, in which things happen (in this case the utterance of theoretical statements about politics), the conditions or “contexts” in which they happen exist and change, and processes occur in the history of these performances that can be narrated. In what follows, it will be presupposed that a “historian,” interested in the question “what was it that (p. 104) was happening?”, and a “political theorist,” engaged in an enquiry possessing its own ways of self-validation, confront each other over the reading of a given text. I will bias my own enquiry by pointing out that the text will be a historical artifact, but that the theorist desires to make use of it for purposes other than establishing it as a historical phenomenon.

2 History and Theory: The Encounter

The activity of the mind called “political theory” will have been defined—probably, and properly, in more ways than one—by the contributors to this volume. For purposes of abbreviation, I will suppose that they have defined it as the construction of heuristic and normative statements, or systems of such statements, about an area of human experience and activity called “politics” or “the political.” I will also suppose that the activity called “political theory” is a discipline possessing its own rules: that is to say, the statements it aims to construct acknowledge certain procedures according to which they are constructed and may be validated and criticized. There will instantly arise, however, a further activity of questioning how such procedures have been and are being constructed, to what capacities of the mind they make appeal, whether their claims to validity are or have been justifiable, and in short whether, and how, it is possible to construct a discipline called “political theory” at all. This activity of the second order may be called “political philosophy”—although this term has borne other meanings—and distinguished from “political theory” as carried on at levels confident enough of its procedures to dispense, at least provisionally, with the questioning of them at the levels called “philosophy.” Having made this distinction, of course, we observe that the two activities continually intersect, although the distinction does not disappear.

It is valuable to imagine the “political theorist”—given that this term may have more than one meaning—confronted by a “historian of political thought,” who regards “political theory,” in any of its meanings, as one of many ways in which “thought,” or rather “discourse,” about “politics” has been going on. Even if we suppose our agonists to agree on a definition of the activity to be called “political theory,” and to agree that this activity has had a continuous history of some duration, there will remain many senses in which they do not and perhaps should not have much to say to one another. The “theorist” is interested in the making of statements (hypotheses?) obedient to certain modes of validation; the “philosopher” in the question of how (and whether) it is possible to construct these (or any) modes of validation (or evaluation). The historian is not interested primarily, although perhaps secondarily, in any of these questions, but in the question “what happened?” (or was happening)—more broadly still, “what was it that was happening?”—when events or processes occurred in the past under study. One aims to characterize, to evaluate, to explicate (rather than explain), and therefore in the last analysis to narrate, actions (p. 105) performed in the recorded past; and if they were performed according to, or even in search of, certain modes of validation, one is interested in their performance rather than their validity, and in the validations to which they appealed as the context that renders them the happenings they were. The questions “is this statement valid?” and “what has happened when it is made?” are not identical, unless—and this is the issue—the theorist who asks the former can oblige the historian who asks the latter to admit that nothing has been going on except the practice of a certain mode of validation; and this the questions asked by the “philosopher” have already rendered somewhat uncertain.

The historian, then, may be thought of as scrutinizing the actions and activity of political theory, and asking questions about what it has been and done, answers to which will necessarily take the form of narratives of actions performed and their consequences. The historian’s activity is clearly not identical with that of the political theorist. Before we go on to set these two activities in confrontation and interaction, it is desirable to ask whether “histories of political theory” have been or may be constructed, and what character they may possess. Here the focus of our enquiry shifts. A “history of political theory” would clearly move beyond the scrutiny of particular acts in the construction of such theory, and would suppose “political theory” to be and have been an ongoing activity, about which generalizations may be made and which can be said to have undergone changes in its general character over the course of time; changes which could be recounted in the form of a narrated history. There are, however, few such histories; few, that is, which are or may be called histories of political “theory” in any sense in which that term may be distinguished from, or isolated within, the “history of political thought” as the academic genre it has become. Histories of this kind are themselves indeterminate, in the sense that options exist and have been exercised as to what kinds of literature may or should be included in them, and it is a consequence that the terms “political thought” and “political theory” have often been used interchangeably, or with no precise attention to differences between them. The political theorist whose attention turns to history, therefore, is often confronted with historical narratives whose content bears little relation to the activity of “political theory” as it may have been defined. It is not unreasonable if such a theorist asks why such histories deserve attention.

3 Histories and their Purpose

In the last forty or fifty years, canonical histories of this kind have fallen into disfavor (although there have recently been some signs of a revival1). The best-known alternative in English, associated with the work of Quentin Skinner and others,2 has taken (p. 106) the form of a close scrutiny of the history—a key word has been “context”—in which texts and patterns of political discourse may be situated and said to have happened. It will be seen that the distance, mentioned earlier, between the questions asked by the theorist or philosopher, and by the historian, has grown wider. Historians of this school look upon the political literature of any period as composed of acts of speech or writing, articulations performed by authors in the language or diversity of languages available to them. These languages have histories; they can be seen in formation and in change; the performances of authors act in and upon them; and this is the sense in which they can be termed the primary “context” in which texts and debates happen in history. There are of course further contexts, the political, religious, social, and historical situations in which authors and their publics were situated; and what these were is to be discovered as much from the implications of their languages as from the researches of historians. What actors thought was happening is of equal importance with what historians think was happening; history is the study of subjective behavior.

In this multiplicity of “contexts”—both linguistic and situational—historians pursue the interactions between an author’s intentions, the language available for him or her to use, and the responses of those who read, or were informed concerning, the text and its author; the tensions between what an author “meant” to say and what a text “meant” to others, are often complex and productive of ambivalences. It may be the case that an author wrote in more than one “context” and was read in contexts other than those he intended. To give examples: Leviathan was written in both English and Latin, and one may differentiate between Hobbes’s intention and reception in a circle of philosophers in Paris, the court of the exiled Stuarts, the pamphlet-reading public in London, and the Dutch and German universities. The works of Machiavelli were written in manuscript for discussion groups in the politics of Florence, and it was by others after his death that they were released on the print networks of Europe, where they were read and responded to by other groups and publics, in ways it is not immediately certain he intended. The happenings of communication and performance are of primary concern to the historian, but not to the political theorist. The former is interested in what an author “meant” and in what a text “meant” to actors in history; the latter in what it “means” to a theorist, in the context of the enquiry she or he is conducting.

Works on the history of political thought, written in the above manner, tend to be microhistories rather than macrohistories, studies of particular performances, actions, and compositions, focused on the immediate context of the action rather than its long-term consequences. If confined—as there is no reason why they should not be—to a particular text or group of texts, and to the state of the language culture at the time these were written, they will be synchronous rather than diachronous in their emphasis; and it has been asked whether the contextualist approach is capable of supplying a history of contexts. This, however, can be done in several ways. The text and its author can be shown innovating in and acting upon the language in which the text is written, obliging the language to say new things and modify or reverse its implications. The text can be studied as it is read and responded to by others, (p. 107) becoming what it means to them as distinct from what its author intended. Lastly, texts sometimes outlive both their authors and the contexts in which they are written, traveling both in space and in time to act and be acted upon in contexts of language and circumstance sharply unlike those in which they received their original meaning. There will now be the possibility of historical narrative, recounting both how the text underwent changes in use and meaning, perhaps and perhaps not continuing to convey its author’s intentions in situations he cannot have foreseen, and how the language context underwent change for reasons not reducible to the intended performances of identifiable speech actors. It may even be possible—although it seems that it must be questionable—to supply unified “histories of political thought,” in which one pattern of consensus and challenge is progressively replaced by another, although recent Cambridge Histories have tended to present several such histories going on concurrently in contexts distinguishable from one another.3 If anything like the former canonical histories is restored, it will probably be the work of political theorists desirous of a usable past, rather than of historians not interested in supplying them with one.

4 The Encounter Resumed

To suppose a direct encounter between a political theorist and a historian, each engaged in studying the same text, we must make two assumptions. In the first place, we should suppose the theorist to be carrying out a programme of theoretical enquiry, possessing its own discipline and means of validating the statements it advances; this will enable us to juxtapose the theorist’s propositions with those put forward by the historian, and enquire into any meeting or collision that may appear between them. In the second place—and here it is hard to avoid placing an additional burden on the theorist—we must suppose that the two actors are studying the same text, which has not been written by the theorist but by some other agent at some point in history. It is hard, although in principle not impossible, to imagine the historian studying a text written by a contemporary theorist as if it were a historical phenomenon. Historians are typically concerned with the past; they let time go by, during which evidence may assemble and perspectives emerge and alter. But once we suppose the theorist to be engaged with a text written by another hand, and itself a historical document, we must ask why this is happening, and what role a text written by another and—the historian instantly adds—in another context plays in the self-discipline and self-validating enterprise we have supposed the theorist to be conducting. The answer to our questions may emerge in literary and almost serendipitous terms. The theorist has, for whatever reason, read the historic text and finds its language to serve the purpose of some enterprise in political theory being conducted in the present; the (p. 108) language of the text is therefore presented as a proposition to be evaluated in the terms and by the criteria of the present enterprise. The historian now appears, asking questions and making statements concerning the intentions of the text’s author and the meaning (a two-faced term) of his words in the context or contexts he and they occupied in history. In what ways, if any, will the propositions advanced by theorist and historian affirm or deny one another?

The theorist may assert that the author in the past was engaged in a programme of political theorizing identical with, or very closely resembling, that being conducted by the theorist in the present; so that the author’s language may be quoted, cited, or paraphrased as language employed in the theorist’s enterprise. The historian will scrutinize this assertion. We will suppose her or him capable of understanding a programme of political theory conducted in the present, as well as of reconstructing the languages in which programs of a similar kind have been conducted in past historical contexts. Such a historian will therefore be capable of pronouncing the theorist’s assertion valid or invalid. If the former, the past author’s language can be employed in the present theorist’s enterprise without doing violence to the former (with which the historian, as historian, is primarily concerned); that is without doing violence to the past author’s intentions or the meanings of the words used in the text. It is not in principle impossible that this will be the outcome of the historian’s enquiry.

But the historian’s business is with then, not now; with what the author was doing,4 with what was happening and happened when the text was written, published, read, and answered. The former’s concern is with contexts, rather than programs; with the multiplicity of contexts in which the text may have had meaning and may have been intended; with the diversity of languages (or conceptual vocabularies) in which it will have been read and may even have been written (since authors are not incapable of recognizing multivalence and taking part in it). The theorist’s reading of the text will therefore have been an act of selection, a decision to read the text as engaged in a particular program, even if the author proves to have made the same decision. The historian is interested in the multiplicity of the things that have happened and the contexts in which they happened, and will probably respond, even in the extreme case where it can be shown that an author wrote in only one language and was engaged in only one enterprise, by enquiring if that is the only way in which others read and have read that author’s works. When texts outlive the historical situation in which they were first written and read, intended and understood, the likelihood of a diversity of effect becomes greater.

The theorist is performing an act of selection on grounds which are not those on which the historian acts. We have so far supposed a situation in which this selection raises no problems for the historian and is even acceptable as a historical statement about the text’s or the author’s “meaning,” but it is methodologically interesting to move away from this supposition. Suppose instead that what the theorist is doing is less quotation than translation; a removal of the author’s words from the meanings and implications they bore in a past historical context to those they may bear in a (p. 109) present context—one, that is, defined by the enterprise the theorist is engaged in rather than by any other language situation. The last stipulation implies that the enterprise is purely theoretical and is not being carried on into practice, since practice takes place in a world of multiple contexts and history. Given this condition, however, the theorist may still be asked why the historically distant text has been chosen as the subject of this act of translation. The answer may be that it has happened accidentally; the theorist happens to have read this text, and it happens that its language lends itself to this theoretical purpose. The circumstance that the author had similar intentions, or alternatively that his or her language can be so interpreted, is itself accidental; we are in a situation where history is accidental, or incidental, to theory. These hypothetical circumstances, however, entail different historical statements; the former is about the author acting in her or his moment in history, the latter about the action and moment of the theorist. The latter claims to be acting now, making a statement whose validity does not depend upon the historical context in which it is performed. It may be called positivist in the sense that it offers its own conditions of validation and appeals only to them.

This is of course wholly justifiable; it is valuable to set up laboratories and construct hypotheses subject to validation under rigorously controlled conditions. A common consequence of falsification, however, is the discovery that something was present which the experiment did not foresee or succeed in excluding, and here our theorist’s enterprise may be the better for knowing its own history; what exactly are the conditions it specifies, and why does it specify these and not others? This question becomes all the more pressing as we enter the realms of practice and history, where the conditions under which, and the contexts in which, we operate can never be defined with finality. Here we pass beyond the simple dialogue between theorist and historian, beyond the problem of congruence between a text’s meaning in the present and those it has borne in pasts. The historian has begun to resemble a post-Burkean moderate conservative, reminding us that there is always more going on than we can comprehend at any one moment and convert into either theory or practice. One has become something of a political theorist in one’s own right, advancing, and inviting others to explore, the proposition that political action and political society are always to be understood in a context of historical narrative. There is room therefore for consideration of historiography as itself a branch of political thought and theory, literature and discourse.

The theorist, however, may be imagined using historical information, making historical assumptions either explicit or implicit, or reflecting upon historical processes as these appear relevant to the enterprise in political theory being conducted.5 The question now arises whether these operations are entailed by the method of framing and validating statements in which the theorist is engaged, or whether they are incidental or accidental to it. If the former, the theorist is claiming to make historical statements validated in either the same ways as those the historian practices, or in other ways which must be defined and defended. If the latter—and this the historian (p. 110) finds easier to imagine—the distinction between “political theory” and “political thought” has begun to disappear: that is, the former has begun to coexist with other modes of political discourse, and we are re-entering the historical world in which discourses interact, modifying, changing, confusing, and distorting one another. There are historians who study and narrate what goes on in this world; it is possible that there may be a “political theory” which addresses the same phenomena.

References

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——and Goldie, M. (eds.) 1991. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

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Pocock, J. G. A. 1962. The history of political thought: a methodological enquiry. In Philosophy, Politics and Society: Second Series, ed. P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Find this resource:

——1985. Introduction: the state of the art. In J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

——1987. Texts as events: reflections on the history of political thought. In Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. K. Sharpe and S. N. Zwicker. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Schochet, G. J. 1994. Why should history matter? Political theory and the history of political discourse. In The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500–1800, ed. J. G. A. Pocock, G. J. Schochet, and L. G. Schwoerer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

——2002. Visions of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1) For example, Coleman (2000); she might not accept the adjective “canonical.”

(4) Skinner (1978, i, xiii).