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O™Brien™s study of imperial benevolence leaves off, by implicitly treating
the question why such benevolence might have been necessary at all, and
what part a seemingly benign language, such as that of subjective (or
individual) rights, played in the malevolent spread of empire around the
globe. By placing one specifically British manifestation of that
language À John Locke™s À into histories at once local to the early-
modern period and global in extent, Ivison shows that ˜history provides a
critical resource for surveying the uses of various concepts and theories
over time, and especially the conflicts and choices that were made around
the concepts and values we now take for granted™, such as rights
themselves.
A similar concept that can likewise be taken for granted is the
separation between public and private on which our conception of rights
largely depends. Joanne Wright™s chapter shows how misleading it would
be À both historically and conceptually À to read back contemporary
distinctions between public and private into the past. As Wright
acknowledges, the impetus behind inquiries into historical conceptions
of the public and the private arose initially from late twentieth-century
feminist theory: without present pressures, then, we would not be
animated by study past problems. However, as many other chapters in
the volume illustrate, the shape and scale of current concerns can only
be imposed on the past at the cost of misunderstanding, at best, and
conceptual violence, at worst. Yet the gulf between past and present is not
unbridgeable. In the case of a writer as acute as Margaret Cavendish,
Duchess of Newcastle, the distance between her concerns and ours can in
fact be theoretically salutary: ˜we neither share her precise concerns, nor
see public and private from her perspective, but her language is not so
different from our own that we cannot gain some insight from her
analysis™. The fact that Wright™s prime example of this is drawn from a
literary work À Cavendish™s closet-drama, The Convent of Pleasure À only
affirms the interdisciplinary implications of such an insight.
The gulf between past and present is spanned historically by the
transmission of texts and hermeneutically by the analysis of those texts:
or, so our last two chapters, by Kirstie McClure and Richard Flathman,
8 david armitage
lead us to conclude. McClure consciously draws methodological
inspiration from literary theory (in particular, the work of Mikhail
Bakhtin on ˜speech-genres™) and from cultural historians who have
investigated the material transmission of texts to investigate the manifold
meanings accumulated, and sometimes shed, by texts as they travel
through many hands across time and space. Meaning, she argues, cannot
be divorced from form, especially the material form in which ideas are
transmitted. Every reader selects and recombines the apparent (and not so
apparent) meanings within a specific text; however, some readers have
more power to affect meaning by virtue of their roles as editors,
annotators, excerpters or anthologists. The works that make up pillars of
the canon, among intellectual historians and political theorists (and, we
should add, among literary scholars), are not quite as solid and imposing
as they might seem, at least if our aim is to comprehend the full range of
meanings they have acquired over time. Examples like the Vindiciae
Contra Tyrannos, John Locke™s Two Treatises and Edmund Burke™s
Vindication of Natural Society amply affirm a point that could be made
with a host of other works: ˜To the extent that political theorizing consists
in offering not simply a perspective on the political world but also an
orientation to action within it, its containment within conventional
genre distinctions looks more like a matter of academic convenience than
a characteristic of historical expressions™.
The question of what might count within political theory as either
˜orientation[s] to action™ or ˜historical expressions™, and what might be
the relation between the two, is the subject of Richard Flathman™s con-
cluding chapter. Just as the volume begins with an historian™s scepticism
about historical categories, in John Morrill™s chapter, so it ends with
a political theorist™s doubts concerning history™s relevance for the
manifold possibilities for studying and writing political thought.
Precisely because past utterances were so varied in their forms, and also
because present concerns will differ from theorist to theorist and from
context to context, Flathman does not find it possible À let alone
necessary À to choose between what he calls ˜the canonical and con-
ceptual conceptions of the study/writing of political thought™. Either
will have its value, but only depending upon the question at hand
to be studied or the problem to be resolved. Often we may not
need to make the choice because more than one possibility will have
to be in play simultaneously. In such cases we will find ourselves, in the
teasing words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, ˜between the games™ of different
disciplines.
Introduction 9
Quentin Skinner reminds us in his Afterword that the study of past
thought never ceases to reveal aspects of our own ways of thinking that
might otherwise remain obscure to us: ˜As our world revolves, it catches
light from the past in ever-changing ways™. Conversely, we might recall
that because the objects from the past that we study are themselves
multifaceted we may only be able to examine one of their faces while
simultaneously obscuring others from our view. To comprehend all the
features of complex forms, like those of political thought, demands that
we adopt multiple perspectives upon them. But we can only do this in
collaboration with others who view those same objects in rather different
lights. The chapters in this volume have been written in just such
a spirit, to open up new perspectives on the multiple histories that
might yet be written of British political thought.
chapter 1

The History of British Political Thought: A Field
and its Futures
J. G. A. Pocock, Gordon Schochet and Lois G. Schwoerer


The ˜history of British political thought™ as a field of research has its own
history which is now more than half a century old. Two impulses drove
its early development. The first, British in origin, arose from the work of
scholars active at Cambridge University since about 1950: among them
Peter Laslett, J. G. A. Pocock, J. H. M. Salmon, Quentin Skinner, John
Dunn, Gordon Schochet and others too numerous to list, to whom the
term ˜Cambridge School™ has been applied. The other, American in
origin, arose from the work of Caroline Robbins, Douglass Adair,
Bernard Bailyn and their associates who explored English and British
political thought in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries À
notably the ˜commonwealth™ critique of the Hanoverian regime À so as
to lead towards American rebellion and independence, republicanism
and federalism.1 These two impulses have continued to operate within the
history of British political thought and have served largely to shape the
problems it has encountered and discovered.
˜The Cambridge method™, as it has become known, consists in the
assignment of texts to their contexts. These ˜contexts™ are of many kinds
and need to be carefully defined, but if one is the context of historical
and political circumstances, another is the context of political language.
In early-modern England, Britain and Europe, ˜political thought™ was
expressed (a) in Latin and in a number of vernaculars; (b) in a diversity of
specialized discourses constructed by distinct if intersecting clerisies,
among whom ecclesiastics, jurists and humanists may serve as an initial
classification; and (c), in England at least, in an imperfectly controlled
print culture, where ˜broadsides™, which are ephemeral and usually
directed to the less learned, contributed significantly to the context
of political language. Since the beginning of the Cambridge enterprise,


1
Robbins 1959; Bailyn 1967; Adair 1974.

10
The History of Political Thought 11
it has been important to determine not only in what circumstances and
with what intentions a given author wrote, but also in terms of what
˜language™ he (if male) chose to conduct his argument; cases are on
record where authors were offered a choice of languages and knew what
choices they were taking.
The work of historians of British political thought has therefore
consisted largely in discovering the ˜languages™ in which that thought
was from time to time conducted and in tracing their histories,
particularly within the period from roughly 1500 to 1800 which might be
defined as early-modern.2 There has been a consequence. The ˜thought™
of a given author, whether he were polemicist or philosopher, has been
increasingly presented as a series of speech acts performed in linguistic
and circumstantial contexts, which revealed his intentions and set limits
to his ability to perform them, but which may also be used by a historian
to recover what they were.
However, this tendency to contextualize may have widened the gap
which has long been opening between ˜the history of political thought™
and ˜political theory™. The historian is interested in what the author
meant to say, succeeded in saying, and was understood to have said,
in a succession of historical contexts now distant in time. The theorist
wishes to use the author™s text in contexts set by the theorist™s own
enterprise of enquiry, which has no guaranteed identity with the enter-
prise the author was pursuing. Though the theorist is not a historian, the
activity in which he or she is engaged has been going on a long time and
has a history which the theorist may need to reconstitute, but will do so
in terms set by the theoretical enterprise. These terms will not be those
the historian of political thought will use in reconstituting a history of
language and discourse. Of the three authors of this chapter, one has
been both political scientist and historian in his day, one continues
to teach political theory in a department of political science and the
third has spent her whole working life as an historian. None expects
to see a time when the two disciplines will not find it easy to fall into
misunderstandings.
There are signs that the old canon-based ˜history of political
thought™ À formed by selecting great texts and drawing lines to connect
them À may be coming back into fashion. However, the canon con-
structed by political theorists will never look quite the same as the canon

2
Schochet, Tatspaugh and Brobeck 1990À93; Pocock, Schochet and Schwoerer 1993.
12 j.g.a. pocock, gordon schochet and lois g. schwoerer
recognized by historians of political thought. There are reasons at once
generic, chronological and even geographical for this failure to converge.
Historians of political thought will insist that the work of political
theorists said to be of canonical importance looks somewhat different
when read in the context of more popular and vernacular literature,
as in the case of Milton™s prose works and poetry and the ephemera
that poured from the presses in the 1640s.3 Or Hobbes™s Leviathan may
be juxtaposed with the literature of the controversies over de facto
authority and allegiance.4 Comparisons of the languages of these two
genres hold their own fascination and illumination, both historical and
(we should insist) theoretical, but such studies of genre continue to be
largely the work of historians rather than of political theorists.
As the examples of Milton and Hobbes indicate, what we have here
called ˜Cambridge™ scholarship has tended to focus on the period of
Renaissance, Reformation and English civil wars. It may be at some risk
of becoming a research project limited to the cultural conditions then
obtaining. Closer to the concerns of the early-modern historian and
scholar, it has not proved easy to advance beyond the age of Hobbes
and Locke into the huge changes that came over English, Scottish and
American political thought between the revolutions of 1688À1689 and
1776, despite the inspirational part (already noted) that studies of the
latter crisis played in the field half a century ago. We might still ask
what would happen if it were carried beyond the age of the early-
modern clerisies and their print culture, into the nineteenth century
or the twentieth. Illuminating findings would surely emerge, but even
they would only partly close the gap between the historians of political
thought and their neighbours, the political theorists, whose canon extends
from Plato (though rarely before) to Rawls (and occasionally after).
There have also been geographical boundaries to much of the history
of British political thought as it has been generally practised. Its work
has been largely coincident with the ambit of the field once called the
˜new™ British history À that is, the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland
and Ireland and their extensions into the Atlantic world À whose own
history of research and teaching now extends back over thirty years.5
A central problem raised by the coincidence of these fields is the


3 4
Armitage, Himy and Skinner 1995. Wallace 1968; Skinner 2002c, pp. 287À307.
5
Pocock 1974; Pocock 2005.
The History of Political Thought 13
question: In what sense is it possible to speak of ˜British political
thought™? Is this simply a portmanteau term, denoting whatever political
literature may have taken shape in any of the cultures contained by
˜British history™? Does it denote their aggregate or rather their inter-
actions? Is there a time À probably modern rather than early-modern À
when there is the political thought of a self-aware and self-perpetuating
˜British™ community, or does it remain a conversation as to how and
how far such a community does or should exist? These are questions
only a programme of enquiry extended beyond the late eighteenth
century can hope to resolve. They are also questions few political
theorists are likely to attempt to answer, or even to be impelled to
ask, even when studying the canonical texts of early-modern British
political thought. There is little sign that Thomas Hobbes knew
Leviathan had three kingdoms to deal with, though James Harrington
clearly did. English political thought thus goes on being about England
and English history, even when it is about Britain. This Anglocentricity
cannot be eliminated; it is part of the history we are seeking to
understand.
The history of British political thought has perhaps diverged farthest
from the concerns of the canonical political theorists in its investi-
gations to date of the political thought of Scotland and Ireland. Yet it is
also here that the field has achieved some of its most notable advances.
It has established that there is a canon of major Scottish political thinkers,
at least from John Mair to James VI, and that a ˜history of Scottish
political thought™ can be perhaps written through the centuries of early-
modern history.6 Questions about the existence of ˜British™ political
thought become vastly more complicated when asked of the kingdom
of Ireland during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.7 Here one has
to deal with three languages (Gaelic as well as Latin and English),
four ethnic groups (after the arrival of Scottish as well as English settlers
in Ulster), and above all three churches (those of Rome, England and
Scotland). For reasons of which the continued existence of a Catholic
majority would appear to be chief, the attempt to organize Ireland as
a third kingdom on the Tudor-Stuart model was unsuccessful,8 and the
presence of Ireland within British history is the presence of an antithesis

6
Mason 1994a; Robertson 1995a; Burns 1996; Mason 1998.
7
Morgan 1999b; Ohlmeyer 2000; Connolly 2000.
8
Canny 2001.
14 j.g.a. pocock, gordon schochet and lois g. schwoerer
and paradox: its role in British history is precisely that it refuses to be
part of British history. Irish historians rightly look for an Irish history
that lies outside British history, and point out that Ireland™s Catholicism
made it part of the debate within the Catholic world in ways in which
the British kingdoms refused to be. All this is true; nevertheless, it can
still be said that Irish history cannot be understood without British
history or British history without Irish history; and there is besides,
especially in the eighteenth century, a Protestant Ireland (perhaps two)
whose debates with England and itself are debates over its place in
a British world, to the point where settler and indigenous nationalisms
begin to converge or merge. There are respects in which eighteenth-
century Ireland and America are cases of the same order.
One way to recognize such similarities is to situate England, and the
British kingdom after it, in a series of contexts each composed of

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