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may well be one of the places where the reading of historical texts and the
theorizing of future possibilities is likely to take shape.
44
See the Online Library of Liberty, http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.html; The Constitutional
Society, http://www.constitution.org; the book links at http://www.straussian.net; The
Founding Fathers Party, http://www.foundingfathersparty.net; the Marxists Internet Archive,
http://www.marxists.org; the Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/index.html;
or the links at Theory.org, http://www.theory.org.uk/directory.htm
c h a p t e r 13

Here and Now, There and Then, Always and
Everywhere: Reflections Concerning Political Theory
and the Study/Writing of Political Thought
Richard E. Flathman



˜. . . as it were between the games™
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)
Both political theorizing and the study/writing of the history of
political thought have many and varied exemplifications. Accordingly,
it is difficult to generalize confidently concerning the relationship(s)
between them. Briefly, political theorizing has commonly been, and
ought to be, characterized by some combination of, on the one hand,
critical assessments of prevalent political and related concepts, ideas,
institutions and practices and, on the other, attempts to imagine and
articulate political ideals that serve both as criteria for critical assessment
of extant ideas and arrangements and as proposals for a politics that is
improved by normative standards. In its historical manifestations it is of
course also an attempt to understand the concepts, issues and ideas to
which it is addressed. This chapter then juxtaposes this conception with
some leading views À which also may be regarded as idealizations À of
the aims and methods appropriate to the study/writing of the history
of political thought.

i
I take these to be importantly distinct activities or modes of thinking.
Insofar as I advance a general view of the relationship(s) between them,
it is that political theorizing provides historians of political thought
with important parts (but not all) of their subject matter, while historians
of political thought may provide, have sometimes provided, political
theorists with an improved grasp of some of the concepts, ideas and
ideals with, in and about which to think. They may also provide,

254
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 255
have sometimes provided, an enlarged and in that respect an improved
perspective on the questions they address and the answers they are
inclined to give or to reject to those questions.
One way to expand somewhat on this view is to underline the idea that
political theorists provide historians of political thought with part but not
all of their subject matter. As regards the studies of the history of political
thought that I was required to read as a graduate student,1 we can pretty
well do without the qualifier ˜but not all™. These students (and many still
writing) thought that there was a relatively short list of ˜canonical™
political theorists and the texts they produced; they devoted their efforts
almost exclusively to identifying what they took to be the main concepts,
ideas, ideals and arguments that formed the bodies of the texts that those
canonical theorists wrote. There were (and are) minor differences among
the lists with which they worked (and still work) but it would not be far
wrong to say that those who made (and still make) it onto the list were
understood to have a conception of political theorizing closely similar to
the conception I have sketched above. Insofar as the texts in question
contained elements that did or do not fit this conception they were (and
in many quarters are) regarded as irrelevant to the study of the history
of political theory.
A second way to expand on it is to emphasize the words ˜critical
assessment™ and ˜a politics improved by normative standards™ in my
earlier characterization of political theorizing. The students of the history
of political thought to whom I just alluded (for convenience of reference
I will call them ˜students of the canon™) understood the political theorists
that they studied to be exposing mistaken views concerning political
concepts, ideas and practices and to have the objective or purpose of
replacing them with a correct, right or true account of them. They
understood the canonical thinkers to be attempting to tell their readers
what questions should be asked and how and what they ought to think
about them and hence how and how not to act; that is, they were
prescribing the form and character that politics ought to have. The
students of the canon further thought that if, or to the extent that, the
canonical theorists ˜got it right™, their theories tell us how and how not to
think and act and how our politics ought to be conducted. Of course
these canonical students disagreed with some of the political theorists that
they studied and they disagreed with one another as to the merits of the

1
For example Sabine 1955; Carlyle and Carlyle 1936; Barker 1956; Mesnard 1936.
256 richard e. flathman
various views that they encountered in the course of their studies. But
they agreed concerning the generic objectives that political theorists
should pursue and that it was their task as students of political theory to
make the results of that pursuit available to their own readerships. Insofar
as they thought of themselves as political theorists as well as students of
the history of political thought they pursued the same generic objectives
as did their canonical predecessors. It is of course a controversial question
how far they or those that they studied have achieved their practical
objectives.
This understanding of how to study/write the history of political
thought came under heavy attack in the latter part of the twentieth
century (with, of course, some earlier anticipations) and the attack on it
has continued with many refinements and with steadily increasing force
in the ensuing years. Both the attack and the refinements have continued
into the present century. In referring to the aforementioned large and
growing group of writers as ˜students™ of the canonical history of political
thought rather than as ˜historians™ of political thought I am ˜acknowl-
edging™ (in something like Stanley Cavell™s use of ˜acknowledging™)2 what
is arguably the broadest objection that these twentieth- (and of course
twenty-first) century critics have entered to the studies of political
thought that were dominant for much of the previous century, namely
that in the proper sense of the term they were not historical.
J. G. A. Pocock, looking back over historiographical thinking in
roughly the last half of the twentieth century, has recently provided
a characteristically elegant summary of this criticism. Referring to
Quentin Skinner™s early article ˜Meaning and Understanding in the
History of Ideas™ (1969), ˜which came to be the manifesto of an emerging
method of interpreting the history of political thought™, he credits
Skinner with having
demonstrated that much of the received history of that activity suffered from
a radical confusion between systematic theory (or philosophy) and history. The
greater and lesser texts of the past were interpreted as attempts to formulate
bodies of theory whose content had been determined in advance by extrahis-
torical understandings of what ˜political theory™ and ˜history™ should be and were.
This confusion led to errors including anachronism (the attribution to a past
author of concepts that could not have been available to him) and prolepsis
(treating him as anticipating the formation of arguments in whose subsequent


2
Cavell 1969.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 257
formation the role of his text, if any, had yet to be historically demonstrated).
After treating these fallacies with well-deserved ridicule, Skinner contended that
the publication of a text and the utterance of its argument must be treated as an
act performed in history, and specifically in the context of some ongoing
discourse. It was necessary, Skinner said, to know what the author ˜was doing™;
what she or he had intended to do (had meant) and what she or he had suc-
ceeded in doing (had meant to others). The act and its effect had been performed
in a historical context, supplied in the first place by the language of discourse in
which the author had written and been read; though the speech act might
innovate within and upon that language . . . the language would set limits to
what the author might say, might intend to say and be understood to say.3
In treating ˜classical™ or canonical texts™ as themselves providing every-
thing necessary to understand them, and as addressing ˜perennial
questions™ or ˜unit ideas™, students of political thought produced not
histories but what Skinner called ˜mythologies™.4
In the passage quoted and some of the later pages of the same essay,
Pocock is looking back at some of the key moments in the emergence of
what has come to be called the ˜Cambridge™ or ˜contextual™ school of
thought concerning the methods and objectives appropriate to studying
and writing the history of political theory (and intellectual history
generally). As he goes on to note, and as Skinner and other members of
this contextualist school have emphasized, important changes, including
disagreements among those who accept the basic tenets of the approach,
have developed.5 I comment on some of these later in the chapter but my
purposes in the first parts of the chapter will be best served by using the
distinctions I have thus far drawn, that is among an (idealized)
conception of political theory, a prominent understanding of the history
of political theory (the canonical conception) that brings a strongly
analogous understanding of political theory to the study of its history,
and the alternative approach to studying/writing the history of political
theory (the contextualist approach) just sketched. As a means of doing so
I make use of the main terms of my title, interpreting them in part
through an overlapping but not equivalent set of distinctions proposed by
the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott.

ii
It is obvious, but nevertheless still worth mentioning, that all political
theorizing, and all writing concerning the history of political thought,
3 4 5
Pocock 2004, pp. 537À8. Skinner 1969. See esp. Skinner 2002a.
258 richard e. flathman
are in one or another here and now (as distinct from the everywhere and
always). The thinkers that we regard as political theorists thought and
wrote, think and write, in a time and place specific to them; writers
concerning the history of political thought, whatever the then and there
that is their focus, perform their studies and their writings in an
identifiable À that is their own À times and places. All thinking and
writing, however much its authors are concerned with a then and there of
another specified time and place, are in the mode of the present, in the
mode of the here and now. Insofar as they refer, explicitly or implicitly,
to the past, that past is what Oakeshott calls the ˜present past™.6
Oakeshott distinguishes, however, between the present ˜practical past™
and the present ˜historical past™. If, or to the extent that, political theorists
are interested in the past (as distinct from the everywhere and always),
their interest is predominantly if not exclusively in the past as it bears
upon the present interests and desires, objectives and purposes, of the
theorist. The political theorist, qua political theorist, has no interest
in, no use for, there™s and then™s that have no bearing on the here and
now (though of course she or he may be influenced, knowingly or
unknowingly, by there™s and then™s that in fact have a bearing on the here
and now and it may be illuminating for historians of political thought to
show that this is the case). In this respect, the interest of the political
theorist in the past is, generically, the same as that of the moralist, the
statesman, the businessman or the cook. For reasons already discussed,
the same is true of canonical students of the history of political theory
who understand it to be a search for correct answers to ˜perennial
questions™, that is questions of present and future importance.
By contrast, contextualist historians of political thought À again as
such and in what may be an idealized understanding À generally have no
interest in the bearing of the concepts and ideas they study on the here
and now. They seek to understand the emergence of concepts and ideas
from the confluence of languages, intentions, thinkings, actings and other
events that preceded and surrounded them; they seek to identify the
meanings of the concepts and ideas in the then™s and there™s in which
they, as evidenced by the texts and text analogues that come to the
historian™s attention, played a significant role. Mentions of the bearing of
the ideas and events on the here and now of the historian (to say nothing

6
Oakeshott 1933; Oakeshott 1983, chs. 1À3; Oakeshott 1991. Note that a modest version of the
notion of the always and everywhere has crept in here.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 259
of the everywhere and always) are À to up-date Stendhal À like the
ringing of a cell-phone in the concert hall.
As with the distinctions drawn earlier, it is clear that those just sketched
distinguish among ideal-types or, in terms that Oakeshott uses in
discussing the ˜Modern European States™, ˜ideal characters™.7 Just as
Oakeshott does not claim that all or even any modern European states
have or have had, exclusively, the defining characteristics of either
a societas (a politically organized society with no common purpose) or
a universitas (a society held together by a common purpose), he does not
claim that all instances of thinking and writing concerning the past fit
neatly into the categories ˜practical past™, ˜historical past™ or ˜past past™.
But he does claim that the elements or components of all such instances
can be parsed, can be distinguished and differentiated, by using those
categories. He also claims that doing so provides the criteria relevant to
evaluating the merits of the thinking and writing that one is assessing.
In the next section of my chapter, I consider the value of his distin-
ctions and of the related distinctions introduced earlier. In particular
I consider whether employing these distinctions helps to identify
congruencies and complementarities as well as differences among the
understandings and approaches that the distinctions differentiate. Before
doing so I should say a bit more about the third pair of terms in my title,
that is the always and everywhere.
Taken in full seriousness, that is as the view that there are questions
pertinent not only to all known but to all possible (human?) experience,
and that there are answers to those questions that not only are but must
be true or valid of all human experience, this notion or view now seems to
me to be little better than fantastic. If, as I think is the case, I was once
attracted to it, just about everything that has transpired in the century in
which I have lived most of my life, and not a little that has been recovered
from earlier thinking and acting, has disabused me of it but not of the
conviction that political theorizing as identified above is a possible and
a valuable form of thought/action. But if we are to understand what many
theorists and not a few political actors have thought they were doing,
or understood themselves to be trying to do, we have to recognize that
the notion of the everywhere and always, and the possibility À certainly
the desirability À of giving that notion what Oakeshott and other
Philosophical Idealists call ˜fully coherent concreteness™, has played and

7
Oakeshott 1975, chs. 1, 3.
260 richard e. flathman
continues to play an important role in political and other modes of
theorizing and (regrettably) in not a little political acting.
Leaving aside religious thinkers, it is more than merely arguable that
Plato, Kant, Bradley and other Philosophical Idealists (Hegel is a difficult
case) have understood their thinking about the here and now and the
there and then to be also À and more importantly À thinking about the
always and everywhere. Oakeshott himself saw no prospect of actually
attaining to the fully coherent concrete whole, but he continued to think
that the idea of such an attainment, even if only flickering in the back of
the thinker™s mind, was À at least for the philosopher as distinct from the
theorist À a valuable, perhaps an indispensable heuristic. If Oakeshott
wrote any history (which is doubtful) it was the history of historiography,
that is the history of the emergence of the ˜postulates™ of the activity of
being an historian. His writings concerning the ˜Modern European State™
and related essays quite clearly do not, are not intended by him, to satisfy
his own criteria of historical study. In his terminology, they are reflections
on the practical past. Another thinker who comes to mind in this
connection is Hannah Arendt. Numerous of her writings make references

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