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and allusions to past there™s and then™s and her perceptions concerning
the rise of what she calls ˜the social™ may be of interest to historians, but
we will be sorely disappointed if we look to her for instruction
concerning, certainly of explanations for, the there™s and then™s that she
instances. She too is a paradigm example of history viewed from the
perspective of the practical past. The same might also be said of Leo
Strauss.
It is at least arguable that Thomas Hobbes thought that important
aspects of his thinking, those that he pleased himself to call scientific, had
a character similar to Oakeshott™s heuristic conception of the always and
the everywhere. He of course admitted (no, insisted) that his science of
the political (and the moral) took its beginnings from stipulations that
could have been otherwise. But he thought that, once accepted, what he
called ratiocination (the ˜adding and subtracting™ of the meanings of the
stipulated terms) would lead to indisputable conclusions that would hold
always and everywhere unless the stipulations were changed. With an
important qualification, the same can be said concerning some of those
political theorists that are called utopians. Of course these theorists,
¨
perhaps most notably Karl Marx but also Jurgen Habermas, would not
have said that the utopian parts of their theories were true of any actual
there or then or here and now, but they held that once put into practice
their theories would be true always and everywhere in the future.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 261
As Marx sometimes put it, history, that is significant change, would end.
The history of political thinking could still be investigated and recounted,
but it would have no bearing on the present or the future À would be
purely antiquarian. There are places in which these theorists write as
if they are studying the history of political (and other modes of ) thought
and action, but when they do so they understand themselves to be
identifying a progression that could, or should, have only one culmi-
nation. By contrast, Philosophical Idealists such as Plato and Bradley
thought that their theories identified and rendered reality as it has always
been and can only be, all appearances to the contrary being just that,
appearances.

iii
The views and understandings considered thus far emphasize the dif-
ferences between political theorizing and the study/writing of the history
of political thought and among contrasting and competing approaches to
the latter. But they also implicitly call attention to commonalities among
these modes of inquiry and reflection. If there were no commonalities,
comparison among them would be, if not impossible, of little fruition.
Given that there are some significant commonalities, there is the possi-
bility of complementarities as well as differentiations among and between
them.
The obvious commonality among the canonical and contextual con-
ceptions of the study/writing of the history of political thought is
two-fold: in Oakeshott™s terminology, they are both concerned (but for
different reasons) with the present past, with the past as it is, here and
now, perceived, understood and interpreted by those who study it. In an
historical perspective, however, this is also true of political theorizing,
even theorizing that aims to discern and articulate the everywhere and
always. Reflections with this objective are of course carried out in a
specific time and place and necessarily engage with, and reflect on, con-
cepts and ideas that have come to the theorist from present and past
formulations.
This commonality between political theorizing and studies concerning
the history of political thought coexists with and, I argue, creates the
possibility not only of some meaningful comparisons but also of degrees
of complementarity between these two forms or modes or intellectual
activity. Those conventionally regarded as political theorists, say Hobbes
or Mill, thought and wrote in the there and then of their own time and
262 richard e. flathman
place, a there and then that can be fruitfully identified by students of the
history of political thinking. Important aspects of their thinking may be
revealed by close examination of both the there and then in which their
thinking took place and of the earlier then™s and there™s that figured,
importantly (however knowingly or self-consciously) in their reflections
and articulations. Many if not all of the concepts and ideas that political
theorists critique and on which they seek to improve have lengthy and
complex histories; as with the rest of us, political theorists, however
extrahistorical (transcendental?) their objectives may be, become familiar
with parts of their histories as they learn to think in and about them.
In both their critical and constructive activities political theorists often
attempt to effect changes in the stock of ideas and concepts that they
inherit; but neither the changes nor the continuities in their formulations
can be understood, by the theorists themselves or by their audiences,
apart from their histories. Thus just as political theorists provide
historians of political theory with important parts of their subject matter,
so historians of political theory can be valuable to political theorists
by enlarging and deepening their command of the concepts and ideas
in and about which they think. If political theorists aim to think
constructively concerning the ideas and concepts that interest them, it is
plausible to think that their theorizing will benefit from having a clear
understanding of the meanings that those ideas and concepts have
acquired and have become available to them. The work of John Rawls is
instructive in this respect. It might be argued that the concepts and
conceptions that he employs in A Theory of Justice (1971) can be under-
stood without reference to the history of their uses in contractarian,
utilitarian and related movements of thought and action that preceded his
writing. Rawls locates his reflections in the contractarian tradition and
contrasts them with utilitarianism, but he provides little of the details of
either of what he recognizes as the historical antecedents of his thinking.
As becomes clear from his later (including posthumuous) publications,
however, his thinking was importantly inflected by the histories of these
ideas.8

Interregnum I
It is arguable that the possibility of complementarities of the kinds
mentioned was significantly enhanced as the differences between political

8
See especially Rawls 2000.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 263
theorizing and among differing ways of studying/writing the history of
political thought became more clearly delineated, a development that
so far as I know (a ˜so far as™ that could easily be exaggerated) did not
become clearly discernible until, at the earliest, the later years of the
nineteenth century and perhaps not until the emergence of the
Cambridge or contextualist school. Of course there have been histories
from Herodotus and Thucydides forward and there were histories of
philosophy (for example that of Diogenes Laertius), many of which
recount and interpret the political ideas that their authors thought were
influential in the events that were the subject matters of their histories.
Many thinkers now conventionally regarded as political theorists gave
those histories close attention À Machiavelli being only the most obvious
example. So far as I have been able to determine, however, it was not À
Vico may be a partial exception À until the late nineteenth and more
likely the early parts of the twentieth century, that studies of the history of
political (and philosophical) thought were distinguished from either
political theorizing or general histories of politics, philosophy and related
dimensions of human experience. In the early nineteenth century,
William Whewell wrote a history of moral and political thought, Henry
Sidgwick later did the same, while in the seventeenth, eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries several histories of philosophy were written by
German, French and other scholars. My impression is that these were in
the ˜canonical™ mode. What seems clear is that in the last one hundred-
plus years there have developed improved distinctions between political
theorizing and the study of the history of political thought, as well as
among various alternative modes of studying the latter. However one
assesses the merits of inquiries and reflections in the several modes, it
seems clear that the emergence of these distinctions has made possible
the identification of complementarities as well as differentiations among
the several modes of inquiry and reflection that are now distinguished.
This is a major contribution of the contextualist school.
Whatever exact dating we assign to the emergence and clarification of
the distinction between canonical and contextualist approaches with
which I have been working, they are now well in place. And this enables
us to ask concerning the ways they advantage and disadvantage one
another. To begin with the question of the ways in which ˜canonical™
historians of the history of political thought may benefit from the
researches of contextual historians of the subject, it is undeniable that, say,
Sabine™s discussions of Aristotle, Machiavelli or Hegel would have
benefitted from a more detailed understanding of the contexts in which
264 richard e. flathman
these thinkers formulated their ideas. At the same time, however, Sabine
had made a close study of the texts of these writers and has provided
others interested in them with detailed accounts of features prominent
in those texts.9 Of course the contextually oriented historian of political
thought could acquire the same textual familiarity without any help from
Sabine, but the texts in question are complex and subject to various
interpretations and reading, say, Sabine™s accounts of them might inform
or usefully jostle the mind of the contextually oriented historians in ways
that enhance their own readings. Pocock, Skinner and other contextualists
recognize that the writings of canonical historians have sometimes yielded
valuable results.
This brings me to a quite general question concerning the notion of
context. The relationship between text and context is a variable and
disputable, not an unequivocal feature of recovering and achieving an
improved understanding of a text or text analogue. Consider the case of
Hobbes. Pocock has located important parts of his thinking in the context
of theological disputations;10 A. E. Taylor and Howard Warrender place
him in the context of natural law theories leading to Kant;11 Skinner
positions Leviathan in the setting of neo-classical rhetorical writings;12
Richard Tuck treats him as continuing and developing neo-Stoical and
skeptical constructions;13 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer interpret him
as participating in controversies concerning the appropriate methodol-
ogies of natural and mathematical sciences:14 these students of his thought
locate him in ways that can be historically validated. By contrast, Gregory
Kavka and Deborah Baumgold see him as an early contributor to rational
choice theory;15 numerous students locate him in the tradition of
contractarian thinking; Oakeshott characterizes him as a theorist of ˜Will
and Artifice™ and more generally as a leading contributor to ˜epic™ political
theory;16 and so forth. To take but one of numerous other possible
examples, J. S. Mill has sometimes been characterized as continuing but
entering important modifications in Benthamite utilitarianism, as a
liberal in the tradition of Constant, as an elitist individualist who is best
compared with Emerson and Nietzsche and as a forerunner of twentieth
and twentieth-first century feminist theory. I do not think that I am the
only student of these works who, despite important disagreements with

9 10 11
Sabine 1955. Pocock 1971. Taylor 1938; Warrender 1957.
12 13 14
Skinner 1996; Skinner 2002c. Tuck 1989; Tuck 1993. Shapin and Schaffer 1985.
15 16
Kavka 1986; Baumgold 1988. Oakeshott 1955.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 265
them, has learned from all of these studies. None of these interpreters
need disagree with the others.
Different as they are, these contextualizations can be viewed as
complementary rather than competing or mutually exclusive. Hobbes
and Mill are complex thinkers whose work can fruitfully be viewed from
a variety of perspectives. Because both of them aspired to ˜get it right™
concerning some of the issues they addressed, they are appropriately
classified and assessed as political theorists. Approached in this way, the
(or at least a) context relevant to understanding and assessing their work
is the history of other attempts, whether prior to, contemporary with, or
later than their own thinking. Hobbes™s blistering attacks on ˜the vain
philosophy of Aristotle™ and ˜Aristotelity™, and his protracted diatribe
against cardinal Bellarmine and other theologians cannot be understood
or evaluated without a knowledge of what they said and especially what
he took them to be saying. It is of course absurd (because both an
anachronism and a prolepsis) to treat him as anticipating the thinking of
Hume or Kant, but there is nothing absurd about critically comparing his
skeptical nominalism with Hume™s or his importantly naturalistic ethics
with Kant™s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. No one would
dispute the importance of Mill™s responses to Bentham and his father, but
important aspects of his thinking also require attention to his critiques of
Kant and Rousseau, his favourable citations of George Grote™s study of
Plato, the continuities and discontinuities between his and earlier writings
concerning political economy. Anachronistic or proleptic as it may be,
I have found it fruitful to read his A System of Logic with and against
Wittgenstein™s Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations.
At the same time, Hobbes and Mill were engaged with and vigorously
responsive to intellectual and political events of the here™s and now™s of
their own times. In this respect studies of the more immediate contexts of
their thinking are not merely valuable, they are indispensable. Despite the
many earlier canonical commentaries on Hobbes™s thought it is only
recently that we have learned more than the barest details concerning his
life and his many practical involvements. Thanks to the work of Skinner,
Tuck, Malcolm, and others, we now know a great deal about his
activities;17 and what they have taught us is illuminating about his
thought as well as his life. Just as Peter Laslett, James Tully, John Marshall
and others have transformed the study of John Locke, so the historians

17
See Skinner 1996; Skinner 2000c; Tuck 1989; Tuck 1993; Malcolm 2002, among others.
266 richard e. flathman
just mentioned have given us insights into Hobbes™ thinking that could
not have been achieved in any other way.18
The study of important political theorists is a cooperative activity that
can be done in many ways and in the pursuit of diverse objectives. That
differing purposes and ˜methodologies™ often lead to disagreements is not
only to be expected but welcomed. To borrow a figure from the Preface of
Wittgenstein™s Investigations, the same thinkers can be approached afresh
from different directions, producing a picture of the ˜landscape™ that is
their lives and thoughts. To repeat what I said above, that we now have
a clearer understanding of differing conceptions of the study of political
thought allows us to see the advantages and disadvantages of leading
approaches and to understand ways in which their results complement as
well as conflict with one another.


iv
I now revisit the distinctions that have been introduced thus far and ask
to what extent they clearly distinguish among political theorists on the
one hand and, on the other, canonical students and contextualist
historians of political thought. Do we in fact find thinkers and writers
who, if not throughout the writings, in identifiable dimensions or aspects
of their work, present clear examples of the several approaches or
understandings outlined in previous sections?
I opined earlier that there are clear examples of political theorizing as
I have characterized that form of thought and action. It is not merely that
this is an in principle possible way or mode of thinking/acting. Rather,
it is whether Plato, parts of Aristotle, parts of Hobbes and of Kant,
Rousseau, Hegel and Mill exemplify it. Of course these writers thought
in particular times and places and were influenced, sometimes knowingly
sometimes not, by the conceptual and ideational resources that they
inherited. These are aspects of their thinking that could be but seldom are
investigated by canonical students of political thought and are intensively
studied by the trademark methods of contextual historians of that subject.
The political theorists just listed often critique, explicitly or implicitly,
thinkers contemporary with them and those that preceded them (Plato
critiquing the pre-Socratics; Aristotle critiquing Plato; Hobbes, Aristotle;
Hegel, Kant; and so forth). But their purpose in doing so was not to
18
See Laslett™s introduction in Locke 1988; Tully 1979; Tully 1993a; Tully 1993b; Marshall 1994;
Marshall 2005.

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