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Reflections Concerning Political Theory 267
explain or understand the past, it was to arrive at right answers to the
questions they addressed and to present arguments supporting those
answers. In Oakeshott™s terms, their concern with the past was with the
practical not the historical past, but with the qualification that theory
could and should govern practice, that theorizing was the most valuable
kind of practicing. Oakeshott may be justified in saying that they
sometimes abandoned the role of theorist and became what he scathingly
calls theoreticians. He makes this charge most explicitly against Plato but
he seems also to have Kant and Hegel in mind and he certainly brings the
charge against all those that he designated rationalists.19 There are
admixtures of concern with the past in their texts, but their primary
purpose was to arrive at demonstratively true answers to questions of
continuing import. This is the most distinctive feature of their thinking.
That there are major disagreements among them, and that generations of
scholars who have studied them disagree with some or all of their
conclusions is important; but so is the fact that those among them that
came later in time found themselves obliged to engage the formulations
of their predecessors, and that generations of students and historians
of political thought have felt the same obligation.

Interregnum II
What do professors of political theory teach? There is of course no single
answer to this question, but the preponderance of the graduate
programmes known to me (that is, those that include political theory)
teach a remarkably similar selection of texts. And every such under-
graduate programme also teaches a selection of those same texts. Why?
It is no doubt partly because the canonical approach to the study of past
political theorizing remains dominant in most universities and colleges.
But while I have learned much and will surely continue to learn more
from studies of that kind, I ask graduate students to read various
selections of the canonical texts because doing so sharpens their thinking
(and of course for the more mundane, professional, reason that when they
go on to teach political theory they will be expected to be familiar with
them). And I present various of those texts to undergraduates (very few of
whom will go on to graduate study and academic careers) because I have
found no better way to get them interested in and able to think critically
about political questions. As is increasingly common in the political
19
Oakeshott 1975, pp. 29À31.
268 richard e. flathman
theory programmes known to me (and it is a welcome development) I try
to take account of and present the findings of contextual histories; and
there are always some students who find these to be the most engaging
features of the classes I teach. But these are, and I expect they will remain,
a small minority. Most of the best of the students I have been privileged
to teach are primarily interested in the positions and the arguments for
them that they find in the political theorists they read.
My remarks in Interregnum II provide plenty of evidence (if any were
needed) that there are lots of examples of studies of political theory in the
canonical mode. The fact that leading contextual historians have been
drawn to critique such studies, and that they have no shortage of
examples of such studies to critique, makes it clear that the canonical
approach is very much alive (if not necessarily in the best of health).
Accordingly, I turn quickly to the contextual approach. As before, the
question is less whether strict or pure versions of the contextual history of
political thought are in principle possible (albeit versions of that question
may again arise), but whether or to what extent there are extant examples
of such histories.
Contextualist historians of political thought distinguish their approach
and their objectives most persistently and most sharply from those of
canonical students of that subject. They of course attend closely to the
texts of the thinkers they study, but they hold that the intentions of the
authors they study and the meanings of the texts they have bequeathed to
us cannot be adequately understood without attending to the contexts in
which they were written (enacted), in particular the issues and choices
that were before their authors and the languages and styles of argument
and presentation that were available to their authors. Because these
contexts are constantly changing, the notion that there are timeless,
perennial, questions that can be addressed, and ˜unit ideas™ concerning
them that express, even if with some variations, answers to those
questions (questions concerning the always and everywhere and timelessly
correct answers to those questions) is mythological and leads not to
history but to mythologies. Of course in distinguishing their approach
from the (generic) approach of the canonical historians, contextualists at
least appear to be denying the actuality (the possibility?) of political
theorizing as characterized it here. The view that there are no timeless,
perennial questions at least appears to deny the possibility of a mode of
theorizing that identifies and seeks to find correct answers to such
questions. I suggest below that there are some respects in which this
appearance, if in fact it was ever advanced, is misleading.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 269
Reverting to Oakeshott™s distinctions, there are important respects in
which contextual historians concern themselves primarily (but not, I
argue, exclusively) with the historical not the practical past. They of
course recognize that they work in the present past; that their historical
studies are done in a here and now and are chosen and carried out in part
in response to questions that previous or contemporary students of the
past (and probably of political theory) have raised and attempted to
answer. (An obvious example is the one already discussed: that is, the
attention and energy that contextualists have devoted to critiquing the
canonical approach. To mention but one prominent but more historical
than historiographical example, consider the many ways in which the
renaissance studies of Hans Baron figure in more recent studies of the
same period.)20 More generally, there is a personal, one might say a
subjective, quality to their work as to everyone™s. Why does this or that
person study past political theories rather than, say, current welfare
policies in Denmark or relations between the Sunnis and the Shi™ites in
Iraq? Given a disposition to historical study, why does not one study the
conflict between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks or the Boer War? Given
a disposition to study past political thinking, why does one study early-
modern political thought rather than the history of utilitarianism or of
contractualism from Locke and Kant to Rawls? However they may have
developed, these dispositional preferences cannot be eliminated or
entirely suppressed. But they can be explained and disciplined. In the
course of their studies, contextualist historians have frequently made
cogent cases for the value of their inquiries and for their claims that those
of different moral, political and other sensibilities and orientations can
and should endorse their historical claims.
Notwithstanding their recognition of these features of their work,
contextualist historians claim that their primary objective is not to
resolve, or to contribute to the resolution of, present practical political
questions, but to better understand the past thinkings/actings that they
study. To the limited extent that I am familiar with the studies of this
school, I am convinced that numerous of them make good on this claim,
this self-characterization. In my judgement especially clear cases are John
Pocock™s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957) and Noel
Malcolm™s studies of Hobbes, but there are lengthy stretches in the works
of, for example, Skinner, Tully, and Tuck that do so. Present or later
contextualist historians À to say nothing of Nietzschean perspectivalists
20
Baron 1966; Hankins 2000.
270 richard e. flathman
and post-modernists or deconstructionists À may be able to show that the
studies of Pocock, Malcolm, Skinner et al. are influenced by normative or
other ˜practical™ commitments, but I see no reason to think that doing so
will impugn or discredit their historical claims. The only considerations
that would discredit or qualify those claims is historical evidence that goes
against them.
These thoughts bring me to complexities in, and some divergencies
among, the contextual historians. This school of thought has produced an
exceptionally large and wide-ranging corpus of historical studies and
I have neither the space nor the competence to explore these matters in
a thorough-going way. Guided in part by the distinctions I have been
using, I will briefly discuss a selection of the studies of Quentin Skinner
and some of those of Richard Tuck.
Along with Pocock and John Dunn, Skinner has forcefully critiqued
canonical studies of the history of political thought. But he has responded
with equal vigour to the charge that his studies are purely antiquarian,
that they provide nothing of interest or value to political theorists and/or
political scientists who address issues of present importance.21 He
emphatically does not claim to be offering specific solutions to particular
current political problems but he, quite rightly in my view, insists that his
historical investigations can contribute in valuable ways to our think-
ing about those problems. In one of several presentations of this view, and
with reference to recent discussions of liberty, he writes: ˜it is remarkably
difficult to avoid falling under the spell of our own intellectual heritage.
As we analyse and reflect on or normative concepts, it is easy to become
bewitched into believing that the ways of thinking about them
bequeathed to us by the mainstream of our intellectual traditions must
be the ways of thinking about them. It seems to me that an element of
such bewitchment has entered even into Berlin™s justly celebrated account
[of liberty or freedom]. Berlin takes himself to be pursuing the purely
neutral task of showing what a philosophical analysis of our concepts
requires us to say about the essence of liberty. But it is striking, to say the

21
As this criticism has been mounted by Gunnell 1979; Gunnell 1982; and Tarlton 1973. Skinner
1988 correctly says that the charge has a philistine quality. I would go further: Gunnell has
argued that both contextual historians and various contemporary political theorists fail to
address currently pressing political questions. But rather than addressing such questions himself,
he devotes himself to criticizing the writings of others. Thus even if he is correct that those he
critiques are at one remove from current political questions, he himself is at two removes from
the issues he claims should be the subjects of political theorizing and of the history of political
thought.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 271
least, that his analysis follows exactly the same path as the classical liberal
theorists had earlier followed in their efforts to discredit the neo-Roman
theory of free states™.22
Thus Skinner and other contextualist historians do two things at once:
first, they inform the theorist of the historicity of his/her thinking;
secondly, but relatedly, they inform the theorists of a historical continuity
in which his/her thinking is situated. For example, Skinner argues that by
˜excavating™ the alternative neo-Roman conception of freedom, as with
analogous recoveries of earlier conceptions of political concepts and ideas
that differ from those now regnant, the ˜history of philosophy, and
perhaps especially of moral, social and political philosophy, is there to
prevent us from becoming too readily bewitched. The intellectual
historian can help us to appreciate how far the values embodied in our
present way of life, and our present ways of thinking about those values,
reflect a series of choices made at different times between different
possible worlds. This awareness can help to liberate us from the grip of
any one hegemonal account of those values and how they should be
interpreted and understood. Equipped with a broader sense of possibility,
we can stand back from the intellectual commitments we have inherited
and ask ourselves in a new spirit of enquiry what we should think of
them™.23
In the terms I used earlier, Skinner™s position is that historical studies
can widen and deepen thinking and acting in the here and now, including
that mode of thinking/acting that is political theorizing. Although
perhaps modest by comparison with the objectives of the canonical
historians and with related but differently based views that I consider
below, Skinner™s defence against the charge that his studies are merely
antiquarian does take it as uncontroversial that the commonalities
between, say, liberal and neo-Roman conceptions of freedom are suffi-
cient to allow us to compare and contrast them in ways not only
intelligible but important to us. Once recovered, an understanding of the
neo-Roman view of freedom can be brought into significant ideational
and normative juxtapositions with liberal conceptions of freedom;
whether effecting such juxtapositions leads us to reaffirm our commit-
ment to the liberal view, to move our thinking in the direction of


22
Skinner 1998, p. 116.
23
Skinner 1998, pp. 116À17; see also Skinner 2002a, pp. viii, 5À7.
272 richard e. flathman
a neo-Roman understanding, or, say, to develop a hybrid view,24 is
a question that historical studies do not answer. But having the com-
parisons and contrasts in mind will help us to ˜ruminate™ in a more
informed manner concerning the choices that we have made and
continue to make.25 (This is very much a Millian thought, although
perhaps not one attended with the most soaring of Millian expectations
or hopes.)
It is tempting to introduce at this juncture Rawls™s distinction between
concepts that are shared and conceptions concerning those concepts
about which we are in disagreement.26 Rawls™s concern being with justice
and right, his attempt to bring about reasoned agreement concerning
them presupposes that we can understand and fruitfully engage with one
another, do not simply and fruitlessly talk past one another, as we argue
for particular conceptions of justice and right. He claims (somewhat
abruptly in A Theory of Justice) that it is the fact that we share concepts
of justice and right that makes this possible. As regards the concepts
that Skinner is addressing in the work just cited, liberty or freedom, we
can understand both liberal and neo-Roman conceptions, can fruitfully
argue over their respective merits, because the concepts of freedom and
liberty are salient features of our shared conceptual inheritance and
experience.
There are, however, respects in which Skinner introduces and partly
endorses positions substantially more general than Rawls™s account of the
particular concepts of justice and right (or, in the matter specifically at
issue in the text under discussion, of liberty/freedom). In one of
numerous references to the work of Donald Davidson, he says: ˜There is
unquestionably a deeper level of continuity underlying the dispute I have
been examining over the understanding of individual liberty. The dispute
revolves, in effect, around the questions of whether dependence should be
recognized as a species of constraint; but both sides assume that the
concept of liberty must basically be construed as absence of constraint on
some interpretation of that term. The point of considering this example
has not been to plead for the adoption of an alien value from a world


24
Cf. Scheffler 1982, addressing a related issue.
25
In a welcome invocation, Skinner 1998, p. 118, favourably cites Nietzsche™s example of the cow
which has a separate organ that allows it to ruminate concerning materials that it has ingested:
Nietzsche 1994, p. 10.
26
Rawls 1971, ch. 1.
Reflections Concerning Political Theory 273
we have lost; it has been to uncover a lost reading of a value common to
us and to that valued world™.27
These are welcome and effective responses to the charge that
contextualist studies are merely antiquarian, that they are studies of the
past past not the historical past. What bearing do they have on the
distinction between the historical past and the practical past? Certainly
the largest parts of Skinner™s work are in the mode of the historical not
the practical past and hence show the continuing value of that distinction.
Certainly his works are importantly distinct from the works of students
of the canonical persuasion. As with Oakeshott™s ˜ideal characters™,
however, these distinctions sort out predominant tendencies in a large
body of writing that, happily in my view, also includes elements of
a ˜practical™ character, elements that show a concern with the relevance
of then and there to here and now (and maybe to the everywhere and
always).28
By way of further exploring complexities within the contextualist
school I turn to some writings of Richard Tuck, writings that shed light
on the value but also the limitations of the distinctions I am using. There

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