nothing about the emergence of the art of the novel in the early-modern
period. Had they considered this further genre, it is possible that their
minatory tone might have been a little more muted. Nevertheless, their
warnings remain highly salutary, as Jean Howardâ€™s chapter illustrates
with particular force. Shakespeareâ€™s dramas, she insists, are just that: they
are dramas, in which political positions are not so much adopted and
defended as shown to be in collision with each other. Do not ask, she
writes, whether Shakespeare is for or against Jack Cade in Act IV of The
First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI). Shakespeare should not be
thought of as announcing a commitment, but rather as inviting us to
reflect on a very different world from the one in which we live.
There is a further way in which several of the literary scholars raise a
doubt about the centrality of â€˜political thoughtâ€™. The general contention
they put forward strikes me as interestingly comparable to a criticism
often levelled by art historians against the study of iconography. Scholars
in the tradition of Erwin Panofsky, it now tends to be objected, illicitly
gave priority to the written word. They treated iconographical schemes
as mere illustrations of texts, whereas they ought to have recognized
that paintings can equally well be works of moral or political theory in
their own right. The point here is not just that artists obviously conduct
their arguments in a distinctive style; it is also that paintings can act upon
us with unusual power, and may even contain arguments not available
A strongly analogous commitment seems to me to animate, in
different ways, the chapters by Andrew Hadfield, Karen Oâ€™Brien and
Steven Zwicker. I have one slight doubt, I confess, about Professor
Zwickerâ€™s way of setting up the case. He maintains that â€˜suggestion,
innuendo and irony are not the familiar tools of discursive and philo-
sophical proseâ€™, and that these techniques may constitute one of the
distinctive incursions from the field of literature into the domain of
political thought. Any intellectual historian who has ever tried to come to
terms with Platoâ€™s numerous indirections, or Machiavelliâ€™s penchant for
satire, or Humeâ€™s liking for jokes and parodies, will I think be likely to
bridle at this point. Moreover, there is no reason to limit ourselves to the
grandmasters by way of registering this doubt. Any work of philosophy
will inescapably be a literary artifact, and if historians of philosophy
neglect this Derridean insight Ã€ as they commonly do Ã€ then it is
certainly to their cost.
I emphatically agree with Professor Zwicker, however, that the
characteristic talents of dramatists and poets are such that they often
succeed in making distinctive and challenging interventions in political
debate. Professor Zwicker illustrates the claim from his reading of
Dryden, who was able to state his political allegiances and to place a
question-mark against them all at once, producing a fabric of reasoning
that is shimmering rather than directly reflective in its effect. Drydenâ€™s
irony has the consequence of introducing a subtle even-handedness
into his treatment of patriarchal theories of government and political
obligation, and this achievement is undoubtedly an outcome of his
Professor Oâ€™Brien carries the argument still further, repudiating
the usual cliches about imaginative literature as an echo-chamber and
offering us a sense of how poetry can instead function as a laboratory
of new ideas. Ut philosophia poesis. Taking the case of Enlightenment
discussions about the ethics of empire, Professor Oâ€™Brien shows that one
of the distinctive contributions of the poets was to foreground the
comforting suggestion that imperialism can be viewed as a benevolent
form of trusteeship. I would have welcomed more comment on the
fascinating fact that this rhetoric appears to have reached its apogee
specifically in female poets Ã€ especially Anna Seward and Hannah
More Ã€ but this is hardly an objection to Professor Oâ€™Brienâ€™s general
point. My only doubt is one that assailed me as soon as I started to read
the works of Seward and More on which Professor Oâ€™Brien bases her case.
Much of the verse turns out to be embarrassingly undistinguished, with
forced and jingling rhymes and some comical aspirations to sublimity.
This prompts me to wonder how far the vocation of the poet may
inevitably be compromised by the ambition to write in a strongly didactic
mode. And this in turn prompts me to wonder if there may not after
all be a relatively limited role for poetry to play as a vehicle for effective
Professor Hadfield likewise calls in question the alleged boundary
between literature and political thought. If, he persuasively maintains,
we think of republicanism simply as a political theory and programme,
this will not only lead us to post-date its appearance but drastically to
underestimate its significance in what Castoriadis would call the social
imaginary of early-modern Britain. We need to think of republicanism at
the same time as an aesthetic phenomenon, and to recognize that, in the
telling of stories about the nature and virtues of republican rule, we find
ourselves confronting a specifically literary dimension to the debate.
282 quentin skinner
I warmly endorse Professor Hadfieldâ€™s contention that political historians
have failed to recognize the extent to which a republican sensibility can
be found in Renaissance England, especially in the closing decades of
Elizabethâ€™s reign. I would go further and add that the attempt to imagine
a self-governing civitas in English political discourse antedates even
Professor Hadfieldâ€™s remakable examples from the 1590s, since we already
encounter it in Thomas Moreâ€™s Utopia of 1516.
I promised at the outset to tug on three separate threads, and I now
want to turn to the category of the early-modern in the study of British
political thought. I should like in particular to say something about the
relations between early modernity and the present. Unless we wish to turn
ourselves into the kind of antiquarian seemingly commended at the end
of Professor Kiddâ€™s chapter, we shall want to take advantage of whatever
insights we can gain from each of these historical periods in order to
illuminate the other. One direction of this intellectual traffic is clearly
indicated in Joanne Wrightâ€™s chapter. Changes in our own social per-
ceptions can have the effect of alerting us to neglected early-modern texts,
or to new facets of familiar texts that we might not previously have been
primed to recognize. Professor Wrightâ€™s own example comes from her
research on Margaret Cavendish. As she observes, there can be little doubt
that the feminism of the 1960s, with its slogan that the personal is
the political, not only served to direct scholars towards Cavendishâ€™s work,
but helped them at the same time to appreciate how extraordinary
and unblinking is Cavendishâ€™s understanding of marriage essentially as a
power relationship. As our own world revolves, it catches light from the
past in ever-changing ways.
The other direction from which we can hope, in Gadamerâ€™s phrase, to
produce a fusion of horizons is powerfully illustrated in Duncan Ivisonâ€™s
chapter. There are at least two ways, he argues, in which the early-modern
world can act as a possible resource as we grapple with our present
predicament. One is that we may be fortunate enough to come upon a
usable past, a set of beliefs and arguments we can hope to invoke and
apply directly to our own case. Professor Ivison offers as an example the
eirenic vision of the ius naturale presented by Grotius in his De iure belli
et pacis (1625). Rather than helping ourselves to contentious moral
premises in discussing international relations, Grotius suggests, we should
seek to articulate a minimum content to the idea of natural law as a
mechanism for regulating relations among states. This basic idea of a
common standard is now being taken up and developed by a number of
theorists of the international order. The next step will be to design the
institutions needed to enforce the resulting rights, and this is the project
to which Professor Ivison wants us to direct our thoughts.
As Professor Ivison also shows, however, the history of political theory
can equally well provide us with a means of reflecting anew, and perhaps
more critically, on some of our own most cherished assumptions and
beliefs. Drawing on pathfinding work by Richard Tuck, Professor Ivison
offers as an example the liberal theory of rights, considering it in relation
to the imperialism of the early-modern period. The connections between
liberalism and imperialism, he suggests, are not merely chronological but
metaphysical, since the theory of individual rights was available to sustain
as well as to criticize colonialist adventures. Suppose we equate the
ownership of natural rights, as Hobbes and many of his contemporaries
did, with the possession of a blameless liberty of action. Suppose we then
model the rights of sovereign states on the rights of individuals thus
understood, as also became usual in the early-modern period. One
outcome is that imperial conquests are legitimized at a stroke: it will
always be possible to affirm that conquering states are merely exercising
a blameless liberty of action. To see these connections is not merely to
see something that contemporary liberalism tends to overlook; it is also
to acquire a new and perhaps more wary view of our current enthusiasm
for the concept of human rights.
Surveying the range of topics handled in this book, no one could fail to
be struck by the fact that, although a number of canonical names are duly
discussed, the main emphasis falls not on major theorists but on broader
â€˜languagesâ€™ of debate. Richard Flathman, taking note of this orientation,
warns us not to throw out the philosophical baby with the anachronistic
bathwater. This danger will be incurred, he fears, if we wholly repudiate
the more traditional and â€˜canonistâ€™ approach to the study of political
thought. I take his point, but it does not worry me so much, if only
because it seems to me that the canon has never really been given up. As
many of the chapters in this book reveal, we scarcely consider it worth our
while to contextualize writers whom we take to be of marginal interest or
importance. As a result, we find ourselves experiencing something like a
return of the repressed: the literary scholars find themselves talking about
Shakespeare and Dryden, while the historians of political theory talk
about Grotius and Hobbes. These canonical figures are duly contextual-
ized, to be sure; but even if they are to some extent marginalized they
remain stubbornly there.
Despite this â€˜canonistâ€™ survival, however, there is little doubt that
the history of political theory is now being practised in a far more
284 quentin skinner
historically-minded idiom than ever before. We aspire not merely to
interpret a canon of classic texts, but to listen to whole societies talking
to themselves about the values and institutions underpinning their
common life. As a result, we tend to treat the classic texts essentially as
interventions in, and contributions to, these more wide-ranging debates.
One consequence has been that, although we have not lost interest
in understanding what the classic texts say, we have become at least as
much interested in decoding the myriad speech-acts they contain. We try
to establish how far they may be endorsing and commending, or
questioning and criticizing, or satirizing and repudiating prevailing
institutions and beliefs. We are interested not only in what they say but
in what they are up to, and thus in the force of what is said.
This research programme has by now become so well-entrenched that,
as a number of contributors to this book attest, it has become more
interesting to enquire into its limitations than its strengths. Richard
Flathman cautions us against assuming that the project of recovering
speech-acts will necessarily yield more determinate interpretations than
the traditional quest for authorial meaning and intentionality. The
project, he reminds us, of identifying the intellectual traditions that seem
to offer the most illuminating contexts within which to place any given
text will always be a matter of endless scholarly dispute. Professor Zwicker
further cautions us against assuming that, if we succeed in recovering the
force of a particular utterance, this will necessarily be equivalent to
recovering the intentions with which the writer issued it. As he illustrates
with examples from Marvell, it is always possible for an utterance to bear
a certain force whether the author intended it or not. Finally, Kirstie
McClure highlights a further limitation that stems from focusing too
exclusively on texts as the encoding of speech-acts. Taking the case of the
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (among others), she underlines the fact that,
like any other contribution to political theory, the Vindiciae was at the
same time a material object that persisted over time. As a result, it quickly
escaped its original context to take part in arguments of which its author
was wholly unaware. To acquire an historical understanding of any text,
in other words, we need to consider its Fortuna, not merely the range
of speech-acts it may be said to contain.
I cannot end without confessing that I am myself a true believer in the
value of concentrating our efforts at interpretation on the recovery of
speech-acts. Because of this commitment, however, I am all the more
anxious to welcome these comments on the limitations of the approach.
No single set of hermeneutic principles can ever hope to capture more
than a fraction of what we want to know about the texts we study as
intellectual historians and students of literature. We need to remain in
constant dialogue with each other about the rival merits of different
approaches, and no one concerned with the health of any of the three
disciplines represented in this book will want this conversation to be
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