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How to Do Intellectual History: The Skinner Approach

September 28, 2010

Tags World HistoryPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

[Excerpted from an edited transcript of "Ideology and Theories of History," another in a series of six lectures, given in 1986, on the history of economic thought.]

Quentin Skinner (b. 1940)

The basic methodological or philosophical approach to the history of thought that I favor is Skinnerism. I don't mean the evil B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist. I mean Quentin Skinner. Quentin Skinner was a Cambridge political theorist who wrote a magnificent book that I recommend to everybody.

It's not libertarian; it's not free market; but it is a marvelous book on political thought. It's called The Foundation of Modern Political Thought: The Renaissance and the Reformation. The first volume is on Renaissance thinkers, the humanists, and the second is on Reformation thinkers, Luther, Calvin, etc.; and it's just magnificent. Skinner analyzes each of these prominent guys and asks the sort of questions I think are important — political theory, religious theory, etc.

Not only that, but in the history of political thought, in the history of economic thought too, the standard thing is that you have three guys or five guys, right? A typical book of history of political thought, it'll be three French thinkers — bing, bing, bing — or five great political theorists — Aristotle, Machiavelli, etc. — it's sort of like how Leo Strauss does it, except without necessarily assuming they're all great or consistent.

In the Heilbroner approach, for example, it's Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Marshall, Keynes — five guys, five economists. I think this is a rotten way of approaching the history of thought.

In the first place, almost all of these political thinkers and economic thinkers were involved in movements. When they say anything, they have certain intentions. They use the words in a certain way and have a certain author's intention.

In order to understand their intention, you have to understand who they're talking to, who their friends are, who their enemies are, who they're reacting against. In other words, you have to understand the historical context of what they're saying. Skinner goes into detailed critiques of each of these people, and he doesn't slight that, but he also talks about the so-called lesser people, and also about who the big guns were reacting against and how their influence spread from one university after the other, to one country after the other.

You really get a whole sense of the sweep of history. So the works of political thought are not just isolated texts, sitting up there to be worked on, but part of the whole sweep of modern history and history of thought. Also, you can't really understand these guys without figuring out who the other people are and who they're reacting against.

And secondly, a lot of the so-called lesser people are just as good as, just as important as, the big shots. In fact, some are even better, because they are usually purer — often very much so. They take the master's doctrine and build in a consistent framework.

At a political level, for example, in American history, you always hear about Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is a great guy, but the Jeffersonians are much better than he was. They're more consistent. Jefferson sold out when he was in power. But the Jeffersonians usually didn't. They were usually attacking him for selling out. So when you deal with the leading Jeffersonians — Macon, Randolph, Taylor, etc. — you get a much harder-core doctrine than you do if you're only dealing with the leadership.

I favor the whole Skinner approach. There's a very good book on Locke, by Richard Ashcraft. It just came out. It's called Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of Government. What Ashcraft does (he's a Marxist, but that doesn't really affect his method) what he does is he talks about Locke, but not only what his thought was. He takes Locke in the context of the revolutionary libertarian struggle he's engaged in. Ashcraft takes everybody from the Levellers onward. He shows how Locke is related to — descended directly from — the Levellers, a libertarian dissident group.

This also explains why Locke is famous for being a real scaredy-cat. Not only did he write everything anonymously, he kept everything in a locked drawer and so forth and so on. He was considered pathological. Why was the guy scared? Why was he a scared rabbit? Well, he was an exile for ten years of his life. His friends were all being arrested and shot. He had good reason to be scared.

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Anyway, that's just one aspect of it. My mentor in history, Joseph Dorfman, was something like this in the history of American economic thought. Instead of dealing with three or five people, he dealt with everybody. Everything was in there in his five-volume compilation. He was a much better historian than he was an economist, because his economic theory wasn't that sound. On the other hand, Dorfman really got everything in there. He's got all the facts before you. So he was really doing the same sort of thing in American thought.

I admit, of course, that this means that historians engage in a lot of work. It's much easier to take three texts, three guys, and just talk about them. It's much more difficult to find out who the other people are. That's the way life is. Mises used to claim that a European historian should know about eight languages; and before anybody started blanching there in Mises's seminar, he said "Well, nobody's forcing you to be a historian if you don't want to learn eight languages."

So I think it is very important to know the so-called lesser people, as well as the three or four or five top guys.


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