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Quentin Skinner: The History of Politics and the Politics of History
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Common Knowledge 10.3 (2004) 532-550

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Quentin Skinner

The History of Politics and the Politics of History

Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, 3 vols.: Regarding Method, Renaissance Virtues, Hobbes and Civic Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1,088 pp.

It is no light task—I deliberately open in mandarin English—to discuss the work of a professional historian such as Quentin Skinner in a journal such as Common Knowledge. The historians I mean inhabit the academy without serious discomfort and are professionalized as an association of practitioners of various highly specialized disciplines of inquiry. These do not much overlap, and the second-order conversation generated within each is concerned with what its practitioners already know to be going on among them. They have chosen, and to that extent formalized, their subject matter, and though their methods of inquiry may be vehemently debated and rapidly changing, there remains an in-house expectation that they will continue in succession to their former state. Such professionals, in short, believe that they can challenge themselves without unpacking all their presuppositions: notably, the presupposition of scholarly disinterest. Common Knowledge, on the other hand, seems directed at, and even sometimes written by, intellectuals outside of, or uncomfortable in, the academy—writers who mistrust the idea of academic fields and question not just the possibility but the desirability of methodical scholarly inquiry. [End Page 532]

Intellectuals of this latter kind, even when working on what they term historical projects, resemble philosophers and philosophers of history more than they resemble historians. They are interested in history not so much as a multiplicity of experiences, some of which may be reconstructed, as a predicament; they ask what it is like to live in history, and what if anything can be said or done, or said to be, in that condition. They are interested in themselves, they are questioning themselves; and that is philosophy. The historian, on the other hand, obstinately declares that there are ways of basing one's knowledge in one's own world so that it becomes a means of saying what others have been, done, suffered, and said—a declaration that carries the ultimately, if mitigatedly, conservative implication that experience and action persist for long enough to be spoken about.


Socrates and Thucydides were contemporaries. We have no idea whether they knew, or knew of, one another, but if they did it would be possible to fancy that they wisely kept out of each other's way. There is no reason to suppose, and good reason to deny, that philosophers have been much interested in the question central to historians—"what has happened? what is it that has happened?"—or in the historian's discovery that this question can be answered by narrating and renarrating the happening until we discuss the diversity of its meanings (I have just used a singularly dangerous word). The history of historiography can be presented as increasingly one of archaeology. As happenings recede in time, we acquire knowledge of the circumstances in which they happened, so that the narration of events becomes increasingly a narration of their contexts as supplying them with meanings (note the plural). This pursuit has never much interested the philosopher, who desires the meaning of anything to be supplied in the form of an answer to a question put by the philosopher. Inescapably, however, there are occasions on which the two pursuits overlap.

Quentin Skinner, the subject of this review, quotes the English medievalist F. W. Maitland as remarking that until he was past thirty he read very few histories "except histories of philosophy, which don't count."1 Skinner's lifework has been—yet this statement is not complete—devoted to making them count again by representing philosophies as sequences of acts performed in history, necessarily raising the question whether narratives of these acts "count" as history or as philosophy; and, if they count as both, how the two are related to one another. It has been a very English pursuit in...