Unexpected Paths:
On Political Theory and History

This essay sketches some ways of practicing historical contextualization, and of pursuing questions about authorial intention, that do not depend on the anti-presentist separation of the history of political theory from the critical study of contemporary politics, but actually help integrate them; and it proposes that these approaches, though dissimilar in style, have important affinities in spirit with Sheldon Wolin’s own way of doing political theory, and with the account of the relation of theory to politics he expressed in work from “Political Theory as a Vocation” to his contribution to the inaugural issue of this journal.

Nearly two decades ago, the inaugural issue of Theory & Event presented a forum on the relationship of political theory to contemporary social and political life, featuring brief essays on the subject by Sheldon Wolin, Wendy Brown, and Paul Patton.1 The forum was occasioned in part by Jeffrey Isaac’s recent indictment of political theorists’ “strange silence” about the events of 1989 in Central Europe and the Soviet Union, a silence Isaac had attributed to political theory’s development into a “thoroughly professionalized academic subdiscipline,” devoted to metatheoretical questions that were themselves often pursued through the interpretation of a relatively narrow roster of historical texts, and disengaged from burning first-order political issues.2 Without rejecting Isaac’s summons, all three essays warned that engagement was more complicated, and harder to do well, than it might seem. For Patton, this was because theorists could not take events for granted, but had to investigate how “the representation of events...has become part of the unfolding of events themselves.”3 For Brown, it was because a certain “indirection and distance” from the immediacy of events was constitutive of theory’s “proper angle of encounter” with politics.4 And for Wolin, theoretical engagement had become “difficult” thanks to the evanescence of a political world—or, more precisely, an anti-political world—that moved at the speed of unbridled capitalism, leaving no time either for the deliberation constitutive of real politics or for the reflection required by theory.5 Politics must be deliberate if its negotiations of difference are to stand any chance of preserving political bodies riven by conflict. And political theory, Wolin explained, must move at this same pace because it also has a “preservative function,” manifest both “in the amount of labor, perhaps even affection, that accompanies its perpetuation of a canon,” and in “the deliberations about political life that figure in each and every theory and make their construction such a slow and drawn out process.”6

It is worth lingering over Wolin’s doubling of political theory’s “preservative function,” for this doubling complicates the question of theory’s relation to contemporary politics in ways that did not come into the foreground in Wolin’s own comments. How does the study and teaching of the history of political thought relate to the deliberate construction of a theory that can illuminate the politics of the present? Does the affectionate labor of historical scholarship merely draw theory further away from its ultimate object, placing it at a second or third remove from events? What other connections might be forged between these two tasks of slow theory? For me, these questions are rendered particularly acute by some of the frustrating professional conventions of academic political theory, which often represent the history of political theory and theoretical engagement with contemporary politics as separate enterprises. Attentive readers of the American Political Science Association’s paperwork and website, for example, may recall that, although the one division of political theory panels at the Annual Meeting that is coordinated by an active “organized section” is not “Normative Political Theory” or “Historical Approaches” but “Foundations of Political Theory,” the APSA membership form retreats into binarism: a member can declare “normative” or “historical” political theory as an area of interest and specialization, but there is no name for their intersection. And that is not the only place where the bisection of political theory into “normative” or more broadly “contemporary political theory” and “the history of political thought” exercises a powerful magnetic attraction: it is, for example, an obvious way to organize a field exam in a doctoral program, to sort out areas of interest in job listing or graduate school applications, or to position a new professional journal. (It may also be an artifact of political theory’s fragile accommodation with postwar political science, which allowed theory to be tolerated, sometimes, by representing its supposedly central concerns—the distant past on the one hand and the evaluation or critique of the present on the other—as harmlessly marginal to the workings of a social science that frequently understood itself as progressive and value-free; but that’s another story.7) Luckily, political theorists’ own practice is often richer than the Procrustean professional rubrics under which we try to fit what we do.8 But sustaining that richness over time requires reminding ourselves—and showing students—that there is already more complexity to the field than is captured on the disciplinary equivalent of a bad tourist map.9

Wolin himself, for example, never understood these two aspects of political theory to be strictly separable from each other. To be sure, in his identification of two different preservative functions for theory—the “perpetuation of a canon” and “deliberation about political life”—we can hear an echo of his doubled description of political theory decades earlier in “Political Theory as a Vocation,” which treated the steady work of generational transmission undertaken by “those who preserve our understanding of past theories,” on the one hand, and the vocation of the “epic political theorist” who “aims to grasp present structures and interrelationships, and to re-present them in a new way,” on the other, in separate sections.10 But for Wolin these modes of political theory were essential to each other; and in his own work he bridged them brilliantly. He did so, as Corey Robin puts it in a powerful tribute to Wolin, by using each reading of a historical work as an object lesson in political theory’s “location in time and space,” showing us again and again how theorists have wrestled with the “predicaments” posed by their own situations.11 And when Wolin reconstructed these situations in their specificity, Robin observes, he did so not so much by burrowing deeply into the mass of “local interlocutors” with whom a theorist was actually in conversation—the kind of historical contextualism now generally associated with the name of Quentin Skinner and with a (possibly fictional) entity called the “Cambridge School”—but by staging “comparisons and confrontations” among theorists from different eras and places, as though the history of political theory were a “dialogue across time,” thereby “forc[ing] thinkers who never knew each other (maybe never heard of each other) into a conversation.”12 As a historian of political thought, in other words, Wolin approached the local precisely by stepping back from it; this is what made his brand of historicism “radical and bracing,” as Robin rightly calls it; and it is also one of the things that connected it to epic theory, with its distinctive “sweep” and “magnitudes,” and its ambition to grasp the political world whole.13

But if the local can be approached indirectly, by stepping back from it, then so too, I want to insist, can sweep and magnitude. I do not intend this as a criticism of Wolin’s way of proceeding. Rather, as a political theorist for whom Wolin’s work and example has been an essential point of reference since the first time I tracked down “Political Theory as a Vocation” in the Berkeley library stacks as an undergraduate, but whose research over the last several years (on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition) has involved more and more immersion in the local—the eye-glazing hours spent turning mostly irrelevant pages in archives, the collation of variant typescripts, the slow assembly of a chronology of Arendt’s activities in the 1950s, and so on—it has been disorienting to hear that I’m writing, as more than one person has told me, “a sort of Cambridge-school study of Arendt.” I’d like to be able to respond with more than a stuttering “well, yes and no”; but to do that, I would have to be able to explain how certain features of historical scholarship often associated with strongly anti-presentist versions of historical contextualism—in which respect for what Skinner once called the “quite alien” character of past texts and their contexts is supposed to inoculate theorists against anachronism14—can actually serve the same interweaving of historical understanding and critical engagement with the present that Wolin pursued by other means. These include a degree of interest in grey details that will strike many as merely antiquarian, a commitment to the reconstruction of historical contexts whose relevance to the present is uncertain, and a deep investment—it may seem to some to be an overinvestment—in the question of authorial intention. The best route into this, I think, is consider more carefully what contexts are and what contextualization is for.

You do not need to be committed to Skinner’s specific way of appropriating Austin or Wittgenstein to share his general sense that theoretical texts are not fundamentally containers for systematically interconnected sets of propositions, abstractable from the histories of their conception, the forms of their composition, and the modes of their circulation; that they are instead attempts, or records of attempts, to do things in and through words; and that what they say and do, and how they say and do it, are inseparable. (Wolin, as Corey Robin observes, shared this general sensibility; and theorists like Pocock and Derrida—in very different ways but in shared counterpoint to Skinner’s early programmatic essays—have offered pictures of language that, while also broadly pragmatic in this sense, emphasize instead the ways in which utterances and texts are meaningful in their failures, or in doing things other than what was attempted in them: which is why, in historical work as much as in deconstructive interpretation, respect for intention and the tracing of its limits are not opposed but interdependent.15) Contexts, then, might simply be thought of the situations in which these attempts take place. And given the intertwining of form and content in theoretical writing (as perhaps in all kinds), the contexts of political “thought” will therefore be made up not only of universes of contemporaneously possible utterances, but also of the literary genres, technologies of publication, professional institutions, educational systems, labor markets and patronage relationships, social networks, and distributions of power and privilege that have helped make certain texts and their reception possible, as well as of the events that have occasioned them and to which they respond.16 (The “history” that should be of interest to historically minded political theorists is by no means only intellectual.)

Understood in this way, historical contexts can sometimes be used in the way Skinner sketched in his programmatic essays: to set the outer limits of “what an author could have meant” in saying something by showing that certain meanings were not available to him or her. (Recall, for example, the massive historiography around the meaning of Locke’s reference in the Second Treatise to “the turfs my servant has cut,” at the center of which was the question of whether Locke could have meant to refer there to a fully or even nascently capitalist employment relationship.17) But this represents only one very specialized use of contextualization, and since the number of sustained interpretive controversies about single texts that can be resolved by appealing to their contexts in this way is probably fairly small, it is relevant mainly to the task of pinning down and explaining medium-to-long-term transformations in political languages. There is nothing wrong with doing this; but it shouldn’t obscure the existence of other important uses of contextualization—for example, to illuminate the significance of a writer having done one of the things that was available to him or her rather than another; or, as Wolin himself put it, to illustrate by example the “complex interplay between political experience and thought.”18 Indeed, historical contextualization need not be treated as a means to the ultimate end of ascertaining an author’s intention: sometimes, the work of trying to ascertain an author’s intention, as it leads a researcher outward into the networks, institutions, practices, events, and problems that constituted a text’s situations, will itself be a means to the end of understanding the world, including parts of it of which the author might well have been ignorant.

In September of 1950—to give one brief example—Hannah Arendt was making notebook entries on Plato’s Statesman and Laws that veered conspicuously between straightforward transcriptions and German glosses of Greek passages, and outbursts of exasperation with what she saw as a dangerous convergence between philosophy’s claim to rule and its overinvestment in logical consistency at the expense of the real; she seems to have been especially struck by the Athenian Stranger’s proposition that, if a “man who commits no crime is to be honored,” then a man “who reveals the wickedness of another to the authorities” deserves even more respect and will be “winner of the prize for virtue.”19 What difference does it make to learn that, at just this time, American newspapers were full of coverage of the legislative drama that culminated in the adoption of Pat McCarran’s Internal Security Act over President Truman’s veto, establishing the Subversive Activities Control Board and occasioning reports that Hoover’s FBI was prepared to “Seize 12,000 Reds” in the event of an emergency?20 Perhaps none: if the question is whether Arendt—married to a former Communist and, in 1950, not yet a naturalized American citizen—had these events in mind as she read, reacted to, and wrote about Plato, either in these notebooks or in later works that developed these ideas, this detail is suggestive but certainly inconclusive. But for the researcher who is prompted by the abrupt changes in tone in Arendt’s notebook entries to wonder what could have provoked her, this and similar details are powerful because they open out onto a world that was hers no matter what, if anything, she thought about this aspect of it. No matter how much and from how many angles we shine our lights on an author, she will remain, at least to some degree, opaque; but the shadows her figure casts as we do this will disclose something else: the contours of the space she inhabited.21

The investments and commitments this kind of work demands are risky. Interest in authorial intention can lapse into hagiography or moralizing condemnation; it can draw its energy from a sense of mystery that comes close to skepticism’s anxiety about access to the constitutively inaccessible; it can direct attention away from the aspects of a worldly situation that are hardest to discern at the scale of the individual text or even the individual life. The fantasy of the archive—that an obscure source or a hitherto undiscovered document will settle a nagging interpretive problem—is almost always a fantasy, and a temptation to overreading, both in the sense of tendentious reading and in the sense of reading too much or too long. (“Archives,” as Kathy Ferguson puts it, are “full of distractions” and also “inexhaustible,” since “there is always one more dusty file to read, one more surprising government document to investigate, one further historical connection to another unanticipated figure.”22) But these investments and commitments have their advantages too, which seem to me to make the risks worth taking. Wolin’s usual way of limning contexts, through sweeping comparisons and contrasts of theorists’ political experiences across the ages, was powerfully illuminating of epochal shifts in the organization of social and political life. (This was also Arendt’s mode of historicization.) Yet a more “microhistorical” route between text and context—which takes us through fields of archival detritus, spurred along by the constantly receding figure of the author—can productively unsettle received understandings of the boundaries between epochs, or of what and who mattered and how in a particular worldly situation, precisely because it operates, at least at first, on a smaller scale.23

Surprising affiliations and disaffiliations between people whose relations you thought you had grasped on the basis of some encompassing rubric (like “anti-Platonist” or “Cold War liberal”); unexpected resonances between registers you took to be distant from each other; a footnote that opens out onto a literature that shatters your sense of an epoch’s taken-for-granted: all these can provoke a rethinking, not only of what one author was doing, but of the nature and boundaries of the historical situation in which she was doing it—as well as of the bearing of that situation on and in the present. That bearing may be vividly apparent if the historical situations in question are relatively proximate, but there is no easy way to distinguish dead situations from live ones; and every attempt to do so is likely to be haunted by liminal zone of contexts, actions, and events that are proximate enough to remain powerfully influential in the present, yet distant enough, given the generational dynamics both of politics and of academia, to be forgotten, or not yet recuperated as “history,” or recuperated only as quaintly irrelevant. (We should remember that the registration, detention, travel, and passport control measures in the Internal Security Act of 1950 are, in important respects, direct antecedents of terrorist watchlists and other features of the post-2001 national security state.24) This zone could also be called the unconscious of the present. Its critical exploration is one example of the kind of relevant indirection and productive distance that Brown described in her essay on the disparate but not disconnected times of political events and political theory. And while it may not follow the same routes and rhythms as Wolin’s epic historical narratives and dialogues, it is not incompatible with them. Both are among political theory’s modes of deliberate faithfulness, to the living as well as to the dead.

Patchen Markell

Patchen Markell is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he teaches political theory. He is the author of Bound by Recognition (Princeton UP, 2003), and a number of essays on topics in contemporary political theory and the history of political thought, especially in the twentieth century; he is currently finishing a book on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Patchen can be reached by email at pmarkell@uchicago.edu; his website is http://patchenmarkell.wordpress.com


Earlier versions of this essay were presented on roundtables on political theory and history at the 2014 Annual Meetings of the Western Political Science Association and the American Political Science Association. For inspiration, insight, and critical readings, I’m grateful to my co-panelists—Keally McBride, Jeanne Morefield, Sam Moyn, Megan Thomas, and Chip Turner—as well as to the audiences on both occasions, and to Danielle Allen, Corey Robin, Jill Frank, Jennifer Pitts, George Shulman, and an anonymous referee for Theory & Event.


1. Sheldon Wolin, “What Time Is It?,” Wendy Brown, “The Time of the Political,” and Paul Patton, “The World Seen From Within: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Events,” all in Theory & Event 1, no. 1 (1997), http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/toc/tae1.1.html (accessed March 28, 2015).

2. Jeffrey C. Isaac, “The Strange Silence of Political Theory,” Political Theory 23, no. 4 (November 1995): 642.

3. Patton, “World Seen From Within,” par. 9.

4. Brown, “The Time of the Political,” paras. 7, 6.

5. Wolin, “What Time Is It?,” par. 2, and see paras. 4–6.

6. Wolin, “What Time Is It?,” par. 5.

7. Aspects of which are told in Sophia Mihic, Stephen G. Engelmann, and Elizabeth Wingrove, “Facts, Values, and ‘Real’ Numbers,” and Emily Hauptmann, “Defining ‘Theory’ in Postwar Political Science,” both in George Steinmetz, ed., The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and its Epistemological Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

8. Here I want to acknowledge my debt to the spirit of Anne Norton’s 95 Theses on Politics, Culture, and Method (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and particularly to her insistence that “nothing here is ahead of its time” (139); some of these reflections were originally written as a list of fourteen theses, both as a formal experiment and because I admired Norton’s ability to make a normally polemical genre function as an account of how scholarly practice already exceeded the too-simple terms in which we imagined the organization of our discipline.

9. A more general account than I can provide here of the ways in which political theorists bring together “historical” scholarship and engagement with contemporary politics would have to include, at least: (1) work that mines earlier texts in order to reconstruct some piece of theoretical apparatus that might be useful in the present, sometimes with an explanation of how and why the author or the idea came to be neglected or eclipsed, and therefore also of why it might be worth recovering now (for one recent example see Jeannie Morefield, Empires without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014]); (2) work that, under such rubrics as genealogy and ideology-critique, diagnoses, unsettles, and transforms the terms through which we frame contemporary political experience, exploring the forces, events, and accidents that have helped constitute the present and given its features the appearance of inevitability (see, e.g., Foucault on “eventalization” as a procedure for the production of a “breach of self-evidence” in “Questions of Method,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 76–78); and work that treats history not only as an object or resource but also as the first-personal medium of contemporary political experience, asking what configurations of past (and future) accompany our sense of the present as a certain kind of “now,” such as a crisis, an aftermath, a renaissance, or a grindingly familiar repetition (recent examples include Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism [Durham: Duke University Press, 2011]; Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011]; and Elisabeth R. Anker, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom [Durham: Duke University Press, 2014]).

10. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” American Political Science Review 63, no. 4 (December 1969): 1077–1078.

11. Corey Robin, “Sheldon Wolin, 1922–2015” (October 23, 2015), posted at http://coreyrobin.com/2015/10/23/sheldon-wolin-1922-2015/ (accessed October 28, 2015); Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” 1077.

12. Robin, “Sheldon Wolin, 1922–2015.” I refer to the “Cambridge School” as “possibly fictional” to acknowledge that the theorists generally referred to under that rubric have never spoken with one voice, and have also typically done work that was itself irreducible to the most-quoted phrases from their programmatic statements.

13. Robin, “Sheldon Wolin, 1922–2015”; “sweep” and “magnitudes” are Wolin’s terms, the former in Sheldon S. Wolin, Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1970), 5; the latter in “Political Theory as a Vocation,” 1078.

14. Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History & Theory 8, no. 1 (1969): 52.

15. The difference on these points between Skinner on the one hand and Pocock and Derrida on the other is finer-grained than is often acknowledged and seems to me to turn not on any reduction of meaning to intention on Skinner’s part, but rather on his deployment of a supposedly Austinian distinction between “forces” and “acts” (it does not seem to me to be so clear in Austin) to allow for speech acts to have unintentional illocutionary force while insulating their agents from any deep implication in the unintended forces their utterances unleash (“Interpretation and the Understanding of Speech Acts,” Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 109–110). Against this see Pocock’s account of the “willingness to be involved in these unintended consequences” as constitutive of the possibility of communication in J. G. A. Pocock, “Verbalizing a Political Act: Toward a Politics of Speech,” Political Theory 1, no. 1 (February 1973): 34, as well as Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), esp. 17–19. On Pocock see also Kirstie M. McClure, “Reflections on Political Literature: History, Theory, and the Printed Book,” in David Armitage, ed., British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 235–53.

16. See McClure, “Reflections on Political Literature,” as well as Kirstie M. McClure, “Between the Castigation of Texts and the Excess of Words: Political Theory in the Margins of Tradition,” in Democracy and Vision: Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political, ed. Aryeh Botwinick and William E. Connolly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 193–231.

17. See among many others C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 214–218; Peter Laslett, “Market Society and Political Theory,” The Historical Journal 7, no. 1 (1964): 150–54; E. J. Hundert, “Market Society and Meaning in Locke’s Political Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 15, no. 1 (January 1977): 33–44; James Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 135–145; Jeremy Waldron, “The Turfs My Servant Has Cut,” The Locke Newsletter no. 13 (1982): 9–20; Neal Wood, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), esp. 85–92.

18. Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” 1077.

19. Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, 1950 bis 1973, ed. Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, vol. 1 (München: Piper, 2002), 24–25, 34–35; Plato, Laws, 730d (trans. Trevor J. Saunders, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997], 1413).

20. See e.g. C. P. Trussell, “Truman Won’t Sign Subversive Curb; Red Roundup Ready,” The New York Times (September 8, 1950), 1, 13.

21. In this respect, historical research has an affinity with the often-misunderstood idea of the “enlarged mentality” in Arendt’s own writings on judgment, the point of which is not to imaginatively reproduce the experiences of another person, but rather to imagine oneself in “the place where they stand, the worldly conditions they are subject to.” Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 43; on this point see Patchen Markell, “Arendt, Aesthetics, and ‘The Crisis in Culture’,” in Nikolas Kompridis, ed., The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), esp. 83–86; Linda Zerilli, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Judgment,” Signs 34, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 313–14; and Zerilli, A Democratic Theory of Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2016).

22. Kathy Ferguson, “Theorizing Shiny Things: Archival Labors,” Theory & Event 11, no. 4 (2008), https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v011/11.4.ferguson.html (accessed October 20, 2015).

23. See here Carlo Ginzburg’s treatment of the relation between micro- and macro-scales in “Microhistory: Two or Three Things I Know About It,” Critical Inquiry 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1993): 32–33.

24. For this longer story see Jeffrey Kahn, Mrs. Shipley’s Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).