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  • J. G. A. Pocock and the History of British Political Thought:Assessing the State of the Art
  • William Walker
David Armitage , ed. British Political Thought in History, Literature, and Theory, 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2006). Pp. 326. $90.00. ISBN 0-521-87041-0
D. N. DeLuna , ed. The Political Imagination in History: Essays concerning J. G. A. Pocock (Baltimore: Archangul Foundation, 2006). Pp. 274. $24.95. ISBN 1-934084-02-6

In 1985, J. G. A. Pocock and Gordon Schochet founded the Center for the History of British Political Thought at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Since then, that Center has made a rich contribution to the discipline by organizing and hosting conferences and sponsoring the publication of a wide range of scholarly books and articles of the highest quality. Its twentieth anniversary was marked by a major conference, "British Political Thought in History, Literature, and Theory," the proceedings of which David Armitage has collected and presented in a volume with this title.

Since Armitage himself introduces the volume by providing a succinct and elegant description of the main arguments of each essay, I will not do so here. I [End Page 83] propose instead to assess the extent to which the volume succeeds in achieving the goals he sets for it. He claims that the essays from the conference "review the field's achievements and its prospects from the perspective of the three disciplines where its work has so far had its greatest uptake: history, English literature, and political theory" (2). The essays "aim to reflect more broadly on the disciplinary dialogues that have so far shaped the history of British political thought and that will continue to inform it in future" (2). They "offer an array of models and methods for the future history of British political thought" (3) and "open up new perspectives on the multiple histories that might yet be written of British political thought" (9).

These essays do, indeed, provide an astute review of many of the major achievements in the field and the various disciplinary dialogues that have contributed to them. First of all, the opening essay on the "field and its future," by Pocock, Schochet, and Lois Schwoerer, the four essays by historians that comprise part 1 of the collection, "British Political Thought and History," and the afterword by Quentin Skinner, all provide accounts of the methodological innovations that have occurred in the field. The primary finding here is that, since the 1950s, scholars of various nationalities, most of whom are associated with Cambridge University, have spearheaded a move to understand two major aspects of the canonical texts of British political thought: the ideas, concepts, propositions, and principles those texts define and espouse, and the specific ways in which their authors aim to intervene in the specific sociopolitical situations within which they wrote and published their works. As Skinner puts it, many of the leading scholars in the field have been "interested not only in what they [the canonical authors] say, but in what they are up to, and thus in the force of what is said" (284).

But these and other essays in the collection also point to many other major developments in the field, one of which is how, over the last few decades, historians of political thought have greatly extended the pool of texts and artifacts that count as significant expressions and markers of political thought. Thus, we have Andrew Hadfield's essay on responses to early modern republicanism in the writings of Fulke Greville and Shakespeare, Jean Howard's essay on how Shakespearean drama (and the second part of Henry VI in particular) "embodies" political ideas, and Steven Zwicker's essay on irony in Dryden and Congreve. All of these essays confirm that canonical English literature at large has come to be thought of as a major component in the history of political writing and intervention. In "The Intersections between Irish and British Political Thought of the Early-Modern Centuries," Nicholas Canny notices how texts in Gaelic, Latin, and English by members of four different ethnic groups coexisting in Ireland have emerged as significant texts for students of political thought. And in his contribution...


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