History and Political Theory:
A Difficult Reunion

This short essay reflects on the relationship between the disciplines of history and political theory. It argues that there exists a divide between them, and that it is difficult to bridge. On one side, historians tend to be empirically sophisticated but theory-averse, according to the motto that “thinking is not their profession.” While theorists, on the other side, have learned from some intellectual historians to take context seriously, the results typically remain an idealist political theory that avoids broader historical contextualization, and thus forestalls disciplinary reunion.

The main cause of the missed conversation between history and political theory is the sociology of disciplinarity. There is little to be done about it: people trained in different fields are trained to write in different ways, to cite different authorities, and to influence different readers (if they can). Even when historians and political theorists ought to have a common space for discussion, in view of their kindred interests, they do not build it.

These remarks from a historian – the framing itself testifying to a prior disciplinary identity — mostly concern historians, on the grounds that the walls of one’s own glass house have to come down before it is legitimate to throw stones across the way. And unlike philosophers, who are rarely interested in the history of their concepts even when they cite from a millennial canon, political theorists for the past half century have been more open to dialogue with truly historical scholarship. But my main worry is that just as historians have failed to engage theory explicitly, political theory have appropriated history opportunistically to remain chiefly textual scholars. Accordingly, in what follows I will focus first on why historians have mistakenly failed to participate, before closing with some remarks on what political theorists tend to think would count as partnership and how they could find even more generosity in their future gestures to reach across the divide.

The greatest bar to conservation is a default allergy to theory among historians that goes back to the very origins of their modern discipline. According to Arnaldo Momigliano, the great Italian twentieth-century scholar of ancient history, it was the Renaissance antiquarians who, though they did not write history, inadvertently made the modern historical profession possible by repudiating grand theory in order to establish cherished fact. Collectors of the remnants of the classical past, the antiquarians understandably saw the need to vouch for the reliability of artifacts at a time when so many were wrongly sourced or outright fakes. Momigliano cited the nineteenth-century Oxford don Mark Pattison, who went so far as to remark of antiquarians—approvingly—that “thinking was not their profession.”1 It may remain the whispered credo required for admission to the guild.

Prejudiced against speculative frameworks far more than other scholars like anthropologists, literary critics or political scientists, historians generally have been most pleased with their ability simply to tell the truth—as if that truth were a secret to be uncovered through fact-finding rather than a riddle to be solved through interpretation. Anthony Grafton once honored Momigliano with the title “the man who saved history,” and it seems fair to say that he voiced the consensus of the profession that makes facts almost sacred and theories essentially secondary. 2 Even today, historiographical contest among historians rarely rises to the level of explicitly theoretical engagement, as if empirical appeals alone were truly decisive.

Even when historians started to think a little, they did so gingerly. If antiquarians only paved the road for modern history, to proceed down it required doing more than displaying the hard-won truth. Mogmigliano reported that it even took a while for our early modern ancestors to suspect that they could ever improve on classical historians of Greece and Rome, thanks to the new facts that antiquarians had eked out. The true antiquarians simply stashed their goods, and, Momigliano vividly wrote, shivered in “horror at the invasion of the holy precincts of history by a fanatic gang of philosophers who traveled very light.”3 But their heirs like Edward Gibbon, author of the stupendous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, realized that storytellers would have to take speculation or “philosophy” on board, corralling facts within some sort of intellectual scheme to lend them meaning. Facts alone were blind, just as theory not grounded in facts was empty. Yet Momigliano, sharing Pattison’s approval for the antiquarian origins of history, acknowledged the necessity of thinking almost regretfully, as if the results were an inevitably ramshackle edifice built on the bedrock of fact that it was the real job of historians to lay down. It didn’t matter much which theory historians applied, and Gibbon’s achievement certainly didn’t depend on theoretical acumen, since he could “and would not claim any originality in the realm of philosophic ideas.”4 And theories could be stripped away, and stories renovated as fashion changed, but the facts on which the edifice was built would endure. The “ethics” of the profession, Momigliano testified, rested on the ability of historians to stay true to facts.5

In the early days of Gibbon’s Enlightenment, most of the frameworks on which historians relied were theories about the origins and progress of society; in the two centuries since, historians have been willing to have their facts consort with a wide variety of suitors, from nationalism to Marxism to postmodernism. The discipline has gone through so many self-styled theoretical “turns” that it is frankly hard to keep up. It is probably because most historians have looked on theory with suspicion—at best, as a lamentable necessity to allow their facts their day—that they have often been avid trend watchers. Precisely because they are so fickle, opportunistic, and superficial in their attitude to speculation, historians seem to change popular theories often, regarding their development not as a core activity of their work but as seasonal outfits for clothing the facts they have assiduously gathered.

Meanwhile, to the extent political theorists have talked beyond their narrow circles, they have been heard mainly by one sort of historian. It is of course understandable why political theorists would take their work to be closest to an already highly marginal part of the historical profession: intellectual history. Now of course, there would be nothing wrong with a small dialogue between historically oriented political theorists and intellectually oriented historians. But it has accounted for a cramped vision of what the point of turning to history to understand texts actually is. Whether as interpreters of past thought or constructive theorists in their own right, political theorists are increasingly aware that the historicity of the texts they read matter.

Quentin Skinner, co-founder of the Cambridge school, is often taken by political theorists to be the supreme model of theoretically oriented scholar who can be tolerably read by those outside the historian’s guild. Yet even if his founding gesture of incorporating discursive context on pain of rejecting all other kinds is not often emphasized, it shows just how faithful to foes like Arthur Lovejoy (and even Leo Strauss) Skinner actually was in the incontestably pathbreaking work that founded his school. What separated Skinner from his adversaries in philosophy and political theory in the beginning was, of course, “context” — but not a lot of context, for he concurred with his enemies that there was nothing determinative outside texts except other texts. It was not solely the acumen and lucidity with which Skinner worked, but that he worked on canonical texts (in a sea of other textual context) that made the Cambridge school so appealing to political theorists. What at first glance looked like a truly major departure offered a novel bridge between them and historical scholarship. But most historians concluded that the departure came at the price of an unacceptable idealism and textualism, and that the construction of the bridge between disciplines had only gone partway. Precisely what made the Cambridge school attractive to political theorists proved unconvincing to the rest of the historical profession.

Both intellectual historians and political theorists will naturally work on texts and favor canons. But I see more possibility not simply in historians recognizing their inevitably theoretical commitments, but in political theorists realizing that what historians know is that our study of thought ultimately arises from and traces back to the social world — to the extent it is legitimate at all to drawn even a heuristic distinction between meaning and “context.” For a long time, intellectual historians and political theorists alike could rely complacently on idealism to hold firm against often reductionist forms of vulgarizing social theory that emphasized the material and the practical — and notably vulgar Marxism. Skinner and Strauss, only allegedly enemies, were partners in this deeper alliance, and diverged from each only very late from the more basic and common starting point. In opposition to both, the most plausible step is to seek a more sophisticated social theory that recognizes that the ideational is part of the institutional and practical, and that how human beings live materially is not some prior inquiry to how they live ideationally — though also vice versa.6

Even the mainstream project of normative moral philosophy (with political conclusions depending on “ethics first” theorizing) shows signs of a recognition of the importance of the social and institutional. What Jeremy Waldron has dubbed “political political theory” shows that a focus on the texts of past thinkers hardly need exhaust the engagement of reflection on politics; and presumably it could be taken far further, and beyond the so far interesting but narrow focus that such moves have involved so far.7 After all, even the texts studied by political theorists came from wholesale social worlds, and it is of overriding theoretical importance not to read them in a void. More ambitiously, there is no reason for political theorists and intellectual historians not to understand their task as part of the agenda shared more naturally by “non-intellectual” historians (whatever this label might imply) along with social scientists. Both groups, hitherto guarding the study of texts jealously from incursion, could insist on that meaning within and even theoretically elaborate interpretations of the social world are part and parcel of how the political order is made, retained, and undone.

In 1966, Hayden White published his still invigorating attack on his colleagues, “The Burden of History.” History “is perhaps the conservative discipline par excellence,” White wrote, coming out swinging, and perhaps most of all against the factological ethics so central to the modern craft. The consequences, White wrote, were grave. “[A]s history has become increasingly professionalized and specialized, the ordinary historian, wrapped up in the search for the elusive document that will establish him as an authority in a narrowly defined field, has had little time to inform himself of the latest developments in the more remote fields of art and science.”8

Momigliano wrote a notorious polemic against White (a former teacher of mine) precisely for denigrating the recovery of factual truth that he thought central to history.9 But if the former made that recovery the punishing imperative of the historical superego, White wanted to substitute a different “ethics” for history. It would make room for theory, or even insist on seeing beyond the contrast between history and theory, in the service of the present.

Because the past needs to be practical for us—there is no reason to care about it except insofar as it is useful to the present—White begins his most recent book, The Practical Past, by once again putting Momigliano’s professional “ethics” in their proper place:

The older, rhetorically structured mode of historical writing openly promoted the study and contemplation of the past as propaedeutic to a life in the public sphere, as an alternative ground to theology and metaphysics (not to mention as an alternative to the kind of knowledge one might derive from experience of what Aristotle called the “banausic” life of commerce and trade), for the discovery or invention of principles by which to answer the central question of ethics: “What should (ought, must) I do?” Or to put it in Lenin’s terms: “What is to be done?”10

Of course, it is one thing to call for speculation for the sake of relevance, and another to bring about a new marriage of history and theory. For the coming generation, one thing is clear: thinking will have to become our profession.

Naturally, political theorists do not imbibe the animus against “presentism” with their disciplinary training and so need no prophylaxis against a routine ban on the search for relevance. Yet even if historians were more open to dialogue by recognizing the unalterably theoretical nature of their enterprise, and dropping their antiquarian pretensions, political theorists would have to take a chance on the relationship. From their side, they would need to be more willing to engage in inquiry that moves beyond past theories and their “contexts” to a richer meditation on the way that even the highest thought inhabits its social worlds, in relation to which it is simultaneously constituted and constitutive.

Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. Previously he taught at Columbia University for thirteen years, where he ended as James Bryce Professor of European Legal History. His main works concern European intellectual history in the twentieth century and the history of human rights. His most recent book is Christian Human Rights (2015), and he is currently writing a synthetic history of the rivalry of the ideals of sufficiency and equality in distributive justice in the twentieth century. His e-mail is smoyn@law.harvard.edu


1. Arnaldo Momigliano, “Ancient History and the Antiquarian,” in Studies in Historiography (New York, 1966), 21. This initial section draws on my “New Old Things,” The Nation, February 9, 2015.

2. Anthony Grafton, “The Man Who Saved History,” New Republic, August 19, 1991.

3. Momigliano, “Edward Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method,” in Studies in Historiography, 42.

4. Ibid., 48.

5. Momigliano, “Ancient History,” 27.

6. For further substantiation, see my “Imaginary Intellectual History,” in Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn, eds., Rethinking Modern Intellectual History (Oxford, 2014).

7. Jeremy Waldron, “Political Political Theory: An Inaugural Lecture,” Journal of Political Philosophy 21, no. 1 (March 2013): 1-23; Waldron, Political Political Theory (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

8. Hayden White, “The Burden of History,” History & Theory 5, no. 2 (1966): 112. This essay also appears in White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, 1986).

9. Arnaldo Momigliano, “On the Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric,” in E.S. Shaffer, ed., Comparative Criticism (Cambridge, 1981).

10. White, The Practical Past (Evanston, Ill., 2014), 8-9.