How do we find out what he meant?

June 26, 1998

LIBERTY BEFORE LIBERALISM. By Quentin Skinner. 142pp. Cambridge University Press. Pounds 19.95 (paperback, Pounds 6.99). - 0 521 63876 3.

Historical context and the autonomy of ideas in Quentin Skinner

Newly installed as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (this book is developed from his inaugural lecture), Quentin Skinner is, without much doubt, the global doyen of his subject. Liberty Before Liberalism is a meditation both on the methods of intellectual historiography and an examplar of them. Nobody who knows of Skinner or his work - most recently his magisterial 1997 work on Hobbes - can doubt his command of his subject, or his acute generosity to other scholars.

Before Skinner started work, the shades of long-dead great men sat in a timeless symposium discussing justice, liberty, political obligation, and the rest - the Penguin Classics approach, as it might be called. Homo Oxoniensis had risen and thriven in ancient Athens, wending his way via cinquecento Florence to the lush pastures of proto-liberal England. The canonical texts were read as purveying perennial truths about a no less perennial agenda of concerns, in helpfully transparent prose. There were three dogmas about texts in the history of political thought - that they formed a fixed canon, that they debated a fixed agenda and that they were hermeneutically transparent - and these dogmas were mutually supporting. It is barely too much to say that Skinner single-handedly put paid to this style of intellectual history in his methodological writings of the late 1960s and early 70s, most notably in his iconoclastic 1969 article "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas".

The alternative approach proposed by Skinner drew on J. L. Austin's linguistic philosophy. To understand an utterance or text required a grasp not only of what a speaker's utterance meant, but what he meant in saying it - a matter, in Austin's terminology, of grasping the illocutionary force of the utterance. In most (though not all) cases, this force could be spelled out by means of a performative formula, which in turn could be used to designate the speech-act in question: for example, self-verifying locutions such as "I hereby promise . . . .". Applying this to historical texts, the task was not merely one of semantic recovery, but to make sense of the circumstances in which these artefacts were produced. The flagship example, as Skinner notes here, was Peter Laslett's celebrated edition of Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1960), which showed that this text was no abstract defence of contractarianism, but addressed to a quite specific political debate in the early 1680s about the succession.

This had several important consequences. First, it reinstated the "autonomy of ideas" against Namierite and (some) Marxist dismissals of ideas as "epiphenomena". As a result, secondly, it offered a more perspicuous relation between political thought (as practised both by theorists and by politicians) and practice. In particular, normative language was not mere flummery but imposed real constraints on the courses of action which politicians could justify, and hence, follow. Thirdly, it tied the project of interpretation far more closely than the traditional approach to local historical context. Finally, it made the history of political thought a less boring, more disjointed and in some respects more contingent affair than the Penguin Classics approach. Since Skinner set out his position a generation ago, the "Cambridge School" has grown from a cottage industry into a sprawling transnational.

There are, however, theoretical problems with Skinner's approach, as a number of commentators have noted. Hermeneutic circularity threatens, and at more than one level. We need to know how to work out what forms of words express what illocutions: but to understand one, we already need the other. The conventions themselves also need interpretation, and it is hard to see what evidence could be adduced to do this job apart from other examples of conventions. It seems that we have to do the interpretation before we do the interpretation. The conventions also at one level impose a condition of intelligibility, so that communications could not intelligibly repudiate the conventions; but as interpreted by Skinner himself, key historical texts (for example, Machiavelli's) did just that. Rogue illocutions may draw what the author is taken to mean in saying something away from what he intended to say. No doubt John F. Kennedy's intentions in making his celebrated "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech at the Berlin Wall in 1961 bear many interpretations; one of the less plausible ones is that he intended to assert what those words literally mean, namely "I am a doughnut". It is hopeful to think that confusion can be dispelled by noting the disinclination of visiting US presidents to affirm their identity with local pastries on such occasions (which occasions?) An alternative is to conflate illocutionary meaning with reception; but if so, we need to know when, for receptive purposes, the context is closed. Normative standards are likely to be relied on in any argument for drawing the line at a specific point. Behind this lies what Cambridge School ultras might regard as a failure of nerve. Some are happy to espouse the cause of history for history's sake. Skinnerian methods have been criticized for not being "relevant" or, as one critic unkindly put it, like a guided tour round a graveyard. Skinner notes, a little grumpily, the "banausic" quality of the objection, and observes that nobody says this sort of thing about Purcell's operas or Paradise Lost. But he admits to having "never felt comfortable" with this reply. His answer is that the study of historical texts can offer "a repository of values we no longer endorse, of questions we no longer ask", and thereby perhaps enrich our understanding of political possibilities. Without an informed study of the past, the standards by which "relevance" is decided - both in politics and in political philosophy - may be unduly narrow.

Skinner's case study is the ideal of liberty. The liberty before liberalism of Skinner's title is the "neo-roman", mainly republican (though with exceptions, such as Locke) political theory developed in England during the Civil War period and afterwards by writers like Marchamont Nedham, John Milton, Algernon Sidney and, much later, Richard Price. Neo-romanism, according to Skinner, understood political liberty as being expressed through the autonomous will of the State, rather than (as in Hobbes) as a locus of private action left for its subjects by the silence of the State's laws. Their objection to negative liberty is thus that it is bought at the cost of political servitude; the neo-roman writers depart from their classical exemplars in defending the ideal polity as an expression of natural freedom.

Underlying this analysis, as with Philip Pettit's recent Republicanism (reviewed in the TLS, July 25, 1997), to which Skinner acknowledges a debt, is a critique of Isaiah Berlin's "negative" conception of liberty as non-interference. As Berlin acknowledged, the best way to preserve individuals' liberty to pursue private interests may be a non-democratic polity, of, for example, a Hobbesian kind. Against this, writers like Adam Ferguson and Andrew Fletcher in A Discourse of Government (oddly not mentioned by Skinner) tied liberty to the maintenance of a strong militia:

"the whole free people of a nation ought to be exercised to arms", as Fletcher said. Indeed, a curious blind spot in Skinner's presentation is the close identification - heavily influenced by Machiavelli's Discourses - made by many political opponents of monarchical absolutism in this period, including neo-romanists like Sidney, between liberty and militia organization. This was understandable given the clear and present danger posed, at key points during this discussion, by standing armies subject only to autocratic whim. It is, however, doubtful how far these writers distinguished the political liberty which they thought that this secured from the protection of their lives and possessions.

Sometimes the discussion (at least for this reviewer) gets a little dark, as where Skinner says that, for Hobbes, "the extent of your civil liberty basically depends upon 'the Silence of the Law'", but "Hobbes's contrasting conclusion is that, so long as there is no law to which your will must conform, you remain in full possession of your freedom". The distinction being drawn here is not very clear. Surely the real contrast is between those actions to conform his will to which the subject requires the intercession of a coercive agent such as the sovereign, and those actions of which this is not required, and equivocation results if the latter is thought somehow to be a conceptually privileged sense of "liberty". Only if this contrast can be drawn will the neo-romanist have argumentative leverage against a Hobbesian defender of negative liberty.

Skinner seems undecided between, on the one hand, an immanent critique, which holds that negative liberty itself is liable to wither if it is the only value which the political culture tries to promote (as Skinner, in earlier work, and Charles Taylor have argued); and on the other hand, declaring either for the positive doctrine or Pettit's liberty as non-domination. And as Skinner notes, for Machiavelli, an intellectual godfather of the English seventeenth-century neo-romanists, the common good of living in a free state was to be able to enjoy freely one's own - "le cose sue". Accordingly, the neo-romanists' objection to a constitutionally (rather than merely nominally) monarchical state was primarily the threat it posed to the lives, liberties and possessions of subjects. As with "liberty as non-domination", the question remains open whether it offers a really distinct conception of liberty. The way to provide it is to establish political equality as an intrinsic rather than merely instrumental commitment within it.

It is a measure of Skinner's intellectual achievement that his approach is now the orthodoxy in his own discipline. He also admirably counsels - much against the trend in recent historiography - that its practitioners should "hold themselves aloof when surveying the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind". However, the Penguin Classics approach lives on, in the work of modern political philosophers. The mouldering great are regarded as such for having opined memorably about the timeless agenda, rather than about the little local difficulties (for example, the Exclusion Crisis) to which their texts may have been addressed. However, the imperishable verities to be found in these works are usually taken to be truths about ethics rather than politics, which is held to be the domain of contingency and change. Indeed, the notion of the political itself has undergone a striking bouleversement in recent work such as John Rawls's Political Liberalism (1993) where it means, roughly, "not political". This is unsurprising, since the major project in modern liberalism is to use ethics to contain the political. Equally unsurprisingly, historical figures like Machiavelli, who insist on the specificity and autonomy of the political, are largely ignored by modern political philosophers; if anything, the Cambridge School approach has widened rather than narrowed the divide between political philosophy and intellectual history. If the latter is to do the job Quentin Skinner now wishes it to do, one service it could perform is to reinstate politics itself in political philosophy.

Glen Newey is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sussex.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments