Is the historical study of leading political thinkers just an “antiquarian” activity or can it open up new, even “emancipatory”, possibilities for the present?
That was the question under scrutiny at a seminar held at the British Academy last week.
For Michael Freeden, professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham, too much writing about the history of political thought adopted a “celebrity” approach, focused on the same 50 or 100 “men of genius and public impact who conducted perennial conversations with each other across time”.
Yet in reality political thinking is always “a group practice, collectively produced even if individually refined”. If we want to understand 19th-century liberalism, it is not enough to read just John Stuart Mill. We also need to “consult pamphlets, newspaper editorials, cultural journals, parliamentary debates, letters – even dinner table and pub conversations”.
Also speaking at the event, “What is the History of Political Thought for?”, organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, was Mónica Brito Vieira, lecturer in politics at the University of York. “The history of political thought”, she said, “can bring out the structure of the political world we have inherited and of the alternative possible worlds that were closed down in its wake…If it is easy to distort, and learn less from, the past by projecting backwards the categories and concerns of the present, it is equally easy to misunderstand the present, by assuming its singularity or radical disjunction from the past.”
Claiming that “today’s political problems might be better addressed by the doctrines of Bentham, Rousseau or Plato” was an unpromising approach, agreed Angus Gowland, reader in intellectual history at University College London.
Yet such thinkers could still give us “access to political visions which compare favourably with our own in terms of clarity, coherence, depth of reflection and strategic power” and so help to improve “the constricted character of the public political imagination”. We may, for example, begin to reject the ideas that “economic imperatives are of equal or greater force than social or political ones” – and that “every policy commitment has to be costed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies”.