Press rewind on political thinkers to fast-forward, seminar hears

Academics at a British Academy event discuss the purpose of the history of political thought

April 30, 2015

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”.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

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
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations