Why you shouldn't watch Big Brother

November 24, 2000

Richard Fisher looks back over more than a decade of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.

Plato's Republic is the first great work of western political philosophy, and has retained its grip on the imagination of political thinkers for over two thousand years." It also happens to be the 97th volume to appear in the series of Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (CTHPT), the distinctive blue-liveried editions that are generally accepted to have become over the past 12 years an integral part of politics publishing, and an integral part of academic thinking and teaching about politics throughout the Anglophone world. That opening sentence is extracted from the beginning of John Ferrari's introduction to this new Cambridge rendition, translated by Tom Griffith. Ferrari goes on to say, very simply, that the Republic "was also very much the product of particular historical circumstances". These two statements encapsulate as well as anything the kind of approach to thinking about politics and the history of political thought that the Cambridge Texts series has been trying to stimulate since it was first launched in the autumn of 1988.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that from Samuelson's Economics to Elton's Tudors , the best student textbooks have always had something of primary importance to say. To succeed, a textbook series such as CTHPT must, by definition, have started with a strongly articulated theoretical agenda. This agenda was expressed most strikingly by Raymond Geuss, who with Quentin Skinner and Richard Tuck, was one of the three editors who launched the series, in an address he gave to celebrate the tenth birthday of the CTHPT series. In essence, Geuss asserted that "the main intellectual motivation of the series was a certain vision of the potential role of the study of politics in improving our political practice". Contrary to those theorists who have argued vigorously that our actual politics would be improved by becoming less informed by general theories, "the series editors were committed to the view that our chances of actually learning how to deal with one another in a decent way in the political sphere could only be improved by the theoretical study of politics. In addition, the editors believed that just as human beings are inherently historical, so politics has an irreducibly historical dimension. The study of politics, therefore, cannot reasonably be divorced from the study of history."

It is, therefore, a small step to see that the history of political thought was not just one more specialised academic discipline among others - to be taught through gritted teeth to students manifesting varying degrees of resentment at its complexities and difficulties - but "a subject central both to the university curriculum and, indeed, to the intellectual life of the educated public of a modern society". In a western context where formal political participation is reaching new lows, where the conventional definition of what is politically "possible", or debatable, is more circumscribed than ever, and where, perhaps most tellingly in the British context, substantially more people in the 18-30 age range voted to eject contestants on Big Brother than vote to elect their local councillors, the case for such a series may seem self-evident. And with well over half a million copies of these textual editions sold around the world, something has clearly resonated, with a little over two-thirds (68 per cent) being distributed within North America, 20 per cent in the United Kingdom and the remainder in Australia, Japan and the Far East, Scandinavia, Holland, Germany and other continental European markets.

There was a second, powerful pedagogic motive behind the vision outlined by Geuss, Skinner and Tuck in their initial discussions with Cambridge University Press. In the mid-1980s, teachers and students of politics were on the whole rather badly served by a thin diet of available texts, often of dubious quality and accuracy, and at most levels below the "core" canonical, the range of textual options for teaching was very circumscribed. This restrictive situation had the effect of potentially reducing the teaching of political thought either to a series of brief gobbets, in which Reason, or Liberty, or the West, triumphed in a series of pithy, and eternal, verities, or to a sterile exercise in historical antiquarianism. Both tendencies seemed damaging to serious thought about politics at all sorts of levels. It was to rectify this situation that the editorial team began to plan a small number of new editions of, initially, sub-canonical texts, of the kind to which the core teaching canon might be said to have responded. This conviction, echoed in John Ferrari's introductory note above, that texts in political thought have both a philosophical and an immediate, contingent political purpose, is central to the series, as it has been central to a way of thinking about politics closely associated with the University of Cambridge, and perhaps particularly with John Pocock, Quentin Skinner and John Dunn. Thus, if students were to make sense of John Locke's Two Treatises , then it was essential that they have some familiarity with Robert Filmer's Patriarcha , to which the Two Treatises might to be said to be a response. And similarly, Edmund Burke's Reflections really ought to be studied along with the writings of the dissenting minister Richard Price, the source of so much of Burke's ire. And so on. In true enlightenment fashion, texts would, where possible, be presented complete and unabridged, and presented ideally with other, contextualising texts that threw new light on the core text itself. Each text, however "obscure" in any conventional sense, would have certain uniform student-friendly features, including a concise (6,000-word) introduction, a chronology, a guide to further reading, light textual apparatus and brief (75-word) biographies of key figures mentioned by the thinkers concerned. These were not full-blown scholarly editions in the traditional sense, but very deliberate pedagogic tools.

It is salutary to recall this original inspiration, not least because in its original conception it rather eschewed editions of the obvious, widely available classics such as Leviathan . It was only when the project had been in development for some time that the editors, and CUP, agreed that a concerted pitch for the centre ground was also a good idea, and that new translations of the Republic or new editions of Leviathan were justifiable and desirable. Perhaps inevitably, what has not happened, despite the success of the CTHPT series as a publishing venture, has been a major transition in or expansion of the real teaching canon, certainly at the undergraduate level. In sales terms, only Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws , available complete in English translation for the first time since 1750, can be reasonably said to have made the transition from the first division to the premier league (defined for these purposes as global sales in excess of 1,000 copies a year). At present, Locke's Two Treatises heads this Cambridge-led table comfortably, followed by The Prince , Leviathan , On Liberty , The Politics and Utopia . The great majority of the sales outside the "top ten" of editions of the works of thinkers such as Ockham, Pufendorf or Proudhon, tend to be for use on graduate courses, particularly in North America. Indeed, the series came on stream precisely at the point when the pressure of numbers, and of time, on tutors of politics (especially within the UK) made any extended provision of the kind of varied diet the series offers almost impossible to sustain. Realistically undergraduates do not read Price or Priestley, or the various utopian thinkers of the enlightenment, in any more sustained context than, perhaps, a few salient pages. They certainly do not buy editions of them, although, as the series has expanded and come to constitute a reference library of political thought, such students, and their tutors, do use (so they tell us) institutional copies on a regular basis.

The series stops effectively with Antonio Gramsci. Cambridge does publish, in a somewhat different context, other modern texts, such as Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, but for a mixture of practical (copyright) and intellectual reasons, it seemed sensible to terminate the coverage of the CTHPT series in the second quarter of the 20th century. It is also emphatically western in its coverage. Nonetheless, even accepting the latter restriction, gaps remain. Aquinas, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Benjamin Franklin and a new rendition of the Defensor Pacis of Marsilius are all forthcoming projects. The coverage of American and specifically feminist political thought is patchy. The editors, Skinner and Geuss, and CUP still receive an enormous number of suggestions for possible additions, almost all of which we have now, regretfully, to decline.

But the whole venture has been, from a publishing viewpoint, enormously worthwhile: critically respected, commercially successful and genuinely influential in the manner in which a major subject area is taught and perceived. The series does seem to matter, and to resonate strongly with its chosen constituency, because of its powerful manifestation of what, in a famous phrase the late Tim Mason called the primacy of politics. The breadth, seriousness and intensity of the kind of political writing the series presents is a fairly stark rebuttal of the poverty of so much existing political debate. And this is far from a purely scholarly or antiquarian rebuttal, as Skinner's published inaugural lecture, "Liberty before liberalism", makes clear. By setting out, with as much accuracy, clarity and authority as we reasonably can, the principal texts in the western political tradition, we can do justice to what in Culture and Society Raymond Williams very movingly described as "the effort and the learning in experience" of men and women trying to come to terms with, and trying to influence, vast changes in relationships of power at every possible level. As an added but not, it has to be said, unimportant bonus, we can also sell very large numbers of books.

Richard Fisher is commissioning editor for Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.

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