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Home Uncategorized The hegemony of history

The hegemony of history

Johnny Lyons
Machiavelli: a Very Short Introduction, by Quentin Skinner, Oxford University Press, 128 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0192854070 Not long ago there prevailed a certain way of studying the history of philosophy in which the great books of Western speculation were treated as repositories of perennial insight accessible to inquiring minds of any period and place. Classic works such as Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan and Rousseau’s Social Contract were chosen for their reserves of unchanging and universal wisdom. Unsurprisingly, only grudging lip service was paid to the specific historical conditions from which past thinkers and their ideas emerged. For why would one bother to study the historical context of the venerable classics when all their really interesting and important ideas already lay open to view? The Cambridge historian of ideas Quentin Skinner has, over the last fifty years, been providing an original and arresting response to that apparently rhetorical question, one that has been instrumental in turning the subject on its head. The publication of a revised edition of his superb short study of Machiavelli provides an opportunity to discuss his understanding of the history of ideas and its relevance ‑ if any ‑ to our present concerns. There are, I would suggest, three basic elements that explain the nature and power of Skinner’s radical reorientation of the history of ideas, and they can be illustrated through his account of his account of the thought of the Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the two major political theorists that Skinner has spent much of his career researching and also a figure about whom most of us know something. Skinner argues that if we want to understand a book like Machiavelli’s The Prince it is not enough just to read it in isolation, since texts do not emerge from nowhere, being invariably written for a reason. It is the job of the historian to discover what that reason was. This leads us to trying to recover the meaning of a text, which in turn can be reconstructed only by interpreting the text as an intervention in a particular historical milieu, one that is defined by its own specific linguistic practices and ideological preoccupations. In short, the historical context provides the key to unlocking the meaning of a text. This might not appear so unusual an approach, but the implications of Skinner’s insistence on the centrality of context are far more consequential than they seem. For once we take contextualism seriously…



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