May 18, 2009

Quentin Skinner the Nominalist

For someone trained more in the Gadamarian practice of “ontological hermeneutics” I must admit the work of Quentin Skinner to be a little dry. And yet I count five of Skinner’s books on my bookshelves, as well as several others he has either edited or contributed to in essay form. While his work on Hobbes and Machiavelli is simply outstanding, (& I mean really superb,) Skinner is also known for a methodological approach to political theory which situates specific writings of the past within their own distinct historical and intellectual context. Bluntly put, Skinner dreads anachronisms. As one critic once put it, “historical interpretation,” for Skinner, “is synonymous with explications of what authors were self-consciously attempting in their creative acts of writing.” Hence it is tempting to treat Skinner more as a historian than a theorist. Indeed Skinner spends a great deal of his time sorting out and comparing who wrote what, when, and...even why.
Skinner has addressed his “methodological” critics at countless occasions. In one essay, he wrote, “I see no impropriety in speaking of a work’s having a meaning for me which the writer could not have intended. Nor does my thesis conflict with this possibility. I have been concerned only with the converse point that whatever the writer is doing in writing what he writes must be relevant to interpretation, and thus with the claim that amongst the interpreter’s tasks must be the recovery of the writer’s intentions in writing what he writes.” It is difficult not to see the value of Skinner's point. In another occasion, in an essay entitled “A reply to my critics,” he warned more specifically “it is only by refusing the vulgar demand for relevance that we can hope to indicate the serious way in which the study of intellectual history is indeed relevant to the assessment of our present beliefs.” Though Skinner has conceded that the failure to actually be able to go back into time and understand writers as they veritably understood themselves in the times and intellectual milieu they worked in may be inevitable; but, as he has often stressed, such shortcomings should NOT at all discourage or immobilize those who do the difficult work of interpreting the past. “How best to proceed” is thus an underlining subtext to Skinner’s writings.
And yet I think his choice to cling to specific contexts of the past as courts of appeal for assessing the plausibility of historical interpretations has certain implications which should be made clear. Choosing whether or not to sift through the writings or personal letters of some seventeenth century Englishmen in order to understand better what the hell Hobbes was arguing for in De Cive is a certain kind of political judgment. I mean is that what we want political theory to become? As Nathan Tarcov, a Straussian, declared perhaps a little unfairly, “Skinner’s warnings about the pitfalls of textualism are salutary insofar they protect us from assumptions that would prevent us from understanding texts, but detrimental insofar they forbid us to learn from them.” Yet the point, I think, seems clear enough: why presume to confine or “bracket” the works of a Machiavelli or a Hobbes within a historical setting we believe to be sui generis, or at least unique when juxtaposed to our own? When Skinner admits in the interview embedded below, (conducted by Ian McPharlane,) that we should consider Hobbes as if he were speaking in the British Parliament, (“though a very long speech,”) he does not seem to consider the possibility of Hobbes speaking at the Lyceum or the polis amongst Plato and his students as well. I mean, why is Hobbes quintessentially British, quintessentially of the seventeenth century? Did he not also debate “the vein schoolmen” represented by Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Thomists – and perhaps even Rousseau too who wrote a century later???
Anyway, thanks to Ian McPharlane for the extended interview which covers lots, (& I mean lots,) of personal ground, including Skinner's upbringing, background, and career experience, as well as some thoughts on political history, and a few choice words on anthropologist Clifford Geertz and C.B. MacPherson.