J.G.A. Pocock

J.G.A. Pocock has written several books about the history of political thought and about history as a kind of political thought.

Rangatiratanga: Maori

J.G.A. Pocock, 8 September 2011

To explain why Judith Binney – who died in New Zealand in February – is a major figure in contemporary historiography it is necessary to explain why the history of her country has become a field of which contemporary historians do well to take notice. They have not always done so. New Zealand has been considered a safe, dull Anglo-democracy, with a welfare state 75 years old and...

The Ironist: Gibbon under Fire

J.G.A. Pocock, 14 November 2002

Since two pioneering studies appeared in 1954, Arnaldo Momigliano’s ‘Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method’, and Giuseppe Giarrizzo’s Edward Gibbon e la cultura europea del Settecento, the historian of the Roman Empire has himself become the object of serious historical study. It can still be maintained that his work is, in D.R. Woolf’s words,...

Removal from the Wings

J.G.A. Pocock, 20 March 1997

For a people accustomed to govern itself, history is the past of its sovereignty, modified by such other pasts as appear relevant. What is such a people to do when the historical conditions which have defined its sovereignty are radically changed, and the future of sovereignty itself appears uncertain? A possible answer is that it may set about rewriting its history in the light of these new questions, emphasising the precariousness of its historical autonomy, and asking whether sovereignty has in fact been exercised and if so, by whom. Since autonomy is in question, it may even ask whether it has been one people or several. The uncertainties of the present stimulate enquiry into the past, and the outcome may vary between an angry nationalism, a whining defeatism, or a recognition that as autonomy, sovereignty and history become precarious, their value can be re-assessed or re-asserted; the texture of thought toughens as the questions grow more difficult.

Was He One of Them?

J.G.A. Pocock, 23 February 1995

David Womersley’s massive and elegant edition of Gibbon is the better timed because it comes a century after the edition scholars have been obliged to use as the nearest to a critical text. It was in 1896 that J.B. Bury brought out the first volume of his edition, which he reissued in 1909 and which until now has been considered standard. We can therefore look back from Womersley to Bury, across a century of upheavals in both historiography and history, and wonder, Neoclassically, what will have become of both text and new edition when the next fin de siècle is on its way out. If there are readers then, and if they are reading Gibbon, they may not be Euro-Americans and may be integrating the Decline and Fall into histories of their own – if, again, they are so fortunate as to possess histories.’

The devil has two horns

J.G.A. Pocock, 24 February 1994

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s majestic study takes rise from two lines of Yeats:

What do we mean by it?

J.G.A. Pocock, 7 January 1993

This volume is one of a series. Professor Burns has already edited the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought: c. 250-c. 1450 (1988), Dr Goldie is to join with Robert Wokler in editing the Cambridge History of 18th-Century Political Thought, and a volume on the 19th century is to follow. These furthermore are ‘Cambridge histories’ in the classic sense, laid down by Lord Acton a century ago: general editors co-ordinate a series of chapters on related topics, each written by an authority in the field it defines. Academic culture today teems with multi-author volumes, many no more than the proceedings of particular conferences; and the problem which Burns and Goldie have confronted is that of seeing that their volume is more than a collection of loosely convergent essays. They have surmounted that problem, rather than solved it; their volume possesses coherence and unity, but as Professor Burns observes in his introduction, one can select a pattern of unity only in the knowledge that another, equally defensible pattern could have been selected. Since selection is inescapable, there can be no ‘solution’; and there is a sense in which no such thing as ‘the history’, even ‘the Cambridge history’, ‘of political thought’ can be said to exist until it has been selected and invented.

When the spear is thrown

J.G.A. Pocock, 8 October 1992

A society which seriously determines, or discovers, that it is a convergence of two cultures needs a history of two cultures; and since history is a product of culture, this means that it needs two histories, the history of two experiences and two ways of looking at history. This has been the case of New Zealand since it was realised – or since the realisation was forced upon the Pakeha – that the Maori remember a different history and, in consequence, remember history differently. Courageous and not unsuccessful attempts have been made – rather often by Pakeha historians – to give free play to the Maori awareness of history and attend to the voices in which it speaks. But the difficulties are only beginning at this point, since the very word ‘history’ – meaning, as it does, not an unprocessed past, but the activity of remembering and interpreting it – takes on culturally specific meanings, and may come to signify an awareness of experience peculiar to one culture and not to the other, capable of being used by the one to dominate, expropriate and assimilate the other. In the North American context, it has been argued that ‘history’ is an ideological tool whereby Anglo-American culture destroys the sense of unbroken cosmic unity peculiar to Native American cultures, and forces them to take part in processes of change and alterations of consciousness imposed by the invading majority; and it can even be suspected to the contrary that cosmic unity is an invention of the self-repudiating Western mind, imposed upon the Native cultures by Western dissent for purposes ultimately Western.’

Deconstructing Europe

J.G.A. Pocock, 19 December 1991

History is about process and movement: yet up to now, it has taken as given the perspectives furnished by relatively stable geographical communities, of whose pasts, and the processes leading to their presents, history is supposed to consist. All that may be changing, with the advent of the global village, in which no one’s home is one’s own; with the advent, too, of a universally-imposed alienation, in which one’s identity is presupposed either as some other’s aggression against one, or as one’s own aggression against someone else, and in either case scheduled for deconstruction. Yet the owl of Minerva may continue to fly, as long as there is an ark left to fly from; and the historian, who must today move between points in time, must recollect voyages and may still recollect voyages between known points with known pasts, recalling how the pasts changed as the presents shifted.



8 September 2011

J.G.A. Pocock writes: ‘Sovereignty’ is a word with several meanings, and I meant to reveal its ambiguity. The Crown did not claim sovereignty over a sovereign state, or there would have been no Treaty of Waitangi. When it inserted the word kawanatanga, and claimed an exclusive right of pre-emption over land sales, it claimed some kind of ultimate authority; but at the same time it conceded...


6 November 2008

I should like to thank Colin Kidd for his perceptive review of my recent work (LRB, 6 November). There is one point about the history of New Zealand which may be elaborated. The word kawanatanga, which as Kidd says expressed what Maori ceded to the crown in the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), is a rendering into Maori of the English word ‘government’. There are more authentic Maori words –...


3 August 1995

I expect much of the outcry against Terry Castle’s essay on Jane Austen (LRB, 3 August) was the result of the headline ‘Was Jane Austen Gay?’, a question I don’t think Terry Castle either asked or answered. Your readers ought perhaps to be made aware that the author of a review in your pages – or in those of your competitor the Times Literary Supplement – is not...

Europe, what Europe? J.G.A. Pocock

Colin Kidd, 6 November 2008

Few areas of the humanities have undergone such a remarkable transformation over the past half-century as the history of political thought. Students were once introduced to it by way of its...

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Tall, silver-haired and bearded, with a mesmerising voice and beguiling manner of delivery, John Pocock has long struck me as the Gandalf of the historical profession. The range, altitude and...

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No Trousers

Claude Rawson, 20 December 1990

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was published on 1 November 1790. By then, Burke had long ceased to be the dominant intellectual influence in the Whig Party. He hoped the...

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Tory History

Alan Ryan, 23 January 1986

Demolish a much-loved building, and you are left with rubble. Demolish a much-loved piece of political theory, and you find it rising from its own ashes, somewhat changed in appearance, but...

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Writing to rule

Claude Rawson, 18 September 1980

Was there such a thing as ‘Neo-Classicism’, outside the special sense of the term which art historians apply to a later period than the one over which students of literature lose so...

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