Europe, what Europe?

Colin Kidd

  • The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 344 pp, £18.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 521 61645 X
  • Barbarism and Religion. Vol. III: The First Decline and Fall by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 527 pp, £19.99, October 2005, ISBN 0 521 67233 3
  • Barbarism and Religion. Vol. IV: Barbarians, Savages and Empires by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 372 pp, £17.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 72101 1

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 giants – the likes of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx. Rather than a living discussion among contemporaries, between great thinkers and lesser fry, political thought was reckoned to be a more elevated – if stilted – affair, of giant responding unto giant, sometimes across centuries of silence. Its history belonged not to historians but to philosophers; and political scientists, broadly speaking, concurred. They too studied political thought by way of its canonical figures, for the light their ideas shed on perennial problems in government.

Unconvinced that the concerns of political philosophy were timeless and universal, a group of scholars, who have come to be known as the Cambridge School, inaugurated a contextualist revolution. The school’s founding father, Peter Laslett, pointed out the errors and anachronisms of political philosophers who paid no attention to the genesis of the texts they studied. Although Locke’s Two Treatises of Government wasn’t published until after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Laslett’s edition of 1960 showed that it had been composed during the Exclusion crisis of the early 1680s and was framed in response to that immediate context, in particular the posthumous publication of Robert Filmer’s patriarchalist theory of government. Since then, authorial intent and context have been the central preoccupations of the Cambridge School and its leading proponent, Quentin Skinner, whose recent retirement from the Regius chair at Cambridge signals just how far from the margins of history the history of political thought has travelled since the middle of the 20th century.

John Pocock is often associated with the Cambridge School, with good reason. He took his doctorate at Cambridge, where he came into contact with Laslett, and has played a leading role, alongside Skinner, in the contextualist revolution. Yet his formative experience occurred outside the emerging Cambridge School – indeed, beyond the bounds of political thought proper. Under the influence of his postgraduate supervisor, Herbert Butterfield, Pocock’s first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), drove a bypass round Locke. It concentrated instead on a set of debates among such obscure antiquaries as William Petyt, James Tyrrell, William Atwood and Robert Brady. Late 17th-century Englishmen, it transpired, were less concerned with a hypothesised original contract between monarch and people than with the question of whether the historic free constitution of the Anglo-Saxons had survived the Norman Conquest and feudalism. Did the ancient constitution persist into the present, as Whig antiquaries contended, or was there a feudal discontinuity in the course of English history, as argued by royalists and Tories? The debate that had most purchase on contemporaries, it appeared, was conducted among late 17th-century historians, not among political philosophers.

Here we come to one of the principal differences between Pocock and the Cambridge School. Who now cares about late 17th-century interpretations of the Norman Conquest? Certainly, remote squabbles of this sort are of scant interest to most philosophers and political scientists or to the public at large. In his inaugural lecture in 1997, Skinner confessed to a legitimate worry that history which did not inform present-day concerns amounts to little more than self-indulgent antiquarianism, but presented his practice as socially useful for its ‘excavation’ of the hidden or misunderstood concepts that underpinned the modern state. Pocock, on the other hand, feels no embarrassment about the sorts of inquiry that hard-nosed political scientists might deride as a kind of intellectual morris dancing: clerical erudition, sacred history, ecclesiology, patristics, Christology and the esoteric stuff of antiquarianism, whether classical, medieval or even Orientalist – all are germane to his expansive definition of the history of past political argument. Moreover, the lines between the history of political thought and other kinds of intellectual history, historiography especially, begin to blur. Pocock insists that political thought is as often to be found in historical narrative as in philosophical argument, and sometimes – not least in colonial settings – at the confluence of history, anthropology and jurisprudence.

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