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QUENTIN SKINNER'S HOBBES AND THE NEO-REPUBLICAN PROJECT*

  • JEFFREY R. COLLINS (a1)
Abstract

For nearly half a century, Quentin Skinner has been the world's foremost interpreter of Thomas Hobbes. When the contextualist mode of intellectual history now known as the “Cambridge School” was first asserting itself in the 1960s, the life and writings of John Locke were the primary topic for pioneers such as Peter Laslett and John Dunn. At that time, Hobbes was still the plaything of philosophers and political scientists, virtually all of whom wrote in an ahistorical, textual-analytic manner. Hobbes had not been the subject of serious contextual research for decades, since the foundational writings of Ferdinand Tönnies. For Skinner, he was thus an ideal subject, providing a space for original research on a major figure, and an occasion for some polemically charged methodological manifestos. Both of these purposes animated his 1965 article “History and Ideology in the English Revolution,” and his 1966 article “The Ideological Context of Hobbes's Political Thought”. The latter of these remains to this day one of the most widely cited scholarly articles in the fifty-year run of Cambridge's Historical Journal. Among other results of these early efforts was the scholarly controversy during which Howard Warrender chided Skinner for having reduced the “classic texts in political philosophy” to mere “tracts for the times”.

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1 Locke John, Two Treatises on Government, ed. Laslett Peter (Cambridge, 1960); Dunn John, The Political Thought of John Locke: An Historical Account of the Argument of the ‘Two Treatises of Government’ (Cambridge, 1696).

2 Tönnies Ferdinand, Hobbes: der Mann und der Denker (Stuttgart, 1910).

3 Skinner Quentin, “History and Ideology in the English Revolution”, Historical Journal 8 (1965), 151–78; and idem, “The Ideological Context of Hobbes's Political Thought”, Historical Journal 9 (1996), 286–317. Both have been revised and republished in idem, Visions of Politics, vol. 3, Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge, 2002).

4 Goldie Mark, “Fifty Years of the Historical Journal”, Historical Journal 51 (2008), 851.

5 “To consign them to their contemporary milieu, with whatever honours, is to bury them.” Warrender Howard, “Political Theory and Historiography: A Reply to Professor Skinner on Hobbes”, Historical Journal 22 (1979), 931–40.

6 Also opening up this subject was John M. Wallace, Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (New York, 1968).

7 For an excellent overview of Hobbes's place within post-regicidal debates over political obligation, one that charts Skinner's modifications to his original position, see Hoekstra Kinch, “The De Facto Turn in Hobbes's Political Philosophy”, in Sorell Tom and Foisneau Luc, eds., Leviathan after 350 Years (Oxford, 2004), 3374.

8 Goldie Mark, “The Context of The Foundations”, in Brett Annabel and Tully James, with Bleakley Holly Hamilton, eds., Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, 2006), 319.

9 Skinner Quentin, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge, 1996), 431.

10 Ibid., 435.

11 Skinner Quentin, “The Idea of Negative Liberty”, in Rorty Richard, Schneewind J. B. and Skinner Quentin, eds., Philosophy in History (Cambridge, 1984); idem, “The Paradoxes of Political Liberty” (Cambridge, 1985); Quentin Skinner, “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty,” in Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner and Maurizio Viroli, eds., Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge, 1990), 293–311.

12 Skinner, “Republican Ideal of Political Liberty,” 304–9. For Skinner's engagement with the communitarian critics of liberalism see Marco Guena, “Skinner, Pre-humanist Rhetorical Culture and Machiavelli”, in Brett and Tully, Rethinking the Foundations, 66–9.

13 Philip Pettit, “Keeping Republican Freedom Simple: On a Difference with Quentin Skinner”, Political Theory 30 (2002), 339–41. More fully in idem, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, 1997).

14 Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge, 1998), x, 10, 49.

15 Ibid., 13.

16 Skinner's definition of English republicanism differs significantly from those of Pocock, who emphasizes republican attachment to civic virtue, and Blair Worden, who has convincingly portrayed English republicanism as a fitful and late-developing reaction to constitional crises. See, for instance, Worden, “English Republicanism”, in J. H. Burns and Mark Goldie, eds., The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700 (Cambridge, 1991), 443–64.

17 Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, 59–60.

18 In virtually all accounts of English republicanism, Hobbes is deployed as a foil. See, for examples, Norbrook David, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Ethics, and Politics, 1627–1660 (Cambridge, 1989), 35; Barber Sarah, Regicide and Republicanism: Politics and Ethics in the English Revolution, 1649–1659 (Edinburgh, 1998), 192; Peltonen Markku, Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought, 1570–1640 (Cambridge, 1995), 12.

19 Skinner Quentin, Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge, 2008), 138, 142, 149.

20 Ibid., xvi.

21 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan: with Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. Curley Edwin (Indianapolis, 1994), 136–7.

22 Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 151.

23 Ibid., 157.

24 Ibid., 157–61.

25 Although Charles Larmore, among others, has cogently criticized the Pettit–Skinner “republican” school for overstating the differences between republicanism and non-utilitarian liberalism. Liberals from Locke to Rawls have worried about reliance on the arbitrary will of sovereignty, and even a figure such as Constant (who formatively distinguished ancient from modern liberty) voiced such concerns. See Charles Larmore, “A Critique of Philip Pettit's Republicanism”, Noûs 35 (Oct. 2001), 229–43.

26 Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 166–9.

27 Ibid., xvi.

28 Ibid., 127.

29 Philip Pettit has also dissented from this claim of dramatic evolution in Hobbes's account of liberty. See his Republicanism, 168, n. 15.

30 Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 138.

31 Hobbes, Leviathan, 410.

32 Indeed, and somewhat ironically, Skinner elsewhere (at 156) quote's Bramhall's The Serpent Salve (1643) for evidence of a broader discourse denying the foundational claim of the non-domination republicans (i.e. that “living independently of others” was the definition of “freedom”.)

33 It is also interesting that Hobbes did not reformulate the discussion of “arbitrary impediments” in the 1647 edition of De Cive, despite this intervening discussion with Bramhall and despite many other textual additions. This suggests either that Hobbes was vacillating on the question of liberty (unlikely), or that Skinner is overstating the significance of De Cive's mention of “arbitrary impediments”.

34 For a similar criticism see J. G. A. Pocock, “Foundations and Moments”, in Brett and Tully, Rethinking the Foundations, 46–7.

35 Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 143.

36 Parker Henry, The Case of Ship-Money Briefly Discoursed. . . (London, 1640), 69, emphases added.

37 Skinner Quentin, “Classic Liberty and the English Civil War”, in van Gelderen Martin and Skinner Quentin, eds., Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 2002), 2: 929.

38 Goodwin John, Anti-Cavalierisme. . . (London, 1642), 27, 40–41. Emphasis added.

39 His effort to construe the absolutism of the “Elements of Law” as primarily a rejoinder to Contarini, rather than English constitutionalists, is impressionistic and inconclusive. He concedes that De Cive was more concerned with English constitutionalism. Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 62–4, 105–6.

40 Hobbes, Leviathan, 140. With this last remark, Hobbes put his boot on the neck of a straw man. No one among the ancients or moderns condemned monarchy this hyperbolically.

41 Milton John, The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. . . (1660), 4550, 55–6, 72, emphasis added. On these aspects of Milton's republicanism see Rahe Paul A., Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (Cambridge, 2008).

42 This is also the case in Hobbes's history of the Civil War, Behemoth, which Skinner mines for anti-republican sentiment. He cites two passages, both of which rail against “readers of ancient texts” who prefer democracy to monarchy. The theme is certainly there to be found in Behemoth. See Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth: or, the Long Parliament (Chicago, 1990), 26, 204. The work as a whole, however, is structured as a scathing attack on clerical usurpation and religious dualism. Behemoth must be primarily understood within this vastly more important context of religious polemic.

43 See Hobbes, Six Lessons to the Professors of the Mathematiques. . . (London, 1656), 56; idem, Leviathan, 538–9.

44 Hobbes to Devonshire, 23 July 1641, The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Noel Malcolm, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1994), 120. See also Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge, 1998), 81; also Hobbes, Leviathan, 228.

45 Resistance to this fact can be remarkably dogged, particularly among political theorists. For one recent and particularly unconvincing attempt to explain it away see Baumgold Deborah, “The Difficulties of Hobbes Interpretation”, Political Theory 36 (2008), 839, 844–7.

46 Revealingly, Skinner's work has always been difficult to reconcile with the best general interpretations of the English Revolution, most of which heavily emphasize its religious dimensions. See, most pertinently, the work of his Cambridge colleague, John Morrill, particularly “The Religious Context of the English Civil War”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 34 (1984), 155–78.

47 Here and below I borrow from my own The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford, 2005), chap. 5 and conclusion.

48 Malcolm Noel, “Hobbes and the Republic of Letters”, in idem, Aspects of Hobbes (Oxford, 2002), 514–17; Champion Justin, Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church of England and Its Enemies (Cambridge, 1992), 134–5; idem, Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696–1722 (Manchester, 2003), 111 et passim.

49 Skinner, ‘The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty”, 66–7.

50 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in idem, The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald Cress (Indianapolis, 1987), 222.

51 For one example among many, see Hein v. the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the 2007 Supreme Court case that unsuccessfully challenged funding for “faith-based initiatives” initiated by President George W. Bush and strongly supported in principle by President Barack Obama.

52 For one version of the debate, conducted civilly by iconic figures, see Habermas Jürgen and Ratzinger Joseph, The Dialectics of Secularism: On Reason and Religion (NY, 2007); also Habermas's “Religion in the Public Square”, European Journal of Philosophy 14 (2006), 1–25.

53 On which see Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinski (Princeton, 1995), chap. 1.

54 Quentin Skinner, “Surveying the Foundations: a retrospect and reassessment”, in Brett and Tully, Rethinking the Foundations, 237.

55 Skinner Quentin, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge, 1996), 616, 437.

56 Skinner Quentin, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas“, in idem, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002) 62.

57 Ibid., 78.

58 Pocock J. G. A., “The Concept of Language”, in Pagden Anthony, ed., The Language of Political Theory in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1987), 28; Quentin Skinner, “Interpretation and the Understanding of Speech Acts”, in idem, Visions of Politics: Regarding Method, 116–20, 125.

59 Quentin Skinner, “Retrospect: Studying Rhetoric and Conceptual Change”, in Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method, 175–87.

60 Skinner himself rejected Darnton's critique in “On Intellectual History and the History of Books”, Contributions to the History of Concepts 1 (2005), 29–36.

61 See, for instance, Drolet Michael, “Quentin Skinner and Jacques Derrida on Power and the State”, History of European Ideas 33 (2007), 234–55. For Skinner on Foucault see his “Interpretation and the Understanding of Speech Acts”, 118; on Nietzsche see his “Surveying the Foundations”, 244.

62 Skinner, “Moral Principles and Social Change”, in Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method, 145–57.

63 Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric, 6.

64 Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric, 15. Jeremy Waldron recently made a similar point when he defended the intellectual value of “texts-in-context” for offering a “richer and more interesting source of ideas for modern deployment, or a richer and more provocative reproach to modern assumptions”. Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought (Cambridge, 2002), 11.

65 Skinner is still prone to deriding such quests for intellectual origins (see, for instance, his “Surveying the Foundations”, 237). But in many respects his most recent book is exactly such a history.

* I would like to thank Mark Kishlansky, John Morrill, Andrew Jainchill, Jeffrey McNairn, Matthew Maguire, Ana Siljak, and the editors of Modern Intellectual History for comments on this essay.

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Modern Intellectual History
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