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The Ethics of Interpretation in Political Theory and Intellectual History

  • Michael L. Frazer

Scholars studying classic political texts face an important decision: Should these texts be read as artifacts of history or as sources for still-valid insights about politics today? Competing historical and “presentist” approaches to political thought do not have a methodological dispute—that is, a disagreement about the most effective scholarly means to an agreed-upon end. They instead have an ethical dispute about the respective value of competing activities that aim at different purposes. This article examines six ethical arguments, drawn primarily from the work of Quentin Skinner, in favor of the historical approach. It concludes that while both intellectual history and presentist theory are ethically justifiable, the best justification of the former enterprise is that it can help us achieve the purposes of the latter.

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I would like to thank all those who provided feedback on this piece, including those who attended presentations at Oxford, Princeton, Cornell, the National University of Singapore, and Texas A&M, as well as the editors and reviewers who have gone above and beyond the requirements of their professional duties.

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1 Wolf, Susan, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 43. Wolf herself insists that both the locus and judgment of value must be objective, but discourse ethics allows for the substitution of intersubjective justifiability for objectivity.

2 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971),  441.

3 See Moriarty, Jeffrey, “Rawls, Self-Respect and the Opportunity for Meaningful Work,” Social Theory and Practice 35, no. 3 (2009): 441–59.

4 For a book-length defense of this claim, see Veltman, Andrea, Meaningful Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

5 Green, Jeffrey Edward, “On the Difference between a Pupil and a Historian of Ideas,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (2012): 84110.

6 Baumgold, Deborah, “Political Commentary on the History of Political Theory,” American Political Science Review 75 (1981): 928–40.

7 See Green, Political Theory as Both Philosophy and History: A Defense against Methodological Militancy,” Annual Review of Political Science 18 (2015): 425–41.

8 Easton, David, “The Decline of Modern Political Theory,” Journal of Politics 13 (1951): 42. See also Gunn, J. A. W., “After Sabine, After Lovejoy: The Languages of Political Thought,” Journal of History and Politics 6 (1988): 5.

9 Skinner, Quentin, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, Regarding Method (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), vii.

10 Haddock, Bruce, “Contingency and Judgment in History of Political Philosophy: A Phenomenological Approach,” in Political Philosophy versus History? Contextualism and Real Politics in Contemporary Political Thought, ed. Floyd, Jonathan and Stears, Marc (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 66.

11 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:89.

12 When interpreting these authors, my own approach will be presentist rather than historical. While this could be criticized as viciously circular or lauded as admirably consistent, I take it mostly as proof that the sort of ethical choices I am describing are unavoidable, even in an essay about these very choices.

13 Skinner, , “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8 (1969): 48.

14 Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, rev. ed., ed. Winsheimer, Joel and Marshall, Donald G. (New York: Continuum, 1989), 296. For a rejection of Skinner's approach as impossible for Gadamerian reasons, see Keane, John, “On the ‘New’ History: Quentin Skinner's Proposal for a New History of Political Ideology,” Telos 47 (1981): 174–83. For more on the incompatibility of Gademerian and Skinnerian approaches, see Boucher, David, Texts in Contexts: Revisionist Methods for Studying the History of Ideas (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985), esp. 181. Skinner has sometimes attempted to incorporate Gadamer's ideas into his own hermeneutic theory, although it is not clear if this can be successful; see Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:15–16.

15 See, among many others, Bevir, Mark, “Are There Any Perennial Problems in Political Theory?,” Political Studies 42 (1994): 662–75; Lamb, Robert, “Quentin Skinner's Revised Historical Contextualism: A Critique,” History of the Human Sciences 22 (2009): 5173; and Paul Kelly, “Rescuing Political Theory from the Tyranny of History,” in Floyd and Stears, Political Philosophy versus History?, 13–37.

16 Hirsch, E. D., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967) and Hirsch, , The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976). Hirsch's terminology is unfortunately misleading, since his concept of “significance” seems like a better candidate for what is colloquially meant by “meaning” (i.e., “what this means to us”) than what he calls “meaning.” For a subtler analysis of the multiple meanings of “meaning,” see Martinich, Aloysius, “Four Senses of ‘Meaning’ in the History of Ideas: Quentin Skinner's Theory of Historical Interpretation,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 3 (2009): 225–45. Furthermore, if Paul Ricoeur is correct that every text contains a surplus of meaning, then there are far more ways of understanding a text than just the two described by Hirsch; see Ricoeur, , Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed. and trans. Thompson, John B. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

17 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:87.

18 Skinner, , “A Reply to My Critics,” in Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics, ed. Tully, James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 256.

19 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:52–53.

20 See McFate, Sean, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

21 Dworkin, Ronald, Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 99190.

22 Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation, 7.

23 Nietzsche, Friedrich, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, ed. and trans. Hollingdale, R. J. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

24 Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation, 90.

25 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:65.

26 Ibid.

27 Many of the most important contributions to this literature are collected in Fischer, John Martin, ed. The Metaphysics of Death, Stanford Series in Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993). For an application of these ideas to research ethics specifically, see Wilkinson, T. M., “Last Rights: The Ethics of Research on the Dead,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 19 (2002): 3141.

28 Belliotti, Raymond Angelo, Posthumous Harm: Why the Dead Are Still Vulnerable (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 34.

29 See Partridge, Ernest, “Posthumous Interests and Posthumous Respect,” Ethics 91 (1981): 243–64 and Taylor, James Stacey, Death, Poshumous Harm, and Bioethics (New York: Routledge, 2012), 67.

30 Thucydides, , History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Warner, Rex (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 48.

31 On the former point, see Kelly, “Rescuing Political Theory,” 26 and Lamb, “Quentin Skinner's Revised Historical Contextualism,” 57–58. On the latter, see Green, “On the Difference between a Pupil and a Historian of Ideas,” 107–8.

32 Skinner, , “Conventions and the Understanding of Speech Acts,” Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1970): 134.

33 Grover, Dorothy, “Posthumous Harm,” Philosophical Quarterly 39 (1989): 353.

34 Machiavelli, Niccoló, The Prince, trans. Mansfield, Harvey, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 61.

35 In ibid., 107–11.

36 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:53

37 Weber, Max, “Science as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. Gerth, H. and Mills, C. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).

38 Dunn, John, “The Identity of the History of Ideas,” Philosophy 43 (1968): 89.

39 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:182.

40 Ibid., 170–71.

41 That said, there are many within the discipline of history who have made precisely this attempt. For an influential defense of “dialogical history” along these lines, see LaCapra, Dominick, Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983). It is important to note that many who self-identify as historians, or are employed as such, would nonetheless qualify as presentists according to the schema of ideal types used in this essay.

42 This paragraph draws on ideas first published in my review of J. G. A. Pocock, Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, November 6, 2009. Available online at

43 Applebaum, Arthur, Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

44 Butterfield, Herbert, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: Norton, 1965), 16.

45 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1903), viii.

46 Audi, Robert, The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 149.

47 Newman, John Henry, Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (Dublin: James Duffy, 1852).

48 Elton, G. R., The Practice of History (London: Fontana, 1969).

49 See Davison, Scott A., On the Intrinsic Value of Everything (New York: Continuum, 2012).

50 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:15–21.

51 Southgate, Beverly, What Is History For? (New York: Routledge, 2005), 76.

52 See Seung, T. K. and Bonevac, Daniel, “Plural Values and Indeterminate Rankings,” Ethics 102 (1992):799813.

53 Cicero, , On Duties, ed. and trans. Griffin, M. T. and Atkins, E. M. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 60.

54 See Frazer, Michael L., “Utopophobia as a Vocation: The Professional Ethics of Ideal and Nonideal Political Theory,” Social Philosophy and Policy 33 (2016): 175–92, which begins with the same passage from Cicero discussed here.

55 This is not to say that all—or even most—political theory succeeds in advancing the cause of justice. The majority of it probably has no effect on real politics at all, while some of it (as will be discussed later) may actually prove deleterious. That said, activities often fail to achieve their goals, and we can separate our judgment of the value of an aim from the success of any given effort to attain it.

56 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:6.

57 Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, 75–77. It is important to note that, contrary to popular belief, Skinner has never actually been an antiquarian, at least not in Nietzsche's sense. Antiquarians, Nietzsche says, piously preserve, and hence kill and mummify, the treasures of the past. See ibid., 72–75.

58 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:88.

59 Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, 76.

60 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:88.

61 Mill, John Stuart, “Bentham,” in Utilitarianism and On Liberty: Including Essay on Bentham and Selections from the Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, ed. Warnock, Mary (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 64.

62 Karl Popper maintained that one of the many flaws of what he called “historicism” (most of which, admittedly, bear little or no resemblance to anything Skinner would ever defend) was its tendency to exaggerate “the somewhat spectacular differences between various historical periods.” See Popper, Karl, The Poverty of Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1997), 100.

63 Janaway, Christopher and Alexander, Peter, “History of Philosophy: The Analytical Ideal,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Volumes 62 (1988): 182. Melissa Lane agrees, writing that “the history of some ideas will teach contingency, while the history of other ideas will teach continuity, and if that were not so then the piecemeal emergence of the present from the past could not have been possible, as it was”; Lane, Why History of Ideas at All?,” History of European Ideas 28 (2002): 39. See also Lane, “Constraint, Freedom and Exemplar: History and Theory without Teleology,” in Floyd and Stears, Political Philosophy versus History?, 128–50; Lawson, Stephanie, “Political Studies and the Contextual Turn: A Methodological/Normative Critique,” Political Studies 56 (2008): 592; and the introduction and titular essay in King, Preston, Thinking Past a Problem: Essays on the History of Ideas (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000).

64 Skinner, Quentin, “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action,” Political Theory 23 (1974): 281.

65 “Quentin Skinner on Meaning and Method,” interview by Teresa Bejan, The Art of Theory, 2011. Online at

66 See, for example, Lamb, Recent Developments in the Thought of Quentin Skinner and the Ambitions of Contextualism,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 3 (2009): 246–65, and Lane, Doing Our Own Thinking for Ourselves: On Quentin Skinner's Genealogical Turn,” Journal of the History of Ideas 73 (2012): 7182.

67 Skinner, Visions of Politics, 1:vi.

68 Skinner, Quentin, Liberty before Liberalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 112.

69 Van Gelderen, Martin and Skinner, Quentin, eds., Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

70 Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, 117.

71 See Edling, Max and Mörkenstam, Uld, “Quentin Skinner: From Historian to Political Scientist,” Scandinavian Political Studies 18 (1995): 119–32.

72 Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, 118.

73 Palonen, Kari, “The History of Concepts as a Style of Political Theorizing: Quentin Skinner's and Reinhart Koselleck's Subversion of Normative Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 1 (2002): 91106.

74 Bartelson, Jens, “Philosophy and History in the Study of Political Thought,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 1 (2007): 111–12.

75 See Pettit, Philip and Marti, Jose Luis, A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero's Spain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

76 Skinner, Quentin, “A Genealogy of the Modern State,” Proceedings of the British Academy, no. 162 (2009): 325–70. I owe the observation of the explicit prescriptivism of this conclusion, and its tension with what Skinner says in the introduction to the piece, to Lane, “Doing Our Own Thinking for Ourselves,” 81–82.

77 Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, 71.

78 Dunn, “The Identity of the History of Ideas,” 98.

79 Green, “On the Difference between a Pupil and a Historian of Ideas.” For a similar argument against a rigid division of intellectual labor, see Leslie, Margaret, “In Defense of Anachronism,” Political Studies 18 (1970): 441–47.

80 Dunn, John, The History of Political Theory and Other Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 26.

81 Leslie, “In Defense of Anachronism,” 443.

82 Shapiro, Ian, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

83 This is the thesis of Frazer, “Utopophobia as a Vocation,” where I argue that political theorists have a professional responsibility to offer a valuable service to their fellow citizens and must not get lost in the construction of useless utopias.

I would like to thank all those who provided feedback on this piece, including those who attended presentations at Oxford, Princeton, Cornell, the National University of Singapore, and Texas A&M, as well as the editors and reviewers who have gone above and beyond the requirements of their professional duties.

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The Review of Politics
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