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Introduction

This is an assessment of how convincing Quentin Skinner’s methodology for studying the history of ideas is.

“Mr Skinner’s critical onslaught suffers from a good deal of confusion and superficiality” (B.Parekh and R.N. Berki)
One can see the controvertiality of Skinner’s views. Yet, In A Reply to my critics he says “there has never been anything particularly novel about my arguments.” His cited influences include Pocock, Dunn, Laslett, J.L. Austin and R.G. Collingwood. Hence one is left wondering why his ideas have courted so much controversy.

In his article Meaning and Understanding he begins by attacking what he sees as the two main schools of thought on how to deal with the history of ideas:

  • “It is the context of religious, political and economic factors which determines the meaning of any given text, and so must provide the ultimate framework to understand it,”
  • Refers to “the autonomy of the text itself as the sole necessary key to its own meaning, and so dismisses any attempt to reconstitute the “total context” as “gratuitous and worse”.
Quentin Skinner says:
“The danger of writing historical nonsense, in direct consequence of concentrating on the text in itself is often incurred and indeed very seldom avoided altogether in current practice.”

In a reply to my critics Skinner writes: “It has never been my intention simply to offer… “method for doing the history of ideas” (Levine)… my aim has been to articulate some general arguments about the process of interpretation itself, and to draw from them a series of what I take to be methodological implications.” In this way Skinner shows that rather than intending to provide the definite model for studying people and their ideas he seeks to provide a corrective force. But is this what he thought when he first put forward his ideas? Or have his views changed slightly over time? If so which set do we accept? In a way these are the sorts of questions that perplex all historians of ideas.

His Methodology:

The key point is the “attempt to understand the relations between what a writer may have said, and what he may be said to have meant by saying what he said.” Thus he seeks to understand the author’s intended meaning.

Meanings of words or phrases are not timeless. For example Baxter and Reid criticised Berkeley for the “egoism” of his outlook. But rather than meaning what we perceive the word to represent they actually were referring to what we would call solipsism.

Skinner’s solution is to provide a new aim: “The only history to be written is thus a history of the various statements made with a given expression. This rather than the history of the sentence itself- would of course be an almost absurdly ambitious enterprise. But it would at least be conceptually proper”.

“Despite the possibility, therefore, that a study of social context may help in the assumption of the contextual methodology, that the ideas of a given text should be understood in terms of its social context, can be shown to be mistaken"”
“Even if the study of social context of texts could serve to explain them, this would not amount to the same as providing the means to understand them.” So Skinner bases his method on understanding the linguistic context of the author and within these limits understand the intention of the author when the text was being written.

The Critique
  • The idea of trying to understand the linguistic context of the time is undoubtedly valuable. But Skinner seems to be overemphasising the importance of the limits. Language is not stable. Over time words gradually stretch their meaning and new nuances appear. Hence it is exceptionally difficult to try and present a narrow range of possibilities. Authors try and find ways of explaining ideas and in creating concepts themselves stretch the meaning of words. In this sense “the revision of language” (Parekh and Berk) contributes a vital part of philosophy. Skinner seems to downplay the role of philosophers and ideas by undermining their ability to provide a new creative insight.
  • An authors intention is not sufficient for understanding a work! There are other things.
  • Thomas Hobbes was influenced by Thucydides. He was trying to understand the basic problems that humans face: French, Romans, Athenians. He wanted his ideas to be universal in scope. Does this not indicate that Skinner overemphasises the point of linguistic context which he applies to restrict the meaning of an author?
  • Cumulative fields of knowledge. Gottlob Frege used Stoic logic which was context independent. Works vary in their ability to communicate meaning throughout time, e.g. Plato’s Republic.
Conclusion

Skinner provides a valuable critique of mistakes historians make. But he does seem to exaggerate the difference between textualism and contextualism. By doing so he is able to put forward his mode of investigation as inherently better thought out. But he too in his views seems to overestimate the impact of the change he seeks to make. His ideas of understanding an author’s intention and emphasising the linguistic context of the time are very important. But one should not let this become too restrictive. That an author can still be seen to put forward new ideas is important and Skinner himself sees his method as a better way of showing how this is done. So although this debate seems heated in reality it is not nearly so controversial. Skinner puts forward reasonable points of reference for the historian, which need to be integrated into study. But this by no means that those who have not explicitly done so have not produced good work. Skinner’s methodology is basically a reemphasis and one I think that has much merit.

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