Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 3: Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner was, and is, one of my intellectual heroes. He was, and is, the most vital speaker I have heard. He has an energy that makes the ideas and the people come alive. His written words have a similar effect. But it was as a lecturer that he inspired me; indeed, I didn’t read much that he wrote until I was a graduate student.

I owe Skinner a particular debt because he inspired me at a time when I was already losing my new-found love of history of political thought. I had just switched subjects, to study politics. My holiday reading list included Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics, which I found about as inspiring as A Short History of Essex, and John Dunn’s Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, which has to be about the worst introduction to political theory that undergraduates have ever been encouraged to read. (It’s not that it’s bad: it’s not bad, actually. But it’s not that good, in my opinion, and it’s not well written, in anyone’s opinion, and I don’t think that it teaches you much about what political theory is or how to do it.)

Nor was I very inspired by most of the lectures I then sat through (and often, slept through), or the teaching I had for my Plato to Locke course. Then Skinner’s lectures started. He seemed to be one of the few History lecturers who put effort into his lectures. Some of his colleagues spent 8 or 16 lectures meandering through a book they had written, but Skinner knew what he wanted to say, his lectures had energy and direction, and the intellectual content was superb.

Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner

Skinner is equally well known for his methodological writings; much of my own ongoing methodological work involves supplementing and amending Skinner’s. But strikingly, his lectures were largely implicit about method. I think all he said, too modestly, was that there was a historical style of analysing political texts with which his name was associated.

Nonetheless, his method influenced me significantly: I simply imbibed this approach to history of political thought from his lectures and those of his colleagues.

I’ve never really understood the bile that some people have for Skinner, and I believe I have good intellectual reasons for defending him; but I am well aware that I am emotionally biased, because like many people, Quentin Skinner inspired me to do what I now do.

Here’s an hour-long lecture of Skinner on Machiavelli’s Prince. Enjoy!

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  1. Nice post (and great blog — you had me at the analysis of different notions of bullshit).

    I’ve long admired Skinner’s work, which sets a standard that few of us can match and, as a result, reminds us of how much more we need to do. But I’d never heard him lecture until he gave the series of talks that would eventually be published as Hobbes on Republican Liberty. The erudition was, as I expected, staggering, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the pacing and structure. He’d opened with a reference to Hobbes’ comment about the word Libertas on the walls of Lucca, then spent the next lectures roaming through writers none of us knew before returning, at the very close, to Lucca and explaining the force of the invocation of Constantinople. The whole thing was plotted masterfully (had he gone into comedy instead of history he’d have bested Larry David) — just amazing.

    • Fascinating.

      Yes, Skinner is a marvellous presenter; apparently he works very hard in preparation.

      Your comment about Larry David is especially interesting. One thing I admire about Curb Your Enthusiasm is the way the different threads of the episode often come together at the end (e.g. the missing tickets episode; the Ted Danson vest episode). And one thing I admire about Quentin Skinner is the way the different threads of the argument come together! (Hobbes and Republican Liberty is a superb example of this.) I’m writing about this aspect of Skinner’s work – social scientists call this ‘triangulation’ – in a methodological paper I’ve been working on for several years.

  1. Teachers who inspired me as an undergraduate, part 4: Mark Goldie | BlauBlog

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