CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

The use and misuse of history of political thought for contemporary purposes

I’m giving a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes, at the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought on Monday Oct 26, and at the Exeter Politics Department seminar on Wednesday Nov 4.

My paper praises scholars like Julia Annas, Michael Frazer, John McCormick and Quentin Skinner, for successfully using the history of political thought to ask new questions or offer new answers. But I also criticise scholars like John Dunn, Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner for overstating what we can learn from the history of political thought, or for not engaging sufficiently with contemporary issues or authors. Such overstated claims, indeed, risk damaging our efforts to draw contemporary insights from history of political thought, if political theorists or philosophers look at failed efforts and conclude that it is not worth studying history of political thought.

I gave an earlier version of this paper at the Institute of Historical Research in February 2015. But I did not have a paper to circulate then – now I do.

If you want to read a copy of this paper, please email me at Adrian.Blau {at} kcl.ac.uk. Comments and criticisms welcome, however critical!

Abstract: We lack methodological principles for how to draw contemporary insights from historical texts. As a result, many efforts to do so have failed – more than most people realise. One key principle is to get historical authors right, by reading them accurately, and by improving their ideas if needs be. This can help us challenge false claims to historical authority, debunk parochial contemporary explanations, ask new questions, or suggest new answers. The second main principle is to get contemporary authors and issues right. This is where scholars err most. Some scholars fail to demonstrate a gap in the literature, over-generalise, misread contemporary authors, underestimate the complexity of contemporary issues, or use outmoded ideas: just as history of political thought can liberate us, so too it can constrain us. Overall, I suggest, some of the boldest claims for the contemporary value of history of political thought come from scholars whose own contemporary insights are not as convincing as they think. Far from highlighting the contemporary relevance of history of political thought, this risks making it look irrelevant. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.