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.

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