Extended meaning and understanding in the history of ideas

In 1969, Quentin Skinner wrote a seminal essay on ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’. Fifty years later, in the same journal (History and Theory), I have published an article expanding his account.

meaningunderstandingSkinner, writing as a historian, focused on ‘intended meaning’ – what authors meant by what they wrote. I focus on ‘extended meaning’ – the implications of what authors wrote, whether intended or not.

Intended meaning has dominated our methodological literature, and philosophy of language more generally; many historians of political thought seem to see it as the only kind of meaning and understanding. But extended meaning, and the kind of understanding it furnishes, is not only a worthy goal of research but even helps scholars whose main focus is intended meaning.

So, these two types of meaning and understanding are not alternatives. Just as political theorists and philosophers must address intended meaning, so too historians must address extended meaning.

My paper also gives a qualified defence of anachronisms. These are controversial for historians, but I show that they are implicit in any historical claim about an author’s originality.

This paper thus challenges the view, still dominant in our methodological literature, that historians are doing something fundamentally different to political theorists and philosophers. (I make similar arguments in several places, including my 2019 chapter on Sharon Lloyd’s book on Hobbes interpretations, my 2015 article ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’, and a paper on textual context, just published in History of European Ideas, that I will write about very soon on this blog!)

Here is the abstract:

Many historians focus primarily on authors’ “intended meanings.” Yet all textual interpreters, including historians, need a second kind of meaning. I call this idea “extended meaning,” a new name for an old idea: “P means Q” is the same as “P logically implies Q.” Extended and intended meaning involve different kinds of understanding: even if we grasp exactly what authors meant, we miss something important if we overlook their errors, for example. Crucially, extended and intended meaning are not alternatives: just as some parts of texts cannot be understood without historical analysis, so too some parts of texts cannot be understood without philosophical analysis. Indeed, some historians are adept at using extended meanings to recover intended meanings. But the failure to make this explicit has led many historians to undervalue philosophical analysis. This article thus applies the idea of extended meaning to three practical questions: whether we can deviate from authors’ intended meanings, whether we can use anachronisms, and how we can use extended meanings to recover intended meanings. The idea of extended meaning thus strengthens our theoretical foundations and offers valuable practical tools.

It’s a coincidence that this paper was published fifty years after Skinner’s essay: I first drafted the paper ten years ago, and 90% of it has changed in the meantime. But I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s been published in the same journal.

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4 Comments

  1. amor mundi

     /  March 26, 2020

    Really interesting work. Fantastic! If you’re interested, we too write about political theory, check us out! https://theamormundi.blogspot.com/

    Reply
  1. Extended meaning and understanding in the history of ideas. @TheTedNelson #OIP #Flo #Alexandria #GrubStreetJournal #HypatiasEyeBrowser” @DrAdrianBlau – Not The Grub Street Journal
  2. Not Reading but Drowning. Big Data, Wordhoard. Scalable reading and human intelligent understanding. #Xanadocs #Alexandria #HypathiasEyebrowser @TheTedNelson @kramermj @DrAdrianBlau @JillanaEnteen @TheAtlantic @enkiv2 – Not The Grub Street Journal
  3. Meanings and understandings in the history of ideas | BlauBlog

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