Quentin Skinner conference at the British Academy

Today is the first day of a two-day conference which Joanne Paul and I are running ‘at’ the British Academy (i.e. online), on Quentin Skinner’s ‘Meaning and Understanding’ After 50 years: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

Skinner is one of the world’s leading historians of political thought, and someone who has influenced me throughout my career – starting with his brilliant undergraduate lectures, which I described here.

His essay on ‘Meaning and Understanding’ was a seminal essay that still bears close scrutiny today. Its key argument is that to understand historical texts, you need to read them historically. Skinner criticises many errors and ‘mythologies’ in the study of historical texts.

The conference features papers on many issues, including applying his ideas to ancient Greece and Rome; to philosophical reconstruction; to music theory; to Indian, Islamic and Chinese contexts; to rhetoric and ideological analysis; to digital humanities, quantitative text analysis and sociolinguistics; and to racism in political thought (my paper).

Registration is free, and you can come to as much or as little of the conference as you like.

Meanings and understandings in the history of ideas

My paper ‘Meanings and Understandings in the History of Ideas’ is now online (Open Access – the PDF is free to download!) at the Journal of the Philosophy of History.


This paper gives a much broader account of meaning and understanding than is traditional among philosophers of language and intellectual historians. I offer a philosophical basis for these ideas and show their value in studying the history of political thought and history of philosophy.

This is the sister paper to my article ‘Extended Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, published last year in History and Theory (see my blogpost here).

Both articles take their inspiration from Quentin Skinner’s classic essay ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, also published in History and Theory.

Skinner implies that there is one idea of meaning and one idea of understanding; I discuss others. Here’s the summary of my paper:

This paper presents a framework of four types of meaning and understanding in the history of political thought and intellectual history. Previous frameworks have overlooked a whole type of meaning – the type often prioritised by political theorists and philosophers. I call this “extended meaning.” Correcting a wrong turn in philosophy of language in the 1950s, I show how extended meaning has robust intellectual foundations, and I illustrate its value for textual interpreters. Even historians often need extended meaning, for example to help resolve ambiguous passages. So, the main types of meaning are not alternatives: scholars interested in one kind of meaning still need others. This paper thus celebrates both diversity and unity.

Interestingly – and I use that term rather loosely! – most of this paper actually started out in the ‘Extended Meaning’ paper. Only about 10% of the final version of the ‘Extended Meaning’ paper was in the original draft. The rest of it was gradually replaced, until I realised I had enough for a second paper!

This second paper provides a philosophy-of-language basis for the ‘Extended Meaning’ paper. I seek to correct Paul Grice’s wrong turn in the philosophy of language in the 1950s. Grice mostly depicted ‘natural meaning’ as involving natural phenomena (e.g. ‘smoke means fire’). I follow Wayne Davis in depicting this as ‘evidential meaning’, but whereas Davis relates it to signs, I relate it to empirical consequences. To say that P means Q, in the sense of evidential meaning, is to say that if P happens, Q happens.

Seeing evidential meaning in terms of empirical consequences opens the door to what I call ‘extended meaning’, which I relate to logical consequences. To say that P means Q, in the sense of extended meaning, is to say that P logically implies Q. For example, if I say that Paris is the capital of Germany, but Paris is not actually the capital of Germany, this means that I am wrong.

Yet extended meaning is largely overlooked in traditional accounts of meaning and understanding, even though we often use this language in practice. The idea is absent, or only partially or vaguely present, in the typologies of Quentin Skinner, Leo Strauss, E.D. Hirsch (whose famous distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ gets heavily criticised in the paper), A.P. Martinich, and Mark Bevir. I also compare extended meaning to similar ideas implied or discussed by John Plamenatz, Knud Haakonssen, Gad Prudovsky, and Morton White. Plus I give lots of examples; some people will enjoy playing the game where they try to guess what my loosely anonymised examples refer to!

Overall, extended meaning is a hugely important kind of meaning in intellectual history – which generates a hugely important kind of understanding, as I discuss in both papers.

Extended meaning thus deserves to be taken seriously by all scholars working on history of political thought, history of philosophy, and intellectual history. It’s an idea we all know implicitly, but the failure to name and theorise it has been a problem.

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.

Combining history and philosophy

LloydInterpCambridge University Press has just published my chapter on the need to interpret Thomas Hobbes historically and philosophically, in an important new book edited by Sharon Lloyd. I contrast two prominent interpreters of Hobbes: Jean Hampton, a philosopher, and Quentin Skinner, a historian. I show, surprisingly, that Skinner actually uses philosophical analysis better than Hampton to recover what Hobbes thought.

In short, both historical and philosophical analysis are needed. Yet the methodological literature in history of political thought (and history of philosophy) typically sees history and philosophy as essentially separate.

Unfortunately, the publishers managed to mangle my point by changing the title of my chapter at the last minute, without my permission. The title had been:

Methodologies of Interpreting Hobbes: Historical and Philosophical

But someone at Cambridge University Press unilaterally decided to change the italics:

Methodologies of Interpreting Hobbes: Historical and Philosophical

This makes it sound as if there are two methodologies for interpreting Hobbes, when I was arguing that there is one, which should combine historical and philosophical thinking.

I complained two months ago but nothing has yet happened. It’s too late to change the printed book, but I’ve asked for the website and PDF to be corrected.

A surprisingly positive review of a Straussian book on Hobbes

Readers who know my aversion to Leo Strauss (see here) may be surprised by my surprisingly positive review of Devin Stauffer’s new book on Hobbes, on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (link).


Stauffer, an Associate Professor at UT Austin, argues that Hobbes was trying to subvert his readers’ religious attachments – but not by saying so directly. Rather, the argument is esoteric: Hobbes’s real views can only be grasped if we read between the lines. For example, some of Hobbes’s ‘defences’ of religious views were so bad that they would subtly draw attention to the opposite view.

I’m not convinced, and my review raises five challenges to Stauffer’s interpretation. Still, I don’t reject Stauffer’s book: it is definitely plausible. Indeed, it’s the best Straussian interpretation I’ve seen – way better than anything Strauss wrote.

Underpinning my critique is is the need to interpret texts ‘scientifically’, by comparing alternative interpretations, looking at what fits and doesn’t fit one’s interpretation, standing outside of the interpretation and asking what it would take to be right, and so on. I discuss those ideas elsewhere on my blog, in relation to my paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’, originally called ‘History of Political Thought as a Social Science’, here, and in exploring the place of uncertainty in history of political thought, here. I’m actually most explicit about the scientific nature of textual interpretation in a chapter I wrote called ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’. Please email me if you want a copy, at Adrian.Blau -[at]- kcl.ac.uk.


A five-week US tour

I’m in the US for five weeks, giving the following papers:

Columbia, Wed Oct 3 – ‘How (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes’.USUKflag2
Stanford, Fri Oct 12 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’.
Berkeley, Tue Oct 16 – ‘Hobbes’s failed political science’.
Association for Political Theory conference, Bryn Mawr/Haverford, Sat Oct 20 – ‘Post-truth politics and the rise of bullshit’.
Arizona, Thu Oct 25 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’. (I’m also teaching a class on ‘Corruption and conceptual analysis’ on Mon Oct 22.)
University of Texas at Austin, Fri Nov 2 – ‘The logic of inference of thought experiments in political philosophy’.

Thought experiments: scientific parallels

I’ll be giving a controversial paper at two conferences: the American Political Science Association (Sept 1-4, in Philadelphia), and the European Consortium on Political Research (Sept 7-10, in Prague).

My paper draws parallels between thought experiments in political theory and philosophy, and controlled experiments/comparisons in the natural and social sciences. Some of these parallels have been noticed before, by people like Frances Kamm, Tamar Gendler, and (in the book on political theory methods that I’m editing) Kimberley Brownlee and Zofia Stemplowska. But no one I’m aware of has taken advantage of the powerful toolkit that social and natural scientists have developed. I thus use ideas like internal and external validity, controlled comparison, omitted variable bias, interaction effects, spurious correlations, testable implications, and parsimony.

This helps us see better how to do thought experiments, and how much we can learn from them.

Thought ExperimentOf course, some readers will be more interested in my broader claims about the relationship between political theory and science. But note that I don’t equate the two: there are parallels, but also important differences. By contrast, I do argue elsewhere that some textual interpretation is essentially scientific: we often ask empirical questions (like what Locke meant by ‘rights’ or why he wrote what he wrote), and scientific ideas are the best tools we have yet developed for answering such questions. (See here for the most explicit version of the argument, and here for the most details account of what a scientific approach to textual intepretation involves.)

This isn’t really what’s going on in political theory thought experiments – which are, furthermore, only one part of political theory, and a part that many authors don’t use. Nonetheless, this casts some light on what some philosophers of science mean when they discuss ‘naturalism’, defined here as philosophy and science being ‘continuous’.

Although I’ve been thinking about and teaching some of these ideas for many years, my paper was written quite quickly, and needs more work. In particular, I cannot yet say how widespread the problems I discuss are.

The paper is here. Any comments and criticisms would be much appreciated!

‘Methods in Analytical Political Theory’ sent to Cambridge University Press

Marthe Donas, Le Livre d'imagesI’ve now sent the manuscript of Methods in Analytical Political Theory to Cambridge University Press.

Each chapter gives ‘how-to’ advice, explaining how to use the method or approach being discussed.

The lineup is as follows:

  1. Introduction: a ‘how-to’ approach (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  2. How to write analytical political theory (Robert Goodin, ANU)
  3. Thought experiments (Kimberley Brownlee, Warwick, and Zofia Stemplowska, Oxford)
  4. Reflective equilibrium (Carl Knight, Glasgow)
  5. Contractualism (Jonathan Quong, USC)
  6. Moral sentimentalism (Michael Frazer, University of East Anglia)
  7. Realism (Robert Jubb, Reading)
  8. Realistic idealism (David Schmidtz, Arizona)
  9. Conceptual analysis (Johan Olsthoorn, KU Leuven)
  10. Positive political theory (Alan Hamlin, Manchester and King’s College London)
  11. Rational choice theory (Brian Kogelmann, Arizona, and Gerald Gaus, Arizona)
  12. Interpreting texts (Adrian Blau, King’s College London)
  13. Comparative political thought (Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt, and Rochana Bajpai, SOAS)
  14. Ideological analysis (Jonathan Leader Maynard, Oxford)
  15. How to do a political theory PhD (Robert Goodin, ANU, and Keith Dowding, ANU)

The book should be out in 2017.

Talk at NCH: ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

On Tuesday March 22 I’ll be talking to the History of Political Thought Society at the New College of the Humanities, on ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

I’ll be arguing that while historians, political theorists and philosophers often end up asking different questions, many of their tools are the same. Historians have in effect won the battle to get political theorists and philosophers to think historically and consult historical research, but political theorists and philosophers need to do more to convince historians to think philosophically and consult philosophical research. This can be a valuable means even to primarily historical ends!

Time: 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm. NCH Bedford Square

Location: Drawing Room, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3HH. (N.B. Someone will need to let you in, so if possible please arrive by 6.30.)

RSVP: joanne.paul@nchlondon.ac.uk


Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.


The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.


In order to apply you need a MyECPR account (http://ecpr.eu/Login.aspx). This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me (Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk) or Keith Dowding (keith.dowding@anu.edu.au) if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.



Disappointing (non-)response by Arthur Melzer to my and other people’s criticisms

Perspectives on Political Science16 of us wrote reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the June and October issues of Perspectives on Political Science. Melzer has now written a 10,000-word response. Unfortunately, he did not engage with most of the reviews. His wording is curious:

In the space allotted me for rejoinder, it would clearly not be possible to reply to each of the essays individually, and it would be unbearably tedious if it were. Most of the essays, at any rate, stand in no particular need of reply.

I’m not sure about any of those three claims!

For what it’s worth, my review made the following points:

  • Melzer misinterprets, or interprets partially, some evidence about esotericism, e.g. in Machiavelli and Rousseau;
  • Melzer is not clear about whether contextualist/Cambridge-School interpretations are esoteric;
  • Melzer works with a straw man when he discusses “strictly literal” readings, as opposed to esoteric ones;
  • Melzer does not respond to the most important critiques of Strauss’s methodology.




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’.

New DPE students: welcome to King’s College London!

Critical ThinkingIf you’re joining the Department of Political Economy (DPE) as a new undergraduate student in September 2015: welcome!

I’m one of your lecturers, and here are two (optional) preparatory readings you might find helpful, for two different modules which I convene.

4SSPP101 Studying Politics

Studying Politics is a core module taken by all students on the Politics programme and the Political Economy programme. It’s designed to empower you to think rigorously and critically about the politics research you’ll read at university. Reading 1 is the first 20 pages of Jon Elster’s book Explaining Social Behavior (2007), which gives a great sense of how to think like a social scientist. One of the most important things you’ll learn at university is the importance of thinking like a researcher, not just like a student. We want to encourage you to criticise what you read, not just make notes on it. To be critical, you will need to understand the choices that researchers make and what they could have done differently – and we will give you the tools to do this.

Students on the Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) programme don’t take this module – but you’ll still find Elster’s article interesting and useful if you want to read it, because the ideas in it apply to other modules you’ll take.

Academic Writing Skills

This is an optional module offered to all students taking the Politics programme, the Political Economy Programme, the PPE programme, and the Politics, Philosophy and Law (PPL) programme. My department is the first in the university to run a term-long course like this. It gives you guidance on how to write better university essays. Reading 2 gives a lot of practical advice about studying at university, including the important of not being too trusting about what your lecturers and seminar tutors say! (We expect you to be critical of us, not just of what you read, of each other, and of yourselves.) Especially if you’re a bit worried or unsure about what to expect at uni, this chapter will give you a flavour of studying politics at university.

Looking forward to meeting you in September!

Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy

I’m part of a symposium of reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the journal Perspectives on Political Science (vol. 44 no. 3, 2015). This is a two-part symposium, with Melzer responding to the reviews in the second part, in the forthcoming issue. The first part of the symposium has contributions from a variety of authors:


  • Francis Fukuyama drives a further wedge between Strauss and silly criticisms of his alleged effect on US foreign policy;
  • Michael Frazer asks if some philosophers writing about esotericism actually did so esoterically;
  • Adrian Blau challenges some of Melzer’s evidence as well as what appear to be false dichotomies between esoteric/non-esoteric and literal/non-literal readings of texts – click here for a summary of my views and a copy of my article;
  • Douglas Burnham questions the idea of ‘historicism’ and asks how well Nietzsche fits this category;
  • Rob Howse questions Melzer’s evidence about the relationship between persecution and esotericism;
  • Miguel Vatter makes further distinctions between types and aims of esotericism;
  • in separate pieces, Norma Thompson, Catherine/Michael Zuckert, Larry Arnhart, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers and Peter Augustine Lawler each develop different aspects of the account of ancient versus modern esotericism/society.

How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] kcl.ac.uk – thanks!

Is replication just for scientists? Part 2: interpreting texts

Part 1 argued that replicability, an important facet of scientific research, is also found in philosophical thought experiments. Indeed, philosophical thought experiments are easier to replicate than most natural or social science research.

Here, in Part 2, I apply this idea to interpreting texts, whether in the history of political thought, in philosophy, or anywhere else.

Reading book

My key claim is that when we make an empirical claim about a text – for example, what an author meant by a word or phrase – we should provide our evidence, so that other interpreters can replicate our reading to see if they agree or not. In other words, we should give precise references (e.g. page numbers) so that other people can find the passage, read it for themselves, and see if they share our interpretation.

Aside from replicability, there are two more self-interested reasons to give precise references . First, it forces us to try to be careful. I can think of several occasions where I find that I have misread or misremembered an argument when I look for the page number. Second, it shows our readers that we have tried to be careful. I’m more likely to trust an interpretater if I think that the author has been careful with her evidence, although there are exceptions in both directions, of course.

Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot give precise references, because we have not read the source we are citing, or not read it closely enough, or not read it recently. We don’t always give precise references in informal contexts (e.g. on blogs!) but where possible we should do so in published academic writings. One reason we don’t is the  bad academic convention of giving precise references for direct quotations but not necessarily when only citing ideas without quoting them. I believe we should give precise references in both situations.

To change the convention, journal editors and publishers should make us give precise references where we can. I remember one journal editor of a leading political theory journal who considered forcing people to give page numbers in order to get away from slapdash references to “Rawls 1971” and the like. I note with great pleasure that the American Political Science Review now requires authors to give ‘precise page references to any published material cited’. My only caveat to that is where page numbers are not helpful: for example, there are so many different editions of Rousseau’s Social Contract that chapter numbers are probably more helpful there.

But the basic principle stands: ideally, other people should be able to replicate what we have done to see if they agree with our claims. This principle is as important in textual interpretation as it is in the natural sciences.

KKV’s strategic error in Designing Social Inquiry

In 1994, Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sidney Verba (‘KKV’) published their seminal book Designing Social Inquiry. It was very controversial, perhaps intentionally so, because of the claim that

our main concern in this book is making qualitative research more scientific (p. 18).

This led to a backlash from many qualitative political scientists.

KKVI believe that the substance of KKV’s book points to a different and less controversial argument. They start to make this argument at the very bottom of page 4:

All good research can be understood – indeed, is best understood – to derive from the same underlying logic of inference. Both quantitative and qualitative research can be systematic and scientific.

But they then move on to a less relevant issue: historical research. That’s not really the point.

This is what I believe they should have said next:

All quantitative and qualitative researchers fall short of the ideal to greater or lesser extents. It happens that the logic of social-science inference is often more developed in quantitative research, but this book will use examples of good and bad practice from both qualitative and quantitative research.

This is consistent with the book’s content; it would just have required some different examples.

This message is less controversial – and perhaps the book would have been less widely read as a result. But people might have paid more attention to some ideas which have, alas, generated less debate. For example, I think that more weight should be placed on KKV’s very important ideas about uncertainty, which have greatly influenced me (see this blog post and this article of mine) and which I see as fundamental to all empirical research – even empirical research which does not see itself as social-scientific (see this blog post and this article of mine).

Important caveat: the suggestion I have made about what KKV should have said is still controversial: not everyone thinks that there is a unified logic of inference in social science! I’m just saying that if that is KKV’s view, they may have been better off framing the idea differently.

Noel Malcolm interview on the new edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan

Listen to an 18-minute interview with historian Noel Malcolm, covering his awe-inspiring new Clarendon edition of the English and Latin versions of Leviathan, Hobbes’s best-known work of political philosophy.

Malcolm starts the interview by summarising his new views about why Hobbes wrote Leviathan (from 2.35 to about 4.50). Malcolm’s analysis, alongside exciting research by historian David Scott, is giving us new ideas about why Hobbes wrote Leviathan, which may in turn cast new light on some of what Hobbes meant.

Malcolm also gives a stimulating account of Hobbes’s views on religion (from 9.00 to 15.15).

Noel Malcolm

Malcolm briefly discusses an important question: should philosophers be historians? Malcolm says no, but gives two reasons why philosophers nonetheless benefit from historical research. First, a philosopher may claim that a particular argument (say, Hobbes’s account of the relationship between liberty and authority) was made for philosophical reasons, when the argument may actually have been intended as a  contribution to a local political debate (from 8.10 to 8.35, and from 16.15 to 16.35).

It’s not clear to me, though, that this objection will trouble philosophers. Malcolm would need to show that a scholar can misunderstand Hobbes’s argument if she misreads his intentions. There are places where this is true and places where it is not, and unsurprisingly Malcolm doesn’t go into that kind of detail in the interview.

Second, Malcolm notes that words may not mean what we think they mean, and we may need to place them in their context if we are not to be led astray (from 16.00 to 16.15). One example, which he touches on earlier, is ‘atheist’, which had different meanings in the 17th century to now. That strikes me as a much stronger reason why philosophers should read work by historians.

One issue which is not discussed, unsurprisingly, is whether historians should be philosophers. That is a question I explore in an article I’m currently writing.

Is social science useful? Roundtable at King’s College London, 14 June 2013

I’m co-organising a roundtable on ‘Is Social Science Useful’ at King’s College London, featuring some prestigious speakers from KCL, UCL, the LSE, Ipsos MORI, and UPenn (the University of Pennsylvania).

Here are the details.

Is Social Science Useful?

King’s Interdisciplinary Social Sciences Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC) Roundtable

June 14, 2013, 4.30pm – 6pm

Room K2.31 King’s Building – followed by drinks at ‘Chapters’, 2nd floor, Strand Building

Social science research is increasingly judged on its ‘usefulness’ and ‘practical relevance’, beyond its intellectual and theoretical contributions. But how useful is social science? Could it be more useful? Are there costs in pursuing usefulness? This roundtable will feature eminent social scientists and practitioners with diverse views about these important issues.

Philip Tetlock is the Leonore Annenberg University Professor in Democracy and Citizenship at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He has published widely on political psychology, especially on bias and prediction in politics and public policy. He is the author of the award-winning book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

Alena Ledeneva is Professor of Politics and Society at UCL. She works on corruption, economic crime, corporate governance and the informal economy in Russia and other postcommunist countries. Her books include How Russia Really Works (2006) and Can Russia Modernise? (2013).

Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey is Reader in Political Science at the LSE. She works on the interplay between interests, ideas and institutions in legislative politics, trade and monetary policy, and political rhetoric. Her most recent book is Deliberating American Monetary Policy.

Patten Smith, is Director of Research Methods at the Research Methods Centre of Ipsos MORI, one of the UK’s largest research companies. He is the author of ‘Survey research: two types of knowledge’, which explores the divide between the kinds of knowledge held by survey experts in research agencies and in academia. He is currently the Chair of the Social Research Association.

Nick Butler is Chair of King’s Policy Institute. Between 2002 and 2006 he was Group Vice-President at BP and has since worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at 10 Downing Street. He is the author of The Future of European Universities: Renaissance or Decay?

To attend, please sign up at the Eventbrite page: socialscienceroundtable.eventbrite.co.uk

For any questions or queries about the event please contact: Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk

Address & directions:

King’s College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS

Organised on behalf of the KISS-DTC Regulation cluster themes: ‘Regulation, Governance and Politics’; ‘Work and Organisations’; ‘Markets, Firms and Competitiveness’.


Who knows? Uncertainty in qualitative social science

I’m looking for your help: I need references which discuss the idea of uncertainty in qualitative research. Probably in social science, but maybe history.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make.

When we tackle empirical matters – how many people have HIV, why the dinosaurs went extinct, how democratisation affects economic growth, and so on – we can never know the answers for certain. (I’m not thinking about prediction, by the way, but about description or explanation of things in the past or present.)

In quantitative social science, this idea is standard: it’s central to statistical inference. But I don’t know how much it’s been discussed in relation to qualitative research, aside of course from debates over Bayesian research. I have looked . . . but I haven’t found much.

The place of uncertainty in qualitative research is something I tried to theorise in an article in History and Theory. I argued that when we study historical texts, we often ask empirical questions, such as why Machiavelli wrote what he wrote, or what Mill meant by ‘harm’. We can’t know the answers for certain, but often we should indicate how confident we are in our findings. This reminds us that we are not telling our readers what happened: we are telling them how strong we think our evidence is.

Reporting uncertainty in qualitative research is thus subjective, whereas in quantitative research it is objective (at least, where the indication of uncertainty is part of statistical significance).

But can anyone tell me who has written about uncertainty in qualitative research, whether in social science or history?

uncertainty in qualitative research

My ideas about this issue have been greatly influenced by Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sidney Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry – see especially pp. 7-8 and 31-2 of chapter 1. Unusually, they depict uncertainty as a core feature of science. This is a crucial idea. It took me years to grasp what they were getting at, but I now agree.

However, King Keohane and Verba actually say very little about what uncertainty involves in qualitative research, as Larry Bartels notes. This is surprising, given that their book is meant to be precisely about what quantitative researchers can teach qualitative ones. When I wrote my article, I had to do much of the thinking for myself (helped by Collingwood, by Keynes, and of course by many actual examples of good and bad practice in substantive research).

I’m now interested in writing a paper about uncertainty in qualitative social science. Of course, the idea is widespread: for example, it’s implicit in any discussion of triangulation. But do you know of people who have theorised the idea and/or discussed its place in qualitative research? (Again, aside from Bayesians.) Can anyone point me to some references? I’d be very grateful – thanks!