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’.

How (Not) To Draw Contemporary Insights From The History of Political Thought

I’m giving a talk this Wednesday (25 February, 5.15 – 6.45 pm) at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU (Large Conference Room, Senate House, north block).


How (Not) To Draw Contemporary Insights From The History of Political Thought

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 of course to get historical authors right. We can distinguish here between reading them accurately, and improving their ideas. Doing this can help debunk parochial contemporary explanations, it can help us ask new questions, and can even 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, construct sweeping simplifications of the contemporary picture, misread contemporary authors, or base their critiques on outmoded ideas. A particular concern is a historical version of the naturalistic fallacy, where instead of moving from is to ought, scholars move from was to ought. 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 far less convincing than they think. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.