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.

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]-


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.




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.

My review of Arthur Melzer’s new Straussian book on esotericism

Here is a pre-publication version of my review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014).

MelzerBookMelzer’s book is the best defence of Straussian esoteric interpretation yet written. It’s more plausible than anything Strauss wrote, in my view. But Melzer overinterprets or overlooks evidence, and does not provide support for some of Strauss’s most questionable esoteric techniques. He only addresses weak criticisms of Strauss, ignoring writers like John Pocock and George Klosko (and me), and he sometimes contrasts Straussian interpretations with caricatures of other approaches.

So, Straussians should not think that this book proves Strauss was right. Nor should critics of Strauss claim that no one wrote esoterically. In short, everyone interested in esoteric writing should read this book. Melzer’s online appendix is also a wonderful resource, collating comments about esoteric writing throughout history.

N.B. The final version of my review – with tiny corrections to be made – will appear in Perspectives on Political Science later this year. Melzer will respond in the same issue, or another issue.

UPDATE: here is an overview of the first part of the two-part symposium of Melzer’s book, and a link to the journal.

Where Leo Strauss grew up

Back in July, I went to a conference on ‘Reading Between The Lines: Leo Strauss and the History of Early Modern Philosophy’, in Marburg, Germany. After the conference finished, some of us took a trip to Kirchhain, the little town where Leo Strauss was born and grew up. Many thanks to Thomas Meyer (Munich), who organised the trip to Kirchhain and is writing a biography of Strauss that sounds like it’s going to be a must-read.

I’ve previously posted a picture of Strauss aged 12, and I’ll post a couple more pictures at some point, but here are some pictures of Strauss-related buildings in Kirchhain:

The house where Strauss was born

The house where Strauss was born

The house where Strauss grew up

The house where Strauss grew up

The school where Strauss went

The school where Strauss went

The synagogue where Strauss and his family went

The synagogue where Strauss and his family went

Some of the buildings that the Strauss family owned (for businesses including furniture-making, I think)

Some of the buildings that the Strauss family owned (for businesses including furniture-making, I think)

























Leo Strauss, aged 12

Here’s a newly discovered picture of Leo Strauss aged 12, dressed in Japanese naval costume, celebrating the Kaiser’s 1912 visit to Kirchhain, where Strauss grew up.

The translation, courtesy of Dietrich Schotte of Marburg University, is:

‘School of Kirchhain

Callisthenics and Japanese dexterity exercises

for the Kaiser’s birthday, 1912.’

In the coming weeks, I’ll post more pictures relating to the young Strauss, taken from my visit to Kirchhain, after a Strauss conference in Marburg.

Strauss aged 12, closeup Strauss aged 12