Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Graduate Theory Reading Group, March 19

Intro on Quentin Skinner:

Born in 1940 and educated at Cambridge in the 60's. Spent four years at Princeton in the seventies and works as a historian and political scientist. Interested in recovering the ideas of Early Modern European thinkers and exploring the history of the early modern idea of the state. With JGA Pocock he is seen as one of the elements of "the Cambridge School" (Peter Laslett too). They focus on speech acts - seeing historical texts in a context and trying to bring back the author's intentions.

This was his first major publication and it is still discussed. Together with six other texts it forms the core of Meaning and Context:Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton UP, 1989) edited by James Tully. Each essay is discussed by another writer who criticques it and Skinner. Toward the end of the book Skinner gets a chance to rebut.

The article:

Five sections that explain why neither "text only" or traditional "context is the answer" approaches work. The final segment says something about what CAN be done ... although apparently Skinner is more interesting in providing general directions than a specific plan.

First we consider the text only approach - based on the assumption that there are timeless elements to issues. If you believe this, you want to focus on recovering the timeless questions and answers. Hard to argue that there isn't something like this going on, since we recongnize concepts and family resemblances. The dilemma is that we can only understand the new in terms of the old and so we hear the ideas of others in terms of what we think they must be saying. These expectations take several forms:

the mythologies of doctrine - expecting a person to have a doctrine on "their" topic and finding it in their texts, whether they had a doctrine on the topic or not (and if they did, whether what we believe they should have been saying is really what they intended to want to say. A version of this gives raise to the historical absurdity when authors are simply blamed or praised by how well they aspire to be like us (are they good precursors of what WE are). Also, there is sometimes a presumption of an essential, immanent idea that has a life of its own and can be traced through the writings of people who get it or almost get it or don't get it.

a version that is a reverse of the above - a person expexcts a doctrine, can't find it and then critiqued for not being as expected. The main version of this is people who are surprisingly neutral on somethign believe them to have a position on, the worst case being when eg Plato is criticised for not dealing enough with things that were not in existence to BE issues at the time.

The Mythology of Coherence - tries to decide what a person's position is and then reads everything from that presumed position, adding missing pieces by extrapolation, as if ALL their texts were connected, even to the point of discount authorial statements about what they were writing.

Discussion page 21 about persecuted writers -

So what happens when we move on to individual works?
First the mythology of prolepsis - working from the CURRENT importance of a work it reads back the future into the past and sees the result as the intention.
Then the mythology of parochialism - the reader sees something familiar in the text and believes the author put it there - often happens when a reader sees an apparent reference to a previous (classical work) and decides the first work influenced the second.
Then a second form of parochialism - misunderstanding the sense of a work (as an example there is a discussion of Locke's writings on government by consent - easy to see as a theory on the best organisation of government - whereas it is clear that Locke only meant to write about the ORIGIN of legitimate societies)

ALL of these issues arise when the historian "begins to ignore certain general criteria ... which must necessarily apply to the whole enterprise of making and understanding statements" (28)

You can't be said to have meant something that you clearly would disagree with (eg using concepts that arose later or were otherwise unfamiliar)

You can't claim someone failed to say something unless you can show that he had the intention of saying that particular thing or something like it.

Finally we have to consider that people may consciously adopt incompatible ideas and that most people who think wrestle with ideas and do not have them neatly organised in coherent bunches.

Objection - pointing out the dangers and pitfalls is not the same as saying "don't do it". But the problem is not whether there are doctrines articulated or not, the problem is whether it is appropriate or even possible to treat such a system as a self-sufficient object of inquiry (31). Indeed, I argue that the whole approach is hogwash - it fails to consider or even recognize some of the most important issues - the relation between what a person said and what he may be said to have meant by saying what he did.
Example - the case of the doctrine of religious toleration. People wrote at each other and made very oblique references that WILL be missed unless you read them together. THere is also the problem of knowing when people are sincere and when they are not, when is a position a disguise and when is it what is meant (the persecution thing again?) - and one way to get at that is to see how readers THEN received the texts.
Example - reading the idea as a self-sufficient unit ... but ideas are NOT coherent, and they are often meant in several ways at the same time (cf OED's list of meanings) - we must study ALL hte various situations inn which the given forms of words CAN be USED.


At this point it might seem so much better to read by context, seeing texts as responses to immediate circumstances. This reading is getting popular but seems to end up claming that since ideas change reality and reality changes ideas maybe it is better to just do material history (42)??? I want to claim that whereas a context can HELP read a text, it does not EXPLAIN the text. Understanding the causes of an action does NOT explain the action itself.

People sometimes say they intend to do things they never do, the same set of causes leave people doing very different actions,

It is not enough to know what it means but we need to know HOW what was said was meant and what it was meant to do (e.g. is it reinforcing acepted norms or challenging them)

we cannot write biographies concentrating on the works, OR write histories of ideas tracing the morphology of a given concept over time


I. how does this relate to the previous text?

II Is the critique of "text only" approach convincing? In part or in whole? What would be the advantages of reading "the text only"?

III Reactions to the discussion about persecuted writers? How DO we read them?

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