By insisting on the need to consider philosophical works as interventions in the general, ongoing political debates of their time, Quentin Skinner has profoundly renewed the history of ideas. In this interview, he revisits the main themes of his work.
A Professor at Queen Mary University in London, Quentin Skinner is a historian of political ideas. He is considered as the founder of what is called “Cambridge School”, according to which the works of moral and political philosophy must be understood in the historical context of their emergence. These works are above all acts of speech, which have a practical aim—an aim the interpreter must bring to light if he does not want to be mistaken about their meaning. Like any utterance, the studied texts have an intentional force, and the task of the history of ideas is to re-grasp it.
Quentin Skinner lays out the principles of this method of reading in a collection of articles published in 2002, Visions of Politics. Regarding Method (Cambridge University Press). This volume is now available in French (Visions politiques I. Sur la méthode, translated by Christopher Hamel, Paris, Droz, 2018).
Books&Ideas: In the early 1970s, you published a number of articles underlining the need to understand the social and political context in which philosophical texts were written, in order to grasp their scope. In 2002, these articles were included in Visions of Politics. Regarding Method, a book now translated into French. These texts were a milestone in the understanding of the history of ideas. In your view, is this contextualism now well established, to the point that it no longer has a major adversary? Or is this methodological requirement still a subject of debate?
Quentin Skinner: May I first say how pleased I am that these articles have now been published in French. I should add that they have been beautifully translated by Christopher Hamel, and of course everything reads more elegantly in French, so this version now constitutes the best statement of my views.
My basic hermeneutic assumption is that we can speak of two complementary but separable dimensions of language. One is concerned with what have traditionally been described as meanings—the meanings of words, statements, texts. The other is concerned with language as a form of social action. I take from Wittgenstein the suggestion that one of the questions to be asked about any utterance is what the speaker or writer is doing in issuing it. We should think, that is, of our concepts and their verbal expression essentially as tools—or perhaps as weapons, as Nietzsche preferred to put it.
During the past generation, many doubts were raised about the difficulty of recovering the meaning of statements. I share these doubts, and I benefited greatly from the deconstructionist moment when it was strongly emphasised that, in Derrida’s fine phrase, language writes itself over any specific intention to communicate, so that textual interpretation is left in effect with the task of managing ambiguities.