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Andrew Nash

For most of its existence, the academic study of politics has been based on the reading of the texts of a recognised number of great thinkers from Greek and Roman antiquity through the European middle ages to modern Europe. In the English-speaking world, the example of ‘Greats’ at Oxford – and ‘Modern Greats’ (philosophy, politics and economics) after 1920 – has been crucial in establishing this approach. In 1928, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Political Science at Cambridge, Ernest Barker (1930:204) still saw the central role of the history of political thought as uncontroversial: ‘The more the development of political ideas is studied, the richer will be the development of political theory’.

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Taking Text Seriously

Remarks on the Methodology of the History of Political Thought

João Feres Júnior

Quentin Skinner's methodological project contains a fundamental imprecision that is rarely mentioned by the secondary literature: the assumption, present in several of his methodological texts, that a theory designed for the analysis of oral communication (speech act theory) can be unreservedly used for interpreting text. In this article I will use some of Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological insights on the difference between textual and oral communication in order to advance a systematic critique of Skinner's project and to suggest new methodological possibilities for the history of political thought and related disciplines. This procedure will also allow me to organize some of the criticism raised against Skinner's Collingwoodean approach since its inception.

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Rudolf Valkhoff

This article traces the main methodological and substantial similarities between Reinhart Koselleck's notion of Begriffsgeschichte and J. G. A. Pocock's approach to the history of political thought. Both approaches are responses to the shift in the unit of analysis in the study of human historical consciousness. Rather than focusing on ideas, Koselleck and Pocock concentrate on how language articulated heightened awareness of historical change. Concepts and paradigms reflect in varying manners the intensity of historical sedimentation. The more sedimentation, less space there is for innovation, and political action tends to be conservative. Conversely, unstable concepts or obsolete paradigms, reflect historical change and space for linguistic innovation.

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João Feres Júnior

Contributions to the History of Concepts has now completed two years of existence. Its history has been closely tied to the annual meetings of the History of Political and Social Concepts Group (HPSCG). Talks about evolving from the HPSCG’s Newsletter to an academic periodical publication began in Bilbao, in 2003. The following year, at the 7th International Conference on the History of Concepts, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, we designed a plan to create a new journal that would serve as a conduit for researchers working with conceptual history, as well as for scholars interested in other related fields, such as intellectual history, the history of political thought, the history of ideas, etc. After a great deal of ground work, the journal was finally launched in 2005, both in digital and paper format, with an elegant graphic design and a host of excellent texts by distinguished scholars in the fields of conceptual history, intellectual history, and the history of political thought, such as Quentin Skinner, Melvin Richter, Kari Palonen, and Robert Darnton. The response from the international academic community was immediate and very encouraging. Since then positive feedback from a growing audience worldwide has been constantly on the rise.

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Liberalism's Historical Diversity

A Comparative Conceptual Exploration

José María Rosales

Rooted in late seventeenth-century theories of rights, liberal ideas have brought forth since the nineteenth century a full-edged complex of traditions in moral, political, economic, social, and legal thought. Yet in historiographical debates such complexity is often blurred by presenting it under the uniform terms of a canon. Along with other methods, conceptual history is contributing to the rediscovery of liberalism's diversity. This group of articles compiles three conceptual studies on scarcely explored aspects of the history of liberalism in Denmark, Finland, and Hungary—countries whose political past has only occasionally figured in mainstream accounts of European liberalism. This introductory article is a methodological discussion of the rationale and forms in which liberalism's historical diversity is rendered through comparative conceptual research. After reflecting on the limits of the Anglophone history of political thought to grasp the plurality of liberal traditions, the article examines how transnational conceptual histories recast the understanding of liberalism as a concept, theory, ideology, and political movement.

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Needs, States, and Markets

Democratic Sovereignty Against Imperialism

Lawrence Hamilton

One of the more intractable questions in the history of political thought is still around today: how can humans collectively control and enhance the development and satisfaction of their needs? This is a question about the nature of contemporary needs, about which and whose needs are developed and satisfied, and about the extant evaluative control over the generation of needs. That is, it is a question about the mechanisms and institutions that constitute and legitimize the generation, interpretation and satisfaction of needs, in particular, states and markets. And it is also a question about the possibilities and means of transforming these mechanisms and institutions. In this paper, I suggest conceptual means of thinking about the different parts of the question and their relation to democratic sovereignty. The suggestions are based on an account of human need that overcomes the current framework of rights and (utilitarian) preferences tempered by paternalist attention to state-defined human needs.

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Lawrence Hamilton

Ever since Livy proclaimed that ‘freedom is to be in one’s own power’, if not from long before and in other contexts, the relationship between freedom and power has been an enduring concern of social and political theorists. It has withstood even Isaiah Berlin’s sharp distinction between seemingly irreconcilable forms of freedom and much of the subsequent theoretical and philosophical debates that it spawned. The history of political thought is littered with thinkers who have opposed freedom and power, arguing that liberty can only be truly attained free from power and domination (republicans) or in the absence of external impediments imposed by other human beings (liberals); but there are also many examples of arguments that identify a close and intriguing link between them, especially in the sphere of politics, that emanate from radicals and conservatives alike, thinkers such as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Arendt and Foucault. Moreover, those in the former camp tend to think of freedom in formal and abstract terms, while proponents of the latter eschew this now normal tendency in political philosophy and instead think of freedom in fully substantive, concrete and even materialist terms. Hobbes is an unusual and unique figure as his account of freedom inspires members of both parties, that is those concerned with the formal character of freedom and those troubled by its more substantive components and conditions, which is why it is only right that we start this special issue on freedom and power with an analysis of Hobbes’ account of freedom.

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Jérémie Barthas

‘No government can protect the rights of citizens without rigorous police, but the difference between a free regime and a tyrannical one is that, in the former, the police are employed against that minority opposed to the general good as well as against the abuse and negligence of the authorities; whereas, in the latter the State police are employed against the down-trodden who are thus delivered into the hands of injustice and impunity’.

This declaration was not a reaction to the Marikana massacre (16 August 2012), when a British mining company operating in South Africa had a special unit of the post-Apartheid South African Police Service murderously repress a mine workers strike, by means of mass shooting; many of those killed were later found to have been shot in the back as they ran away from the volley of bullets. It was made about two hundred and twenty years before, in April 1794, when revolutionary France was experiencing its most tragic moments. In the context of the Terror, and facing the necessity to discipline it, its author, Saint-Just (1767–1794), redeployed some of the most classical concepts in the History of Political Thought – freedom versus tyranny, general good versus particular interest, elite accountability versus impunity of power – in order to provide the ideological principles framing the organisation, within the web of the revolutionary police, of a special office in charge of the surveillance of the Executive and of public authorities.