Quentin Skinner in Context

Quentin Skinner is the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary, University College London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on early modern political thought and is a founder of the ‘Cambridge School’ of the history of political thought.

Recently, Teresa Bejan sat down to interview Professor Skinner in his London home. Part I of that conversation was published in this journal in November.

Art of Theory: You first arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate and, apart from a few years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and your recent move to Queen Mary, you’ve spent most of your career at Cambridge. You’re known as the founder of the ‘Cambridge School’ of the history of political thought.

Can you say a bit about the importance of Cambridge to your work? What is it like now being elsewhere?

Skinner: Because I wasn’t asked to resign when I went to the Institute for Advanced Study, I had my career unbroken effectively at Cambridge for 46 years. When I retired, I was the longest serving teaching officer. That now seems very strange and I am more aware now that I’ve left of what I missed through not having moved around more. But it didn’t seem strange at the time.

Cambridge had extraordinary facilities, and you have to remember that in the 1960s the question of whether a university had a good library was really important. It also has quite outstanding students, amongst the best and the most gifted you would encounter, and I always found teaching a great joy there. But it does seem strange now.

As an undergraduate, I went to Gonville and Caius College because my elder brother had been there, so it was fortunate for me that it turned out to be a very good choice for studying history. It was then run by Neil McKendrick, who subsequently became Master and was a very gifted teacher. He was very good at encouraging us and wanting us to succeed, but the course was of little interest.

In those pre-reform days, the history track was almost all high politics, and it was very strongly orientated to Great Britain, so I studied the high politics of Great Britain from the year 1485 to the year 1961, or whenever I was doing it, and there were no very great intellectual challenges. It was also very biographical and not much to my intellectual taste.

I had the very good fortune, however, that in my time there I came upon a special subject about the Scottish Enlightenment, centered on the philosophies of Hume and Smith, which I studied with an intellectual historian called Duncan Forbes.

I can’t say that I felt he had the materials under terrifically good control when he was giving the course because it was the first year he gave it. But he was a very exciting lecturer, and of course, the materials were wonderful. We got to study a great deal of Hume’s moral and religious writings as well as the political theory. So, I got a flying start in intellectual history, even in the midst of what would otherwise have been quite a boring course.

But there had always been a great tradition of intellectual history at Cambridge, and I think institutionally that can be explained by the fact that Cambridge didn’t, until very recently, have a department of Politics. A lot of what would have been done in an American university in Politics—any intellectual history or political theory or history of political thought—was done in History. So History was an extremely large department which harbored a number of intellectual historians.

There were several very good teachers, and I had a number of really brilliant contemporaries who shared many of my intellectual interests. The most important by far was John Dunn, who was my close friend from the time we were undergraduates and remains a friend. I think one probably learns more from one’s peers than from one’s teachers.

Art of Theory: You made a spectacular transition from undergraduate to faculty at Cambridge when you were 21, without a Ph.D. Can you say a bit about that experience?

Skinner: Yes, it was an extraordinary thing to happen, though it wasn’t quite so extraordinary at the time.

When I graduated, something called the Robbins Report on higher education had been adopted by the government, and that had the effect in a very short space of time of turning the percentage of the age cohort who went to university from 4% into nearly 14%.

Six new universities were started, and they got their staff largely from the major research universities—Oxford, Cambridge and London, above all. And as a result, there was quite a clean out from Oxford and Cambridge of people in mid-career, and it left a vacuum in the teaching people of my generation were able to step into. We were a very fortunate generation.

Art of Theory: Were you teaching right off the bat?

Skinner: I was teaching undergraduates, yes. That I had always wanted to do. I had been a schoolteacher for a brief period before I went to Cambridge in an inner-city, secondary modern school. That was a tough experience, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t still want to be a teacher.

As an undergraduate, I’d had a lot of so-called ‘supervisions’ or one-on-one tutorials and was able to form a lot of views about how they should be done. I also listened to a huge number of lectures, but the standard of lecturing—with some honorable, and indeed, some spectacular exceptions—was not high.

And you began to think, why is it not high? And could you do this, and could you even maybe do it better? So I had my eye on them.

I was alright starting by doing one-on-one undergraduate teaching, but I quite quickly became bored. I’d done it for 12 years when I was able to leave Cambridge for Princeton, and I was hugely glad of the break. And because when I came back I came back to a chair, I never did it again. I can’t say I missed it. It’s rather like being in a shop which has got a very short loop on the music they’re playing; it comes around again and again, and if you are in the shop all day, you get bored of it.

I didn’t start graduate teaching until later, and I don’t think I did that at all well. When I came to it, I had no previous experience because I hadn’t done a Ph.D. I think I was not at all skilled at it to start with.

But again, at Cambridge, I had the huge good fortune that the earliest people assigned to me—and this was bound to be true—were extremely gifted young students. One was Mark Goldie, and the other was Richard Tuck, and they both knew what they were doing. It was no grave problem to make sure that they got Ph.D.s; they were going to do that anyway.

Art of Theory: You’ve mentioned elsewhere your frustration that it took a long time to get your own research going.

Skinner: Yes, that was a problem because it was quite a demanding job that I had. John Dunn got off the blocks amazingly fast, much faster than I did. He was a very imaginative scholar, but also he didn’t have the same kind of responsibilities. On the other hand, I did have a tenured job from the outset, and it enabled me to go my own way in the work I was doing. Although I was slow to get going, once I did start I managed to produce the sort of thing I wanted to produce. I wasn’t in any way tied down by the requirements of a Ph.D., which I think helped me.

Art of Theory: One of your major scholarly contributions has been the recovery of a third concept of liberty: the republican or neo-Roman concept of liberty as non-dependence. You’ve traced this concept of liberty back to Roman law and argued that the persistence of a classical rhetorical and juristic culture and curriculum in Western Europe can account for its gradual re-emergence in the humanistic culture of the Renaissance.

Can you speak a bit about your discovery of the particular context of the studia humanitatis? Do you think the history of education has been given its due by intellectual historians?

Skinner: Ah, well, that is a very good question. I’m not, in general, very interested in biography. And I suppose one of my most obvious weaknesses as an historian is that I’m not very interested in people. I mean, I’m very interested in ideas, but what they had for breakfast is not of great interest to me.

The exception is education. I’m constantly astonished by the extent to which the history of education gets sidelined in the history of philosophy. If there’s one thing that we all know from our own experience, it is that what we were made to read and learn in our most formative years is in various ways important to us. Those may be difficult ways to recapture, but it can often be traced in the vocabulary used, a set of questions addressed, preoccupations and so forth.

Often, in any case, it’s the best we have, and I think that it’s always worth asking in the most detail that you can about the education that thinkers went through. At the very least, you’ll get a sense of what they read, and that’s extraordinarily important.

Art of Theory: You’ve noted the importance of certain accidents of the Cambridge curriculum to your own intellectual development.

Skinner: Yes, very true.

Art of Theory: Your recent Clarendon lectures at Oxford were about the importance of the classical theory of rhetorical invention for Shakespeare. Are we to take it then, that you’re shifting away from the history of political thought? Or do you see the work on Shakespeare as part of a continuing project?

Skinner: Well, it’s an installment of a work on rhetoric, of which there have been earlier installments. I’ve been interested in the history and theory of rhetoric for a very long time. In the first volume of the Foundations of Modern Political Thought, I tried to excavate the importance of a rhetorical education in the early Italian communes for the production of a kind of neo-Roman political theory.

That was my first attempt to study rhetoric in the Renaissance. The second was when I wrote Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, the background of which was the hegemony of rhetoric in school and university education at the time of his youth. I focused on his repudiation of the rhetoric of commonplace argument as a way of arriving at truth, and his insistence that it simply turns you back upon common opinion. What you have to do is to find an argumentative end point from which to question common opinion—but, of course, he later doubts whether it is as simple as that.

The Shakespeare project, you could say, follows on from these two earlier ones: first, I studied rhetoric and politics, then I studied rhetoric and philosophy, and now I’m studying rhetoric and drama. But of course, it’s a little self-serving to put it that way, because there has been a shift.

I’ve always wanted to write more about literature, but I’ve always felt a certain professional constraint. Now that I’m Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary instead of Professor of History at Cambridge, I have certainly felt liberated to do more of what I want to do, and this is certainly what I want to do. In fact, I’ve been working on these questions for the past four years, and I’ve published several articles about Shakespeare along the way. But now I am trying to write a large-scale piece of work out of which the Clarendon lectures surfaced, something that I hope will be a book.

On the other hand, I hope I won’t give up my interest in questions about freedom and the state. I have a lot of essays on these topics that I’ve been asked to put together into a collection, and which I really would like to rewrite and turn into a book. If I’m spared and if sanity holds, which doesn’t always happen, I will go back to that.

Art of Theory: Does situating Shakespeare and his audience into a particular sort of neo-Roman rhetorical culture have any consequences for our understanding of Elizabethan political culture?

Skinner: Yes, I think it does. It’s not something that I plan to go into, but the extreme prevalence of rhetoric in the elite that is running Elizabethan England certainly helps to explain a good deal of how both legal and Parliamentary discussion is conducted. Parliamentary discussion was deliberately rhetorical, and commonly followed the rules of deliberation, and legal argument is judicial rhetoric and as such invariably follows those rules—that’s to say not rules of evidence, but rules of argument.

So, there would be a great deal of research of this character to be done. I’m just taking the case of the drama, but there would be many other cases one could take. It’s extremely prevalent in the culture, and it’s hard to recapture just how central it was as a way of laying out and organizing arguments.

Art of Theory: Under the influence of your methodology, a number of scholars including some of your former students have sought to put religion back in the picture as a crucial part of the intellectual context in which texts must be understood. You yourself have emphasized the importance of theology in the Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Yet you’ve been criticized in your later work for downplaying the importance of religious considerations. What do you make of these criticisms?

Skinner: Yes, a very interesting point to me because I think I’ve been insensitive to it. One of the most extraordinary things to anyone of my age is the re-sacrilizing of the world. If you were brought up on Weberian—to say nothing of Marxist—social philosophy, then the secularization image of modernity was absolutely central to our self-image. And that has gone into reverse in a way that completely mystifies me.

It’s true that in the Foundations of Modern Political Thought book there’s a great deal of theology and a great deal of discussion of religious principles in relation to political change. There are chapters which are entirely about Lutheran, Calvinist, and Scholastic theology, and I try to tell a story in which they are intimately meshed with politics. I can remember, when I was writing that book that my wife, Sue [James], said she began to worry that I was going to become a convert! So I certainly don’t feel that I underplayed the role of religion in that text, although so important has religion become to people’s sensibilities again in our time that that is something that is widely said about it.

As to my more recent work, I am conscious and even self-conscious about the fact that I do try to focus my historical attention on issues in respect of which my feelings about religion and theology don’t have to obtrude.

I am not a religious person. Of course, that doesn’t mean I am not a spiritual person. I really resent the assumption that you are not a spiritual person unless you are a religious person. But I have no religious beliefs and much worse than that, I’m a kind of boring atheist.

I think there are two kinds of interesting atheists. There are those who think like Feuerbach, that religion is the deformation of very deep human feelings and aspirations. Or else, there are those who think that although religion may be false, it may be very useful as a binding force in society, in the way that someone like Hobbes thinks. I just think that, as far as I can see, there is no good reason to espouse any of the tenets of the religious hypothesis in any of the forms that I know of it. For me, it’s nothing but nonsense.

That’s what I mean by being a boring atheist, and in consequence I’m not very interested in the history of religion. It’s difficult to be interested in the history of something that you think is nonsense.

I do try to choose carefully topics in which it won’t matter that that’s what I think. It’s possible that, as a result, I miss some dimensions of what I’m writing about, and that’s been a recent accusation against me that I’ve had to think about. I can’t see that it’s just at all, because in the discussion of republicanism I’ve been interested exclusively in theories of freedom and the constitutionalism that follows, and I can’t see how that’s informed by religious belief. But it is certainly true that I keep off religion.

Art of Theory: You emphasize the importance of political context to interpretation in your work, but the relevant political context of your own works and its political implications can be somewhat obscure. For instance, you’re known to be strongly committed to gender equality and have done a lot practically for the advancement of women at Cambridge, yet issues of gender have never been prominent in your philosophical or historical work. Can you say a bit about the connection between scholarship and political context? And do you see problems of social justice or issues like gender inequality as being primarily practical rather than philosophical issues?

Skinner: This is very interesting. The promotion of gender equality is something which matters very much to me, and I’ve been shocked in my own profession by the extent to which the seeming gains of the women’s movement in the 1970s turned into the merest kind of tokenism in the professions.

Everything remains harder for women, at every stage, and it remains to my mind quite a scandal that at Cambridge when I last counted, there were 54 members of the Faculty of History and only 16 were women. I remember mentioning this in my farewell speech to the Faculty, and Melissa Lane said to me afterwards, “Are you sure it’s only 16? It feels much more.” I said to her, “That’s only because the women are amazing!” Of course it feels more because they have to be that much cleverer, more prominent, more committed, more everything. But 16 out of 54 is really unjust. I feel strongly that we’ve got to keep pushing on these doors that are not open in the way that they should be.

Anyway, that wasn’t quite your point. Your point was, I think, one that Max Weber raises very beautifully in his discussions about vocations.

I’m certainly someone who has very strong views, both political views nationally speaking, and also very strong views within the profession. But it has always been a principle of mine—I’m not sure if I’ve always managed to hold to it—to adopt something of that kind of vision of objectivity of Weber’s and to keep politics, in the sense of party politics, off the professional podium. That seems to me very important. Our scholarship has to have its own integrity. I would be shocked if it were evident to my readers that my way of handling the themes I talk about reflects my political positions.

Of course, the choice of the topics that I talk about cannot fail to reflect my values—who else’s values would they reflect? We’ve all got to accept that when, for example, I spend a lot of time criticizing liberal views about freedom, saying that they let the state off too lightly and that we could do better for the relations between freedom and equality, that is a political position. But it’s a position which I attempt to defend in purely philosophical terms.

The politics enters the choice of topic, but I hope it doesn’t enter the handling of the topic. I hope that that’s handled in a scrupulously philosophical spirit.

Art of Theory: What features of modern political life most puzzle you?

Skinner: Oh! Well, when I see the word puzzle, I always think of the word explanation. What is it that I can’t explain about modern political life?

Well, we all think that we can explain our political leaders and their behavior rather easily. We’ve come to feel that they’re quite frequently not rational people, that they’re driven by a will to power, and that sometimes they’re crazy. It’s quite safe to assume that they have a bottomless cynicism.

It’s an old joke in America that the Congress you have is the best one that money can buy. You see, that shows the kind of cynicism we have. We think we understand it. In this country in particular, politicians are viewed with a remarkable level of contempt, far more than in the United States.

I suppose what most puzzles me about modern political life is the will to power. I cannot imagine not having personal integrity as one of my central values in trying to lead my life.

I don’t mean that I succeed, but that that would be an aspiration. But I can’t see how you could engage for long in modern politics, where party discipline is so strong and where there are necessary lies and unavoidable hypocrisies, and manage at the same time to sustain an image of personal integrity as fundamental.

It sounds rather priggish, but that really is a puzzle to me. I’m not saying that I’m a moral person, but that it would be strange to place yourself in a profession in which you couldn’t be a moral person.

Art of Theory: Can you say a little bit about your work process?

Skinner: When I’m trying to do research, I’m only really happy with intertextuality, working with a text in which I hear the echoes of other texts in a way that helps me to explain it. I suppose that my principles are very like those of certain literary critics who are particularly interested in the phenomenon of allusion, critics like Harold Bloom or Christopher Ricks.

I likewise am very interested in the phenomenon of allusion—or, indeed, of deafening silences. The kind of hermeneutics that I’ve always tried to practice is like that, it’s about setting texts up against other texts to see how they fit, or fail to fit.

If you then ask me about my work processes, about how I come to have those insights—if that’s what they are—and also how that then leads me to write about them, I have to say I find it quite mystifying. It must just be that sometimes you’re reading and it sparks something off in your mind and it looks as if that’s going to be interesting to follow up. Sometimes it is, but usually you do find that you’ve come to a dead end quite quickly. That’s in the nature of doing research in the humanities.

Art of Theory: You’re known as a great teacher and as a remarkably engaging lecturer. Do you have any advice for new teachers?

Skinner: I think that in my older age I’ve become really prone to give advice. I used to be very nervous about giving advice but now I give it all the time!

I think the fundamental advice I want to give teachers is to recognize that the most important thing in being a successful teacher is having an enthusiasm for your subject. That’s what communicates itself in the lecture hall. And if I think back to the lecturers I can remember as an undergraduate, that was the most important quality.

Now, you can’t exactly acquire a passion for a subject if you don’t already have it, but there is a very strong implication that since our teaching comes out of our research, you must never engage in any piece of research because it’s fashionable. Fashions change very fast. If you do it not because you actually care, but because it’s fashionable to care about it, then first of all you’re going to get bored very quickly, and second you’re going to be lost when it becomes unfashionable. Whereas if you stick to what you think matters, you’ll find fashions whizz round and round.

I’ve been out of fashion and in fashion several times, and the reason for keeping going with what interests you, is that it interests you. That is what will keep you interesting as a teacher, if anything does.

I’ve come to feel strongly about teaching that trying to guard standards by making it clear to young scholars that what they’re trying to do is almost impossible to do and that they probably won’t manage, is all wrong. The right way to guard standards is to encourage them as much as you possibly can, to do as best as they can. If you don’t encourage them, you can very easily kill off their interest.

I think the consequence is—at least this is what’s been said to me when I co-examine—is that I over-praise young scholars. Well, I certainly hope I do! It’s a very difficult thing we’re all trying to do, and if senior colleagues cannot find it in their hearts to encourage young scholars, the whole thing will come to an end. So I feel very strongly that teachers have really got to be encouragers.

But I do have another piece of advice, which I’ve come to think very important as I listen to young scholars at conferences presenting their work. Of course, our work is inherently patricidal. The profession only advances by way of changing the questions that an older generation has asked, or else giving new answers to their questions. In either case, it’s going to involve polemics and it’s going to be underpinned by a kind of aggression.

My advice is that you’ve really got to keep that under the tightest possible control. No audience likes to hear scholars simply being slagged off. It never looks good, although it sounds good to oneself. I think I was a big culprit in my youth. If you’re criticizing someone, it must be because you think their work is some good. I mean, if you don’t think it’s any good, why would you bother to criticize it?

If you think it is some good, you’ve got to make that clear. I find that my own work is always far more polemical than I expect, and it receives a great deal of criticism. Some of this criticism is really disgraceful, because it can’t be that bad. If it was that bad, why have they spent all this time reading it?

There is one other thing. It’s true that high modernism often made a virtue of difficulty, but postmodernism has gone further and has made a virtue of a kind of hermetic way of writing in the humanistic disciplines. I cannot think that this is to the benefit of anyone, and certainly not to the benefit of lecture audiences.

If you are a teacher in a university, I feel that you cannot be too clear. It will be lovely if you’re subtle and nuanced as well, and if you write a beautiful ironic prose, and if you’re deep and everything else, but the fundamental duty is to try to make complex things clear.

That’s the task. Not to leave them complex; they are complex.

Art of Theory: In recent years various scholars have offered their own accounts as to what they consider to be the relevant context for understanding your work, and that of the Cambridge School more generally. As a champion of contextualism, what is it like to have to patiently withstand your own contextualization? And, if the measure of an interpretation is whether an author could have recognized it, how have the various contextualizations to which you’ve been subjected in recent years measured up?

Skinner: Wonderful to end on that. This means some very good work. Mark Goldie’s contextualization of my Foundations of Modern Political Thought is very thought-provoking and, on reflection, it seems to me right.

But I have to add that those of my commentators who purport to tell me where my ideas come from just remind one how impoverished a genre intellectual biography is almost bound to be, unless it’s in the hands of someone who has access to the kind of private papers that really can enable you to turn the private into the public.

Although intentions are not private entities in the mind, there are some private entities in the mind, and they may be absolutely fundamental to explaining one’s intellectual performances. These will be the kinds of ambitions and anxieties and aggressions that will not appear upon the textual surface and which it would be very stupid for the writer to confess, but which may nevertheless be determinative. And so I think the project of contextualization will never satisfy the person who is made its object.

This is Part II of a two-part series. You can read Part I, “Quentin Skinner on Meaning and Method,” by clicking here.

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