The Art of Theory Interview (2011)
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 so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of the history of political thought. Teresa Bejan sat down to interview Professor Skinner in his London home in 2011.
Art of Theory: What brought you to the study of history, specifically intellectual history and the history of political thought? Did it arise out of any particular political engagement when you were younger?
Skinner: Well, at school, when we specialized—and of course English schoolboys and girls specialized very early—I studied three subjects. I studied the classics—a great deal of Latin and some Greek—history, and English literature. So, the first question in going to university was which of those subjects I would continue with, and history was the very obvious answer.
I wasn’t a gifted classicist, and as to the study of literature, at that point it would have seemed obvious to schoolteachers who were advising you that the study of literature at an advanced level was a kind of dilettante subject. It didn’t have the kind of high seriousness that people of that generation would have associated with the study of history, which was meant to be, after all, a nursery of statesmen. So, there was no contest as it were, I was going to study history.
What turned me on to the history of ideas is harder to say, but I have a very particular adolescent memory of coming upon Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I remember, as I was a bookish adolescent, thinking that this was just the most exciting book I had ever come across. Dazzlingly written and with an extraordinary scale and scope. I remember settling down to read it and then beginning to take notes, which more or less consisted of copying the book out. It seemed to me a marvel, and if there’s one work that really made me feel I want to know more about this subject, it was that one.
As to why, if I was interested in the history of philosophy, it turned out to be the history of political philosophy, I suspect the answer to that is simply that it was an artifact of the Cambridge syllabus. That is what was taught.
When I became a professional historian, I did at various times try to burst out of those bounds because, obviously, they’re arbitrary. And one wants to study the history of moral theory and social theory as well as political theory, and also other kinds of philosophy. So, I think that although political theory was an important engagement of mine, that’s probably the answer to it.
But I was very politically engaged as a teenager and as a student. That was commonplace of course, at the time. Especially in Great Britain, practically everyone of my generation was politicized by that final gasp of empire in the  Suez expedition, its calamitous collapse, and the parting of the ways between Foster Dulles and the American regime, on the one hand, and Eden with dreams of glory, on the other. That was both a great national humiliation and a great moment of national crisis. Almost immediately after that came the complete divestment by the British of their empire. So to have lived through that was to be politicized.
Art of Theory: “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” your major methodological essay, was published over 40 years ago and it remains your most cited work. What do you think accounted for its impact?
Skinner: Yes, it’s a bit humiliating that something that I wrote in my mid 20′s should turn out to be my only piece of work that people read. But I think that [“Meaning and Understanding”], in retrospect, turns out to have been part of a kind of cultural movement of the mid- to late ’60s in which people became less interested in the idea that we studied the history of philosophy in order to winnow the true things they said from the false things they said and to focus on the true things and became more interested—in a kind of anthropological spirit—in the question of whether what they said might have been interesting, although we might not ourselves be disposed to affirm it. And, in the idea more generally that there are many cultural worlds that differ radically from each other, but they each have their own internal logic and our aspiration should be to try to recapture them on their own terms.
It’s hard to remember how central anthropology was as a humanistic discipline at that time. I suppose it was in ’73 when Clifford Geertz’s classic text, The Interpretation of Cultures, was published, but that collected essays that he had been writing over the last ten years.
The other person—who was a close friend of [Geertz]—who emerges from that period saying something similar was Thomas Kuhn, especially in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; the idea that when Galileo debated with Bellarmine, that this was a collision of world systems in which both were able to produce a rational and strongly defensible account of the positions they held. Although it took Richard Rorty later to say that when we chose Galileo over Bellarmine, that was what he calls the ‘rhetoric of science’.
Well, that was the pure relativistic story that emerged a decade later. But my essay was part of a kind of mild relativism. What I was attacking in that essay essentially was the view that unless the forebears whom we study can be shown to be asking our questions than it would be pure antiquarianism to study them, and that must have seemed at the time to have been part of a wider movement.
Art of Theory: That piece is notable not only for its argument; it’s also quite passionate in the way you take on what you see as the prevailing orthodoxies.
Skinner: Yes, well it was sort of fierce. I would never write like that now. That may well be because I had to re-read it. I try never to re-read my works but I had to when I collected my papers about ten years ago, and I hadn’t in the intervening 30 years. And I was struck, if I may say this, that it was very funny. I thought it had a lot of quite good jokes in it. And yes, maybe that had a certain shock value, because it was a satire amongst other things.
Art of Theory: Did any of the people that you wrote about respond?
Skinner: Oh yes, oh yes, it caused some hurt. But it was intended to.
Art of Theory: Did you have difficulty in getting it published?
Skinner: I did, yes. If you know the essay, which was published in the end in History and Theory, which is a large format journal, it occupied nearly 60 pages of that journal. So, the important thing to say, over the fact that it was turned down by two journals, is that it was an extremely long essay to be asking any journal to publish uncut. And one journal did accept it but with the condition that it was cut down to 10,000 words, I don’t know how long it was but I think it was easily twice that length.
What I probably should have done is to have published it as a little book. But at that time, I had a very deferential view of books. I was quite shocked by some of the books that my contemporaries published, plus I felt in those days you shouldn’t really publish a book unless it was something definitive. And this was actually a kind of polemical squib, that’s all it was. So I had no such ambition for it, but it is true that it wasn’t simply its length that got it into trouble.
It did shock the referees for the two journals I sent it to. And I did get some remarkably hostile reactions to it. And this is the sort of thing that Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions tells us about, that if there is a strongly established paradigm and you challenge it, the first attempt that will be made is to sideline you, and I certainly had that experience.
On the other hand, and this is something that Kuhn is not sufficiently sensitive to in that book I think, is that there isn’t ever just one paradigm—in the humanities, at least—there are going to be several, and this article in the end had the good fortune to come into the hand of Maurice Mandelbaum, who was a German-trained historicist on the editorial board of History and Theory, and he was a very major thinker at that time in the subject, and he simply commanded them to publish it, which they did. He had great authority, and also he deeply believed in some of the things that I was saying. So there wasn’t one paradigm. For all of the people who were hostile to what I was saying, there were also people who were very happy to have it said.
Art of Theory: In “Meaning and Understanding”, you made the case for a kind of third way in the history of political thought, between an ahistorical textualism on the one hand and a reductive, mostly Marxian, contextualism on the other. You argued that the relevant context in which to situate texts were intellectual and discursive as opposed to socioeconomic.
Yet people seem to have lost sight of that latter target and the attempt to claim the middle ground and instead associate that piece—and the Cambridge school more generally—with a strict contextualism and antiquarianism. Why do you think that is, and can you reflect a bit on the reception of the argument?
Skinner: Yes, well I think that’s extremely perceptive.
I was disappointed that nobody much picked up on what I thought was the most important, or at least the most novel thing I was trying to say, which was that it was meant to be a critique of the then very prevalent Marxist theories of ideology. And I wanted to make the anti-Marxist point that there is a causal role of ideas in relation to the explanation of social and political action, but that causal role does not have to run through the assumption that an avowed principle can help causally to explain a course of action if and only if the principle is the motive for the action.
Now that had been the position which it was assumed would be taken by anyone who was adopting a non-Marxist stance. Then, of course, it was easy to make it seem intolerably naive to imagine that people’s professed principles are generally—or even ever—the actual motives for their behavior. What I wanted to say was, “Let’s concede that case. Let’s suppose that my avowed principles are never the motives of my conduct.”
It’s nevertheless the case, because of the importance of being able to legitimize what I’m doing, that what I do should be compatible with the claim that it was motivated by some avowed principle. That requirement of legitimation, which generates the requirement of compatibility in turn, places very strong restrictions upon what you can do. Because if what you can do is only what you can both do and legitimize, then some reference to the legitimizing principles will have to enter into the causal account of why this particular course of action was undertaken.
Now, that’s not a completely straightforward argument, and I don’t think I put it very well in the article. I restated it later, in a 1974 article called “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action” in Political Theory, and there I think I managed to get it more or less exactly as I would want to put it. But it was there in the 1969 article, as you rightly say, as an attempt to question the idea that the context that would have to be explanatory of social and political principles and actions would have to be socioeconomic, and that wasn’t taken up at all.
Very recently, Professor [David] d’Avray, in his book Rationalities in History, has quite explicitly made your point and has said that this seems to him the most original thing that I said, and that he wants to make it more widely accepted, but it’s true that it wasn’t much taken up. So one was left with the idea that what I defended was a kind of contextualism so strict that it was just antiquarian.
Now, that was always a philistine argument because I had wanted, quite explicitly, to say that the fact that the texts I was studying did not necessarily share our questions, let alone our answers to those questions, didn’t mean that they weren’t worth studying.
So to call that antiquarian is almost doubly philistine. I mean, maybe there would be other reasons for studying these texts, for one thing. But for another thing the point I earlier made about how we might learn from looking at worlds very alien to our world and its belief systems and practices. That point was one that the accusation of antiquarianism, it seems to me, also failed to get to grips with.
Art of Theory: Education as a process of alienation.
Skinner: That’s nicely put. Yes, exactly. Finding out about something other than yourself. Getting lost in something other than yourself. That’s very important.
Art of Theory: Some of your early polemical targets seemed to approach historical texts with the presumption of their own infallibility and to fault past authors for failing to conform to present sensibilities (e.g. why didn’t Locke talk about race or universal suffrage?). On the other hand, Leo Strauss, who is often regarded as a key antagonist of the Cambridge School, recommended approaching great texts with a presumption of their infallibility and the author’s superior intelligence.
How would you characterize your own mindset when approaching a text in the history of political thought?
Skinner: Well, one doesn’t want to be too prescriptive because there is much to be said for Gadamer’s hermeneutics here—that is to say, the view that essentially you must just lie down in front of the text and let it roll over you.
But I would want to say two things. One is that, for me, the unit is always the text, and I think it is a great mistake to presume that what one should be looking for is a unified set of beliefs across an oeuvre. We all experience changing our minds. It would be extraordinary if thinking people over their lifetime didn’t radically change their minds about important aspects of what they thought and said.
I am very often criticized for having changed my mind, but that really is an extremely strange criticism to make of someone who is a professional thinker. I mean, suppose the evidence was such that you felt you had to change your mind. It would be irrational not to, wouldn’t it? So, I feel that if we apply those very obvious thoughts to an oeuvre, we would want to say that if there is any unit it cannot be a larger unit than a single text in which we are looking for coherence or a particular viewpoint.
My second thought would be that, yes, I think we should do something rather along the lines of what you describe Strauss as saying. That is to say, assume that these thoughts hang together, assume that they are rationally grounded, assume that we are dealing with someone upon whose thinking processes a good deal of weight can be placed so that you find yourself saying, “Well here they say this, so they’re going to have to say that, or they can’t say the other”.
But the injunction has to stop short of any kind of belief in their infallibility, of course. Again, it is a very common experience that we reach the limits of our intelligence and we get confused and we say things that don’t fit together, and that is going to be true of the greatest thinkers as well, so be ready for your assumptions about rationality and coherence not to work.
Art of Theory: You mentioned elsewhere your love of Bertrand Russell and his History of Western Philosophy, and in that book he describes his mindset as one of “hypothetical sympathy”.
Skinner: Very good, yes. One of the extraordinary achievements in that text, which simply reveals his remarkable literary skills is that he is brilliant at paraphrase, and you can read a paraphrase of his which is very accurate and yet is full of ridicule at the same time. And it would be wonderful to know how to do that—it’s quite unfair, of course. His sympathies are very easily engaged at the level of wanting to reproduce what someone has said, and he’s brilliant at doing that. But of course, at another level his sympathies may not be engaged at all.
Art of Theory: Yes, and the difficulties of paraphrase are…
Art of Theory: “Meaning and Understanding” started out as a conference paper called “The Unimportance of the Great Texts”, and you’ve acknowledge that it was intended as an attack on the idea and importance of a canon. You have continued to affirm your 1969 position that because the questions asked in texts in the history of political thought are not our questions, we must learn to do our thinking for ourselves.
But in recent years, it seems that your friend and early methodological ally, John Dunn, has moved more towards the position that we should read the canonical authors in particular because of their intellectual power and insight in addressing some of the same problems we confront in contemporary political life. Is there a genuine tension here between your positions?
Skinner: Yes, I think there is.
I haven’t very much talked to John about this of late times, but I wrote an essay that was published in his Festschrift in which I went back over the evolution of his thinking about John Locke, and it’s very striking that he began by wanting, as it were, to alienate himself from Locke’s questions and to reconstitute the work in purely historical terms. And that later, what he wanted to tell us, was that it was a text to be read to solve some of our current problems, especially about the role of trust and representation in government.
I have always preferred a not very brilliant metaphor of mine about buried treasure, but I suppose that arises out of thinking in Foucauldian terms about archaeology. For me, what has always been more of a guiding light is the idea that if you begin by alienating yourself from the past, seeing it as strange, and trying to see things their way, seeing things their way would be trying to reconstitute answers to questions that we do not ask, and trying to make coherent concepts the readings of which are for us completely different readings.
Nevertheless what you might find is that that operation turns out to carry with it some very interesting implications for our current thought, and that has been the direction of my thinking in all of the work that I’ve done in the last two decades about the theory of freedom and of the state. I got interested in the latter as a kind of pre- or, if you like, anti-Weberian way of thinking about the state as a moral person and trying to make sense of the very unfamiliar idea that the state is not just the name of the government, but a distinct, if fictional person and trying to make sense of that.
But, once I had to my satisfaction made sense of it through working on questions about authorization and representation, I came to the conclusion that the setting aside of this idea of the moral personality of the state within liberalism—in some way either confused, or sinister or both—was a great mistake and has lost us something extremely valuable in our political discourse.
Likewise, and even more important to me, has been the work I’ve been doing on the theory of freedom, which began with my essay in a volume that Richard Rorty and I edited in 1984, trying to show that there was a negative view of freedom which was not the view that freedom is simply the absence of interference with our powers.
I was greatly helped in the ’90s by Philip Pettit’s wonderful work on this topic, and I don’t think I would have got as far as I eventually did without his help, but I ended up as Philip did in a slightly different way, with a picture of negative freedom seen as something completely other than absence of interference, and thus completely opposed to contemporary liberal ways of thinking about what un-freedom consists of.
Now I’ve come to feel that this alternative view, which sees freedom essentially as the absence of arbitrary power and hence as absence of dependence, is a more interesting way of thinking about freedom, more valuable for us here and now and something that gives us a better way of getting into what goes wrong with relations between government and the governed, and how we should be thinking about citizenship and the state. Now all of that emerged precisely from not going to the past texts in the hope that they had a better account of freedom than we had, but finding that they had a very different view—which at first I couldn’t make much sense of—but which, when I thought I had made sense of it, suddenly seemed to me much more illuminating than our own ways of thinking.
Art of Theory: In your early work, you emphasized the importance of recovering an author’s intention in any particular intervention to an interpretation of their work. More recently, it seems that you’ve shifted away from this focus on authors as human agents in favor of an almost anti-humanistic emphasis on the text as the unit of analysis. The meaning of a text is to be discovered not in the author’s intentions but intertextually, as in your recent book, Hobbes and Republican Liberty. Has there been a shift, and if so, why?
Skinner: Yes, there has been a shift. I made the shift in the name of protecting and trying to strengthen my original and basic argument.
What I originally tried to argue has been much misunderstood. I didn’t want to say that the meaning of the text is whatever the author meant. That was a complete misunderstanding. I wasn’t talking about the meanings of texts, I was talking about speech acts.
The sense of ‘meaning’ in which I was interested was the sense of somebody meaning something by doing something. That’s to say, with what intentions did they do them? Then it was objected against me, and it was objected still against the recent book on Hobbes that you mention, that I did not succeed in establishing that Hobbes intended his analysis of freedom and subjection in Leviathan as a criticism of, and an attempt to discredit (notice all those speech acts) the republican theory of freedom and government.
Now the reason, as it turns out, why these critics think that I haven’t established that this was Hobbes’s intention, is that they believe that intentions are irrecoverable mental entities, and that in order to establish that this was Hobbes’s intention you would have to get inside Hobbes’s head at the moment that he picked up the pen and started to write.
This is philosophically primitive to a shocking degree. If you look at a review of my book like the one by Blair Worden, it makes no sense when he says this is all in my mind and not in Hobbes’s at all, except on the hypothesis that this is what he must suppose it would be to recover someone’s intentions. But of course that’s a mistake about intentionality.
Intentions are ways of describing actions. The intention with which I did something identifies the act as being an act of a certain kind. The intentionality is in the action. An act of waving your arms in greeting is different than the act of waving your arms in warning, although the gesture might be identical. But that’s to say that if we’re going to be able to discriminate which it is, it must be because of a context and an assumption about what this person is doing, that’s to say intentionally doing, in waving.
So once you see that that’s the way I’m thinking about intentions, there’s no objection to my putting it as I originally put it, except of course that I then get vulgarly misunderstood as making a point about intentionality and meaning, which I’m not.
However, I think it was due to conversations with Annabel Brett and certainly through reading her beautiful essay on intellectual history in the collection What is History Now? that I came to see that a good way of protecting my position would be to say, “Well, you may think I haven’t shown that it was Hobbes’s intention in Leviathan to repudiate republican theories of government, but the Leviathan constitutes such a repudiation.”
That is without question the case. We may say that that’s true about the text and forget about the author, or if you were going to go back to Wittgensteinian and Austinian terminology, you would want to say maybe I haven’t shown the illocutionary act that was performed, namely the act of discrediting, but I’ve shown the force of the actions. The actions have the force of repudiating just as my wave may have had the force of a warning.
So it was an attempt to protect my basic position, but of course I still want to say that the idea that intentionality has no place in interpretation is a really quite primitive misunderstanding of intentionality, or else is a mistake about the two admittedly and unfortunately easily confused senses of the word ‘meaning’ that we use in this context.
I’m not saying that intentions give you meaning, I’m saying intentions give you action. Well, everybody thinks that intentions give you action. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as criminal responsibility. I think, although I don’t like to put it quite like this, that although I decided to protect my position by retreating in exactly the way you have identified, I did so in the face of arguments against my position which are not good arguments.
Art of Theory: In an earlier answer you also talked about beginning with the text as a way to avoid the temptation of imposing coherence on an author. Is that also a consideration here? Is beginning with the text as opposed to the author a safeguard against that?
Skinner: Yes, because then you might find as I did find in writing a book about Hobbes, that if you begin with Leviathan, there’s a completely clear and coherent understanding of the theory of freedom in government and obligation to government. But it’s not the same as you would find if you read the De Cive. And if you go back from the De Cive to The Elements of Law, it’s not the same there.
So there’s an evolution of his thinking here, and one that I find it very interesting to trace. But once you’ve started to talk like that, you’re back in traditional humanistic terms talking about the evolution of somebody’s thinking, and there’s no reason not to do that.
Art of Theory: You have frequently compared the task interpreting Leviathan to that of interpreting a speech in Parliament. Is there a problem with approaching a text like Hamlet or All’s Well that Ends Well in a similar way? How do you approach these texts as opposed to texts in the history of political thought?
Skinner: Well, of course, there’s a difference. The point of that observation was to try to say that what may appear at first sight a completely abstract work of philosophy like Hobbes’s Leviathan may nevertheless be a political and a highly polemical political intervention, so that understanding it would require you to understand not merely the character of the philosophy but the character of the intervention. So that was my point there.
Now, the obvious point I would therefore have to add is that I’m by no means saying that all of our references constitute polemical interventions. And maybe the idea of a lyric poem or a sonnet as a polemical intervention is simply ludicrous, so that you would want to say that this just doesn’t apply.
Now, that is often going to be so, but the caution I would want to say—and I can’t really get away from my own hermeneutics very readily—is that this claim that the idea of a contextual hermeneutics centered on the idea of speech acts just wouldn’t apply to poetry, for example, that can’t be right. It cannot be a point about genre. So, for example, Jonathan Bate in his recent book on Shakespeare has a brilliant chapter in which he shows that Shakespeare’s sonnets were intensely polemical about the conventions of sonneteering and that many of those sonnets can only be understood if you recognize that he’s satirizing a number of these conventions.
So, there we are back to the kind of hermeneutics that I’m most comfortable with, but we’re talking about a sonnet sequence. So it’s not a point about genre, but of course, there may be utterances in respect to which the application of this kind of hermeneutics would not be very fruitful.
Art of Theory: If we turn to the particular authors to whom you’ve devoted much of your scholarly attention, Machiavelli and Hobbes, both are often lumped together in a sort of rogues’ gallery in political theory, and they’re renowned among other things for their reputed atheism or more or less explicit anti-Christianity.
But for you, it seems one is a kind of Neo-Roman hero, and the other you’ve described as a nemesis. Can you say a bit about what in particular inspired your choice of subjects, and what they might have to do with each other?
Skinner: My early interest in both of these writers, was philosophical and methodological rather than historical. I wanted to argue the kind of case that we’ve just been talking about as a general way of thinking about hermeneutics.
And Machiavelli and Hobbes are both wonderful examples, because if you read Machiavelli’s Prince, you find if you know enough about the tradition of writing advice for princes and ruling classes and if you go right back into classical humanism, that much of what he’s doing in that text is satirizing those assumptions, quoting Cicero and mocking him by reversing what he wanted to say about the lion and the fox.
Of course, you’d have to know that he was quoting Cicero’s De Officiis, and as far as I can see commentators haven’t noticed that. But once you see what he’s doing, you understand the direction of his thinking, that it’s a satire.
So, for me that was perfect: What is he doing? He’s challenging, he’s satirizing, he’s repudiating some of the central tenets of classical humanism. So there’s a moment where it’s very hard to get away from the idea of the author… but likewise with Hobbes, my very earliest historical work was on Hobbes’s theory of obligation, and I tried to show that what motivated this, as Hobbes himself says at the end of Leviathan, was a wish to come to terms with the fact that the English had abolished the monarchy and set up a republic—should you obey this newly established power?
I wanted to say that to understand why Hobbes yokes obligation not to the concept of right, but to the idea of protection so strongly would be to understand that he is trying to defend and validate the new arrangements and give you reasons for accepting them. So that’s what he’s doing, and that’s what it is to understand the direction of his thinking. In both cases, they were very dramatic examples for me of what I wanted to state in general terms.
Art of Theory: One of the great things about your work on Hobbes is the attention to his dripping sarcasm and irony, which people sometimes seem determined to overlook.
Skinner: It’s full of jokes that book isn’t it? Yes, he’s a notable satirist. I sometimes thought that the mistake in the wider conspectus of Hobbes studies was to think that the person we most need to read in order to understand Hobbes is Descartes, when the person you most need to read to understand Hobbes might be Rabalais….
Art of Theory: You’ve insisted before that you’re not a political theorist and that your intention has always been to make the history of political thought a properly historical subject, and yet The Art of Theory is a political theory journal. How do you account for the persistence of political theorists’ interest in your work?
Skinner: Well, if I say I’m not a political theorist, I’m just insisting on a professional identity.
What’s been very important for me is that political theory when I was first studying and teaching was the kind of subject that had a canonical set of questions, a particular analytical idiom for addressing them, and an accompanying contempt for the historical. And I’ve wanted to challenge that. But, I’m not an antiquarian. The reason for studying the past is that, as my great mentor in Princeton, [Clifford] Geertz always used to say, “These guys are meant to be working for us!”
I think that’s a really fine remark. We are trying to find out what these guys think and we’re trying to take it on their terms. We’re trying to reconstitute their world. But of course we hope that that will illuminate our world, and if it doesn’t we’re not going to publish our results because they’re not going to be important. So where you have to be willing to spend a lot of time when it doesn’t work, and where you’ve got to be willing to press your luck where it does, is where you find that you have come upon a configuration, a theory, a way of viewing the world in the past which we have lost sight of, but which is well worth recapturing.
So there’s the Foucauldian image of buried treasure once again. And, I do think that that is a way of doing political theory. It’s rather labor intensive, and it doesn’t always work. But if it works, as for example in Philip Pettit’s writings on the theory of freedom, the payoff can be absolutely colossal. I mean Philip has single-handedly reconstituted a central feature of the discipline of political theory by making people think again about what’s wrong with both Aristotelian—that’s to say perfectionist—and liberal or individualist ways of thinking about freedom.
If he’s right, we’ve got to think again about several core concepts of our political theory and how they fit together. I certainly hope that I have made some contributions to political theory, especially with my own work about freedom, and my own work about the concept of the state.
I don’t say that these are important contributions but they’re definitely contributions to political theory. But they are the contributions of an historian.
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.