Quentin Skinner
Prix Balzan 2006 pour l’histoire et la théorie de la pensée politique
Forum des lauréats Balzan 2006
Rome, Università La Sapienza, 23 novembre 2006


I am an historian of philosophy, and more particularly of moral and political philosophy, and the society I have principally studied has been that of early-modern Europe. Within this historical period I have focused on two especially formative episodes. One has been the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, the moment at which theories of popular sovereignty were first articulated in Anglophone political thought. Here my main concern has been with the most important political writer of this climacteric time, Thomas Hobbes, to whose theory of the state I have devoted two of my books.

The other period in which I have specialised has been that of the Italian Renaissance. Here I have written in particular about the recovery of ancient republican ideals of citizenship and self-government, studying the redeployment of these values in the art as well as the political theory of the rinascimento. I have published a book about the Buon governo frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena, which I treat as a celebration of the republican insight that the ideal of the bene commune can be attained if and only if the commune acts as its own supreme judge. I have also published a book about the political theory of Machiavelli, whom I treat essentially as a student and at the same time a satirist of ancient Roman moral and political thought. Perhaps I may be allowed to mention that a collection of my essays on these topics has now been published in Italian as Virtù rinascimentali.

Besides writing about these two distinct historical eras, I have been interested in the relationship between them, and especially in the impact of Italian Renaissance culture in northern Europe. It is true that the concept of the Renaissance has come under critical scrutiny in recent times, and I have myself contributed to this more sceptical approach, especially in my first book, which is published in Italian as Le origini del pensiero politico moderno. The first volume of this two-volume work is entitled Il rinascimento, but one of my principal aims is to criticise the view that, as Jacob Burkhardt expresses it in his classic study, a distinctive Kultur suddenly burst forth in quattrocento Italy. The components of this culture, I have tried to show, were in fact the products of a very long period of nurture in the city-republics that first rose to wealth and power in northern Italy as early as the beginning of the duecento.

Despite my view of the Renaissance as the outcome of an historical longue durée, I continue to believe that we can meaningfully speak of the period as one in which ancient disciplines were revived and new ingredients added to European culture for the first time. Among these, one of the most important was the recovery of the classical art of rhetoric, which came to occupy a pivotal place in the curricula of the schools and universities of Italy and later of northern Europe. The special significance of this Renaissance revival of the Ars rhetorica was that it offered a model of argument very different from the one embedded in scholastic philosophy. The method of the Schoolmen was to raise a question, offer a preliminary answer, examine possible objections and arrive at a conclusive result. The rhetoricians, by contrast, aimed to show that -- as we still proverbially put it -- there will always be at least two sides to any question, and that it will always be possible, at least in what they described as the moral sciences, to offer a rational defence of more than one contrasting point of view.

One of my principal aims in Le origini del pensiero politico moderno was to trace the process by which the art of rhetoric became a central cultural discipline. I then devoted my next research-project to examining how this style of reasoning came to be discredited and superseded. With the rise of the so-called ‘new philosophy’ in the seventeenth century, a very different ideal of argument emerged in which -- as in the systems of Descartes and Hobbes -- a method of deductive reasoning was employed to arrive at conclusions which, it was claimed, could be placed beyond any rational dispute.

I attempted, in my book Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, to trace the profound cultural changes that accompanied the application of this model to questions in moral and political philosophy. One consequence, I tried to show, was that the concept of ‘reason’ came to be reified and treated in wholly transcultural terms. Hobbes, for example, maintains that he can prove beyond doubt the tenets of his moral philosophy. He insists, that is, that it is possible to establish their rationality by purely demonstrative means, without paying the least attention to persuasive techniques, to methods of making our conclusions sound authoritative, or to any of the other devices that the rhetorical theorists of the Renaissance had singled out. The art of reasoning, Hobbes retorts, is not merely independent of these techniques, but sufficient to prevent them from having any countervailing effect.

My book on Reason and Rhetoric makes two claims about this historical development. One is that the image of moral and political argument to which it gave rise was always a self-deceiving one. Even in the case of such a dedicated exponent of scientific reasoning as Hobbes, we find that he still makes use of the full panoply of techniques recommended by the rhetoricians for lending persuasive force to his arguments. But my other and more general suggestion was that we arguably remain too ready to uphold this self-deceiving view of what it means to argue about politics and morality. We still like to make a categorical distinction between ‘mere rhetoric’ and ‘the force of the argument’, without always acknowledging the implications of the fact that this distinction is a rhetorical construction itself.

One reason, in short, why I have taken such an interest in the history of rhetoric is that it provides us, I believe, with a means to become more self-conscious about the distinctive and sometimes limited way in which we ourselves conduct our own moral and political debates. We are too reluctant, I have come to feel, to acknowledge the central insight of the rhetorical tradition: that the conclusions at which we arrive are always under-determined by the reasons we adduce in favour of them, and that we generally fill in the gaps by means of a variety of manipulative techniques. I have even come to believe that, if we were to re-examine our argumentative strategies with this insight in mind, we might give ourselves a much-needed lesson in greater moral and political tolerance.

Although my research has always centred on the early-modern period of European history, I have been anxious to use these historical materials to illuminate a number of more philosophical questions -- two in particular -- in which I am even more interested. One concerns the history and character of the modern state. My overarching aim in my first book was to understand at what period, and by means of what historical processes, the concept of the sovereign state first came to be the master noun of modern political discourse. More recently, I have tried to show that we have inherited two rival understandings of the concept of the state. According to the republican tradition, the state is the name we give to the body of the people organised in such a way as to govern themselves. But according to a rival tradition of public law, the state is the name of a persona ficta whose authority is represented by a ruler or assembly of people. Some of the puzzles surrounding the idea of the state, I have tried to show, stem from the fact that we never seem finally to have decided which of these different understandings we wish to endorse.

The other and closely connected philosophical topic in which I have long been interested is that of political liberty. What does it mean to say that as citizens of states we are at the same time bearers of civil rights and liberties? This is the question I address in one of my most recent books, which is available in Italian as La libertà prima del liberalismo.

I should like to speak in a little more detail about my views on political liberty. One reason for doing so is that I have been struggling with this concept for a long time -- at least since the early 1980s, when I delivered the Tanner Lectures at Harvard University under the title ‘The Paradoxes of Political Liberty’. A further reason is that, when the Balzan Prize Committee announced their reasons for awarding me this immensely generous prize, this was one of the two aspects of my research that they particularly singled out.

My main concern in writing about the concept of liberty has been to examine the claim, central to contemporary political theory, that our liberty as citizens essentially consists in our not being interfered with in the pursuit of our chosen ends. Freedom has come to be defined, that is, in negative terms as absence of interference: so long as we are not impeded in the exercise of our powers, we are taken to be in full possession of our liberty.

One of my aims has been the purely historical one of showing that this view of freedom, which seem so natural to us, was originally a highly polemical one, and was directed against a rival understanding that has largely fallen out of sight with the rise to hegemony of liberal political thought. According to this earlier view, freedom is not so much a predicate of actions as the name of a status, the status of the liber homo by contrast with the slave. This is the view of individual liberty that we encounter in Roman moral philosophy and in the Digest of Roman law. Drawing on these inescapable sources, the republican writers of the Renaissance in turn made this conception central to their constitutional ideal of the vivere libero. As I tried to show in my book on Machiavelli, one of his most influential contributions to modern political theory arose from his analysis in the Discorsi of the key distinction between the libertà and servitù of citizens as well as states.

According to this originally classical tradition, the lack of liberty suffered by slaves is not necessarily due to their being impeded or coerced. Rather it is primarily due to their being dependent on the arbitrary will of someone who can behave towards them, with impunity, in any way that they may choose. Furthermore, this condition of dependence in turn gives rise, it is argued, to further constraints on the liberty of those who live in such conditions of servitude. As soon as they begin to reflect on their predicament, they tend to self-censor, to limit and channel their behaviour with the aim of ensuring that the arbitrary power to which they are subject is not employed against them in detrimental ways.

One of my interests in excavating this tradition of thought is purely historical. To see that liberty was contrasted not with acts of interference, but rather with relations of domination and dependence, helps us better to understand the republican tradition of political theory that later became so important in the French and American revolutions. But I also want to claim that this way of thinking about freedom is of current philosophical significance, and in at least two ways. It serves in the first place to challenge the widely-held belief that we are free to exercise our powers so long as we are not impeded. According to the theory I have been sketching, we can be unfree in the absence of any such interference: the mere fact of living at the mercy of others is basically what takes away our freedom. Secondly, to recognise that differential power-relations in themselves undermine liberty may help us to reconsider our current political predicament. We need to become more self-aware, I think, about the extent to which we are currently living in dependence on forms of power that are not regulated by laws to which we have given our consent. I have come to the pessimistic conclusion that, if we were to cultivate this self-awareness, we might find ourselves reflecting that we are much less free in modern democratic societies than we like to suppose.

I have already alluded to the fact that the Balzan committee gave two specific reasons for awarding me this prize. Besides mentioning my writings on freedom, they spoke (and I quote) of my formulation of ‘a distinctive methodology for the study of the history of ideas’. I should like to end by saying a word about this further aspect of my research.

I have tried to lay out my views on historical method in a book translated into Italian as Dell’interpretazione. I can best introduce what I want to say about textual interpretation by drawing a distinction that has long been of central importance in the theory of meaning: the distinction between the semantics and the pragmatics of language. We speak of signs as bearing conventional meanings; but we also speak of meaning something by saying something. When we investigate the phenomenon of meaning, in other words, we can either focus on the semantic question of what a particular sign may mean, or else on the pragmatic question of what someone may mean by using it.

I think it would be fair to say that traditional hermeneutics has overwhelmingly been preoccupied with the first of these alternatives. So has the recently fashionable Deconstructionist approach to the interpretation of texts. While the main ambition of these post-structuralist sceptics has been to persuade us that the quest for meanings leads only into a tangle of ambiguities, the question that has continued to preoccupy them has been how, if at all, such meanings can be recovered. By contrast, I have wished to focus not on the semantic but on the pragmatic element in interpretation. I have pleaded for an approach to textual analysis that seeks above all to recover what the writers we study may have meant by what they said, what they may have been doing in writing what they wrote.

My reason for focusing not on meanings but on speech-acts has been a desire to challenge the way in which the classic texts in the history of ideas have customarily been interpreted. Too often, I feel, they have been approached on the assumption that, if only we read them with sufficient care, they will yield up their secrets to us. But while this approach may enable us to see what their authors are saying, it can never enable us to find out what they are doing. If, however, we wish to grasp any kind of argument, this further type of understanding is surely indispensable. When someone presents us with an argument, we need to know if they are at the same time upholding some accepted point of view, or questioning it, or commending it, or criticising it, or treating it satirically, or passing over it in derisive silence, or deliberately ignoring it, or what. When, in short, we attempt to interpret any utterance, we need to attend as seriously as possible to the implications of Wittgenstein’s celebrated contention that words are also deeds.

But what, my critics complain, is the point of adopting such an approach? The point is to improve our historical understanding. The great works of our philosophical tradition are cultural artifacts, no less than other great works of art, and if we wish to understand them we have no option but to approach them historically. In the case of works of philosophy, this means recovering the nature of the intervention they may be said to constitute in the philosophical and ideological debates of their time. To arrive at this kind of understanding, we need to place them within the intellectual context in and for which they were originally written, treating them not in isolation but as contributions to a broader dialogue. Only by these means can we hope to understand why the texts we study have their distinctive identity and character, or indeed why they ever came to be written at all.

One way of summarising my approach would thus be to say that I am pleading for the history of ideas to be written as the history of an activity, just like any of the other activities -- farming, fighting, governing and so on -- that historians have always discussed. I should like the traditional focus on the canon of leading philosophical works to be replaced by a more general study of discourse. The outcome would be to present us with the spectacle of different societies talking to themselves about the many and varied questions that have seemed to them important at different times. We would gain a history of philosophy with a genuinely historical character.

My attempt to practise these precepts has caused my work to be dismissed in some quarters as the merest antiquarianism. I certainly believe that we should try to make our studies of our intellectual heritage as scholarly as possible. Otherwise they will be little better than works of propaganda. But the accusation of antiquarianism nevertheless strikes me as ironic, for I have always felt that history itself is never enough, and that our historical studies ought if possible to have some practical point.

Let me end by illustrating very briefly what I have in mind. My underlying reason for wanting to understand the moral and political ideas we have inherited is to help us think anew about our present predicament. Do we even understand the basic concepts we employ in political debate? I have tried to suggest that, in the case of the concept of the state, we arguably do not. Do we too readily treat historically contingent concepts, such as ‘human rights’ as if they have some universal validity? I fear that we do. Have we become too blinkered in our way of thinking about certain concepts? I have tried to suggest that, in the case of political liberty, we arguably have. These are the kinds of insights that an historical approach to moral and political theory may help us to acquire, and this I take to be the eventual aim and justification of the enterprise. Benedetto Croce famously remarked that all history is contemporary history, and I take it that this was the sort of point he had in mind. This is the point that I too should like, if I may, to leave you to ponder: that our intellectual heritage is there to offer us not merely edification but guidance.
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