A Cultural History of the History of Political Thought

13 October 2011, 14:15 - 16:15

CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

Conveners

Dr Istvan Hont (History, King’s College)
Dr Duncan Kelly (POLIS, Jesus College)

A series of eight seminars taking place during Michaelmas 2011 on Thursdays at 2.15 to 4.15pm in the CRASSH seminar room at 17 Mill Lane.  The first seminar will take place on 13 October, the last on  8 December.  The  first  five seminars will be weekly up to 10 November.  The following week is a designated reading week, and the  seminars will recommence on Thursday 24 November. This teaching seminar is intended for researchers and graduate students primarily in History and Politics and it is intended as a pilot for a future first year graduate course held yearly for PhD students of the Faculty of History and the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) in Cambridge. All intending participants should register beforehand here. For more information, course outlines and readings, please see the link at the top right hand side of this page.


Summary

Cambridge has a long and distinguished tradition of scholarship in the history of political thought. A distinctive ‘Cambridge School’ of political thought (a term that is used mainly outside than within Cambridge) is typically taken to assume a particular approach, concerned with methodological claims about authorial intention, the nature of textual interpretation, questions of historical meaning, and the problem of contextual uniqueness. This misleading impression is a throwback to the intellectual climate of the 1960s and 70s, when following the rise of modern analytical philosophy at Oxford and in America it was fashionable to rethink issues of historiography and historical explanation purely in philosophical terms.  The resulting ‘linguistic turn’ resulted in a number of brave manifestoes, but not in a substantive, linguistically-oriented historiography.  In fact the philosophical apparatus deployed in these early efforts is now regarded as obsolete by philosophers.  On the other hand, subsequent historiographical practice in Cambridge in the history of political thought remains fresh and influential.  The purpose of this seminar to reconsider the Cambridge achievement in the history of political thought not philosophically, but historically and politically.

We want to ask the questions about the sort of politics that has driven this approach, and about its relationship to other narratives of the history of political thought that have been prevalent in the last hundred and fifty years.  This is an innovative approach, which builds explicitly on the research of the two seminar conveners in the history of political thought.  It radically changes the present terms of intellectual exchange about this subject matter not only in Cambridge, but also globally.  The historiography of the history of political thought is a neglected field; there is currently no such history of any merit in existence in any language or academic environment known to us.

On the one hand we will consider the history of political thought as a form of political theory.  On the other, we will handle it as a branch of intellectual history and for its analysis we will deploy a whole array of the sophisticated tools that cultural history developed for this purpose in the last quarter of a century.  We want to mix various angles of investigation and methodologies in a novel fashion.  The skills that we wish to deploy perhaps should co-exist routinely in our thoughts on the nature of our research subject, but in reality they are owned by separate disciplines in the liberal arts and the social sciences and rarely appear together. Hence long-standing and often ossified intellectual routines need to be broken up and reconfigured for our seminar to succeed. Each seminar will also incorporate aspects of biographical as well as theoretical history, and we will, where possible, endeavour to incorporate oral history from those with specific knowledge of the practices of several of the key figures in our discussion.

 

Image: The illustration of 'ACADEMIA' is taken from the 1630 edition of Cesare Ripa's famous Iconologia.  It was the contribution of the editor, Giovanni Zaratino Castellino.  The 1709 London translation gave the following brief summary of the moral emblem of 'ACADEMY':  'A Lady of a manly heroic Aspect, having a Crown of Gold, a particolur'd Garment, a File in her right Hand, and a Garland in her left.  Her masculine Countenance denotes solid and Profound Judgment; the Crown of pure Gold, the refining of Notions by Experiments; the various Colours, the variety of Sciences in an Academy; the File, the polishing of pieces, and freeing them from Superfluities; the Garland, Honour to those who excel'.  The motto around the file says 'Detrahit Atque Polit' (i.e. 'It Removes and Polishes').  The garland at the left hand of 'ACADEMIA' is made up of laurel, ivy, and myrtle, the plants of Apollo, Bacchus and Venus, and pomegranates, the symbol of a group brought together out of common preoccupations.  Behind the throne of 'ACADEMIA' is seated a bearded ape, or baboon, the symbol of letters , the animal consecrated to Mercury, the inventor of arts and letters.  The ape is also a symbol for the equinox, a measurement of time (the academician must measure the hours carefully, spending most of them in study), and for imitation (the beginning of learning, according to Aristotle).