Dr Sophie Smith (University of Oxford) is the Quentin Skinner Fellow 2016-17. She gave the annual Quentin Skinner lecture, 'The Nature of Politics', on 9 June 2017.
What are we trying to understand when we study politics – and to what end? These are often thought of as relatively new questions in the long history of political thought. On the conventional view, though the ancients certainly wrote about politics, self-conscious reflection on politics as 'science' or 'philosophy' properly speaking was a nineteenth century invention. Furthermore, the story goes, it was only in the nineteenth century that we see the relationship between political science and practical politics, not least the politics of empire, first emerge.
While the empirical and positivistic emphases of British, American and European political scientists in the nineteenth century were indeed new, the idea that there might be a 'science of politics', fit to be taught in universities, with its own methods, sources and ends, was not. Neither was the thought that, in the words of one early modern author, ‘the philosophical principles of politics’ were a necessary part of the statesman’s arsenal. In both antiquity and early modernity authors engaged with questions about what it means to study politics. Indeed, some of the topics we consider central to distinctively modern meta-discussions about the nature of, for example, 'political theory’ were in fact present in some of the very earliest discussions about the nature of what early modern authors called scientia civilis. These include debates about the sources of political normativity, about utopianism and its limits, and about possible tensions between theory and practice.
Dr Smith reflected on this history and its significance for thinking about how we study politics today.