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    Quentin Skinner, Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas (1969)

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    Johnathan R. Razorback
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    Quentin Skinner, Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas (1969)

    Message par Johnathan R. Razorback le Mer 4 Mar - 8:19

    http://sydney.edu.au/intellectual-history/documents/skinner-meaning.pdf

    "to suggest instead that a knowledge of the social context is a necessary condition for an understanding of the classic texts is equivalent to denying that they do contain any elements of timeless and perennial interest" (p.4)

    "It will never in fact be possible simply to study what any given classic writer has said (especially in an alien culture) without bringing to bear some of one's own expectations about what he must have been saying." (p.5)

    "The particular danger with intellectual biography is that of sheer anachronism. A given writer may be "discovered" to have held a view, on the strength of some chance similarity of terminology, on some subject to which he cannot in principle have meant to contribute. Marsilius of Padua, for example, at one point in his Defender of the Peace offers some typically Aristotelian remarks on the executive role of a ruler, compared with the legislative role of a sovereign people. The modern commentator who comes upon this passage will of course be familiar with the doctrine, important in constitutionatl heory and practice since the American Revolution, that one of the conditions of political freedom is the separation of executive from legislative power. The historical origins of the doctrine itself can be traced to the historiographica suggestion (first canvassed some two centuries after Marsilius's death) that the development of the Roman Republic into an Empire demonstrated the danger to the liberty of subjects inherent in entrusting any single authority with centralized political power. Marsilius, of course, knew nothing of this historiography, nor of the lessons that were to be drawn from it. (His own discussion in fact derives from Book IV of Aristotle's Politics, and is not even concerned with the issue of political freedom.) None of this, however, has been sufficient to prevent a brisk and wholly meaningless debate on the question of whether Marsilius should be said to have had a "doctrine" of the separation of powers, and if so whether he should be "acclaimedt he founder of the doctrine. And even those experts who have denied that Marsilius should be credited with this doctrine have based their conclusions on his text, and not at all by pointing to the impropriety of supposing that he could have meant to contribute to a debate whose terms were unavailable to him, and whose point would have been lost on him." (p.7)

    "As the historian duly sets out in quest of the idea he has characterized, he is very readily led to speak as if the fully developed form of the doctrine was always in some sense immanent in history, even if various thinkers failed to "hit upon" it, even if it "dropped from sight" at various times, even if an entire era failed (note the implication that they tried) to "rise to a consciousness" of it." (p.9)

    "The tendency to search for approximations to the ideal type yields a form of non-history which is almost entirely given over to pointing out earlier "anticipations" of later doctrines, and to crediting each writer in terms of this clairvoyance. So Marsiliusi s notable for his "remarkable anticipation" of Machiavelli; Machiavelli is notable because he "lays the foundation for Marx"; Locke's theory of signs is notable "as an anticipation of Berkeley's metaphysics"; Glanvill's theory of causation is notable for "the extent to which he has anticipated Hume"; Shaftesbury's treatment of the theodicy problem is notable because it "in a certain sense anticipated Kant."." (p.10)

    "Sometimes [...] the writers of the past are simply praised or blamed according to how far they may seem to have aspired to the condition of being ourselves." (p.10)

    "Failing presupposes trying" (p.14)

    "This procedure gives the thoughts of various classic writers a coherence, and an air generally of a closed system, which they may never have attained
    or even been meant to attain. If it is first assumed, for example, that the business of interpreting Rousseau's thought must center on the discovery of his most "fundamental thought," it will readily cease to seem a matter of importance that he contributed over several decades to several quite different fields of enquiry. Again, if it is first assumed that every aspect of Hobbes's thought was designed as a contribution to the whole of his "Christian" system, it will cease to seem at all peculiar to suggest that we may turn to his autobiography to elucidate so crucial a point as the relations between ethics and political life. Again, if it is first assumed that even Burke never essentially contradicted himself or changed his mind, but that a "coherent moral philosophy" underlies everything he wrote, then it will cease to seem at all unrealistic to treat "the corpus of his published writings" as "a single body of thought.".
    "

    "In the case of Locke, it is now known that he was concerned, in his earliest works of ethical and political thinking, to set out and to defend a markedly authoritarian position. Yet it is still apparently possible in the face of this knowledge to treat Locke's politics as a body of views which can simply be labelled the work of a "liberal" political theorist, without further consideration of the fact that these were at best the views which Locke held in his fifties, and which he would himself have repudiated in his thirties. Locke at thirty is evidently not yet "Locke"-a degree of patriarchalism to which even Filmer did not aspire." (p.18)

    "The other metaphysical belief to which the mythology of coherence gives rise is that a writer may be expected not merely to exhibit some "inner coherence" which it becomes the duty of his interpreter to reveal, but also that any apparent barriers to this revelation, constituted by any apparent contradictions which the given writer's work does seem to contain, cannot be real barriers, because they cannot really be contradictions." (p.18)

    "The explanation dictated by the principle of Ockham's razor (that an apparent contradiction may simply be a contradiction) seems not to be considered." (p.19)

    "An argument in one work, that is, may happen to remind the historian of a similar argument in an earlier work, or may appear to contradict it. In either case the historian may mistakenly come to suppose that it was the intention of the later writer to refer to the earlier, and so may come to speak misleadingly of the "influence"o f the earlier work." (p.24)

    "Certainly Hobbes never explicitly discusses Machiavelli, and Locke never explicitly discusses Hobbes. It is demonstrable that the alleged influence of Hobbes on Locke, and of Bolingbroke on Burke, both fail to pass test." (p.25)

    "It cannot (logically) be a correct appraisal of any agent's action to say that he failed to do something unless it is first clear that he did have, and even could have had, the intention to try to perform that action." (p.28)

    "All remarks such as the claim that "we may regard Locke's theory" of signs "as an anticipation of Berkeley's metaphysics" are meaningless. [...] (It can scarcely have been Locke's intention to anticipate Berkeley's metaphysics." (p.28)

    "It is surely true, in any case, that there are at least some writers (Hobbes perhaps springs to mind) who may fairly be said to have articulated a fully coherent set of doctrines, even a "system of ideas."'." (p.29)

    "I have argued that the danger of writing historical nonsense, in direct consequence of concentrating on the text in itself, is often incurred, and indeed very seldom avoided altogether in current practice. I now wish to claim that even if all the dangers I have outlined could be avoided (as they doubtless could, though they seldom are) the underlying assumption of this whole approach - that one should focus simply on the texts themselves, and study what each classic writer has to say about each given doctrine - must necessarily remain a wholly inadequate methodology for the conduct of the history of ideas." (p.30)

    "It becomes clear that if we wish to understand a given idea, even within a given culture and at a given time, we cannot simply concentrate, a la Lovejoy, on studying the forms of words involved. For the words denoting the idea may be used, as the example indicates, with varying and quite incompatible intentions." (p.35-36)

    "We should study not the meanings of the words, but their use." (p.36)

    "There is no determinate idea to which various writers contributed, but only a variety of statements made with the words by a variety of different agents with a variety of intentions, then what we are seeing is equally that there is no history of the idea to be written, but only a history necessarily focused on the various agents who used the idea, and on their varying situations and intentions in using it." (p.37)

    "We should [...] study not the texts in themselves, but rather "the context of other happenings which explains them."." (p.38)

    "A knowledge of the social context of a given text seems at least to offer considerable help in avoiding the anachronistic mythologies I have tried to anatomize." (p.38)

    "The belief that this method of "contextual reading"' does provide the appropriate methodology for the history of ideas, literary as well as philosophical, appears in practice to be becoming increasingly accepted." (p.38. Terme de contextual reading emprunté à l'anthropologue et épistémologue américain Gregory Bateson. Dans les notes de la page, Skinner cite J. G. A. Pocock comme recommandant une approche méthodologique très proche de la sienne, ce qui explique qu'on les associe au même courant intellectuel "l'École de Cambridge".)

    "One paradoxical result of the widespread acceptance of this methodology of contextual study has in consequence been to panic the historians of ideas into the suspicion that their subject may not really "exist" after all. And the main result has been to commit even the best current practitioners to a formula which quite simply begs all the questions: the social context, it is said, helps to cause the formation and change of ideas; but the ideas in turn help to cause the formation and change of the social context." (p.41)

    "Despite the possibility, therefore, that a study of social context may help in the understanding of a text, which I have conceded, the fundamental assumption of the contextual methodology, that the ideas of a given text should be understood in terms of its social context, can be shown to be mistaken, and to serve in consequence not as the guide to understanding, but as the source of further very prevalent confusions in the history of ideas." (p.41-42)

    "Every statement made or other action performed must presuppose an intention to have done it - call it a cause if you like - but also an intention in doing it, which cannot be a cause, but which must be grasped if the action itself is to be correctly characterized and so understood." (p.44)

    "This only points, however, to the second mistaken assumption on which this methodology appears to rest, the assumption that "meaning" and "understanding" are in fact strictly correlative terms. It has been classically demonstrated, however, by J. L. Austin, that the understanding of statements pre-supposes a grasp not merely of the meaning of the given utterance, but also of what Austin labelled its intended illocutionary force. This claim is crucially relevant to my present argument in two respects. First, this further question about what a given agent may be doing in uttering his utterance is not a question about meaning at all, but about a force co-ordinate with the meaning of the utterance itself, and yet essential to grasp in order to understand it. And second, even if we could decode what a given statement must mean from a study of its social context, it follows that this would still leave us without any grasp of its intended illocutionary force, and so eventually without any real understanding of the given statement after all. The point is, in short, that an unavoidable lacuna remains: even if the study of the social context of texts could serve to explain them, this would not amount to the same as providing the means to understand them." (p.44-45)

    "In order to be said to have understood any statement made in the past, it cannot be enough to grasp what was said, or even to grasp that the meaning of what was said may have changed. It cannot in consequence be enough to study either what the statement meant, or even what its context may be alleged to show about what it must have meant. The further point which must still be grasped for any given statement is how what was said was meant, and thus what relations there may have been between various different statements even within the same general context." (p.46)

    "We need to be able to cope with the intractable possibility that certain of the classic philosophical texts may contain quite a large number of what contemporaries would instantly have seen to be jokes. Plato and Hobbes perhaps spring to mind: again, this would obviously be an important clue to the understanding of their texts, but, again, it is hard to see how either of the approved methodologies can help. And similarly, questions of allusion and oblique reference generally clearly raise important problems of recognition and correspondingly obvious dangers of misunderstanding any text in which they figure prominently." (p.47)

    "If my argument so far has been correct, two positive and general conclusions can now be shown to follow from it. The first concerns the appropriate method by which to study the history of ideas. On the one hand, it must be a mistake even to try either to write intellectual biographies concentrating on the works of a given writer, or to write histories of ideas tracing the morphology of a given concept over time. Both these types of study (not to mention the pedagogic histories of thought which combine their demerits) are necessarily misconceived. On the other hand, it does not follow, as is sometimes claimed, that no particular way of studying the history of ideas is any more satisfactory than any other. My first positive conclusion is rather that the whole trend of my argument points to an alternative methodology which need not be open to any of the criticisms I have so far advanced. The understanding of texts, I have sought to insist, presupposes the grasp both of what they were intended to mean, and how this meaning was intended to be taken. It follows from this that to understand a text must be to understand both the intention to be understood, and the intention that this intention should be understood, which the text itself as an intended act of communication must at least have embodied. The essential question which we therefore confront, in studying any given text, is what its author, in writing at the time he did write for the audience he intended to address, could in practice have been intending to communicate by the utterance of this given utterance. It follows that the essential aim, in any attempt to understand the utterances themselves, must be to recover this complex intention on the part of the author. And it follows from this that the appropriate methodology for the history of ideas must be concerned, first of all, to delineate the whole range of communications which could have been conventionally performed on the given occasion by the utterance of the given utterance, and, next, to trace the relations between the given utterance and this wider linguistic context as a means of decoding the actual intention of the given writer. Once the appropriate focus of the study is seen in this way to be essentially linguistic and the appropriate methodology is seen in consequence to be concerned in this way with the recovery of intentions, the study of all the facts about the social context of the given text can then take its place as a part of this linguistic enterprise." (p.47-48)

    "The "context" mistakenly gets treated as the determinant of what is said. It needs rather to be treated as an ultimate framework for helping to decide what conventionally recognizable meanings, in a society of that kind, it might in principle have been possible for someone to have intended to communicate." (p.48)

    "It has I think become clear that any attempt to justify the study of the subject in terms of the "perennial problems" and "universal truths" to be learned from the classic texts must amount to the purchase of justification at the expense of making the subject itself foolishly and needlessly naive. [...] The classic texts cannot be concerned with our questions and answers, but only with their own. [...] There simply are no perennial problems in philosophy: there are only individual answers to individual questions, with as many different answers as there are questions, and as many different questions as there are questioners. There is in consequence simply no hope of seeking the point of studying the history of ideas in the attempt to learn directly from the classic authors by focusing on their attempted answers to supposedly timeless questions.." (p.49)

    "If we are to learn from Plato, it is not enough that the discussion should seem, at a very abstract level, to pose a question relevant to us. It is also essential that the answer Plato gave should seem relevant and indeed applicable (if he is "right") to our own culture and period." (p.50)

    "We must learn to do our own thinking for ourselves." (p.51. Qui n'est pas sans rappeler la célèbre exhortation kantienne)

    "To demand from the history of thought a solution to our own immediate problems is thus to commit not merely a methodological fallacy, but something like a moral error. But to learn from the pastand we cannot otherwise learn it at all - the distinction between what is necessary and what is the product merely of our own contingent arrangements, is to learn the key to self-awarenessit self." (p.52, quelle valeur le passé a-t-il pour nous ?)
    -Quentin Skinner, « Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas », History and Theory, vol. 8 (1969).


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