Reading Quentin Skinner: History vs. Philosophy


I casually started Skinner’s Hobbes and Republican Liberty just to see what he’s up to lately (Skinner, not Hobbes who, I think, is dead) and I can’t put it down. Skinner is a self-professed intellectual historian and his style is very much different from another book on Hobbes that I am reading (an excellent book as well), but when I came across this review of it written by a self-professed philosopher, I understood why I am enjoying Skinner:

In this book Quentin Skinner contrasts two rival theories about the nature of human liberty. The first, which he traces back to antiquity, is now called republican liberty… According to Skinner, Hobbes holds that citizens have liberty insofar as they are not physically prevented from acting as they would like.

Reading this book made clear to me how different the fields of history, even intellectual history, and philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, are. Over thirty years ago I helped to translate chapters X-XV of De Homine, (1658) which together with the contemporary (1651) translation of De cive, and my thirty-page introduction, were published in a volume entitled Man and Citizen. I have written many articles on Hobbes including several for standard reference works in philosophy, yet in reading Quentin Skinner’s book, Hobbes and Republican Liberty, I learned how little I knew about Hobbes, especially the possible historical influences on his work. I had been intrigued by the frontispieces of both De cive and Leviathan, but had never realized that the idea of frontispieces for philosophical works had become popular about 100 years before Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides, which also had “a spectacular emblematic frontispiece in which an attempt is made to represent some of the leading themes in Thucydides’ narrative.” (p. 7) Although I visited Chatsworth about forty years ago, I was completely unaware that the library contained “some well-known examples of this burgeoning genre” (p. 9) of “emblemata or emblem-books.” This is only one example of my ignorance about the possible historical influences on Hobbes.

A nice introduction, right? Giving Skinner his due, he’s a historian so his account will be different, even though he is reading the same author and the same books, because he is a historian and his field is so different, his results will be different. So he gives us all sorts of cool trivia about emblems and such, things that philosophers are intrigued about but which ultimately mean nothing in terms of philosophical discussion. What matter is what Hobbes wrote and how we interpret it – historians, we are told, will give us more background and situate the discussion in its proper historical context, but the real work, the reviewer seems to imply, belongs to philosophers:

 – Good job, buddy, nice work on those ornaments.

– Thank you mister sir philosopher! I is glad to be of service!

– Here’s some money, go get yourself a pint, will ya? [Cracking fingers] Well, let’s see here, I wonder what Hobbes really meant by liberty. [Squinting, looking closer at the text]

Reviewer continues:

Because of the similarity between what Hobbes says about free-will and what he says about liberty, Skinner seems to take Hobbes’ analysis of what is meant by free-will to be directly relevant to what Hobbes means when he talks of the liberty of subjects.

Silly historian, doesn’t he know that just because Hobbes says similar things about two ideas, it does not mean that they are related at all, even if Skinner provides an exhaustive list of references from Hobbes.

Hobbes’ discussion of free-will is related to what he calls voluntary actions; it is not directly related to his discussion of that liberty that is relevant to his political theory.

So Hobbes does talk about free-will (an always interesting materialist reading of it – no faculty of free-will), but it’s related to voluntary action, not liberty in the political theory sense. Ok, so we have a philosopher lecturing a historian who has provided a number of textual proofs of his reading of Hobbes with a simple “it’s not relevant, sir”…

It is that liberty which is related to right of nature that is the liberty that is central to Hobbes’ political theory. Thus it is remarkable that although Skinner does talk about the right of nature in the chapter, “Liberty and Political Obligation,” he continues to hold that when Hobbes talks about the liberty of citizens he is talking about the liberty of bodies and “cannot be speaking of anything other than the absence of external impediments that render movement impossible.” (p. 208)

It seems that the reviewer’s implicit assumption is, again, that historians don’t get it with their attention to texts and contexts – it’s how you read it, not what it says, dummy. I mean clearly this is an interesting exchange and the issues are important, but does it have to have such a strange condescending tone (although I admit that it might be hard to detect on the first read)?  For example, the final paragraph is just not necessary:

As I said in the beginning of this review, Skinner’s book presents great amounts of information about Hobbes and his times and about what might have been precedents for Hobbes’ account of liberty that will be new to most philosophers. Hobbes may also have come to put forward his account of the liberty of subjects in order to provide an alternative to the republican account of liberty. However, Skinner’s view that what Hobbes means by the liberty of citizens or subjects is the absence of corporal impediments cannot be taken as providing a plausible philosophical account of what Hobbes means.

PS. The review is by this distinguished fellow who decided to take a picture with his favorite book, I guess. I have a sense that this is a hilarious tongue-in-check photo, an inside joke of sorts, you know?

3 thoughts on “Reading Quentin Skinner: History vs. Philosophy

  1. I like very much that he’s a ‘professor of intellectual philosophy’, which is so much more important and credible than the other kind.

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