U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Political Theory and Intellectual History

Over the last few weeks, a number of things have led me to think about the relationship between political theory and intellectual history…and between political theorists and intellectual historians.

Our recent conference in Washington, D.C., was keynoted by a political theorist, Corey Robin, whose work frequently comes up on this blog.  Last week, Sheldon Wolin passed away. As Corey Robin noted in his acute celebration of Wolin’s work, Wolin was distinguished by, among other things, a particularly distinctive way of thinking about the past.  And this week, I concluded a Reading Group that I had been leading at the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College on Our Declaration, a book-length consideration of the Declaration of Independence by political theorist Danielle Allen.

Political theorists and intellectual historians have a lot in common.  We often work on the same material.  And we are often interested in similar questions. Scholars in both disciplines also face some similar methodological challenges, especially having to do with our relationship to the ideas of the past.  There are many signs of such shared interests.  Corey Robin began his S-USIH Conference keynote by telling of how he had wanted to go into intellectual history, but his undergraduate adviser, the historian Lawrence Stone, told him that nobody did that anymore.[1] So he went into political theory instead.  The best intellectual history of modern American political theory is by a political theorist: John Gunnell’s The Descent of Political Theory (1993).

On the other hand, there are also real differences between our two disciplines.  Political theory is, by its very nature, more present-minded than intellectual history.  And, more subtly, political theorists and intellectual historians speak in different registers.

I’ve been trying to formulate a more precise description of how I see the relationship between the two disciplines.  But I haven’t come up with a particularly satisfying description or analysis of it.  So I’ll stop while I’m ahead and ask a question instead: how do the intellectual historians, political theorists, and unaffiliated folks among our readership understand the relationship between our disciplines?

[1] Corey just asked the wrong Princeton historian.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben–I agree this is a knotty issue. One observation would be that the closest comparison may be between intellectual history and the HISTORY of political thought, not political thought(theory, philosophy) as such. Second, intellectual history and history of political thought are not value free, but there is a sense in which their first responsibility is to construct a narrative of the relationship among thinkers and bodies of thought without preferring or privileging this thinker or idea to that thinker or idea. Third, political philosophy, political theory and political thought are not quite the same thing, at least historically. But they do tend to be normative, i.e. proposals about the ideal political order, while political theory is perhaps more likely to be descriptive and explanatory, not normative. Finally, it is an understatement to say that all this is hard to sort out–political thought such as Arendt’s and Wolin’s is normative(organized around a normative notion of the political/politics) and tends to explicitly or implicitly be part of an historical narrative beginning with the Greeks. (In the first quarter century after 1945, this was sometimes called a narrative or epic view of political philosophy.) Yet there can be a history of political thought (from Plato to NATO) which does not raise the question of the best political order or the central principle or value of the tradition. It is just concerned with covering the field and arranging it historically. I know I have finessed such things as the meaning of “the normative” and “arranging it historically” but I offer this just as a way of getting something started.

    Regards,
    Richard (King)

  2. The person that first comes to my mind as combining political theory and intellectual history is Michael Rogin who combined the two and in doing so didn’t fit easily in either category.

  3. I suppose the other obvious person who combined the two in studying the U.S. was Louis Hartz, who really was a political theorist but has mainly been read as an intellectual historian.

  4. I was hoping somebody on the blog might want to discuss this issue, especially after I read Danielle Allen’s book this summer. I would really be interested in what your reading group had to say about it. It’s a great book in so many ways, but I found it constantly generalizing the “plain meaning” of words in a way that, for historians, assumed far too much and inadequately contextualized, in intellectual terms, the ideas and the language to be found in the Declaration. The method of close reading was great, since Allen insists that the precise meaning of words and particular formulations of phrases and the way in which they are ordered is essential to understanding the meaning of the document–there aren’t a lot of historians who will invest in this level of close reading, since their tendency is to find meaning in contextualizing a variety of factors that lay behind the document. A big exception here is Gary Wills’s _Inventing America_, also on the Declaration. It would be very instructive, in fact, to compare Allen and Wills, since his work (highly criticized by historians, I would add), seeks to locate the specific language of the declaration in Scottish moral philosophy of the eighteenth century (as opposed to either Lockean liberalism or classical republicanism), and she is much more concerned with liberating the meaning of the Declaration from the limitations of its particular historical contexts (including assumptions about race and slavery) so that it can be viewed in a universalist sense, as part of the patrimony of Americans struggling for egalitarian ends today. Allen’s book stands out for its faith in the continuing power of Enlightenment ideals, at a moment when historians seem more interested in demonstrating the dark side and limitations of Enlightenment thought and its legacy. It’s not that there isn’t contextualization in Allen’s account; in fact, she regularly seeks to provide specific contexts (e.g. earlier draft versions of the Declaration, other contemporary political documents, etc.), but she returns again and again to the idea that the meaning of the document can be understood by the untutored mind, as if the meaning of, for instance, “self evident truths” is itself “self evident,” and doesn’t require an understanding of Enlightenment era epistemology. Reading in the manner of historians, I was constantly brought up against statements about the meaning of terms that relied not on trying to find an 18th-century intellectual context, but on the “plain meaning” of terms, and the logical consequences that flowed from them. I would be interested in hearing the responses of others who have read Allen’s book.

  5. Another example of the place where political theory and intellectual history find common ground would be Harry Jaffa’s _Crisis of the House Divided_, in which the Lincoln-Douglass Debates serve as a body of political theory.

  6. Ben – Thanks for the heads-up that took me to Corey Robin’s tribute to Sheldon Wolin, “The Theorist Who Reached Across Time,” Jacobin 10.24.15, as a locale for thinking about the general questions you raised. Indeed, Robin seems intrigued, perhaps inspired, by how Wolin negotiated the tensions between normative political theory and history; between the persistence of the political, and the myriad ways in which it’s historically embedded.

    This is certainly one set of issues that comes up in discussing the relation between political theory and intellectual history, though it’s also worth noting, as Andrew Abbott reminds us, there are differences within each field that fractally mirror differences between them; so here, some in political theory do history [eg, Gunnell], while in intellectual history some question, say, Skinnerian contextualism out of their lively interest in theoretical and philosophical analysis: we shouldn’t essentialize either by speaking as if either were wholly coherent or well-bounded.

    I was intrigued by Robin’s comments on the importance of translation in Wolin, how “a political vocabulary or idiom gets translated in a new setting” — not where politics in some mode comes into play outside or over against the religious or economic, but where “politicalness” is present in sublimated form in the very terms [metaphors? analogies?] of economic or religious discourse.

    Robin quotes Wolin – “The significance of Christian thought for the Western political tradition lies not so much in what it had to say about the political order, but primarily in what it had to say about the religious order. The attempt of Christians to understand their own group life provided a new and sorely needed source of ideas for Western political thought.” [1960, 97]

    … and, Wolin goes on to say, in doing so “opened the way for the development of an autonomous body of political theory which a compromised theology could not contain,” as the religious vocabulary was eventually set aside. [97]

    Similarly, in a recent blog piece, “David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin,” 11.13.14, Robin notes that “some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory,” so that the “political moment of economic discourse” is most clear when it’s apparently most purely economic, and not about politics at all. It’s interesting here that well before rational choice theory became dominant, Wolin had shown how the political could be translated into the terms of economics, and not only of administration.

    Sometimes it appears that the game of each discipline or sub-field is to read the world through its peculiar language, and to imperialize over the others by these acts of translation or re-allegorization.

    Ben – Thanks for the heads-up that took me to Corey Robin’s tribute to Sheldon Wolin, “The Theorist Who Reached Across Time,” Jacobin 10.24.15, as a locale for thinking about the general questions you raised. Indeed, Robin seems intrigued, perhaps inspired, by how Wolin negotiated the tensions between normative political theory and history; between the persistence of the political, and the myriad ways in which it’s historically embedded.
    This is certainly one set of issues that comes up in discussing the relation between political theory and intellectual history, though it’s also worth noting, as Andrew Abbott reminds us, there are differences within each field that fractally mirror differences between them; so here, some in political theory do history [eg, Gunnell], while in intellectual history some question, say, Skinnerian contextualism out of their lively interest in theoretical and philosophical analysis: we shouldn’t essentialize either by speaking as if either were wholly coherent or well-bounded.
    I was intrigued by Robin’s comments on the importance of translation in Wolin, how “a political vocabulary or idiom gets translated in a new setting” — not where politics in some mode comes into play outside or over against the religious or economic, but where “politicalness” is present in sublimated form in the very terms [metaphors? analogies?] of economic or religious discourse.
    Robin quotes Wolin –
    “The significance of Christian thought for the Western political tradition lies not so much in what it had to say about the political order, but primarily in what it had to say about the religious order. The attempt of Christians to understand their own group life provided a new and sorely needed source of ideas for Western political thought.” [1960, 97]
    … and, Wolin goes on to say, in doing so “opened the way for the development of an autonomous body of political theory which a compromised theology could not contain,” as the religious vocabulary was eventually set aside. [97]
    Similarly, in a recent blog piece, “David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin,” 11.13.14, Robin notes that “some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory,” so that the “political moment of economic discourse” is most clear when it’s apparently most purely economic, and not about politics at all. It’s interesting here that well before rational choice theory became dominant, Wolin had shown how the political could be translated into the terms of economics, and not only of administration.
    Sometimes it appears that the game of each discipline or sub-field is to read the world through its peculiar language, and to imperialize the others by these acts of translation or re-allegorization.

  7. Ben–
    Of the many places to start, I recommend two pieces written by one of our own: Chapter 9 of James Kloppenberg’s _Virtues of Liberalism_, “Why History Matters to Political Theory” and “A Well-Tempered Liberalism: Modern Intellectual History and Political Theory” in _MIH_ from 2013.

    http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/jameskloppenberg/files/kloppenberg_a_well_tempered_liberalism.pdf

    That last piece esp. touches on many of the same issues broached by Robin on Wolin–whether political ideas can be transhistorical–by way of an assessment of Alan Ryan’s recent _On Politics_.

    Though his name is verboten on this blog, Gordon Wood has some provocative remarks on the (mis)use of history by political theorists in the reviews collected in _Purpose of the Past_. As you might imagine, he is quite strict about saying that, as a historian, it is _never_ appropriate to take up ideas from the past for purposes of the present, in the “normative” sense alluded to above by Prof. King. In this sense, Wood deems MLK’s use of Lincoln as historically inaccurate and irresponsible (though Wood concedes that, as an _activist_, recruiting the past for the present is probably necessary). I’m not sure we can ever draw such a sharp line between these roles (most of us wear more than one hat); and in any case, the distinction seems to be largely a formal one without consequences for practice. I believe it was Kierkegaard who said: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” I take this to mean: a perfectly responsible historicism can be imagined but it can’t be enacted.

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