Quentin Skinner's revised historical contextualism: a critique
University of Exeter
History of the Human Sciences
Since the late 1960s Quentin Skinner has defended a highly influential form of linguistic contextualism for the history of ideas, originally devised in opposition to established methodological orthodoxies like the ‘great text’ tradition and a mainly Marxist epiphenomenalism. In 2002, he published Regarding Method, a collection of his revised methodological essays that provides a uniquely systematic expression of his contextualist philosophy of history. Skinner’s most arresting theoretical contention in that work remains his well-known claim that past works of political theory cannot be read as contributions to ‘perennial’ debates but must instead be understood as particularistic, ideological speech-acts. In this article I argue that he fails to justify these claims and that there is actually nothing wrong at all with (where appropriate) treating past works of political theory as engaged in perennial philosophical debates. Not only do Skinner’s arguments not support the form of contextualism he defends, their flaws are actually akin to those he identified in his critique of previous methodological orthodoxies.
Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications. This is the authors final version, after peer-review. It has been accepted for publication in the journal later in 2009. 12 month embargo by the publisher. Article will be released August 2010.