Visions of Politics: Volume I: Regarding Method, by Quentin Skinner

Questions of method are important. In our time, you can ignore them and make a fool of yourself, or you can pay attention to them and hope to avoid a few mistakes you would not have otherwise. I suppose that since I’ve been born to the postmodern condition, I have an affinity for these considerations; I don’t mind considerations of method at all. I do think it has more to do with my being a Platonist, but I was also born to the postmodern condition. There is nobody more interested in questions of historical method than John Lukacs, and I enjoy how he does it. When I first read R.G. Collingwood’s Idea of History, I was exhilarated.

The problem with Lukacs, however, is that he eschews jargon. Part of his concern for historical method is that he believes historians should have no jargon. And when it comes to writing history, I think he is right. But when it comes to discussing method and asking what history is, and does, perhaps he is not, for all that he’s so careful about his words. It may be, however, that his problem is that he often discusses method in the midst of doing history.

Quentin Skinner’s book is about historical method, which is about hermeneutics. How do we interpret, what can we know, what did the author intend, what does that give us–those kinds of things. And the truth is that while the going can be heavy on jargon, what with Foucault, Ayer, and all the rest having waded into the waters of hermeneutics, I think he has persuaded me that it is necessary.

Which does not mean he is tedious. He is anything but tedious in his first essay which is a sustained exercise of wit the like of which one is sure scholarship seldom is treated to. Skinner takes on the hermeneutical debates of the previous century and steers his way through them, conceding what is uncertain, making careful distinctions, providing useful arguments. I found he is a helpful writer, not an unhelpful, providing refreshers and reminders when the going was necessarily heavy.

One of the things I realize is that he’s part of a conversation to which I have not been tuned in and in the midst of which I have largish lacunae and bewilderments. I don’t know how much of that conversation is in my future, but I do want to read more Skinner. I picked him up because he’d been recommended to me by Trueman. He told me Skinner was to him what Lukacs–from what I was telling him–was to me.

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