Quentin Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty

Skinner 2008

Skinner 2008

Quentin Skinner’s work as an historian focuses on the history of political philosophy. His particular interest is in understanding how historical ideas represent the real-world issues that concerned past political philosophers. Skinner turns to the classic texts of political philosophy to provide insight into the political situation and political ideas their authors wished to address. For Skinner, however, these texts contain more than just the thoughts of past philosophers. These classic texts are also ‘deeds’ in the sense that they are polemical interventions in the debates of the time (2002). For us to interact with these texts is to do more than engage in historical surveys of ideas. Such interactions expose the present to unfamiliar ideas that have the potential to influence the way we understand the world. Whenever one confronts a classic text, Skinner argues (2002), the basic question will always be ‘What are the appropriate procedures to adopt in the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the work?’

Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) is Skinner’s most recent interpretation of Hobbes’ political philosophy. As an interpretive work, Hobbes and Republican Liberty validates Skinner’s methodological claim that texts must be understood as deeds. Skinner’s understanding of Hobbes’ works as polemical interventions in the ideological context of their time provides fresh insights into the development of Hobbes’ thought. These insights are the evidence for his central hypothesis that Hobbes’ works present distinct conceptions of liberty, but that when considered in chronological order these conceptions reveal an underlying development of Hobbes’ thought. By applying his interpretive approach to Hobbes’ work, Skinner also hopes to repudiate the claim that Hobbes’ oeuvre presents a single conception of liberty.

The importance of studying classic texts for Skinner is similar to its importance for Hans-Georg Gadamer (1997) in that interaction with such texts opens up the interpreter to different ideas. The interaction with the text may influence the interpreter’s ‘horizon’, or as Skinner would prefer, their paradigm. The resonances between Skinner and Gadamer extend to their view of the interpreter’s inability to escape entirely his or her prejudgments – that is, his or her inability to gain a truly objective standpoint from which to interpret a text. However, whereas Gadamer defends interpretive prejudgments as the ontological fore-structures necessary for an authentic interaction with history, Skinner attempts to bracket them out of the interpretation for the sake of an accurate re-presentation of history.

Review incomplete as of 28th July 2009

Skinner, Q (2008) Hobbes and Republican Liberty, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

—- (2002) Visions of Politics, Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Gadamer, H-G (1997) Truth and Method, Continuum, London.

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