On Intellectual History and the History of Books | Quentin Skinner

These remarks take as their point of departure the paper contributed by Robert Darnton to our conference. I am less concerned, however, with following up Bob’s arguments than with drawing a number of contrasts between how I envisage the study of intellectual history and how historians of the book (at least on the evidence of Bob’s paper) appear to think about their research.
         One obvious contrast lies in the range of topics covered by these two sub-disciplines. To speak of the history of the book is to name a specialised form of enquiry into the production, diffusion and enjoyment of print culture. But to speak of intellectual history is to refer to a much less clearly articulated field of research. Some intellectual historians want to make the purview of their subject more or less coterminous with the whole of a society’s cultural production. Under the heading of intellectual history they want to include the study of religious and other systems of belief; the study of hypotheses in the sciences, including the social and political sciences; the study of certain aspects of the history of art, including notational methods in music and iconological problems in painting and sculpture; and the study of the history of philosophy in all its manifold branches, including the analysis of moral, social, aesthetic and political theories as well as metaphysical arguments.
Most intellectual historians, it is true, think in less imperialist terms. But perhaps this is only because they cannot hope to challenge the established institutional structures of modern Universities, in which the history of art, the history of science and to some degree the history of religion are principally studied and taught in Departments other than Departments of History. Despite these restrictions, many intellectual historians remain keen to work across such arbitrary divisions, and the greatest of them –from Burckhardt onwards– have given us works that not only range across the centuries but at the same time speak of developments not merely in philosophy but in social, moral and religious thought. Practised in this way, the sub-discipline of intellectual history is clearly one with boundaries that are at once highly porous and continually liable to expand and contract as academic politics and different research-programme change. This must be one reason, I think, and perhaps the most obvious, why it has not always been easy, as Bob Darnton rightly notes, for intellectual historians and historians of the book to get together as easily as one might expect.
This is not to say that intellectual historians are uninterested in the kinds of preoccupations that mark out historians of the book. Or if they are uninterested, then I am sure they are misguided. The recent upsurge of interest in the history of the book has undoubtedly helped intellectual historians to become far more aware of a number of important considerations that they need to treat far more seriously than they have generally done. 
Perhaps the most basic point I have in mind here is that the physical appearance of early-modern books affects in various ways how we interpret them. For example, modern editions of the Declarations and Proclamations issued by early-modern governments hardly ever reproduce the difference between Roman and Black-letter type. But it is essential to know which form of type is being used in any given instance, because the use of Black-letter was generally a signal of the special importance of the text in question from the point of view of those who issued it.
For a more important example, consider the implications of the fact that, in the early-modern period, proof-correcting was a continuous process as large texts were run off the press signature by signature.  Sometimes we even find so-called cancels in published texts, where a piece of type has been pasted over an earlier word or sentence at the last moment. The crucial implication is that, in the case of such early-modern books, there can be no such thing as a single copy-text. If we wish to create the best possible editions, we need to collate all surviving copies of the texts in question in order to be sure of tracing the correcting process, and thereby coming as close as possible to the words that the author wanted us to read.  It is an astonishing fact that this form of research is only just beginning to be undertaken for some of the most important texts that early-modern intellectual historians often devote their lives to studying. A vast structure of interpretation in many cases rests on no proper textual foundation at all.  This remains true, for example, in the case of both Bacon and Hobbes, although the situation is at last in the process of being remedied. That intellectual historians are now beginning to devote systematic effort to repairing these deficiencies is surely a reflection, in large part, of the benign influence exercised by historians of the book.
As I began by intimating, however, I was mainly struck on reading Bob’s paper by a number of contrasts between the two sub-disciplines that we are here to discuss. I want to pick up and comment on three contrasts that struck me with particular force. One is that intellectual historians often, and perhaps characteristically, pay little attention to a question that seems, on the evidence of Bob’s paper, to be of central importance to historians of the book. This is the question of the exact extent of the diffusion of particular books.  It is true that some intellectual historians used to be interested in what came to be known in the German tradition as Reception-history. This kind of study is not much written nowadays, for what seem to me excellent methodological reasons, but in its heyday it gave rise to books with titles like Spinoza in Eighteenth Century France, Machiavelli in Modern Germany and so on. It also needs to be stressed that a new and much more sophisticated version of this kind of history is now being written, most magisterially by John Pocock, in which the focus of attention is on the multifarious ways in which books escape their original contexts and play divergent roles in later ideological debates of which their original authors and readers would have known nothing. 
These are important qualifications, but it still seems to me that a fairly strong distinction needs be drawn at this point between intellectual historians and historians of the book. Consider, for example, Newton’s Principia Mathematica. This was probably read and understood in its entirety in the course of the Enlightenment by at most a handful of people. To historians of the book, concerned with questions about diffusion, this is an important and potentially even a disquieting fact. To an intellectual historian, however, concerned with the genesis of Newton’s masterpiece and the nature of its arguments about the mechanistic universe, the same fact is of virtually no importance at all. Nor is the fact that Newton’s book was so little studied likely to prevent such an historian from concluding that it was one of the greatest works of the European Enlightenment.
This brings me to what appears to be a second and associated difference of outlook between intellectual historians and historians of the book. On the evidence of Bob Darnton’s paper, the latter tend to worry that, if a book is read and understood only by a small handful of people, then to make that book a central object of our own studies would be, as Bob put it, elitist. And such elitism, it seems to be assumed, is to be avoided. I am not sure what intellectual historians in general would say about this argument, but their practice suggests that they reject it outright. Practitioners of early-modern intellectual history, for example, constantly publish technical monographs on figures such as Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz and other seventeenth-century thinkers who, while they never reached the best-seller lists, are still taken to be worthy of study in ever greater detail and depth. 
But are intellectual historians right implicitly to repudiate the charge of elitism? My own view is that they certainly are, if only because the charge itself embodies such an arrogant form of philistinism.  Think, for example, about the painting of decorative tiles in seventeenth century Delft. This became a major industry, and if we consider how many people bought and appreciated these tiles in Vermeer’s Delft, by comparison with the number of people who bought and appreciated Vermeer’s paintings, we find thousands on the one hand and a tiny handful on the other. Do these facts somehow make the study of Delft tiles of more importance than the study of Vermeer’s paintings? If this is not what the accusation of elitism implies, then I am not sure that I understand the accusation itself. But if this is what the accusation implies, then it seems to me to embody just the kind of philistinism that the humanities exist to challenge, not to embrace.
One further difference between the two sub-disciples that struck me on reading Bob’s paper is that historians of the book appear to be little worried by a question that intellectual historians often fret about a lot.  What is the point or purpose of our research? Why do we want the information we dig out?  What is it for?
I have little idea what historians of the book tend to say by way of answering these questions, but historians in general often respond by speaking about the important of memory and the value of satisfying our intellectual curiosity. These have always been powerful reasons for learning about the past, and many intellectual historians are clearly motivated by them as well. Some people, for example, want to know more about Plato, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hegel and other systematic philosophers simply because they find themselves entranced by their systems of thought. Not everyone experiences such entrancement, of course, and even most historians seem immune to it. But the discipline of intellectual history undoubtedly exists in part to satisfy just this kind of curiosity.
Among intellectual historians, however, there are some –and I count myself among them– who remain unsatisfied with this type of answer, and find themselves drawn to intellectual history because it seems to promise something more like a kind of practical importance. Let me try to illustrate what I have in mind by saying a word about the kind of intellectual history that I myself, in company with a number of recent and present colleagues at the University of Cambridge, have been trying to write. We are interested in the history of the moral and political concepts that are nowadays used to construct and appraise our common world. I am thinking here of colleagues like Annabel Brett and her work on the origins of our understanding of rights, Tim Hochstrasser on the development of theories of natural law, David Runciman on the character of the state, David Armitage on the early-modern concept of Empire, Eric Nelson on early-modern views about the res publica, to which I may perhaps be allowed to add a mention of my own recent work on the concept of political representation.  (By the way, I ought to add that all the books to which I am alluding here are published in the series I edit called Ideas in Context, in which I have been trying to promote this research programme.)
The books to which I am referring might all be described as historicist as well as historical in character. By this I mean that they are all imbued with one particular belief, a belief that can most easily be expressed in negative terms. This is that the best way to understand a concept such as liberty, or natural rights, or political representation, or the state, is never going to be to try to offer an analysis of the concept that purports to tell us how the terms that express the concept ought properly to be applied.
Take the concept of political representation, for example. What does it mean for someone to represent someone else? Does it mean to symbolise them? Or to picture them? Or to typify them? Or to impersonate them? Or some combination of these? Or none of the above? To espouse the negative commitment, as I have called it, is to insist that these are not questions that can profitably be asked.  Concepts like liberty, or natural rights, or political representation, or the state have been so deeply embedded in our culture for so long, and have given rise to so many rival theories, that there is no prospect of gaining any significant measure of agreement about what the terms we use to express these concepts really mean (still less what they really mean really). The belief that there is some definitive conceptual analysis to be offered has been one of the governing illusions of recent moral and political philosophy, and it goes a long way towards explaining why the purported findings of analytical philosophers so often look so purely stipulative.
To understand such concepts, the intellectual historians I have cited agree, what we need to find out is when, and how, and why the vocabulary in which they are expressed originally arose, what purposes this vocabulary was used to serve, what role it played in argument. What is needed, in short, is a history of concepts. Now many such histories have of late been written, above all by Reinhart Koselleck and his army of associates, who have created an entire research programme centred on what Koselleck likes to call Begriffsgeschichte. This kind of research, however, is not what I have in mind, or not exclusively what I have in mind. The programme in which I am interested is concerned not so much with the history of concepts as with the history of their acquisition and deployment in argument, the history of what has been done with them, and thus with the changing roles they have played in our culture.
How can this kind of history have the sort of practical value I began by mentioning? The suggestion is that, by following the kind of archaeological process of research I have sketched, we may be able to uncover when and why certain concepts initially came to be formulated, how they may subsequently have been put to radically different uses, how they may have eventually become confused in the process, and how they came to bequeath to us the complex and often contradictory understandings we now confront.
To take a compelling example of this kind of history, think of Philip Pettit’s recent work on the concept of individual liberty.  Philip has shown that, for powerful ideological reasons, an originary understanding of the term as the antonym of dependence was replaced by an understanding of the same term as the antonym of interference. With the rise of modern liberal political theory, Philip has also shown, the latter understanding was encouraged to occupy the entire conceptual space, with rival readings being outlawed as either irrelevant or confused.
The example is brief and schematised, but it is nevertheless sufficient, I hope, to indicate what I mean by saying that this kind of history can have some practical value for us here and now. By writing about the history of freedom in this way, we can hope to uncover the ideological forces at work both in the original construction of the concept and in its subsequent undermining and replacement. This in turn enables us to see our modern liberal concept of freedom is just that – it is our concept, and a rival to a concept that has largely been lost to sight. To see that this is so, however, is at once to liberate ourselves from any disposition to suppose that our concept must somehow be the real or the only one, and at the same time to give ourselves the chance reflect anew on the concept we have lost, and to reconsider what we should think of it. Perhaps, as Philip ends by suggesting, we should actually embrace it and throw away the concept with which we have been brought up, thereby opening up wholly new perspectives on questions about when we are and are not free, what the additional duties our governments may have to protect our freedom, and other questions so far from being ‘merely’ historical that I have dared to describe them as having a practical significance.
This, for me, is the promise of intellectual history, and it is I think in part because the subject has been recognised as having this promise that it has come to be more widely practised in recent times.  Or rather, it has come to be more widely practised in some places, although not in others. Important research of this kind has been done in France: one immediately thinks of Foucault’s studies in this idiom, which have had such a powerful impact. Important research of a similar kind has also been done in Canada: one thinks of Jim Tully, and also of Ian Hacking, who is now to be found at Foucault’s old stamping-ground, the Collège de France. So too in Australia: here one thinks of Conal Condren, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Steve Gaukroger and many others. And so too England, where a younger generation of intellectual historians, as I have noted, is now busily at work. By contrast, the subject remains relatively marginal in the United States. Why this should be so I do not know, but it is has been one of my underlying aims in these remarks to suggest that it is a matter for regret.
Quentin Skinner

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Laetitia Nicolas (2010, 27 julio). On Intellectual History and the History of Books | Quentin Skinner. NUEVO MUNDO RADAR - La atalaya del Nuevo Mundo desde el tiempo presente. Recuperado 23 de mayo de 2024, de https://doi.org/10.58079/sg6j

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