Sunday, April 4, 2004

Off the Shelf
In grace with history
V. N. Datta

Visions of Politics, Volume 1, Regarding Method
by Quentin Skinner. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Pages 209. $ 23

Visions of Politics, Volume 1, Regarding MethodTHIS book under review forms the first part of a three-volume study comprising essays by Quentin Skinner, Regius Professor of the University of Cambridge and a historian of international repute. This study includes some of the most perceptive analyses of important philosophical statements, each carefully revised in the present form.

Professor Skinner raises some vital issues faced by historians and political scientists in the pursuit of historical knowledge and interpretations; and with his sharp analytical rigour and scholarly apparatus, he tries to resolve these by suggesting a new mode of thinking.

In the final analysis, history for him is an explanatory mode of rational thinking. The chief merit of the book lies in reinforcing his arguments by listing an array of facts drawn from the texts of several writers whose works suffer from flaws.

Throughout his work, Skinner warns that a large number of historians work on the assumption that past is to be studied with reference to the present. In other words, the tendency in historical studies is to project the present into the past. He thinks that such a projection is to see the past through "optical illusion".

Skinner was deeply influenced by the writings of Nietzsche and Max Webber. In chapter 8, Moral Principles and Social Change, he reacts against the Marxist metaphysical assumption that all events of civilizations are explained by a single course of economic substratum. He thinks that this one-sided approach is incompatible with scientific thinking.

Skinner credits himself with the idea of taking a holistic view of history, in which multiplicity of factors plays a part. He joins an issue with Hugh Trevor-Roper, who, while rejecting Weber’s thesis on the role of Puritanical spirit in economic growth, had argued that the emergence of Puritanism had predated Capitalism. Skinner accuses Trevor Roper of misreading Weber, on the ground that to the latter, Puritanism was well adjusted to legitimise any rise of Capitalism.

Skinner finds flaws in the Namerite method of historical interpretations, which is named after Sir Lewis Namier, author of the seminal work on the 18th century politics in England in the reign of George III. Namier was a staunch proponent of the view that politicians by adopting spurious air of morality and rationality, claim that they are inspired by high ethical principles for the well-being of society; but the reality is otherwise, because, in practice, they are governed by mundane interests, and what matters to them are vaulting ambition, greed of money, a spirit of competition to elbow out their rivals, and intrigues etc.

Sir Herbert Butterfield, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, had challenged Namier’s view by listing several examples of public figures who were seriously attached to their ideas, for which they acted in most trying situations. In this sense, the Namier method was an allay of the Marxist approach of apprehending the reality of things through a one-cause blinkered paradigm.

Skinner goes further than Butterfield in Chapter 8 by maintaining that there are a large number of people who do not profess moral principles nor may have any notion of them, and yet their conduct shows high moral rectitude.

In chapter 9, The idea of cultural Lexicon, Skinner maintains that it is necessary for the historian to study and scrutinise the keywords in historical context because analysis of the text would show its intimate relationship with the social environment. In other words, words are a mirror of society, no longer static, but "develop in thought and historic times". In this context, Skinner challenges Raymond Williams, author of keywords, who ignores the validity of concepts embedded in words.

In the introduction to the volume, Skinner raises the perennial question of the aim and value of history. Much has appeared on this historiographical question, and, of course, the landmark in this respect is Lord Acton’s Inaugural Address delivered to the University of Cambridge in 1895.

The second pivotal discourse that stimulated much thought was E. H. Carr’s book, What is History, published in the early 1960s, which emphasises that all history is essentially contemporary history. In projecting this view, Carr was not original—he was following R. G. Collingwood and Michael Oakeshot. Carr had challenged Ranke’s idea of history as a narration of facts.

In this study, Skinner attacks Ranke’s primacy of historical facts in the scheme of historical knowledge. Skinner criticises Sir Geoffrey Elton, who attaches the greatest importance to the primacy of facts in the interpretation of past. Elton emphasis that history is a study of the past; the historian has to compile, collect, and interpret facts; and there is no question of any social or moral value in history.

Skinner, on the other hand, thinks that history is intrinsically a rigorous discipline of studying the past, and understanding the present. Further, without social and moral value of its own, history has no meaning. Skinner is absolutely right in saying that history is an interim report, and that there is no certainty about it. He thinks it futile to seek the truth because truth is relative. He too like Elton is sceptical about reconstructing the past. I think Skinner is being fussy.

What Elton meant, and what historian stands forth is that he seeks to understand the past and in doing so he finds not the truth due to human limitations, but tries to recreate the past as best as he can in the light of his understanding. It is, therefore, absurd to think that truth has no relevance to the study of history. I strongly urge professional historians and researchers not to miss this extraordinary work of historical scholarship.