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Introduction: Approaches in the History of Political Thought

Article  in  European Political Science · September 2010

DOI: 10.1057/eps.2010.30 · Source: OAI


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introduction: approaches in the
history of political thought
daniel schulz a and alexander weiss b
Technical University Dresden, SFB 804, 01062 Dresden, Germany
E-mail: daniel.schulz@tu-dresden.de
Institute for Political Science, University of Hamburg, Allende-Platz 1 (room 204),
20146 Hamburg, Germany
E-mail: 1weiss@web.de

Corresponding author: E-mail: daniel.schulz@tu-dresden.de



The article introduces a discussion on approaches to the history of political
thought based on a panel at the ECPR General Conference in Potsdam,
2009. After reconstructing the three classic approaches, the Cambridge
School, the ‘Begriffsgeschichte’, and Foucault’s Genealogy as well as
more recent developments in the field, the authors outline a scheme for

further methodological and comparative research. They also emphasise

the importance of historical approaches for political theory and political


Keywords political theory; history of ideas; methodology


THE HISTORY OF POLITICAL However, the return of the History of

THOUGHT AND POLITICAL Political Thought, visible in an increasing
SCIENCE number of publications notably by young-
er scholars, brings about an unseen

here are hints and indications that plurality of approaches in this field of
the History of Political Thought is research, which demands further enquiry
about to celebrate a comeback about the scope and depth of those
within the discipline, after it has long available perspectives for the research in
been marginalised due to a lack of inter- political ideas. A panel titled Approaches
est in the historical dimension of the in the history of political thought was held
Political – a marginalisation that may be during the ECPR General Conference
largely due to the domination of neo- 2009 in Potsdam, to explore the demand
institutional, governance- and policy- for research in this field and to present
centred approaches theoretically based new findings. The papers of the panel are
on behaviouristic, ahistorical assumptions. published in this volume.
european political science: 9 2010 283
(283 – 290) & 2010 European Consortium for Political Research. 1680-4333/10 www.palgrave-journals.com/eps/
APPROACHES political thought, even
implicitly, without
We cannot study political thought, even applying a certain
implicitly, without applying a certain
approach; using an approach in the study
approach; using an
of political thought means constructing approach in the study
the reality of political thinking and the of political thought
world in which thoughts are embedded
in a particular way. To put it simply, the
means constructing the
approach determines which sources are reality of political
used in which way, and to answer which thinking and the world
questions. Thus, approaches matter
because they change everything, as no
in which thoughts

single statement about political thought is are embedded in a
independent of an approach. It is for this particular way.’
reason that the subdiscipline of the his-

tory of political thought within political
science has applied and even developed a Journal of the History of Ideas, which
plurality of approaches. Many of them first appeared in 1940 (Lovejoy, 1972). In
were developed in the 1970s, and have addition, Michael Oakeshott, Leo Strauss,
been analysed, criticised, enfolded, chan- Walter Benjamin, and others developed
ged, and improved continuously until original perspectives on the history of
today, while some new impulses have ideas one or two academic generations

also enlarged the choice. During that before the big three (Oakeshott, 1975;
period of time the ‘big three’ approaches Strauss, 1953; Benjamin, 1999). Further-

emerged: the ‘Cambridge School’, ‘Con- more, after the formation of the subfield of
ceptual History’, and Foucault’s ‘Geneal- the History of Political Thought within
ogy’. In the discipline, we are used to political science,1 we have now long since

attributing most of the studies in our field reached a point at which we can study the
to one of these three approaches. There history of the history of political thought.

is no reason for us to dispose of the Such an analysis might be possible on a

relevance and importance of the big three meta level. For example, one could com-
approaches today, which are still predo- pare a book like Preston King’s The
minant, and remain most efficacious History of Ideas from 1983 with William
(Bluhm and Gebhardt, 2006). L. Richter’s Approaches to Political
For two reasons, however, it is neces- Thought, published in 2009: While the
sary to remind us from time to time of the first book aims to reconstruct a concise
fact that these three approaches do genealogy of the historiography of politi-
not cover the whole range of scholarly cal thought, the second one reflects much
activity in the field. Firstly, even when more on the plurality and diversity of
older approaches are no longer widely different approaches, and is more inter-
received, they nonetheless continue to ested in methodological questions in a
shape the treatment of political ideas comparative view (King, 1983; Richter,
to an extent within the discipline. A. O. 2009). Such work might serve as an
Lovejoy not only wrote his book The Great indication of an increased awareness of
Chain of Being, an early study of the the historicity within our own discipline.
history of ideas, but he also founded the It is possible that we have reached a
284 european political science: 9 2010 approaches in the history of political thought
third stage in this process of historical because only this enables us to under-
reflection, in which the different accounts stand what has since been done in our
that have reflected the historiography discipline.
of political thought are historicised. Let us briefly clarify the major para-
It is within the context of these different digms in this field – even though such a
levels of reflection that comparative sketch may omit the nascent richness of
views on the various approaches can be a field in its full diversity. The scholars
conceived. retrospectively labelled ‘The Cambridge
The second reason why we should not School’ drove the first wave of new
focus exclusively on the big three ap- perspectives in the history of political
proaches lies in the relation between the thought. With the background of the
intentions we had in our panel and the new intellectual history in the 1960s, the
research that is being done in the history works of Quentin Skinner and J.G.A.
of political thought: We would not pretend Pocock have challenged the traditional
to pursue any kind of a philosophy of understanding of what a historical app-

science – neither in a logical nor a roach to the political should be about. Not
normative sense – as a guide to empirical only have they pledged to expand our
and historical research. Rather, we think focus on big thinkers by including the

that the goal of the panel and the contexts of political problems, they
research perspective expressed in it is a Chave also challenged the understanding
descriptive analytical one. We do not of western political history as a linear
formulate sentences about what scholars liberalisation and modernisation by
in the field should do; we describe re-evaluating the role of the early
what they really do. At times, this does modern republican heritage, which has
not fulfil the criteria of a sound, well- hitherto sunk into oblivion because of

rounded approach, and rather follows a liberal hegemony. The approach of the
more mixed set of ideas. Again, this is not Cambridge School is perhaps best de-

a problem we think that scholars should scribed in light of its attempt to take
concern themselves with. However, it historicity and historical context seriously.
is a problem given our intention, because In this sense it is directed against meta-

much research is being done that can be historical political philosophy as well as
related neither to one of the big three against mere philological approaches.

approaches nor to any systematically While Skinner focuses mainly on the

formulated approach. John Keane’s The meaning of concepts and contexts
Life and Death of Democracy and Charles (Skinner, 2002), Pocock takes a close
Taylor’s A Secular Age are among the look at political languages and their
most impressive studies on the history of different impacts in perceiving the politi-
political ideas during the last years, but cal world (Pocock, 1989). The success of
they do not pursue explicit approaches this approach has been such that by now,
(Keane, 2009; Taylor, 2007). It would one can almost refer to the Cambridge
be an indication of a high standard of School as a new orthodoxy among histor-
intellectual and academic awareness in- ians of ideas. One of the most vital
deed, if we were able to properly describe questions that has arisen is whether the
what those authors really do, and what approach of the Cambridge School may
the consequences of their implicit app- fruitfully be used in understanding the
roach are for their perspectives in con- political history of the nineteenth and
trast to other approaches. To be able twentieth century, or if its limitation to
to do so however, it is still necessary to the early modern period is imminent to its
know the big three approaches in detail, approach.
daniel schulz and alexander weiss european political science: 9 2010 285
Reinhard Koselleck and the German ‘Such work might
Begriffsgeschichte have made a similar
attempt, the latter being a paradigm
serve as an indication
focusing on the conceptual dimension of of an increased
the political in order to turn away from the awareness of the
idealistic figure of the ‘master thinker’,
and towards the production of meaning
historicity within our own
by means of political semantics. Putting discipline.’
the main focus on concepts instead of
thinkers, this enterprise has produced ideas of political order by means of
with the multivolume ‘Geschichtliche genealogy and discourse analysis. It is in
Grundbegriffe’ a masterful encyclopaedia this framework that the once so important
of political semantics, which has in turn antagonism between realism and ideal-
created the standard base for inquiry into ism is brought to a synthesis, linking
the historical roots and the evolution of knowledge and ideas to the question of

contemporary political ideas, focusing on power (Foucault, 1978). Breaking with
but extending beyond German context the Marxist conception of ideology,
(Brunner et al, 1972–1997). Entries like Foucault gives the history of ideas new

those dealing with the concept of consti- relevance by making knowledge a source
tution or the nation show how our modern of power itself, rather than being just an
political language is based on a long-term additional instrument of ‘real’ power. His
genealogy of concepts that have been own work however, is rather heteroge-
deeply transformed in the time of modern neous when it comes to the question of
revolutions, and the new political clea- method. Broadly applying an eclectic
vages and conflicts that have come with mixture beyond hermeneutics, his metho-

them. Far from idealising conceptual evo- dological self-reflection in the early period
lution as the unfolding of a Hegelian spirit, begins with the term archaeology, a term

political semantics is perceived as a core which he uses to describe his effort to

dimension of the political, standing in the artificially create a distance to the ideas
focus of fighting for meaning and sym- and the knowledge of former historical

bolic hegemony. A group of philosophers periods, in order to capture those settings

lead by the liberal-conservative Hegelian in their presumed strangeness when

Joachim Ritter have initiated a similar looked at in light of our own set of beliefs.
enterprise, who though they put less Foucault then switches from archaeology
emphasis on the role of political conflict, to genealogy, applying this Nietzschean
show the historical development of philo- term to his attempt to discover the
sophical notions, thereby challenging the underlying connections and links of the
analytical approach more and more domi- power–knowledge complex in contem-
nant in philosophy in the second half of porary modern societies (Dreyfus and
the twentieth century (Ritter et al, 1971– Rabinow, 1982). Thus, the reference to
2005). That this approach is still vivid in Foucault does not imply the clear metho-
actual research can be seen, for example, dological choice of a single coherent
on www.concepta-net.org. approach, but rather a distance to tradi-
In France, at the same time, Michel tional hermeneutical approaches, and
Foucault revised the traditional history of their neglect of power and social struc-
political ideas and traditional political tures. Foucault’s thinking may on the one
philosophy by revealing the power struc- hand lead to severe conflicts resulting
tures of political knowledge, and making from different dogmatic readings, which
visible the dark side of enlightenment try to represent an essentially authentic
286 european political science: 9 2010 approaches in the history of political thought
Foucauldian approach, but on the other ‘What has been missing
hand it might also serve more and
more as a toolbox, open to use by other
until today, however, is a
thinkers in the field of the history of comparative view of such
thought. approaches.’
These currents have been integrated in
different ways by paradigms of political
theory that are not primarily interested in What has been missing until today,
the analysis of the past, but for concep- however, is a comparative view of such
tual reasons need to extend the under- approaches. The goal of such a compar-
standing of contemporary institutions, ison is by no means to single out the one
political orders or structures using a approach that describes political thought
historical dimension. Besides intellectual as it ‘really’ is. We do not claim to end
history, which has also given the central up with objective statements of this
impulses to thinkers like Skinner and kind. What we do intend is to show, in a

Pocock, these paradigms can be distin- comparative light, the consequences of
guished along a number of lines. First the choice of certain approaches. Our
of all, there are institutional approaches central questions are here: What changes

beyond neoinstitutionalism that try to with the choice of an approach, and what
analyse either policy or polities by looking Cis at stake with such a choice?
on their historical emergence and devel- In order to allow for a more systematic
opment, and focus on institutions as comparison, we distinguish between two
a set of historically embedded ideas and dimensions: The scope and the quality
norms, creating a frame of specific valid- with which an approach accesses the
ity and legitimacy that can only be under- reality of political thought. Scope is of

stood correctly if put in historical context interest when it comes to the question,
(Douglas, 1986). Closely related to this which parts of reality lay in the focus of

historical institutionalism with its em- an approach and what is, in contrast,
phasis on historicity, we can distinguish ignored. Thus, we question here the type
cultural approaches to the political, where of sources used by approaches. Is an

historical dimensions of political thought approach limited to ‘works’ or ‘texts’ of

become central to their understanding grand authors, or does it also cover more

as well. However, such historical dimen- ephemeral and hybrid forms of commu-
sions are put on the same level as nication, even of unknown persons? Is it
symbolic expressions of culture, thus restricted to textual media as a carrier of
enlarging the political discourse from political thought, or does it also focus on
texts to visual manifestations of ideas objects like images, music, or architec-
and thick descriptions of political dis- ture? Does an approach assume theory
course (Geertz, 1977). A number of only in ‘high culture’ or also in pop
interculturalist approaches have also de- culture? Is an approach biased in the
veloped, which try either to mirror the way that it highlights certain times in
European mainstream of political thought history and regions of the world?
in other cultural contexts, or deconstruct If these questions can be drawn to-
the hegemonic attitude of European uni- gether to the first question of where we
versalism in postcolonial settings (Lee, find political thought, then we go further
2009). Finally, as a method to conceive by asking, concerning the quality of the
texts, computer-based quantitative ap- approaches: ‘In what form do we find
proaches are applied to the history of political thought?’ Approaches are here
thought (Nichols, 2007). analysed and compared with respect to
daniel schulz and alexander weiss european political science: 9 2010 287
their construction of social reality. In period with our contemporary political
other words, as which part of social reality thinking by showing how both are situ-
is political thought seen and constructed? ated in ‘turbulent times’, were political
As ‘social action’, as comments of historic order is in plain transformation. The
processes? As cause and/or consequence similar contexts allow a hermeneutical
of social change? Which relation does an bridge between both, which is naturally
approach assume between texts and of specific interest to the historian of
contexts, and what kind of statements political thought.
are made about these contexts within an Podoksik asks in his article, whether the
approach? Cambridge School approach might be
The comparative view emerging from successfully applied to modernity in the
these questions is supposed to raise our twentieth century. The application of their
awareness of the fact – as we see it – that approach depends on the existence of a
the choice of an approach matters. This is sufficiently coherent political language in
true particularly when this choice is made the time period being examined. We learn

in a naive, unreflective way, when authors such a language from authors who allow
pretend ‘just to read the texts’. Even in us to gain a comprehensive perspective on
such cases the author is subject to the the time they live in. Podoksik calls those

implicit consequences of an approach. It authors ‘time spies’, and doubts whether
is also relevant in teaching situations: To such a perspective is possible at all in
which level and in which way do we have our fragmented modernity. Finally, he
to reflect the dimension of approaches, finds references to Pocock rather than to
when we teach classes in the history of Skinner more fruitful for solving this metho-
political thought? dological problem within the approach.
The papers presented in our panel at While Podoksik’s point of departure is

the ECPR General Conference 2009, in the question of whether approaches are
Potsdam, pick up important questions exclusive to certain periods of time,

in this field. Generally speaking, all ap- both Jacobsen and Marion Löffler exa-
proaches of a certain level of complexity mine the question, to which selection of
will include the two dimensions of scope textual sources approach can be applied.

and quality. However, different appro- Jacobsen refers to Koselleck and concep-
aches are more innovative in the one or tual history, challenging this approach by

the other dimension. The papers in our enlarging its scope to non-canonical
panel may be characterised as follows: texts. This leads him to the assumption
The papers by Marion Löffler and Uffe that states have increasingly adopted a
Jacobsen claim the recognition of new particular Nordic style of democratisation
types of sources for the history of political and democracy.
thought. Thus, they cover particularly the Löffler even leaves the domain of the-
scope dimension. Ulrike Höppner and oretical texts and claims that it is parti-
Efraim Podoksik are more interested in cularly fiction and fictional texts, which
questions of the explanatory power of enrich the canon of texts in the history of
political ideas, which is labelled here as political thought. Fictional texts for her
the quality dimension. are not only new types of texts within
Höppner focuses on early modern the canon. Furthermore, it is the specific
political thought in Europe. Differing textuality of a work, which promotes
from the standard reading of the our understanding of other theoretical
Cambridge School that underlines differ- texts. She shows that with an analysis of
ences with contemporary political pro- texts by Carl Schmitt, Hans Kelsen, and
blems, Höppner tries to connect this Joseph Roth.
288 european political science: 9 2010 approaches in the history of political thought
To sum up this introduction with some ‘Such an alliance
concluding remarks, a helpful insight for
the appropriate placement of the history
between political theory
of political thought could be its close and the history of
symbiosis with political theory. Such an political thought could
alliance between political theory and the
history of political thought could serve
serve not only as a
not only as a strategy to implement and strategy to implement
legitimate both theoretical and historical and legitimate both
approaches within a discipline that is
more and more oriented towards quanti-
theoretical and historical
tative empirical research; it should also approaches within a
be considered as a specific methodologi- discipline that is more
cal statement. Not single ideas, but
theories are the focal interest of historical
and more oriented

research in political science. Theories towards quantitative
represent a set of concepts, arguments, empirical research; it
and languages that bring discursiveness
should also be

and constructiveness to the fore, instead
of suggesting something higher or deeper C considered as a specific
by employing the metaphysically charged methodological
term of ‘ideas’. Theories are always mar-
kers of communication and exchange, not
monistic entities. Such an understanding intellectually and conceptually with new
would be oriented to political problems political challenges. It would also serve as

rather than to political ideas as such. a resource to add historical depth to

Owing to its problem orientation, such a contemporary theoretical reflections on

history of political theories would also the political problems of our own time,
make it easier to identify common links since it can deliver the historical back-
between historical settings and contem- ground, and genealogy of the way we see

porary discourses. It could serve as an and evaluate our own political order, both
archive of theoretical attempts to deal analytically and normatively.


1 This sub-field has in fact developed to the point that the University of London now offers a Master’s
Programme ‘MA in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History’.

Benjamin, W. (1999) The Arcades Project, in R. Tiedemann (ed.) Cambridge: Bellknap Press.
Bluhm, H. and Gebhardt, J. (eds.) (2006) Politische Ideengeschichte im 20. Jahrhundert, Baden-Baden:
Brunner, O., Conze, W. and Koselleck, R. (eds.) (1972–1997) Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches
Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Eight volumes, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
Douglas, M. (1986) How Institutions Think, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Dreyfus, H.L. and Rabinow, P. (1982) Michel Foucault. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, M. (1978) Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, New York: Pantheon Books.
Geertz, C. (1977) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: HarperCollins.
Keane, J. (2009) The Life and Death of Democracy, New York: W. W. Norton.

daniel schulz and alexander weiss european political science: 9 2010 289
King, P. (ed.) (1983) The History of Ideas. An Introduction into Method, Totowa: Barnes and Noble Books.
Lee, E.-J. (2009) ‘Interkulturelle Begegnung in der politischen Ideengeschichte’, Concordia,
Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie 56: 9–26.
Lovejoy, A. (1972) The Great Chain of Being. A Study of the History of an Idea, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Nichols, S. (2007) ‘The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitative History of Philosophy’,
Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31: 260–270.
Oakeshott, M. (1975) Hobbes on Civil Association, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Pocock, J.G.A. (1989) Politics, Language, and Time. Essays on Political Thought and History, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Richter, W.L. (2009) Approaches to Political Thought, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
Ritter, J., Gründer, K. and Gabriel, G. (eds.) (1971–2005) Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Basel:
Skinner, Q. (2002) Visions of Politics, Vol. 1: Regarding Method, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Strauss, L. (1953) Natural Right and History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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About the Authors

Daniel Schulz is researcher and lecturer in Political Sciences at the Technical University of
Dresden. He published Verfassung und Nation (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag 2004) and edited
Marquis de Condorcet: Freiheit, Revolution, Verfassung. Kleine politische Schriften (Berlin:
Akademie Verlag, 2010).
Alexander Weiss is assistant lecturer in Political Science at the University of Hamburg. He
published Theorie der Parlamentsöffentlichkeit. Elemente einer Diskursgeschichte und
deliberatives Modell (Baden-Baden: Nomos, forthcoming in 2010) and ‘Die zwei Körper
des Publikums und der double bind der (Post-) Demokratie. ‘Sieyes’ komplexes Verständnis
von Parlamentsöffentlichkeit’, in Ulrich Thiele’s (ed.) Das Staatsverständnis des Abbé Sieyes

(Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2009), pp. 167–190.


290 european political science: 9 2010 approaches in the history of political thought

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