Quentin Skinner

British historian

Quentin Robert Duthie Skinner (born 26 November 1940) is the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London and an influential intellectual historian.



Liberty Before Liberalism (1998)

  • The lack of freedom suffered by those who advise the powerful may of course be due to coercion or force. But the slavish behavior typical of such counselors may equally well be due to their basic condition of dependence and their understanding of what their clientage demands of them. As soon as they begin to ‘slide into a blind dependence upon one who has wealth and power’, they begin to desire ‘only to know his will’, and eventually ‘care not what injustice they do, if they may be rewarded’.
  • The figure [neo-roman writers] wish to hold out for our admiration is described again and again. He is plain and plain-hearted; he is upright and full of integrity; above all he is a man of true manliness, of dependable valour and fortitude. His virtues are repeatedly contrasted with the vices characteristic of the obnoxious lackeys and parasites who flourish at court. The courtier, instead of being plain and plain-hearted, is lewd, dissolute and debauched; instead of being upright, he is cringing, servile and base; instead of being brave, he is fawning, abject and lacking in manliness.
    • pp. 95-96
  • Within a surprisingly short space of time, however, the fortunes of the neo-roman theory began to decline and fall. … One reason for this collapse was that the social assumptions underlying the theory began to appear outdated and even absurd. With the extension of the manners of the court to the bourgeoisie in the early eighteenth century, the virtues of the independent country gentleman began to look irrelevant and even inimical to a polite commercial age. The hero of the neo-roman writers came to be viewed not as plain-hearted but as rude and boorish; not as upright but as obstinate and quarrelsome; not as a man of fortitude but of mere insensibility.
    • pp. 96-97
  • To Namier it had seemed obvious that political theories act as the merest ex post facto rationalisations of political behaviour. If we are looking for explanations of political action, he maintained, we must seek them at the level of ‘the underlying emotions, the music, to which ideas are a mere libretto, often of very inferior quality’. For critics of Namier such as Sir Herbert Butterfield, the only possible retort seemed to be to go back to a famous dictum of Lord Acton’s to the effect that ideas are often the causes rather than the effects of public events. But this response duly incurred the scorn of Namier and his followers for the alleged naiveté of supposing that political actions are ever genuinely motivated by the principles used to rationalise them.
    • p. 104
  • One of the present values of the past is as a repository of values we no longer endorse, of questions we no longer ask. One corresponding role for the intellectual historian is that of acting as a kind of archaeologist, bringing buried intellectual treasure back to the surface, dusting it down and enabling us to consider what we think of it.
    • p. 112
  • It is remarkably difficult to avoid falling under the spell of our own intellectual heritage. As we analyse and reflect on our normative concepts, it is easy to become bewitched into believing that the ways of thinking about them bequeathed to us by the mainstream of our intellectual traditions must be the ways of thinking about them. … The history of philosophy, and perhaps especially of moral, social and political philosophy, is there to prevent us from becoming too readily bewitched. The intellectual historian can help us to appreciate how far the values embodied in our present way of life, and our present ways of thinking about those values, reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds. This awareness can help to liberate us from the grip of any one hegemonal account of those values and how they should be interpreted and understood. Equipped with a broader sense of possibility, we can stand back from the intellectual commitments we have inherited and ask ourselves in a new spirit of enquiry what we should think of them.
    • pp. 116-117
  • Both parties to the dispute agree that one of the primary aims of the state should be to respect and preserve the liberty of its individual citizens. One side argues that the state can hope to redeem this pledge simply by ensuring that its citizens do not suffer any unjust or unnecessary interference in the pursuit of their chosen goals. But the other side maintains that this can never be sufficient, since it will always be necessary for the state to ensure at the same time that its citizens do not fall into a condition of avoidable dependence on the goodwill of others.
    • p. 119

Visions of Politics (2002)


"Interpretation, rationality and truth"

  • Many historians make it a principal part of their business to investigate and explain the unfamiliar beliefs we encounter in past societies. But what is the relationship between our provision of such explanations and our assessment of the truth of such beliefs? The question is obviously a highly intractable one, but no practising historian can hope to evade it, as many philosophers have recently and rightly pointed out.
  • Having gestured at the concept of rationality, I ought to stress that I intend nothing very grand or precise by that much abused term. When I speak of agents as having rational beliefs, I mean only that their beliefs (what they hold to be true) should be suitable beliefs for them to hold true in the circumstances in which they find themselves. A rational belief will thus be one that an agent has attained by some accredited process of reasoning.
  • If this is nothing more than a stipulation about how we ought to use the term ‘ideological’, then perhaps it will do no harm. But if it is a proposal about how historians ought to set about the business of explaining beliefs, then it seems to me fatal for just the reasons I have sought to give. It refuses to recognise that one of the reasons why someone may hold a certain belief is that there is good evidence in favour of it, that it fits well with their other beliefs, and so on – in a word, that it is rational for them to hold it. If we refuse to speak in these terms, we deprive ourselves of an indispensable means of identifying the most appropriate lines of enquiry to follow in any given case.
  • I am convinced, in short, that the importance of truth for the kind of historical enquiries I am considering has been much exaggerated. I take this to be a product of the fact that so much of the meta-historical discussion has hinged around the analysis of scientific beliefs. In such cases the question of truth may perhaps be of some interest. But in most of the cases investigated by historians of ideas, the suggestion that we need to consider the truth of the beliefs under examination is, I think, likely to strike the historian as strange.
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