History and the Interpretation of Texts

Terence Ball. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

Hermeneutics—the art of interpretation—takes its name from Hermes. In Greek mythology Hermes was the winged-foot messenger of the gods and something of a trickster to boot. Like the Sphinx and the Oracle at Delphi, he relayed messages from the gods in an encoded and allusive way, typically in the form of riddles, leaving it to his human hearers to interpret the meaning and significance of any message (Palmer, 1969: 13). Sometimes they got it right, and sometimes not—often with disastrous results.

Students of political theory do not attempt to decode and interpret the meaning of messages of divine origin. But we do, of necessity, attempt to understand messages sent to us by long-dead and all-too-human thinkers whose works we read and ponder and mine for meaning. Thus political theory is in important ways a backward-looking enterprise. A very considerable part of its subject-matter is its own history, which consists of classic works from Plato onward. In this respect political theory is quite unlike (say) physics. One can be a very fine physicist without ever having studied the history of physics or having read Aristotle’s Physics or the Ionian nature philosophers or, for that matter, the works of Galileo and Newton. The same cannot be said of political theory. A student of political theory must have read, reread and reflected upon the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill and many others if she is to be competent in her chosen vocation.

But there is more than one way to read, interpret, and understand the works that comprise the canon changing and contested as it is—of political theory. My aim in this chapter is to say something about the variety and diversity of approaches to the interpretation of texts in political theory. I shall begin by noting that interpretation is not an option but a necessity for the meaning-seeking creatures that we are. Next I shall sketch briefly the chief tenets of various ‘schools’ of (or, less formally, approaches to) interpretation—Marxian, ‘totalitarian,’ Freudian, feminist, Straussian, new historical, and postmodernist—and the interpretive controversies between and among them. Along the way I shall supply several cautionary tales about how not to interpret particular passages from important thinkers. And finally I conclude by presenting and defending my own ‘pluralistic’ and ‘problem-driven’ approach to the interpretation of texts in political theory. I want throughout to emphasize two points in particular: that not all interpretations are equally valid or valuable; and that interpretations are rationally criticizable and corrigible.

The Indispensability of Interpretation

Interpretation comes with the territory of being human. It is an activity from which humans cannot escape. Our prehistoric ancestors interpreted the meaning of animal entrails, omens and other signs that might make their world more intelligible and perhaps portend their future. They, like modern meteorologists, attempted to forecast the weather by looking at clouds and observing the behaviour of birds and other creatures. With the coming of literacy came the primacy of the written over the spoken word. Religious people, then as now, interpret the meaning of sacred scripture. Judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens read and interpret constitutions and other texts. And students of political theory read—and adjudicate among rival interpretations of texts in political theory.

How one interprets the meaning of any text has implications for what one does with it. Hermeneutics can be, and often is, a deadly serious—and sometimes simply deadly—business (Ball, 1987). If you doubt it, you need only think of how Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition interpreted the Bible, or Lenin and Stalin (not to mention Mao and Pol Pot) the works of Marx, or Hitler and the Nazis the writings of Nietzsche, or Osama bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalists the Koran, to see what carnage can result from interpretations of texts taken to be foundational for mass movements. It is therefore important for students of political theory to treat the texts they study not as sacred scripture, but as the handiwork of human beings who, although fallible, have much to teach their critical readers.

The vocation of political theory is in large part defined by its perennial fascination with and attention to ‘classic’ works. Each generation reads them anew and from their own vantage point. These authors and their works comprise an important aspect of our political tradition, which we renew and enrich by reading, reflecting upon and criticizing these works. And yet to read and attempt to understand a work written a long time ago, perhaps in a different language, by an author whose mentalité differs remarkably from our own, is a daunting task. The reader finds herself in a position akin to that of an anthropologist studying an alien culture (Rorty, Schneewind and Skinner, 1984: 6-7). As readers of works by Plato and other long-dead authors, we find ourselves in an alien age or culture with whose concepts, categories, customs, and practices we are largely unfamiliar. In such situations we are often at a loss to know what is being said, much less why it is being said or what its meaning may be. We therefore need a ‘translation’—not only of the words of the text but of its meaning. A good translation or interpretation is one that diminishes the strangeness of the text, making it more familiar and accessible to an otherwise puzzled or perplexed observer. The artifacts or texts produced in political cultures preceding and differing from our own do not readily reveal their meanings even to the most careful reader. To read a text ‘over and over again,’ as some (e.g. Plamenatz, 1963: I, x) advise, is no doubt necessary. But it is hardly sufficient to enable us to arrive at anything like an adequate understanding of what (say) Plato meant by advocating the use of ‘noble lies’ or what Machiavelli meant by comparing ‘fortune’ (fortuna) to a woman who must be beaten and bullied. To try to make sense of such puzzling terms and speech acts requires that we interpret their meaning. There is no understanding without interpretation, and no interpretation without the possibility of multiple (mis)understandings.

Nor is there a neutral standpoint or Archimedean point from which to interpret and appraise any text, classic or otherwise. All interpretation implies, and originates in, some vantage point or standpoint. Every interpretation, in short, implies an interest that provides the ground for and possibility of an interpretation—a standpoint from which inquiry can begin and interpretation proceed. These interests are, moreover, multiple and varied. One’s interests can be contemporary: what (for example) can Mill still teach us about liberty? Or they may be more historical: why did Mill’s arguments in On Liberty take the form they did? Who were Mill’s main targets and his intended audience? Or one’s interests may be more narrowly linguistic or literary: what metaphors did Mill employ, and with what effect? Or one’s interests may be logical or philosophical: is Mill’s argument in On Liberty logically consistent? Are there gaps or lacunae in the argument? Is the argument convincing? None of these interests necessarily excludes the others. But they do dictate what will count as a problem, what constitutes an interesting or important question, and what method might be most appropriate and fruitful for answering such questions. One would not, for example, assess the logical adequacy of Mill’s argument by examining the metaphors he uses. Nor would one be able to answer questions posed from a historical perspective by looking only at the logical structure of his argument.

What one’s guiding interests might be—and how one goes about answering to them—is as likely as not to depend on the interpretive ‘school’ to which one belongs.

‘Schools’ of Interpretation

There are today a number of influential schools of or approaches to, interpretation. Each takes a distinctive approach to the history of political thought, and each is highly critical of the others. Disputes between and among these schools are heated and often protracted. I want now to offer brief thumbnail sketches of several approaches to interpretation.

Marxian Interpretation

I begin by considering the Marxian approach to textual interpretation. Marx famously remarked that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (Marx and Engels, 1947: 39). That is, the dominant or mainstream ideas of any era are those that serve the interests of the dominant class, largely by legitimating their pre-eminent position in society. So it comes as no surprise, Marxists say, that in slave-owning societies slavery is portrayed and widely regarded as normal and natural: Aristotle said so in fourth-century bc Greece, as did George Fitzhugh and other apologists for American slavery before the Civil War. In capitalist societies the free market is portrayed in the mainstream media—books, mass-circulation magazines and newspapers, television, movies—as the most normal, natural and efficient way to organize and run an economy. Other alternatives, such as socialism, are always portrayed negatively, as abnormal, unnatural and inefficient. Ideas—including those to be found in works of political theory—combine to form a more or less consistent set or system of ideas that Marx calls an ‘ideology.’ The point and purpose of any ideology is to lend legitimacy to the rule of the dominant class. Thus ideologies serve as smokescreens, hiding tawdry reality from a credulous public, and presenting a rosy—albeit false—picture of a society that treats all its members fairly, that rewards the deserving and punishes the undeserving, and distributes valued goods in a just and equitable manner.

For a Marxist, then, the task of textual interpretation is to get behind appearances, to uncover the reality they obscure, and to expose what Marx calls ‘the illusion of that epoch’ (1947: 30). This general approach, which is now sometimes called ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion,’ takes no statement at face value but views it as a stratagem or move in a game whose point is to obscure reality and legitimize existing power relations. An adequate or good interpretation is one that performs the function of ‘ideology critique’—that is, penetrates the veil of illusion and brings us closer to unveiling and exposing a heretofore hidden socio-economic reality. An example may serve to illustrate what this might mean in actual interpretive practice.

One particularly important Marxian interpretation of key works in political theory is C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (1962). By ‘possessive individualism’ Macpherson means the political theory that serves to support and legitimize those mainstays of modern capitalism economic self-interest and the institution of private property. He finds Hobbes and Locke, in particular, to be ideologists and apologists for capitalism avant la lettre. Thus Locke, for example, ceases to be the good, grey, tolerant, protodemocratic thinker we thought we knew, and becomes instead an extraordinarily clever propagandist for the then-emerging capitalist order. Macpherson makes much, for example, of Locke’s discussion of private property in the Second Treatise of Government (1690). Locke’s problem was to justify the institution of private property, particularly since the Scriptures say that God had given the earth to all mankind. How then could any individual make any portion of that common property his own? Locke famously answers that one separates one’s own part from the common by mixing one’s labour with it:

27. Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.

Even so, Locke adds, there remain restrictions on how much one might justifiably remove from the common store—namely, one may not take more than one can ‘use’ without its ‘spoiling.’ You might make apples from a commonly owned tree your own property by expending your labour—by climbing the tree, picking the apples, sorting and washing them, etc.—but you are entitled to take no more apples than you can use without their spoiling. These ‘use’ and ‘spoilage’ limitations are overcome, however, with the introduction of money:

47. And thus came in the use of Money, some lasting thing that Men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent Men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable Supports of Life.

48. And as different degrees of Industry were apt to give Men Possessions in different Proportions, so this Invention of Money gave them the opportunity to continue to enlarge them.

Macpherson makes much of these passages, which he takes to represent a key juncture in Locke’s justification of capitalist accumulation and ever-greater inequalities of wealth (1962: 203-11, 233-5). Macpherson’s critics contend that it is anything but: that Locke was a devout Christian who had deep misgivings about money (the love of which is said in the Scriptures to be ‘the root of all evil’); that the word Locke uses in paragraph 48 is not ‘property’—that which is properly and by right your own—but ‘possession’ (which is mere fact without moral or legal import: a thief may possess your wallet but it is not properly his, i.e. his property); hence the most we may conclude is that money, and therefore presumably capital itself, is ‘a human institution about whose moral status Locke felt deeply ambivalent’ (Dunn, 1984: 40).

A Marxian approach to textual interpretation encounters a number of difficulties, among them the following. We have seen already that Marxists assume that the ruling ideas of an epoch are those that serve the interests of the ruling class; and since most political thinkers have belonged to an educated and literate elite, their ideas serve the ruling class. But then Marx and Engels (and Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Lukács, and many other prominent Marxists) have not belonged to the class of oppressed labourers but to a learned and literate elite. By Marxian lights their ideas should serve the interests of the ruling capitalist class, not those of the labouring proletariat. How can the ideas of these Marxists serve the interests of a class to which they do not belong? All attempts (by Marx and others) to answer this question—that there are some who through will or intellect transcend their ‘objective’ class basis, that the workers cannot theorize for themselves because they are afflicted with ‘false consciousness’ whilst middle-class intellectuals are not, etc.—are merely ad hoc rationalizations and are clearly unsatisfactory. Moreover, how Marxists can interpret all political theories, past and present, as ideological masks concealing and justifying the domination of one class by another—and yet exempt their own theorizing as an exception to this rule—is not explained (or even explainable) in any satisfactory way. And, not least, Marxian interpretations have a formulaic, cookie-cutter quality: the interpreter has preset ideas about what she will find namely ideological trickery or obfuscation in the service of the ruling class—and, presto, she finds it lurking in even the most innocent-sounding passages.

Totalitarian’ Interpretations

The twentieth century saw the rise to power and prominence of various totalitarian regimes and ideologies, among which fascism and communism were particularly prominent. One important and influential approach to textual interpretation views these ideologies as rooted in the thinking of earlier political theorists going as far back as Plato. These earlier theories, when put into modern political practice, allegedly produced Hitler and the Holocaust and Stalin and the Gulag. It was therefore deemed important to detect and expose the philosophical ‘origins’ or ‘roots’ of modern totalitarianism by rereading and reinterpreting earlier thinkers in light of the latter-day ‘fruits’ of their theorizing.

Once one begins to look for proto totalitarian themes and tendencies in earlier theorists, they seem to be everywhere. What is Plato’s perfect republic, ruled by a philosopher-king who employs censorship and ‘noble lies,’ if not a blueprint for a Nazi regime ruled by an all-knowing Führer, backed by propaganda and the Big Lie, or for a Soviet-style communist utopia ruled by a Lenin or a Stalin? Much the same might be said about Machiavelli’s ruthless prince or Hobbes’s all-powerful Sovereign or Rousseau’s all-wise Legislator. Indeed, Rousseau’s Social Contract has come in for special censure. Rousseau’s critics have viewed him as a precursor of totalitarianism for four main reasons. The first is his notion of the General Will, which is ‘always right’ and ‘cannot err.’ The second is Rousseau’s chilling assertion that would-be dissidents must be ‘forced to be free.’ The third is the ominous figure of the omniscient and god-like Legislator. The fourth and most frightening feature of Rousseau’s ideal republic is the civil religion that supplies a religious rationale for its draconian laws and institutions. Taken together, these four features constitute a bill of indictment of Rousseau’s totalitarian intentions (Talmon, 1952; Barker, 1951; Crocker, 1968). Other later thinkers—particularly Hegel and Marx—have been subjected to similar criticisms.

Among the most prominent representatives of the ‘totalitarian’ approach to textual interpretation was the late Sir Karl Popper, whose The Open Society and Its Enemies (1963 [1945]) is the most sustained and systematic attempt to trace the roots of modern totalitarianism to ideas advanced by ‘enemies’ of ‘the open society’ from Plato through to Marx. An Austrian Jew who fled from the Nazis and emigrated to New Zealand in the 1930s, Popper regarded his research for and writing of The Open Society as his ‘war effort’ (1976: 115). It may be instructive to revisit Popper’s Open Society to show how sincerely held present-day concerns can inform—or misinform—our interpretation of ‘classic’ works in political theory. Let us choose from the preceding rogues’s gallery a single example for closer examination: Hegel’s remark in Philosophy of Right that ‘what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational’ (1952: 10).

Popper quotes Hegel’s remark in English translation and then glosses it as follows: ‘Hegel maintain[s] that everything that is reasonable must be real, and everything that is real must be reasonable.’ Thus Hegel holds that ‘everything that is now real or actual exists by necessity, and must be reasonable as well as good. (Particularly good is … the existing Prussian state)’ (Popper, 1963: II, 41). The Prussian state of Hegel’s time was an authoritarian police state that practised censorship, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without due process of law. That state was real; therefore, in Hegel’s view, that state was rational or reasonable and thus good. In this way, Popper claims, Hegel gave his philosophical blessing to the Prussian prototype of the modern totalitarian state, and so must himself be accounted a ‘totalitarian’ thinker and apologist. Hegel is, in short, an ‘enemy’ of the ‘open society.’

But is Hegel guilty as charged? The short answer is no. Let us see why. Here is Hegel’s own statement in the original German: ‘Was vernunftig ist, das ist wirklich; und was wirklich ist, das ist vernunftig.’ The closest English equivalent is: ‘What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational.’ Note that wirklich is translated not as ‘real’ but as ‘actual.’ In everyday German, as in English, there is ordinarily no sharp distinction between ‘real’ and ‘actual.’ Popper (whose first language was German) fails to note that Hegel was writing not in ordinary nontechnical German but in a technical philosophical idiom. He draws and maintains a sharp distinction between wirklich (actual) and reell (real). In Hegel’s philosophical nomenclature an acorn (for example) is real; but it is not actual until its potential is fully actualized, that is, when it becomes a full-grown oak. In other words, Hegel uses wirklich to mean ‘fully actualized’; he contrasts ‘actual,’ not with unreal, but with ‘potential.’ Thus Hegel’s (in)famous statement means something like, ‘What is rational is that which fully actualizes its potential; and that which fully actualizes its potential is rational.’ This is far from being the sinister statement that Popper makes it out to be and which he takes to be evidence of Hegel’s ‘totalitarian’ tendencies.

There is a larger hermeneutical lesson to be learned from Popper’s (and many others’) misreading of Hegel (and Plato, Rousseau, and other theorists). First, it is important to place statements in their proper context—conceptual philosophical or otherwise. In this instance that means taking note of how Hegel uses an apparently ordinary term in a non-ordinary or technical way. Second, one should beware of any interpreter who, like Popper, has a preset thesis that he then ‘proves’ by selectively quoting and stitching together statements taken out of their textual and linguistic context—a penchant Popper shares, ironically, with the Marxists he so detests.

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

In The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psycho-pathology of Everyday Life, and other works, Sigmund Freud famously argued that our actions are often motivated by wishes, desires, or fears of which we are not consciously aware. Psychoanalytic interpretations, like Marxian ones, fall under the heading of ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion.’ My apparently accidental slips of the tongue (or pen), for example, may reveal to a trained psychoanalyst aspects of my ‘unconscious’ that are not evident to me. So too with my dreams. Suppose I dream that I am at bat in a baseball game, bottom of the ninth inning, with my team losing, all bases loaded, one ball and two strikes. Here comes the pitch. As I begin to swing, my bat suddenly turns rubbery and floppy, like one that a circus clown might swing. The ball whizzes past my ineffectual bat and I strike out, losing the game for my team, and bringing embarrassment and disgrace upon myself. How to interpret what I’sve dreamed? Well, if I were a baseball player who’s afraid of cracking under pressure, the meaning of my dream would be pretty transparent. But, alas, I’sm not a baseball player. I’sm merely a 50-something male academic. An analyst might interpret this dream as a fear of losing sexual potency, particularly when there are high expectations and lots of pressure to ‘perform.’ In this case, the baseball game is not a game and the limp bat is not a bat but a symbol standing for something else… Well, you get the idea.

One can supply psychoanalytic interpretations not only of dreams but of all sorts of texts—including those in political theory. This has been done in the case of Machiavelli (Pitkin, 1984), Edmund Burke (Kramnick, 1977), Martin Luther (Erikson, 1958) and Mahatma Gandhi (Erikson, 1969), among others. I want to look, more particularly, at Bruce Mazlish’s (1975) psychoanalytic interpretation of themes in the work of John Stuart Mill. Mill is most famous as the author of On Liberty (1859) in which he argues in favour of a very wide sphere of personal freedom to live one’s life as one wishes, without undue interference from others, no matter how well-meaning those others may be. Now as Mill tells us in his Autobiography, his stern Scots father James Mill did not permit his first-born son to live and act as he wished. Young John was not allowed to associate with other children, to play games, or to do anything except to read and be exactingly examined on books assigned by his father. The elder Mill’s strict educational regimen was constructed and carried out with the best of intentions. This tightly regimented upbringing produced impressive results, but also took its toll. At age 20 John suffered a mental breakdown from which he recovered only slowly and in part through the reading of romantic poetry (chiefly Wordsworth and Coleridge) of which his father heartily disapproved. From that point on Mill ceased to be his father’s intellectual clone; he became a thinker with a mind of his own, and an author more prolific and more famous than his father.

Mazlish interprets On Liberty less as a work of liberal political theory than as a cri de coeur and a declaration of personal independence that is more autobiographical than analytical (perhaps that’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that all theory is autobiography). This is not what Mill consciously intended; but he was led by unconscious desires to declare himself independent of his father and, some 23 years after his father’s death, to justify his own independence and autonomy (Mazlish, 1975: ch. 15). As Freud theorized, sons subconsciously wish to kill their fathers and possess their mothers: this he called the ‘Oedipus complex.’ Mill was locked in an Oedipal struggle with his father, whom he defeated in argument. What then of his relations with his mother? Her name was Harriet. Significantly, as Mazlish notes, Mill had an illicit affair with a married woman and mother named (you guessed it) Harriet, who after her husband died, became Harriet Taylor Mill. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this is strong stuff, and Mazlish makes the most of it (1975: 283-93).

Although often suggestive and sometimes insightful, psychoanalytic interpretations face stiff evidentiary challenges. They are open to criticisms that they are speculative, impressionistic and non-falsifiable, and mistake coincidences for causes. To the claim that Mill symbolically defeated his father and married his mother, for example, a sceptic might answer that ‘Harriet’ was a very common woman’s name in nineteenth-century Britain (indeed Mill had a younger sister named Harriet) and that Mill’s affair with and marriage to Harriet Taylor was a coincidence of no importance, symbolic or otherwise. As for Mill’s motivation in writing On Liberty, one can note that motivations are typically multiple and varied and while Mazlish may have correctly pinpointed one source, that is largely beside the point if one wishes to understand the aim and argument of On Liberty. Psychoanalytic interpretations direct our attention away from the text and toward its author: which is fine, if what we wish to understand is the latter instead of the former. But textual interpretation is not the same thing as limning authorial motivation. Mill begins On Liberty by saying that ‘The subject of this Essay is… the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.’ He does not say ‘by fathers over sons.’ To assert, as Mazlish does, that the latter is the ‘real,’ albeit hidden, meaning is merely to speculate about Mill’s motives, not to understand the argument of On Liberty. It is perhaps because of these evident shortcomings that psychoanalytic interpretations have by and large fallen out of favour among students of political theory.

Feminist Interpretation

Feminism has had a profound and lasting impact on the way we study and interpret works in the history of political thought. A feminist perspective puts issues concerning gender at the forefront, and from that vantage point one views political theory anew and makes interesting—and sometimes appalling discoveries. Such a sensibility injects a strong strain of scepticism into the study of ‘classic’ works. For, as Susan Okin observes, ‘the great tradition of political philosophy consists, generally speaking, of writings by men, for men, and about men’ (1979: 5). To study this tradition from a feminist perspective is to be struck by the extent to which the civic and legal status of women was long considered to be a subject unworthy of theoretical treatment—or perhaps merely beneath the theorists’s contempt, and therefore outside the purview of historians of political thought, most of whom happen to be male. The neglect of women in the history of Western (and indeed non-Western) political thought is a silence that, to modern ears, is deafening. Feminist rereadings and reappraisals of the ‘canon’ of ‘classic’ works have made, and continue to make, startling and often unsuspected connections between phenomena as apparently disparate as a thinker’s view of the family and his (yes, his) view of liberty, authority, power, equality, obligation, and other concepts in political theory.

A feminist or gender-centred approach to the history of political thought began in the 1960s when women were looking for a ‘usable past,’ a history that connected present struggles with previous ones largely neglected by historians, most of whom were male. Feminist historians of political thought sought heroines—and heroes—who had championed the cause of women’s rights and related causes. One early anthology (Schneir, 1972) included not only selections from Mary Wollstonecraft, Emma Goldman, and others, but also a section on ‘Men as Feminists,’ which placed Friedrich Engels, John Stuart Mill, and other men in the feminist pantheon. This transgender ‘popular front’ sought support from all available quarters.

Several specialized studies of particular thinkers appeared during this brief period. Theorists who might roughly be labelled as ‘liberal’ were singled out for special attention and homage. Melissa Butler (1991) found the ‘liberal roots’ of feminism in Locke’s ‘attack on patriarchalism.’ Jeremy Bentham was honoured as ‘the father of feminism’ (Boralevi, 1984: ch. 2) and John Stuart Mill as its ‘patron saint’ (Williford, 1975). This popular front was short-lived, however, for the father was exposed as a patriarch and something of a misogynist and the patron saint as a closet sinner with feet of clay (Okin, 1979: ch. 9; Pateman, 1988; 1989). The differences between outright misogynists such as Aristotle and Rousseau and their more enlightened liberal brothers were merely matters of degree, not of kind. Male theorists marginalize women by placing them outside the public or civic sphere in which men move and act politically (Elshtain, 1981). In the name of protecting the weak, men have by and large lumped women with children and idiots and have therefore accorded them decidedly less than the rights and obligations of full-fledged citizens. And nowhere are these nefarious moves more evident than in the so-called classics of political thought.

In this angrier—and arguably more accurate second phase, feminist scholars set out to expose and criticize the misogyny lurking in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, and Marx, amongst many others. The public/private dichotomy and the concept of consent in liberal theory are a sham, the social contract is a ‘fraternal’ construct, and the modern welfare state is a covertly patriarchal institution (Pateman, 1989). Not only are misogyny and patriarchy present in the history of political thought, they can be found in histories of political thought written by males whose interpretations of (say) Locke reproduce the latter’s sexism by failing to detect or criticize its presence (1989: ch. 5).

A third phase followed in which the ostensibly civic virtues of men were turned into vices—the hunger for power, domination, or simply showing off—that women supposedly lacked. Men are domineering, women nurturing; men competitive, women co-operative; men think and judge in abstract and universal categories, women in concrete and particular instances; and so on. A new phrase—‘maternal thinking’—was coined to cover this gently militant momism (Ruddick, 1989). On this view, men are absent fathers and domineering patriarchs; women are caring and concerned mothers speaking ‘in a different voice’ (Gilligan, 1982). This represents something of a return to the ‘biology-is-destiny’ essentialism and ‘functionalism’ criticized so vigorously by Okin and others. It also accepts the public/private distinction criticized by Pateman and others, upending and reifying that dichotomy so that the ‘private’ realm of the family is taken to be superior to the ‘public’ area of politics, power, aggression, and war (Elshtain, 1987). Thus was Aristotle turned on his head, and Antigone reread as a heroic defence of the family against an aggressive and anti-familial political realm (Elshtain, 1981; 1982).

The new ‘maternal thinking’—and the new maternalists’s approach to the history of political thought, in particular—did not want for critics. Against the maternalists’s valorization of the private realm and the celebration of mothering, Mary Dietz (1985) and other feminist critics held out the prospect of an active and engaged civic feminism, or ‘citizenship with a feminist face.’ This prospect is precluded, or at least dimmed considerably, by inadequate interpretations of Aristotle and other seminal figures from whom feminists might yet learn something of value about politics and citizenship. A ‘more generous reading’ of Aristotle, Sophocles, and others yields political insights and civic lessons that a cartoonlike inversion cannot hope to match (1985: 29). If feminists are to learn and apply these lessons, they must engage in more nuanced textual analysis and historical interpretation. The Western political tradition is not reducible to an abattoir or a sinkhole of misogyny and other vices; it can, despite its various vices and when properly understood, be a wellspring of political wisdom.

Straussian’ Interpretation

Straussians—followers of the late Leo Strauss (1899-1973)—claim that a canon of works by Plato and a handful of other authors contains the Whole Truth about politics, a truth which is eternal, unchanging, and accessible only to the fortunate few. Gaining access to this truth requires a special way of reading and of interpreting what one reads.

Strauss was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who emigrated to the United States and subsequently attracted an attentive and loyal band of students and followers. He brought with him the memory of the short-lived Weimar Republic and the rise to power of Hitler and his Nazi thugs. He detested modern liberalism and distrusted liberal democracy, in no small part because Hitler had come to power in a liberal democratic regime by legal and democratic means. It was therefore unsurprising that Strauss saw the history of modern Western liberal political thought as a story of degeneration and enfeeblement. He and his followers contrasted the vigour of classical Greek and Roman political thought with the resigned ennui of slack-minded modern liberal thinkers. Modern liberalism is a philosophy without foundations. Having eschewed any grounding in nature or natural law, modern liberalism, from Hobbes to the present, is reduced to a spineless relativism and is therefore without the normative foundations and philosophical resources to resist the winds of twentieth-century fanaticism blowing from both right and left. The ‘crisis of the West,’ as diagnosed by Oswald Spengler and Carl Schmitt, amongst others, has deep philosophical roots. ‘The crisis of our time,’ Strauss announced, ‘is a consequence of the crisis of political philosophy’ (1972: 41). His and his disciples’s historical inquiries and textual interpretations attempted to trace the origins and diagnose if not cure the multiple maladies of liberalism, relativism, historicism and scientism that together contribute to ‘the crisis of our time.’ The present being bankrupt, students of political philosophy must look to the past for guidance; they must be historians but not ‘historicists.’ Historicism is the relativist doctrine that different ages have different, if not indeed incommensurable, mentalités and outlooks; accordingly, we moderns can hardly hope to understand, much less learn from, Plato and other earlier thinkers. The history of political thought, on this historicist view, becomes a vast burial ground instead of what it can and should be—a source of genuine knowledge and a reliable guide for the perplexed (Strauss, 1959).

Knowledge and guidance of the sort we require are not easy to come by, however. They require that we read these ‘old books’ aright—that we decipher the real meaning of the messages encoded by authors fearful of persecution and wishing to communicate with cognoscenti through the ages (Strauss, 1952). For philosophy is dangerous; to espouse its truths in public—in that liberal oxymoron known as the ‘marketplace of ideas’—is to risk ridicule and incomprehension, or even persecution, by hoi polloi. To communicate with the great thinkers of antiquity is to appreciate how far we have fallen. The rot began in the seventeenth century, with the advent of modern liberalism, and that of Hobbes and Locke especially (Strauss, 1953). They disavowed the ancient wisdom and the older idea of natural law, favouring instead a view of politics founded on security and self-interest. The ancient ‘philosophical’ quest for the good life was transmuted into the modern ‘scientific’ search for safety, security, and the accommodation of competing interests.

The ‘Straussian’ approach to the history of political thought requires the recovery of ancient, or at any rate premodern and preliberal, knowledge of ‘political things.’ And this in turn requires that one read not only the classics—Plato and Aristotle, in particular—but texts and authors who show us the way back into the labyrinth, e.g. Xenophon, Alfarabi, Maimonides, and others who are rarely (if ever) included in the non-Straussian curriculum (Strauss and Cropsey, 1972; Strauss, 1983). In this way one is sensitized to, and initiated into the secrets of, political philosophy. Most philosophers have written two doctrines—an ‘exoteric’ one meant for consumption by the uninitiated, and a deeper ‘esoteric’ doctrine to be decoded and understood by those initiated into the mysteries. A ‘Straussian’ interpretation involves reading between the lines of the written text, so as to reveal its ‘real,’ albeit hidden, meaning which is communicated, as it were, in a kind of invisible ink. Straussian interpretation owes much to the cabalistic tradition inaugurated by medieval rabbis and scholars, who read religious scripture as texts that had been encoded by authors fearful of persecution and wishing to be understood only by readers who were clean, pure of heart, and initiated into the inner cicle.

Straussian interpretations have been criticized on a number of grounds. One is that they rely on the sort of supposed ‘insider’s knowledge’ that is available only to those who have been initiated into the mysteries of Straussian interpretation (and who in turn conveniently dismiss criticisms by non-Straussian outsiders as being hopelessly ignorant and uninformed). Another is that they assume, without argument or evidence, that the ‘real’ text does not correspond, point for point, to the written and publicly available ‘exoteric’ text; the real or ‘esoteric’ text remains hidden from public view, its meaning inaccessible to the uninitiated and unworthy.

Postmodernist Interpretation

The interpretive standpoint or perspective of postmodernism arises out of ‘the postmodern condition’ of fragmentation and the failure of systematic philosophies or ‘grand metanarratives’ such as Hegelianism and Marxism that emerged from the European Enlightenment (Lyotard, 1984). Postmodernism is not a single, unified perspective; nor, still less, is it a systematic philosophy shared by all who call themselves postmodernists. This diffuse group includes Mikhail Bakhtin, Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida (literary critics and semioticians), Michel Foucault (social historian and genealogist), Jacques Lacan (psychoanalyst), Gaston Bachelard (historian of science), Jean Baudrillard (cultural theorist and critic), Richard Rorty (philosopher), and William E. Connolly (political theorist), among many others. All respond, in different ways, to the postmodern condition of fragmentation, discontinuity, disillusionment, and contingency. The world is not as coherent, continuous and comprehensible as earlier (and especially Enlightenment) thinkers believed. Even our most basic beliefs are historically contingent (Rorty, 1989). Pace Hegel and Marx, history has no larger point or ‘meaning’ discernible via an overarching philosophy of history or ‘grand narrative’ (Lyotard, 1984). Nor is there progress in human affairs. What is called progress is more often than not an advance in some dominant group’s power to oppress another. Advances in technology in communications technology, say—increase the opportunity for surveillance and suppression (Foucault), and mass media promote one dimensional views of truth, beauty, normality, and morality that perpetuate and legitimize the modern consumer society and those who profit from it (Baudrillard).

The postmodern sensibility is not a single, stable thing. There are, to simplify somewhat, two main versions of postmodernist interpretation. One derives largely from Nietzsche and Foucault; the other, from Derrida. I shall briefly consider the former before describing the latter.

A Foucauldian approach to interpretation seeks to expose and criticize the myriad ways in which human beings are ‘normalized’ or made into ‘subjects,’ i.e. willing participants in their own subjugation (Foucault, 1980). Thus a postmodernist perspective on the interpretation of texts typically focuses on the ways in which earlier thinkers—Rousseau or Bentham, for example—contributed ideas to thementalité that paved the way for the creation and legitimation of the modern surveillance society. And conversely postmodernist interpreters look for earlier thinkers who challenged or questioned or undermined these ideas. This Foucauldian approach is well represented by William Connolly’s Political Theory and Modernity (1988). Connolly begins with the genial suggestion that one view earlier thinkers as collegial contemporaries residing down the hall from one’s office. To read their works is like dropping by for a friendly chat (1988: vii). (This is perhaps the amiably unbuttoned postmodern-egalitarian equivalent to Machiavelli’s ‘entering the ancient courts of ancient men,’ minus the Florentine’s somewhat stringent dress code.) The reader’s questions are posed, and criticisms made, from the perspective of the present—that is, of ‘modernity’ and the constitution of the modern ‘subject.’

Given this set of concerns Connolly proposes to reread the history of political thought in a new and presumably more fruitful way. That is, we can see who has contributed to or dissented from the project of modernity and the construction of the modern surveillance society. A postmodernist rereading relocates and realigns earlier thinkers along altogether different axes. A postmodernist reading of the history of political thought not only exposes heretofore unsuspected villains, it also reveals heroes who have dared to resist the pressures and processes of ‘normalization.’ Amongst the former are Hobbes and Rousseau. That the historical Rousseau was exceedingly critical of the historical Hobbes does not matter for a postmodernist reading. For we can now see them as birds of a feather, each having extended ‘the gaze’ ever more deeply into the inner recesses of the human psyche, thereby aiding and abetting the subjugation of modern men and women. Amongst the latter, the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche are particularly prominent. ‘We can,’ as Connolly contends, ‘treat Sade as a dissident thinker whose positive formulations are designed to crack the foundations upon which the theories of Hobbes and Rousseau rest’ (1988: 73). Whether this design was consciously formulated and put into play by the aristocratic French pornographer is, at best, doubtful; but like other postmodernist interpreters Connolly eschews any concern with such historical niceties as authorial intention.

Despite their emphasis on ‘identity’ and ‘difference,’ postmodernists are not at all concerned with what John Dunn (1968) has termed the ‘historical identity’ of works of political theory; nor are they concerned with the differences that earlier thinkers saw amongst themselves. Rousseau hardly saw himself as Hobbes’s soulmate—quite the contrary, on Rousseau’s own telling—but this does not deter postmodernists from lumping these theorists together as fellow labourers on and contributors to a common project. Whether, or to what extent, such second-guessing is good history or bad remains a matter of considerable controversy.

In Derrida’s version of postmodernism, the aim of interpretation is to expose and criticize the arbitrary or constructed character of claims to truth or knowledge, particularly by examining various binary oppositions or dichotomies such as knower/known, object/representation, text/interpretation, true/false—a process that Derrida (1976) calls ‘deconstruction.’ According to Derrida, all attempts to ‘represent’ reality produce, not knowledge or truth, but only different ‘representations,’ none of which can be proven to be better or truer than any other. All social phenomena and forms of human experience—wars, revolutions, relations between the sexes, and so on—exist only through their representations or ‘texts.’ And just as a literary text has many possible interpretations, so, says Derrida, do these other texts admit of multiple and contradictory ‘readings’ or interpretations. And all interpretations of meaning are in the final analysis ‘indeterminate’ and ‘undecidable.’ As Derrida famously puts it, ‘there is nothing outside the text’ and even within the text its constitutive concepts or ‘signifiers’ have no stable meaning. Ambiguities within the text only increase with the passage of time and multiple and varied readings, until the text’s signifiers float freely and playfully apart, so that the reader—not the author—constructs whatever meaning the text may be said to have. Thus ‘the death of the author’ refers not to a physical fact but to an artifact of postmodernist interpretation.

Various criticisms can be levelled against a postmodernist perspective on interpretation. One is that we do sometimes wish, and legitimately so, to know whether something Marx or Mill said was true. We will not be helped by being told that true/false is a specious ‘binary.’ More perniciously, with its emphasis on diverse, divergent and conflicting ‘readings’ or interpretations—there are allegedly no facts, only interpretation ‘all the way down’—postmodernism is constitutionally unable to distinguish truth from falsehood and propaganda from fact. Thus—to take a particularly dramatic example—the differences, between those who recognize the reality of the Holocaust as reported by survivors and chronicled by careful historians such as Raul Hilberg, and those (mainly neo-Nazis) who deny it ever happened, are, by postmodernist lights, differences of interpretation and not of truth or falsity. But, as critics of postmodernism note, some ‘representations’ are misrepresentations—or, more bluntly, lies—that serve to conceal and/or legitimate abuses of some human beings by others. A perspective that professes to be unable to tell fact from fiction or true statements from lies is surely unsatisfactory not only from an epistemological but from a moral point of view. Finally, though not least, postmodernists place themselves in a logical bind. Derrida, for one, has complained, often and loudly, that some of his critics have misread, misinterpreted, and misrepresented his views. But how can that be, if meanings are indeterminate and authorial intentions are irrelevant in interpreting texts, including those written by Derrida?

Cambridge ‘New History’

The Cambridge ‘new historians’ have, since the 1960s, advanced a distinctive programme of historical research and textual interpretation. Its origins may be traced in part to R. G. Collingwood’s (1978 [1939]) approach to the history of philosophy (Skinner, 2001). That history, he said, was not about an eternal but finite set of questions to which different philosophers have proposed different answers. It was, rather, about historically variable problems to which particular philosophers proposed particular answers:

If there were a permanent problem P, we could ask ‘what did Kant, or Leibniz, or Berkeley, think about P?’… But what is thought to be a permanent problem P is really a number of transitory problems p1 p2 p3 … whose individual peculiarities are blurred by the historical myopia of the person who lumps them together under the one name P. (1978 [1939]: 69)

In contrast to those who claim that there are ‘perennial’ questions or problems in political theory (e.g. Tinder, 1979), Collingwood argued that the questions themselves change in subtle but significant ways. If we are to understand the meaning of something that a particular political theorist wrote, we must first understand the problem he was addressing and attempting to solve.

This Collingwoodian approach informs Peter Laslett’s lengthy and learned introduction to his edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1960 [1690]), which restored Locke’s political treatise to its political and historical context in the Exclusion Crisis of the early 1680s. Far from having his head in the clouds of philosophical abstraction, Locke was deeply involved in the radical politics of the Shaftesbury circle. By means of some brilliant historical detective work, Laslett showed that Locke’s Two Treatises had been written nearly a decade earlier than anyone had heretofore supposed and that, far from offering a post hoc justification of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, Locke was prescribing and legitimizing just that sort of revolutionary action before the fact. Laslett’s scholarly sleuthing paved the way for subsequent interpretations of Locke (Dunn, 1969; Tully, 1980; 1993; Ashcraft, 1986) in particular, and of other works of political theory more generally.

If Laslett was circumspect about articulating and defending his method of historical investigation and textual interpretation, others were not. J. G. A. Pocock (1962), John Dunn (1968; 1969; 1996), and—most especially—Quentin Skinner (1969; 2002; Tully, 1989) provided deflationary critiques of traditional ‘textbook’ approaches to the interpretation of works of political theory. Most of what has heretofore passed as the history of political theory has been insufficiently historical, i.e. concerned with the context and situation in which Locke and others found themselves and the problems with which they dealt.

In his The Political Thought of John Locke (1969) Dunn derides psychoanalytic, Marxian, and Straussian interpretations. His is, he says, a ‘historical … account of what Locke was talking about, not a doctrine written (perhaps unconsciously) by him in a sort of invisible ink which becomes apparent only when held up to the light (or heat) of the twentieth-century mind.’ Dunn rejects the quixotic attempts by ‘a succession of determined philosophers mounting their scholastic Rosinantes and riding forth to do battle with a set of disused windmills, or solemnly and expertly flailing thin air.’ Dunn’s inquiry aims instead.

to restore the windmill to its original condition, to show how, creakingly but unmistakably, the sails used to turn. Even at the level of preserving ancient monuments it is perhaps a service to recondition these hallowed targets. There seems little purpose in recording hits on a target that has no existence outside our own minds. (1969: x)

The Cambridge historians view works of political theory as forms of political action, grasping the point or meaning of which requires that one recover the intentions of the actor/author and the linguistic resources and conventions available to him or her (Skinner, 2002). A work of political theory is itself a political act or intervention consisting of a series of interconnected actions with words—‘speech acts’ in J. L. Austin’s sense—that are intended to produce certain effects in the reader: to warn, to persuade, to criticize, to frighten, to encourage, to console, etc. Political theorists have not, by and large, been armchair philosophers engaged in abstract thinking. They have been political actors engaged in high-level propaganda and persuasion on behalf of this or that political cause: the critique (or defence) of democracy; the critique (or defence) of royal absolutism; likewise for religious toleration, resistance and regicide, the French (or other) revolutions, capitalism, the emancipation of slaves and/or women, and so on, through a rather long list of political causes and campaigns. Textual interpretation is largely a matter of restoring a text to the historical context in which it was composed and the question(s) to which it was offered as an answer.

Conclusion: Pluralistic and Problem-Driven Interpretation

I come, finally and by way of conclusion, to my own view of these matters. Very briefly: I do not believe that any single method will suffice to answer all the questions we wish to ask of any work of political theory. This nudges me in the direction of eclecticism or, better perhaps, of pluralism. A plurality of approaches and methods is preferable to a more confining monomethodology that restricts the range of questions we can ask and address. For example, I agree with the Cambridge historians about the importance, indeed the indispensability, of the contexts intellectual, political and linguistic in which political theorists write and their texts appear and do their work. But of course these contexts are varied and multiple, encompassing not only the context in which a text was written, but also the successive contexts in which it was received, read, interpreted, criticized, reread, and reinterpreted and perhaps put to uses very different from those the author intended. As Alan Ryan observes:

Once the essay or book in which we are interested has been put before the public, it takes on a life of its own. Whatever the copyright laws, an author has only a limited control over his own writings. What he writes will have implications which he did not see—implications in the narrow sense of more or less logical inferences from what he says to the consequences of what he says … Works outlive their authors, and take on lives their writers might be perturbed to see. (1984: 3-4)

Thus authorial intentions, although important, are not in every instance all-important. For certain purposes one may wish to discover, recover, and restate an author’s intentions so as to show what he was trying to do in using a certain word or phrase, or constructing a particular argument in a particular way, or even composing an entire treatise. But sometimes we are less interested in Locke, say, than in what subsequent author-actors—Thomas Jefferson, for example, or some modern feminists made of Locke’s text, and quite possibly in ways that Locke would not or even could not have intended, did not foresee, and almost certainly would not have approved of. Because political actions—including the act of writing—often produce unintended consequences, a focus on authorial intention is not always appropriate or helpful.

A second feature of my view is that our interpretive inquiries are problem-driven; that is, we are likely to be less interested in authors, texts, and/or contexts per se than in particular problems that arise as we attempt to understand them. As a rule we come to Locke or Rousseau not because we want to know ‘all about’ them or their texts or their times, but because we are puzzled about something. Was Thomas More being serious or satirical in describing his fictional Utopia as ‘the best state of the commonwealth’? Did Locke really mean to defend the property rights of a rising bourgeoisie? How are we to understand the role of the ‘civil religion’ in Rousseau’s Social Contract? What are the probable sources of John Stuart Mill’s feminist sympathies? What was the nature of Marx’s debt to Hegel and how did it shape his view of history and human progress?

Such problems can come from any source and be of almost any sort. One might be interested in Mill because one is sympathetic to or highly critical of the liberal tradition, or because one believes that liberty is under threat and that Mill might shed some light on our modern predicament. Or one might wish to assess the (in)adequacy of the Western and liberal conception of tolerance in light of some contemporary question or issue and find it both necessary and desirable to reread and reappraise Locke on toleration and Mill on liberty. In short, the problem-driven ‘context of discovery’ is wide open, even as the ‘context of justification’ is rather more restricted. The problems can come from anywhere and be addressed via a variety of strategies; but the (in)adequacy of the resulting interpretive solutions must be assessed according to more stringent scholarly criteria.

The historical study of political theory is, in sum, a problem-solving activity. It takes other interpretations as alternative solutions to some puzzle or problem, and then goes on to assess their adequacy vis-à-viseach other and in relation to one’s own proposed solution. Interpretation is, so to speak, a kind of triangulation between the text and two (or more) interpretations of it. Hence we cannot but take others’ interpretations into account, reappraising their adequacy and value. The activity of rereading, reinterpretation, and reappraisal is not incidental to the practice of political theory but is instead an indispensable—indeed a defining—feature of our craft. Political theory, perhaps more than any other vocation, takes its own past to be an essential part of its present. Its past includes not only a history of theorizing, of great (and not-so-great) books, but a history of commentary and interpretation. It is through the latter that the former are reconsidered, criticized, and re-evaluated—in short, reappraised. The seminal works of political theory are kept alive and vivid—keep their ‘classic’ status, so to speak not by being worshipped at academic shrines but, on the contrary, by being carefully reinterpreted and critically reappraised from a variety of interpretive standpoints.