Some quasi-methodological reflections: a reply to Ghins and Ragazzoni

4 August 2021

Greg Conti offers a response to his reviewers in our “Parliamentary Thinking” book forum


It was a pleasure for me to read the commentaries by David Ragazzoni and Arthur Ghins. These are among the most promising scholars writing about the history and theory of liberalism and democracy, and their insightful engagements with Parliament the Mirror of the Nation demonstrate well why they have been so successful in their young careers.


Given the richness of their remarks, I must be selective in my reply. Apart from a few points with which I would quibble, both present largely reliable pictures of the book’s principal arguments so I will not rehash those here. (Ragazzoni, in particular, deploys several sparkling bons mots that distill large themes well. I have in mind here, for example, his description of J. S. Mill’s electoral theory as “cross-eyed” and his depiction of the fear hanging over representative politics after the French Revolution as that of the “factional potential of a polity’s parts—that is, their tendency to turn, from parts of the whole, into parts against the whole.” I could have profited from his linguistic verve when I was writing the book.) Further, both Ghins and Ragazzoni touch on sprawling substantive questions—about sovereignty, the place of partisanship in democracy, the nature of political agency—for which an adequate response would warrant significantly more space than I have here. So I will just encourage readers to reflect for themselves on those weighty questions.


The main point of overlap between Ragazzoni’s and Ghins’s comments, instead, concerns methodology. I must admit that this took me by surprise. Ghins even claims that the book opens with a “methodological plea.” What they both draw attention to, however, are a mere page or so of what I deliberately called “quasi-methodological” reflections: they were hardly intended to constitute a breakthrough relative to the more vigorous discussions that set the field of history of political thought on its feet several decades back. Rather, they were meant merely to give some inkling, for the few readers who might be interested, of my general approach to the research behind the book. Nevertheless, Ghins’s and Ragazzoni’s remarks do provide an opportunity for me to clarify a few points.


Unlike in the hard sciences (at least as they are intended to be conducted), we scholars of the history of political thought are not designing experiments en avance, nor do we even need to know precisely what we are looking for until a relatively late stage of any project—indeed, we are usually better off not jumping into a large body of past texts with anything more than a general sense of the themes that interest us, a willingness to follow the evidence, and a commitment to keep our preconceptions from running out too far ahead of us.


Thus—leaving aside for a moment the facts that there is a seemingly unquenchable demand for methods talk within the humanities and humanistic social sciences and thus that there are career incentives for appearing to position oneself in a methodological matrix—most of the thinking that passes as “methodological” in our field really amounts to a kind of examination of what we have found ourselves in fact to be doing. Our “methodological” reflection usually occurs in medias res or ex post facto, and is wedged into the introductions of our books in the hope of making the (necessarily dry and detailed) substance that follows marginally more accessible. To adapt a distinction from Mark Bevir, historians of political thought operate with heuristics and not methods, and the methodological discussions that adorn the opening pages of our monographs are themselves more properly understood as heuristics, as priming readers for the kind of analysis they will encounter throughout the book while not jumping too quickly into the weeds. Another purpose that methodological discussion can serve is, from the point of view of the discipline, outward-facing: it is important to explain why history of political thought can deliver insights that are inaccessible to other quarters of the humanities and social sciences which might be hostile to us. As with nations, it is desirable to be able to speak with a fairly unified voice in foreign policy, all while permitting a reasonable pluralism in domestic politics.


Ragazzoni draws an interesting distinction between “two families” with which he believes my book could be associated: “a ‘political political theory’ à la Waldron, concerned with theorizing…the institutions and mechanisms that make our democracies work, or a historical political theory that unearths the ancestry (or prehistory) of such institutions and mechanisms as well as the values and ideals that they presuppose and pursue.” Ragazzoni wonders with which I identify most closely. As a matter of biography, I stand more with the latter, since I have never considered myself a normative political theorist (about this, more in a moment). And I recognize an affinity between Parliament the Mirror and the projects he lists. I do have a desire to get before a pervasive modern packaging and synthesis: one of the promises of the book is to think about representation in a context where representative government was not considered equivalent to representative democracy, and to consider how notions of deliberation, inclusivity, and diversity looked before all such values were presumed to be encompassed in the formula liberal democracy. Nevertheless, in contrast to the motivations that Ragazzoni ascribes to the scholars in this school, my work does not primarily seek to accomplish an “act of retrieval” or an excavation of roads not traveled. Instead, I see this genre of history of political thought as valuable not only for exposing differences and disjunctures but also unexpected continuities. So great is the power of a term like democracy that we are prone to assume that our moral and conceptual universe is radically distinct from what came before. Yet frequently we share more with intellectual forebears who superficially appear highly at odds with us.


To give an example: in nineteenth-century Britain, as Parliament the Mirror demonstrates, many of the accompanying values and institutional correlates of democracy as understood today were actually aligned with opponents of democracy. There is more continuity between today’s self-conceived democrats and Victorian anti-democrats—and less between today’s democrats and Victorian democrats—than I could have imagined prior to embarking on this investigation. To offer one more example: as I’ve suggested elsewhere, several ideas about speech and the press gaining currency among self-conceived liberals at present bear a striking resemblance to Bonapartist doctrines—closer, perhaps, than to the doctrines on these subjects of nineteenth-century liberals. Which is essentially to say that I share with Ragazzoni’s second camp a conviction that, in Judith Shklar’s words, history of political thought makes us less prone to become “prisoners of a single vocabulary”—but I would emphasize that this problem of imprisonment can lead us not only to neglect alternatives, but also to magnify or mis-locate our distance from past schools of thought.


With the former, Waldronian family, I have the instinct that abstraction within the field does sometimes reach a point at which the potential for real political insight disappears. But to Waldron’s call for greater attentiveness to institutions and practices to correct this bloodlessness or airiness, I would add that history of political thought, specifically, is well-suited to this task. This is for two reasons. The first is instrumental: history gives us a critical distance from immediate controversies and enables us to appreciate the polyvalence of our cardinal terms and the many purposes to which overfamiliar concepts have been put. Here, I think of history of political thought as aiding our present political thinking not, strictly speaking, normatively—an accurate reconstruction of a past body of ideas does not tell us what we ought to do now—but analytically or interpretively. It can check popular but mistaken forms of reasoning and untie the too-easy linkages between different ideas and values; it aids us, in brief, in achieving real clarity of thought, as opposed to the facsimile of rigor that transpires when by purely abstract argument or detached semantic analysis we purport to show that some pleasing conclusion is entailed by the very meaning of certain concepts. Thus, history of political thought enriches how we think, although it does not dictate what we ought to support. Yet naturally, changes in the former may very well come to affect the latter. History of political thought thus can shift our sense of our values and commitments in the present, but it can do so only indirectly, and its salutary effect on our moral and intellectual lives is usually undercut when one aims straight at delivering an “upshot.”


The second reason why history of political thought is generically a good fit for a “political political theory” is more constitutive or ontological. For all our major concepts and ideas were themselves shaped historically, and having no reference to that history is almost certain to mean that the philosopher will find herself presenting as great innovations what are in truth longstanding problems. A philosopher told me once that he had made the discovery that liberty and equality could come into conflict, and that he was going to write a book announcing this finding to the world; would it not be better for him to have studied the great debates of the long nineteenth century? Furthermore, most writers of even the most disembodied and abstract treatises operate with a sense that they are offering a liberal or socialist or what-have-you theory. But the latter are traditions built up over time by intellectuals and political actors, and as such they partake of certain observable patterns and structures that persist even as change occurs; they have an ideational “morphology,” as Michael Freeden puts it. In other words, they impose some constraints on the values and institutions that might be endorsed; they present boundaries to what can be espoused that, while not fixed, never vanish entirely or of a sudden.


To claim to elaborate a liberal or socialist political philosophy without some real knowledge of the genesis and evolution of these categories hence involves a kind of false consciousness: whatever such an author may think she is up to, she is really only delivering her own convictions and her own vision, not a liberal or socialist theory. Finally, it is worth stressing that that the imperative of grounding the development of political ideas in the concrete programs and debates of the past reflects the truth that in a complicated subject like politics it is easy to overestimate how complete our picture of a set of ideas or arguments is, and that therefore before we come to conclusions about a particular conception of rights or representation or the state we really should know as much as possible about what the authors who promulgated it thought this conception involved. It reflects, as well, the lesson that neither the proclamation of a value like equality or autonomy, nor the endorsement of an institution like a particular electoral scheme or regime for regulating the press, tells us very much on its own: it is usually from the conjunction between the two domains that we learn something. And history of political thought is well-positioned to explore this connective tissue between institution/practice and value/ideal.


In sum, I would hope that both political political theorists and historians’ historians could take something from Parliament the Mirror, although that is a tall mountain to climb and readers will have to judge for themselves.


From what I can glean, Ghins would not disagree with what I have said so far. Nonetheless, he appears to think that the book falls short of a kind of methodological coherence. He seems to believe, though he stops just shy of saying it outright, that all scholarship that invokes intriguing ideological or conceptual clashes such as “the one between ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’” has a taint of illegitimacy upon it. Here, I must dissent rather strongly.


For one thing, Ghins appears to assume that all attempts to scrutinize something like the conflict between liberal and democracy must be badly done. And there is no doubt that what he calls “a priori appealing” frameworks can lend themselves to sloppy but eye-catching treatments. But there is no reason this must be so. Indeed, Ghins himself handles these categories rather indiscriminately when he alleges that the early part of Parliament the Mirror goes “some way down the route” of casting European liberalism as “inherently ‘elitist,’ ‘aristocratic,’ or antidemocratic’.” Yet of course, as I suspect Ghins would acknowledge, these terms are not synonyms. Not all elitists are aristocrats, and not all (as I hope Parliament the Mirror shows) opposition to democracy is best understood as either elitist or aristocratic. While “aristocratic liberalism” is a viable and enlightening category for some historiographical purposes (especially regarding France), the first couple chapters of my book are concerned precisely with thinkers who saw themselves as steering between the Scylla of aristocracy and the Charybdis of democracy. Many of these figures arguably retained a great deal of elitism (depending on how one wishes to parse that term), others retained less. And several, although not all, of these writers thought of themselves as liberals. So there is no reason in the abstract to presume that in treating this historical roster and setting the tension between liberalism and democracy is somehow an inapt intrusion. The truth is quite the opposite: scholars of political thought in this time and place must be attentive to the perceived mismatch between liberalism and democracy.


This brings us to Ghins’s related charge that scholars of political thought might be better off pursuing all-out “actors’ category history.” Ghins posits this modus operandi as an alternative to the “a priori appealing” historiographies that involve reckoning with such large dilemmas as “liberalism versus democracy.” But these modes need not be in opposition. The nineteenth century, after all, is preeminently the time when this conflict came to be identified by the actors themselves. There is more than a grain of truth in the old (if now somewhat unfashionable) notion that from the French Revolution onward we have lived in an “Age of Ideologies,” and it should not surprise us that many figures from the era did conceive of themselves as liberals fighting democracy, just as others came to think of themselves as liberals fighting socialism, or democrats fighting against reaction, or communists working to topple the capitalist order.


Parliament the Mirror treats many writers, like Walter Bagehot, who were eloquent precisely in juxtaposing “true liberalism” against democracy. As H.M. Höpfl showed nearly three decades ago, the early nineteenth century was one of the two great epochs for the creation of -isms, and so we should expect that authors in those and the following decades frequently crafted their arguments and theories in exactly those broader terms the appropriateness of which Ghins is reluctant to grant. It is right, certainly, that we cannot simply presume any given authors to have done so: we need to track what they actually wrote. Nor should we be anachronistic in back-projecting contemporary ideas about what liberalism or conservatism or socialism entails even onto authors who did think in terms of these classifications. And it is true that one of the great values of the history of political thought is that it illuminates the variety and dissension that has existed within the major ideologies and traditions. But I cannot see how one could responsibly reconstruct the political thought of this period without making reference to such categories. In the end, the answer to Ghins’s worry that employing these labels and posing these large dilemmas “might obscure more than they reveal” is simply that we should avoid doing so in inappropriate or obscuring ways while insisting on doing so when appropriate and illuminating. Abusus non tollit usum.


I also suspect that there might be a deeper division between Ghins and me. I believe there are many aspects of the political thought of the past that are of legitimate scholarly interest, and that authorial intentions are only one of these; Ghins seems to consider, by contrast, that such intentions cover the whole field of truly scholarly engagement with political thought. To be sure, a proper grasp of authorial intentions is the necessary beginning of any non-polemical engagement with the history of political thought. But once we understand what an author or group of authors intended their work to mean, we might still be animated by further concerns. We might wish to give some shape and definition to the major currents of thought as we have come to understand them, so that we are better oriented amid the enormous welter of past ideas. We might also wish to deploy these classifications in order to relate them to contemporary notions, to see where they accord with and differ from current commitments.


The questions of “what an author meant or intended with a particular text or theory,” on the one hand, and “what is the best characterization of the content of said text or theory” or “how does the content of such a theory stack up against other theories of its own time or beyond,” on the other, are distinct but equally valid. Hence, in my eyes, there is nothing improper about relating authors from the past to categories that may have been invented later, provided we have first arrived at a proper understanding of the author in his own terms. For instance, I do not believe that we can only identify as liberals those who described themselves as such, although of course there are extra evidentiary and conceptual hurdles to clear when we place such a label on a figure who (perhaps because he wrote before the appellation’s mainstream circulation) did not apply it to himself. Just as Weber thought the “concept formations” of sociology could be wielded by the social historian to describe the character of societies of the past even though their inhabitants had lacked the sociologists’ terms, so the concept formations in contemporary political philosophy and the study of contemporary ideologies can serve the historian of political thought insofar as he deploys them to categorize and not to impute intentions. While of course such attempts to classify can go awry, especially when they involve monikers as live and contested in the present as “liberal,” it is very hard, for me at least, to see how we can make sense of the thought of the past otherwise. To understand is to classify.


I would not claim any great originality for these ideas; similar views can be found, better articulated, in the works of scholars who have influenced me, such as Dan Edelstein and John Dunn among many others. But I am grateful to Ragazzoni and Ghins for prompting me to put down some thoughts on these matters in my own words. And even more, I appreciate their learned and incisive engagements with the book more broadly.



Photo credit: House of Commons Chamber: Speaker’s table, UK Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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