Academic journal article Parergon

Reason of State and Sovereignty in Early Modern England: A Question of Ideology?

Academic journal article Parergon

Reason of State and Sovereignty in Early Modern England: A Question of Ideology?

Article excerpt

Much of the intellectual history of early modern England has been written as a story of emergent ideologies, with constitutionalism, Ciceronianism, Tacitism (new humanism), de factoism, divine right, ascending political legitimacy, mixed monarchy theory, liberalism, and republicanism all being treated as arising between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (1) A generation or so ago, energies were spent on unearthing the antecedents of socialism to show that it was not a naughty French or Hunnish importation, but authentically native to England. (2) Environmentalism is, no doubt, waiting in the wings with, at least initially, the standard cast of lineal suspects being scrutinized for where they stood on the exploitation of nature and the conservation of its resources. It might even seem to the untutored, or cynical, that all that is needed is to add the suffix 'ism' to a noun and we can discover some sort of abstract agency at work to which there have been clear commitments and whose history can now be written. (3) As Nietzsche put it in a typically spirited half-truth: the name givers are the great originals, for they make us see what is already before us. (4) With all these ideological names, the search is for intimations of ourselves who have, after all, lived in an age marked by clearly articulated competing ideologies. The textbooks and university courses devoted to these are legion. To construe those earlier turbulent times also in terms of ideological conflict no doubt makes them more accessible, but that access may be to the non-existent. It should at least be asked how close the whole enterprise of unearthing ideological formations in the early modern world is to institutionalized myth-making. And, as I shall briefly discuss below, the shift of focus among some historians from ideologies to languages may be just as problematic.

As the neologism ideologie was not invented until the mid 1790s, to see the phenomenon existing in early modernity appears to presuppose a considerable metaphysical commitment: ideology must find a place in a coherent conceptual realm to be posited as independent of and pre-dating the requisite conceptual vocabulary. The words people actually used can then be seen as more or less adequate labels for something we now have, thus the cliche that X or Y had the concept, but not the words, in which to express it. This can easily look like a euphemism for avoiding or massaging the evidence into versions of the familiar, especially as it makes little sense to ask which words we lack for the concepts we have. Or, the trans-historical necessity of ideology might be insured more briskly: if ideology is essential to politics, and earlier societies had politics, then whether they knew it or not they had ideology. But the grounding for this essentialism begs the question by presupposing the universality of the concept at issue. Thus what seems syllogistic, smacks of circularity. Either way, we have the means of reading ideology into the past and presenting it as having been there all the time. For the most part, however, it is probably fair to say that the term ideology is so taken for granted as part of our tacit understanding of the world, that it gets inadvertently projected into the distant past. Ideology's ubiquity may be largely a matter of faltering historiographical reflexivity, a function of thoughtlessness as much about the present as the past.

Ideologie began as an advertising neologism for a universal science of society (Comtean sociologie would be the next neologistic claimant for such a status). (5) And it was only with the disputes between Napoleon and the Academie francaise after 1812 that the word began to take on its meaning as a distinct programmatic doctrine to which there was a group commitment. It came to signify a set of putative truths and global imperatives, pre-emptively structuring, or simplifying present and prospective situations, and which because of Napoleon's hostility to the ideologues of the Academie, began to be explained as a matter of delusional self-interest. …

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