Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Rewind Politics to Fast-Forward, Seminar Hears

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Rewind Politics to Fast-Forward, Seminar Hears

Article excerpt

Is the historical study of leading political thinkers just an "antiquarian" activity or can it open up new, even "emancipatory", possibilities for the present?

That was the question under scrutiny at a seminar held at the British Academy last week.

For Michael Freeden, professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham, too much writing about the history of political thought adopted a "celebrity" approach, focused on the same 50 or 100 "men of genius and public impact who conducted perennial conversations with each other across time".

Yet in reality political thinking is always "a group practice, collectively produced even if individually refined". If we want to understand 19th-century liberalism, it is not enough to read just John Stuart Mill. We also need to "consult pamphlets, newspaper editorials, cultural journals, parliamentary debates, letters - even dinner table and pub conversations".

Also speaking at the event, "What is the History of Political Thought for?", organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, was Mónica Brito Vieira, lecturer in politics at the University of York. "The history of political thought", she said, "can bring out the structure of the political world we have inherited and of the alternative possible worlds that were closed down in its wake. …

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