appeal of a too comfortable isolation between the two
major approaches to political theory -- the first, in which
commentary fails to acknowledge that the lessons of any
text will be bound up in the language and conceptual
framework of particular times, and the second, in which
history will diminish texts to mere historical data lacking
the powerful educative role they have played in the past.
While we may leave the Cambridge School to debate the
methodological possibilities of recovering the
"illocutionary force" or "meaning," we ignore to our
detriment their guidance about language.
For sure, to read and spend our time reflecting
on and writing commentaries about a Plato or a Thucydides or a Nietzsche or a Simone Weil represents a
leap of faith that these works will repay our efforts. At
times we may be disappointed. But to deny the
possibility that we may learn is to lose an opportunity to
rethink our opinions and to forget what scholarship and
education is all about.
Thanks for help on this essay are owed to a number of
people. John E. Jackson's skepticism about texts helped me define the
initial structure of this essay and his comments on an early draft helped
me refine it. Don Herzog, Tim Fuller, and an anonymous reviewer
gave sage advice about some inaccuracies and made me excruciatingly
aware of all that I have had to leave out. Shanetta Paskel provided
invaluable bibliographic help.
Gunnell introduces his contribution to the first edition of Political Science: The State of the Discipline by distinguishing between
PT (political theory as a subfield of the discipline of political science)
and pt (political theory as a more general interdisciplinary body of
literature, activity, and intellectual community) (1983, 3). If anything,
the interdisciplinary nature of political theory has expanded enormously
in the last decade.
There are two chapters in this volume dealing with
political theory. The subfield does not divide itself easily -- or indeed
at all. The artificial line drawn between the two chapters is
contemporary and perennial issues. Clearly the political theory
confronting the contemporary political world draws on the traditions
articulated in the history of political thought and the way in which we
read that history depends on our contemporary concerns. Attempts not
to overstep the artificial boundaries should not be construed as
avoidance of the issues with which the other chapter is dealing.
4. Condren ( 1985)
takes this history of the study of political
thought back to an 1855 volume by a Robert Blakey entitled A Brief
History of Political Literature from the Earliest Times
and a 1902 book
W. Donning, A History of Political Theories
. Nevertheless, for
American political theorists it was Sabine's volume that defined the field
and especially located the texts studied as epiphenomena of the age in
which they were written.
Strauss is certainly aware of the problems inherent in
such an injunction. In his essay on Heidegger, he comments: "The
only question of importance, of course, is the question whether Heidegger's teaching is true or not. But the very question is silent
about the question of competence -- of who is competent to judge"
In this construction I have not focused on the role of Sheldon Wolin influential volume, Politics and Vision ( 1960). Wolin
adopts, as he puts it, an historical approach, though one far more
limited than we find in Sabine or the Strauss and Cropsey History of
Political Philosophy, but he does so with the "conviction that an
historical perspective is more effective than any other in exposing the
nature of our present predicaments" (1960, v). Though Wolin's
perception of those "predicaments" contradicts Strauss's version on
almost every point, the study of texts for both is the means to address
their determination to aid in the recovery of meaning for political life.
A constant stream of republications of Strauss's work and
new collections of his lectures and essays, sympathetically introduced by Pangle ( Strauss 1983 and 1989a
) and Gildin ( Strauss 1989c
) attests to
the continued impact of Strauss on a whole generation of political
theorists in America, though clearly not in Europe. This is not the
place to explore the divisions within that generation, east coast and west
coast Straussians, etc., who while debating the reading even of Strauss
himself do not deny the power of Strauss or the texts he studied.
Meanwhile, Strauss has been the object of a particularly hostile reading
by Drury ( 1988)
, but see Timothy Fuller's review of Drury's book for a
telling and moderate response ( 1991).
In no way is the following meant to suggest a direct link
between Strauss and the authors who see political theory as instrumental
or Sabine and those who engage in the historical pursuit of political
theory. Indeed, many of the scholars would be horrified to see
themselves identified with one or the other. My point is simply that
there is a common intellectual drive that motivates scholars who may
appear to have significantly different orientations.
I have structured this essay in terms of the debate
between the approaches of Strauss and the Cambridge School. To do
so, as the anonymous reviewer pointed out, I have not engaged some of
the more serious threats to the text and our capacity to read them
whether instrumentally or historically that have come from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault. My failure to address these challenges is not
to diminish their importance -- only to admit the limits of an essay of
this sort, as well as its author's level of comfort with and competence in
the works of these thinkers.
Compare here Shklar's colloquy with Montaigne in Ordinary Vices ( 1984) in which she makes clear the moral purpose of
her work; despite a self-effacing description of the work as "a ramble
through a moral minefield, not a march toward a destination" (1984, 6)
and her comments at the end of the "ramble" that "I have contributed
nothing to homiletic literature, and I have not harangued "modern
man,'" there lies behind these disclaimers the deep concern that citizens
of a liberal society understand that they must "put cruelty first."
The survey of works presented here can in no way
pretend to be comprehensive. It is not. The list of books and articles
published in the area of the history of political theory and political
thought is vast. Reflection on the last ten years can only allow for
reference to a smell number of works as exemplars of trends rather than
offer a comprehensive statement of what has been done. Thus, the
larger corpus of writing about Hume, Hegel, Oakeshott, Voegelin, and
many others will not be addressed -- not because such work is any less
important to the understanding of the trends in political theory, but
because of limits of time, space, and my own expertise.