The Ethics of Interpretation in Political Theory and Intellectual History

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Scholars studying classic political texts face an important decision: Should these texts be read as artifacts of history or as sources for still-valid insights about politics today? Competing historical and “presentist” approaches to political thought do not have a methodological dispute—that is, a disagreement about the most effective scholarly means to an agreed-upon end. They instead have an ethical dispute about the respective value of competing activities that aim at different purposes. This article examines six ethical arguments, drawn primarily from the work of Quentin Skinner, in favor of the historical approach. It concludes that while both intellectual history and presentist theory are ethically justifiable, the best justification of the former enterprise is that it can help us achieve the purposes of the latter.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-99
JournalThe Review of Politics
Issue number1
Early online date17 Dec 2018
StatePublished - 2019

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