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The History of Ideas as Philosophy and History

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This article argues for a conception of the history of ideas that treats philosophy historically while avoiding sociological reductionism. On the view presented here, philosophical problems characteristically arise from a conflict of commitments, at least some of which have roots in wider forms of life and ways of seeing the world. In bringing such 'doxa' to our attention, the history of ideas, it is argued, plays a role that is both genuinely historical and, at the same time, contributes to philosophical argument in making these commitments available to scrutiny. The article defends the permissibility of the apparent 'anachronism' involved in such interpretations. Although they may violate the 'principle of attribution' advocated by Quentin Skinner in his seminal 'Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas', that principle should not be accepted. The ascription of authorial intentions does indeed form an important part of interpretation, but intentions should not be understood either in a 'Cartesian' fashion (as recapturing what was 'in the author's mind') or in the modified version of Austinian speech-act theory advocated by Skinner.

Keywords: History of Ideas; Philosophy; Quentin Skinner; intention; rational reconstruction; textual interpretation

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Government, Harvard University, CGIS, 1737 Cambridge Street, K419, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA, Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2011


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