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Peter Laslett and the Contested Concept of Political Philosophy

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Among historians of political thought, Peter Laslett is probably best remembered for his 1956 declaration concerning the death of political philosophy. Laslett's argument was thematically close to the contemporaneous debate on 'the end of ideology', as well as to the worries voiced by scholars such as Leo Strauss of traditional philosophical wisdom being threatened by a new scientism and historicism. Political theory textbooks have often portrayed Laslett as an individual who produced a highly memorable recording of the devastating effects of the emerging modernist modes of knowledge, such as philosophical positivism and social scientific behaviouralism, on political philosophy. However, his personal relation to such modes of knowledge was far more complicated than a simple rejection or endorsement. As opposed to the Straussians, Laslett was not mourning the loss of eternal philosophic wisdom, because he did not have much belief in its existence. As opposed to the positivists, he still wanted to maintain the history of political thought as a central issue area of philosophical and political studies. Laslett's particular way of complementing the philosophical with the empirical and the historical also distinguished him from the end of ideology-theorizing dominated by American scholars. The originality of his views is testified by the emergence of the 'Cambridge School' in the history of political thought, which cannot be adequately understood without taking into account Laslett's contributions in the 1950s.
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Keywords: Cambridge School; Leo Strauss; Peter Laslett; Quentin Skinner; T.D. Weldon; empirical theory; history of political thought; ideology; political philosophy; political principles; political science

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept of Social Studies, University of Lapland, P.O. Box 122, FIN-96101 Rovaniemei, Finland, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: 01 January 2009

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