CONTINGENCY, RHETORIC AND LIBERTY QUENTIN SKINNER AS A EUROPEAN THINKER

CONTINGENCY, RHETORIC AND LIBERTY
QUENTIN SKINNER AS A EUROPEAN THINKER

Eighth Jyväskylä Symposium on Political Thought and Conceptual History
14-15 June 2013, Agora Alfa

Organised by the Finnish Centre of Political Thought and Conceptual Change, University of Jyväskylä, Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy and its Political Science Unit, Redescriptions Association, Eurooppalaisen filosofian seura.

Quentin Skinner’s first academic visit to Finland took place in March 1985, when the Finnish Political Science Association invited him as the Guest Speaker to its Annual Conference in Jyväskylä. Before the conference he also spoke in Helsinki, in the seminar of the Academician Georg Henrik von Wright, the famous Finnish philosopher with a Cambridge professorship and the editing of Wittgenstein’s works as major parts of his career. Since then Skinner has a special relationship to a remarkable number of Finnish scholars in different fields and with different research topics.

Although numerous Finnish – or Finland-based – scholars have applied, criticised, lectured or made specialised studies on Skinner’s work, no academic event around it has been organised in this country. It is time to arrange such an event as the Eighth Jyväskylä Symposium on Political Thought and Conceptual History with the title Contingency, Rhetoric and Liberty Quentin Skinner as an European Thinker on 14-15 June 2013. Quentin Skinner himself will be present on this occasion.

It is difficult to say, who and when first quotes Skinner in Finland. A more extensive reception of and study on Skinner’s work started, only after the publication of The Foundations of Modern Political Thought in 1978. This refers to another advantage of the latecomers. In Anglophone academia a massive reception and critique of Skinner started already with his famous article Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas (1969) and already in 1974 the new journal Political Theory published a special issue related to Skinner’s work. A consequence of this early reception is the curious tendency of many Anglophone scholars to deal with Skinner as a mere methodologist and to underplay both his substantial work in the study of political thought as well as the intellectual innovation of his turn to rhetoric around 1990. His work of liberty is, however, widely discussed by normative theorists but separated from the rest of his œuvre.

In this sense we might take the Finnish studies on Skinner as a representative anecdote that indicates how differently Skinner’s work is understood, discussed and appreciated in continental Europe than in the Anglophone provinces. A discussion that relates Skinner’s work to that of French, German and other continental scholars is widely different from the Anglophone one. In this symposium we want to accentuate this contrast by inviting continental European scholars to discuss with Quentin Skinner on his work. In continental Europe scholars with different intellectual background and research experiences have both used and analysed Skinner’s writings in a manner illustrating a sufficient distance to his local intellectual context. Skinner himself is a good example of how diffuse the distinction between continental and Anglophone styles of thinking is, but for this very reason it is important to emphasise the interpretation of his work among continental scholars.

To this symposium we have invited a few European scholars who have in different forms cooperated with both Skinner himself and the participating Finnish scholars, who have a first-hand link to Skinner’s research as well as those comparing his work with other contemporary currents of research in political thought and its neighbouring fields. Thirdly we have invited scholars who have read and applied Skinner’s work but never written on it to make personal comments of reading his work.

With the title Contingency, Rhetoric and Liberty we might illustrate central topics of contemporary political theorising. Although liberty has for a long time been at the focus of political theories, its links to contingency and rhetoric are much more recent phenomena, or old ones that are updated again. The normative currents of political theory still remain suspicious of this development, but for example historical, post-modernist or ideal typical approaches to political thought are more ready to cope with it.

In the original version of his essay Rhetoric and Conceptual Change Skinner emphasises the role of contingency for his work in two steps. Skinner already in the late sixties speaks up in comparison with Arthur Lovejoy “for a more radical contingency in the history of thought”, and later he with “the ancient theorists of eloquence” has come “to share their more contingent understanding of normative concepts and the vocabulary in which they are generally expressed (Finnish Yearbook of Political Thought 3, 1999, 61-62, 67).

These quotes indicate a close link between rhetoric and contingency, and that between contingency and liberty is equally obvious, although opposing liberty to the dependence on arbitrary power also refers to the restriction of a specific type of contingency in the name of liberty. These are topics that have been largely neglected in the Anglophone reception and interpretation of Skinner’s work, whereas they are rather familiar to Finnish and other continental European scholars.

Redescriptions – moving this year into a two-issue journal – will publish some of the contributions. The publication of others for example in the Finnish Political Science Association’s book series could be possible.
http://www.coepolcon.fi/poltch/?c=poltch-c-events

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