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Political Thought, Time and History: An International Conference

The above is a recording of the first panel of the conference, on  'The state in time and history', with Quentin Skinner and Sir Christopher Clark.


An International Conference

Clare College, University of Cambridge

Thursday 10 and Friday 11 May 2018

It is easy to assume that political thought is bound up with time and history.  To most historians, time and history are obvious dimensions of politics; politics occur in contexts which are temporal and historical, and must be studied by reference to the evidence provided by those contexts.  Political philosophers, however, have never taken time and history for granted.  Whether temporality is a necessary or normative foundation for the concept of the civitas, the state, whether political concepts require to be inserted into a historical narrative to be effective are questions to which they have returned very different answers.  A Machiavelli might hold politics governed by an inherently temporal ‘necessity’, and insist that political agency be assessed in its specific historical outcomes.  But a Hobbes or a Rousseau would create a foundation for the state which deliberately limited the scope for time to make a difference, and which would be valid independent of historical circumstance.  Likewise among jurists.  Exponents of customary law argued from prescription, while Roman jurists explored the adaptability of concepts codified for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire to the post-Roman world of multiple kingdoms and city-states.  But other jurists set aside time by preferring first principles to prescription, or by making historical examples support accounts of natural law as the universal, supratemporal embodiment of civilised sociability.  Viewed as the study of ‘languages’, the history of political thought has found itself studying many languages to which time and history are essential – but many too which diminish or exclude them.  

The aim of the conference was therefore to explore the variety of engagements with time and history found in political thinkers, the better to understand (and, perhaps, to explain) why political philosophy has been unable to take these concepts for granted.  Themes of individual sessions included Time and the State, the temporal and historical perspectives available to political thinkers following the fall of the Roman Empire, time in customary and Roman legal traditions, the temporalities of civil and sacred history in the early modern period, the conceptual status of Enlightenment ‘stadial history’ and what it contributed to the understanding of society and government, the time of ‘modern’ politics, in the nineteenth and again in the twentieth centuries, and whether a political thought ‘global’ in time and history is conceivable.  It ended with a reassessment of time in the history of political thought itself: what understandings of time should govern our engagement with the political and legal thought of the past, whether remote or still close at hand?  Must they be adapted if the history of political thought is, as many of its foremost practitioners have hoped, to enhance political philosophy itself?  The conference was organised under the aegis of the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought and the University’s Faculty of History.




Thursday 10 May

The state in time and history

Quentin Skinner (Queen Mary, London), ‘Why states need time’

Sir Christopher Clark (Cambridge),  ‘The times of power’

For audio recording see above.


Political understandings of time and history after the Roman Empire

Caroline Humfress (St Andrews), ‘Out of time? Eternal judgements in late antiquity’     

David D’Avray (UCL), ‘Medieval political thought as a social system in time’


Time and history in the Customary and Roman legal traditions

George Garnett (Oxford), ‘The logic of authority and the logic of evidence’                  

Magnus Ryan (Cambridge), ‘Historicity and universality in the political thought of medieval Roman Lawyers’


Civil (‘Politick’) and Sacred History in the early modern period

Kinch Hoekstra (Berkeley),  ‘Politic History’          

Sarah Mortimer (Oxford), ‘The commonwealth and Christian time’


Friday 11 May

Enlightenment stadial histories of ‘society’

Aaron Garrett (Boston),  ‘Scottish time’

Silvia Sebastiani (EHESS, Paris), 'Civilisation and perfectibility: conflicting views of the history of humankind?'


The time of ‘modern’ politics and law

Chris Meckstroth (Cambridge),  ‘A revolution in time: German Idealism on the future and the past’

Charlotte Johann (Cambridge), 'Rethinking politics through the history of law: the German Historical School contra Hegelianism’


The time of politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

Waseem Yaqoob (Cambridge), 'After Historicism'               

Shruti Kapila (Cambridge), ‘The time of global political thought’


Panel: How then should we understand time in the History of Political Thought?

Annabel Brett (Cambridge)                             

Megan Donaldson (Cambridge)

Sylvana Tomaselli (Chair, Cambridge)


Organiser:  John Robertson (Cambridge),

"Anti-Colonial Political Thought" will be a two-day conference focusing on arguments against 20th century European empires deployed across Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Asia. The conference will take place on 18-19 Sept. 2020 at King's College and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

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