Policy Papers

The place of history in public life

Quentin Skinner |

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Executive Summary

  • Among the many ways in which different kinds of history can influence contemporary understandings, two examples of its potential for moral importance are considered here through the influence of history as stories we tell ourselves which constitute our identities.
  • Firstly, recent revisionist history of the English Reformation has challenged a previous generation's belief that the Reformation was a national movement.
  • Secondly, the constitutional settlement of 1688 has been seen as a landmark source of Englishness which supposedly combined republican demands for liberty under the law and freedom from arbitrary rule.
  • However, in reality it did not confer the true common-law liberty of seventeenth-century republicans but something else, which has come to be celebrated as 'negative liberty'.
  • As a result, we now consider ourselves to be 'free' only in a rather unexacting sense which, for instance, accepts our governments taking ever more discretionary powers to themselves so long as these do not infringe our 'rights'.


I have been asked to say just a few words about the place of history in public life. I have no doubt that this is a topic on which there are important things to be said, but I want to begin with a caution against talking in general terms about 'history' and public life. There are many kinds of historical enquiry: economic history, political history, social history, the history of religion, art, science, and the branch of history I myself study, the history of philosophy. Nor are these sub-disciplines even united by a common method. Economic historians are characteristically interested in processes, so they generally rely on statistical and causal explanations. Political historians tend to be more interested in individual behaviour, so they are little concerned with statistics, or even with causality, and mainly deal in explanations that refer us to motives. By contrast, cultural historians are interested in texts, whether in the literal sense or in the broader sense in which paintings and buildings can be read as texts, and therefore tend to be interested neither in statistics, nor in causes, nor in motives, but rather in the interpretation of the meanings embodied in such texts. My warning is thus that I do not think it makes much sense to talk about 'history' as if it has a unitary subject-matter and a distinctive 'historical method' for investigating it, and then to ask about the influence of that entity on public life. For there is no such entity.

I want instead to think about the various different kinds of history, and to ask if there is any general way in which they can combine to exercise an influence on our sense of ourselves and our place in the world. There may be many such ways, but I want to focus on just one that seems to me of moral importance. It stems from the fact that all communities tell stories about themselves, about the distinctive nature of their formation and achievements. These stories can have a powerful role in constituting our identities, and so in defining and sustaining our common life. But they are also subject to endless manipulation, for it will always be in the interests of the powerful -- rulers and opinion-formers alike -- that certain stories should be remembered, and in certain ways, and that other stories should be forgotten. That being so, it is I think part of the moral importance of historical study that historians should be ready to engage with these stories and take a critical stance towards them. The role, you might say, is that of bearing witness, ensuring that the stories which define and sustain us are as little as possible imposed upon us in such a way that particular groups or ideals are misleadingly praised, or misleadingly blamed, or unjustly omitted from the record altogether.

The English Reformation

I should like to illustrate these reflections by telling two stories myself. The first is a traditional tale about Englishness on which everyone of my generation was brought up. This country, so we were told, entered the modern world in the sixteenth century on a wave of reform in church and state in which in which the power and corrupted spirituality of the Catholic Church was repudiated, and a revolution in government simultaneously took place that had the effect of turning us into a nation-state freed from foreign interference. Recently, historians have been challenging this entire picture, showing us that Catholic spirituality remained vigorous throughout this period, that nothing like a national movement of revolt against the Catholic Church ever took place, and that nothing resembling a bureaucratic state was brought to birth in course of the Tudor century.

These revisionist accounts may not have been intended to have an influence on our public life, and I do not know how far they have done so, but I think they certainly deserve to have such an influence, and that it would be a beneficial one. I say that because one of the great religious drives of our time has been towards a more ecumenical willingness to respect different forms of spirituality in our society. This being so, it seems to me positively helpful that we have been given so many reasons for questioning our traditional self-image of Britain as a Protestant fortress. We have been shown that different forms of the religious life were at all times worthy of a respect they were never accorded, and that the image of national conversion was not only largely a myth but a damagingly excluding one.

My example shows historians of theology, church historians, political historians and intellectual historians combining to give us a new image of ourselves. One reason why it would, I think, be highly beneficial if that image were to have an impact on public life is that it shows us how little we ever had to fear from the simultaneous flourishing in our society of different and powerful forms of the religious life. It is worth remembering, not denying, how readily these can be accommodated.

The idea of liberty

My second story has played a no less central role in the construction of Englishness. The narrative in this case centres on the constitutional settlement of 1688, which is held to have given us a framework of Parliamentary sovereignty that succeeded at the same time in accommodating republican demands for liberty under law and an end to arbitrary rule. I have little quarrel with this story myself, except to say that the liberty thereby secured to us was not the liberty for which the republicans of the mid-seventeenth century had fought.

If you read the great pleas for the freedom of subjects from the revolutionary decades -- John Milton's, for example -- you will find that what is demanded is recognisably the view of freedom originally embodied in English common law from Bracton's De legibus angliae onwards. According to Bracton, or indeed Milton, to say of subjects that they possess their freedom is to say that they are not dependent on any power except the law. If you also depend on anyone else's will, then you have forfeited your liberty, even if you may still have the full exercise of your rights.

By contrast, the view of freedom we have inherited from the constitutional settlement of 1688, and which the political theorists of the Enlightenment so brilliantly propagated, is that you are free so long as you are not coerced, so long as there is no interference with your rights. This is the view they called negative liberty, the view that has been celebrated in our own time by philosophers like Isaiah Berlin as the true concept of freedom. But this understanding of the concept -- namely, that freedom is not infringed by dependence, but only by interference -- licenses the claim that contracts are free so long as they are not coercively imposed, and that citizens remain free as long as they are not subjected to actual interference in the exercise of their rights. It was crucial, however, to the original common-law view of liberty that both these arrangements may be compatible with the complete forfeiture of your standing as a free citizen. According to this earlier view, you will not be free, even if you have the complete enjoyment of all your rights, if you remain dependent for the continuation of your rights upon the arbitrary will of anyone else.

I need to stress that what I am saying here is not what some philosophers have begun to say about our prevailing understanding of freedom, namely that the view of negative liberty we have inherited offers us an etiolated and impoverished account of freedom. That is certainly what I believe. But I am speaking here as an historian, and I am making a further and different point. I am suggesting that, in being sold this account of freedom, we have lost an important part of our intellectual inheritance. We have been cheated of that view of freedom which was originally inscribed in our common law, and for which the republicans of seventeenth-century England unsuccessfully fought.

This attempt to rewrite the history of negative liberty has not so far had any influence that I know of on public life. We live in a society in which contracts are still held to be free so long as they are not coercive, and in which the executive branch of government claims more and more discretionary powers which, even if they do not take away our rights, leave us dependent on the will of the executive rather than the law. But in my view the revisionist story I have sketched deserves to have an influence, since it puts the case that our sense of ourselves as a free society is in part a self-deceiving one. We are free only according to a very unexacting analysis of what it means to be deprived of our liberty. We need, I am suggesting, to think again about whether we are as much a free society as we like to boast.


Both my examples try to make the same point: that the stories we tell about ourselves are always and unavoidably partial, that they often serve the interests of some groups but not others, and thus that it becomes part of the task of historians of all kinds to try to ensure that such stories are not uncritically accepted.

As my examples show, I am not in the least unhappy with the thought that history can serve a public purpose. But I very much hope that historians will not turn this aspiration into their primary goal. To put the point another way, I would be disturbed if historians were to convert themselves into general public intellectuals. There seems at the present time a tendency to encourage such all-round specialists, and a still more troubling tendency for historians to put themselves forward in that role. But ours is a highly professionalised public culture, so that there can hardly be anything more ludicrous than the idea of public intellectuals who are taken to be worth hearing on any issue, regardless of whether they have any expert knowledge of it. A healthy intellectual culture is surely one in which there is lots of expertise available on lots of subjects, and in which people are invited to talk only about what they actually know about.

I hope, then, that professional historians will stick to their trade, and try to practise it in as professional a manner as their talents allow. I have enough confidence in the importance of the past to believe that, so long as they select topics for study that have sufficient significance, they will turn out to be able to make a contribution to public life as well.

(This is the text of a talk given at the British Academy on 19 October 2005, and can be heard again on the British Academy website.

Further Reading

The English Reformation

The old story:
A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (London, 1964).

Revisionist perspectives:
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale University Press, pbk., 2005).

The idea of liberty

The old story:
Isaiah Berlin, 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (1958) in Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Revisionist perspectives:
Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1998).


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