Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas

Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," History and Theory, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1969).


My aim is to consider what I take to be the basic question which necessarily arises whenever an historian of ideas’ confronts a work which he hopes to understand. Such an historian may have focused his attention on a work of literature – a poem, a play, a novel – or on a work of philosophy – some exercise┬áin ethical, political, religious, or other such mode of thought. But the basic question will in all such cases remain the same: what are the appropriate procedures to adopt in the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the work? There are of course two currently orthodox (though conflicting) answers to this question, both of which seem to command a wide acceptance. The first (which is perhaps being increasingly adopted by historians of ideas) insists that it is the context “of religious, political, and economic factors” which determines the meaning of any given text, and so must provide “the ultimate framework” for any attempt to understand it. The other orthodoxy, however, (still perhaps the most generally accepted) insists on the autonomy of the text itself as the sole necessary key to its own meaning, and so dismisses any attempt to reconstitute the “total context” as “gratuitous, and worse.”