Review of C. E. Vaughan: Studies in the History of Political Philosophy

Review of Studies in the History of Political Philosophy, by C. E. Vaughan, Social Research, Vol. 8, No. 3 (September 1941).  Reprinted in What is Political Philosophy?


Vaughan is guided by a philosophy of history, but he is not a philosophic historian. He is a dogmatic historian. He starts from a settled and even passionately asserted view concerning the problems of political philosophy and their solutions; and the various doctrines which he considers, he views primarily not in themselves but within the framework supplied by what one may call his personal views. Thus although his work is rich in extensive quotations, the voice of Vaughan is almost always more audible than that of the writers he discusses. And it is a monotonous voice. In his treatment of the doctrines of the various thinkers he does not take account of the peculiar literary character of their works; he hardly considers the fact that different weights have to be attached to the explicit statements of the scientific Tractatus politicus on the one hand and, on the other, to those of the popular-scientific Leviathan, the deliberately unscientific Civil Government, the voluntarily obscure Esprit des lois, or the rhetorical Reflections on the Revolution in France. Whatever may be the merits of such a treatment in other cases, it is strange, it is even hardly understandable, in the case of a writer such as Vaughan, whose watchword is “history,” whose opposition to the doctrines of the enlightenment is decisively based on the alleged fact of the discovery, since that time, of “history.” To express the same objection somewhat differently: while no dogmatic treatment of the doctrines of the past can be truly fruitful (for since the dogmatic historian knows the answer to the philosophic questions before he makes his historical studies, these studies will enhance his erudition but not his wisdom), probably the most disastrous form of dogmatism is that which proceeds from the belief in continuous progress; if that belief is sound, present-day views are, generally speaking, nearer the truth than earlier views, and therefore no passionate interest in earlier views, no serious willingness to submit to the teaching of earlier thinkers, no serious effort at liberation from the prejudices of the present, no progress, can develop.