Pocock and Political Discourse
J. G. A. Pocock’s numerous investigations have all revolved around the fruitful assumption that a work of political thought can only be understood in light of the linguistic constraints to which its author was subject, for these prescribed both the choice of subject matter and the author’s conceptualization of this subject matter.
Only the occasional epic theorist, like Machiavelli or Hobbes, succeeded in breaking out of these bonds by redefining old terms and inventing new ones.
The task of the modern commentator is to identify the “language” or “vocabulary” with and within which the author operated.
While historians of literature have always been aware that writers work within particular traditions, the application of this notion to the history of political ideas forms a sharp contrast to the assumptions of the 1950s, when it was naïvely thought that the close reading of a text by an analytic philosopher was sufficient to establish its meaning, even if the philosopher had no knowledge of the period of the text’s composition.
The language Pocock has most closely investigated is that of “civic humanism.” For much of his career he has argued that eighteenth-century English political thought should be interpreted as a conflict between rival versions of the “virtue” central to civic humanism.
On the one hand, he argues, this virtue is described by representatives of the Tory opposition using a vocabulary of public spirit and self-sufficiency.
For these writers the societal ideal is the small, independent landowner in the countryside. On the other hand, Whig writers describe such virtue using a vocabulary of commerce and economic progress; for them the ideal is the merchant.
In making such linguistic discriminations Pocock has disassociated himself from historians like Namier, who deride all eighteenth-century English political language as “cant.”
But while Pocock’s ideas have proved fertile when applied to England, they are more controversial when applied to the late-eighteenth-century United States. Pocock’s assertion that Jefferson’s attacks on the commercial policies of the Federalists simply echo the language of the Tory opposition in England is at odds with the fact that Jefferson rejected the elitist implications of that group’s notion of virtue and asserted the right of all to participate in commercial society.
Indeed, after promptings by Quentin Skinner, Pocock has admitted that a counterlanguage—one of rights and liberties—was probably as important in the political discourse of the late-eighteenth-century United States as the language of civic humanism.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to rank the relative importance of all the different vocabularies in which eighteenth-century political argument was conducted.
It is sufficient to recognize that any interesting text is probably a mixture of several of these vocabularies, and to applaud the historian who, though guilty of some exaggeration, has done the most to make us aware of their importance.