Tribute to J.G.A. Pocock

On the occasion of the death of J.G.A. Pocock, one of the most important voices in the intellectual history of the 20th century, on 12 December 2022, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, the European Hobbes Society wanted to pay tribute to his memory. To this end, the contributions of three prominent historians will be published, freely reflecting on his legacy, highlighting aspects of his influence and applying, in essay form, the categories developed by Pocock to contemporary political analysis. Each has freely chosen the form in which they wish to express their tribute. We are grateful to Professors Patricia SpringborgFrank Ankersmit and Jorge Myers for agreeing to participate.

Jorge Myers, Professor National University of Quilmes, Director of the Centre for Intellectual History (UNQ/CONICET).

The Many-Feathered Owl: J. G. A. Pocock’s Rethinking of the Foundations of the Languages of Politics

In the course of a career that spanned over six decades, J. G. A. Pocock made a decisive contribution to the ongoing historiographical revolution in the study of political thought and language that has transformed the practice not only of intellectual history, but of history tout court, during the last seventy years. He did this through the medium of a vast yet precisely centered oeuvre, composed of his three major books –The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law(1957), The Machiavellian Moment (1973), Barbarism and Religion (6 volumes,1999-2015)-, a series of substantial collections of articles -notably Language, Politics and Time (1971), Virtue Commerce and History (1985), The Discovery of Islands. Essays in British History (2005)[1] and Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (2009)-, scholarly editions of classic works of political thought –The Political Works of James Harrington (1977) and Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics (1992, with a new introduction)- and a truly ample array of uncollected articles published in journals and anthologies. Throughout this formidably vast scholarly enterprise Pocock carved out as his specific dominion of knowledge the history of the languages of politics as they developed -within a British frame of reference- from the Renaissance to the end of the Eighteenth Century; and, among these, preeminently those employed to articulate a diversity of republican idioms and projects. Despite the remarkably wide-ranging historical curiosity of which his essays on Mozi and Chinese political thought[2] or his numerous writings on the Maori contribution to New Zealand political discourse[3] give evidence, a unifying thread may be detected throughout as constituting the specific problematic -the problematique générale- that engaged his reflection over so many years: the reconstruction and exploration of languages of politics in the British Atlantic (to which should be added his important partial reconstructions of those of the Italian Renaissance and of the French Enlightenment) oriented towards an interrogation of the conditions of possibility for a modern concept of revolution to emerge -together with the responses which that emergence evoked- and for which an understanding of the complex transformation of the religious dimension of political thought and discourse throughout the early Modern era was characterized by him as being crucial.

Closely associated throughout much of his career with the group of historians who have come to be labelled “the Cambridge School” of history of ideas in context, his theoretical and methodological perspective was in many ways uniquely his own. This is especially evident in his stage-by-stage elaboration of the notion of “languages of politics” as the crucial element in the historical reconstruction of political thought. In its first formulation, in his seminal article “Languages and their implications” -conceived at the close of the 1960s- his effort to establish “the methodological autonomy of political language”[4] relied heavily on the arguments developed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (and his related works on the subject): languages of politics could be understood to function in the same manner as the paradigms underpinning “normal science” for “scientific communities” in the longer or shorter time-spans separating one “revolution” from the next. This characterization had several implications for the practice of the history of political thought. First, the relative significance of “key works” within the authorial canon of political thought -for any period or intellectual current- diminished, as did the role of the “author” himself (or herself): for if, according to Pocock, “authors -individuals thinking and articulating- remain the actors in any story we have to tell”, the fact that the “units of the processes we trace are the paradigms of political speech”[5] meant that those very works previously seen as “classics” effecting revolutionary changes in meaning -Machiavelli, Hobbes or Locke- were themselves constructed through the medium of the available paradigms of political speech, and this fact in itself had a levelling effect. Consequently, a meticulous exploration of the entire range of political utterances available to each of those “key authors” -newspapers, pamphlets, parliamentary speeches, legislation, sermons- became -almost- a more significant exercise than the exegesis of the “classics” themselves: certainly, if the study of a vast array of obscure and “minor” works did not entirely displace the key works as the focus of the historian’s analysis, it became the necessary prelude to any informed understanding of the range of meanings they conveyed when written or published. If this consequence of the “Kuhnian” conceptualization of political languages remained compatible with the contemporaneous methodological suggestion being made by Quentin Skinner in relation to the aim of avoiding any proleptic interpretation of political utterances articulated in the past, another, also derived from it, suggested a significant divergence between Skinner’s and Pocock’s understanding of the historical reconstruction of political thought and discourse: “Once history is seen in linguistic depth such as this, the paradigms with which he author operates take precedence over questions of his ‘intention’ or the ‘illocutionary force’ of his utterance, for only after we have understood what means he had of saying anything can we understand what he meant to say, what he succeeded in saying, what he was taken to have said, or what effects his utterance had in modifying or transforming the existing paradigm structures.”[6] Rather than simply examining the canonically-significant texts of the past by relating them to a context whose meticulous reconstruction could offer more or less precise clues as to the authors “intention” when producing his act of speech, the historian should seek to identify “languages” of politics -whose governing paradigms determined, at least in part, the vocabularies disposable to their users-, to reconstruct them as perfectly as possible from the full historical record, and to relate all works -including the canonically-significant ones- to the range of possibilities available within that paradigm: a proposition which seems obliquely nearer to the project of Begriffsgeschichte than to that of the “Cambridge School”. 

Writing at a moment in time when the epochal climate was suffused with structuralism in its various formulations, that early effort at characterizing the nature and role of languages of politics attested, undoubtedly, to the presence of that atmosphere, even as it deliberately sought to avoid the principal limitation of structuralism, i.e. the complete abolition of authorial agency: in that and the other essays that accompanied it in that book, the “author” seems usually to be the locus of decision -insofar as he or she could choose to use one language of politics rather than another (or to combine several as part of a specific rhetorical strategy), even if the range of languages available for such choice was strictly dependent on the moment in history inhabited by the author-, while the processes which could shift paradigms over time and even overthrow them were situated in the interplay between specific instances of speech action deployed by authors in the context of polemic and explanation, and the underlying paradigms which determined the range of available words and meanings.

A little over a decade later, in the opening essay of Virtue, Commerce and History –“Introduction: The state of the art”-, Pocock offered a more detailed and sophisticated characterization of what he understood “languages” of politics to be. Acknowledging explicitly the contribution of Saussurean linguistics and the “structuralist turn” derived from it, “language” was now referred, in the course of his argument, to the distinct levels of langue and parole, while “discourse” and “traditions of discourse” appeared as terms interchangeable with “language” and “idioms”: a clear index of the manner in which Foucault now interacted with and partially displaced Kuhn and Austin in his conception of what “languages of politics” were and how they operated, although these latter -as well as linguistic game theory- continued to play a role in the thick description of historically-retrievable “languages”. The central subject with which historical research of political thought (and even of “politics” in a broader sense) was, for Pocock, political discourse, political language: “It is a large part of our historian’s practice to learn to read and recognize the diverse idioms of political discourse as they were available in the culture and at the time he is studying: to identify them as they appear in the linguistic texture of any one text, and to know what they would ordinarily have enabled that text’s author to propound or “say”. The extent to which the author’s employment of them was out of the ordinary comes later.”[7] More importantly, of the two domains into which that subject could be divided -the history of “states of consciousness” or of private, individual, thought, on the one hand, and of public discourse produced in the interaction between more than one agent, on the other hand- it was the latter which mattered the most to the historian -at least in Pocock’s opinion- while the former was merely a possible ancillary form of research designed to improve understanding of the former: “”But speech is commonly public, and authors commonly publish their works, though the act of writing a text and the act of publishing it may be very different because performed in different situations. (…) The history of discourse is concerned with speech acts that become known and evoke response, with illocutions that are modified as they become perlocutions by the ways in which recipients respond to them, and with responses that take the form of further speech acts and countertexts.”[8] For the history of political discourse to be meaningful, “a complex mode of Rezeptionsgeschichte is required of the historian.”[9]

Even as he outlined the frontiers of the object which should constitute the historian’s focus -by his distinction between the history of discourse and the history of thought, as well as between both and the histoire des mentalités-, he reinforced the central aspect of his understanding of the collective nature of discourse and the actions that could be performed through its medium. Languages of politics surrounded and contained individual thinkers and their texts within themselves, however much those individuals might employ their words and idioms to effect changes upon the languages themselves. Hence, the task for the historian intent upon recovering “languages” that had been available in previous historical periods but were no longer so -or at least no longer so with the same characteristics- was to gather sufficient evidence of systematic and shared usage by historical agents of the vocabularies and syntactical possibilities those languages offered: “The more he can show (a) that diverse authors employed the same idiom and performed diverse and even contrary utterances in it, (b) that the idiom recurs in texts and contexts varying from those in which it was at first detected, and (c) that authors expressed in words their consciousness that they were employing such an idiom and developed critical and second-order languages to comment on and regulate their employment of it, the more his confidence in his method will increase”[10] -and the more the confidence of his reader and fellow-historian would also be expected to increase. If specific languages could be identified and mapped out by the historian, the question of the relationship of language to experience remained still to be addressed. Pocock, on this issue, once again approached a characterization of that relationship which came surprisingly near to that of Reinhardt Koselleck and his colleagues, the remaining space between them deriving almost surely from the constraints imposed by his ultimately-empiricist perspective: “There is a constant and justified demand (…) that the language used by actors in a society be made to yield information regarding what that society was experiencing, and (…) that language be as far as possible presented as an effect of such experience. Here the historian is seen to concede a measure of autonomy to language, and this troubles those who cannot tell the difference between autonomy and abstraction. (…) [The historian] does not suppose that the language of the moment simply denotes, reflects or is an effect of the experience of the moment. Rather, it interacts with experience, it supplied the categories, grammar and mentality through which experience has to be recognized and articulated. In studying it the historian learns how the inhabitants of a society were cognizing experience, what experiences they were capable of recognizing, and what responses to experience they were capable of articulating and consequently performing. As a historian of discourse, it is his business to study what happened in discourse (including theory) in the process of experience, and in this way, which is one among others, he learns a good deal about the experience of those he studies”[11]. “The historian therefore expects the relation between language and experience to be diachronous, ambivalent, and problematic.”[12] If experience was not coterminous with the language which could express it, if a portion of “experience” remained beyond the realm of linguistic expression, then the begriffsgeschichtlichetransformation of social history into conceptual history remained just out of reach. For the purposes of Pocock’s theory, this was not necessarily a negative situation.

In practice, the “languages of politics” and “idioms” he explicitly identified and explored were those for which a substantial empirical evidence could be marshalled in support of their use by speakers and writers belonging to the historical period being studied. He suggested that one form of recovery and reconstruction of such languages would be through the careful examination of “the professional vocabularies of jurists, theologians, philosophers, merchants, and so on that for some reason have become recognized as part of the practice of politics and have entered into political discourse”[13]. Another would be to practice the same method in recovering idioms and languages whose origin was “rhetorical” rather than institutional or professional: “they will be found to have originated as modes of argument within the ongoing process of political discourse, as new modes invented or old modes transformed by the constant action of speech upon language, of parole upon langue[14]. The manifold varieties of the discourse of “whiggism” present in the British Eighteenth Century, or of “toryism” both before, during and after the years studied by Pocock; of the “enlightenment” with its different national emphases, or even, although this overlapped with the form originating in professional vocabularies, the languages of Machiavellianism or of Lockeanism or of the “ancient Constitution” over the centuries, were all possible candidates for application of the historical method suggested by Pocock, and exemplars of the theory which underpinned that method.

In his own research Pocock would employ the essential intuitions of that conception of “political languages” -which, as mentioned, evolved over time, incorporating new theoretical references in pace with the evolving patterns of historical theory in general (by the 1990s, the Sattelzeit had entered Pocock’s own vocabulary, and such incorporations were many and constant over the years) which produced subtle (and sometimes profound) transformations regarding their nature- to identify, map out and explore the language of the “ancient constitution” in early modern British political discourse, the “Machiavellian moment” on both sides of the Atlantic, the variegated patterns of whiggism in Eighteenth-Century Britain, the British Protestant Enlightenment -as distinct from the French and Italian variety-, the theological language of Socinianism in its political projection, the discontinuous but ever threatening language(s) of revolution as inflected and resignified within the British tradition in the pre-modern era, and many more. In accomplishment of that vast cartography he reinterpreted and gave a more central emphasis than ever before to the work of James Harrington -elevated to the role of equal with Rober Filmer in the company of Thomas Hobbes’s disputants-, he demonstrated that the obsession of Anglo-American historians with the role of John Locke’s “liberal” thought in the discourse of North American independence occluded the presence of other sources just as potent, and he rescued from oblivion the powerful intelligence present in Josiah Tucker’s writings. As well as, of course, illuminating the many Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon -British and cosmopolitan, historiographical and philosophical, erudite and on the cutting-edge of contemporary politics-, whose Decline and Fall will never be read again in quite the same manner after Pocock´s unfolding of its many layers of meaning.

Pocock never denied that his preoccupation as an active historian was exclusively-centered on British political thought and the early-modern period: when he dealt with other national traditions of political language, it was always with the intention of further illuminating the British authors and discursive traditions he studied, and of refining his own interpretation of them. French, Italian, German political thought was always explored through the prism of the British readers for whom the authors of those nations had proved at some time relevant. Even his excursions into Maori thought were ultimately placed within a general British framework.

It might at first sight seem surprising, then, that even before his principal works began to be translated into Spanish or Portugues, his theory and practice were becoming relevant to Latin American historians grappling with the same type of problems concerning the history of political discourse as those faced by Pocock. In part, this reflects the generally less insular and more eclectic approach to history accustomed by Latin American historians, but, more importantly, it stemmed from the fact that many of the issues at the center of Pocock’s work were also of fundamental importance to the historical reinterpretation underway in Latin America from the 1980s onwards. From the Latin American perspective, the rediscovery of the history of Iberian political thought and discourse in the longue durée has revealed many more parallels between the British and the Spanish traditions than had ever been recognized from the British perspective. For instance, although there is no evidence that Pocock’s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law was read by Tulio Halperin Donghi, the Argentinian historian can be found dedicating a key part of his interpretation of Spanish political thought and the ideology of Argentinian independence to Spanish discourse on the “ancient constitution” of Spain and its Empire[15]. Similarly, long before Pocock’s seminal contribution to a rethinking of the British Enlightenment based on the identification of its complex imbrication with British theological discourse, Spanish American historians had been actively doing the same for the Spanish and Spanish American Enlightenment, reinterpreted by authors such as Mario Góngora or, many years later, José Carlos Chiaramonte, as a “Catholic Enlightenment”[16]. In these cases, the intense interest awakened among Latin American historians by Pocock’s work derived from a situation of confluence between traditions, more than from the unique contributions that work might make to a better understanding of the history of Latin American political discourse.

 Such a decisive contribution was effected through reception of two key works –The Machiavellian Moment and Virtue, Commerce and History– whose arguments proved highly-illuminating to historians working on the history of political thought in the region. Natalio Botana, for example, relied heavily on Pocock’s reading of British and Anglo-American history in La Tradición Republicana: a study of republican discourse in Nineteenth-Century Argentina whose principal aim was to demonstrate the connections between European (and British) traditions of republican thought and those of Argentina[17]. In the second half of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Pocock’s work came to be more frequently referenced by Mexican, Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean and other historians of political discourse working on the Nineteenth Century, both in order to use specific observations on discursive traditions and authors present in the British domain for reinterpretation or closer analysis of Latin American authors and discursive traditions, and -more fundamentally- in order to undertake the cartography of Latin American languages of politics with the methodological instruments developed by Pocock. Hilda Sábato, Elías Palti, Paula Alonso, and many other Argentinian historians would make use in one or both ways of his work during the 1990s and after. The current author did so when studying republican discourse in the Argentinian Confederation of Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1995. Even before the availability of a substantial body of translations, Pocock’s historical texts were having an impact on the manner in which the history of political discourse in Latin America was being conducted.

From the beginning of the Twenty-First Century onwards, most of J. G. A. Pocock’s principal works have been translated into both Spanish and Portuguese, and this has widened the area of his influence, both in Spain and Portugal and in Latin America, engagement with his work being visible not only in the field of intellectual history, but also in those of political science, philosophy and even the sociology of intellectuals. This increased presence has also evoked increasing criticism. In recent years a debate has been gradually coalescing around the fact that references to the history of Iberian and Latin American political thought was always all but totally absent from the work, not only of Pocock, but of the bulk of authors associated with the “Cambridge School” -even when such references would have been pertinent to their own fields of enquiry within the British domain. A recent text by Clément Thibaud has summarized the various instances of this critique, and rendered it more complex by suggesting that the diametrical opposition between “republicanism” and “liberalism” present in the work of Pocock (and Skinner, Wood,, on the one hand, and the uncrossable caesura posited in it as separating the Early Modern Period from the Modern -and the Eighteenth from the Nineteenth Century-, on the other hand, combined with Pocock’s Anglocentrism to produce a model of republican discourse whose applicability to the Atlantic situation in general and to the Latin American in particular, is increasingly showing itself as being untenable[18]. Without underestimating the importance of Pocock’s specific contribution, Thibaud’s discussion of the limitations of the British and Anglo-American history of republicanism has sought to point the way forward to a more precise understanding of Latin American and Atlantic republicanism and republican discourse: one which even though it supersedes it in its applicability (including Pocock’s contribution), would not have been possible had it not existed.

Pocock, had the language barrier not existed, might have engaged with this criticism in a constructive -if not conciliatory- fashion. He was, after all, a “colonial” himself, albeit of the Pacific rather than the Atlantic wing of the British Empire, whose decline and fall took place within the span of his own life. Throughout his extensive body of work he sought constantly to place the difference between different types of “British” subjects and citizens within the explicit purview of his narrative, whether these were in fact English, or North American, Scottish, or Maori: a study of republicanism plurally centered -whose urgent necessity Thibaud so cogently defends- was already on Pocock’s horizons, even when that horizon stretched no farther than the frontiers where the Union Jack had once flown. In defense of that fecund self-limitation, he might well have repeated the following words from his valedictory lecture upon retiring from his decades-long position at Johns Hopkins University: “It depends what one wants, a history which is one’s own, or a history in which one can move freely; the island or the ocean, the landfall or the voyage. Beyond that, however, lies the understanding that one can’t choose finally, and that that’s what history is about.”[19]

[1] To which should be added those books which were chiefly compilations of the work of others, such as Three British Revolutions1641, 1688, 1776: (Princeton, 1980), Terence Ball and J.G.A. Pocock, Conceptual Change and the Constitution (1988), and (compiled conjointly with Gordon J. Schochet and Lois G. Schwoerrer) The Varieties of British Political Thought 1500-1800, (CUP, 1993).

[2] “Ritual, Language, Power: an Essay on the Apparent Political Meanings of Ancient Chinese Philosophy”, Politics, Language and Time. Essays on Political Thought and History, University of Chicago Press, 1971.

[3] Among others, “Tanguta Whenua and Enlightenment anthropology”, and “Law, sovereignty and history in a divided culture: the case of New Zealand and the Treaty of Waitangi”, in: The Discovery of Islands. Essays in British History, CUP, 2005.

[4] Pocock, J.G.A., Politics, Language and Time (Op.Cit.), p.13.

[5] Pocock, Ibid., p. 25.

[6] Pocock, Ibid., p. 25.

[7] Pocock, J.G.A., Virtue, Commerce and History, p. 9.

[8] Ibid., p. 17-18.

[9] Op.Cit.

[10] Ibid., p. 10.

[11] Ibid., p. 29.

[12] Ibid., p. 29.

[13] Ibid., p. 8.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Halperin Donghi, Tulio, Tradición política española e ideología revolucionaria de Mayo, Eudeba, 1961, Buenos Aires.

[16] Góngora, Mario, Estudios sobre el galicanismo y la “Ilustración católica” en América Española, Editorial de la Universidad de Chile, 1957, Santiago de Chile; Chiaramonte, José Carlos, La Ilustración en el Río de la Plata. Cultura eclesiástica y cultura laica durante el Virreinato, Puntosur, 1989, Buenos Aires.

[17] Instrumental for his own reconstruction of the Anglo-American tradition of political discourse, Botana singled out Pocock’s critique of the notion of “gothic liberty” as used by Bolingbroke. Cf: Botana, Natalio, La tradición republicana, Sudamericana, 1984, Buenos Aires, p. 62.

[18] Thibaud, Clément, “Para una historia de los republicanismos atlánticos (1770-1880), Prismas No. 23, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, 2019, Buenos Aires.

[19] Pocock, J. G. A., The Owl Reviews his Feathers, Valedictory Lecture, Johns Hopkins University, 1994 (curated by Zachary Larsen, at