Liberty Matters

Anachronism: The History of Words, the History of Concepts and the Role of Practice

I've been too slow to respond to David's initial response, and some of what I wanted to raise are issues he addresses in the second. I cannot speak for J.C.D. Clarke (whose commitment to his subject's vocabulary even led him, memorably, to refer to the Young Pretender as James III!), but my worry about anachronism did not (I hope) entail a commitment to explicating the history of political thought only in terms thinkers or writers would or could have assented to. But it all depends what we are doing, or trying to do.
An historical approach to political theory may involve (at least) two different activities — the first is the understanding of a particular theoretical performance — the writing of a particular text in a specific historical circumstance, necessarily deploying an identifiable and limited, locally available vocabulary.The second (which might comprise a connected series of the first) is to give an account of the development or evolution of a particular meaning over time.[1] This in turn can involve a focus on changes in one of two quite different historical subjects.Firstly, the changing meaning of a particular lexical marker, the word citizen, e.g.; and secondly, the emergence of a concept we would recognizse today — that of the citizen, say. The history of the word is not the same as the history of the concept (even one which is today denoted by that word).
The importance of the first activity is surely that if we want to understand why historical actors acted as they did, it seems vital to see the world through the concepts available to them, and this, usually, involves an insight into the vocabulary in which those concepts were held by them. The reason for this is that I take agents to frame their actions through and in terms of their understandings of the world facing them, and it is through a grasp of the (local) historical meaning of the vocabulary they deploy that we can gain insight into that frame and thereby their actions. This is not to deny that agents can deploy vocabularies instrumentally — ideologically[2] — but there must surely be (for them) some Grund vocabulary that situates them in relation to that instrumentality (albeit this may be difficult to recover). This second kind of historical activity is devoted to a synchronic, "snapshot" historical understanding.
But if we are interested in the history of how a concept came to be fused to a particular lexical marker, we have to focus — as David says — not (only) on the history of that lexical marker, but the history of the concept itself. This is to engage in a diachronic understanding. The emergence of a concept/marker may involve other lexical markers that interacted over time with the concept whose history we seek to elucidate.[3] For example the Levellers clearly had a concept of what we might want to call citizenship (active political membership in a national community, involving oppositions and exclusions that we are aware of today — non-citizen inhabitants [(denizens]), foreigners, disqualified persons [delinquents]). But as far as I am aware, they reserved the term citizen for those who were members of civic corporations. It could be argued that they rhetorically insinuated that rights attaching to such membership could be extended beyond the boundaries of those corporations. (They certainly repudiated the persistence of "base tenures" which precluded "freeman" status.) And indeed rhetoric clearly plays a huge (and relatively unexplored) role in the transmogrification of concepts and their relationship to words that comprises the history of political thought.
So — and this I take to be the thrust of David's second contribution — historical understanding in this second sense presupposes consideration of the concept, not just the word. But these relationships must be recognized as complex if we want to avoid the often crass kind of whiggish history that gives historical actors marks for how close they got to a concept that fits our modern one. (Not that I'm suggesting anybody in this conversation is doing that — but as Steve and David remark, it has been a prominent feature of Leveller historiography!)
So the action turns out to be how (and where) the lexical history and the conceptual history interact with each other. (A double helix?).
Before I run out of words: institutions and actions are very important historical sites for this interaction. An important recent historical literature has been the exploration of the "Unacknowledged Republic" of 17th-century England.[4] Practical political agency in the community was extraordinarily widespread, even if the vocabulary of modern citizenship was not yet in place. From city corporation to parish, vast numbers of 17th-century Englishmen, some of them very lowly indeed and with no knowledge of Cicero, spoke in meetings, held office, and administered local affairs. We should remember that concepts can be conveyed in practices as well as in words.
[1.] These may be identified as J.G.A. Pocock did, in Saussurian terminology, as Langue and Parole.
[2.] Quentin Skinner explores Bolingbroke doing this in his essay,"The Principles and Practices of Opposition, the case of Bolingbroke versus Walpole" in Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society in Honour of J. H. Plumb, ed. Neil McKendrick, (Cambridge University Press, 1974). I would distinguish a speech-act which involves the instrumental deployment of a vocabulary and one which is constitutive of the belief-world of an agent.
[3.] I attempt this in "Liberty and Citizenship in Early Mmodern English Ppolitical Discourse" in Concepts and Reason in Political Theory, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).
[4.] Mark Goldie, "The Unacknowledged Republic: Office-holding in Early Modern England" in The Politics of the Excluded, c. 1500-1850, ed. Tim Harris, (Basingstoke, 2001).