The Contextual Approach

Mark Bevir

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy

Published in print May 2011 | ISBN: 9780199238804
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780191728365 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy

 The Contextual Approach

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  • History of Western Philosophy
  • Social and Political Philosophy


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There are several contextual, historical approaches to texts. They include much hermeneutics, reception theory, and the new historicism. Yet, in the history of political philosophy, the contextual approach is associated narrowly with J. G. A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and the Cambridge School they are often said to have inspired. This article examines the rise of this contextualism, the theoretical arguments used to justify it, and its current standing and future prospects. It pursue several arguments. First, the label “Cambridge School” is highly misleading: Pocock and Skinner differ significantly from one another, while many of the other historians involved are suspicious of all theoretical statements and methodological precepts. Second, contextualism arose as a historical practice indebted to modernist empiricist modes of inquiry: contextualist theories arose only later, as Pocock and Skinner grabbed at philosophical vocabularies to defend that practice. Third, recent developments in contextualism involve a retreat from these vocabularies: in the absence of renewed theoretical debate, contextualism may lapse into naive empiricism or bland eclecticism.

Keywords: Cambridge School; political philosophy; J. G. A. Pocock; Quentin Skinner; contextualism; empiricism; eclecticism; modernism

Article.  6371 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy ; Social and Political Philosophy

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