Meaning and Understanding

Final thoughts on Quentin Skinner, now that I've typed this post up into a three thousand word essay ready for submission tomorrow.

Skinner takes on board Wittgenstein's notion that words are also deeds, so understanding what they mean requires a knowledge of the author's intentions. Writers write for a reason, and understanding their reasons is a part of understanding their texts. These reasons are locked in a particular historical context. Hence knowledge of the context will lead to your knowledge of the author's intentions, which in turn will lead to your understanding of the text. In Skinner's field (the history of political ideas) this results in regarding works such as Leviathan as addressing particular questions set by the intellectual debates of the time, rather than addressing all posteriority up to the present and beyond.

Writers write because they want to answer questions they are interested in. In Skinner's corner of the academic playpit, these questions are most directly set by the discussions of politics at the time of writing. Hence the criticism leveled at Skinner that his work ends up being all about intellectuals talking to one another. Obviously, political questions can also be set more indirectly by political events. But where else can questions come from?

From quite a lot of places, I think. What interests me most is the personal psychological questions authors may be looking to answer in their writings. Our views on ethics and politics are rarely dispassionate, particularly if we are moved to write about them. When I read Karl Marx's writings, and then read his biography, I get the feeling he wasn't just debating with his peers for the sake of it. There are deeper frustrations here that push his activity as a writer.

Skinner is interested in the proper historical understanding of texts. For him, intentions are enough. He just wants texts to be explicable but foreign, so that we can be inspired by the different ways of thinking they present. The deeper layer of motive is not a priority. The thing is, this is the layer I'm most interested in, and I'm not sure it can so easily be separated from the less complex and more easily identified layer of intention. I, like Skinner, want to be inspired by different ways of thinking, but for me this means a fuller engagement with the consciousness the texts present me with.

Skinner is suspicious of his forebear (in SO MANY WAYS!) Collingwood's notion of 'empathy' as a necessary precondition for understanding. He does not want 'to enter into the thought-process of long-dead thinkers', merely to 'appreciate their beliefs and, so far as possible, to see things their way'. I simply don't know what distinction is being made here. For me, a fuller understanding of a text or action will mean a more complete conception of the consciousness that produced it, even if perfect syncronicity is ultimately impossible. I guess that means that if I am to do this intellectual history thang, I'll be more of a Collingwoodian than a Skinnerite.

My allegiance is declared.

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