Liberty Before Liberalism

Following on from this post about the value of history, I am now slightly less ignorant of Quentin Skinner's position, and thought I should clarify what he says.

The impression left by the last post is that history's message is essentially negative -- it gives us an appreciation of "how far the values embodied in our present way of life ... reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds", and so ensures we are not "bewitched" into believing that those values are absolute.

But Skinner puts a positive spin on this negative outcome: although "our society places unrecognised constraints upon our imagination", history can help free up that imagination -- our ability to see through present values, and perhaps consider new values beyond them. Perhaps restoring those of the past? As Skinner concedes, political, philosophical and moral questions may not be "perennial", but there must be "some deeper level" which links past and present values if his argument for history's utility is to work. In a footnote he dismisses the notion that he is pleading for "the adoption of an alien value from a world we have lost", but Liberty Before Liberalism's final rhetorical flourish ("did we choose rightly?") almost but not quite suggests the opposite. The 'not quite' hinges on the distinction between "adoption" and "imagination" -- we cannot transplant past solutions wholesale into the present, but perhaps we can be inspired by them.

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