Cambridge School (intellectual history)

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In intellectual history and the history of political thought, the Cambridge School is a loose historiographical movement traditionally associated with the University of Cambridge, where many of those associated with the school held or continue to hold academic positions, including Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock, Peter Laslett, John Dunn and James Tully, as well as David Runciman and Raymond Geuss.


The Cambridge School can broadly be characterised as a historicist or contextualist mode of interpretation, placing primary emphasis on the historical conditions and the intellectual context of the discourse of a given historical era, and opposing the perceived anachronism of conventional methods of interpretation, which it believes often distort the significance of texts and ideas by reading them in terms of distinctively modern understandings of social and political life. In these terms, the Cambridge School is 'idealist' in the sense that it accepts ideas as constitutive elements of human history in themselves, and hence contradicts social-scientific positivism in historiography.[1]

The text often held as the original declaration of the principles of the school[2] is Quentin Skinner's 1969 article 'Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas'.[3] Here, Skinner attacks what he describes as two "orthodoxies": "perennialism", the view that philosophers have always debated the same fundamental questions; and the notion that context is irrelevant to a historical understanding of texts, which can be read as self-standing material.[4] In Mark Bevir's words, Skinner and his colleagues "defended the history of political theory against both reductionists who dismissed ideas as mere epiphenomena and canonical theorists who approached texts as timeless philosophical works".[5]

The school has been criticised on a number of fronts. On the one hand, historians working in more materialist contexts such as social history have criticised the school's focus on ideas.[2] Christopher Goto-Jones has argued that the school has developed in an orientalist direction by neglecting non-Western contributions to intellectual history.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vanheste, Jeroen (2007). Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: The Classicism of T.S. Eliot's Criterion Network and Its Relevance to Our Postmodern World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill. pp. 9–10.
  2. ^ a b Blackledge, Peter (2006). Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. p. 10.
  3. ^ Skinner, Quentin (1969). "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas". History and Theory. 8 (1): 3–53. doi:10.2307/2504188. JSTOR 2504188.
  4. ^ Skinner, p. 3.
  5. ^ Bevir, Mark (2011). "Chapter 1. The Contextual Approach". In Klosko, George (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press. p. 14.
  6. ^ Goto-Jones, Christopher (2008). Re-politicising the Kyoto School as Philosophy. London, UK: Routledge.