chapter  5
Political Ideas and ‘Real’ Politics
Pages 18

How important are political ideas for understanding ‘real’ politics? Among political historians, the whole spectrum of answers has been proposed. At one extreme, it seems, are those who have stressed the centrality of ideas: for instance, that the influence of Locke, Smith, and Bentham can be traced, sooner or later, into the practice of routine politics. At the other extreme, and in resistance to this, are those who see politics in a realist vein: interest and power are, within and between states, the determining factors in political life, with ideas little more than, at best, a rhetorical flourish. Clearly, part of the difficulty resides in what is meant by political ideas. Typically, historians of ideas still tend to refer to what might be called upper-case ‘I’ ideas – the arguments of a relatively restricted canon of sophisticated political theorists. But there are also what we might call lower-case ‘i’ ideas – the sorts of beliefs held by all manner of everyday actors which constitute their understanding of the political world and which will affect their actions in relation to it (MacIntyre, 1983). There is, of course, no clear-cut distinction between the two, nor any necessary reason to suppose that a canonical thinker was recognised as such in their own time. A strength of the work of Bevir and Rhodes is that they – separately and collectively – take small ‘i’ ideas seriously. Because of their commitment to what they call ‘situated agency’, they recognise the centrality of the beliefs and desires of individual agents even as they locate these within broader traditions. Because of their commitment to anti-essentialism, but in the form of pragmatic realism (Bevir, 2010: 60-1), they do not instantiate a dichotomy between ideas and reality – in Charles Taylor’s words ‘ideas always come wrapped up in certain forms of practices’ (Taylor, 2004: 33). Since Interpreting British Governance was published in 2003, they have sought to apply these arguments to the understanding of modern governance. Bevir (2005, 2010) has shown how the arguments and assumptions of different styles of social science – first rational choice and then new institutionalism – have shaped new patterns of governance and brought new ideological and practical dilemmas to the fore. His concern is primarily to trace the intellectual traditions underpinning and shaping contemporary practice. Rhodes (2011), meanwhile, has applied an ethnographic approach: by observing the everyday lives of ministers and permanent secretaries in three government departments, he is able to show how the routines and rituals of a wide

variety of actors – the role of the diary secretary, for instance, is stressed – make an institution work, in good times and in bad. No doubt most political scientists will primarily be interested in what this can tell us about governance. Here, though, I want to approach the question of the interpretive approach to politics by a different route, and to begin by stressing the centrality of the history of ideas as a subfield. Bevir’s training was as an intellectual historian: his 1989 DPhil explored ‘British Socialist Thought, 1880-1900’, and in the 1990s he published a number of articles on nineteenthcentury social and political thought. Indeed, this interest has never disappeared, as various publications throughout the 2000s show – not least his 2011 Making of British Socialism. Dissatisfied with the prevailing methodologies of this subfield, Bevir also spent the 1990s developing his own philosophical approach, which appeared as The Logic of the History of Ideas in 1999. Even though some of the terms and arguments have been refined, the centrality of this book to the subsequent work of Bevir and Rhodes cannot be exaggerated – it sits behind everything. Its title, however, does not do justice to its ambition. Bevir was not just interested in the history of ideas as a way to understand canonical thinkers but in its potential to situate the beliefs and desires of all agents in a meaningful context, and to use this to understand their behaviour. Hence, as Melissa Lane noted, his concern was not so much ‘large “I” ideas’ as ‘small “i” ideas’ (Lane, 2002: 34). Both Bevir and Rhodes want to use their interpretive approach as a means of rethinking the practice of political science. In part they do this through philosophical engagement with alternative epistemologies and methodologies, but they also stress the importance of disciplinary genealogies. In Modern Political Science (Adcock et al., 2007), they and their collaborators examine the historical development of their discipline, showing the different routes taken by AngloAmer ican political science over the last century, from the eclipse of developmental historicism, through empiricist modernism, to the emergence of new institutionalism. The radical historicism outlined in the Logic shapes their approach, but they also argue that such histories are important to contemporary political science – they undermine caricatures of past scholarship and recapture lost insights, they can help us refine the concepts in current use and clarify the beliefs we study. Crucially, radical historicism ‘undermines the assumptions of the natural, progressive, or disinterested character of the development of political science and the institutions that it informs and by which it is informed’ (Adcock, et al., 2007: 15) and enables us to evaluate alternative approaches. The history of political science is therefore part of the subject of political science. This chapter aims to contribute to the task of exploring the history of political science, and in particular its relationship to political thought and political history. In an earlier essay (Craig, 2010) I tried to show how an influential style of ‘high political’ history – the ‘Peterhouse School’ of Maurice Cowling – could be understood in a more anthropological light, and that, as a result, could be seen as a part of a broad tradition to which Bevir and Rhodes belong. Indeed, Cowling’s Nature and Limits of Political Science has made fleeting appearances in their work (Bevir and Rhodes, 1999: 233; 2003: 43). Here, I want to look at a strand

of development taken by the ‘Cambridge School’ of the history of political thought. While the influence of Quentin Skinner is well understood, that of John Dunn is rather less so. This is relevant to Bevir’s work: while he disagrees with Skinner’s methodology, his Logic nevertheless emerges out of close engagement with the arguments of the ‘Cambridge School’. There is an affinity between them. But while Skinner has largely remained concerned with the history of ideas, Dunn’s significance arises from his more direct interest in the way that hermeneutic approaches can be applied to political science and the explanatory challenges they raise. Yet, despite the potential synergies between Bevir and Dunn, the latter has made only the most cursory of appearances in the former’s work. In what follows I trace the development of Dunn’s thinking – an exercise in intellectual history – to show how his interpretive commitments have posed important questions about the nature of explanation in the social sciences and about the irreducibility of political judgment, and how these underpin a particular style of ‘realism’ in recent political theory.