The author as actor: a defense of Quentin Skinner

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2021-09-01

Authors

Havercroft, Jonathan

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Abstract

In this thesis, I defend Quentin Skinner's work against some criticisms raised by three of his interlocutors: John Keane, Kennet Minogue, and Joseph Femia. All three of these critics take issue with Skinner's author-centered approach to the historical interpretation of texts. Femia, invoking Roland Barthes 'death of the author' thesis, argues that Skinner's attempt to recover the intentions of authors is impossible. While Minogue and Keane do not dispute the possibility of recovering an author's intentions, they question the unity of such an enterprise. In order to answer Femia's criticism of Skinner, I draw an analogy between Skinner's figure of the author, and Arendt's figure of the political actor. I argue that just as it is possible for someone to know what a political actor is doing in performing a political act, it is similarly possible for an intellectual historian to understand what political acts an author was doing in writing his or her text. To refute Minogue's and Keane's claims that a Skinnerian approach to intellectual history is of no use to the political theorist, I point to three examples of how Skinner's recovery of forgotten political discourses have been applied to contemporary debates in political theory.

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