Quentin Skinner interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 10th January 2008

0:09:07 Born Chadderton, near Manchester in 1940; family on both sides comes from the North East of Scotland; mother's father was a wines and spirits merchant in Aberdeen and my father's father was a rather more prosperous grocer in the same town and also ran a chain of restaurants; father was educated in England, a Conway boy, trained as a junior officer in the British Navy; he joined the Royal Navy in the First World War straight out of his training and was torpedoed while working on the Arctic convoys; he always told me he hated the Navy and left, took the Civil Service examinations and joined the Colonial Service; he then spent the whole of his career in West Africa; my mother went to the University of Aberdeen as did most of my family on both sides; mother's three brothers and two of her sisters all read medicine but mother graduated in English literature and became a schoolteacher; she was a contemporary of one of my father's sisters at Aberdeen and I think that must be how my parents met; I am the second child of quite old parents; my father must have been in his late 30's when he married and he died in his early 80's; my mother faded away having Alzheimer’s disease from her early 70's; strange that each parent died while my wife Susie was pregnant with one of our two children

4:12:20 Mine is a common story of the time with a father who lives abroad; he worked in Nigeria where the British Foreign Office strongly discouraged children from going; I have never set foot in Africa though my parents spent much of their lives there; malaria was endemic; I only saw my parents when they came on leave; I did not see my father who was stuck in Africa due to the outbreak of war for several years from birth; then they went back in 1945 and I only saw them at intervals of about eighteen months; I was really brought up by my mother's eldest sister who was a doctor in Manchester; a maiden lady but with strong maternal instincts who was a wonderful guardian; a very educated lady, passionate about literature and drama, and the world of the mind generally; I got to know my parents after my father retired; in those days you retired from the Imperial Service at fifty-five; at that point I was a boarder at Bedford School where I had gone aged seven; at their return I became a day boy as they settled in Bedford; at prep school I had got tuberculosis and very nearly died and my mother came back in a mighty rush from Africa to look after me and set up house; my father retired a couple of years after that so I had my adolescence living with them; I was very fond of both of them; my father was a very quiet and retiring person; my mother was very important in my teenage years; she had retained a great passion for English literature and partly because they had been in the diplomatic service where the language was French she gave me a passion for that language; I got to know my father in his very old age when he was looking after my mother and I conceived a great admiration for his courage and stoicism; he was a very fine person

7:52:00 Having to manage without parents as a young child at that time  was how life was; I went to boarding school even before going to Bedford School so I was a hardened boarder by seven; I accepted it but when my own son reached seven and I looked at him I was filled with a great rage which must have been there; this was an extraordinary thing to do to such very small children leaving them absolutely to fend for themselves; I was not bullied though the school was tough as such boarding schools were; don't think I have ever come to terms with that but I got an excellent education; I think I could have got a very good education in the sciences which my elder brother did at Bedford, and won the top scholarship to Cambridge in medicine; I had a very traditional education studying classics from prep school, then history and English literature; excellently taught in all those subjects; my peers in the lower sixth form were a remarkable group who became consequential in the world of business and academe, and in politics; of teachers, there was one who was truly remarkable and I kept in touch with him until his death two years ago; his obituary took up a page in 'The Independent', a man called John Eyre, our history teacher; a man also passionate about poetry and literature and, above all, theatre; that influenced me tremendously although I was never able to act although I aspired to

13:21:19 I was completely cured of tuberculosis though the treatment meant that recovery took a year of inaction when I listened to the BBC and read; it turned me into a bookish boy; I had started my schooling in Scotland and was well ahead of the boys in my English prep school and was put in a class with boys who were a year older than me and was struggling; when I returned I was put in a class where everyone was my age and then I had much more academic success; the illness did not stop my being captain of gymnastics and led the school fencing team; in that sort of school you were forced to be an all-rounder although my guardian absolutely refused that I should box; another thing that has always mattered a lot to me is music and from an early age I played the violin although not well; I was good enough for the school orchestra which together with the fact that I was a choirboy, taught me to read music and gave me an interest in classical music and the choral tradition; my heroes vary and now Bach matters most; I am passionate about some twentieth century music, especially Russian; as a student always listened to music while working but at a certain point silence became important and I am a bit neurotic about having good silent conditions in which to write; I sometimes try to listen when doing e-mails but find that I start listening and stop writing; I like to think that I am taking the music seriously; can have music going on in my head which can be a nuisance

19:14:06 I won a State Scholarship on my 'A' levels but was interviewed at Cambridge before by Ian McFarlane, the senior tutor of Gonville and Caius who gave me a place; the scholarship year, the third year sixth, John Eyre introduced us to more general questions about historical interpretation and we read Croce and Collingwood which has permanently marked me and was very important to me; I won a scholarship to Caius but the reason I went there was that my elder brother had been there; it was a fortunate choice as it was already a power house in the teaching of history; Philip Grierson was a benign if remote presence with whom I shared a love of music; Neil McKendrick had just been appointed and was our Director of Studies; I already knew I wanted to work in intellectual history and to be a teacher; I had been encouraged by John Eyre to leave school immediately after the scholarship exam and went to teach in a secondary modern school, where children went who had failed 11+, in Maidstone; tough, as immediately introduced to a world that I knew nothing about, huge mixed classes and a wide spectrum of ability; powerful experience so I came to university thinking I wanted to become a teacher; I did well and the opportunity arose to become a university teacher; got a starred first in both Part 1 and Part 2; Caius had the possibility of election to a fellowship on Tripos results so I moved from being an undergraduate to a fellow in one week at the age of twenty-one; in that summer of 1962, the enactment of the Robbins Report on university education recommending that the level of tertiary education should be raised from 4% to 13% of the cohort meant that new universities were being set up and there was a big exodus to them from Oxford and Cambridge, and Christ's College lost its official fellow in history and I was appointed to that position, which I have held ever since; my difficulty was that I went immediately into a teaching fellowship which was one reason that I made a slow start on my research; on the other hand I had a tenured position

26:59:01 As an undergraduate the general standard of lecturing was rather dismal and the course was uncongenial to me as in those days it consisted of very large outline courses and a great deal of British politics concentrating on high politics; there were two incandescent lecturers, Walter Ullmann and Moses Finley; I was studying Medieval intellectual history and although I couldn't always understand what Ullmann was saying he gave the sense that this mattered and they were riveting lectures; Moses Finley was a remarkable lecturer; I was studying Ancient History for Part 1 and he would go through very technical discussions without notes and with great bravura; he taught me that what you can say as an historian simply depends on what the evidence is; the other lecturer who was very important to me was Duncan Forbes, the intellectual historian, and in my final year I did a course, which we still have, called special subject which was two papers and he was lecturing on the Scottish Enlightenment which centred largely on the philosophy of Hume; I was entranced by the course and it cemented my ideas that I wanted to go on to do work in intellectual history in the history of philosophy; John Burrow supervised my work in political theory and intellectual history and was then a research fellow at Christ's, he ended his career as Professor at Oxford and I am still in touch with him; he was very sceptical, witty, challenging, not at all my kind of temperament but memorable to be taught by; Peter Laslett did give a course of lectures though he sometimes forgot to turn up; on his day he was a wonderful lecturer but sometimes he wasn't very interested in what he was lecturing about because he did a very wide outline course; I never met him as an undergraduate but of all the pieces of secondary literature that I read, probably the one that most struck me was his introduction to his edition of Locke; I remember a supervision by John Burrow in my second year when he announced the appearance of the edition and I bought it; it was genuine epiphany to me and I can still recall the astonishment with which I read a text in which a major work of political theory was shown to be part of an ongoing political debate; when I subsequently talked to him about what he had achieved in that remarkable edition seemed strange; he thought he had dethroned Locke from being a political theorist and was only a pamphleteer; I thought that what he said about Locke could have been said for any work of philosophy, that if you could recapture it there would always be an immediate context which made sense and that we should not be thinking of the texts in isolation from the contexts; Collingwood's idea of a logic of question and answer clearly underpins that and probably underpinned Laslett's thinking I subsequently decided; Collingwood's idea was that we should think of these texts as answers to questions and the questions are going to be set by the society in which and for which the texts are being written; part of the interpretation is not what the text says but what it is doing, what kind of an intervention does this text constitute in ongoing debate; I now say to my students on Hobbes's 'Leviathan' on which I am giving a course at the moment, think of it as a speech in Parliament; all of these great works of political philosophy are recognizably contributions to a debate; interpreting them is uncovering what that contribution was; some of my earliest historical research was on Hobbes where I wanted to show that that theory and the reason that Hobbes foregrounded it in 'Leviathan' was because he was making a particular contribution to a debate about political obligation at the time that 'Leviathan' was being composed; Laslett had already discovered Locke's library and it was important to him; one thing that was important was that the library did not contain a copy of 'Leviathan'; important because he wanted us to think of Locke as a reply to Filmer; subsequently he did with Harrison a catalogue of the library

36:10:03 Some of the students that I taught in the 1960's were brilliant and I have remained in touch with some of them; hasn't been so since as I don't think I was gifted as a supervisor and I didn't enjoy it; I always found that my mood depended entirely on the mood of the student so if the student was depressed with the course I immediately thought that maybe that was true; I was not good at lifting peoples spirits so I think I was best at teaching the really gifted; of my students from that period the two that became most famous were Roy Porter and Simon Schama; in 1974 I went on sabbatical leave to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and while I was there they conceived the idea that I should remain there and gave me a five-year contract; in the course of that five years they invited me to stay forever, but I did not accept; was there until 1979 when I was elected to the Chair of Political Science at Cambridge; at the  same time my wife was elected to a research fellowship at Girton and we were starting a family; I had first married very young but it didn't work; later I met my present wife, Susan James, now Professor of Philosophy at the University of London, and we have been together for about thirty-five years or more

40:57:21 Started in History at Princeton when I was invited by John Elliott to be a candidate for 1974-75; during that year I came to know the three astonishing figures who were running the Social Theory group: Thomas Kuhn, Albert Hirschman and Clifford Geertz; Geertz was perhaps the most important for me for his work on cultural theory; Cliff and I were both greatly influenced by Wittgenstein as a theorist of language and culture;  what mattered to me most in my Princeton years was that with the level of trust which shows that we are speaking of a more innocent and better world I was simply left to get on with whatever I was doing; in fact I was trying to catch up with the earlier ideas I had had about political theory and when I returned to Cambridge in 1979 I had written 'The Foundations of Modern Political Thought' published in 1978, which had probably got me the Chair

47:32:16 John Pocock was very important to my work from an early stage as he was writing interesting methodological pieces from the early 1960's which were very Collingwoodian though couched in a different way; he talked about texts having different levels of abstraction which made me think on the underlying purposes of texts; in the late 60's or early 70's he sent me the draft of his great text 'The Machiavellian Moment' which was published in 1975; it was a privilege to be sent this but he was attracted to the two bodies of work that I had published, my essays on Hobbes and essays on meaning and speech acts; very important for me as a scholarly statement of how to think about the development of Renaissance political theory; the first volume of my 'Foundations of Modern Political Thought' was called 'The Renaissance' and I trampled over much of the same ground; John and I have remained in touch ever since and he is a formidable intellectual historian and a very generous one too; when I worked first on Renaissance political theory there were two orthodoxies that I was interested in contesting; one was the view that there had been a tremendous shift, especially in the history of philosophy and therefore in the history of political philosophy at the time of the revival of Aristotelianism in the late thirteenth century; the other orthodoxy stated that there was another climacteric moment which placed the crucial date a century later, Hans Baron's fundamental thought in his classic text 'The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance' where he saw what he called a civic humanism; I came to think that both of those stories were wrong but John Pocock accepted the second; what I wanted to say about the development of moral and political philosophy in the Renaissance has always been the same thing since the seventies and has been a foundation of much of my research since then is that there was no happening with a bang but there was a kind of Roman culture that had never been completely lost and that by a process of accretion develops in the Italian peninsula with the emergence of universities with rhetoric being studied as a basis for understanding law and law being the fundamental subject studied; this rhetorical and juristic culture which was partially founded on the texts of Roman law but also incorporated all the major texts of Roman history and moral philosophy was the curriculum that came to be known as the studia humanitatis and we can trace that right through from the twelfth century to the period of Machiavelli and Guicciardini and later; that was the book that I tried to write, a very non-Pocockian sort of book; for me that was the beginning of what would be called a research programme as that set of ideas informed all my work for the next twenty-five years, a programme I have only just succeeded in rounding off

54:05:22 We all read Southern's 'Making of the Middle Ages' as undergraduates and in a rather dismal landscape that shone as a beacon of extraordinary imagination and intelligence; but it still had the idea that there was a moment that had to be the Renaissance which is what I have been trying to contest; what interested me is that if you look at some of the great milestones of moral and political philosophy in the Renaissance you can relate them back in different ways to this culture of Romanitas; the texts which were crucial were those of Livy and Sallust amongst the historians, and to a lesser degree, Tacitus, and amongst the philosophers, Cicero and Seneca; when I wrote my book on Machiavelli what I wanted to show was that the understanding of Machiavelli is the understanding of him as a kind of Roman moralist, but also a satirist of some of those qualities that were admired; the whole discussion of the relation of freedom, virtue and glory that you find in Machiavelli is a recognizably Roman story; what is remarkable about him is the satirical turn that he gives; a later moment in my research programme was a book I wrote about political painting in the early Renaissance which had been understood entirely as an expression of scholastic values; I worked particularly on the famous cycle of Lorenzetti in Siena trying to show that the right way to interpret the context into which this was done was that this was a recovery for a city republic of these Roman values about freedom and the common good, and the relation of virtue to them; my interpretation, which has remained controversial, it that these cycles are nothing to do with the recovery of Aristotelianism but all part of this humanist culture which I see developing all the way through; I suppose the last part of that cycle of works that I wrote which stemmed from the work I originally did in the first volume of 'The Foundation of Modern Political Thought' was to become deeply interested in classical theories of freedom; eventually I came to think that those theories differed in a really challenging way from the way in which we nowadays have tended to think about political liberty and wrote a little book on that which emerged out of my inaugural lectures as Regius Professor, 'Liberty Before Liberalism'; I also became interested in the question when did we stop thinking about liberty in this classical and very different way and the book that I have just managed to finish is about that theme; I've come to think that this insight which is not exclusively mine but which I've worked at on the rival ways of thinking about freedom has been the most important of the things that I took from my study of Roman antiquity and its influence in the Renaissance

58:35:08 When at Princeton Lawrence Stone was an extremely powerful presence there; I recall that he was very generous to me and my wife but he thought that the kind of history that I was interested in was just absurd; that there was no study of intellectual history that was going to be of any autonomous interest; he seemed to think it was epiphenomenal to some kind of real history that we should be studying; he was not merely uninterested in what I was doing but was actively hostile to it; that was the tone in the department of history at Princeton at that time; it likes to think of itself in retrospect as having been concerned with cultural history in that period in a Geertzian way but that was not my experience of it; I kept out of their way, which has always been my instinct as I've never much enjoyed talking about my work until I have done it; I never once went to the Davis Center seminars in all the years I was at Princeton; I could just sense when I looked at what was going to be talked about that it would make me miserable as I would find them of very little interest and they would take a similar view of me; just got on with my writing on my own