The Concept of ‘the State’ in Modern Political Thought
(The final version of this paper will appear in The Australian Journal of Politics and History)

Quentin Skinner’s magisterial The Foundations of Modern Political Thought was first published in 1978. A commemorative volume appeared almost thirty years later. My aim in this paper is less to revisit this last discussion by questioning either the importance or the impact of Skinner’s book, both of which seem to me undeniable, than it is to unsettle a few of the assumptions that not only inform The Foundations and much of the work that it inspired, but which are all too often taken for granted. In particular, I note some limitations both of Skinner’s use of the term ‘modern’ and of his understanding of political thought before concluding that it may be time to reconsider the category of modern political thought.

Quentin Skinner’s magisterial The Foundations of Modern Political Thought appeared in 1978 and a commemorative volume, Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought, in which distinguished contributors examined its impact, almost thirty years later. Between these books, James Tully published an edited collection, Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (1988), which included five of Skinner’s most important papers, critical essays by Martin Hollis, Charles Taylor and others, and Skinner’s reply.1

The Foundations’ Preface makes clear that perhaps its most important objective was to showcase the distinctive methodological approach that Skinner had developed, particularly in the papers that were later included in Tully’s collection. Given his stress on this methodological concern, it is hardly surprising that Skinner’s critics have focused on methodological issues: particularly on how broadly the contextualist program is to be interpreted; and on Skinner’s argument that there are no perennial questions which all political theorists could be read as addressing.2

This paper does not engage with these methodological debates or question the undeniable importance of Skinner’s book; rather, it disputes assumptions that inform The Foundations and are taken for granted elsewhere. I question Skinner’s usage of the term ‘modern’, his reliance on a Weberian concept of the state and his understanding of political thought as concerned with the ‘rights of states and the duties of subjects’. This questioning leads to the suspicion that it is time to discard the category of ‘modern political thought’.

Skinner: Assumptions and Claims

Skinner’s Preface explains that, alongside his methodological concerns, one of his aims is “to indicate […] the process by which the modern concept of the State came to be formed”. He goes on to suggest that “the main elements” of this concept “were gradually acquired” in the period from the late thirteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. The decisive shift was

from the idea of the ruler maintaining his state — where this simply meant upholding his position — to the idea that there is a separate legal and constitutional order, that of the State, which the ruler has a duty to maintain.

“One effect of this transformation”, Skinner continues,

was that the power of the State, not that of the ruler, came to be envisaged as the basis of government. And this in turn enabled the State to be conceptualised in distinctively modern terms — as the sole source of law and legitimate force within its own territory, and as the sole appropriate object of its citizens’ allegiances.3

A footnote at this point refers us to Max Weber’s definition of the state in Economy and Society and again, in slightly different terms in his lecture “The Profession and Vocation of Politics” presented during the disorderly times of the post-war German revolution, when armed revolutionary and counter-revolutionary gangs patrolled the streets with neither side able to establish a secure monopoly over the legitimate use of force. 4 While it may be tempting to read the view of the state set out in Weber’s lecture as responding to these political conditions, the alternative formulation of the same view in Economy and Society is less straightforward than it might seem.5 It seems odd that a contextualist manifesto should read a politically engaged author’s account of the modern state as definitive, rather than as coloured either by his reaction to developments in Germany at the time or, as seems more plausible, reacting to the writings of Jellinek, von Gotti and particularly von Treitschke,6 Lenin and German Social Democracy. To treat the formulation in Economy and Society as setting the scene for The Foundations’ larger argument is, in effect, to take late nineteenth and early twentieth century political thought in Germany as the measure of developments in late sixteenth century European political thought.

However, Skinner’s use of Weber would hardly have been contentious in 1978. His point is that the shift in focus from the ruler maintaining his state to the State, now capitalised, as ruling apparatus leads to the idea that the State exercises sovereign power over its subjects. He has returned to this theme in several later papers.7

How does The Foundations’ account of the acquisition of the modern concept of the state relate to “the foundations of modern political thought”? Apparently, the acquisition of the modern concept of the state as an apparatus of government separate from both the ruler and the ruled is largely what distinguishes modern political thought — hereafter MPT — from its predecessors. The foundations of this concept are those of MPT itself.8 We thus find in Skinner’s concluding chapter:

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the concept of the State — its nature, its powers, its right to command obedience — had come to be recognised as the most important object of analysis in European political thought.

How did this development come about? “One of the main aims of this book […] has been to suggest” an answer which he summarises by “recapitulating […] the most important pre-conditions for the acquisition of the modern concept of the state”. 9

The first precondition is “that the sphere of politics should be envisaged as a distinct branch of moral philosophy, […] concerned with the art of government” — or as concerned he says a little earlier, quoting Hobbes, with “the rights of states and the duties of subjects”.10 The view of politics as moral philosophy is one that Skinner finds in Aristotle’s Politics, a book that was not known by Europeans throughout much of the Middle Ages. This precondition implies that the European ‘rediscovery’11 of Aristotle, albeit through Arab commentaries and translations, was necessary for the later acquisition of the modern concept of the state.

Other preconditions Skinner identifies here include accepting that “the independence of each regnum or civitas [kingdom or city] from any external and superior power”;12 recognising that the supreme authority within each independent regnum should have no rival within its territories as law-maker or object of allegiance; and finally, holding that political society exists solely for political purposes. Unlike the other three conditions, the second goes beyond the internally sovereign conception noted earlier to add the idea of the state as the fundamental unit of international relations, subject to no external power but rather one sovereign amongst others, although, as David Armitage has noted, Skinner’s book says little about the emergence of this idea of the state as ‘international’ actor.13

Skinner argues that, by the end of the sixteenth century, these preconditions were present in the political thought of Italy, France and England. A final discussion of Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576) concludes:

With this analysis of the state as an omnipotent yet impersonal power, we may be said to enter the modern world: the modern theory of the State remains to be constructed, but its foundations are now complete.14

This last phrase resonates with the book’s title, suggesting, perhaps, that, at least in the mind of the book’s author, the two foundations may be equivalent; that the foundations of the modern concept of the state are also those of MPT.15

Two areas of difficulty are worth noting at this point. First, the suggestion that the analysis of the state as ‘an omnipotent yet impersonal power’ lays the foundations of the modern understanding of the state as both impersonal apparatus of government and able to successfully claim a monopoly of the legitimate exercise of force seems just a little too simple. Few contemporary states have established such a monopoly for themselves and members of their ruling apparatuses often have some sense of the limits to their powers. That Hobbes’ sovereign was authorised by Her subjects to use their actions for Her own purposes16 does not ensure that She will always be able to co-ordinate their actions in the manner required to achieve Her ends.17 If states were omnipotent within their own domains, in political practice as well as in law, this would hardly be an issue.

The second area of difficulty is that Skinner’s second volume traces the rise of an idea of popular sovereignty as a secularised version of the Calvinist doctrine that, in certain circumstances, Christians have a right to resist the unlawful demands of their rulers.18 If crucial preconditions for the acquisition of the modern concept of the state were constructed by Protestant theologians, this suggests that an important part of MPT in its early days should be seen as an artefact of disputes within Christian theology, making it even more parochial than is generally recognised.

Leaving these issues aside, this paper questions Skinner’s view that the idea of the modern state is the key to understanding MPT. First, there are well-known problems with the concept ‘modern’.19 Second, one of these problems that deserves particular attention, is that the periodisation involved in distinguishing modern from medieval and other non-modern conditions has a distinctly political character.

One distinguishing feature of MPT (a.k.a. post-Reformation or post-‘European invasions of the Americas’ political thought in the West) is its unfortunate habit of treating conditions, people or societies considered ‘modern’ differently from the rest. This in turn suggests, third, that political thought relates to a broader range of issues than the field on which Skinner focuses, namely, the rights of states and the duties of subjects. Finally, I outline two ways in which a broader view of ‘political’ might be developed in relation to Western political thought in the post-Reformation period. One takes up my earlier point about periodisation to suggest that consideration of differences between ‘modern’ and other populations has played an important part in Western political thinking, most obviously during the colonial era. The other takes up one of Michel Foucault’s insight that the government of post-Reformation European populations operated in diverse ways, not only through the state.

Problems with the Concept ‘Modern’
To the extent that it means more than merely ‘contemporary’,20 ‘modern’, along with its close relatives ‘modernity’ and ‘modernisation’, has both spatial and temporal connotations. It suggests a developmental sequence of stages in which the ‘modern’, exemplified by Western Europe, anglophone North America, Australasia and perhaps a few other places, is seen as simply the most advanced. Both the spatial and temporal aspects have been disputed during the last forty or fifty years from too many standpoints to be properly considered in this paper.21 An important part of what is involved here has been picked up in a richly suggestive lecture by J.G.A. Pocock, which I consider here more to bring out important features of an all-too-familiar usage of ‘modern’ than to endorse specific features of his analysis. His lecture examines Enlightened European historical writing, focusing on a period in which the adjective ‘modern’ was clearly in use, but had yet to attain “the perilous dignity of a concept”. Pocock begins his discussion, first, by observing that “‘modern’ is an ‘historiographical term’”, without adding that it has broad currency elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences and, second, by noting that it “implies a periodisation of history”. The great Enlightened historians had, in his view, used

their understanding of “ancient”, ie. Mediterranean, civilisation to distinguish it from the Christian, barbaric and European that came after it. There ensue two consequences: first, that the primary meaning of “modern” was “not ancient”; second, that the meanings attached to “modern” in this usage were very often those which we use to designate what we term “medieval”.22

Pocock notes a little later that this usage has since been displaced, so that ‘modern’ is now distinguished from ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’.23 One effect of this shift is that the ‘modern’ views Pocock examines in this lecture would now be seen as ‘early-modern’ — and often, in fact, as neo-classical, or, to borrow a description from Skinner (2012) as neo-Roman, since the historians in question drew on the ancients in their efforts to get away from what they then regarded as ‘modern’.

Pocock goes on to insist that:

all our schemes of history, even world history, are Latin and West European constructions. This is not only, though it is importantly, a product of western arrogance; it is also a product of the divided western culture’s need to understand itself.24

Rather different accounts of the periodisation in question here have been offered by Kathleen Davis, Constatin Fasolt and Reinhart Koselleck, each of whom I consider briefly below.

Pocock’s lecture focuses on the second part of the final sentence in this passage, thereby, in spite of his ‘importantly’, placing the stress on its ‘not only but also’ construction on its second component. Yet, once we tease out the implications of his references to ‘Western arrogance’ and ‘world history’, we find that there is far more to this effort at self-understanding, at least in its ‘modern’ elaborations, than simply looking back on what the West today regards as its ancient and medieval predecessors. It is also a matter of placing the modern at the forefront of the presumed march of world history, differentiating ‘modern’ peoples from their contemporaries in other parts of the world.

How should we understand Pocock’s reference to ‘Western arrogance’? It is tempting to read it as addressing Western views of the differences between Western and other peoples or societies. Koselleck’s discussion offers another take on this question, referring not, as the term ‘arrogance’ suggests, to any sense of superiority but rather to one of difference and specifically

of the nonsimultaneity of diverse but, in a chronological sense, simultaneous histories. With the opening up of the world, the most different […] levels were brought into view spatially and, by way of synchronic comparison, were diachronically classified. World history became for the first time empirically redeemable; however, it was only interpretable to the extent that the most differentiated levels of development [were] […] necessarily reduced to a common denominator.25

This passage recapitulates the response to European encounters with other peoples set out in Schiller’s notorious inaugural lecture “The Nature and Value of Universal History”.26 Koselleck’s ‘nonsimultaneity […] but, in a chronological sense, simultaneous’ is not exactly an example of Fabian’s ‘denial of coevalness’ but rather a determined effort to have it both ways. ‘In the opening up of the world’, non-European others were seen as simultaneously in the European present and in its past. This move allows European moderns to appear simply as more present than the others. Yet, if ‘modern’ is viewed as ahead in some way, others must accordingly be seen as lagging behind. This sense of some being ahead and others behind is difficult to disentangle from a sense of superiority.

A sense of temporal ordering within the present may indeed be what Pocock had in mind in his reference to Western arrogance, but the closing section of his lecture, which speculates about what may have been the emergence in the eighteenth century of a new sense of historicity, seems to offer another possibility, seeking evidence “of a defiant sense of emancipation from all previous history, which the term ‘modernity’ (even if not in use) might be made by us to denote”.27

Perhaps Pocock’s ‘defiant sense of emancipation from all previous history’ is simply what Fasolt identifies in his polemical Introduction to The Limits of History. Fasolt refers to a seventeenth-century ‘historian’s revolt’ against both papacy and Empire, which rejected claims that the present should be determined by the past. Fasolt’s discussion turns on a distinction between the present, seen as a realm of free activity, and the past, seen as a realm in which action is always already determined. In this case, ‘modern’ would be ahead of and radically different from whatever came before.28

We might suspect that the defiance and arrogance suggested in Pocock’s discussion belong together, and that what he identifies as Western arrogance is simply a matter of turning this ‘defiant sense of emancipation’ not only against the past but also against non-Western peoples. Arrogance, in this case, would seem to involve a thoroughly aggrandising view of one’s place in history.

Thus, Pocock’s sense of defiance would also be a sense of superiority, suggesting that the ‘modern’ West occupies a uniquely privileged position in world history because, unlike other portions of humanity, it has managed to emancipate itself from historical determination.

To the extent that use of the term ‘modern’ implies a periodisation of history, it is a periodisation that is not only internal to Western history (as the sequence moving from ‘ancient’ through ‘medieval’ and on to ‘modern’ clearly seems to be), but one that pretends to universality by treating other sections of humanity as if they were located in various historical/developmental positions some way behind the peoples of the modern West.

There have been many attempts to soften this last point by arguing, for example, that we can retain a concept of ‘modernity’ without restricting its application to the contemporary West and its imitators.29 Yet, as Bhambra (2007) argues, while clearly expanding the range of conditions that might be described as modern, these alternatives end up, like the singular concept of modernity from which they hope to escape, treating the West as a privileged point of reference.30

One important, and often destructive, consequence of the perception that non-Western others are lagging behind is that many of our contemporaries are seen as living in the past — e.g. as pre-modern, modernising or developing — and thus as having a lesser moral/political significance than people who are entirely modern, and therefore seen as belonging fully to the present.31

I hardly need to add that the term ‘modern’ is often used unreflectively, in ways that seem insensitive to its connotations. For example, Skinner says that one of his aims in The Foundations is to indicate how “the modern concept of the State came to be formed”.32 A footnote adds that the acquisition of this concept is not necessarily the acquisition of “precisely our concept of the state”,33 and notes that those who first acquired this concept “remained confused about the relationship between the people, the ruler and the State” — suggesting that, in contrast, those who later adopted “our concept of the state”, may not be so confused about this relationship. Moreover, he adds, the former also “lacked the post-Enlightenment conception of the relationship between the nation and the State”.34

It seems clear that what Skinner is getting at with this distinction between the ‘modern’ and ‘precisely our’ concepts of the state is simply that we have moved on, or at least away, from the views of Hobbes and Bodin. Yet, according to the usual modernist prejudice, our, later concept should be seen as more advanced and thus as more properly deserving the designation ‘modern’. This suggests either that Skinner’s ‘modern concept of the state’ should be considered less than fully modern or that ‘our concept of the state’ may be more advanced than the modern, say ‘late- or even post-modern’.

Periodisation and Politics
Another aspect of this unreflective usage of the term, ‘modern’ is that the associated periodisation is easily regarded as merely descriptive, and thus as relatively unproblematic. Yet, in European historiography, as Kathleen Davis has shown in the course of a complex and sophisticated discussion, the formation of the categories of ‘feudal’, ‘medieval’ and ‘middle ages’ (and thus, subsequently, of ‘modern’, and ‘early modern’ defined in contrast to them) was caught up both with disputes over sovereignty within Europe and with attempts to rationalise the British East India Company’s rule in India.35

Yet, if both ‘modern’ (as just noted) and ‘political thought’ (as I will argue) are contentious terms, I can hardly bring them together in this apparently descriptive fashion without further comment. I note, first, that the phrase ‘MPT’ in my title is taken directly from the title of Skinner’s book with no commitment to the category his use of the phrase invokes.

Rather than follow Skinner’s fairly conventional usage, I note that, in the English-language academy, ‘MPT’ is usually taken to cover the political thought that developed in the western parts of Europe (sometimes in Europe more generally) and in Anglophone North America in the period since the Reformation (and also since the first European settlements in America), along with political thought elsewhere that builds on this Western literature. The inclusion of ‘early modern’ within the ‘modern’ would, at most, take us back just a little further. ‘Modern’, in this usage, has a limited geographical coverage, at least in the earlier years to which it refers: it is as much a spatial as it is a temporal category. ‘MPT’ has not often been found in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Bengal, China, Iran, Japan or Peru, but now, like the modern State which it often celebrates, it pops up wherever one cares to look.

The view that MPT happened first in Europe and North America and was subsequently picked up elsewhere is unsatisfactory for many reasons, but we might also question whether this spatially restricted MPT has been based upon what Skinner calls the ‘modern’ idea of the State. To address this question, we have to ask what is meant by ‘political thought’, and I will come to this question shortly.

I have noted Kathleen Davis’ argument that the periodisation, in which the ‘modern’ of MPT belongs, was caught up with both political disputes in Europe over sovereignty and attempts to rationalise the British East India Company’s rule in India. This argument suggests at least two suspicions: that disputes over sovereignty and thus the MPT whose foundations are said, in part, to have come out of them, may be caught up in the politics of periodisation; and that reflection on imperial rule has been a significant part of MPT — an issue that is not readily addressed in terms of ‘the rights of states and the duties of subjects’.

I return below to the second issue. As for periodisation, we might expect that any self-consciously modern political thought would search for clear differences between ‘modern’ conditions and their predecessors or ‘pre-modern’ contemporaries. Indeed, we need look no further than the accounts of social development promoted by leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and, just a little later, by Hegel, Comte, Marxism, the founding works of classical sociology and by far too many of their successors.

What Is Political Thought?
One of the preconditions that Skinner lists for the acquisition of the modern concept of the state is that the sphere of politics “should be envisaged as a distinct branch of moral philosophy […] concerned with the art of government”, or as focussing on “the rights of states and the duties of subjects”.36 Skinner notes that the view of politics as a branch of moral philosophy could be found in Aristotle, whose Politics was unknown in Europe throughout much of the Middle Ages. I comment below in a rather different context on Aristotle and the art of government.

Skinner’s focus in this discussion is on relations between subjects and supreme authorities within independent (European) polities and it seems that the subjects of imperial rule have no real place in this discussion — giving the impression that imperial rule over subject peoples adds no significant twist to the question of ‘the rights of states and the duties of subjects’.

This impression would be misleading, not least because the condition of ruling over or being ruled by people from other places, and even of different religions (Islam or other varieties of Christianity) was familiar to and widely discussed by Europeans throughout the period covered by Skinner’s analysis. Religious differences between ruler and many of the ruled were not uncommon in German communities, in England under the Tudor and Stuart dynasties and in Ireland, where, for much of this period, a solidly Catholic population was ruled either by Catholics of a different stamp or by reformed English Protestants. Parts of Italy and of what is now France, Belgium and the Netherlands were ruled by the (Catholic) Spanish Crown.

In practice, questions relating to imperial rule played an important part in the debates on which Skinner reports — but in terms other than those discussed thus far. Skinner begins his argument with the struggles of cities in the territory of the medieval kingdom of Italy to establish their independence both from the Empire’s claims over the kingdom, and from the Papacy which levered religious authority as an instrument of temporal power. Skinner describes Bartolus de Saxoferrato as articulating the following circular argument against the Empire:

Since the cities are governed by ‘free peoples’ wielding their own Imperium [power], they may be said in effect to constitute sibi princeps, a princeps [Prince] unto themselves.

“[It] was only a short step,” Skinner adds,

to generalise this doctrine from the Italian cities to the kingdoms of northern Europe, and so to arrive at the view […] that every king within his own kingdom is equivalent in authority to the Emperor.37

It is tempting here to observe that the size of a step may be more obvious after it has been taken than before. Yet, it seems that, in Skinner’s view, the foundations of modern political thought were forged, in the first instance, during Italian struggles against the Empire and again in similar struggles elsewhere in Europe.

There can be no disputing the significance of these threats to the legitimacy of a long-standing European empire, yet it is worth noting that European empires of another kind emerged during Skinner’s period or just after its end, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish seizures of extra-European territories. The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602, and New Amsterdam, which later became New York, in 1614; Jamestown, the first English settlement in America, in 1607 — raising questions about the legitimacy and/or methods of imperial rule by European powers over non-European populations.

These imperial ventures posed questions for the practice of government concerning: first, how best to govern the populations of the newly acquired territories, given that their laws and customs differed from those of familiar European populations; second, whether their subjection could be seen as falling within the traditional scope of ‘the rights of states and the duties of subjects’; third, of course, in what ways did these people different from Europeans; and, fourth, how should these differences be understood.

Such questions were raised most acutely in relation to the Spanish conquests in the Americas: that of legitimacy was notably addressed by Francisco de Vitoria’s influential 1538 relectione ‘de Indis’38 and again, along with the practical question of government in the Vallodolid debate of 1550-1 between the Dominican Las Casas and the humanist Sepúlveda. The remaining questions, concerning difference and its explanation, were explored in a substantial literature, notably in the writings of Las Casas and José de Acosta, whose work clearly influenced subsequent European discussion of the Americas.39 Skinner refers only briefly to Vitoria and the Vallodolid debate and not at all to Acosta’s History.40 It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the questions of how to govern the peoples of Europe’s colonial possessions — which appear not to have been widely debated in Europe much before the end of Skinner’s period41 — do not figure significantly in Foundations’ view of MPT. Yet, colonial powers have always had an interest in acquiring a practical understanding of the peoples they governed, and it is curious that debates around this interest have not been seen as a significant aspect of MPT.42

There is now a substantial literature on Western legitimations of Empire43 — if not on the practical question of how to govern conquered populations and territories. Thus, while post-Reformation Western political thought (MPT) has indeed been concerned with the art of governing the populations of independent states, it has also been concerned with governing populations in territories that were not independent and, in consequence, with gathering knowledge about them. Consequently only some of the foundations of MPT are to be found in the domestic literatures examined in Skinner’s volumes. Much of the rest appears in the literatures on the non-European world that grew alongside European colonial expansion.44

The Art of Government
This last point — that debates concerning the practicalities of imperial rule over non-Europeans should be considered as much part of MPT as those concerning the rights of states and duties of subjects, at least as this issue is conventionally understood — favours a broader view of MPT than we find in Skinner’s otherwise impressive survey. My second point in favour of a broader view concerns the notion of government. This will require commentary on Aristotle’s Politics.

The first precondition that Skinner identifies for the European acquisition of the modern concept of the state is a view that, he claims, can also be found in Aristotle, namely “that the sphere of politics should be envisaged as a distinct branch of moral philosophy […] concerned with the art of government” — in effect, as focusing on “the rights of states and the duties of subjects”.45 This suggests that these rights and duties are the core of ‘the art of government’.

If Government should be seen, as Aristotle suggests (1988,1279a, 27), as the supreme authority in states, and if the work of governing relies on this authority, then the key to this work will be a matter of correctly identifying the rights of states and the duties of subjects that these rights entail. According to this view of government, discussions of the rights of states and the corresponding duties of subjects on the one hand and of the art of government on the other will be more or less equivalent.

Now, while such a view of government may be found in Aristotle’s Politics, Aristotle also suggests a more complex view. For example, he refers to “the government of a wife and children and of a household”,46 a form of rule that he distinguishes from the government both of a state and of slaves by their masters.

Michel Foucault identifies a similar range of usages in his examination of European reflections on government over a slightly later period than the one Skinner discusses. While there are clear differences between them, Foucault argues, these usages share a concern with “the way in which the conduct of individuals or of groups might be directed [or conducted]. […] To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others”,47 or even of oneself. According to this view, while government will often act directly to determine the conduct of individuals, it may also aim to influence their actions indirectly, by acting on the manner in which they regulate their own conduct and the conduct of others.

Before proceeding, I should note that Skinner’s and Foucault’s arguments are not directly comparable. Foucault offers no contextual analysis of the kind that Skinner advocates and exemplifies in his Foundations, which is not concerned to display the gradual acquisition of the view of government that Foucault identifies. The latter’s aim is more to display the ramifications of this view than to follow the process of its emergence in France and other parts of Europe.

I discuss Foucault here not to promote his views, which I have examined elsewhere,48 as an alternative to Skinner’s, but rather to further my earlier suggestion that there may be more to thought about government, than reflection on the rights of states to command obedience from members of their own populations.

Foucault also notes that, from some vaguely specified point in the sixteenth century, one form of government has been seen (by Europeans) as “special and precise”: namely, “the particular form of governing which can be applied to the state as a whole”.49 It may be tempting to see this last observation as a minor variation on Skinner’s point that, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, “the concept of the State […] had come to be regarded as the most important object of analysis in European political thought”.50

However, Foucault’s ‘the state as a whole’ should not be confused with Skinner’s ‘apparatus of rule’: the former includes both the apparatus and the population and territory the state rules. Government, in Foucault’s sense, of the state as a whole includes, but is not restricted to, the work of the apparatus of rule (Skinner’s ‘State’). Its aim is less to preserve this apparatus than to promote “the welfare of the population”51 — a slogan whose meaning may have been open to interpretation but is not obviously reducible to the survival of the state apparatus.

Foucault’s understanding of government follows Aristotle’s account of the state, and therefore its government, “as the highest of all […] which embraces all the rest”.52 Foucault notes that those who wrote of the art of government (of the state) “constantly recall that one speaks also of ‘governing’ a household, souls, children, a province, a convent, a religious order, a family”. They also, he suggests, treat these “other kinds of government as internal to the state or society”,53 thereby giving the government of the state a superior status.

Without denying the importance of states in the government of their domestic populations, there is no reason to treat the State, in the sense that Skinner emphasises — that is, the State as apparatus of rule — as the only significant mechanism involved in governing these populations. Among the most important features that Foucault finds in his later discussion of liberal political thought54 are the views, first, that relying on law and regulation — that is, on the rights of the state and the duties of its subjects — may not be the most efficient or effective form of government; and, second, that people may be governed in ways other than through the issuing of commands — e.g. through markets, civil society and other systems of interaction. Rather than acting on their conduct directly through instruction or prohibition, people may be governed through action on the ways they regulate their own behaviour in response to the real or anticipated reactions of others.

This paper has focused on Quentin Skinner’s The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, sidestepping, for the most part, the methodological issues raised by his critics. Skinner’s book treats the acquisition of the modern concept of the State as central to the foundations of modern political thought. Accordingly, my opening discussion questioned his reliance on Weber’s conception of the modern state, suggesting that it is curious to find a contextualist manifesto reading Weber’s account as definitive. If Weber’s account of the modern state can hardly bear the weight Skinner assigns to it, then the appearance of something similar in the work of Bodin should not be seen as marking a decisive turning point.

More seriously, if there are reasons to doubt the definitive character of Weber’s account of the modern state, there are more substantial reasons to question the category of ‘modern political thought’, and this issue has taken up the greater part of my discussion. I noted first that it was difficult to use ‘modern’ and related terms without invoking the problematic idea of a periodisation that entails a developmental hierarchy of societies and/or social conditions in which the modern is regarded as superior. Reference to ‘modern’, ‘modernity’ and ‘modernisation’ should be abandoned or, at least, carefully qualified. If, for some reason, we wished to retain its focus on political thought in the West, the content of ‘modern political thought’ should rather be addressed under the heading of post-Reformation, or post-European-invasion-of-the-Americas, political thought in the West. While these two ‘posts’ cover much the same period, for reasons that I have no space to develop here, the second seems to me preferable.

Following discussion of ‘modern’ and the periodisation with which it is associated, I moved on to two areas in which the treatment of political thought as primarily concerned, in terms that Skinner takes directly from Hobbes, with ‘the rights of states and the duties of subjects’ must be regarded as seriously incomplete. I noted, first, that Western political thought has also been concerned with governing and understanding non-European subject populations — almost always consisting of peoples who were regarded as less than modern — and with understanding non-European peoples more generally. Second, I used some of Foucault’s work to suggest that political thought concerning the government of populations has not always aimed at working through the state.

Yet, it would be a mistake to finish on this point. Foucault’s work on government, like Skinner’s, is interesting and suggestive but, again like Skinner’s, it has its own striking limitations (Hindess, 1995, 137f; 2009). In fact, if as I have argued, Skinner’s Foundations can be accused of paying insufficient attention to European reflections on rule over non-Western peoples, the same must also be said of Foucault’s examination of European ideas on government (and on liberalism in particular) in a somewhat later period.55


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s