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Global Intellectual History

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On the unglobality of contexts: Cambridge

methods and the history of political thought

J. G. A. Pocock

To cite this article: J. G. A. Pocock (2019): On the unglobality of contexts: Cambridge

methods and the history of political thought, Global Intellectual History, DOI:

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On the unglobality of contexts: Cambridge methods and the

history of political thought
J. G. A. Pocock
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA

This essay takes shape as a review of a review: Rosario Lopez’s Global intellectual history;
admirable ‘The Quest for the Global: Remapping Intellectual Cambridge school; history of
History’, itself a review of Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori, Global political thought; global
history; historiography;
Intellectual History. Lopez proposes that ‘the quest for the global’
entails a critique if not an abandonment of the concept of ‘context.’
The attack upon context entails questions about both ‘political
thought’ (or ‘theory’) and ‘intellectual history’ (if not ‘history’ itself).
This is because, as Lopez, Moyn and Sartori apparently agree, it
extends as far as an attack on the notion of context as formed in
spatial-temporal frameworks. The beginnings of the ‘global’
critique are well known and may as well be accepted as common
ground. They reduce to the assertion that ‘Cambridge’ scholarship
in this field is ‘Eurocentric’; that is, that it has dealt exclusively with
the ‘political thought’ generated in the Greco-Roman
Mediterranean, transmitted to medieval and modern Europe, and
taken up in the Euro-colonized Americas and a world (or ‘globe’)
subjected to European or ‘western’ domination. This is obviously
true, and calls for reformation. We recognize, but are not afraid to
accept, that ‘political thought’ in a society distant from the
European may be different in deep-seated ways from that we have
learned to study, and that the meanings of the basic terms we shall
apply to learning it may require restatement so drastic that we will
find it hard to comprehend them. At this point the authority by
which we ascribe meaning to both ‘their’ terms as we learn them,
and to ‘ours’ as we employ them in seeking to understand ‘them,’
will require investigation and defence; on what disciplines of
enquiry does it rest? But at this point the meaning of ‘global’ is no
more than ‘multicultural,’ the transition from one ‘context’ to
another; and we already know from Lopez that the ‘global turn’
may require us to go much further than that.

This essay takes shape as a review of a review: Rosario Lopez’s admirable ‘The Quest for
the Global: Remapping Intellectual History’,1 itself a review of Samuel Moyn and Andrew
Sartori, Global Intellectual History.2 Lopez proposes that ‘the quest for the global’ entails a
critique if not an abandonment of the concept of ‘context,’ meaning the ongoing conver-
sation within a vocabulary and idiom formed by a society or constellation of societies for

CONTACT J. G. A. Pocock Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA

© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

the purpose of asserting, empowering, and discussing itself. Such a context will have been
formed in the history of a particular society or civilization, existing in space and time
together with others like it. There may therefore have been several such contexts, each
with a history of its own formation and content, within each of which has gone on an
‘intellectual history’ or histories, which for the purposes of this essay I shall confine to
the category of ‘political thought,’ whatever that is taken to have been in the various con-
texts under study.
What I have been describing is of course a method for the study of ‘political thought,’ a
phenomenon taking many forms, developed over the last sixty or so years by scholars at,
associated with, or affected by the University of Cambridge, to an extent which has earned
it the epithet of ‘the Cambridge School.’ I shall not employ that term because I think prac-
titioners of this method have diversified it in too many directions, and carried it into too
many associated disciplines, to justify the use of the word ‘school.’ Of the three authors com-
monly spoken of as its founders3 – Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and myself – Dunn may be
said to have become most unequivocally a political theorist with an overmastering sense of
the history of theory; I have moved in the direction of the history of historiography, which I
see as largely but not wholly a species of political thought; while the direction taken by
Skinner is the subject of a critical literature large enough to deserve study in its own right.
All of us, however, and there have been many more than three, have been practitioners of
the assignation of texts to contexts, which I shall here describe as the ‘Cambridge method’
and on which, as Lopez ably describes, the ‘global turn’ may have come to constitute an
attack. I wish to state, before going further, that the attack upon context entails questions
about both ‘political thought’ (or ‘theory’) and ‘intellectual history’ (if not ‘history’ itself).
This is because, as Lopez, Moyn and Sartori apparently agree, it extends as far as an attack
on the notion of context as formed in spatial-temporal frameworks.
The beginnings of the ‘global’ critique are well known and may as well be accepted as
common ground. They reduce to the assertion that ‘Cambridge’ scholarship in this field is
‘Eurocentric’; that is, that it has dealt exclusively with the ‘political thought’ generated in
the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, transmitted to medieval and modern Europe, and taken
up in the Euro-colonized Americas and a world (or ‘globe’) subjected to European or
‘western’ domination. This is obviously true, and calls for reformation. We recognize,
but are not afraid to accept, that ‘political thought’ in a society distant from the European
may be different in deep-seated ways from that we have learned to study, and that the
meanings of the basic terms we shall apply to learning it may require restatement so
drastic that we will find it hard to comprehend them. At this point the authority by
which we ascribe meaning to both ‘their’ terms as we learn them, and to ‘ours’ as we
employ them in seeking to understand ‘them,’ will require investigation and defence; on
what disciplines of enquiry does it rest? But at this point the meaning of ‘global’ is no
more than ‘multicultural,’ the transition from one ‘context’ to another; and we already
know from Lopez that the ‘global turn’ may require us to go much further than that.

I will attempt an outline, or model, of a world history of political thought constructed on
‘Cambridge’ or ‘contextualist’ principles. I use the term ‘world history’ because it will pre-
suppose the existence of spatial-temporal contexts constructed by identifiable societies,

cultures or civilizations, and there is now a proposal for a ‘global’ history which criticizes if
it does not abandon the use of ‘context’ as an interpretive tool. (It is worth adding in par-
enthesis that ‘contexts’ as I shall be using the term may contain means of criticizing them-
selves.) This model supposes that, in a period stretching from the beginnings of literate
culture to the approximate date 1500–1700 C.E., there came into being, in that part of
the ‘globe’ reaching from the insular extremities of ‘Europe’ to the insular extremities of
‘Asia,’4 civilizations (as I will call them for short) speaking and writing distinctive
languages and developing specialized idioms for the discussion, practical, critical and
what we will call philosophical, of their systems of government, transmission of authority
and moral values. These ‘languages,’ persisting, changing and subject to disturbance over
time, form the ‘contexts’ within which ‘political thought’ is formed and conducted. There
may emerge philosophers, prophets and other shapers of language to whose names par-
ticular patterns of thought become attached, and this when it happens will become part
of the history of ‘contexts’ and ‘political thought.’
The model therefore supposes an ‘axial age’ in which several systems of ‘political
thought’ came into being and existed in distinctiveness from each other. Since each sup-
plied its own ‘contexts’ having paradigmatic authority,5 they tend for historic reasons
towards incompatibility, and may be seen as having existed in isolation, antagonism, com-
munication or interaction with one another; a ‘world,’ or what used to be called a ‘global,’
history of their relations is therefore conceivable. However, each has a strong tendency
towards self-referentiality, and it is a problem in the present moment of history that
most of those concerned with political thought have learned to study it in the ‘contexts’
provided by Euro-western thought about politics and history, to operate within them
even when seeking to understand the thought of other cultures, and to invite those think-
ing in other language-systems to move in their direction even while seeking to move away
from them. This is a situation which the debate over ‘world’ or ‘global’ histories of political
thought endeavours to remedy.
It encounters many difficulties, of which the first may be termed that of translation. To
what extent have I adapted my language and its contexts to describe the language-world in
which a linguistically and culturally remote other performed actions including speech, and
represented them to him/herself? Must I not rather learn his/her language, and to what
extent can I hope to do so? Must our languages be placed in a kind of dialogue, or
reduced to a common idiom; if the latter, by whom and with what political consequences?
These major perplexities may be reduced, in a simplified academic discourse, to a meth-
odological question. When I seek to understand the ‘political thought’ performed in a cul-
turally, linguistically and historically remote context, what act of enquiry am I seeking to
perform? Am I simply learning a new language and a new history? By employing the word
‘political,’ I am proposing that the other’s action and thought were ‘political’ in ways I
understand; that they were performed in a language and context that defined the ‘political’
to users of that language in ways comparable to, and not incompatible with, those in which
the political is defined in the languages I use. But I cannot do this without engaging, to
what extent and however experimentally, in the intellectual practice of ‘political theory’:
that of saying that to use a political vocabulary in a certain way has consequences for
the ways in which I will continue to use it; and both ‘history’ and ‘theory’ will be employed
as I continue to investigate political speech, whether mine or another’s. This has been the
central contention of the ‘Cambridge method’ since the latter’s beginnings; the two are

both different and inseparable; and both will be employed as we continue to outline a
‘history of political thought’ on contextualist foundations.

Some fifty-five years ago, the present author, then a lecturer in political science at the Uni-
versity of Canterbury, began working on – and using in undergraduate lectures – an essay
subsequently published as ‘Ritual, Language, Power: an essay on the apparent political
meanings of ancient Chinese philosophy.’6 My intention in doing so was minimally his-
torical; we had not fully shaken off the premise of G. H. Sabine and other giants of pre-
Skinnerian scholarship that political theory began when Plato and Aristotle invented pol-
itical philosophy, and I wished to show that it had other origins.7 My argument was that
we were confronted by three governing concepts: one in which values and authority were
transmitted non-verbally by symbolic re-enactment; one in which the inherent ambiguity
of language was challenged by a philosophy of silence and action; and one in which this
was carried in a super-Orwellian direction to the point at which the ruler’s mind was
empty of everything other than his power. These were propositions in political philosophy
which I extracted from the texts before me, but at the same time I was claiming that they
could be found in Chinese intellectual history of the pre-Qin era.
Yet I knew (and know) no Chinese, and had (and have) only a sketchy knowledge of
Chinese history. My claims were based on a few works of translation, introduced by
Fung Yu-lan’s short history of Chinese philosophy and Arthur Waley’s Three Ways of
Thought in Ancient China.8 On ‘Cambridge’ principles, any claim that these ‘ways of
thought’ had a permanent presence as contexts in which speech-acts were performed
must be substantiated by detailed investigation of the relevant textual history; and my
own work at this time was heavily influenced by Michael Oakeshott’s insistence that
language conveyed meaning by way of implication and intimation (a proposition much
at work in the essay I wrote). What then was the status of my essay? It might be either
an elementary essay in comparative intellectual history; thought rendered similar and dis-
similar by the assumptions available to it; or an essay in political theory, pursuing the con-
sequences of disparate assumptions, actual or supposed; or it might be, as it obviously was,
both. If I did not know at all clearly where it ceased to be one and become the other, I was
still operating within the ‘Cambridge’ framework. I had begun to notice that rival assump-
tions about either institutions or knowledge gave rise to differing accounts of how societies
existed in time; this I was able to develop in two essays derived from ‘Ritual, Language,
Power,’9 and in the foundational chapters of The Machiavellian Moment, which provide
the bases for both republican political theory and republican historiography. I am
working my way towards the declaration that a ‘world’ or ‘global’ history of political
thought must be a plurality of histories resting on both halves of the ‘Cambridge’ equation.
If translatability is a problem in the intellectual history of non-identical cultures, com-
parability is another. I encountered both when I became interested, fifty years after ‘Ritual,
Language, Power,’ in the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun. This I read in Franz Rosenthal’s
English translation,10 where I was struck by the extraordinary resemblance (qualified by
differences) between Ibn Khaldun’s account of the transition from nomadic to sedentary
urban society and that given by Scottish philosophers in the eighteenth century and exten-
sively used by Edward Gibbon, of whom I had just completed a study. Here arose the

problem of language; it is unlikely that Rosenthal was much affected by the works of Adam
Smith and Adam Ferguson, but is it possible that his English vocabulary brings Ibn Khal-
dun’s prose closer to theirs than the former’s Arabic vocabulary justifies? I know no more
Arabic or Arab history than I did Chinese, and was left demanding what the ‘Cambridge’
method calls for: an intensive study of the intellectual vocabulary and speculative dis-
course of fourteenth-century Ifriqiyah and Egypt, which would inform me how it was
possible for Ibn Khaldun to develop his categories of society’s historical development,
what in fact these were and whether they coincide with those in use in eighteenth-
century Scotland as closely as they seem to in Rosenthal’s translation. I am not able to
answer this question for myself, and regret that I have not found it answered by other
Lacking an intensive study of Ibn Khaldun’s stadial history in the discursive contexts
furnished by fourteenth-century Arabic intellectual history, I had recourse to a compara-
tive approach inescapably biased in a Euro-western direction. I asked how the Muqaddi-
mah would have appeared if read in translation – French or English – by Adam Smith or
Edward Gibbon; a supposition counterfactual but not extravagantly so, since there then
existed in England and France a small but active school12 of ‘orientalists’ who studied
the Qur’an and some Arab historians and have their place in Enlightened intellectual
history. I proposed that they would infallibly have compared Ibn Khaldun’s scheme to
the ‘four-stage’ scheme of social history prevalent among them,13 and would have per-
ceived that his is a two-stage scheme, lacking a hunter-gatherer stage preceding the pas-
toral and proceeding direct from a camel-herding nomadism in the desert to an urban
and commercial sedentarization in which bedouin are immediately involved.14 They
would have advanced their scheme, in which an agricultural stage is interposed between
the pastoral and the urban, and is a precondition of sedentarization and the growth of
exchange relationships. Ibn Khaldun, by contrast, seems to ascribe a minimal role to agri-
culture; it is established by the city to feed itself, and depends on the limited skills of small-
holding peasants between the city and the desert.
Assuming not only that this would have been the European reading of Ibn Khaldun’s
text, but that it is a correct reading of the Arabic as well as Rosenthal’s translation, I was
able to ask whether Ibn Khaldun saw history as he did because he was a North African of
Spanish-Arab descent, living where the city was separated from the desert only by the hill-
country he saw as the locus of agriculture. He did not seem to know that Africa and Egypt
had exported grain to the cities of the Roman Empire; his scheme of history would have
been different if it had originated in the river civilizations of Egypt or Iraq, and at moments
in his text he seems to know that;15 and lastly, his European readers would have perceived
pastoral nomadism as impacting civilization from the Asian steppe rather than the African
desert. This too he seems to have known, but he does not develop a stadial history of the
Turkish and Mongol impact on the Arab world subjected to it.

The two necessarily amateurish experiments I have just described illustrate how trans-
lation and comparison may be used to initiate historical enquiry and lead towards histori-
cal interpretations in the study of what I earlier termed an ‘axial age’ in which there existed
across Eurasia a number of ‘spatial-temporal contexts’ – this term is perfectly

acceptable – in which political speech could go on and generate political thought, theory
and historiography, while coming, not coming, or being brought, into contact with one
another. These contexts tended to provide the discourse of spatial-temporal societies
and civilizations, and to share with them histories of duration and change, which they
did or did not possess the means of narrating and interpreting; if they did not, it is
open to the scholar to seek to narrate them.
These ‘contexts’ or ‘discourses’ tended to be self-authorizing and self-referential;
they contained the means by which dispute could go on within them – ‘disputers of
the Tao’16 is a phrase I have found worth remembering – and they could themselves
be existentially challenged. However, they were the speech of discrete power-structures,
and for political-historical reasons did not encourage knowledge of or borrowing from
each other. Ethnocentricity is a characteristic of the ‘axial age,’ and for further historical
reasons has taken the form of Eurocentricity; this, however, is not inherent in the
spatial-temporal model as such, and other language-systems might have attained
global domination (it happened to be the Europeans who developed the means of
sailing beyond Eurasia).
Within the ‘spatial-temporal’ and ‘axial age’ models, it is possible, in fact necessary,
to find cases of linguistic and cultural plurality generative of historical problematicity
and interpretation. Euro-western thought was for centuries tri-lingual – Greek, Latin
and the European vernaculars; Islamic thought was Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Ibn
Khaldun was troubled by the thought that as Arabs lost cultural supremacy, the
Qur’an itself might be differently understood by those for whom Arabic was a native
language and those for whom it was a second language or koinē imposed by the
need to accept the Qur’an.17 We may enlarge the implied problematic: is not the
Euro-western language-world formed by the transition from a Mediterranean
‘context,’ polytheist, philosophical and rhetorical, to a European, monotheist, theologi-
cal and juristic, and has this perhaps given that system a concern with the historical
process strong enough to distinguish it from other cultures? It has been too easy to
assume this, but it may not be altogether false; the question is worth answering. (I
shall argue shortly that the ‘global turn’ is challenging the utility of the concern with
history as so far formulated.)
At the other extremity of Eurasia, Japanese thought before western contact is seen
as occasionally marked by the massive adoption, apparently at ruling-class instance, of
Chinese models and the Chinese language, conveying Confucian or Buddhist messages
and imposed upon a cultural bedrock I will take the risk of calling Shinto. While this
may not have produced a formed intellectual history in pre-Meiji Japan, the Tokugawa
period yields at least one case of the critical assertion that all thought-systems are of
human origin and the counter-assertion that aboriginal Shinto lies beyond human
cognition.18 While this seems to have led to a dangerous alliance between mysticism
and the sword, it may usefully be juxtaposed with the assertion that matauranga
Maori, the pre-literate world-view of the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, was
an epistemology, not a history, and cannot be brought into contact with history – a
European imposition – without loss of its essence.19 Here the pursuit of history
through the thought of the ‘axial age’ brings us into contact with the next stage of a

It is therefore possible to apply a method based on the spatial-temporal context to an ‘axial
age’ in which a number of language-worlds co-existed, sometimes interacting and some-
times not, sometimes sharing a history and sometimes not, but self-referential in the sense
that they framed the interior discourse of particular cultures. The ‘Cambridge method’ is
no exception; its emphasis has been heavily upon the early-modern period (1500–1800
C.E.) of Euro-western intellectual history; but I have been trying to show that it is in prin-
ciple applicable to cultures and histories other than its own, while facing the daunting
challenge of learning languages (Chinese, Arabic) other than those of Euro-western deri-
vation. Here it must invoke the ideal of a ‘global,’ in the sense of ‘cosmopolitan,’ ‘republic
of letters’ in which pluralized and multi-cultural discussants instruct each other and
But it is being strongly indicated that this is not going to be enough. Among the authors
reviewed by Rosario Lopez, and more widely still in the rapidly growing literature of the
‘global turn,’ voices are to be heard declaring that what is needed is not a ‘global history’
but a ‘history of the global.’ They debate whether the ‘global’ can have existed before the
advent of a very recent ‘modernity,’ and there is a subsidiary debate over the ‘global’ treat-
ment of a pre-global past; is this to be rewritten along ‘global’ lines or dismissed to a pre-
global antiquity? To comprehend these challenges and understand why these questions are
being asked, it may be desirable to extend our model history, supposing the ‘axial age’ to
have been succeeded, circa 1500–1700 C.E., by an age of global empire, in which European
commerce dominated the global ocean and permitted economic and political domination
of the world’s cultures.
In this period one would expect the non-western language-worlds, with their several
visions of the political and the historical, to have asserted themselves in the face of the
western more vigorously than we believe to have been the case. Perhaps they did, and
‘our’ vision of ‘them’ as astonished and disempowered is misleading; the account I have
been trying to give of the ‘axial age’ as plural and interactive may be worth pursuing
into the age of empire. Alternatively, it may be a well-meaning liberal attempt to supply
the global past with a history counter to that leading into the ‘global turn,’ as unwelcome
to the liberal mind. In the history now ascendant, the ‘imperial’ and ‘post-colonial’ periods
are succeeded, with such rapidity that ‘we’ ourselves are disempowered by it, by a global
capitalism that not only unifies the planet’s economy but offers to supply it with an instant
culture, manufactured by the global market and perpetually reproduced as commodity to
meet the market’s need for constant self-transformation. In such a world politics and
history can have no place, if they are thought of as products of spatial-temporal cultures
possessing their own means of duration and decision. Such can only act to delay or deflect
the unceasing demands of globalization, and even in Lopez’s clear-minded prose one sees
the words ‘national’ and ‘parochial’ used to dismiss the spatial-temporal community from
the history of the global. The moment seems to have come at which we should ask how
‘global history’ is to be other than an ideological tool of globalization.
At this point the ‘Cambridge method,’ with its pre-global and early-modern focus,
becomes part of a neo-Burkean politics in which we can escape neither our pasts or
their transformation, but need a discourse that keeps them within intelligible time and
supplies a context within which ‘we’ – a spatial-temporal construct – can act upon

them and ourselves. The speed with which consciousness is manufactured and trans-
formed tends to empty words of their meaning, so that when we assert our global pasts
as means of navigating our globalized present – and there is no sign that we shall stop
doing this – we find ourselves doing so in speech debased, vulgarized, uncriticized and
fanatical. The academic history of speech resists this trend, sometimes in terms which
deserve the resentment of the non-elite; but there is nothing wrong with the perception
of society as a dialogue between different levels of sophistication. In a world ‘global’ in
the older sense, this sophistication would take multi-cultural and multi-historical forms.

I will conclude with some remarks on John Dunn’s eloquent and passionate ‘Why We
Need a Global History of Political Thought,’ recently published – it has been some
years in the making – in a volume honouring the memory of Istvan Hont.20 The title
opens up two interrelated questions: what it is that we need and why we need it; and
both entail some knowledge of what both the history and the historiography of political
thought have been down to the moment at which ‘we’ – whoever we are – stand as we
read this and other treatments of the subject. Dunn presents a historical model not
unlike that used in this essay: that is, there has been what I called an ‘axial age’ – he
does not use the term and may very well not wish to – during which there existed a
number of major language-contexts, spatially and temporally finite, and furnishing
major political systems and cultures – we shall soon find ourselves using the term ‘civiliza-
tions’ – with self-referential means of political discourse, practical and theoretical (how
‘theory’ and second-order discourse arise is part of their history). These ‘contexts’ in
which ‘political thought’ has arisen and is studied are for obvious reasons self-referential,
and it is possible, often desirable, to treat any one of them in isolation from the others; and
for historical reasons one of them, the ‘Euro-western,’ has attained a global dominance
which it is now necessary to bring to an end. Here is the initial meaning of the term ‘a
global history’: a plural history of systems of thought existing concurrently in space and
time. The need for this is widely recognized among scholars, but has only recently
begun to be met. Dunn supplies page-length footnotes introducing the literature of this
development in the historiography and comparative political theory of the field we have
begun to survey.21
The historiography (and comparative theorization) of the ‘axial age’ – a term I shall use
once more – has produced narratives in which the major systems are seen to have inter-
acted, borrowed from one another, interpenetrated one another, and sought to achieve or
resist domination over one another. Here is a second sense in which we may use the term
‘global history’: one which co-exists with but does not replace the history of their self-refer-
entiality (within which, it is worth adding, there has always been room for self-criticism,
self-modification and self-transformation). There may also have emerged cases in which a
particular political ‘context’ has pursued its own history without immediate association
with a particular political system,22 though whether this entails more than a replacement
of words such as ‘state’ with words such as ‘civilization’ may remain discussable. It is worth
remembering, however, that continued use of the term ‘context’ is compatible with recog-
nition that it is a human construct and may not always be applicable to human affairs.

There can then be two faces to a ‘global history’ of the ‘axial age’: one in which the
several systems are seen in their self-referentiality, distinctiveness, durability and auton-
omy – it is probably this which will supply most matter for reflection to the theorist of
political life; another in which they are seen as cultural hybrids and beyond that as under-
going the contingencies, vicissitudes and indeterminacy of history. It should seem that this
duality of alternating visions would satisfy the historical, as well as the political, intellect;
but this does not seem to be the case with those who desire to replace a ‘global history’ with
a ‘history of the global.’ Dunn, whose perception of both the historical and the political is
far more subtle than he makes it appear here, repeatedly speaks of the several thought
systems of the pre-global age as ‘parochial’ and ‘insular,’ as if autonomy were a form of
self-mutilation, and tells us that they have undergone and are undergoing an experience
of progressive ‘deinsularization.’23 This may be to unite whig history – to presume the
process completed – and also suggests ideology, as if he were adopting a language that pro-
motes the world-view of a process he desires to see triumphant. As a matter of fact, he is no
ideologue; his vision of the globalized world is in many ways critical; but he has begun to
write as if history has had no other outcome. The alternative thesis is that the ‘axial age’ is
like the past in Faulkner’s South; it isn’t over yet and may be present and active. Dunn of
course knows this; but to know it entails the question whether the words ‘parochial’ and
‘insular’ are perhaps being used over-confidently.
He proceeds to envisage a world in which ‘political thought’ has been altogether ‘glo-
balized,’ not merely by the economic and technological processes which are producing a
fluid but omnipresent culture, but by the omnipresence of two ‘global’ problems confront-
ing all human societies caught up in that economy and culture. One of these is the ecologi-
cal, which it is easy to see as confronting humanity as a species inhabiting an environment,
irrespective of the cultural diversities with which it does so; the other is the maldistribution
among human populations of the resources and benefits produced by capitalist production
and distribution. He proposes a model, according to which we are obliged to choose one of
two paradigmatic structures for confronting these problems, derived from early-modern
political and more recent economic thinking; the one proposing that we must approach
them by way of the state, the other by way of the market.24 Such are the alternatives
left us by the globalization of the cultural pluralities of the ‘axial age.’ The ideology accom-
panying them, which we may either embrace or use as a vocabulary of self-criticism,
assumes the supersession of cultural pluralism and political sovereignty over contexts pos-
sessing and seeking to command distinctive histories.
What is clear, however, is that Dunn does not find this model satisfactory. His prose
style is such that the reader needs to have been exposed to it for some time – the same
has been said of mine, and I have always held that languages should take some time to
learn – but as his essay proceeds it becomes clear that humans are to confront these pro-
blems, especially the latter, not simply as an operational choice between state and market
(globalization privileging the latter), but as a dialogue or quarrel between ‘civilizations.’ He
is prepared to accept ‘religion(s)’ as an equivalent for this term, and is darkly aware of the
pessimism of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.25
The term ‘civilization’ may receive technical or experimental meanings from those like
Huntington who are using it in comparative study; but – especially after we note Dunn’s
rather grudging acceptance of ‘religion’ as an occasional equivalent – it is evident that it is
a term of indefinitely extendable meanings. We can say only provisionally what
10 J. G. A. POCOCK

components of human life – especially human subjectivity – may have been drawn upon to
furnish a given ‘civilization’ or the languages in which it has spoken or been spoken of.
Once we agree with Dunn, therefore, that humans in a ‘global’ age will address the pro-
blems it sets them in languages, and according to mentalities, with which they are
equipped by the civilization(s) to which they belong or think they belong, we face the
fact, which Dunn to his credit does not deny, that these will be plural in number and there-
fore self-referential, ‘parochial’ and ‘insular.’ We revert to a world of ‘contexts’ formed in
time and space, which persist in a globalized economy for all the world as if they had not
been deinsularized. The pre-global will therefore persist under ‘globalized’ conditions, and
Dunn rightly exposes the error – the potentially tyrannous error – of supposing that only
the paradigms of globality have survived and that all humans must conform to them
alike.26 I remain dissatisfied, however, with his use of ‘parochial’ and ‘insular’ in ways
that continue to suggest that such may be the case.
The implication of my argument is that in a globalized present and future a pre-global
past will still be present and active, and that a ‘global history of political thought’ must not
only recognize this and find means of narrating it, but retain the use of the methods of pre-
global historiography, not only in continuing to narrate and re-narrate this past, but in
addressing the problems of how it became part of the present and continues to be
active there. Globalization breeds its own discontents, and the more we define ourselves
by our pre-global ‘civilizations’ and ‘religions,’ the greater the danger that these will be
stated in opposition to it, in language ‘populist’ or ‘chauvinist’ because we have lost the
means of stating them in language sufficiently historical and self-relativising. This is a
point at which the discourse of globality must be restrained from becoming its own
The ‘Cambridge method’ of historicizing a text by exhibiting it in a context which
helped reveal its meaning, and at the same time showed it both exercising its authority
and participating in the means of criticizing that authority, was and is a way – one
among several – of keeping the politics of intellect under our control. I am declaring
that this operation will not cease to be necessary as we move from the ‘axial’ to the
‘global’ age, since whatever post-literate challenges arise to the text, it is unlikely to disap-
pear altogether. I am therefore at a loss to understand those passages in Dunn’s essay
where he seems to declare that practitioners of the ‘Cambridge method’ to which in
fact he still belongs – Quentin Skinner and I are mentioned in a footnote – have ‘priori-
tized texts over life’ as completely as did the late Leo Strauss.27 One might dismiss this as a
jeu d’esprit – he only says it to annoy because he knows it teases – were it not for the rather
startling antithesis between ‘texts’ and ‘life.’ One had supposed that texts were a product of
‘life’ – whatever meanings are being borne by that – and at the same time a means of
making statements about life; statements whose meaning and conditionality were declared
both by the texts themselves and by the contexts to which they might be assigned. Clearly,
to make any statement, or to ask any question, is to assert an authority to do so; but texts
and contexts alike are capable of defining the authority they claim, the conditions under
which it may be valid, and even – a speech act both Popperian and Oakeshottean – the
conditions under which it would or will cease to be so. The history of political thought
is largely the history of how these conditions have or have not been stated, or at the
least of how it has been and may be written.

Dunn – I will permit myself to say – knows damned well that this is how it has been
written, and what he means by asserting that it is to give ‘texts’ ‘authority’ over ‘life’ he
has not told us in this otherwise masterly essay. Certainly, the contexts in which texts are
to be located are formed largely by other texts, but this merely records the fact that
‘political thought’ names an activity conducted by literate specialists in literate civiliza-
tions (or religions) and that to say so is merely to privilege a fact. We may extend the
term to include modes of discourse conducted by non-verbal means (the Chinese
rituals) or in non-literate societies (Moyn and Sartori include a fascinating account of
the travels of the Englishman Banks and the Tahitian Tupaia among the oral cultures
of eighteenth-century Polynesia28) and there is much to be learned from such narratives,
once they have been reduced to writing. Perhaps a ‘global history’ of political thought
should include more such episodes as that in New Zealand, where an oral matauranga
Maori encounters a written British history29 and the two must learn to trust where they
cannot altogether understand (Dunn on the concept of trust is always to be read with
profit). But such episodes entail the past of a ‘global history’ including both the encoun-
ter of the written with the unwritten and the transition from the ‘axial’ to the ‘global.’
The latter, as we saw earlier, further entails a transition from a ‘global history’ to a
‘history of the global,’ and it is possible to fear that an assault on the textual and the con-
textual forms part of that. As I have argued from the beginning of this essay, the ‘Cam-
bridge method’ leads to the conceptualization of durable and self-referential discourse
worlds, in which contexts last long enough to give discourse some command over
itself; and there may be an ideological impulse to dethrone the text in favour of the
tweet and the twitter, under whom that is no longer the case. Should that be the direc-
tion globalization is taking, text and context would perform the necessarily conservative
function of delaying speech until debate is possible. John Dunn’s essay, with the primacy
it accords ‘civilization,’ supports that endeavour, and we have only one miscarriage to

What then of the ‘global,’ the ‘globalized,’ a ‘global intellectual history,’ and a ‘global
history of political thought?’ The perceived possibility and need for all these has a
very recent history, and its successive phases have followed one another so rapidly
that it has been hard to keep a grasp on them. In this essay I have supposed it to
begin with the discovery of an ‘axial age’ – I am prepared to abandon this term if it
strays too far from its original meaning – in which there existed a number of
language-worlds or ‘contexts,’ spatially and temporally defined, historically conditioned,
and complex and durable enough to be self-referential and so to permit political auth-
ority and debate, practice and theory. The study of ‘political thought’ was thus plura-
lized; it had gone on in more than one ‘civilization’; and the discourses these
generated could be compared with one another – an enterprise in ‘political theory’ –
and studied as they interacted with one another – an enterprise in ‘the historiography
of political thought.’ (They had also generated historiographies of their own; a subject
which may be set aside for simplicity’s sake).
They could be studied both in their self-referentiality and in their relationships with
each other; and this, to speak normatively, should have been the final phase in the
12 J. G. A. POCOCK

construction of a ‘global’ history (and theory) of political thought. However, it has not
taken shape, if only for the obvious reason that it is monstrously difficult; demanding
knowledge of and insight into the language and culture of more than one ‘civilization.’
How far the simplified histories of each can (or should) be kept from becoming exercises
in political theory is a problem I encountered as long ago as my essay of 1971; and though
much powerful work has been done in this field, it has not become part of a curriculum.
Should undergraduate liberal education survive the globalization of universities, it may yet
do so.
This enormous obstacle, however, seems not to be the principal, though it will be a per-
sistent, reason why this notional first stage in a global history of political thought has been
overtaken before birth by the ‘global intellectual history’ represented by the contributors to
the volume edited by Moyn and Sartori, and in the extensive literature of which it forms
part. Practitioners of the ‘global turn’ – a term to which I think they would all subscribe –
they are interested less in the concurrent existence of ‘language-worlds’ or ‘contexts’
globally distributed, or even in their encounters with one another, than in intellectual
or existential existence on their margins, in the spaces between them, or even in their
absence. The term ‘network’ is freely employed to denote systems of communication
and shared knowledge in these circumstances, and as Lopez has perceived there is
reason to ask whether it is becoming an alternative or a replacement for ‘context’ in the
‘Cambridge’ sense. But though one may welcome, as I do, Sheldon Pollock’s reminder
that the Sanskrit language-world contained ‘political theory’ in the absence of political
culture, there is no escaping the thought that the ‘global turn’ is one towards the
margins of political life and even beyond them.
Now it is evident, and Dunn has rightly emphasized, that the vast bulk of human
existence has gone on outside the ‘contexts’ of ‘political thought,’ and even outside
the structurings of ‘political’ existence which give these terms meaning. There can be
no objection to a history – even an ‘intellectual’ history – of life outside these contexts,
or to a ‘history of political thought’ which stresses the marginality and precariousness of
political life itself. So far, the ‘global turn’ is welcome and may even enhance the study of
the political by the stresses it imposes. But a good deal of human history has been the
history of the political, and it is as misguided to counter-privilege this as it has been
to privilege it. In this essay I have allowed occasional appearances to a suspicion that
there is at work an ideology which would employ a ‘globalized’ history to over-privilege
Dunn’s ‘market’ at the expense of his ‘state’; that is, to empty the political, and in that
sense the historical, of their capacity to counteract a globalized economy’s power to gen-
erate new ‘contexts’ more rapidly than we can control them or even call them by that
name. To proclaim globalization Big Brother can as well be a prelude to denouncing
him as to worshipping him; the latter is an error as possible on the left as on the
right. But to define the state as context is to imagine it as an arena in which we can
both define what we have been and are, and question and dispute these definitions; in
which we can both exercise sovereignty over our history and recognize the limits of
our capacity to do this. That is one possible way of defining the political, and the
definition of it as ‘contextual’ seems to contribute to that capacity. What I would like
to say about the ‘global’ as extra-contextual and extra-political is that properly con-
ducted it enhances that contribution.

1. Lopez, “The Quest for the Global: Remapping Intellectual History.” History of European
Ideas 42, no. 1 (2016): 155–160.
2. Moyn and Sartori, eds. Global Intellectual History. Columbia University Press, 2013.
3. There could, but perhaps need not, be a history of those associated with it, and the paths their
work has taken. It would both confuse and clarify its history.
4. I omit the city civilizations of pre-Columbian America as they seem to have developed no
alphabetical or pictographic philosophical literature. Should this assumption be upset, the
model will have to be extended.
5. I use the term “paradigm/atic” as I learned it from the writings of Thomas S. Kuhn. See
Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time. New York, Atheneum, 1971; University of Chicago
Press, 1985, the opening and closing chapters. I later chose to abandon it to the study of
scientific enquiry where Kuhn had placed it.
6. Pocock, “Ritual, Language, Power: An Essay on the Apparent Political Meanings of Ancient
Chinese philosophy.” Political Science (Victoria University of Wellington) 16, no. 1 (March
1964): 3–31; Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time, ch. 2.
7. New Zealand in those days was a wholly Anglo-Polynesian culture, and my audience did not
include Chinese students as it might now.
8. Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time, 43, n. 1
9. Pocock, “The Origins of Study of the Past: A Comparative Approach.” Comparative Studies
in Society and History 4, no. 2 (1962): 209–246, reprinted in Pocock, Political Thought and
History: Essays on theory and method. Cambridge University Press, 2009, ch. 9; Pocock,
“Time, Institutions and Action: An Essay on Traditions and their Understanding.” In Politics
and Experience; essays presented to Michael Oakeshott, edited by Preston King and B. C. Par-
ekh. Cambridge University Press, 1968, reprinted in Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time, ch.
7, and in Pocock, Political Thought and History, ch. 10. See Haakonssen and Whatmore,
“Global Possibilities in Intellectual History.” Global Intellectual History 2, no. 1 (2017):
10. Rosenthal (trans.), The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. 3 vols. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1958. I used the edition abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood, with a
new introduction by Bruce B. Lawrence (Princeton and Oxford, Bollinger Series, Princeton
University Press, 2005).
11. Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography. Princeton University Press, 2018 simply does
not deliver what its subtitle promises. More is to be learned from Stuurman, “Common
Humanity and Cultural Difference on the Sedentary-Nomadic Frontier: Herodotus, Sima
Qian, and Ibn Khaldun.” In Moyn and Sartori, Global Intellectual History, p. 48 and n. 41,
where we hear of an Arabic discipline, siyasa, “the art of secular government,” which may
provide the context we are looking for.
12. Bevilacqua, The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment. Cam-
bridge, MA: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018.
13. There is an extensive recent literature on this theme, which has been especially important to
Istvan Hont’s writings on Adam Smith and mine on Edward Gibbon. For an introduction see
Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage. Cambridge University Press, 1974.
14. Pocock, “The Desert and the City: Reading the History of Civilization in Ibn Khaldun after
Edward Gibbon,” History of European Ideas (PAGES WILL COME WHEN PUBLISHED).
15. Pocock, loc. cit., pp. DETAILS WILL COME WHEN PUBLISHED.
16. Graham, Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988.
17. For a treatment of the relevant chapters of the Muqaddimah see Pocock, “Angelicality and
Rational Enthusiasm: The Concept of Prophecy in Ibn Khaldun and Edward Gibbon.”
History of European Ideas DETAILS WHEN PUBLISHED.
18. The modern studies I have found valuable here are Maruyama, Studies in the Intellectual
History of Tokugawa Japan. Princeton University Press, 1974; Matsumoto, Motoori
14 J. G. A. POCOCK

Norinaga. Harvard University Press, 1970; Najita, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan: The
Kaito Kudo Merchant Academy of Osaka. Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1987.
19. Tau, “Matauranga Maori as an Epistemology.” In Histories, Power and Loss: Uses of the past
—a New Zealand commentary, edited by Andrew Sharp and Paul McHugh. Wellington,
Bridget Williams Books, 2001; Tau, “The Death of Knowledge: Ghosts on the Plains.” New
Zealand Journal of History 35, no. 2 (2001): 131–152; Tau, “The Discovery of Islands and
the Stories of Settlement.” Thesis Eleven 92, no. 1 (2008): 11–28; Head, “The Pursuit of Mod-
ernity in Maori Society.” In Histories, Power and Loss, edited by Sharp and McHugh; Pocock,
“The Treaty Between Histories.” In Histories, Power and Loss, edited by Sharp and McHugh.
20. Markets, Morals, Politics: Jealousy of Trade and the History of Political Thought, edited by
Béla Kapossy, Isaac Nakhimovsky, Sophus A. Reinert, and Richard Whatmore. Cambridge,
MA, Harvard University Press, 2018.
21. Markets, Morals, Politics, 295–96, n. 8, 298, n. 11.
22. Lopez, “The Quest for the Global,” 156–7, and Pollock, “Cosmopolitanism, Vernacularism,
and Premodernity.” In Global Intellectual History, edited by Moyn and Sartori, ch. 3. This
remarkable essay surveys the Sanskrit language-world of pre-modern South Asia as that of
a cosmopolis, lacking political centrality so far as to raise doubts as to whether it displays
the language of a political system. Pollock insists, though, that it is a language replete with
“political theory” (p. 68), precisely because it exists on the margins of political organization.
The context it offers is self-referential, spatial and temporal.
23. Markets, Morals, Politics, 288.
24. Pp. 291–93.
25. Pp. 294 and n. 8.
26. Pp. 290, the bottom paragraph.
27. Pp. 303 and n. 21.
28. Smith, “Joseph Banks’s Intermediaries: Rethinking Global Cultural Exchange.” In Global
Intellectual History, edited by Moyn and Sartori, ch. 4.
29. N. 19, above.

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