Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner

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Quentin Robert Duthie Skinner (born 26 November 1940, Oldham, Lancashire) is the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London...



Quentin Skinner was born the second son of Alexander Skinner, CBE (died 1979), and Winifred Rose Margaret, née Duthie (died 1982). Educated at Bedford School
Bedford School
Bedford School is not to be confused with Bedford Modern School or Bedford High School or Old Bedford School in Bedford, TexasBedford School is an HMC independent school for boys located in the town of Bedford, England, United Kingdom...

 and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Gonville and Caius College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. The college is often referred to simply as "Caius" , after its second founder, John Keys, who fashionably latinised the spelling of his name after studying in Italy.- Outline :Gonville and...

, he was elected into a Fellowship there in 1962 upon obtaining a double-starred first in History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

, but immediately gained a teaching Fellowship at Christ's College, Cambridge
Christ's College, Cambridge
Christ's College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge.With a reputation for high academic standards, Christ's College averaged top place in the Tompkins Table from 1980-2000 . In 2011, Christ's was placed sixth.-College history:...

, where he remained until moving to the University of London
University of London
-20th century:Shortly after 6 Burlington Gardens was vacated, the University went through a period of rapid expansion. Bedford College, Royal Holloway and the London School of Economics all joined in 1900, Regent's Park College, which had affiliated in 1841 became an official divinity school of the...

 in 2008. He is now an Honorary Fellow of both Christ's College and Gonville and Caius College.

In the middle 1970s he spent four formative years at the Institute for Advanced Study
Institute for Advanced Study
The Institute for Advanced Study, located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States, is an independent postgraduate center for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. It was founded in 1930 by Abraham Flexner...

 in Princeton
Princeton, New Jersey
Princeton is a community located in Mercer County, New Jersey, United States. It is best known as the location of Princeton University, which has been sited in the community since 1756...

, initially as an historian and latterly in the School of Social Science. It was there that he met Raymond Geuss
Raymond Geuss
Raymond Geuss , a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, is a political philosopher and scholar of 19th and 20th century European philosophy.-Life:...

, later a colleague at Cambridge. Together with John Dunn and J. G. A. Pocock Skinner has been said to have founded the "Cambridge School" of the history of political thought. In 1978 he was appointed to the chair of Political Science at the University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

, and in 1996 he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History
Regius Professor of Modern History (Cambridge)
Regius Professor of Modern History is one of the senior professorships in history at Cambridge University. It was founded in 1724 by George I. The appointment is by Royal Warrant on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day...

. He was pro-vice-chancellor of Cambridge in 1999. In 1979 he married Susan James, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College London
Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is...

; they have a daughter and a son.

Skinner has delivered many prestigious lecture-series, including the Gauss Seminars at Princeton (1980), the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford (1980), the Messenger Lectures
Messenger Lectures
The Messenger Lectures are a prestigious series of talks given by leading scholars and public figures at Cornell University. They were founded in 1924 by a gift from Hiram Messenger and are regarded as one of the most important of Cornell's extracurricular activities.There were initially "twelve...

 at Cornell (1983), the Tanner Lectures at Harvard (1984), the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at Kent (1995), the Ford Lectures
Ford Lectures
The Ford Lectures are a prestigious series of public lectures given annually in English or British History by a distinguished historian. Known commonly as "The Ford Lectures," they are properly titled "Ford's Lectures in British History" and they are given by a scholar elected to be "Ford's...

 at Oxford (2003), the Page-Barbour Lectures at Virginia (2003), the Benedict Lectures at Boston (2005) and the Adorno Lectures at Frankfurt (2005).

Skinner was Distinguished Visiting Professor at Queen Mary, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London
Queen Mary, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London...

 for the 2007-2008 academic year, and has been Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary since October 2008.

Skinner is a Fellow of numerous scholarly associations, including the British Academy
British Academy
The British Academy is the United Kingdom's national body for the humanities and the social sciences. Its purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence in the humanities and social sciences, throughout the UK and internationally, and to champion their role and value.It receives an annual...

, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The Academy’s elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.James Bowdoin, John Adams, and...

, the Academia Europaea
Academia Europaea
Academia Europæa is a European non-governmental scientific academy founded in 1988. Its members are scientists and scholars who collectively aim to promote learning, education and research. It publishes European Review through Cambridge Journals....

 and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, and his scholarship has won him many awards, including the Wolfson Prize for History (1979); the Sir Isaiah Berlin
Isaiah Berlin
Sir Isaiah Berlin OM, FBA was a British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas of Russian-Jewish origin, regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century and a dominant liberal scholar of his generation...

 Prize of the British Political Studies Association (2006); the Benjamin Lippincott Award (2001) and the David Easton Award (2007) of the American Political Science Association; the Bielefelder Wissenschaftspreis (2008); and a Balzan Prize
Balzan Prize
The International Balzan Prize Foundation awards four annual monetary prizes to people or organisations who have made outstanding achievements in the fields of humanities, natural sciences, culture, as well as for endeavours for peace and the brotherhood of man.-Rewards and assets:Each year the...

 (2006). He holds honorary degrees from many Universities, including Aberdeen, Athens, East Anglia, Chicago, Harvard, Helsinki, Leuven, Oxford, Santiago and St Andrews.


Skinner's historical writings have been characterised by an interest in recovering the ideas of Early Modern and previous political writers. This has been spread over Renaissance republican authors (see in Principal publications below, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought [1978]), the 'pre-Humanist' dictatores of later medieval Italy, Machiavelli
Niccolò Machiavelli
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance. He is one of the main founders of modern political science. He was a diplomat, political philosopher, playwright, and a civil servant of the Florentine Republic...

, and more recently (in Liberty before Liberalism [1998]) the English republicans of the mid-seventeenth century (including John Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

, James Harrington, and Algernon Sidney). The work of the 1970s and 1980s was in good part directed towards writing an account of the history of the modern idea of the state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

. In more recent publications he has preferred the more capacious term 'neo-Roman' to 'republican'.

He is generally regarded as one of the two principal members of the influential 'Cambridge School' of the study of the history of political thought. The other principal member of this school is the historian J.G.A. Pocock
J.G.A. Pocock
John Greville Agard Pocock , as a writer known as J. G. A. Pocock, is a historian noted for his trenchant studies of republicanism in the early modern period , for his treatment of Edward Gibbon and his contemporaries as historians of Enlightenment, and, in historical method, for his contributions...

, whose The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957) was a significant early influence. Another important stimulus came from the work of Peter Laslett
Peter Laslett
-Biography:Born Thomas Peter Ruffell Laslett and educated at the Watford Grammar School for Boys, Peter Laslett studied history at St John's College, Cambridge in 1935 and graduated with a double first in 1938. During the war he learned Japanese and worked at Bletchley Park and Washington decoding...

, and more particularly from Laslett's decisive edition of John Locke
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

's Two Treatises of Government (1960) which Skinner read as an undergraduate in his second year at Cambridge.

The 'Cambridge School' is best known for its attention to the 'languages' of political thought and the contextual focus this gives its distinctive blend of intellectual history and the history of political thought. Skinner's particular contribution was to articulate a theory of interpretation which concentrated on recovering the 'speech acts' embedded in the 'illocutionary' statements of specific individuals in writing works of political theory (Machiavelli, Thomas More
Thomas More
Sir Thomas More , also known by Catholics as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an important councillor to Henry VIII of England and, for three years toward the end of his life, Lord Chancellor...

, and Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

 have been continuing preoccupations). This work was based on Skinner's study of the philosophical preoccupations of J. L. Austin
J. L. Austin
John Langshaw Austin was a British philosopher of language, born in Lancaster and educated at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford University. Austin is widely associated with the concept of the speech act and the idea that speech is itself a form of action...

 and the later Wittgenstein. One of the consequences of this account of interpretation is an emphasis on the necessity of studying less well-known political writers as a means of shedding light on the classic authors - although it also consciously questions the extent to which it is possible to distinguish 'classic' texts from the contexts, and particularly the arguments, in which they originally occurred and as such it is an attack on the uncritical assumption that political classics are monolithic and free-standing. In its earlier versions this added up to what many have seen as a persuasive critique on the approach of an older generation, particularly on that of Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss was a political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated to the United States...


Skinner's longstanding concern with the speech acts of political writing helps explain his turn at the beginning of the 1990s towards the role of neo-classical rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...

 in early modern political theory, which resulted in his study of Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996). Skinner has since returned to what has often been seen as an enduring interest to the Regius Professors of History at the University of Cambridge (not least Lord Acton
John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, KCVO, DL , known as Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th Bt from 1837 to 1869 and usually referred to simply as Lord Acton, was an English Catholic historian, politician, and writer...

), the history of liberty
Liberty is a moral and political principle, or Right, that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, to behave according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions...

 and particular developing what he has articulated as a 'third form of liberty'. This can most effectively be described as a form of 'negative' liberty (or neo-Roman) which is characterised however by the active participation in government to remain free from interference and the slavery caused by succumbing to an arbitrary power. See for example Quentin Skinner, ‘A Third Concept of Liberty’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 117 (2002), pp. 237–68. His most recent work was an analysis of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes as a polemical retort to those who, in the English civil war, espoused precisely such a 'neo-Roman' concept of human freedom.


In an interview with Professor Alan Macfarlane of Kings College, Skinner revealed that he was a member of the Cambridge Apostles
Cambridge Apostles
The Cambridge Apostles, also known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society, is an intellectual secret society at the University of Cambridge founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson, a Cambridge student who went on to become the first Bishop of Gibraltar....

, a secret society of Cambridge University. He also revealed that Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen, CH is an Indian economist who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to welfare economics and social choice theory, and for his interest in the problems of society's poorest members...

was a fellow member at this time. He commented they were both 'outed' some time ago.

Principal publications

  • The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume I: The Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1978)
  • The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume II: The Age of Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 1978)
  • Machiavelli (Oxford University Press, 1981)
  • Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Visions of Politics: Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Visions of Politics: Volume II: Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Visions of Politics: Volume III: Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  • L'artiste en philosophie politique (Editions du Seuil, Paris, 2003)
  • Hobbes and Republican Liberty (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Books edited
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Philosophy, Politics and Society: Fourth Series (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1972)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Philosophy in History (Cambridge University Press, 1984)
  • (Editor and contributor), The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
  • (Co-editor), Machiavelli, The Prince (trans. Russell Price) (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge University Press, 1990)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Political Discourse in Early-modern Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • (Co-editor) Milton and Republicanism (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, Volume I: Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, Volume II: The Values of Republicanism in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), States and Citizens: History, Theory, Prospects (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • (Co-editor), Thomas Hobbes: Writings on Common Law and Hereditary Right (The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes, Volume XI) (The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005)
  • (Co-editor and contributor), Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

  • 1997: ‘An Interview with Quentin Skinner’, Cogito 11, pp. 69–78.
  • 2000a: ‘Intervista a Quentin Skinner: Conseguire la libertà promuovere l’uguaglianza’, Il pensiero mazziniano 3, pp. 118–22.
  • 2000b: ‘Entrevista: Quentin Skinner’ in As muitas faces da história, ed. Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Brazilia, pp. 307–39. [Trans. in The New History: Confessions and Conversations, ed. Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Cambridge, 2003.]
  • 2001: ‘Quentin Skinnerin haastattelu’, Niin & Näin 31, pp. 8–23.
  • 2002: ‘Encountering the Past: An Interview with Quentin Skinner’ Finnish Yearbook of Political Thought 6, pp. 32–63.
  • 2003: ‘La Libertà Politica ed il Mestiere dello Storico: Intervista a Quentin Skinner’, Teoria Politica 19, pp. 177–85.
  • 2006: ‘Historia intelectual y acción política: Una entrevista con Quentin Skinner’, Historia y Política 16, pp. 237–58.
  • 2007a: ‘Neither text, nor context: An interview with Quentin Skinner’, Groniek: Historisch Tijdschrift 174, pp. 117–33.
  • 2007b: ‘La Historia de mi Historia: Una Entrevista con Quentin Skinner’, El giro contextual: Cinco ensayos de Quentin Skinner y seis comentarios, ed. Enrique Bocardo Crespo, Madrid, pp. 45–60.
  • 2007c: ‘Intellectual History, Liberty and Republicanism: An Interview with Quentin Skinner’, Contributions to the History of Concepts 3, pp. 102–23.
  • 2008: ‘Concepts only have histories’, interview with Quentin Skinner by Emmanuelle Tricoire and Jacques Levy, EspacesTemps, document 3692
  • 2009a: ‘Making History; The Discipline in Perspective: Interview with Professor Quentin Skinner’, Storia e Politica, 1, pp. 113–34.
  • 2009b: ‘Wie frei sind wir wirklich?’ Fragen an Quentin Skinner’, Zeitschrift fűr Ideengeschichte 3, pp. 5–21.

  • 1988: James Tully (Editor), Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics (Polity Press and Princeton University Press).
  • 1995: M. Edling and U. Morkenstam, ‘Quentin Skinner: From Historian of Ideas to Political Scientist’, Scandinavian Political Studies 18, pp. 119–32.
  • 1996: ‘Dossier Quentin Skinner’, Krisis 64.
  • 2001: ‘Quentin Skinner og Intellektuel Historie’, Slagmark: Special Number (33)
  • 2003a: Kari Palonen, Quentin Skinner: History, Politics, Rhetoric (Cambridge: Polity Press).
  • 2003b: Kari Palonen, Die Entzauberung der Begriffe: Das Umschreiben der politischen Begriffe bei Quentin Skinner und Reinhart Koselleck (Münster).
  • 2006: Annabel Brett and James Tully (Editors), Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • 2007a: Emile Perreau-Saussine, ‘Quentin Skinner in context’, Review of Politics, 68, pp. 106–122.
  • 2007b: Enrique Bocardo Crespo (Editor), El giro contextual: Cinco ensayos de Quentin Skinner y seis comentarios (Madrid: Editorial Tecnos).
  • 2007c: Michael Drolet, ‘Quentin Skinner and Jacques Derrida on Power and the State’, History of European Ideas, 33, pp. 234–55.
  • 2008: Ryan Walter, ‘Reconciling Foucault and Skinner on the state: the primacy of politics?’ History of the Human Sciences, 21, pp. 94–114.
  • 2009a: Richard Fisher '"How to do things with books": Quentin Skinner and the dissemination of ideas', History of European Ideas 35, pp. 276–80.
  • 2009b: Frank Beck Lassen and Mikkel Thorup (Editors), Quentin Skinner: Politik og historie: En tekstsamling (Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag).
  • 2010: Marco Geuna, 'Quentin Skinner e Machiavelli' in Anglo-American Faces of Machiavelli, ed. A. Arienzo and G. Borrelli, Milano, pp. 577–622.

External links