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It is easy to assume that political thought is bound up with time and history. To most historians, time and history are obvious dimensions of politics; politics occur in contexts which are temporal and historical, and must be studied by reference to the evidence provided by those contexts. Periodically historians have questioned whether temporality should be regarded as uniform; recently, there has been much interest in the thesis that ‘modernity’ entailed a new understanding of time. But whether that understanding, and the understandings of time in pre-modern eras, are thought of as belonging to contemporaries and shared by all those who thought about politics, or are conceived rather as heuristic models, is often unclear. The debate hovers uncertainly between intellectual history and historical methodology.
Political philosophers, however, have never taken time and history for granted. Whether temporality is a necessary or normative foundation for the concept of the civitas, the state, whether political concepts require to be inserted into a historical narrative to be effective are questions to which they have returned very different answers. A Machiavelli might hold politics governed by an inherently temporal ‘necessity’, and insist that political agency be assessed in its specific historical outcomes. But a Hobbes or a Rousseau would create a foundation for the state which deliberately limited the scope for time to make a difference, and which would be valid independent of historical circumstance. A similar division may be found among the jurists. Exponents of customary law argued from prescription, while Roman jurists explored the adaptability of concepts codified for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire to the post-Roman world of multiple kingdoms and city-states. But other jurists set aside time by preferring first principles to prescription, or by making historical examples support accounts of natural law as the universal, supratemporal embodiment of civilised sociability. Viewed as the study of ‘languages’, the history of political thought has found itself studying many languages to which time and history are essential – but many too which diminish or exclude them.
The aim of this conference will be to explore the variety of engagements with time and history found in political thinkers, the better to understand (and, perhaps, to explain) why political philosophy has been unable to take these concepts for granted. Themes of individual sessions will include Time and the State, the temporal and historical perspectives available to political thinkers following the fall of the Roman Empire, time in customary and Roman legal traditions, the temporalities of civil and sacred history in the early modern period, the conceptual status of Enlightenment ‘stadial history’ and what it contributed to the understanding of society and government, the time of ‘modern’ politics, in the nineteenth and again in the twentieth centuries, and whether a political thought ‘global’ in time and history is conceivable. It will end with a reassessment of time in the history of political thought itself: what understandings of time should govern our engagement with the political and legal thought of the past, whether remote or still close at hand? Must they be adapted if the history of political thought is, as many of its foremost practitioners have hoped, to enhance political philosophy itself? The conference is organised under the aegis of the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought and the University’s Faculty of History.