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The question-and-answer logic of historical context

Fear, Christopher

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Abstract

Quentin Skinner has enduringly insisted that a past text cannot be ‘understood’ without the reader knowing something about its historical and linguistic context. But since the 1970s he has been attacked on this central point of all his work by authors maintaining that the text itself is the fundamental guide to the author’s intention, and that a separate study of the context cannot tell the historian anything that the text itself could not. Mark Bevir has spent much of the last twenty years repeating a similar counter-argument. Although ‘study the linguistic context’ might be a useful heuristic maxim, Bevir says, it does not express a necessary or sufficient condition for understanding. But Skinner is right, and one of the figures he has consistently identified as a formative inspiration, R. G. Collingwood, has already (in his work of the 1930s) shown why. What Collingwood calls his ‘logic of question and answer’ explains why the historian cannot answer his characteristic ‘intention’ question about past texts without knowing the context of problems to which authors think they are offering solutions. The study of context is neither ‘prior’ (as Bevir incorrectly supposes) nor ‘separate’ (as Skinner inaccurately says), but it is, as Skinner maintains, nevertheless impossible to grasp an author’s intention without it. This ‘logic of question and answer’ also explains why, in history, dismissing the study of context is in fact a prejudgement of evidence yet unseen.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date 2013-07
Journal History of the Human Sciences
Print ISSN 0952-6951
Electronic ISSN 1461-720X
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 26
Issue 3
Pages 68-81
Institution Citation Fear, C. (2013). The question-and-answer logic of historical context. History of the Human Sciences, 26(3), 68-81. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695113491757
DOI https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695113491757
Keywords Mark Bevir; R. G. Collingwood; Context; History of ideas; Methodology; Quentin Skinner
Publisher URL https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0952695113491757
Additional Information This is the accepted manuscript of an article published in History of the human sciences, 2013. The version of record is available at the DOI link in this record.

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