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Lecture | PCNI Research Seminar

Why We All Need Philosophical and Scientific Analysis in the History of Philosophy, History of Political Thought, and Intellectual History

Wednesday 21 June 2023
PCNI Research Seminars 2022-2023
Johan Huizinga
Doelensteeg 16
2311 VL Leiden
Conference room (2.60)

Historians of philosophy/political thought/ideas ask two main kinds of questions: (1) empirical questions (e.g. what Hobbes meant by "reason", why Hume wrote what he wrote, and who influenced Locke), and (2) philosophical questions (e.g. how Hobbes's ideas fit together, and how convincing Hume's arguments are). The best set of tools that humans have yet developed for answering empirical questions are scientific tools. Part of my paper will thus explain why scientific ideas are far more relevant in history of philosophy/political thought/ideas than most people think - especially uncertainty, under-determination, falsification (though not in orthodox ways), hypothesis-testing, triangulation of textual, contextual and philosophical evidence, and Ockham's Razor. The emphasis on testing is crucial. The second set of questions are philosophical, and philosophical analysis is vital even in primarily historical analyses, since even historians will sometimes need to take a stand on questions such as how an author's ideas fit together and how convincing their arguments are; and issues of conceptual consistency run in the background all the time. I thus cover the following philosophical techniques: conceptual analysis, conceptual/logical implications, presumptions, specifying the steps in an argument, systematic reconstruction, adaptive reconstruction, and drawing contemporary insights. All of these, except the last, are required techniques even for historians; and many historians try the last of these (though not always successfully!). Overall, I thus argue that while many historians of philosophy/political thought/ideas hate the idea of doing anything scientific, and while many intellectual historians hate the idea of doing anything scientific or anything philosophical, all of us need all of these tools, and we should thus learn to use them better.

About the speaker

Adrian Blau is Professor of Politics at King’s College London, and is currently a professorial fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. He has also published 10 articles and chapters on the methodology of history of political thought, including articles in the American Journal of Political Science and The Journal of Politics. He edited the first ever textbook on political theory methods: Methods in Analytical Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Much of his research is on rationality and irrationality, including the work of Thomas Hobbes (e.g. articles in History of Political Thought and The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes) and Jürgen Habermas (e.g. articles in the European Journal of Political Theory and Political Research Quarterly). His current work involves bringing the social sciences and humanities closer together, partly by focusing on the logic of inference of thought experiments in moral and political philosophy. His PhD combined empirical and normative aspects of electoral systems, including publications in Electoral Studies and Party Politics. He still works on democratic theory and practice, including a recent paper on philosophical justifications of political equality, in Moral Philosophy and Politics.


The event is open to the public, but registration is needed. To register, please send an email to the PCNI coordinator, Dario Fazzi, at d.fazzi@hum.leidenuniv.nl

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