Republicanism and neorepublicanism

► Cet entretien fait partie de l'atelier "Actualité de la philosophie politique normative" dirigé par Luc Foisneau **********************************************                                                      ► This interview belongs to the workshop "Actuality of normative political philosophy" directd by Luc Foisneau

Christopher Hamel is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Rouen and doctor in philosophy at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. He works in the history of political ideas (16th-18th centuries) and contemporary political philosophy. He has taught at the Sorbonne (Paris 1), the University of Rouen and the University of Québec at Montréal. He was a post-doctoral researcher in the ERC Starting-Grant RESIST project, led by Justine Lacroix (ULB), where he worked on the place of the concept of rights in contemporary neorepublican thought. His research focuses on republican thought, in its historical and normative dimensions, as well as on methodological problems related to intellectual history. 

 

This interview was conducted by Luc Foisneau and Luc Foisneau at the EHESS Audiovisual Center, 96 boulevard Raspail, Paris, on 27th February 2018.

Réalisation : Serge Blérard

Luc Foisneau: My next question concerns precisely the choice of the authors you have chosen, who are not authors that we associate, in the French tradition, with philosophy, namely Sidney, nor even necessarily always with political philosophy, but rather with poetry, such as Milton. Could you tell us what justified this choice of these two authors in particular, and also their rapprochement, since you had other possibilities, other authors who could have been the subject of your first work?

 

Christopher Hamel: As often, I guess, there is a dimension in the choice of authors which is partly arbitrary: on the one hand, my thesis being financed for three years of research without teaching, I had to go back to high school after these three years to validate my teaching degree, and I didn’t feel like finishing the thesis while teaching full-time in high school; on the other hand, my initial project was more about the 18th century, French, Italian and English-speaking, than about the English 17th century. However, this initial project was far too broad and the principle of reality suggested that I should narrow it down. I chose the English field, because it seemed to me that it was the field most worked on by intellectual history, which had done a considerable amount of work on the two great figures of 17th republican thought, John Milton and Algernon Sidney – a work of detailed contextualisation and careful reconstruction of their intellectual biographies, which in my view guaranteed that the philosophical elaboration I was embarking on would have a solid basis: Facts had been established, for Milton about his place in the first English revolution (1642-1649), then within the new republican regime and also during the Restoration (1649-1660), for Sidney about his position during the Exclusion Crisis and in radical networks seeking to establish a republic in England. These works were available, and what I felt should be done in addition was a detailed demonstration, through a reading of the texts as accurate as possible, of the validity of this hypothesis of the coherence of political theories including both rights and virtue.

 

You also ask me, Luc: Why did I choose these two authors who do not belong to the classical canon of philosophy? The reason is that I was convinced that it was not because they were not great authors of the tradition that it was not legitimate to devote an in-depth work to them. This is a problem and an institutional reality in philosophy: for reasons that are understandable in some respects (the weight of competitive examinations in determining the content, and therefore the needs of philosophy teaching at university), very often only great authors are considered as legitimate objects of research. This raises difficulties, especially in the very tough competition for a position, but I think that it is to a large extent an institutional reality whose philosophical or intellectual foundation, if it exists, is not so robust that it cannot be tested by working on minores.

 

The methodological premise which animated my work was therefore that it is not because authors express themselves in the form of pamphlets, or even inflammatory pamphlets, as is sometimes the case with Milton who blithely insults his interlocutor or seeks to ridicule his adversary, that there is not, for all that, behind the diatribe, a theory, articulated, strong and coherent. Milton was a formidable political pamphleteer, and also a religious one, a recognised pamphleteer, and although he is not part of the canon today, any more than Sidney is, they were both considered to be authors of primary importance at the end of the seventeenth century, throughout the eighteenth, and even part of the nineteenth century. When I recently studied Barbeyrac’s notes to his translations of Grotius and Pufendorf1, I realized that Barbeyrac considered Sidney to be a writer worthy of being mobilized to refute the arguments that justify the contract of servitude, glorify absolute monarchy and castigate the love of freedom. And Rousseau, who knew Barbeyrac and had read the French translation of the Discourses on Civil Government, said in the Letters Written from the Mountain something what he does not often say about the authors he quotes: “The unfortunate Sidney thought like me”. Although this kind of statement must always be regarded with caution, there is a good chance that one may in fact have much to expect from an exploration as rigorous, slow and methodical as those usually devoted to Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes or Marx, even if, of course, the form of the argument is different and therefore implies precautions, and perhaps greater caution, than when studying the authors of the established canon.

Bernard Manin: I would like to ask you a question about your intellectual itinerary. You have emphasised the part of your work that has consisted of studying authors from the past and, in general, because you were trained in the French university, the fact that the exegetical analysis of the authors of political thought occupies a very important part of it. Now, it seems to me that in your present work - particularly in the text you presented to us in the Seminar on Normative Political Philosophy, which deals with the use of the history of ideas in political philosophy - you rather criticise the mixture between arguments of political philosophy proper and the establishment of historical theses on what this or that author said or meant. How did you come to this dissatisfaction with what could be called the mixing of genres, which is very characteristic of training in France – I am not criticising it here, just stating a fact – when you were trained in this atmosphere?

 

Christopher Hamel: I am not convinced that the mixing of genres with which I felt dissatisfaction is characteristic of the training I received in France. At the time when I was studying, the type of normative political philosophy which was concerned with the contemporary world and which sought to analyse and order the values and principles underlying democratic societies, while at the same time reflecting on their institutional realization – this type of approach was not very well developed, or at least I was hardly initiated into it directly. Some of the models I have had – if I take, for example, the case of people who were members of my thesis board and who guided me, Jean-Fabien Spitz, who was my supervisor, Catherine Larrère or Luc Foisneau – are initially specialists in authors of the past, trained in the history of philosophy. This did not prevent them, later on, from going further and taking a close interest in contemporary political philosophy. The mixing of genres that caused my dissatisfaction is more particularly marked in English-language normative political theory, which takes it for granted that one can go looking for a thesis, an argument or an objection to Plato, Rousseau or Hegel, without really caring about the context, and use the latter to answer a question that is ours today. But this attitude amounts to purely and simply denying the historicity of arguments borrowed from the past, a concern to which I have been sensitive through my frequent use of contextual intellectual history works. According to this attitude, the past is a reservoir at the disposal of present philosophical work, but the contents of this reservoir are supposed to have no historical depth. Despite the impressive growth of context-sensitive intellectual history, which warned of the risks of such instrumentalization, contemporary theorists have continued to assert that the practice of political theory is intimately linked to the history of political thought2, without, however, sufficiently questioning the compatibility of the demands of historical enquiry on the one hand and contemporary normative rationale on the other. My dissatisfaction stems from the fact that those who are, in my view, the most rigorous and stimulating in the formulation of their contemporary normative theoretical programme are at the same time those who have the least scruples about assuming a very strong continuity between their theory and the tradition inspiring them. I am thinking here, in particular, of the work of Philip Pettit who argues, on the one hand, that his neo-republican theory must be evaluated from a philosophical and not a historical point of view and, on the other hand, that he intends to develop this theory in terms “faithful” to the republican tradition3. While I do not wish to argue that it is rigorously impossible to hold these two requirements together, I think it is important to realize that this articulation is far from self-evident. My plea would be more in favour of a strict division of labour4.

Luc Foisneau: Quentin Skinner speaks of “philistinism” to describe this attitude of wildly borrowing arguments from the past, and he also insists on a comparison between art history and the history of political thought: what one refuses to do in art history – mobilising paintings from the past for contemporary use, one allows oneself to do in the field of political thought. Would you fully take up this plea for what might be called radical contextualism, which maintains that, in order to read Rousseau, one must necessarily read him from the point of view of the contemporaries who read him? Would you follow this path? And, if so, wouldn’t you risk being criticized for this approach as historicist from beginning to end?

 

Christopher Hamel: It is indeed a temptation to adopt such an approach, which would consist in saying that all contemporary uses of the past are illegitimate because they would imply as a matter of principle to decontextualise what must necessarily be contextualised in order to make sense. This is not my position, and I don't think it's Skinner's position. In fact, in his work, he offers us examples of relevant uses of the past in contemporary debates, examples that invalidate the false trial in relativism that has sometimes been done to him a little too quickly. I am thinking in particular of his article on negative freedom in Machiavelli, where he tries to show that Machiavelli helps us to think what the analytical debates on negative freedom have failed to see5. Of course, some historicist minds claim that Skinner takes one step too far in this article, because he makes Machiavelli an interlocutor for contemporary political theorists. But Skinner’s argument is that if this exercise makes sense – it certainly does make sense to him, and I am on this point – it is precisely because the Machiavellian thesis that is being invoked is a historical thesis: it is in so far as it is reconstructed in his intellectual environment that Machiavellian's thesis can then be integrated into a discussion where it is likely to be of specific relevance. In other words, if Machiavelli and contemporary theorists of negative freedom can be brought into a dialogue, it is only after understanding how Machiavelli articulated a doctrine of civic virtue to a negative conception of freedom. I would tend to go in this direction, while always bearing in mind the danger - which of course all historians have in mind – of deceptive similarities, of continuity effects which are in fact illusions due to ignorance of the context. The more we contextualise, the more we differentiate, the more we specify, the more likely it is that the context of the idea we are analysing will be far removed from the contemporary context in which we seek to intervene and that, consequently, the relevance of the rapprochement will be, if not nullified, at least reduced. This does not invalidate but simply complicates the possibility of diachronic dialogue.

Luc Foisneau: To conclude, could you tell us about your current projects?

 

Christopher Hamel: The first part of my current research is intellectual history, and consists of studying certain forms of republicanism in 18th century European thought. In France, notably through the reception of the Sidney Discourses, but also in the English-speaking world and in Italy. The aim, for the French side, is to put a spin on the omnipresent thesis of the French exception – the myth that republican thought emerged at the heart of the revolutionary moment, but that it was absent from the Enlightenment and barely present at the beginning of the Revolution. The idea is not to reread the 18th century in the light of the revolutionary moment, but to observe, on the contrary, in the prolongation of important works already carried out9, the important circulation of republican ideas, especially English ones, but not only, in the France of the Enlightenment. Beyond this circulation of republican ideas in the French Enlightenment, I would like to show that forms of republicanism of rights were in fact widely accepted in 18th century republican thought. Republican political culture in France, but probably elsewhere too, suffers in my view from a double incapacity: to defend the inclusion of rights claims in the republican intellectual framework, and to defend civic demands as a means of better protecting rights. Without providing a direct and ready-made answer, intellectual history offers the possibility of re-familiarising oneself with neglected forms of argumentation. The other part, which is part of the normative political philosophy itself, which requires for me adjustments in language and method since I practice it little, consists of extending Philip Pettit's programme, showing much more strongly than he does that the concept of rights is indispensable, not only for understanding the republican tradition, but also for thinking republicanism in the present. Similarly, I am interested in the question of the moral underpinning of the ideal of non-domination: By limiting his thesis to the assertion that freedom is a primary good10, or, more recently, a bundle of basic liberties11, Pettit deprives himself of the means to respond to the objection of voluntary servitude, that is to say, to the objection that certain individuals, or groups of individuals, may have social, moral or religious reasons for not wanting the freedom promised by the neo-republican theory, for not considering it as a primary good. This objection can only be answered by developing the idea that non-domination should not only be seen as a good among others for which one has an interest, because to be free and equal citizens, one has a duty to want to be protected from the arbitrary will of others. These, briefly, are the main lines of my current research.

Luc Foisneau: To conclude, could you tell us about your current projects?

 

Christopher Hamel: The first part of my current research is intellectual history, and consists of studying certain forms of republicanism in 18th century European thought. In France, notably through the reception of the Sidney Discourses, but also in the English-speaking world and in Italy. The aim, for the French side, is to put a spin on the omnipresent thesis of the French exception – the myth that republican thought emerged at the heart of the revolutionary moment, but that it was absent from the Enlightenment and barely present at the beginning of the Revolution. The idea is not to reread the 18th century in the light of the revolutionary moment, but to observe, on the contrary, in the prolongation of important works already carried out9, the important circulation of republican ideas, especially English ones, but not only, in the France of the Enlightenment. Beyond this circulation of republican ideas in the French Enlightenment, I would like to show that forms of republicanism of rights were in fact widely accepted in 18th century republican thought. Republican political culture in France, but probably elsewhere too, suffers in my view from a double incapacity: to defend the inclusion of rights claims in the republican intellectual framework, and to defend civic demands as a means of better protecting rights. Without providing a direct and ready-made answer, intellectual history offers the possibility of re-familiarising oneself with neglected forms of argumentation. The other part, which is part of the normative political philosophy itself, which requires for me adjustments in language and method since I practice it little, consists of extending Philip Pettit's programme, showing much more strongly than he does that the concept of rights is indispensable, not only for understanding the republican tradition, but also for thinking republicanism in the present. Similarly, I am interested in the question of the moral underpinning of the ideal of non-domination: By limiting his thesis to the assertion that freedom is a primary good10, or, more recently, a bundle of basic liberties11, Pettit deprives himself of the means to respond to the objection of voluntary servitude, that is to say, to the objection that certain individuals, or groups of individuals, may have social, moral or religious reasons for not wanting the freedom promised by the neo-republican theory, for not considering it as a primary good. This objection can only be answered by developing the idea that non-domination should not only be seen as a good among others for which one has an interest, because to be free and equal citizens, one has a duty to want to be protected from the arbitrary will of others. These, briefly, are the main lines of my current research.

Unfold notes and references
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1

Christopher Hamel, « “Un livre anglais de politique républicaine” dans la France des Lumières », Introduction to Algernon Sidney, Discours sur le gouvernement (1698), French trans. P. Samson, La Haye, 1702, reprint Caen, Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2019, p. 11-122.

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2

See, for example, Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathas (éd.), Handbook of Political Theory, London, Sage, 2004, p. vi.

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3

Philip Pettit, Republicanism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 10, 129, 172 (for the strong claim that the philosophical project is distinct from the issue of historical fidelity), and p. 80 and Just Freedom. A moral compass for a complex world, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Co., 2014, p. 5 (for the no less strong claim that the theory is faithful the tradition).

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4

This claim is developped in « Quel rôle pour l’histoire de la pensée politique dans le néo-républicanisme ? », in Y. Bosc et al., Cultures des républicanismes. Pratiques, Représentations, Concepts de la Révolution anglaise à aujourd’hui, Paris, Kimé, 2015, p. 253-267.

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5

Quentin Skinner, « The idea of negative liberty: philosophical and historical perspective », in R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History. Essays on the historiography of philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 193-221, republished in Q. Skinner, Visions of politics, vol. 2, Virtues of the Renaissance, Cambridge University Press 2002.

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9

See e.g., the work of Rachel Hammersley, The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-century France. Between the ancients and the moderns, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010, or, in France, a special issue of La Révolution française. Cahiers de l’Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française, 2013, no 5 : “Le républicanisme anglais dans la France des Lumières et de la Révolution”, and the special issue of Lumières, 2018, no 27-28 : “Lumières et républiques. Entre crises et renouvellement”.

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10

P. Pettit, Republicanism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 90.

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11

P. Pettit, Just Freedom. A moral compass for a complex world, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Co., 2014, chap. 3.

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9

See e.g., the work of Rachel Hammersley, The English Republican Tradition and Eighteenth-century France. Between the ancients and the moderns, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2010, or, in France, a special issue of La Révolution française. Cahiers de l’Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française, 2013, no 5 : “Le républicanisme anglais dans la France des Lumières et de la Révolution”, and the special issue of Lumières, 2018, no 27-28 : “Lumières et républiques. Entre crises et renouvellement”.

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10

P. Pettit, Republicanism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 90.

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11

P. Pettit, Just Freedom. A moral compass for a complex world, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Co., 2014, chap. 3.