Quentin Skinner v. Charles Taylor: Explanation and Practical Reasoning in History, Philosophy, and Law
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
One can ask two different questions about a given social, political, or legal practice. First, how, if at all, do the ideas embodied in that practice explain its development or current prevalence? Second, should the practice be advanced, abandoned, or revised in some way? According to today’s disciplinary conventions, the first question is an historical or explanatory one, whereas the second is a philosophical or normative one. But this prompts more questions. Specifically, how, if at all, do the answers to these two questions depend on each other? That is, to what degree, if any, must one evaluate or assess a practice in order to explain its social acceptance? And conversely, how, if at all, should the historical explanation of a practice bear on our normative evaluation of it?
This short essay takes up these questions. It does so by examining a debate that took place over several years between the historian Quentin Skinner and the philosopher Charles Taylor. That debate illustrates well the assumptions of each scholar’s home discipline because both scholars give voice to, yet also challenge, those assumptions. Indeed, I will argue that, despite their apparent disagreements, Skinner and Taylor end up forging common methodological ground with respect to the relevance of historical explanation to philosophical evaluation and vice versa. It turns out that Taylor’s philosophical anthropology looks a lot like Skinner’s intellectual archeology. I conclude by suggesting that traditional common-law reasoning proceeds on that same common methodological ground occupied by Taylor and Skinner. If that’s right, their exchange may tell us something important about the perennial question of whether law qualifies as a distinct discipline of knowledge.