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Mapping Methods in Political Theory

Jens Olesen
University of Oxford
Jens Olesen
University of Oxford
Open Panel

Abstract

Political theorists have responded somewhat ambiguously to the ‘interpretive turn’ that shaped the humanities and social sciences in the mid to late twentieth century. After an initial phase of turning attention to questions of interpretive method in the 1960s and 70s, which led to fierce methodological disputes over contributions from Cambridge historians, they subsequently turned away from such questions in the 1980s and 90s, based on the assumption that all practitioners implicitly agree on how they interpret texts. With the twenty-first century, the vocation has entered a third phase in which there is an increasing recognition that hermeneutic methods have yet to be adequately addressed. Given that political theorists have almost always imported insights from history and philosophy, there is a need in the discipline for contributions that seek to assess existing approaches to interpretation in terms of their advantages and costs for the study of politics. In particular, there has been no enquiry into the question of whether these approaches are ideologically sustained, and if so, whether ideologically charged approaches in turn induce political theorists to systematically ignore some aspects of texts, whilst emphasizing others? This paper aims to answer these and related questions with regard to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics and Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte. Based on my research at the Deutsche Literaturarchiv Marbach, which administers the estates of the two thinkers, I aspire to work out, first of all, what exactly their approaches can or cannot claim to be able to show; that is, to what extent do they succeed both in theory and in practice. Secondly, I seek to demonstrate that their readings of texts are ideologically loaded by showing that their approaches are informed by conservative views on historiography and philosophy, respectively.