Winch on conversation

Last week I mostly sat at home, watched books by Donald Winch that I’d ordered online pop through the letterbox, and then started to read them. And today I’ve discovered that his 1995 Carlyle Lectures, ‘Secret Concatenations: Mandeville to Malthus’, are available on the web, thanks to the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History. So that’s my Sunday afternoon sorted out.

This is from the opening discussion of the first lecture [pdf] as, following John Burrow, he presents a view of intellectual history as ‘eavesdropping on the conversations of the past’.

An attractive feature of conversations is that we can continue them at the point where our predecessors left them. The only restriction I would place on such freedom, speaking as an intellectual historian, is that the conversations should be between interlocutors who were genuinely aware of each other’s existence and arguments. This rules out those encounters in which the historian acts as ominiscient host at a kind of celestial cocktail party at which those invited only speak to one another through the intermediation of the host — indeed, can only speak through the host because they had no common language in life. I shall appear to break this rule in one respect only, namely by posing some counter-factual questions of my cast in some crucial instances. In other words, having established that a genuine conversation was taking place, I shall sometimes seek to reconstruct what their responses might have been when more direct evidence is unavailable.

Interesting conversations are usually free from the coercive dualisms that tend to be an occupational hazard of much intellectual history devoted to political thinking. Whigs and Tories have long since been replaced by debating teams bearing more sophisticated labels such as contractarians and anti-contractarians, liberals versus classical republicans, civic humanists versus natural jurisprudentialists, and so on — to mention only those dualisms that are current among students of the period and authors I shall be considering. Narratives that purport to be dealing with past social scientific conversations often attempt to enforce another powerful dichotomy — between positive and normative propositions, between statements of fact and statements of value or rights. As already hinted, one of the negative conclusions I would like to emerge from these lectures is that none of my cast was foolish enough to allow their conversations to be constricted by these dualisms. That is something we have done to them in retrospect and for our own purposes, taxonomic or ideological.

One thought on “Winch on conversation”

  1. From the same lecture:

    *** I can best make this plain by saying that my starting point would be recognition that, far from being proto-Austrians, proto-Marxians, proto Weberians, or even little Liberals and Conservatives, terms they would not have understood as substantive nouns, Smith, Burke, and Malthus were all species of that large political genus called Whigs. Given the immense variety within the genus such a description may not take us very far, but it has the minor virtue of ensuring that we do not set off confidently in the wrong direction at the outset. ***

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