Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Citizens to Lords [Verso 2007], is intended in part as a demonstration of “the social history of political theory.” Although Wood does not, for the most part, concern herself explicitly with the historiographical context of her wide subject, we do find a methodological orientation in the introduction. She ranges her manner of proceeding against Straussian textualism and Skinnerean historicism. It is not unreasonable to put Straussians on the right, Skinnerians in the middle, and Wood on the left. Citizens to Lords sets itself the task of understanding the classic texts of political theory through, or along side, the dynamics and meanings of social conflicts underway when these texts were written. Wood agrees, this is to say, up to a point with Skinner’s attention to locutionary force. For her, however, Skinner and those who share his method tend to build their contexts entirely out of other texts. Wood focuses rather on social structure and conflict.
After the methodological introduction, the book is divided into three long chapters: ancient
Wood does not go into very much detail about the transition of political philosophy from
So we make the fairly radical leap from
The title of the book suggests what the next step will be. Feudalism in Europe did not grow from the still-warm embers of
Since I am very unfamiliar with this material, I have few substantive objections to make. Methodologically I am sympathetic with Wood, but it does seem to me that the value-judgments that she assumes may validly be made about the canon of political theory are not so easily reconciled with the mode in which she analyzes the texts. “Productive” is a word she uses often in order to say “valuable”—but this is only a displacement. Why valuable? Her level of analysis is too sophisticated, in my opinion, to accept ‘productive’ in its usual and banal academic sense. On another level, and this is no doubt something that she has dealt with elsewhere, it does make me wince a bit to hear such confident assertions about the unique value of Europe and the Greek philosophical heritage without any kind of comparative perspective. I think, ultimately, that this is related to her unwillingness to challenge the content of the canon of political theory.