Quentin Skinner

Quentin Robert Duthie Skinner FBA (born 1940) is a British intellectual historian. Regarded as one of the founders of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought, between 1996 and 2008 he was Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge; he is currently the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities and Co-director of The Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London.[1]

Quentin Skinner

Quentin Robert Duthie Skinner

(1940-11-26) 26 November 1940
Oldham, England
  • Alexander Skinner
  • Winifred Skinner
  • Wolfson History Prize (1979)
  • Benjamin Lippincott Award (2001)
  • Balzan Prize (2006)
  • Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize (2006)
  • David Easton Award (2007)
  • Bielefelder Wissenschaftspreis (2008)
Academic background
Alma materGonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Academic work
School or traditionCambridge School
Doctoral students
Main interests
Notable worksThe Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978)
Notable ideasCambridge School (intellectual history)


Quentin Skinner was born on 26 November 1940, the second son of Alexander Skinner (died 1979) and Winifred Skinner, née Duthie (died 1982). He was educated at Bedford School and, like his elder brother, won an entrance scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a double-starred first in history in 1962.[2] Skinner was elected to a fellowship of his college on his examination results, but moved later in 1962 to a teaching fellowship at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he remained until moving to the University of London in 2008. He is now an Honorary Fellow of both Christ's College and Gonville and Caius College.[3]

Skinner was appointed to a lectureship in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge in 1965.[4] He spent a sabbatical year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1974–1975, where he was invited to stay, and where he remained until 1979, when he returned to Cambridge as Professor of Political Science.[5] He was appointed to the post of Regius Professor of History in 1996, and in 1999 as pro-vice-chancellor of the university.[6]

In 1979 he married Susan James, later Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College London.[7] They have a daughter and a son, and three grandchildren. He was previously married to Patricia Law Skinner, who was later married to the philosopher Bernard Williams.[8]

Although Skinner has spent most of his academic career at Cambridge, he has held a number of visiting appointments. He has been Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Social Science at the Australian National University (1970, 1994, 2006); Visiting Professor at Washington University in St. Louis (1982); Directeur d’Etudes Associé at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes (1987); Professeur Associé at Université Paris X (1991); Visiting Professor at the University of Leuven (1992); Visiting Professor at Northwestern University (1995, 2011); Professeur invité at the Collège de France (1997); Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (2003–04); Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University (2008); Laurence Rockefeller Visiting Professor at Princeton University (2013–14); Spinoza Visiting Professor at the University of Amsterdam (2014); Visiting Professor in the Global Fellowship programme at Peking University, Beijing (2017); and Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago (2017).

Skinner has delivered a number of prestigious lecture series, including the Gauss Seminars at Princeton (1980), The Carlyle Lectures at Oxford (1980), The Messenger Lectures at Cornell (1983), The Tanner Lectures at Harvard (1984), the Ford Lectures at Oxford (2003), the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford (2011), the Clark Lectures at Cambridge (2012) and the Academia Sinica Lectures in Taiwan (2013).[9]

Skinner has been a Fellow of the British Academy since 1981,[10] and is also a foreign member of a number of national academies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1986),[11] the Academia Europaea (1989),[12] the American Philosophical Society (1997),[13] the Royal Irish Academy (1999),[14] the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (2007),[15] the Österreichische Academie der Wissenschaften (2009), and the Royal Danish Academy (2015).[16] He has been the recipient of Honorary Degrees from the University of Aberdeen, University of Athens, University of Chicago, University of Copenhagen, University of East Anglia, Harvard University, University of Helsinki, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, University of Kent, University of Oslo, University of Oxford, Adolfo Ibáñez University (Santiago), University of St Andrews and Uppsala University.[17] He was awarded the Wolfson History Prize in 1979, the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize of the British Political Studies Association in 2006, the Benjamin Lippincott Award (2001), the David Easton Award (2007) of the American Political Science Association, the Bielefelder Wissenschaftspreis (2008) and a Balzan Prize (2006).[18] Since 2009, he has been a member of the Balzan Prize Committee.[19]


Skinner has been exceptionally influential as a teacher, and a large number of his former PhD students have gone on to distinguished academic careers, including David Armitage, Richard Bellamy, Annabel Brett, Martin Dzelzainis, Andrew Fitzmaurice, Mark Goldie, Karen Kupperman, Eric M. Nelson, Jürgen Overhoff, Jon Parkin, Peter N. Miller, Markku Peltonen, Richard Tuck, and James Tully.


Skinner is regarded as one of the founders of the 'Cambridge School' of the history of political thought, best known for its attention to what J.G.A. Pocock has described as the 'languages' in which moral and political philosophy has been written.[20] Skinner's contribution has been to articulate a theory of interpretation in which leading texts in the history of political theory are treated essentially as interventions in on-going political debates, and in which the main focus is on what individual writers may be said to have been doing in what they wrote.[21] One consequence of this view is an emphasis on the necessity of studying less well-known political writers as a means of shedding light on the classic authors – although it also consciously questions the extent to which it is possible to isolate so-called 'classic' texts. In its earlier versions this added up to what many have seen as a persuasive critique of the approach of an older generation, and particularly of Leo Strauss and his followers.[22]

Skinner's starting point for developing his own methodology is a critical attitude towards two different approaches to the history of ideas: an externalist approach and a form of close reading. Skinner's critique of the so-called externalist approach is mainly - thought not exclusively - addressed at Marxist intellectual historians, who, in Skinner's view, often reduced texts to their socio-economic context. In this approach, texts were considered to be “reflections” of other non-textual realities. Thus, in order to understand a text, one simply had to clarify these socio-economic matters. This perspective meant that the author became stripped of agency and as her intentions or motives merely reflected the person's socio-economic status or position society. In this way, these critics reduced the author's agency. The second “victim” of Skinner's criticism - close reading - was the American historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy's work. In Skinner's eyes, Lovejoy's style of close reading does not look outside the text itself. In this perspective, the intellectual historian only needs to read the text over and over. In Skinner's eyes, this method is unable to connect texts with their context. It is not really contextualist.

Skinner consequently proposes a form of linguistic contextualization that involves situating a text in relation to other texts and discourses. In this perspective, the text is a response to other thinkers, texts or cultural discourses. Skinner believes that ideas, arguments and texts should be placed in their original context. Therefore, Skinner argues that intellectual historians should focus on the synchronic context of the text. In this way, it becomes possible to decipher the original purpose of a text. To Skinner, then, texts are seen as weapons or tools that can, for example, be used to support, discredit, or legitimize other ideas. Skinner thus sees texts as things that try influence the world and in order to understand this ambition, one must first understand the world in which they intervene.[23]

Empirical focus

Skinner's historical work has mainly focused on political thinking in early-modern Europe. He has written a book on Niccolò Machiavelli, three books on Thomas Hobbes, and his Foundations of Modern Political Thought covers the whole period. He has specifically been concerned with the emergence of modern theories about the nature of the state, and with debates about the nature of political liberty.[24] He has written one book about what he calls the 'neo-Roman' view that liberty essentially consists in not being dependent on the arbitrary will of others (Liberty Before Liberalism, 1998), and another about Hobbes's largely successful challenge to this view with the claim that liberty simply consists in absence of impediments to action (Hobbes and Republican Liberty, 2008).

The other main focus of Skinner's research, which can perhaps be traced to the influence of Wittgenstein and Austin, manifest in his early philosophical articles, has been on the history of rhetoric. The first volume of his Foundations traces the re-emergence of classical rhetoric in the Renaissance. His Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996) examines the attempt to discredit rhetorical methods of argument in the scientific revolution. His monograph, Forensic Shakespeare (2014) illustrates how, in a group of 'forensic' plays of which the most important are Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Othello, Shakespeare makes extensive use of the classical theory of rhetorical 'invention' to structure a number of speeches and scenes. His latest monograph, From Humanism to Hobbes (2018), includes several chapters focusing on the technique of rhetorical redescription (paradiastole) as a means of manipulating the language of virtue and vice.

Skinner has also been extremely active as an editor. For many years he co-edited, with Raymond Geuss, the Cambridge University Press series, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, in which over 100 volumes have so far appeared. Skinner is now General Editor of the series, and is overseeing its current expansion into the publication of non-Western texts. He was also a founding editor, and later co-editor with James Tully, of the Cambridge University Press's series in intellectual history, Ideas in Context.


When Skinner was interviewed by Alan MacFarlane as part of his series of online conversations with academics, Skinner admitted that he had been a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret debating society in Cambridge University. He also revealed that Amartya Sen was a member at the same time. He commented that they had both been "outed" in a book published about the Apostles some time before.[25]

On 6 October 1995, Skinner's Foundations of Modern Political Thought was included in the list published by The Times Literary Supplement of 'The 100 Most Influential Books since World War II'.[26]

On 14 May 2009, Times Higher Education, in an article about Skinner's move from Cambridge to the University of London, spoke of Skinner's republicanism, reporting that this led him to refuse a knighthood he was offered when he became Regius Professor of History at Cambridge.[27]

Principal publications


1. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume I: The Renaissance, Cambridge University Press, 1978. ISBN 978-0-521-29337-2 (Translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish.)

2. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume II: The Age of Reformation, Cambridge University Press, 1978. ISBN 978-0-521-29435-5 (Translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish.)

3(a) Machiavelli, Oxford University Press, 1981.

3(b) Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction [A revised version of 3 (a)], Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-285407-0 (Translated into Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, Czech, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Malay, Polish, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish.)

4. Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes, Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-521-59645-9 (Translated into Chinese, Italian, Portuguese.)

5. Liberty before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 978-1-107-68953-4 (Translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish.)

6. Visions of Politics: Volume I: Regarding Method, Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-58926-0 (Translated into Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, Persian, Polish and Portuguese, Spanish.)

7. Visions of Politics: Volume II: Renaissance Virtues (with 12 colour plates), Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-58926-0 (Translated into Italian.)

8. Visions of Politics: Volume III: Hobbes and Civil Science, Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-89060-1

9. L’artiste en philosophie politique (with 8 colour plates), Editions de Seuil, Paris, 2003. ISBN 978-2-912107-15-2

10. Hobbes and Republican Liberty (with 19 illustrations), Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-2-912107-15-2 (Translated into Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish.)

11. La verité et l’historien, ed. Christopher Hamel, Editions EHESS, Paris, 2011. ISBN 978-2-7132-2368-6

12. Die drei Körper des Staates, Wallstein, Göttingen, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8353-1157-2

13. Forensic Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-955824-7

14. From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics (with 45 illustrations), Cambridge University Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-107-56936-2

Books edited

1. (Co-editor and contributor), Philosophy, Politics and Society: Fourth Series, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1972. ISBN 978-0-631-14410-6

2. (Co-editor and contributor), Philosophy in History, Cambridge University Press, 1984. ISBN 978-0-521-27330-5

3. (Editor and contributor), The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0-521-39833-6

4. (Co-editor and contributor), The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0-521-25104-4

5. (Co-editor), Machiavelli, The Prince (trans. Russell Price), Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0-521-34993-2

6. (Co-editor and contributor), Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0-521-43589-5

7. (Co-editor and contributor), Political Discourse in Early-modern Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-521-39242-6

8. (Co-editor) Milton and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-521-64648-2

9. (Co-editor and contributor), Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage; Volume I: Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-67235-1

10. (Co-editor and contributor), Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage; Volume II: The Values of Republicanism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-67234-4

11. (Co-editor and contributor), States and Citizens: History, Theory, Prospects, Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-521-53926-5 (Translated into Chinese.)

12. (Co-editor), Thomas Hobbes: Writings on Common Law and Hereditary Right, Edited by Alan Cromartie and Quentin Skinner (The Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes, Volume XI), The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-923623-7

13. (Co-editor and contributor) Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept, Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-107-00004-9

14. (Editor) Families and States in Western Europe, Cambridge University Press 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-12801-8

15. (Co-editor) Freedom and the Construction of Europe Volume I: Religious Freedom and Civil Liberty, Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-107-03306-1

16. (Co-editor) Freedom and the Construction of Europe Volume II: Free Persons and Free States, Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-107-03307-8

17. (Co-editor) Popular sovereignty in historical perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1-107-13040-1


2017: 'Idées, histoire et sciences sociales: Entretien avec Quentin Skinner' in Vers une histoire sociale des idées politiques, ed. Chloé Gaboriaux and Arnault Skornicke, pp. 93–110.

2016: "'Ideas in Context': Conversation with Quentin Skinner" by Hansong Li. Chicago Journal of History Vol. VII Autumn 2016.

2014: ‘Interview met Quentin Skinner’, Skript: Historisch Tijdschrift 36, pp. 245–52.

2013: 'An Interview with Professor Quentin Skinner' conducted by Jeng-Guo Chen and Carl Shaw, Intellectual History 2, pp. 239–62

2012a: Prokhovnik, Raia (16 November 2012), "Approaching political theory historically: an interview with Quentin Skinner", in Browning, Gary; Dimova-Cookson, Maria; Prokhovnik, Raia (eds.), Dialogues with contemporary political theorists, Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 181–196, ISBN 9780230303058.

2012b: Giannakopoulos, Georgios; Quijano, Francisco. "On politics and history: a discussion with Quentin Skinner" (PDF). Journal of Intellectual History and Political Thought. 1 (1): 7–31. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 September 2014. See also Giannakopoulos, Georgios; Quijano, Francisco (June 2013). "Historia y política en perspectiva: entrevista a Quentin Skinner". Signos Filosóficos (in Spanish). 15 (29): 167–191. ISSN 1665-1324.

2011 Prokhovnik, Raia (2011). "An interview with Quentin Skinner". Contemporary Political Theory. 10 (2): 273–285. doi:10.1057/cpt.2010.26.

2009a: 'Making History; The Discipline in Perspective: Interview with Professor Quentin Skinner', Storia e Politica, 1, pp. 113–34.

2009b: 'Wie frei sind wir wirklich?' Fragen an Quentin Skinner', Zeitschrift fűr Ideengeschichte 3, pp. 5–21.

2008: 'Concepts only have histories', interview with Quentin Skinner by Emmanuelle Tricoire and Jacques Levy, EspacesTemps, document 3692

2007a: 'Neither text, nor context: An interview with Quentin Skinner', Groniek: Historisch Tijdschrift 174, pp. 117–33 ISBN 978-90-72918-66-6

2007b: 'La Historia de mi Historia: Una Entrevista con Quentin Skinner', El giro contextual: Cinco ensayos de Quentin Skinner y seis comentarios, ed. Enrique Bocardo Crespo, Madrid, pp. 45–60.

2007c: Sebastián, Javier Fernández. "Intellectual history, liberty and Republicanism: an interview with Quentin Skinner". Contributions to the History of Concepts. 3 (1): 102–123.

2006: 'Historia intellectual y acción política: Una entrevista con Quentin Skinner', Historia y Política 16, pp. 237–58

2003: 'La Libertà Politica ed il Mestiere dello Storico: Intervista a Quentin Skinner', Teoria Politica 19, pp. 177–85

2002: 'Encountering the Past: An Interview with Quentin Skinner' Finnish Yearbook of Political Thought [Redescriptions Yearbook of Political Thought, Conceptual History and Feminist Theory] 6, pp. 32–63

2001: 'Quentin Skinnerin haastattelu', Niin & Näin 31, pp. 8–23

2000a: 'Intervista a Quentin Skinner: Conseguire la libertà promuovere l'uguaglianza', Il pensiero mazziniano 3, pp. 118–22

2000b: 'Entrevista: Quentin Skinner' in As muitas faces da história, ed. Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Brazilia, pp. 307–39 ISBN 978-85-7139-307-3 [Trans. in The New History: Confessions and Conversations, ed. Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Cambridge, 2003 ISBN 978-0-7456-3021-2]

1997: Staff writer (1997). "An interview with Quentin Skinner". Cogito. 11 (2): 69–78. doi:10.5840/cogito19971122.


  1. "People | Centre for the History of Political Thought".
  2. https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/hpt/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/04/Quentin-Skinner-C.V..doc
  3. https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/hpt/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/04/Quentin-Skinner-C.V..doc
  4. https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/hpt/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/04/Quentin-Skinner-C.V..doc
  5. https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/hpt/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/04/Quentin-Skinner-C.V..doc
  6. https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/hpt/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/04/Quentin-Skinner-C.V..doc
  7. "Interview with Professor Quentin Skinner – Making History".
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/30/academicexperts.highereducation
  9. "Professor Quentin Skinner".
  10. "Professor Quentin Skinner".
  11. "Professor Quentin Skinner".
  12. "Academy of Europe: Skinner Quentin".
  13. "Professor Quentin Skinner – School of History".
  14. "Quentin R D Skinner". 19 October 2015.
  15. "Professor Quentin Skinner – School of History".
  16. "Professor Quentin Skinner".
  17. "Professor Quentin Skinner – School of History".
  18. "Professor Quentin Skinner – School of History".
  19. "General Prize Committee".
  20. Pocock, J. G. A. (1960). Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and Intellectual History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  21. Skinner, Quentin (2002). Visions of Politics Volume 1: Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  22. Skinner, Quentin (2002). Visions of Politics Volume 1: Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. Mikkel Thorup (2018) "Politisk idéhistorie: Fire tilgange." Politik 21.3, pp. 7-8.
  24. "Professor Quentin Skinner – School of History".
  25. "Quentin Skinner".
  26. "The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War". Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 49 (8): 12–18. 1996. doi:10.2307/3824697. JSTOR 3824697.
  27. "Bringing off the miracle of resurrection". 13 May 2009.

Further reading

Tully, James, ed. (1988). Meaning and context: Quentin Skinner and his critics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691023014.

Palonen, Kari (2003). Quentin Skinner: history, politics, rhetoric. Cambridge, UK Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Blackwell. ISBN 9780745628578.

Palonen, Kari (2004). Die Entzauberung der Begriffe: das Umschreiben der politischen Begriffe bei Quentin Skinner und Reinhart Koselleck. Münster: Lit. ISBN 9783825872229.

Brett, Annabel; Tully, James, eds. (2006). Rethinking The foundations of modern political thought. Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521615037.

Bocardo Crespo, Enrique, ed. (2007). El Giro contextual: cinco ensayos de Quentin Skinner, y seis comentarios. Madrid, Spain: Tecnos. ISBN 9788430945504.

Muscolino, Salvatore (2012). Linguaggio, storia e politica: Ludwig Wittgenstein e Quentin Skinner. Palermo: Carlo Saladino editore. ISBN 9788895346175.

Erben, Marcus (2013). Begriffswandel als Sprachhandlung der Beitrag Quentin Skinners zur Methodologie und Funktionsbestimmung der pädagogischen Geschichtsschreibung. Frankfurt, Main, Germany: Lang-Ed. ISBN 9783631643556.

Grygieńć, Janusz, ed. (2016). Quentin Skinner: Metoda historyczna i wolność republikańska. Rok wydania: Toruń. ISBN 978-83-231-3562-3.

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