Published Humanitas, Volume XIII, No. 2, 2000

Thinking Past a Problem: Essays in the History of Ideas, by Preston King. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000. 339 pp. $62.50.

Spanning a period of over thirty years, these essays constitute an extended reflection on the intellectual treatment and understanding of the past. King, currently a political philosophy professor at Lancaster University, approaches his subject through two methods. One method examines in general the “pastness” of the past, and the problems it poses for those studying the history of ideas. The other method employs individual studies of several major contributors to the history of ideas. Strongly influenced by the work of Michael Oakeshott (to whose memory the work is dedicated), King treats the past from an Oakeshott-centered perspective, mixed with what King describes as his own “socialist” orientation (7). Indeed, King studied under Oakeshott at the London School of Economics, as well as under Karl Popper. The collection, most of which has been previously published, includes lengthy essays on Oakeshott, Alasdair MacIntyre, two selections on Hobbes, and a comprehensive essay on the practice of the history of ideas in the twentieth century.

The study of the past always confronts two difficulties. The first is particularism, which exaggerates the difference between past and present. The other is its opposite, anachronism, which exaggerates the similarity of past to present. Both, for King, are false. He contends that “[w]e should accept, finally, that past truth is violated not only by making the past falsely identical to what it is now, but also by making it falsely different from what is now” (5; original emphasis). King states flatly that there is no “History as such. There is history of this or that” (3). The modern search for objective history, or a history completely divorced from the present moment, is therefore a fruitless one. Rather, the study of history is always laced with the present understanding, because to “know about the past is to know about it in the present” (3). This sound insight is similar to John Lukacs’s notion of a “participant history,” the characteristic of historical study that gives it a moral dimension and burdens the historian with ethical duties rather than amoral scientific observation.

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