Research Interests

Research Themes

My research work falls into three categories. My first and continuing work (i) is in intellectual history, especially political thought, in its relations to various but connected areas of reflection and with the character of society and politics. This leads, via studying Edmund Burke, to (ii) an interest in the parliamentary history of eighteenth-century Britain, and, by a related path, to (iii) an interest in the history of texts. 

Current Research Projects

My research in (i) intellectual history led first to writing a major study of Locke, The Mind of John Locke, which treated his thought about politics in relation to his thinking about apparently distant but really continuous features of thought: about religious liberty, the human mind, medicine, political economy and theology, and in relation also to the social structure and values of the England from which Locke emerged. This study treats Locke’s politics in relation to the widest range of intellectual concerns bearing on its genesis and development, and also shows the effect of his political thought on other aspects of his thinking.

This research has continued with further publications about Locke. These, so far, have addressed principally the content of his thought. The most recent example of this is ‘John Locke and Natural Law: Free Worship and Toleration’, an extended essay which, by studying the explicit conclusions of Locke’s Epistola de Tolerantia in relation to the assumptions on which these rest, alters fundamentally our understanding of Locke’s account of religious liberty – an account which is the principal classic of western thinking on the subject.

A sequel to writing about intellectual history in this way is to study it, too, in relation to the conduct of practical politics – such as the uses, and otherwise, of abstract thought as a practical instrument, and the ways in which political participation of this sort may affect such thought. Hence work for a major monograph about Edmund Burke (Cambridge University Press), which involves not only addressing his thought in all its key aspects but also studying the politics of his day through very extensive manuscript materials, gathered from the archives of England, Eire, Northern Ireland, Scotland, France, Canada and the United States. Thus not only Burke’s thought but also the politics in which he acted are reconstructed. This work suggests major revisions about how we understand the relations of thought and practice in this case and more widely: and therefore about not only Burke’s politics but also the environment in which he worked. An early installment of this work, dealing with an aspect of Burke’s thought, is the entry about him in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Such work leads necessarily to (ii) an interest in parliamentary history, not least the ways in which we can know about parliamentary speeches in the long era preceding Hansard, and the effects that the absence of official reporting had. Some research on this topic has been embodied in ‘Publishing Parliamentary Oratory’, which examines the varied ways in which Burke used publication in developing his political claims and their range. I have recently recommenced work, after a long interval without an opportunity to do so, on parliamentary reporting in the later eighteenth century. This study, provisionally entitled ‘Parliamentary Intelligence’, is the first extended systematic study of its subject, and will consider reporting in a wide perspective.

An interest in the editing of texts, and in how they come to be written (iii) follows from (i) and (ii) alike. This was first exercised in editing Burke. It now finds its principal expression in editing Locke's Two Treatises of Government for the Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke. This critical edition combines minute attention to the development of the text with study of Locke’s intellectual circumstances and practical environment. Minute attention means collating an extensive range of early impressions and exerting critical judgement on these and other materials in constructing a text. Study of environment means, again, archival research. The joint result is intended to be elucidate a fundamental text in the fullest way possible.

Locke and Burke are central figures in the canon of Western thought, with an importance not only for their own day but also for subsequent centuries down to the twenty-first (and no doubt beyond). To work on them is to ask about their place in the development of thought, as in ‘The Legacy of Two Treatises’. It is also to be mindful of the concerns of non-specialists. The research described here feeds into wider interests. These are represented at present by the Cambridge Reader in Western Political Thought, which presents at length, often complete, the original writings from the period before Plato to c.1900 in three volumes, totaling about 4.5 million words, jointly edited with Professor Geraint Parry of the University of Manchester. This is (happily) now at very advanced stage of preparation. Its general introductions provide an interpretation of the development of western political thought in new terms and in an accessible way.

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