J. G. A. Pocock

John Greville Agard Pocock (born 7 March 1924) is a historian of political thought from New Zealand. He is especially known for his studies of republicanism in the early modern period (mostly in Europe, Britain, and America), his work on the history of English Common Law, his treatment of Edward Gibbon and other Enlightenment historians, and, in historical method, for his contributions to the history of political discourse.

Born in England, Pocock spent most of his early life in New Zealand. He moved to the United States in 1966, where since 1975 he has been a tenured professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Early life and career

Pocock was born in London in 1924, but in 1927 moved with his family to New Zealand where his father, Greville Pocock, was appointed professor of Classics at Canterbury College. He later moved to Cambridge, earning his PhD in 1952 under the tutelage of Herbert Butterfield. He returned to New Zealand to teach at Canterbury University College from 1946 to 1948, and to lecture at the University of Otago from 1953 to 1955. In 1959, he established and chaired the Department of Political Science at the University of Canterbury. He moved to the USA in 1966, where he was given the title of William Eliot Smith professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1975 Pocock assumed his present position at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; As of 2011 he holds the position of the Harry C. Black Emeritus Professor of History.

His first book, entitled The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law examined the workings and origins of common law mind, showing how thinkers such as the English jurist Edward Coke (1552–1634) built up a historical analysis of British history into an epistemology of law and politics; and how that edifice later came to be subverted by scholars of the middle to late seventeenth century. Some of this work has since been revised.[1]

Later work

By the 1970s Pocock had changed his focus from how lawyers understood the evolution of law to how philosophers and theologians did. The Machiavellian Moment (1975), his widely acclaimed magnum opus, showed how Florentines, Englishmen, and Americans had responded to and analysed the destruction of their states and political orders in a succession of crises sweeping through the early modern world. Again, not all historians accept Pocock's account, but leading scholars of early modern republicanism show its influence – especially in their characterisation of political theorist James Harrington (1611–1677) as a salient historical actor.[2]

Subsequent research by Pocock explores the literary world inhabited by the British historian Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), and how Gibbon understood the cataclysm of decline and fall within the Roman Empire as an inevitable conflict between ancient virtue and modern commerce. Gibbon, it turns out, evinces all the hallmarks of a bona fide civic humanist,[3] even while composing his great "enlightened narrative".[4] The first two volumes of Pocock's projected six-volume series on Gibbon, Barbarism and Religion, won the American Philosophical Society's Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History for the year 1999.

The Cambridge School

Pocock is celebrated not merely as an historian, but as a pioneer of a new type of historical methodology: contextualism, i.e., the study of "texts in context". In the 1960s and early '70s, he, (introducing "languages" of political thought) along with Quentin Skinner (focusing on authorial intention), and John Dunn (stressing biography), united informally to undertake this approach as the "Cambridge School" of the history of political thought.[5] Hereafter for the Cambridge School and its adherents, the then-reigning method of textual study, that of engaging a vaunted 'canon' of previously pronounced "major" political works in a typically anachronistic and disjointed fashion, simply would not do.

Pocock's "political languages" is the indispensable keystone of this historical revision. Defined as "idioms, rhetorics, specialised vocabularies and grammars" considered as "a single though multiplex community of discourse",[6] languages are uncovered (or discovered) in texts by historians who subsequently "learn" them in due course. The resultant familiarity produces a knowledge of how political thought can be stated in historically discovered "linguistic universes", and in exactly what manner all or parts of a text can be expressed.[7] As examples, Pocock has cited the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political languages of the "common law", "civil jurisprudence" and "classical republicanism", through which political writers such as James Harrington, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke reached their rhetorical goals.

British history

From 1975, Professor Pocock began advocating the development of a new subject which he called "British History" (also labelled "New British History", a title that Pocock has expressed his wish to shake off).[8] Pocock coined the term Atlantic archipelago as a replacement for British Isles: "We should start with what I have called the Atlantic archipelago—since the term "British Isles" is one which Irishmen reject and Englishmen decline to take quite seriously".[9] He also pressed his fellow historians to reconsider two issues linked to the future of British history. First, he urged historians of the British Isles to move away from histories of the Three Kingdoms (Scotland, Ireland, England) as separate entities,[10] and he called for studies implementing a bringing-together or conflation of the national narratives into truly integrated enterprises. It has since become the commonplace preference of historians to treat British history in just that fashion.[11] Second, he prodded policymakers to reconsider the Europeanisation of the UK still underway, via its entry into the European Union. In its abandonment of a major portion of national sovereignty purely from economic motives, that decision threw into question the entire matter of British sovereignty itself. What, Pocock asks, will (and must) nations look like if the capacity for and exercise of national self-determination is put up for sale to the highest bidder?[12]

New Zealand

Alongside his ongoing work on Gibbon, has come a renewed attention to his nation of citizenship, New Zealand. In a progression of essays published since 1991, Pocock explored the historical mandates and implications of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (between the British Crown and the indigenous Māori people, New Zealand's equivalent of the Magna Carta) for Māori and the descendants of the original 19th century European (but mainly British) settlers, known as Pākehā. Both parties have legitimate claims to portions of their national sovereignty.

Pocock concludes that the issue of New Zealand's sovereignty must be an ongoing shared experience, a perpetual debate leading to several ad hoc agreements if necessary, to which the Māori and Pākehā need to accustom themselves permanently. The alternative, an eventual rebirth of the violence and bloodshed of the 19th century New Zealand land wars, cannot and must not be entertained.

Monographs (complete)*

* in the English language.
** Cambridge University Press.


  1. Glenn Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution: an introduction to English political thought, 1603–1642. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).
  2. Among several, see Jonathan Scott, Commonwealth Principles: Republican writing of the English revolution (Cambridge: 2004); Eric M. Nelson, "James Harrington and the 'Balance of Justice', in The Greek Tradition in Republican thought (Cambridge: 2001); James Cotton, James Harrington’s Political Thought and its context (New York: Garland Publishers, 1991).
  3. Pocock, "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian," Daedulus 105:3 (1976), 153–69.
  4. Barbarism and Religion vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764 (Cambridge: 1999), 123, 303–4.
  5. Pocock details its genesis, credited to Peter Laslett, in "Present at the Creation: With Laslett to the Lost Worlds", International Journal of Public Affairs 2 (2006), 7–17. Laslett's 1949 edition of Sir Robert Filmer's works amounts to "the true beginning of the study of political writings by assigning them to their proper contexts". Laslett implemented "temporal" contexts; Pocock highlighted "linguistic" contexts, "each existing side by side and perhaps interacting with others, while remaining distinct and having a history of its own". Eventually, and for his own purposes, Pocock preferred history of political 'discourse' to that of political 'thought', wishing to widen and refine the field into the study of "...speech, literature, and public utterance in general, involving an element of theory and carried on in a variety of contexts with which it can be connected in a variety of ways." see Pocock, "What is Intellectual History?", in What is History Today? (London: MacMillan Press, Ltd., 1988), 114.
  6. Pocock, "The Concept of a Language and the métier d'historien: some considerations on practice," in The Languages of Political Theory in Early-modern Europe, ed. Anthony Pagden (Cambridge: 1987), 21–25; and, of an earlier vintage, see also essays nos. 1, 3, 4 in Politics, Language and Time. For a wide-ranging summary of developments that have, in one scholar's view, transformed the Cambridge School into "an intergenerational enterprise", see the review article, B.W. Young, "Enlightenment Political Thought and the Cambridge School," Historical Journal 52:1 (2009), 235–51.
  7. Pocock's method originally incorporated a theory of "traditions", combined with elements of Thomas Kuhn's "paradigms" (see Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, [Chicago: 3rd ed., 1996]), but Pocock has since explained that "a political community is not simply a community of enquiry, and that therefore the status and function of [political] paradigms" differs from Kuhn's depiction of scientific investigation. see "Preface, 1989," in Politics, Language, and Time.
  8. Pocock: Contigency, identity, sovereignty in "Uniting the Kingdom?", editors Alexander Grant, Keith John Stringer, Routledge, 1995
  9. Pocock, J.G.A (December 1975). "British History: A plea for a new subject" (PDF). The Journal of Modern History. 47 (4): 601–621. doi:10.1086/241367. Check date values in: |year= / |date= mismatch (help) "We should start with what I have called the Atlantic archipelago – since the term "British Isles" is one which Irishmen reject and Englishmen decline to take quite seriously. This is a large – dare I say a sub-subcontinental?-- island group lying off the northwestern coast of geographic Europe, partly within and partly without the oceanic limits of the roman empire and of what is usually called "Europe" in the sense of the latter's successor states; in which respect it somewhat resembles Scandinavia."
  10. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands, 77–93.
  11. Pocock, "British History: a Plea for a New Subject," 22–43 (1975); "The Field Enlarged: an Introduction," 47–57; and "The Politics of the New British History," 289–300, in The Discovery of Islands. See also "The Limits and Divisions of British History: in Search of the Unknown Subject," American Historical Review 87:2 (Apr. 1982), 311–36; "The New British History in Atlantic Perspective: an Antipodean Commentary," American Historical Review 104:2 (Apr. 1999), 490–500.
  12. "History and Sovereignty: the Historiographical Response to Europeanization in Two British Cultures," Journal of British Studies 31 (Oct. 1992), 358–89. And more lately, in which Pocock speculates that the European Union might devolve into an "empire of the market", see "Deconstructing Europe," in Discovery of Islands, 269–88, at 281.

Further reading

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