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The Mythologies of Contextualism: Method and Judgment in Skinner's Visions of Politics


  • The author would like to thank the journal's anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Special thanks also go to Lucas Swaine, Russell Muirhead, Jim Murphy, Steven Smith, Ian Shapiro, Bryan Garsten, Casiano Hacker-Cordon, Vickie Sullivan, Melvin Rogers, Damayanti Desai and Christopher Given for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article.


This article argues that Skinnerian contextualism is an unsuccessful attempt to develop a truly methodical approach to textual interpretation. According to Skinner, the various ‘mythologies’ that he associates with textualism are due to its misplaced confidence in the faculty of judgment. Whereas textualists believe that an interpreter's own judgment is his or her most useful tool in attempting to understand a text, contextualism proceeds from the assumption that we cannot help but make faulty judgments when confronted with historical materials given the nature of human cognition. Having dissociated itself from textualism on these grounds, contextualism attempts to repair the defects of textualism by minimizing the role of judgment in interpretive practice. As this article will show, these efforts have been fruitless. Moreover, Skinner's attempt to reinforce contextualism by importing claims about the strategic motives behind philosophical argumentation is either incoherent or unconvincing.