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Equations of State (David Armitage)

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Why study history?

It’s a deceptively penetrating question, and asking it runs a serious risk of being subjected to a barrage of knee-jerk homilies, from the importance of a general cultural understanding to a basic appreciation of different ways of doing things. More often than not, however, you will hear talk of the importance of applying lessons from history to better navigate present challenges, typically invoking George Santanya’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, the reality is rather murkier: it’s not so much that studying history will enable us to avoid committing the same mistakes as our predecessors, but that considerable effort needs to be made to get a clear sense of what these predecessors thought they were doing in the first place.

“How are we to put ideas and other cultural forms into the past in such a way that they become comprehensible in past terms, but then can also be rendered comprehensible in the present?

“Whether it’s a Shakespeare play, an epic poem by John Milton, a work of political thought by Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, or performances of 16th-century music – we can’t hear with 16th-century ears, but we can approximate to 16th-century performance practices in singing: how does one bridge that gap to recover some kind of authenticity, to understand how the original creators, or in the case of music, performers, understood what they were doing?”

Influenced strongly by his former PhD supervisor Quentin Skinner, David’s efforts naturally turned towards closely examining the role of language in an effort to uncover not only the intention of the creators, but also as a concrete indicator of how such ideas evolved over time.

“For those of us who are attached to the contextualist method – what’s sometimes been misleadingly called “the Cambridge school” – we’re very interested in language and how language functions, the way in which it structures thought, and how it can be used instrumentally to persuade, to decry, to undermine, to promote, and many other things. We’re interested in the way in which language is functional, as well as merely semantic, as a carrier of meaning, how it can be used, especially in political terms.

“It’s mobile, it’s contextual, but it’s also what one might call ‘sedimentary’. That is, the history of the different uses of a term is always, to some extent, embedded or sedimented into its uses ever after, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

In David’s case, a primary focus of his research life has been a detailed grappling with the intriguing historical evolution of the concept of “the state”.

“My first book, ‘The Ideological Origins of the British Empire,’ was as much about the process of state formation in Britain into what ultimately becomes, by the 19th century, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. I was wondering about the origins of that in relation to the process of empire building in the Atlantic world.

“The usual story that was told was that first you had states and then you had empires: a state was created; and the next thing you did once you became a state was to create an empire: send people out, conquer territory to corner resources, or whatever it may be.

“I wanted to complicate that story in my first book by saying, ‘Well, in fact, maybe it was the other way around. Maybe state formation was the result of empire, not something that emerged in a linear fashion, with the state coming first and empire coming later.’”

Years later, his intellectual probing of the state moved off in a different direction, embracing the seminal example of the American Declaration of Independence as a vehicle to examine independence movements and the process of “state making” throughout the world.

“The Declaration of Independence book takes an international and then a global view of the American Declaration of Independence to try and understand how that document was marked by its international context in 1776 – ‘what its authors thought they were doing,’ to take one of Quentin Skinner’s famous phrases –by issuing a Declaration of Independence at that point, and then tracing the long-range impact of the Declaration through its own reception history, not just how the Declaration itself was read and imitated elsewhere, but also how it created a genre of other Declarations of Independence.

“That also intersected with a more recent book, ‘Foundations of Modern International Thought,’ which was centered around the question, how did we all come to believe that we live in a world of states? We have this rather odd linguistic problem: we have a club for states called the United Nations, which is actually made up of states, not nations.”

Once we begin to get a clearer perspective on various ways through which new states can be formed, their relationship (causal and otherwise) with empires, and the historical evolution of our belief of living in a state-dominated world, an intriguing topic to consider is the other end of the spectrum: how states might eventually disappear – or as David puts it, having written a book on The Declaration of Independence that examines the act of state-making, it seemed reasonable to now consider turning his attention to “state-breaking.”

Hence his recently released work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, an engaging and illuminating work that takes the reader on a captivating trek from Ancient Rome to the English and American Civil Wars to the recent war in Iraq.

“I was still thinking about some of the issues that had been raised by the Declaration of Independence book at a time when I was researching at the Huntington Library in Southern California. This was in late 2006, early 2007, at the height of the violence in the Iraq War when there was a very pointed, highly political, and polemical debate, especially in the US but also in other parts of the world, about what to call the violence in Iraq. Was it an insurgency? Was it a rebellion? Was it terrorism? Or was it a civil war?

“I realized that maybe the questions that I had been grappling with for over a decade at that point had some contemporary, political relevance rather than, as we sometimes prejudicially say, “merely historical” significance. I wanted to bring a long-range historical story about the meanings of civil war up to the present, in some ways culminating this strand of interest in different forms of human community, the political language used to describe them, and the ways in which that political language can become very polemical and often conflictual in and of itself.”

Which brings us, rather abruptly, right back to our opening question. When I asked him directly about how historical inquiry might concretely affect public policy, he had this to say.

“I’ll respond first with a wonderful quotation from a late, great Harvard colleague, Ernest May, who was very invested through much of his career in, not just the history of policy, but the way in which history could inform policy. He said, in one of his co- authored books that, ‘The future has nowhere to come from but the past.’

“One way you can unpack that very pregnant phrase is to say that all thinking about the formation of policy in particular is historical thinking, but most of those who engage in policy formation don’t explicitly recognize the fact that what they are doing is historical. Usually what they’re doing is based on inadequate information, under- informed by the kinds of subtleties that historians engage with in their handling of evidence and argument, for instance. And if we made explicit that much of policy formation is based on the gathering of past data, the explication of patterns within that data, the attempt to create scenarios based on assumptions about the past, their relation to the present and how they could inform the future, then we might have more thoughtful policy formation itself.

“I think that’s one of the contributions that historians can make: to see the past not as something which is necessarily shaping the future, but provides – pick your metaphor: a treasure chest, a toolkit of possibilities, of ideas, of examples, of potential futures – that can be very helpful to policy formation. That is, to say not only, ‘Here are terrible mistakes which have been made in the past. Avoid them,’ but also, ‘Maybe there’s something – because it’s disconnected from the present – that we can recover from the past that might be helpful for us to think forward in the future. Consider that possibility.’”


The eBook called Eating One’s Own: Examining Civil War is now in post-production and will be available on Amazon by the summer of 2017.  The podcast of our one-hour video with David is now freely available on iTunes.

University staff and students may already have full access to all Ideas Roadshow resources on our Academic Portal through an institutional subscription (subscribers include Harvard, Princeton, Imperial College, University of Michigan, and many more), while select high school teachers and members of the general public have access to our School and Public Library Portals.  For more information please contact


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