J.G.A. Pocock, Historian Who Argued for Historical Context, Dies at 99

J.G.A. Pocock, who brought new perspectives to historical scholarship by arguing that the first step in understanding events of the past is to identify their linguistic and intellectual context, died on Dec. 12 in Baltimore. He was 99.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his sons, Hugh and Stephen, said. He died in an assisted living facility.

Professor Pocock, whose teaching career included a long stint at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wrote or edited books that had a marked influence on the fields of history and political science.

Among the most important were “The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century” (1957), “The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition” (1975) and, most notably, “Barbarism and Religion,” a six-volume study of the life and times of Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century British historian who produced a six-volume epic of his own, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

Professor Pocock, Quentin Skinner and other like-minded scholars, known collectively as the Cambridge School, came to prominence in the late 1960s with a fresh approach to the study of political thought, characterized by an emphasis on context and an unwillingness to assume that all ideas and problems were viewed in the past as they would be viewed today.

“Pocock rejected the idea that politics or philosophy addressed the same problems over time — what justice meant for Aristotle did not mean the same for Hobbes or for Rousseau,” Richard Whatmore, a history professor of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and co-director of its Institute of Intellectual History, said by email. “So explaining what political ideas meant in theory and in practice became the historian’s task.”

The Cambridge School attracted devotees across the world in departments of politics, history, philosophy, literature and language — scholars who were admonished to set aside any modern-day assumptions and prejudices they might hold when delving into the past.

In his fifth volume of “Barbarism and Religion,” published in 2010, Professor Pocock felt compelled to include an “Advice to Readers” paragraph that gives a sense of his abiding interest in viewing the past in context.

“Readers, Christian or non-believing, who may find themselves involved in analyses of thought they consider obsolete or false, are asked to remember that they are studying the history of a time when such thinking was offered and read seriously,” he wrote. “In our time, when theism and atheism are again in direct collision, this warning seems necessary.”

John Greville Agard Pocock was born on March 7, 1924, in London to Lewis Greville Pocock, a professor of classics, and Antoinette (Le Gros) Pocock, a high school history teacher. When John was 3 the family moved to New Zealand, where his father had accepted a teaching job at Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury).

“I studied classics, my father’s subject, since I was of the last generation to learn Latin because that was the way to become educated and had been for a thousand years,” Professor Pocock wrote in “The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History” (2005), “but of history, which was to be my main subject, I learned more than any school was able to teach me from my mother.”

He received a bachelor’s degree from Canterbury in 1945 and a master’s degree there the next year, both in history. Then it was off to England, to the University of Cambridge, where he received a Ph.D. in historiography in 1952. He returned to New Zealand to start his teaching career at the University of Otago.

Professor Pocock’s first book, “The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law,” made clear that he would not be a conventional historian. The book asked how people in the 17th century viewed their past, and he wasn’t satisfied with drawing on the go-to philosopher of the period, John Locke. As Colin Kidd wrote in The London Review of Books in 2008, the book “drove a bypass around Locke” and “concentrated instead on a set of debates among such obscure antiquaries as William Petyt, James Tyrrell, William Atwood and Robert Brady.”

Professor Pocock’s first book, “The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law” (1957), made clear that he would not be a conventional historian. “The Machiavellian Moment,” published 18 years later, cemented his reputation.

By the time “The Ancient Constitution” came out, Professor Pocock had returned to Cambridge to teach. But two years later, in 1959, his career shuttle took him back to New Zealand for a post at Canterbury. He moved to the United States in 1966 and taught for eight years at Washington University in St. Louis before joining the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1974. He gained emeritus status there in 1994.

“The Machiavellian Moment” cemented Professor Pocock’s reputation among historians, and it continued to grow from there. The first volume of “Barbarism and Religion” came out in 1999, when Professor Pocock was in his mid-70s. Volume 6 appeared in 2015. He also edited or co-edited “The Political Works of James Harrington” (1977), “Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1987) and “The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500-1800” (1993), among other books.

His approach to establishing historical context began with language.

“Pocock’s central contention,” the Oxford historian Keith Thomas wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1986, “is that a work of political thought can only be understood if the reader is aware of the contemporary linguistic constraints to which its author was subject, for these constraints prescribed both his subject matter and the way in which that subject matter was conceptualized.”

He added: “There is, of course, nothing very novel about this contention as such, for historians of literature and ideas have always been aware that writers work within particular traditions of thought. But its application to the history of political ideas forms a great contrast to the assumptions of the 1950s, when it was widely thought that the close reading of a text by an analytic philosopher was sufficient to establish its meaning, even though the philosopher was quite innocent of any knowledge of the period in which the text was written or of the linguistic traditions within which its author operated.”

Professor Pocock’s writing tended to be impenetrable to casual readers; even fellow academics could find it tough sledding.

“However impressive Pocock’s accomplishment,” the historian T.H. Breen wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 2000, “‘Barbarism and Religion’ is not recommended for the intellectually faint of heart. The style is demanding.”

If Professor Pocock’s prose was complicated, that reflected his view of history. Placing developments in their historical context was not an easy matter, because the evolution of ideas and movements was constant and messy.

“Historians need to understand that the history of discourse is not a simple linear sequence in which new patterns overcome and replace the old,” he wrote in 1988 in a preface to a reissue of “Politics, Language and Time,” a 1971 essay collection, “but a complex dialogue in which these patterns persist in transforming one another.”

Professor Pocock married Felicity Willis-Fleming in 1958. She died in 2014. In addition to his sons, he is survived by four grandchildren.

Professor Pocock was involved in his share of academic tiffs. In 2000, he wrote to The New York Review of Books complaining that the historian Gordon S. Wood, in reviewing another writer’s book, had mischaracterized what “The Machiavellian Moment” had said about Thomas Jefferson.

“After a quarter of a century, I should like to be free of the role of straw man to the American historical profession, which I did not seek and do not think I have deserved,” Professor Pocock wrote in a letter to the editor.

He added, “I think my colleagues can write very fine books without making me their whipping boy; I think they misread me when they do; and I think they can and should get along without me in the future.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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