Mythology of Doctrines

The mythology takes several forms. First there is the danger of converting some scattered or incidental remarks by a classic theorist into their ‘doctrine’ on one of the expected themes. This in turn has the effect of generating two particular kinds of historical absurdity. One is more characteristic of intellectual biographies and synoptic histories of thought, in which the focus is on the individual thinkers (or the procession of them). The other is more characteristic of ‘histories of ideas’ in which the focus is on the development of some ‘unit idea’ itself.

Such exercises may seem merely quaint, but they could always have a more sinister undertone, as these examples may perhaps suggest: a means to fix one’s own prejudices onto the most charismatic names under the guise of innocuous historical speculation.

Quentin Skinner on various forms of the “Mythology of Doctrines” in his “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8 (1969): 3–53.