Over the last few weeks, a number of things have led me to think about the relationship between political theory and intellectual history…and between political theorists and intellectual historians.
Our recent conference in Washington, D.C., was keynoted by a political theorist, Corey Robin, whose work frequently comes up on this blog. Last week, Sheldon Wolin passed away. As Corey Robin noted in his acute celebration of Wolin’s work, Wolin was distinguished by, among other things, a particularly distinctive way of thinking about the past. And this week, I concluded a Reading Group that I had been leading at the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College on Our Declaration, a book-length consideration of the Declaration of Independence by political theorist Danielle Allen.
Political theorists and intellectual historians have a lot in common. We often work on the same material. And we are often interested in similar questions. Scholars in both disciplines also face some similar methodological challenges, especially having to do with our relationship to the ideas of the past. There are many signs of such shared interests. Corey Robin began his S-USIH Conference keynote by telling of how he had wanted to go into intellectual history, but his undergraduate adviser, the historian Lawrence Stone, told him that nobody did that anymore. So he went into political theory instead. The best intellectual history of modern American political theory is by a political theorist: John Gunnell’s The Descent of Political Theory (1993).
On the other hand, there are also real differences between our two disciplines. Political theory is, by its very nature, more present-minded than intellectual history. And, more subtly, political theorists and intellectual historians speak in different registers.
I’ve been trying to formulate a more precise description of how I see the relationship between the two disciplines. But I haven’t come up with a particularly satisfying description or analysis of it. So I’ll stop while I’m ahead and ask a question instead: how do the intellectual historians, political theorists, and unaffiliated folks among our readership understand the relationship between our disciplines?
 Corey just asked the wrong Princeton historian.