J.G.A. Pocock
John Greville Agard Pocock (born 7 March 1924), as a writer known as J. G. A. Pocock, is a historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

 noted for his trenchant studies of republicanism
Republicanism is the ideology of governing a nation as a republic, where the head of state is appointed by means other than heredity, often elections. The exact meaning of republicanism varies depending on the cultural and historical context...

 in the early modern period (especially in Europe, Britain, and America), for his treatment of Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 and his contemporaries as historians of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

, and, in historical method, for his contributions to the history of political discourse. Born in England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, after spending most of his early life in New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...

 he migrated to the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 in 1966, where since 1975 he has had tenure at Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University, commonly referred to as Johns Hopkins, JHU, or simply Hopkins, is a private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States...

, Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...


Early life and career

Pocock was born in London in 1924, but in 1927 his family relocated to New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...

 when his father, Greville Pocock, was appointed professor of Classics
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

 at Canterbury College
University of Canterbury
The University of Canterbury , New Zealand's second-oldest university, operates its main campus in the suburb of Ilam in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand...

 there. The younger Pocock's academic career also began at Canterbury, with a B.A. leading to an M.A. in 1946. He later moved to Cambridge
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

, earning his Ph. D. in 1952 under the tutelage of Herbert Butterfield
Herbert Butterfield
Sir Herbert Butterfield was a British historian and philosopher of history who is remembered chiefly for two books—a short volume early in his career entitled The Whig Interpretation of History and his Origins of Modern Science...

. He returned to New Zealand to teach at Canterbury University College, 1946–48, and to lecture at the University of Otago
University of Otago
The University of Otago in Dunedin is New Zealand's oldest university with over 22,000 students enrolled during 2010.The university has New Zealand's highest average research quality and in New Zealand is second only to the University of Auckland in the number of A rated academic researchers it...

, 1953–55. In 1959, he established and chaired the Department of Political Science at the University of Canterbury
University of Canterbury
The University of Canterbury , New Zealand's second-oldest university, operates its main campus in the suburb of Ilam in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand...

. He moved to the USA in 1966, when he was named as the William Eliot Smith professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University in St. Louis is a private research university located in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. Founded in 1853, and named for George Washington, the university has students and faculty from all fifty U.S. states and more than 110 nations...

, Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

. In 1975 Pocock assumed his present tenure at Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University, commonly referred to as Johns Hopkins, JHU, or simply Hopkins, is a private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States...

, Baltimore; he holds the position of the Harry C. Black Professor of History Emeritus.

His first book, entitled The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law elucidated the common law mind, showing how thinkers such as the English jurist Edward Coke
Edward Coke
Sir Edward Coke SL PC was an English barrister, judge and politician considered to be the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Born into a middle class family, Coke was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge before leaving to study at the Inner Temple, where he was called to the...

 (1552–1634) built up a historical analysis of British history into an epistemology of law and politics; and then how that edifice later came to be subverted by scholars of the middle to late seventeenth century. Some of this work has since been amended.

Later work

By the 1970s Pocock had changed his focus from how lawyers understood the evolution of law to how philosophers and theologians did. The Machiavellian Moment
The Machiavellian Moment
The Machiavellian Moment is a work of intellectual history by J. G. A. Pocock . In the book, Pocock posits a connection between republican thought in early 16th century Florence, English-Civil War Britain, and the American Revolution.A "Machiavellian moment" is that moment when a new republic first...

(1975), his widely acclaimed magnum opus, showed how Florentines, Englishmen, and Americans had responded to and analysed the destruction of their states and political orders in a succession of crises sweeping through the early modern world. Again, not all historians accept Pocock's account, but leading scholars of early modern republicanism show its influence - especially in their characterization of political theorist James Harrington
James Harrington
James Harrington was an English political theorist of classical republicanism, best known for his controversial work, The Commonwealth of Oceana .-Early life:...

 (1611–1677) as a salient historical actor.

Subsequent research by Pocock explores the literary world inhabited by the British historian Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

 (1737–1794), and how Gibbon understood the cataclysm of decline and fall within the Roman Empire as an inevitable conflict between ancient virtue and modern commerce. Gibbon, it turns out, evinces all the hallmarks of a bona fide civic humanist, even while composing his great "enlightened narrative". The first two volumes of Pocock's projected six-volume series on Gibbon, Barbarism and Religion, won the American Philosophical Society
American Philosophical Society
The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743, and located in Philadelphia, Pa., is an eminent scholarly organization of international reputation, that promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications,...

's Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History for the year 1999.

The Cambridge School

Pocock is celebrated not merely as an historian, but as a pioneer of a new type of historical methodology: contextualism
Contextualism describes a collection of views in philosophy which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context...

, i.e., the study of "texts in context". In the 1960s and early '70s, he, (introducing "languages" of political thought) along with Quentin Skinner
Quentin Skinner
Quentin Robert Duthie Skinner is the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London.-Biography:...

 (focusing on authorial intention), and John Dunn
John Dunn (political scientist)
John Montfort Dunn is a emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King's College, Cambridge, and Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Chiba University, Japan.-Biography:...

 (stressing biography), united informally to undertake this approach as the "Cambridge School" of the history of political thought. Hereafter for the Cambridge School and its adherents, the then-reigning method of textual study, that of engaging a vaunted 'canon' of previously pronounced "major" political works in a typically anachronistic and disjointed fashion, simply would not do.

Pocock's "political languages" is the indispensable keystone of this historical revision. Defined as "idioms, rhetorics, specialised vocabularies and grammars" considered as "a single though multiplex community of discourse", languages are uncovered (or discovered) in texts by historians who subsequently "learn" them in due course. The resultant familiarity produces a knowledge of how political thought can be stated in historically discovered "linguistic universes", and in exactly what manner all or parts of a text can be expressed. As examples, Pocock has cited the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political languages of the "common law", "civil jurisprudence" and "classical republicanism", through which political writers such as James Harrington, Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

 and John Locke
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

 reached their rhetorical goals.

British history

From 1975, Professor Pocock began advocating the development of a new subject which he called "British History" (also labelled "New British History", a title Pocock has expressed his wish to shake off). He pressed his fellow historians to reconsider two issues linked to the future of British history. First, he urged historians of the British Isles
British Isles
The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe that include the islands of Great Britain and Ireland and over six thousand smaller isles. There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and...

 to move away from histories of the Three Kingdoms (Scotland, Ireland, England) as
separate entities, and he called for studies implementing a bringing-together or conflation of these national narratives into truly integrated enterprises. It has since become the commonplace preference of historians to treat British history in just this fashion. Second, he prodded policymakers to reconsider the Europeanisation of the UK still underway, via its entry into the European Union
European Union
The European Union is an economic and political union of 27 independent member states which are located primarily in Europe. The EU traces its origins from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community , formed by six countries in 1958...

. In its abandonment of a major portion of national sovereignty purely from economic motives, that decision threw into question the entire matter of British sovereignty itself. What, Pocock asks, will (and must) nations look like if the capacity for and exercise of national self-determination is put up for sale to the highest bidder?

New Zealand

Alongside his ongoing work on Gibbon, has come a renewed attention to his nation of citizenship, New Zealand. In a progression of essays published since 1991, Pocock explored the historical mandates and implications of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi
Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi is a treaty first signed on 6 February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and various Māori chiefs from the North Island of New Zealand....

 (between the British Crown and the indigenous Māori people, New Zealand's equivalent of the Magna Carta) for Māori and the descendants of the original 19th century European (but mainly British) settlers, known as Pākehā
Pākehā is a Māori language word for New Zealanders who are "of European descent". They are mostly descended from British and to a lesser extent Irish settlers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although some Pākehā have Dutch, Scandinavian, German, Yugoslav or other ancestry...

. Both parties have legitimate claims to portions of their national sovereignty.

Pocock concludes that the issue of New Zealand's sovereignty must be an ongoing shared experience, a perpetual debate leading to several ad hoc agreements if necessary, to which the Māori and Pākehā need to accustom themselves permanently. The alternative, an eventual rebirth of the violence and bloodshed of the 19th century New Zealand land wars
New Zealand land wars
The New Zealand Wars, sometimes called the Land Wars and also once called the Māori Wars, were a series of armed conflicts that took place in New Zealand between 1845 and 1872...

, cannot and must not be entertained.

Monographs (complete)*

  • The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: a study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (1957, rept. 1987)**
  • The Maori and New Zealand Politics (Hamilton, Blackwood & Janet Paul: 1965) editor, co-author
  • Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (Chicago: 1989, rept. 1972)
  • Obligation and Authority in Two English Revolutions: the Dr. W. E. Collins lecture delivered at the University on 17 May 1973 (Victoria University: 1973)
  • The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: 1975, rept. 2003)
  • The Political Works of James Harrington (1977)** editor
  • John Locke : papers read at a Clark Library Seminar, 10 December 1977 (University of California: 1980) co-author
  • Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton: 1980) editor, co-author
  • Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (1985)**
  • Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France (Hackett: 1987) editor
  • Conceptual Change and the Constitution (University Press of Kansas: 1988) co-editor, co-author
  • James Harrington: The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics (1992)** editor
  • The Varieties of British Political Thought 1500–1800 (1993)** co-editor, co-author
  • Edward Gibbon: Bicentenary Essays (Voltaire Foundation: 1997) co-editor
  • Barbarism and Religion, vol.1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764 (1999)**
  • Barbarism and Religion, vol.2: Narratives of Civil Government (1999)**
  • Barbarism and Religion, vol.3: The First Decline and Fall (2003)**
  • Barbarism and Religion, vol.4: Barbarians, Savages and Empires (2005)**
  • Barbarism and Religion, vol.5: Religion: the First Triumph (in process)**
  • The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (2005)**
  • Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (2009)**
  • More than 250 published scholarly articles and reviews (as of December 2009). For a comprehensive listing, see The Work of J.G.A. Pocock
    The Work of J.G.A. Pocock
    A scholar of the history of British political discourse, J.G.A. Pocock, Harry C. Black Chair of History Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, has enjoyed nearly 60 years of publication. Now in his ninth decade, he is currently engaged in a multi-volume study of Edward Gibbon...


* in the English language.

** Cambridge University Press.


  • Mark Bevir, The Errors of Linguistic Contextualism, in History & Theory 31 (1992), 276-298.
  • David Boucher, Texts in Context. Revisionist Methods for Studying the History of Ideas, Dordrecht, Boston & Lancaster 1985.
  • Iain Hampsher-Monk, Political Languages in Time. The Work of J.G.A. Pocock, in British Journal of Political Science 14 (1984), 89-116.
  • Robert D. Hume, Pocock’s Contextual Historicism, in D.N. DeLuna (ed.), The Political Imagination in History. Essays Concerning J.G.A. Pocock, Baltimore 2006, 27-55.
  • Preston King, Historical Contextualism. The New Historicism?, in History of European Ideas 21 (1995), No. 2, 209-233.
  • William Walker, J.G.A. Pocock and the History of British Political Thought. Assessing the State of the Art, in Eighteenth-Century Life 33 (2009), No. 1, 83-96.

External links

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