Interview with Ian Hunter

[This interview was conducted at the University of Queensland by Michael Kretowicz on August 12th, 2019. The text was edited for concision by Michael Kretowicz, Ian Hunter, and William Holbrook, co-editor of sugarcane. The long version is the original transcript of the interview, available here.]

Ian Hunter is Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. A distinguished intellectual historian, Professor Hunter has written widely on early modern political and philosophical thought and '60s humanities theory.

Michael Kretowicz graduated from UQ in 2018 and is currently reading for the MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Pembroke College, Cambridge.


MK: Your undergraduate degree was in English. This was the late 60s. What was it like to study the humanities at that time? Was there a sense of conflict in the university? 

IH: There was. I arrived at La Trobe University from a country town in 1968. And of course there was a fair amount of ferment of various kinds: political, cultural, new forms of theory. It was the Vietnam War period and the moratorium marches, and I was caught up in that. And that was certainly a part of my formation. How one should view that period now—that part of one’s life—is a challenging issue. If you're having a drink after work, you could have a certain kind of anecdotal view of it: of one’s exploits and the obstacles one overcame. In the context of our conversation, though, I think one needs to be careful about what one says. Perhaps, here, I can interpolate a sideways comment about the role of the ritual of an interview. Foucault’s History of Sexuality allows us to see that the interview is somewhat like a confessional exchange. It’s a discursive ritual where the paired roles give the interviewer the right to ask the interviewee to reveal some kind of inner truth. If one is the interviewee, then the temptation is to take too seriously the thought that one is the vessel for some kind of truth embedded in one’s personality. Because the interview puts you in a situation where you look inside yourself to find such truths, it's very easy then to retrospectively unify your own life around a seminal truth that defines you as a person. 

And that's a central feature of a lot of western biographical templates. In Augustine’s Confessions, for example, we find the story of him converting from Manichaeism to Christianity as the result of an epiphany in a garden in which an inner voice tells him to read the Bible. It is often forgivable and sometimes useful to engage in self-talk and to say, “This profound experience shaped my life” or “I faced challenges and overcame them,” and so on. But it’s almost always an illusion to imagine that one’s life or self can have that kind of unity and significance. In any case, when I went to university in the late 60s there were plenty of these illusions around—one’s life could be tied to the counter-culture, the struggle against US imperialism, the support of national liberation movements, the revolutions of structuralist and poststructuralist theory, and so on—and I was up to my neck in most of these. But of course it’s easier to see the illusions that one was under then than those one is under now! 

MK: Your first academic post was teaching film studies at Griffith University, which was then a brand-new university. And your entry into academia was from a more theoretical, politically-charged standpoint. How did you come to history? 

IH: I tend to think of history as driven by accident and happenstance, and my academic career has an accidental character. I was ejected from the English Honours program at La Trobe for being too theoretical — and here we should pause to savour the irony of that! After that I taught high school in rural Victoria for a couple of years, paying off a studentship bond that I owed to the State Government. While I was doing that I wrote film reviews for small magazines in Melbourne. Just out of interest; I had no sense at all of an academic career. But some kind people in film studies at Griffith happened to come across these reviews and offered me an 18-month tutorship. That shows how easy it was to get a job in the mid 70s compared with the mountain that young academics must climb today. So my entrance into academia was largely accidental. 

But the way I got into history, to go back to the main point of your question, was through my doctorate. For partly biographical reasons, I was interested in looking at how (Leavisite) English departments like the one at La Trobe operated to impart a certain kind of training and intellectual formation. This led me to inquire into the history of this highly distinctive form of pedagogy. Other accounts were on offer, such as the Hegelian-Marxist accounts provided by Terry Eagleton and Francis Mulhern, for whom Raymond Williams had been a key influence. But I was less interested in English as an ideology than as a pedagogy, or pedagogical ritual dedicated to forming a particular kind of persona or self. The objective of the training that I had undergone at La Trobe English was to form a certain kind of sensibility or way of responding to literature, rather than approaching texts philologically or historically. The pedagogy thus involved a ritual in which a tutor asks the members of the seminar to present their responses to a text immediately, under circumstances in which these responses always fall short of the kind of ideal response that is required. This leads to a correction, and requires the student to return to the text in order to make a further response, and so on. This turns the text into a surface on which the limitations of the student’s aesthetic and moral sensibility are revealed to a tutor, who is also a kind of aesthetic and moral exemplar. The result of this repeated response and correction is a minute attention to the text and the production of what were called “close readings”, which emerged from this seminar of conscience. This way of approaching a text derived from biblical self-examination groups or conventicles, rather than from biblical criticism and philology. It was through attempting to describe the emergence of this kind of pedagogical formation in modern education systems that I started work on an historical doctorate, that would eventually be published under the title of Culture and Government in 1988. In the middle of this work, in 1985 and 1986, English translations of volumes 2 and 3 of Foucault’s History of Sexuality appeared, and they proved to be extraordinarily important and helpful for the approach that I was taking. For in these works, Foucault showed how ethics and aesthetics could be approached neither as ideology nor as truth, but in terms of administered acts of self-transformation and self-cultivation, which shone new light on the seminar of conscience and sensibility-formation. 

MK: So: you began to see Foucault’s tools as the most useful ones for understanding this context you'd come out of in the Leavisite English department? 

IH: Yes, and I’ve continued to use them for similar purposes. If I were to say what is it about those tools that I found both useful and in a certain sense intoxicating, then it would be their capacity to treat thought as an activity like any other activity: something performed through the mastery of various arts and techniques, and oriented to various cognitive, ethical or aesthetic outcomes. This approach is opposed to that on offer in the Hegelian and Marxian traditions. Here, thought is located in an ideal spiritual or intellectual domain that is dialectically paired with a domain of social or material determination. This in turn allows history to be pictured in terms of the progress of thought towards the recovery of its material determination and the achievement of self-consciousness and freedom. In approaching thought as a multifarious set of activities performed using various intellectual arts and techniques, one turns away from the dialectical conception of culture and history, and also from its prophetic-emancipatory stance. History, here intellectual history, becomes a matter of describing the intellectual acts of various kinds, the arts and techniques used to perform them, and the institutional circumstances in which they are performed, for various purposes. 

MK: When I think of intellectual history as a discipline, I think of a shared ethos. The value of treating thought as a diverse set of human activities, as you said. Have intellectual historians sufficiently recognised this ethos as being the thing they really share? 

IH: It’s a good question, but difficult to answer without casting a glance at the history of the humanities. The humanities are actually bound up with the history of philology—the descriptive study of texts via their languages, sources and contexts—because philology is one of those interesting technical disciplines that has had important non-technical outcomes. In the case of biblical criticism and ecclesiastical history, philology had a powerful impact in the early modern period by transforming sacred texts into objects of descriptive historical inquiry, as opposed to treating them as deliverances of a divine intellect. That parting of the ways was a major development in the history of humanism and the humanities, and is reflected today in the difference between historical and philosophical approaches to texts. A lot of what we call contextual intellectual history, in my view, actually derives from early modern ecclesiastical history and biblical criticism. This is where contextual historiography gets its commitment to descriptive approaches to texts and also its opposition to conceptions of meaning as the expression of a transcendental intellect. It's not that philological and contextual approaches are self-validating; they have their own history. And this history itself was mired in controversy because people committed to sacred texts of various kinds are generally not happy to see them turned into documents of merely human activities. People on both sides of the philology vs philosophy/theology contest knew from the beginning that it was an area of controversy and combat. And that’s probably the deep history of certain key conflicts or fissures within the humanities today. 

MK: Your own work, particularly in the history of philosophy, has looked at the pedagogies of the Protestant universities of early modern Germany. One thing that comes out strongly from this work is that these are competing pedagogies that produce rival comportments of the mind. How has your attention to these pedagogical regimes, and the acts of self-cultivation that they involve, shaped your understanding of philosophy? My sense is that your picture of philosophy contains a great deal more conflict than most. 

IH: One way of answering that question would be to go back to my preceding comment on the early modern emergence of biblical criticism and ecclesiastical history. At that point, techniques that had been used by the Renaissance humanists for the investigation of classical texts—philological analysis, dating, source criticism, contextual investigation—were brought over into biblical criticism and ecclesiastical and theological history, where they proved very combative and unsettling. This transposition can be seen in Lorenzo Valla’s proof that Dionysius the Areopagite was not the figure mentioned in the Bible as having been converted by St Paul, but was actually a neo-Platonist philosopher who lived in Alexandria five hundred years later. Dionysius’s identification with the biblical Areopagite was thus revealed as a piece of Catholic propaganda designed to harmonise the Bible with neo-Platonic philosophy, as required by scholastic theology and philosophy. Valla’s discovery of course proved very incendiary, especially when the prefix “pseudo” was added to Dionysius’s name. Here we can see a parting of the ways between sacred history and contextual history, and the emergence of what you called rival comportments of the mind, grounded of course in divergent intellectual arts, techniques, and ethics. 

And this kind of history-writing casts an interesting light on the history of philosophy today, since it is not clear to what degree contextual historicisation has actually been applied to modern philosophy. It’s not very common, for example, for academics to say, “Well, I’m not interested in the truth or falsity of Hegel’s texts, because I’m interested in treating them as historical documents that record or program a certain kind of intellectual activity for certain cultural-political purposes”. In other words, if you apply the methods of biblical criticism and ecclesiastical history to Hegel, then this can have a distanciating effect similar to the historicisation of sacred texts in early modernity. Or, to shift the focus to Kant: what happens to the transcendental dialectic (in the Critique of Pure Reason) if you treat it as a certain kind of inner activity or spiritual exercise? This would be a typical question that I would ask. And then you have to be able to say, “Well it looks like this, and it's this kind of work you perform on yourself when you engage with the transcendental dialectic.” And you can do this kind of thing without attempting to falsify Kantian or Hegelian philosophy, not least because this method requires that the question of truth and falsity be suspended. So approaching German idealism historically no more invalidates it than does approaching Christianity in terms of its historical sources; although, in both cases such an approach can radically alter the space in which the phenomenon is located, by positioning it as a concrete human activity of a certain kind. It means, for example, that Kant’s transcendental dialectic is not grounded in the structure of human reason, but in a series of complex inner acts through which a select group cultivates a highly refined intellectual disposition. 

MK: And that contextual style of history contrasts with work done in a philosophical or normative mode, which seems to be driven by a kind of faith. 

IH: To get into a philosophical space or frame of mind, generally you have to accept some fundamental things without having any philosophical reason for doing so. So somebody says to you, “If you're going to do Kantian philosophy and do it seriously, you have to accept that you can't know things in themselves, that empirical things are never given to you directly. Empirical things or experiences have conditions of possibility that are a priori or transcendental.” And it is no natural or easy thing to accept such claims and to get into that frame of mind, to take up that relation to yourself. Getting students to take up that relation to themselves is part of the pedagogy of philosophy. If somebody at that point says, “No, I don't believe that. I can know things directly,” then in a way they fall outside that style of philosophy into something else. 

MK: I can imagine a scholar, even an historian, looking at your work and saying, “I don’t study early modern philosophy. Why should I pay attention to Kantian self-cultivation if I’m studying political science or international relations?” 

IH: These philosophical techniques might start somewhere rather refined or even esoteric, but they turn out to be very mobile. Because of their intellectual prestige, they can colonise adjacent academic territories, allowing them to become part of a wider academic culture. An example of this can be found in Kant’s work on law and morality, which has successfully moved into the adjacent fields of international law and international relations. This is largely because it constructs a model of international law and international relations in which whole states are thought of as rational beings interacting with each other, as outlined in Kant’s “Universal History” essay. The classic text for this kind of migration would be Rawls’s The Law of Peoples. But one finds various versions of Kant’s doctrine that sovereign states will lose their antagonistic relation to each other and start to form an international community, conceivably even a world community, a cosmopolitan polity, because states are like collective persons. On this view, rational persons do overcome their differences and their merely sectional interests and can come to share a universalistic or cosmopolitan outlook. Habermas’s work on the constitutionalisation of international law has this form, but so too, with a more Hegelian stamp, does the “global turn” in intellectual history and International Relations theory. Now these are instances where a very metaphysical style of philosophy has had a large impact in other domains, in international law and international relations. And that would be a case where a more descriptive view would result in a stark contrast or conflict between different approaches to, for example, contemporary international relations. From the globalist or Hegelian perspective the descriptive-historical approach will then look like a failure to be properly cosmopolitan, to be locked into a Eurocentric acceptance of the primacy of territorial states, and so on. 

MK: I find that a major barrier to recognising the influence of these philosophical techniques in adjacent fields is that we raise much thought to the level of theory. We say: “This is the Kantian cosmopolitan theory of politics; this is the realist theory of politics.” We give these theories their own history, and play them off each other in a rather abstract way. And the historian’s attempt to describe a piece of thinking in terms of concrete human activities – a category not exhausted by the activities of producing and refining theory! – is met with hostility, even though political science and International Relations have had their historical turns. How resistant to historicisation do you think these disciplines are? 

IH: One of the ways in which historical work is absorbed back into theoretical and philosophical ways of thinking is via the dialectic in its more or less Hegelian form. The dialectic is an inner exercise that allows its exponents to take what are two completely different or even rival and antagonistic ways of conducting the intellect, and to treat what are in fact separate intellectual cultures as if they were paired polarities within the human mind or personality. This is what happens in International Relations theory through the famous polarity of idealism and realism. This allows dialecticians to set the scene for a kind of conjuring act in which they can argue that as mutually deficient poles of a human mind or reason, we must be able to go beyond the opposition of idealism and realism into some kind of third realm that overcomes their limitations. It is thus possible to suggest that “idealism” and “realism” have never actually existed except as a means of structuring a spiritual exercise whereby they are overcome by IR theorists, who imagine that in doing so they are pointing towards a post-territorial-state “global” future for international relations and “international thought”. This is what gives so much of IR theory a faux-prophetic character. A lot of what is called “realism” in IR theory is just historical work that does not presume that states are evolving towards a post-territorial cosmopolitan order. So I think you're right to say that historical terms can be fairly easily recuperated once they're put into a dialectical relation with something else that then makes them look as if there is an overarching domain of reason in which they're both contained. And it's kind of easy then to step in and say, “Well I'll reconcile the dialectic.” After all, what is a dialectical opposition except something that you reconcile? Anybody can do it. It's easy. The difficult thing is to refuse to. 

MK: You say anyone can do it, but the key figure in this absorbing move of bringing history back into the context of theory is the theorist himself or herself. There have to be these quite charismatic figures, I think, who feel it is their scholarly duty to insist, “There’s an element of theory in any given piece of thinking. Let me show it to you.” What can the intellectual historian’s response be? Can a kind of bridging happen? 

IH: That’s a good question. It's one that we would need to answer quite carefully. There is a move that can be made by theorists, and which they make all the time, which is to say that empirical historians also have theoretical premises and presuppositions, transcendental conditions for their descriptions and narrations. Therefore, any attempt to say that we can know things without such conditions, or even give an historical account of the search for such conditions, can be trumped by that move. There is, though, a way of responding to that remorselessly repeated critical move, which is to acknowledge that contextual history, and intellectual history in particular, do indeed have conditions of knowledge, but that these are not necessarily theoretical or transcendental. In fact, it's quite arguable that the conditions of historiographical knowledge are technical rather than transcendental. For example, philology, contextual investigation, learning other languages, using source criticism to winnow out false from true texts, doing the kind of thing that Lorenzo Valla did when he worked on the pseudo-Dionysius — those are conditions of knowledge for contextual intellectual history. You have to have those techniques, you have to know how to use them; but they're not transcendental conditions—acts of the mind prior to experience. So one can agree that history of that type has its own history. The critic is right that contextual history-writing is not grounded in ontology or in things that it “just sees.” To “just see”, as Valla did, is the result of an arduous labour that's performed in order to see historically. Now, recently, historians of erudition and scholarship, such as Anthony Grafton and Dmitri Levitin, have been pointing this out. This body of work permits a powerful response to the critical theorist’s interjection, of “Look, you historians are really dependent on covert theories”. For this work permits us to respond that: “Well actually it's not a theory or transcendental conditions that underlie contextual historiography but something quite different. It's a culture of knowledge that contains all of these techniques that have to be mastered, and the detached outlook that has to be cultivated, and that permits contextualists to sift the textual evidence in a case like that of pseudo-Dionysius.” So that's a long way around saying that you can acknowledge there are conditions of possibility of knowledge in historical scholarship, without accepting a theoretical view of them as transcendental and therefore on the same level as philosophy. They're not. They’re something quite different. 

MK: We’ve been discussing a conflict within the humanities academy between something like a metaphysical philosophical culture and an empirical historiographical culture. If there’s no intellectual bridge between these two cultures, how might we tame the conflict? Do we need a code of scholarly conduct, one which doesn’t purport to validate or invalidate the various disciplines academics are attached to? In Australia, I think of the recent efforts to bring a Western civilisation course into the university, which has resulted in a kind of territorial warfare. Does this speak to the need for a code? 

IH: I'm not sure whether there's a need for a formal code, but I think you're pointing towards something important about how we have handled such conflict, and by implication, how it's been handled in other national cultures that are a bit different to ours. In Germany, because of the nature of religious civil war in the early modern period, public law developed a model for dealing with competing confessional theologies and competing religions. This model was to deconfessionalise the legal system itself, and to argue that it couldn't have a view of the truth of any of the religions that composed the state or that were active in the German Empire. And that systematic relativism at the juridical level gave rise to a form of political-juridical secularity. But it was a form that was quite compatible with the fact that the jurists all remained committed to one of the major faiths, so they weren't philosophical secularists. But this relativistic form of secularism was built into the German constitution. The treaties of Augsburg and then the Westphalian treaties recognised two and then three official religions within the empire – Calvinism, Catholicism, and Lutheranism – and eventually at the territorial state level too. A central and unusual feature of this relativist religious constitution is that later on, what were called Weltanschauungen, or philosophical world-views, were to be treated in the same way as religions. That relativist treatment of philosophical ideologies was formalised in the Weimar constitution in 1919 and then again in the post-war constitution of 1949. What that means with regards to such philosophical world-views as Marxism, Hegelianism, Kantianism and freethought, is that all of these movements are to be allowed to flourish—are to be treated as neither true nor false under the Constitution—like the constitutional religions. But, as with the religions, the limit placed on their activities is that they're not allowed to try and overthrow the Constitution and insert themselves as an ideological foundation for a new state. That's the limit to toleration in the German system. Now that's like wearing seven-league boots to answer your question. We need some smaller steps. But what it points to is that radically opposed intellectual-ideological positions can be maintained within an institutional framework by requiring those who hold them to conduct themselves in relation to each other in a restrained and reasonable way. Whether that’s done by a juridical framework, or by a code of academic conduct, or by some way of ensuring a pluralistic and tolerant disposition, probably varies with the type of context. 

And I guess that's a springboard into the Ramsay Centre [for Western Civilisation] issue, because when it wasn’t about defending academic processes and procedures, quite properly, then a lot of the resistance to Ramsay was ideological. The ideological resistance was rooted in a view of the narrowness of the curriculum in relation to various models of breadth, or in a view of the conservative sources and forces lying behind the curriculum. This led many good colleagues to seek to ban the Ramsay Centre in advance, to insist that it not be allowed to enter the university—as if other university curricula (and centres) were not driven by partisan ideologies or philosophical world-views of various kinds! My own sense is that when one disagrees with something it's often better to adopt a pluralistic view, to accept the development and teaching of various kinds of curricula, as long as they fit within the structures of the university, which is what you are implying. This means that certain normative procedures must be followed for curriculum approval, teaching standards, hiring and firing, and so on. This forms the institutional carapace under which rival teachings might be delivered. At this level we don’t make a judgment about whether the Great Books course is intrinsically good or bad. And it sits alongside other courses that are completely different or even opposed to it, for example, courses based in contextual historiography! University arts faculties are thus institutions that must hold conflicting intellectual ideologies and pedagogies within a single set of institutional arrangements. Whether a code of conduct is likely to be the most effective way to deal with this set of issues, I'm not sure. It’d be interesting to try and write it! 

MK: I now want to consider the place of politics in the lecture-room. Currently, some academics view the student body as over-politicised—resulting in intolerance towards the Western tradition—while others view students as apolitical and apathetic, hence in need of some kind of politicisation. Where do historians stand, with their commitment to a kind of value-free, descriptive work, in the face of such fighting over the fate of the student body? 

IH: Past a certain point academics can’t and shouldn't inquire too deeply into what their students think about moral and political matters that lie outside the scope of disciplinary teaching. Unless you are a pastoral guide or moral tutor, your role is more to transmit a body of knowledge and a body of techniques, and to exemplify the ethos that goes with that: working hard, learning to master the relevant body of intellectual arts and techniques, learning how to use them, and cultivating the kind of persona that you need to do those things. This sounds a bit unexciting, I realise. If you're trying to show students that scholarship has its own ethos, then I think it is okay to say that learning how to describe and investigate a phenomenon is a different kind of activity to the moral or political evaluation of the phenomenon. If you're going to be engaged in politics, which obviously is a thing that people can and should do if they wish, then I think one has to face up to the fact that that's a different kind of intellectual conduct, a different way of life to scholarship. Here, rather than transforming your scholarly discipline into a political platform, it’s more honest to just join a political party or group whose political platform you are prepared to accept. And then you have to be prepared to do battle against other political groups in order to advance that platform at the expense of theirs, to engage in intra- and extra-party struggles over policies and campaigning, to live with the sometimes bitter consequences of one’s political actions, and so on. And that's what roughly politics looks like in an electoral democracy. I think an historian's role can be to give an account of how such a set of political arrangements emerged, and what functions they serve, and to transmit the disciplines through which students can investigate these things. But that kind of investigation need not at all supply a normative recipe by which academics and students should live their political or moral lives. That's the difference I would probably want to maintain. It's the kind of difference that Weber talks about in Science as a Vocation. Weber urges academics to resist the temptation to become “professorial prophets”, to resist saying to students, “I know the way forward because history shows us that certain things ought to happen.” 

MK: But some students will come to the lecture-room looking for prophecy. 

IH: And in my view, academics must be very careful not to give them any. The technical disciplines acquired in the humanities lecture-room—going back to philology for example— do have critical effects, and they did have from the very beginning. That’s because they were interventions in an existing culture which they transformed in a certain kind of way, and continue to do so. But what they don't do is tell you the moral future. They don't tell you how history is going to unfold in accordance with hidden normative laws, and that you can have prophetic insight into this unfolding through knowledge of its ideal form. Historical and sociological disciplines in the humanities can investigate how various cultural, political and economic phenomena emerged, what kind of functions and purposes they have served, what problems and failures have befallen them, and so on. But they can’t tell you whether these forms of thought are in tune with the historical unfolding of human reason, or, thence, how you should value them on that basis, and then how you should act politically today on the basis of that valuation. That's a different question. And to answer that question you have to do something other than simply find out about something. You have to relate to yourself as someone who has insight into the normative laws of history, and is prepared to take up a political position on this basis. And that puts you in a different space. 

MK: The idea of the lecture-room as a neutral space might hurt pride a little bit. 

IH: If you think of neutrality as an ethical achievement, then you can rescue a bit of the pride that you might feel is lost. Achieving impartiality in the early modern period with regards to theology—which is where it probably first happened—did involve innovating another ethos and did involve assembling techniques that were partly linguistic and technical and partly ethical, because they involved cultivating a relativistic view of existing theological truths. That's a peculiar part of our history and our culture, and it remains so. Neutrality of this kind is itself critical. It generates critical distance of a quite radical kind because it more or less says that, “All of the things that you think are transcendental truths actually aren't. They're simply human achievements of various kinds, human activities of various kinds.” So, to return to the point where we began our discussion, the distanciating disciplines of humanities scholarship have produced a kind of ethic or ethos that continues to play an important role in the university. And this detached ethic is inimical to the idea that history contains hidden laws or norms whose uncovering gives academics a prophetic insight into the future forms of morality, politics and society. I think it was Foucault who said that we should forget about historical laws that promise to make us into what we must become, and we should focus instead on the contingencies that make us into what we happen to be.