2 - After the Macpherson thesis  pp. 71-95

After the Macpherson thesis

By James Tully and Quentin Skinner

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter


C. B. Macpherson's thesis of possessive individualism has played a role in contemporary political thought similar to the role of Max Weber's thesis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Initially a challenge to the received wisdom, it soon became the reigning orthodoxy and then it was subjected to intense and sustained criticism. The problems with the thesis that this scrutiny brought to light were sufficient to cause many scholars of early modern English political thought to become sceptical of it, and many of its supporters argue, as Gordon Schochet has recently done, that Macpherson was right for the wrong reasons. Accordingly, scholarship has moved in two directions. First, the research concerned with the relations between early modern political thought and capitalist relations of production has become considerably more technical, both historically and analytically, than Macpherson's original argument. Second, scholars have moved on to study different questions. The thesis of possessive individualism now stands partly aside from and tangential to the central concerns and debates in this area. Nonetheless, like the Weber thesis, it has not only had a substantive influence on how we think of the history of the present but it also continues to be an important object of comparison and contrast when we reflect critically on early modern political thought and our relationship to it.