In this essay, the author both reviews Scott Sowerby's book Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution (2013) and makes a late contribution to, or comment on, the Common Knowledge symposium “Fuzzy Studies” (2011 – 13). Sowerby opposes the “Whig interpretation” that James II was attempting to reinstate Stuart “popery and arbitrary government” and instead presents James II's policies as aimed at liberation of the Stuart monarchy from the borough, county, and clerical elites that had brought it back to power and regarded restoration of the Church of England as their instrument and identity. The king thus had his own reasons for upholding the liberty of conscience, and so James II can be found using the language of a skeptical Enlightenment, while at the same time affirming the absoluteness of his authority and incurring the suspicion of popery. How “toleration” of Catholics and dissenters came about in Britain must be told by narrating the “hard” histories of various state structures, but there is a larger and “softer” history of Enlightenment to be extracted from that of the European ancien régime, in whose history and downfall “British history” has a part that can be narrated in both “hard” and “soft” terms. The recent revisionist accounts of James II — of which Sowerby's is said in this review to be among the best — offer the king a new role at that regime's beginnings.
This review concludes by arguing that the pursuit of history as it has come to be practiced is among the “softest” modes of explanation — since it consists of the unending and unlimited pursuit of the contexts in which actions, words, and processes have been situated and need to be studied — and that the more there are of these, the more meanings the actions may bear and the fewer reasons there are for the use of Occam's razor. “The notion of ‘fuzziness’ ” does not disturb historians, as it does scholars in some other disciplines, since historians have at their disposal an established contextualist “means of navigating it.”