As a discipline, the history of political thought itself has a history of competing methods: on the one hand, there are political theorists whose principle interest is in the use to which the ideas they find can be put—they seek to put the discoveries to work on instances of perennial problems in the present. On the other hand, there are those whose real interest is in trying to understand what the ideas meant at the time they were written—they seek to reconstruct the place of the ideas within a given historical context and how those ideas functioned to address political problems at that time. The temporal and intentional focus of these two approaches is so different that they might constitute different enterprises entirely.

To the extent that historians of political thought are interested in history, the predominant method for analyzing the meaning and context of texts for the last few decades has been the so-called Cambridge School. It is the contention of this article that while the focus of the Cambridge School on the importance of contextual readings should open up the history of political thought to extra-European contexts, in fact its method serves to close down this possibility by emphasizing the importance of continuity between places in the past and the present of the historian. In other words, this method reduces to a process of narrating the historical identity of the Eurocentric discipline. Furthermore, I suggest that the work of the wartime Kyoto School contains methodological insights into the history of political thought that might overcome this problem and provide for a more inclusive (or at least a less exclusive) approach to the field.

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