In memoriam

Renowned historian J.G.A. Pocock, who upended the study of political thought, dies at 99

Considered one of the greatest historians of his generation, Pocock wove philosophy, political science, and history into a program in political and moral thought that Johns Hopkins University is known for today

Jill Rosen
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Pre-eminent historian J.G.A. Pocock, whose erudite presence has towered for generations at the intersection of intellectual history, history of political thought, and history of law, died in Baltimore on Dec. 12 at the age of 99.

The Harry C. Black Professor Emeritus in the Department of History was never bounded by his discipline, but wove together philosophy, political science, and history into a program in political and moral thought that Johns Hopkins remains known for today. He is particularly renowned for his studies of republicanism in the early modern period, the history of English common law, and Enlightenment historians, and for his methodological contributions to the history of political discourse.

J.G.A. Pocock

Image caption: J.G.A. Pocock

"He was quite simply one of the greatest historians of his generation or any generation; a profoundly important scholar in terms of his own work, his influence on others, and his contributions methodologically," said John Marshall, A&S '85 (MA), '91 (PhD), Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History, who completed his doctorate under Pocock.

Through research that encompasses classical Greece and Rome, early modern Europe and Britain, the early American republic, and New Zealand, Pocock studied the foundations of modern political thought and led the way to a new approach. Along with colleagues at Cambridge University, he upended the study of political thought with his "texts in context" methodology, which came to be known as "contextualism" or the Cambridge School. The approach insists that scholars place political ideas in context of political events and other contemporary ideas, holding that the way people of the past wrote and spoke about their political societies must inform how we understand the history of those societies.

In books including his best known—The Machiavellian Moment and The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law—Pocock shifted scholars' understandings in areas like the history of common law practice and principles in England, showing how ancient precedents and customs were the basis of current liberties. Similarly, his study of civic republicanism, from Renaissance Italy through 17th- to early 19th- century America, placed into larger context the ethos, arguments, and languages of those who created the American Revolution, casting them as the effort to preserve a republic and make it virtuous against the forces of corruption and decay, Marshall said.

"He revised the sense of the past in British history. He revised the whole structure of thinking between law and monarchy and institutions, and what law is," said Orest Ranum, professor emeritus in the Department of History. Instrumental—with Jack P. Greene—in bringing Pocock to Johns Hopkins in 1974, Ranum adds simply, "We wanted the strongest possible history department we could achieve."

Born in London but raised in New Zealand, Pocock earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of New Zealand in 1945-46, and a PhD at Cambridge University in 1952. After several years at Canterbury University College, the University of Otago, St. John's College-Cambridge, and the University of Canterbury, he came to the U.S. in 1966 as professor of history and political science at Washington University in St. Louis. He moved to Johns Hopkins as professor of history in 1974, where he remained until being named emeritus in 1994.

"He was quite simply one of the greatest historians of his generation or any generation; a profoundly important scholar in terms of his own work, his influence on others, and his contributions methodologically."
John Marshall
Professor of History, Krieger School

In 1984, Pocock and colleagues created the Center for the Study of the History of British Political Thought at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Since then, through its seminars, conferences, and publications, it has supported a host of scholars, including through a series Pocock edited. Pocock continued to conduct seminars there into his retirement. Remembered for his kindness, generosity, and delight in a vigorous exchange of ideas, Pocock influenced generations with his intense erudition, pioneering methodologies, and global impact. His books have been translated into some eight languages, further extending the reach of his ideas.

"In the world of historical scholarship, we have lost a giant in the field of historiography—the study of how history has been written in the past and accordingly of how cultural memories are created, memories that lead to people's unarticulated, and hence most important, assumptions about their own histories. More than this, Professor Pocock did something unique: He bridged the study of European and early U.S. intellectual history in an unparalleled way," said Christopher S. Celenza, James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and professor of history and classics, whose studies of Italian Renaissance history, post-classical Latin literature and philosophy, and the history of classical scholarship overlap with Pocock's. "In our own community at Johns Hopkins, we have lost a colleague and friend who mentored students and fellow scholars with gentle wit, capacious wisdom, and infinite kindness. He will be greatly missed."

Added Tobie Meyer-Fong, professor and chair of the Department of History: "John Pocock was a towering figure in his chosen fields; he remained active in the department long after his retirement, occasionally attending the Monday Seminar and serving on a dissertation defense committee at the age of 90. I would see him occasionally, already in his late 80s, at Union Station in D.C. on his way to the Library of Congress or the Folger. As a department, we were the beneficiaries of his remarkable commitment and energy."

Pocock's intellectual sweep attracted scholars from a range of other disciplines as well. "I took his graduate seminar for credit in the fall of 1990, two years after my appointment as a named professor of political economy at Hopkins, and under his guidance wrote a paper on the languages of markets. Trained as a mathematical economist, this seminar overturned forever my research program and redirected the stance of my worldview," said M. Ali Khan, Abram Hutzler Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Economics. "John G.A. Pocock joined Johns Hopkins in 1974, a year after I did, and his passing is a passing of the Hopkins that I was introduced to and love: a pillar among pillars, a giant oak among giant trees. Magisterial mentor, generous friend, lifelong inspiration: May he rest in peace."

And his reach also extended far beyond his official retirement, after which he continued not only his scholarship but his generous mentorship of students and colleagues, many of whom trace successful academic pathways to his support.

"It is truly remarkable how Professor Pocock shaped the Hopkins graduate student community even in the two decades following his retirement from teaching," said Jamie Gianoutsos, A&S '10 (MA), '14 (PhD), now associate professor of history at Mount St. Mary's University. "We frequently ran into him in the library, as he was searching the stacks for books as he finished his final volumes of Barbarism and Religion, and Hopkins students eagerly accepted jobs typing up his longhand manuscripts.

"Pocock, at the age of 90, served on my PhD dissertation committee, and even years before that offered extensive feedback on my first-year seminar paper. He appeared to delight in leveling commentary and sparring with me, despite how much I was his junior. Over unhurried meals, away from the public seminars, Professor Pocock provided advice and guidance with generosity and wit. It was an honor to have known such an intellectual giant; it was an even greater honor to have been invited into conversation with him. The methodology I follow as an intellectual historian, the questions I pursue as a scholar, my keen interest in the history of history—all of these are indebted to him and his vast scholarship."

Ask anyone who knew Pocock to describe him, and chances are you will get a metaphor relating to stature. He was "towering," a "gentle giant," and "formidable," used literally as well as figuratively.

When Pocock found an idea especially intriguing, Marshall says he would lean that tall frame back in his chair, place his hands behind his head, think for a moment, and reply with something witty, eyes twinkling. "Because he would take joy in the smartness of what you had just said," Marshall said.

Never bothering with a computer or even a typewriter, Pocock wrote out all of his books and papers in tidy longhand. He also wrote multi-page letters to scholars—whether he'd met them or not—whose ideas captured his attention. And when he was reading a work that he considered particularly important, he would copy that out in longhand too. "It was a way of him coming to inhabit the language and ways of thinking of the person he was studying," Marshall explained.

Pocock's interests did occasionally stray beyond the academy, but not often beyond the British. He was a fan of Patrick O'Brian's historical fiction and the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, and recited from memory the "nonsense" poems of Edward Lear.

Pocock was a member of the Royal Historical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and the American Philosophical Society. He was an honorary Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge and an Overseas Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He was a past president of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies. He received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins, the American Philosophical Society's Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, the American Historical Association's Award for Scholarly Distinction, and the Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association. He was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.