Preston King

by Kipton E. Jensen (Volume editor)
©2022 Monographs XXII, 246 Pages


This volume celebrates the remarkable career of Dr. Preston King, an African American political philosopher with an international reputation. King’s first degree was from Fisk University (1956). He moved directly to the London School of Economics (LSE), completing his M.Sc. (Econ) in 1958 with a Mark of Distinction. He taught at LSE for the next two years. A scrape with Jim Crow America kept him in exile for the next 40 years. Major friends and influences at LSE were Professors Sir Karl Popper, Michael Oakeshott, and Dr Bernard Crick. King took up subsequent lectureships at the universities of Keele, Ghana, and Sheffield. He was Senior Research Assistant at the Acton Society Trust (London), then professor at the universities of Nairobi, New South Wales (Sydney), and Lancaster, returning at last to the United States as joint Woodruff Professor at Emory and Distinguished Professor at Morehouse. The essays comprising this volume are by internationally renowned scholars. They creatively explore history, toleration, and friendship as three seminal themes running through Preston King’s sizeable oeuvre. The first third of this book consists of essays on time and history, with brilliant contributions by Professors Browning, Lawson, Moore, and Cherribi. The second third consists of essays on time and toleration, with memorable and penetrating analyses by Professors Jones, Read, Modood/ Dobbernak, and Brown. The final third consists of essays on time and friendship, with offerings—both charming and insightful—by Professors Devere, Smith, and Coleman. The book concludes with a novel and captivating chapter by King himself, on the philosophy of time, which constitutes the substratum of so much of his work and reflection.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editor’s Preamble
  • I. Historical Method
  • 1. Preston King: Beyond Contextualism (Gary Browning)
  • 2. Contextualism and Incommensurability: A Critique (Stephanie Lawson)
  • 3. Political Theories and Histories of England in the Early Eighteenth Century: The Skeptical Perspective of David Hume (James Moore)
  • 4. Portrait of Africa: Preston King Revisited (Sam Cherribi)
  • II. Toleration
  • 5. Power, Liberty and Rights: Preston King on Toleration (Peter Jones)
  • 6. Struggles for Tolerance and Recognition: Thinking with Democratic Multiculturalism (Jan Dobbernack and Tariq Modood)
  • 7. Tolerance in an Intolerant Age (Chris Brown)
  • 8. Rawlsian Liberalism Is Founded on Precautionary Thinking— but the Precautionary Principle Undermines Rawlsian Liberalism (Rupert Read)
  • III. Friendship
  • 9. Fragments on the Theme of ‘Friendship and Politics’ (Graham M. Smith)
  • 10. Friendship in Antiquity: Some Hidden Histories of a Political Concept (Heather Devere)
  • 11. Reflections on the Self Itself: Aristotle on Reciprocity and Friendship (Janet Coleman)
  • Time, Tolerance, and Friendship (Preston King)
  • Contributors

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Editor’s Preamble

The trajectory of Preston King’s academic career has not displayed the mathematical equivalent of the shortest distance between two points, but neither must we concede that our lives are lived upon a Euclidian plane. Professor King was born in the USA, in Albany, Georgia and received his B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa) from Fisk University; he subsequently pursued his graduate education in England; there he earned his M.Sc. (Econ.) and received, with a Mark of Distinction, Leverhulme Award, followed by the Ph.D., both from the London School of Economics. Dr. King subsequently began his teaching career in England, at LSE, at Keele, and later at Sheffield. For as much as forty years, King was caught up in the so-called Commonwealth matrix. This arrangement landed him in such countries as Ghana, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Dr. King was a Distinguished Visiting Professor of political science at Fisk University (2006) and at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia (2007). He has held Chairs previously in Nairobi and Sydney with visiting professorships at McGill University, Australian National University, the London School of Economics, Yaoundé (Cameroon), Suva (Fiji), University of the South Pacific, and Emory University. A very distinguished scholar and a gentleman, Dr. King was previously chairperson of the Political Philosophy Research Committee of the International Political Science Association and was the founder and always fastidious co-editor of the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.

Professor King is the author and editor of a wide array of works—engaging, lively, sometimes dense but also concise, profound, and probing, always convivial and quickly-paced yet ambitious in its breadth—only some of them covered in this Festschrift: viz., Fear of Power: An Analysis of Anti-Statism in Three French Writers (1967), Politics and Experience (1968), The Ideology of Order (1974), The Study of Politics (1977, editor), Federalism and Federation ←ix | x→(1982), The History of Ideas: An Introduction to Method (1984), An African Winter (1987), A Constitution for Europe: Comparative Study of Federal Constitutions and Plans for the United States of Europe (1991), Thomas Hobbes: Critical Assessments (in 4 volumes, 1992), Socialism and the Common Good: New Fabian Essays (1996), Toleration (1997), Thinking Past a Problem (2000), The Challenge to Friendship in Modernity (2000), Trusting in Reason; Martin Hollis and the Philosophy of Social Action (2003), Friendship in Politics (2008), and Black Leaders and Ideologies in the South since the Civil War (2013).

This volume constitutes a collection if not collocation of twelve fine essays that focus on three of the seminal themes in the work of Preston King. When invited to contribute to this volume, the authors were dissuaded from writing peons to the man but rather to pay him the honor granted Socrates by Simmias and Cebes: that is, to earnestly engage with his works, to raise serious objections, and to wrestle with his ideas. This volume is titled as Preston King: History, Toleration, and Friendship. Professor King agreed to respond to these eleven essays. What caught his eye was the prospect that significant voices might be heard paying critical attention, whether in parallel or counterpoint, to at least some of the themes that have absorbed his attention over an extended career. The essays included in this collection are organized along the lines of the three prominent themes underscored by the title. What is offered here may be read off as a Festschrift, except that it is really something more than that. Over the past decade, I have worked alongside Preston King as part of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College, where he continues to serve as a scholar-in-residence, and over those years, I have come to appreciate him as an exceptionally gifted philosopher, an editor of extraordinary talent, and a public intellectual of international renown.

The more I read of his work, and the work of those he influenced, the more convinced I become that King is one of the most insightful and engaging political philosophers of the last half century. Three features that stand out in his work are its comprehensiveness, coherence, and relevance. He does not write textbooks, as important as these are, nor compose ideologies, as useful as such approaches remain. He has not sought to supply one all-embracing account of his subject matter. Rather, he has picked upon one problem, as it seems, interconnected with the next, each spiraling round and from the other in a predominantly historical and analytical style. The sheer range and steady acuity of his oeuvre is impressive. Beyond his publications and distinguished service to the academy, beyond his contribution or indeed the collective contribution of the King Family of Albany to the civil rights movement and the freedom struggle, both here and abroad, beyond the courageous stand he ←x | xi→took against the Albany Draft Board in 1958, Professor King is one of those exceptional individuals “in whom both greatness of mind and mellowness of character are manifest.” In the editor’s Preamble, I am less concerned with the details of King’s arguments, whether single or cumulative, than with the broad themes and dialectical movement of his writings.

Wittgenstein suggests that “the work of the philosopher consists in marshalling reminders for a particular purpose” (PI 127). Non-dogmatism and the ethics of restraint or toleration is the leitmotif that runs through all of King’s writings. The worst thing that can occur when dealing with one another is dogmatism or the absence of restraint. Understanding, empathy, education, all these things are ways of creating toleration and restraint. In Thinking Past a Problem, Professor King advises us to focus as critics but by no means fixate on the “data underfoot” and also to “look to the horizon” construed as the interpretative frame of reference. Not altogether unlike John Dewey, a century ago, Preston King provided, back in 1967, a half a century ago, a penetrating and sober analysis of how power works and how we might more wisely wield it. In “Force, Violence, and Law” (1916), Dewey suggested that while “the political thinking of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is out of date, the thinkers of that period [were more] clear-headed than we are in acknowledging that all political questions are simply questions of the extension and restriction of exercise of power on the part of specific groups in the community.” Given his longstanding fascination with Hobbes, King would agree with Dewey, though he would hasten to add—as he did in 1967—that the French luminaries of power politics in the nineteenth century had become somewhat less clear-headed than their predecessors.

In his modest if not restrained yet suggestive conclusion to Fear of Power, King claims that “it is not universally necessary either to adore or to fear power. Nor does this imply a universal necessity to strike a balance between these poles. It is appropriate that power be greater or less, as circumstances require; that power be praised or damned, as occasion demands” (133). Fear of Power ([1967] 2003), writes King in Toleration (1976), “constituted an attack upon certain simplistic views, and acceptances, of liberty (or individualism)” whereas Ideology of Order (1974)—and, similarly, Federalism and Federation—focused on “simplistic views, acceptances, of power (or authoritarianism)” (14). The common thread running through both these works is liberty and power. King argues that we must “mediate between these real or only apparent polarities, with a view of achieving some truer approximation to just action” (ibid). King would agree with Dewey, the meliorist, who wrote that “any political or legal theory that will have nothing to do with power on the ground that all power is force and all force is brutal and non-moral ←xi | xii→is obviously condemned to a purely sentimental, dreamy morals.” Although the “dominant moral and political paradigm of our own age is constituted by a widespread aspiration to liberty,” writes King thirty-five years later, “[t]‌he logical difficulty with the ideal of liberty is that it so readily converts into the ideal of power” (2000: 4), since “we conceive of few or no effective means to defend liberty, save by deploying power”; indeed, “Liberty is the head, Power is the foot, of this aspiration” (ibid.).

In Fear of Power, King provides us with sensitive readings of Tocqueville, “who believed that democracy both was and was not compatible with liberty” (1967: 20), Proudhon, the anarchist, and Sorel, the syndicalist, as dialectically distinct expressions of anti-statism in France, all nineteenth-century thinkers who shared the well-intentioned but ultimately misguided assumption that power is inherently evil. King demonstrates, for example, the false dilemma suggested by those defenders of the existing order who suggest that the only alternative is anarchy. It is never simply a question of order or disorder, but rather a choice between various types of order. In Proudhon, for example, political or philosophical anarchy implies a different type of order—but an order to which one adheres voluntarily. Ideologies of order are replete with ideological illusions, for example, the “typical liberal contractual assumption” as employed by Sorel that “the natural order is inherently simple, harmonious and beneficent” (90). This sort of thing, argues King, “constitutes a sort of philosophical compost heap.” Professor King methodically disabuses us of these and other conceptual muddles and sociopolitical illusions. Indeed, this constitutes his signature move as a political philosopher and a cultural critic.

In the same year that Preston King published Fear of Power, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., that other King, both from storied families, the former in Albany and the latter in Atlanta, wrote—in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?—that “in the future, we must become intensive political activists. We must be guided in this direction because we need political strength more desperately than any other group in American society.” By intensive political activists, that other King meant something very much along the lines of what our Dr. King, Preston, a freshly-minted Ph.D., was doing overseas, just then, namely, “uniting social activism with educational competence” (163). That other King recognized that “necessity [would] draw us toward the power inherent in the creative uses of politics,” including the power of the theorist’s proverbial pen and the strength of his or her wit, and “together acquire political sophistication” (164). And that other King also claimed that “our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents” (ibid.). What Martin Luther King was describing as our need for “intensive ←xii | xiii→political activists” serves as a fitting description of Preston King’s life work. Though both men were activists, each in his own way, though to differing degrees, they were also what might be called social justice-oriented thought leaders.1 As a cosmopolitan, a polyglot, as a polymath, as a political philosopher, Professor King provides the reader—already back in 1967, when Fear of Power first appeared—and continues to provide us today—with a rare blend of breadth and depth. King serves as a reliable guide to the history of ideas, but he also provides a diagnosis of “the data underfoot” and a prognosis for “what’s on the horizon.”


History is always a part of something larger, so we can’t guard against that, but we can guard ourselves against partiality in the sense of arbitrary, dogmatic, narrow, slanted, distorted—in short, unreliable. . . . History is always a theoretical exercise: it is never a matter of simply recovering primitive, independent data that belong to no larger context. In this regard, it is sometimes supposed that writing history is a matter of describing what is non-recurrent or unique. The difficulty is that we have no way of gaining access to what is unique—to commit to history as recovery of the unique (or alien or inaccessible) is a confession of explanatory bankruptcy. . . . So we do not write histories to recover the unique; we do so, rather, inevitably selectively, in order to display what is representative. (King, 2000: 14)

When it comes to discussing the past and present, and the delicate logic that binds the one to the other, King insists that we ought not dogmatize. The contributed essays that comprise the first section of this volume focus on King’s critique of the Cambridge School of historiography in general and the contextualist thesis espoused by Quentin Skinner in particular. But for those who read him carefully, King is less concerned with his critique of Skinner than with his appreciation of Michael Oakeshott. King’s History of Ideas and Thinking Past the Problem argue that as Gary Browning puts it in the first essay in this volume, “Preston King: Beyond Contextualism,” that “Skinner’s concentration upon the immediate ideological context of a piece of political thought is misconceived” and that “[t]‌here is no substitute for analyzing the logic of philosophical texts.” Skinner’s early work, writes Stephane Lawson, in “Contextualism and Incommensurability,” the second essay in § I, “sought to remedy perceived errors of anachronism and presentism.” According to Lawson, “the effort to denounce presentism in historical studies has led to an approach to history stressing discontinuity while often explicitly rejecting continuities.” King’s work on the history of ideas rejects the dogmatism inherent in both presentism and particularism. “The ←xiii | xiv→upshot of King’s reading of the variety of ways in which the term ‘the present’ operates in our understanding of history,” writes Browning, “is that past and present can be recognized to differ and yet also be intimately related.” Avoiding the dogmatism of “facile universalism” on the one hand as well as “exaggerated claims about the specificity and otherness of the past” on the other, King advises the historian of ideas to maintain what Lawson calls “a constant critical reflectivity.”

The history of ideas is not an account of past thought as such and as a whole. Since there is no alternative to selectiveness, there can be no point in deploring it: the basic problem for the historian rather is the imminent and persistent risk of unreliability. King’s claim is not just that ages differ, but arguably that the most critical of these ways consists in the overarching manner in which the people of an age may think. It is the substantive or paradigmatic thought that constitutes an age, not its abstract location in time qua chronology. King’s prime concern is with such thinking, of course among elites, but more importantly with the ways in which elite thought and that of ordinary folk are interwoven. The weave or texture of such thought serves to establish the substantial differences between one era and the next. King’s position, first instantiated in Fear of Power, is then approached more analytically in The History of Ideas and comes most fully developed in Thinking Past a Problem. When it comes to writing about history, King has strummed a clear and steady chord:

There is no History as such. There is this history or that. No history covers everything, is everything. A history that assumes the contrary, loses its head; it surrenders the fundamental ground of its rationality, which is the recognition by history of its selective structure, and thus its acceptance of the need to elicit, at least to seek to elicit, the criterion by which selection (here or there, now or then) proceeds. Any history unavoidably ‘sins’ by omission. . . . One of the most important functions of the present is simply to accommodate the past. To know about the past is to know about it in the present, as a part of the present, from a present perspective; otherwise we cannot know it at all. . . . The commitment to keeping the past out of the present is based on nothing so much as a confused appreciation of the delicate logic of this interrelation.


XXII, 246
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XXII, 246 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Kipton E. Jensen (Volume editor)

Kipton E. Jensen is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Morehouse College, where he is also Director of the Leadership Studies Program in the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership.” Also: Dr Jensen formerly taught at the Martin Luther Universitat in Germany, the University of Botswana, and Shanghai University. His publications include Hegel on Faith and Reason (2011), Parallel Discourses (2012), and Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground (2019). He has co-edited (with David Gowler) a collection of Howard Thurman’s Sermons on the Parables (2018).


Title: Preston King