Modern Political and Social Theory c.1790-1920

(class leader: Peter Ghosh )

The field of this paper is the history of 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, as seen through the eyes of leading political and social theorists.  The central intellectual tradition represented here is that of 19th century European liberalism.  It is central to study because it enjoyed an undoubted cultural hegemony — though Anglophone liberalism, a very different set of ideas, also comes into view.  It hinged around the development of ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ in constitutional, political and civil law; in religion; and in academic ‘science’.  Concomitantly it promoted all that was ‘bourgeois’ at the expense of what was ‘feudal’.  This major tradition is represented above all by Hegel, Durkheim and Weber.  Standing outside it there were of course a number of alternative points of view: most obviously radicals, romantics and socialists who dissented from, but inevitably engaged with, the hegemonic liberal position, as well as the semi-detached Anglophone tradition already noted.  Notwith¬standing the catastrophic hiatus inflicted by Fascism, Nazism and world war, and despite talk ca.1990 about ‘post-modernity’ and the ‘death’ of Marx, attempts by later 20th and 21st century writers to theorise society and politics without substantial reference to their 19th and early 20th century forebears have proven largely unsuccessful hitherto.  This course reflects that implicit historicist premiss, and seeks to gain some understanding of why it might be so.

So far as the method of study is concerned, it should be stressed that this is a paper for theoretically concerned historians rather than historically aware theorists.  Its outer limit is the understanding of the place of ideas and intellectual tradition within societies taken as a whole, i.e. something much larger than the world of texts alone.  However, its pragmatic starting point is the study of individual texts and authors deemed to be of outstanding merit and rich in meaning.  (What might be called “the regression to Skinner”.)  Mid-way between these two poles are the specific con-texts (intellectual, biographical, social, political etc.) from which these authors emerged.  The class programme tries to capture both the macro- and microscopic perspectives.

The primary aim of the course is to gain a broad understanding of the subject as a whole, and to this end we shall have five “core” classes with a specified programme (as below).  In the last three weeks of term you are required to write one essay of 6-7,000 words, when class meetings are intended to service the needs raised by essay-writing.  The title of the essay must be submitted to, and agreed with, the course convenor by the end of 6th week of Hilary term.  Essay subjects need not be confined to topics raised in the “core” programme; the essay must however cover at least two distinct subject areas or bodies of literature (for examples of which see the course bibliography below), which may be treated either comparatively or sequentially (or both).  Of these subject areas at least one must be taken from Continental Europe.   This course makes no linguistic requirement, and the use of sources in translation is entirely legitimate, though command of a European language or languages will of course expand the range of materials open to you. 


Class schedule, Preparatory reading & detailed bibliography