History Of Political Thought Research Paper

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Reflection about political phenomena in a wide sense of the term is as old as human community itself. It focuses on a triad of related problems that might be broadly delimited as follows. First, there is the problem of constituting a community bound together by a normative order, secondly that of establishing the legitimacy and the terms of enforcement of such an order, and, thirdly, that of finding criteria for a proper and just allocation of resources as well as of entitlements. Jointly these three sets of problems entail that political theory and the history of political theory, as distinct from, say, a theory of scientific validation or a theory of argumentation, will be characterized by an inherent duality. Thus it will not only, as these other types of theory, be an account of rules of contestation and signification. It will also have to involve an account of which such rules are and which are not upheld by a normativity that is, in the last instance, enforceable by violent means. Put in everyday language, political theory will in its core be a theory both about meaning and communication and a theory about power, enforcement, and, ultimately, violence. It is easy to see that different political theorists have come to emphasize different strands in this duality, but the duality itself is irreducible and constitutive of political thought.

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1. Political Thought In Historical Context

Thought about such matters is found in clearly articulated form from the middle of the first millennium BCE onwards in all the major civilizations of Afro-Eurasia. Thus it is manifested in written texts in the sixth century by Confucius and two centuries later by Mencius, in China and the writings during the same period in India, as well as in the prophetical age of Jewish religion and during the era of classical philosophy in Greece. The emergence of imperial like political orders across Afro-Eurasia in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE also gave rise to a range of texts about the nature of political order. This is equally valid for texts about the Roman and Byzantine empires in the Mediterranean region to texts highlighting features of rulership in Parthian and later also in Sassanian Persia, in Maurya India, and in the Han Empire of China.

The recording of political thought in the form of the writing of histories of such thought is however a much more recent phenomenon. At its focus it is the relationship of community-wide rules to forms of enforcement and an effort to arrive at an understanding of the historical context in which particular types of such relationships occur. The emergence of clearly articulated forms of historical thought is largely coterminous with the emergence of history and social science as forms of scholarly activity performed within reformed or newly created universities and higher education institutions from the early nineteenth century onwards. In order to understand the key features and characteristics of the writing of histories of political thought it is first of all necessary to bring out key conditions of political thought in the region in which such an early disciplinary condition first occurred, namely in Europe.

2. Political Thought And Early Modernities

In a broad sense political thought in early modern Europe was a way to understand the nature of ruling in human communities and to grasp the conditions of normative argumentation and enforcement in such communities. The need for new understandings of these types of phenomena was itself directly related to the gradual decline and eventual demise of the two most prominent institutional forms of medieval Europe. Those were, first, the cultural world of Western Christendom, epitomized first by the allembracing Christian Church and second by its secular counterpart, namely the pervasive, but elusive, political order of the Holy Roman Empire. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, city republican rule, particularly in the northern half of Italy, had emerged as a new form of political order. Originally it was often modeled on trading communities and was created out of a sense of the necessity of mutual support and protection in areas exposed to incursions and with little or no protection provided by the nominal Imperial rulers.

Similarly, incipient national monarchies were starting to assert their authority vis-a-vis both pope and emperor. In this secular process the French king played a pioneering role. In particular, he had earlier than most other kings and rulers demonstrated his ability to strengthen his own position and financial basis, e.g., by confiscating lands and goods of the order of the Templars. This example was to be followed by kings across Europe in their confiscating the lands and riches of monasteries and religious orders in centuries to come.

In this sense, the Reformation and the Counterreformation meant that in Protestant and Catholic countries alike, national monarchies, normally of a composite nature (cf. Elliott 1992), were created or reformed. This occurred on the basis of the previous dominant ideals of church, empire, and city republics, but in a form that synthesized parts that had previously been separated. Furthermore, the new national and composite monarchies almost invariably involved efforts on the part of rulers to appropriate lands and resources that had previously been controlled by the church or religious orders. Thereby they were also able to secure a fiscal basis for the new forms of political ruling, if often at a horrendous price of protracted religious civil wars and cleansings.

Under these conditions the pre-eminent political questions became that of grasping the nature and legitimacy of a normatively binding communal order and to outline the range of legitimate means for upholding and enforcing that order. Many of the early modern classical political thinkers, from Machiavelli to Jean Bodin, provide answers to these very questions. They have, however, significantly less to say about the two other sets of questions discerned above and that were to become prominent in later political thought. These were the questions of the very constitution of a community of human beings and of the principles underlying decisions about the allocations of resources or the granting or withholding of entitlements.

All this was to change with the final breakdown of the old political and cultural order in Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century. In China, even in the embattled transition from the Ming to the Ching dynasty at roughly the same time, the general linguistic and political order was preserved. In Japan a long period of internal warfare and turmoil came to an end with the establishment of one of the most effective forms of absolutist rule, namely the Tokugawa shogunate. Across the Islamic world, the three parallel empires of the Ottomans, the Safavi, and the Mughals, constituted stable political entities. In Europe, however, a new system of states took form and was promulgated in the Westphalian peace treaty of 1648, based on an explicit recognition of religious diversity and monarchical pre-eminence. It was also based on the tacit recognition that an all-encompassing imperial polity was no longer even possible as a viable political ideal and that religious diversity was not to be overcome.

3. Political Thought As The Constitution Of A Political Community

In this unfamiliar context, there was an urgency about finding ways of granting legitimacy and meaning to the new order that emerged in the wake of the Westphalian peace treaty and the provisional end of a century and a half of bloody civil wars in Europe. Thereby a sea change occurred in political thought, namely a deep-seated shift from a concern with the enforcement of normative political order to a concern with the nature and very emergence of political community in the first place.

The concern with the constitution of political community becomes the central one in political thought from Hobbes and Pufendorf to Locke all the way to Rousseau. Within this wide range of answers there is, however, a recurring and predominant concept, namely an inquiry into the conditions for the establishment of a social contract. The existence of such a social contract was normally seen also to entail an answer to the question of which types of enforcement of the normative order constitutive of the political community are legitimate. More specifically only those types of enforcement are sanctioned that, implicitly or explicitly, follow from the terms of the social contract itself.

Political theory from Hobbes onwards is centrally preoccupied with the nature of and the consequences of a transition from an imaginary state of nature to the contractually constituted political community. Ultimately all such forms of theorizing seem to depend on a limited set of assumptions about human beings and the nature of their joining together in societies. One such set of assumptions refer to the assignment of some kind of human rights, i.e., rights that accrue to human beings irrespective of their origins and other accidental traits and characteristics. Furthermore, there is a set of assumptions that refer to the thought experiment of society being created through a process, normally described in terms of a contract, whereby human beings agree about their association in political form.

Questions about enforcement, separate from an answer to the question of the constitution of a political order, based upon legitimately agreed upon contractual arrangements, were of subordinate and derivative importance relative to this overriding concern. The same is true of questions pertaining to the allocation of resources and the assignment of entitlements to the members and subjects of a political community. Thus such matters have to be dealt with and negotiated in accordance with the terms of those agreed upon in the original contractual arrangements.

Thus European political theory in this classical form emerged in a particular historical context both in European and world history. It also involved forms of theorizing that portrayed an imaginary contractual past as the point of constitution of polities. However, it was not in itself characterized by an effort to reflect on the history of political theory as a key component of developing such a theory. This form of reflexive consciousness was to become a key characteristic of yet another major transformation in intellectual and political history.

4. The Formation Of Modernity And The Transition From Political Philosophy To Social Science And History

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are often described in terms of the coterminous occurrence of major transformations of both technological and economic practices and of political order. Often these transformations are captured with terms such as the industrial revolution and the political transformations inherent in the French and American revolutions. However, in this period there also occurs a major restructuring of ideas about nature and society and, more broadly, in the forms of knowledge and beliefs about the world. This intellectual transformation had deep repercussions for the emergence of new forms of political thought and reflection about the historical context of such forms of thought and for the decline of other forms of political thought.

In this period broad genres of thought about the world gradually gave way to more differentiated forms of knowledge. Slowly natural philosophy and political philosophy came to be replaced by a variety of different natural and social sciences. At the core of this transformation were epistemic shifts where ideas about biological and historical processes, about language and interpretation, about human beings and their capacities and bonds were created or reformulated. Some scholars have even spoken of this period as a second scientific revolution, where modern disciplines emerge in rudimentary form and where there is a shift in the institutional locations of scholarly and scientific activities toward new research laboratories and universities. In this process, society itself may even, to quote one scholar (Manent 1994, pp. 80–3), be said to have been discovered in its modern form, as distinct from the political order of the prerevolutionary period, whether it had the form of an absolutist monarchy or a constitutional one. Contrary to older forms of contractual reasoning, which postulated social contract as the hypothetical medium that had created political order, the new forms of social thought were distinctly historical and could also draw on anthropological experiences of human beings and societies in different parts of the world (Fox et al. 1995).

Broadly speaking, four distinct forms of thinking about human beings, societies, and political order emerged. These new forms of reasoning and the transition from generalized moral and political philosophy to social sciences had deep repercussions for political thought.

First, there was, with roots in the political economy and moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, a view of human beings as rational and deliberative individuals and of society as a compositional collective. This also made possible a new way of thinking about political community and its legitimacy. More precisely, it provided the possibility for thinking about political order as formed through the consent of individual human beings. However it was not, as in older contractual thinking, a consent that would have ushered in a distant and hypothetical social contract but rather a consent that could be assessed and rationally evaluated in terms of its reasonableness in its present and historical context.

Second, there emerged, often enough out of the experiences of the relative inability of the French Revolution to create stable institutions, a conception of human agency as formed and constrained by structural and systemic properties and of society as an organic totality. Such a conception would in a conservative version lead to theories of the necessity to restore an organic political order. In a radical version it could, however, also usher in demands for the overthrow of unnatural and illegitimate order. In a more broadly defined liberal or republican tradition, it might and would be compatible with ideas of the type that thinkers, often inspired by Durkheim, would propound toward the end of the nineteenth century in their combat against the ideological enemies of the republic. Thus it could support the idea that modern society was not an atomistic and distorted form of human community but could relate to an organic solidarity compatible with the life of free citizens in a free republic.

Third, and often in relation to historical and linguistic thought among representative of German philosophical idealism, a conceptualization of human beings took form in terms of the linguistic-interpretative nature of human agency and of society as an historically emergent totality. In this sense, political community did not have to derive its legitimacy from dynastic tradition but from the historically grown experience of a community. Such communities in turn were constituted by human beings sharing a language and a history and where the community of shared life forms was seen as deeper, more genuine, and more real than the artificial boundaries of a minor princely state. It is easy to see that demands for national self-determination and for both popular rule and a nation-state easily flow from a conception along these lines. Finally, in parallel to the dramatic development of forms of statistical analysis, there emerged a statistical inductive way of representing the interactions of human beings and of society as a kind of systematized aggregate. Such views did not immediately entail a specific form of legitimate political community, but it would mean that any such community would have at its disposal infinitely more detailed knowledge of the polity and its members than even the most absolutist monarchy (cf. Brian 1994).

Thus the great intellectual transition entailed a deep shift in the history of political thought which affected both conceptions of the nature of a political community and the nature of legitimate and illegitimate enforcement. By virtue of this it also had profound implications for conceptions of the proper distribution of entitlements. Thus it was simply no longer possible, as observed most clearly perhaps by Tocqueville (1964, [1850]), to deny demands for popular participation with reference to tradition or dynastic legitimacy. The thought of a right to the political entitlements belonging to all members of a society, that had been manifested in the proclamations of the revolutionary upheavals, could never again, despite all efforts of the Vienna Congress and the Holy Alliance, be unthought. They were to pervade the political struggles first of European and American societies throughout the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries and eventually in the world at large.

5. Triumph And Crisis Of Liberal Political Thought

The end of World War I marked a sea change in world history. It spelt the end of European global preeminence. It also meant that the transition in Western Europe, normally from forms of constitutional monarchical rule, to parliamentary democratic rule was dramatically increased. In the Eastern half of Europe all of the four imperial political entities, the Russian, the Habsburg, the Wilhelminian, and the Ottoman, crumbled under the impact of external military defeat and internal revolutionary upheavals. However, the very triumph of liberal principles of representative democracy was coterminous with the emergence of new forms of political thought that transcended the traditions of the prewar world.

Leninist political thought, which before and during the war had been a radical version of classical Marxism, gradually came to take on the features of an official ideology of the new Soviet state. Precisely in its historical imaginary, Leninism differed from both revisionist and orthodox thought in a Marxist tradition, as epitomized by Bernstein and Kautsky respectively, of the Social Democratic mainstream of the Second International in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus Leninism cast its own claims to legitimacy and its right to use forms of violent enforcement, previously unthought of in late nineteenth century socialist thought, in terms of an historical account and of a projected visionary transition to a stateless society of communism.

Experiences of the mass violence of the war itself, as well as of the violent national and social struggles of the immediate postwar period, formed the environment out of which fascism emerged as a violent rejection of both Marxism and of the whole mainstream tradition of liberal political thought. Even if fascism had roots in prewar forms of radical conservative thought, it marked a form of transcendence of such traditions and indeed of the legacy of modernity itself. Thus even if fascism in power, and its radicalized form of National Socialism, embraced technological modernization, it represented a rejection of basic premises of political thought of modernity in the form it had taken since the late eighteenth century. In particular this is true of the basic presupposition of political thought of modernity of a principled equal right to participation in governance. It is also true of fascism’s rejection of another basic presupposition of modernity, namely the legitimacy of a public sphere with free access for all and a principled freedom of every member of a polity to speak not only about but also to the rulers.

In a sense fascist political thought was a form of political thought that invoked history, or rather historical mythology. However, it was not in itself characterized by historical reflection. In Germany, the challenge of fascism to the political order of the Weimar republic was manifested in a range of debates, one of the most important of which concerned the nature of legal order and of the state itself. It was in this debate that the contesting positions of the radical and pro-Nazi decisionism of Carl Schmitt was confronted by the legal positivism of Hans Kelsen and the complex and sophisticated thought of Hermann Heller.

The outlines of a radical rethinking of the history of Western philosophical and political thought can be discerned in the elective affinity between fascism and some forms of philosophical thought, in particular that of Heidegger of the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, such a program was never elaborated or extended, nor was the decisive response and resistance to it on the part of a thinker such as Ernst Cassirer. Instead the military defeat of fascism in World War II was seen to entail the definitive demise of features of political thought characteristic of fascism.

In the French context, the response to the challenges of fascism was to be found in several quarters. These would range, in political terms, from Marxism to radical Catholic political thought, and in scholarly terms, from sociology in the tradition of Durkheim to the profound renewal of historical studies of the Annales School. In the period after World War II, the French intellectual scene may have been the most important one in Europe in terms of a renewal of political thought. Thus it would comprise the nexus of contributions made by scholars elaborating a Marxian philosophical existentialist position, most importantly of course Sartre, but also thinkers such as Claude Lefort, who, starting out from such a position came to question the core of Leninist political thought. It would also comprise some of the most articulated liberal political thought as epitomized by Raymond Aron.

In the interwar years, the new challenges to liberal political thought had already given rise to a profound renewal of political thought in historical context. These were the years when new standard histories of political thought were being written. The most prominent example in the Anglo-Saxon world might have been a book that was to become a classic for generations, namely George Sabine’s (1937) majestic volume A History of Political Theory. Refugees from continental Europe made key contributions to this debate. A classical example is the analysis of the meaning of democracy in historical context that was articulated by Joseph Schumpeter (1943) in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Most importantly, perhaps, Karl Popper transcended the bounds of philosophy of science and wrote one of the most quoted works in political thought during the twentieth century in his two-volume opus on The Open Society and Its Enemies (Popper 1966, [1945]). This was, of course, a work that was pre-eminently characterized by the links between historical analysis and political philosophy of immediate and contemporary relevance. In parallel, leading representatives of Scandinavian political and legal science made some path breaking contributions both to an understanding of fascism and of the nature of democracy. In this respect the names of Herbert Tingsten and Alf Ross stand out, particularly with Tingsten’s pioneering studies of fascism and his and Ross’s contributions to a political theory of democracy.

One prominent characteristic of antiliberal political thought of the first half of the twentieth century was its emphasis on the right of the polity to resort to enforcement and violence against the enemies of the polity without being bound by any other constraints than those of pure convenience. Thus the constitutive boundary between members and enemies of the political community, between those chosen to fulfill the destiny of that community and those deemed to stand in the way and worthy of being removed from community, and ultimately from life, became the most crucial one. The political community itself was seen as constituted in terms of a historical account, whether of the struggle of a class for its liberation against oppression or of a people for its legitimate sphere of life and domination. Resistance to such types of political thought of a historicist nature formed the core of the argument of Popper’s political philosophy. It also formed the focus for a range of contributions criticizing totalitarian political thought. Among the main contributors to this critique were thinkers as different as Jacob L. Talmon, Hannah Arendt, and Claude Lefort.

6. Renewal And Critique In Political Thought

The history of political thought in the first part of the latter half of the twentieth century is characterized by three parallel developments. First, political thought in this period cannot but reflect the deep tensions in a world with two superpowers in a state of cold war. At the same time large parts of the Third World were emerging out of the experiences of a colonial past and seeking a place in this new world of fundamental tensions. One manifestation of this historical context, was the absolute absence of publications in the tradition of liberal political thought in the countries under Soviet dominance, but also the relative absence of Marxist political thought at many universities in the English-speaking world. Another indirect consequence was a persistent interest in exploring the empirical basis of liberal democracy. In this sense, the contributions by scholars such as Robert Dahl and some of his colleagues at Yale university, not least Charles Lindblom, stand out as exemplary. Second, a classical mainstream tradition of historically orientated political philosophy made significant advances. Isaiah Berlin and Judith Shklar are pre-eminent representatives of this type of scholarship, and the works of Charles Taylor and Norberto Bobbio should also be included here. Third, however, philosophical and theoretical contributions were made that were to reshape the history of late twentieth century political thought. I shall highlight some of these contributions and their consequences in terms of two of the major conceptualizations of human agency and of society that were discerned in the section above about the rise of the social sciences at the turn of the eighteenth century.

In a rationalistic-deliberative tradition, a landmark was established by the publication of Kenneth Arrow’s (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values. A few years later, economic theorizing would enter political science at large with Anthony Downs’s (1957) book An Economic Theory of Democracy, to be followed in the early 1960s by a range of books applying game theory and social choice theory to political phenomena. (Incidentally, as testified by Gabriel Almond (1990, p.117) the institutional role of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford was a crucial one for some of the interactions involving Arrow, Dahl, and others. These interactions were of immediate importance to the very publication of Downs’s book but also more generally to the breakthrough of rationalistic forms of analysis).

A few decades later, what had once appeared as an interesting but rather marginal concern of some specialized political theorists had evolved into a broad tradition of rational choice analysis with pervasive influence on both the theory and practice of political thought, particularly in North America. Society as a compositional collective was described not just as an analytically convenient metaphor but as a representation of societal order and with consequential claims concerning the nature of legitimate political action. One thrust of theorizing in this tradition was to demonstrate the limitations, or even the impossibility, of delimiting an unambiguous common good, whether arrived at with the help of a social welfare function or of a majority decision. It is in this context that John Rawls’s (1971) A Theory of Justice appeared as a pathbreaking book. Drawing on an individualistic and contractual form of reasoning, succinctly criticised by several scholars, most notably perhaps Michael Sandel, Rawls was able to reintroduce discussions of justice and just distributions and allocations into the core of political philosophy. Even after decades of discussions and critique, both Arrow’s and Rawls’s contribution retain their stature. However, both of them signal a rupture with historical and contextual reasoning rather than the opposite.

In the broad tradition of linguistic-interpretative conceptions of human action and of society as a form of emergent totality in historical context, important new developments also occurred. Thus contributions by continental European phenomenological and hermeneutic philosophers in the 1950s and 1960s came to merge with influences from Anglo-Saxon linguistic philosophy in the tradition of Wittgenstein and Austin. Three forms of such thought, in particular, emerged and have exerted a deep influence on the ways of studying the history of political thought.

In 1959, Reinhart Koselleck (1987), drawing on a tradition of hermeneutic and historical scholarship, published a book on critique and crisis. This book had the deep transformation of intellectual and political order at the turn of the eighteenth century as its focus but also contained the core of a research program on the history of key concepts of society and political order in a long-term perspective. This program was realized through the publication during the following decades of a set of nine massive volumes tracing the history of a limited number of such concepts, primarily in continental Europe.

Roughly at the same time, Jurgen Habermas elaborated another research program, drawing on the joint traditions of critical Marxist thought, hermeneutics, and speech act theory. In 1962 Habermas published a volume that had an analogous empirical focus as that of Koselleck (Habermas 1989). Thus it was a reinterpretation of the emergence of a new type of public sphere in the late eighteenth century. Habermas’s subsequent long-term program has consistently linked these different traditions and may in one sense be seen as a form of historical positioning but also a radical generalization of the philosophical insights of linguistic philosophy and speech act theory.

This later tradition also inspired Quentin Skinner’s (1978) two volume major opus The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (a work, incidentally, written largely at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton). Skinner came to be the major representative of a new school, often identified with his—and John Pocock’s old—university, namely Cambridge. It involved the setting of new and significantly more rigorous standards for the writing of the history of political thought, particularly in its demand that the linguistic and intellectual context of the actual writing of major works be carefully brought to the fore of analysis. After decades of discussions, there can be little doubt that intellectual history has made advances in this period, inspired by the works of Skinner and several of his colleagues, that still by no means have been fully explored. At the same time, it is also clear that these works still leave room for a more extensive inquiry into the relationship between long-term institutional and intellectual change.

Finally, links between political thought and political agency are prominent in studies of mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion and on the granting and withholding of entitlements for human beings. Gender studies has clearly entailed a renaissance of the writing of the history of political thought with pioneering contributions by Carole Pateman and Seyla Benhabib, just to mention two of the most distinguished scholars on the late twentieth century.

Historically orientated scholarship has in recent years seemed to open up the possibility for situating political thought in a much more encompassing context than has hitherto been customary. Not least, scholars writing in countries outside of the North Atlantic and West European context seem now to be about to help bring about a more truly global effort to rethink the history of political thought. That would also, almost inevitably, contribute to a transcendence of some of the most severe limitations of contemporary political thought, in particular the following ones:

The relative inability of political thought in the rationalistic tradition to transcend a theory of agency that is manifestly impoverished vis-a-vis available historical research but also vis-a-vis demands that social and political thought itself cannot but make concerning a theory of agency (cf. Joas 1996, 2000).

The relative inability of the so-called communitarian critics of this tradition to supply a sustained historical account of their preferred community and to escape a tendency of entering into circular justifications of those very societies which they themselves happened to be located or identified with.

The relative inability of research in the traditions of conceptual history and linguistic contextualism to contribute to an understanding of the institutional formation of political order in a long-term and also extra-European perspective.

In order to be able to advance beyond these limitations, it seems that political thought must become significantly more prepared to engage in studies of long-term processes of intellectual and institutional transformations. This will in all likelihood entail efforts to invigorate historical social science of a type that was characteristic of the classics of social science, not least Weber (cf. Schluchter 1996). It would then also stimulate culturally and contextually sensitive social science of a type that has been advocated most ambitiously and consistently by scholars across a range of the social and historical sciences and with S. N. Eisenstadt (1995) as one of its most prominent representatives. The history of political thought in the last three decades of the twentieth century involved impressive advances. At the turn of the millennium, however, the need for historically and comparatively orientated research programs able to transcend the limitations of contemporary political thought also stand out as possibly more urgent than at any time since the emergence of social science itself in the end of the eighteenth century.


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