The Rise of State-Nations by Yogendra Yadav — Lecture Transcript

Title: The Rise of State-Nations
Presented by: Yogendra Yadav
Presented on: March 25, 2011
Presented at: Centre for International Governance Innovation, Balsillie School of International Affairs

  • This transcript has been edited substantially to improve clarity and flow for reading. Click here to watch the lecture.
  • Extended digressions which are incidental to the arguments have been reproduced as end notes.
  • The lecture presented ideas and concepts developed in Alfred Stephan, Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies (Johns Hopkins University 2011). The illustrations and figures are from the book.
  • The divisions are my own.


I want to talk about the rise of state-nations and the way I wish to go about making the argument is as follows. I begin by posing a general question [how do modern democratic states deal with deep diversity?] and say something about why that question is important and has become far more important than it used to be; then I present one dominant answer — [the paradigm of nation-states] — and one of the possible alternatives [the paradigm of state-nations]. Thereafter, I shift to the Indian case and I sketch what was the Indian model — how India went about dealing with diversity in democracy: I begin by sketching that model in some of its specificities and then go on to look at some evidence of whether the model has worked or not; I look at some successes: I will present some empirical evidence for you to look at those successes; but I also look at some of the failures and finally ask myself: what do we learn from India’s successes and India’s failures to think about diversity and democracy in our time?

The Problem of Deep Diversity

The question I want to start with is very simple: how do modern democratic states deal with deep diversity? Why modern? The idea of dealing with the idea of coexistence of different religious and social communities within a single political unit is not unique to modern states. This existed prior to modern states. For the famous Indian emperor Ashoka — as my colleague Rajiv Bhargava would remind everyone — this is a principal concern: how to make sure that people who follow different religions live amicably within his kingdom? What does modernity do then to us? Modernity transforms this question in two fundamental ways. One, it transforms the nature of our identities.  In pre-modern times, identities are fuzzy in the sense that there are no sharp boundaries between communities. What modernity does is that it brings in several templates and instrumentalities which force us to make these boundaries very sharp: boundaries between what it means to be Hindu versus what it means to be Muslim; boundaries of belonging to one linguistic community versus another linguistic community.  As you travel in any pre-modern community, your notion of whether you are German or you are French — there was a notion of being German and there was a notion of being French but there were very large shaded zones which you passed through — did not require you to say either or; it did not require you to draw a sharp boundary. But this precisely what modernity does. It transforms the nature of our identity; through instrumentalities like census, it transforms these communities into enumerated communities; identities get sharply defined, and very clearly focussed.

At the same time, modernity also ensures that these sharply defined identities are brought in juxtaposition to each other. They are made to confront each other in ways which the pre-modern world did not need to: through international transfers, through cultural flows, through flows of information, through migrations. Everything is happening at the moment. So, in a sense, modernity makes this question — a question that humanity has always lived with — a much tougher question to negotiate, a question which has its presence all the time.

What does democracy do to this question? Because the question of dealing with diversity within a single state is not necessarily a question that worries only democracies — Syria is worried about it, Bahrain is worried about it, United Arab Emirates is worried about it. What democracy does is that it removes one range of options to deal with deep diversities. Today, we associate democracy with a certain minimum regime of rights. And given that, and if you wish to respect those rights, then, certain ways of dealing with diversity which were available in the 19th century are simply not available in the early 21st century. It also does something else, it provides new set of instruments. Democratic politics based on universal adult franchise and open political competition also provides new ways of dealing with diversity. What it does in some imperceptible ways is that it makes the nature of identities politically negotiable. In other words, we are dealing with a question which is neither necessarily modern nor specific only to democracies. But the modern democratic context transforms the nature of this question completely.

Let me say a little about the two other expressions used here: state and deep diversity. There are many ways of dealing with diversity that need not respect boundaries of modern states: accepting multi-national solutions, accepting disintegration of countries — what happened in Yugoslavia is a response to diversity except that in the last instance, it did not respect the boundaries of state; it involved redrawing the boundaries of the state. I am at the moment interested — I do know that much thinking in multiculturalism sometimes takes us in the direction of full blown multi-nationality which is to say: let a thousand flowers, bloom let a thousand nations bloom, let a thousand states bloom — in ways of thinking about resolving this question within the given boundaries of state.

Finally, what is deep diversity? I have something very specific in mind in talking about deep diversity. There are all kinds of diversities that you see in the modern world. But only some of these diversities have geographical concentration and have the potential of presenting itself as an alternative nation, the potential of thinking of itself as a possible state. Those are the ones that I would call deep diversity. So, the position of Quebec in Canada for example, is clearly an illustration of deep diversity. The position of Kashmir in India is clearly an illustration of deep diversity in India. Other kinds of diversities that we have and there are so many which do not lend itself to geographical concentration and aggregation in the form of alternative states are not things that I would bring under deep diversity because these are things which most states find some ways of resolving. It is the question of deep diversity which poses a challenge to the boundaries of nations and states and that’s a question which is worth thinking about seriously.

The Paradigm of Nation-States

With these parameters then, I want to get back at the question we posed right in the beginning: how do modern democratic states deal with deep diversity? As you can see, my question has an empirical appearance but has a moral normative slant to it —  how do they deal with it also has implicit questions of how should we deal with it. These are both things that I wish to take on. We have one dominant way of responding to this question and that dominant way invites us to think about a world where there is almost a perfect fit between cultural boundaries and political boundaries; that is to say that the way to deal with diversity is to draw political boundaries in such a way that each culturally homogeneous community has a political unit of its own. Each nation, each culturally homogeneous community, which exhibits characteristics of deep diversity has a state of its own. So, each nation has one and no more than one state; each state has within it one and no more than one nation.

This is, artificially put, the paradigm of the nation-state. In its cruder formulation, this is something which is unlikely to appeal to us. But it is astonishing to look at how deeply informing this particular paradigm has been of our imagination and how powerful this imagination has been in the last hundred and fifty years in shaping our thinking about how collective political life should be lead. Basically, this paradigm invites us to think about the existence of more than one homogeneous community within a single political boundary as a potential source of problem. So, if you have more than one nation within a state, you are dealing with a potential problem. Or if you have one nation, say people like the Kurds, spread across more than one state, that’s also a problem. So, how do you resolve it? Well, you resolve it either by redrawing political boundaries — and you can see the history of 20th century is history of attempts to draw and redraw political boundaries in order to match a presumed deep cultural boundary or attempts to erase cultural boundaries. How do you erase cultural boundaries? You can erase cultural boundaries very softly by encouraging minorities to integrate; you can put some pressure on them to assimilate; you can use laws and state power to coerce; and in the last instance, you have the option of ethnic cleansing. And the history of the 20th century is the history of all these options having been exercised almost all over the world.

So, we’re dealing with a subject which is not merely of limited academic significance. We’re dealing with a paradigm which is not a paradigm that bothers some professors in universities. We are dealing with a paradigm that has gripped human imagination for a very long time. People have fought battles and killed each other to meet this theoretical paradigm of how political life should be lead. My colleague Ashis Nandy insists, and I respect his calculations, that in the 20th century more people were killed in ethnic violence than in the two world wars and all the other wars of the states put together. This is the kind of subject that we are dealing with.  This in a sense is the consequence of the power of the idea of nation-states. We all feel uneasy about those consequences but what do we do about it? Is there another way of looking about it, another way of theorising this?

The Paradigm of State-Nations

Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies is an attempt to understand how we go from the dominant idea of the nation-state to a different way of looking at it. This dominant idea has had two kinds of critiques. There are moral critiques of the idea of nation-state and the idea of nationalism. That has been quite prevalent all this time. Look at Rabindranath Tagore, for example — I am thinking of the Indian examples. In fact, one of the most ironic things about Indian nationalism was that this nationalism was informed by a very deep critique of the idea of nationalism itself. Someone like Tagore, India’s first Nobel Laureate, who was considered an iconic figure by Indian nationalists, actually wrote a small book in English[1] critiquing the idea of nationalism and he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of our national movement, a series of letters, to say: I thought you were a spiritual guru, I thought you were a great man, why do you attach yourself to such parochial notions as nation and nationalism. And this is happening at the height of the national movement and both these are icons of the national movement debating with each other whether they should associate with such narrow doctrines as nationalism or not. In other words, moral critiques of the idea of nation-states have been around. What we don’t have is an attempt to take that one step further and to actually say that it’s not just in the realm of morality but if you look at the real-life practices of the last hundred years or so, there is actually an alternative model which has emerged from practices of different societies in dealing with deep diversities. What I would do today is to present one such case, namely that of India. But I do so not because I think the Indian case is and ought to be the central case but because I happen to be familiar with that. I am sure someone could do that for Canada, for Spain and other countries.

The basic starting point and, in a sense, the intuition behind this intellectual project is the idea that while, in reality, the idea of the nation-state dominated human imagination, in political practice, many parts of the world did work out very intelligent and complex ways of doing what nation-states prohibited us from doing: namely, keeping more than one homogeneous political community within a single political unit without it becoming a source of deep conflict and without disintegration; and this is a model which is based on recognition of diversity and differences. This model and the contrast with nation states is this: in this model, you saw differences not as a problem but potentially as a source of strength; this model encourages diversities to be foregrounded rather than to be swept under the carpet; this model requires diversities to be acknowledged from the front door and be accommodated.

We focus on this model and we thought there is now a need to give this model a name because that’s how the imagination moves: you look at practices; there is an unease which takes forms of alternative practices; and there comes a stage when you wish to give that alternative practice a name and move that forward. Naming doesn’t change the world but it can possibly take us one step forward in trying to think of alternative arrangements. Names have a quality of reminding us of something all the time. So, that’s why we propose the name state-nation. Why state-nation? After all, it is just a reversal of the two words used there. State-nation because while nation-states invite us to think of deep cultural boundaries which are pre-existing and which in turn have to be respected by those who do the business of state, the name state-nation invites us to think exactly in the opposite direction. It invites us to think of modern political boundaries which can negotiate pre-existing differences and actually accommodate them.

Nation-States vs State-Nations

Let me not go on about the theoretical difference. One way of capturing the difference between these two ideas is to look at their differences somewhat more systematically and schematically as kind of ideal types. Ideal types in the sense that these are not differences you would see in reality clearly reflected in concrete cases because no one case would fully fit any of these theorisations.

In terms of pre-existing conditions, nation-states are characterised by awareness and attachment to one single cultural identity, one cultural and civilizational tradition. You would see this characteristic in a large number of countries such as Japan, Sweden or Germany. State-nations, on the other hand, are countries which are typically characterised by awareness and attachment to more than one civilizational cultural tradition. This attachment to more than one cultural tradition, more than one civilizational tradition, does not preclude a possible identification with a single political unit.

In terms of state policies and how politics and policies relate to this, nation-states are characterised by homogenisation while state-nations are characterised by recognition of diversities and by non-assimilationist integration. In terms of institutional apparatus, nation-states are typically unitary states; sometimes they can be federal too — think of Germany or Austria which are technically federal states but these are nation-states which have created federations more by way of administrative division. State-nations are characterised not just by federation but by asymmetrical federation.[2] In its politics, nation-states are characterised by absence of ethno-cultural or territorial cleavages. State-nations are characterised by presence and salience of these cleavages. Nation-states do not provide a play for autonomous parties. State-nations allow, legitimise and, sometimes even, find coalitional power arrangements — that is to say, parties which are autonomous parties are often given a share in central power. These are some of the characteristics.

In terms of citizen orientation, which follows somewhat from the pre-existing conditions, nation-states are characterised by single identity and by obedience to the state and to the nation. State-nations on the other hand are characterised multiple but complementary identities — which is to say the citizens say: yes, I am a Canadian, but with that I have another identity too and I cannot be asked to choose between these two. I carry more than one identity and both these are my legitimate political identities. This is typically the pattern of state nation.

State-Nations: The Case of India

Enough of theory and generalisations, I want to now come to India and speak about the Indian case. Just one minute for a thought experiment of the kind that John Rawls would approve. The thought experiment is this: we happen to everything about what happened in the 20th century; we know all the relevant facts necessary to think about diversity and democracy all over the world; but somehow, because of some stroke of luck or ill-luck, we miss out on one slice of memory which is what happened to India after 1947;[3] you know what India’s demographics are; you know that the country has been partitioned on lines of religion in 1947; you know that the country has a wide scape of languages;[4] you also know this thing called “Hinduism” which comprises 80 percent of the population is actually characterised by deep divisions of caste so that it is actually in a sense pointless to talk about Hindus because divisions of caste with the institution of untouchability does exist; and in this experiment, you do know what happened to Yugoslavia, you do know what happened to the Soviet Union, but you somehow do not know what happened to India after 1947. What is our best guess?

If I look at the literature of that time, if I read sensible political commentators of that time, the conclusion is somewhat inescapable: give it 15 years, maybe 20, this country will disintegrate. This was the most obvious sensible conclusion. I don’t think it was alarmist and I don’t think it was nonsensical; it reflected the wisdom of its time. The wisdom of its time was that this country was characterised by a deep misfit between cultural and political boundaries; it has mega political boundaries which has within it at least 25 countries. It was a reasonable assumption to make in that time. That did not happen. Therein lies the tale.

The Indian national leadership took on a very risky model at that time. They took it on because it flew in the face of conventional political wisdom. Leaders of the Indian national movement wanted to insist — against Churchillian accusations — that India was a nation. They obviously could not have pretended that this was a kind of nation in the sense in which France or Germany is a nation. So, they came up with innovative formulations of what it meant to be a nation and the phrase that captured it in India — and someone told me yesterday that this was actually the case in Canadian textbooks as well which delighted me no end — was ‘unity in diversity’ which was almost the official slogan of the Indian state in dealing with these situations. This is what Indian nationalism did. Although the constitution was written between 1946 and 1950, some of these fundamental decisions about what the Indian nation was like and what form the Indian democratic state will take were decided much earlier. In fact, one could argue that by the early 1930s, most of these fundamental decisions were settled: India was going to be democratic state; it was going to be a state which would not be a nation in the classical sense of the term; it would be asymmetrical; it would not be assimilationist —all these features were actually taken for granted. They were undertaking a very risky venture. They did not know it at that point but they were creating a new model unknown to them. What was that model?

The Indian model had the following attributes. Some of these attributes have to do with legal-constitutional institutions. Asymmetricalism is one of the key attributes of this new model. Ironically, the word ‘federation’ was never mentioned in the Indian constitution. They knew about the word, they debated it, but they feared it. The country had just had partition. So, in creating what it is nothing except a federation, the word federation was kept out and instead a euphemism called ‘Union of India’ was used. India is a union of states. An asymmetrical federation was established which was characterised by uneven representation of states and union territories — UTs are federally administered territories; these are very tiny and only a few now. States have uneven representation not only in the lower chamber but also in the upper chamber. More importantly, the Constitution is full of specific provisions for specific states. One of the most famous ones of these is Article 370 for the state of Jammu & Kashmir — I’ll have more to say about Jammu & Kashmir later — which effectively says that virtually nothing in the Constitution of India will apply to Jammu & Kashmir. If I could summarise the article in one sentence, that’s what the Article means. But similar provisions were provided for several other smaller states of the North-East of India. Basically, the Constitution shows a deep sensitivity to differences and the Constitution itself provides for these differences to be accommodated. It also provided flexibility apart from naming certain places and assigning special and unique features to them. Two general appendices called Schedule V and Schedule VI were inserted in the Constitution which provided for recognition of uniqueness for the indigenous communities which the constitution makers might have missed. They empower the President of India has to simply recognise and by order notify certain area to be an area inhabited by indigenous communities and once notified, a large number of laws and provisions of the Union will not apply there and independent arrangements can be made. So, enormous flexibilities were built in the Constitution.

There is a parliamentary form of government.[5] What this does is that it makes power into a shareable good. While we look at all other features of parliamentary and presidential forms of government, I don’t know why this attribute has escaped the attention of political scientists because these two forms of government have direct relationship to the possibility of accommodating diversity or not. Parliamentary form of government makes power shareable and once it becomes shareable, of course, all kinds of corruption and everything else creeps in. But parliamentary form of government, in the last instance, is coalition requiring and coalition sustaining; sometimes not so sustaining and requires collapsing as well. But its diversity consequences are actually very positive. So, this is an attribute of the Indian system.

And finally, in terms of thinking about constitutional provisions, in the bill of rights which India had, like most other democracies, there was a recognition of collective identities, of religious minorities by name and with special provisions.[6] Which are these collectivities? Religious minorities and linguistic minorities.[7] There is no special attention or any special privilege to any one language. And there are special recognitions of disadvantaged communities: two communities specifically, the ex-untouchables who are today called Dalits and the indigenous communities who are called Adivasis; the constitutional language for them is Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There are special recommendations and reservations[8] — in everything: in education, in parliament, in jobs — for them. This was the constitutional package.

The Indian model goes beyond the constitutional provisions and includes an element of policy and an element of politics. The element of policy is the policy of integration without assimilation and this is where unity in diversity comes into play. In terms of the key symbols of Indian state, it is reflected right from the National Anthem which actually begins by naming places in the country and, in a sense, gives you the message that India is all these places put together. So, it does not begin by singing praises of some deep Indianness. It’s actually naming of places and recognition of diversity and differences that the National Anthem is all about. In terms of language and cultural policies… I have already mentioned the language resolution in the Constitution[9] but even later on in the country in the 1960s, there were linguistic riots in India about Hindi not being imposed on the rest of the country. The government finally took that line — it has now become the official policy — which stipulated that English would be allowed to be used for official purposes as long as the non-Hindi states require it. Now, whether it was a good resolution to the linguistic problem in terms of equality is a separate question and I have my opinions on that but in terms of diversity and its accommodation, the fact remains that no one linguistic group can get up in the country and say: my language is the language of the nation. That idea was simply abandoned.

In terms of politics — because no model can be invented purely by a constitution; that’s only the starting point of the game, the game being politics — what happened in India was the recognition of regional political parties through the front door. This happened about 20 to 25 years ago. Parties which are state specific, parties which actually draw most of their support from one state of the Union, one province of the Union, started coming up. Many commentators thought this was the end of the Indian dream because if you have a party from Tamil Nadu, from Andhra Pradesh, from Punjab, from Maharashtra, where is India? What’s going to happen to Indian politics? In the last instance, however, if you look at it now, we see that by then, the pattern of politics was far too developed for anyone to try to control it. But if you look at the overall consequences today, my sense is that these regional parties have contributed more to integration than the so-called national political parties. The consequences have been that because these regional political parties were given a front-door entry and were provided legitimate political play, none of them took the secessionist route. They actually have become centric regional parties in the sense that most of these regional parties would wish to claim that they are not regional. They would have names like All India Anna DMK: the party is entirely limited to one state of the union but they wish to pretend that they are All India ‘something’.

Also, they enter into interlocking alliances, coalitions with polity wide parties. There are two polity wide parties, the Congress and the BJP. And the pattern of politics in the last 15 or 20 years is such that most of these regional parties have interlocking coalitions. Interlocking in the sense: we support you in a national election; you support us to win power in a provincial election. And there are unequal terms set for both. It a perfect interlocking alliance.[10] Accommodation of regional politics directly has had very beneficial consequences; so much so that there are two political parties which are on the borders of secession which have been given a legitimate play in the national politics. One of these parties is in Kashmir and the other party is in the state of Nagaland. Both these parties, even though they have not advocated secession, are known to be very soft on secessionists. Yet they have been given a legitimate direct open political play.

India as a State-Nation: The Evidence

We’ve seen what Indian national leadership were trying to do; we know it was a tough situation; we know the set of practices they came up with; we know what their solution was; the question is: has it worked?

I’ll present a series of evidences very quickly. My questions in a country like this would be the following. First, do people have a sense of national pride? That’s one question because I am not one of those who would say: let a thousand nations bloom. That’s not the way I look at it. A state-nation in the last instance is both a state and a nation. A certain kind of political integration is important to it. So, the question is, do people have a sense of national pride? This is evidenced from the World Values Survey data.

#1 Pride in nationality
Alfred Stephan, Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies (Johns Hopkins University 2011), p. 58.

My point is not that India is among the top. My point is that the level of national pride is such that would not lead you to thinking about this experiment having been a failure. We clearly are looking at reasonably high levels of national pride compared to some other countries. We can also guess why is it that in countries like Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria, the level of national pride would be somewhat lower. That’s 20th century history straightaway playing itself out. So, the point of the comparison is simply that something has happened. This is not a country which suffers from any lack of sense of national pride.

Second, do people have a sense of being Indian? This is the question about multiple but complementary identities.

#2 Subjective national identity
Crafting State-Nations, p. 61.

35% Indians have a sense that would describe themselves as only Indian which is more than what they would in Spain or in Belgium — these are countries where this question has been tried and these are countries which are state-nations of a serious order. What is significant here are the figures for Muslims and Sikhs — two large groups which are religious minorities and Muslims are a disadvantaged religious minority. That’s where my attention would immediately go, to see whether they share that national identity. Of course, they do. So, the only two conclusions I would draw from this table are that (a) a very large number of Indians, if you forget the top 35% and the bottom category of 12%, are the ones — that’s a little more than 40% — that would mix some degree of state identity and some degree of national identity in describing who they are, and (b) in the case of minorities where you would expect some kind of alienation, this identification of Indianness is, if anything, a little more than the rest, not less. It’s less in the case of Christians but that has to do with their demographic distribution in the country.

Third, what is the level of trust? Do people trust only their provincial institutions or do they also trust some of these national institutions?

#3 Citizen Trust in Six Major Institutions
Crafting State-Nations, p. 76.

Again, the comparison has other countries which are long standing federal democracies. The figures tell us that, compared to other long standing federal democracies, Indian level of trust in the legal system, in the parliament, in political parties, in the central government and the civil services is pretty high. It comes as a reassurance to me that the level of trust in the police is very low; reassurance in the quality of data. If the level of trust in the police was also very high, I would be stunned and I would begin to relook at the data itself given the way Indian police works. The point is that trust is extended not merely to local or provincial institutions but also to national institutions.

Finally, is there support for democracy? Because afterall, democratic political mechanisms are what holds it together. Do people have trust in that democracy itself?

#4 Attitudes toward Democracy
Crafting State-Nations, p. 65.

Here, it’s a selective comparison with countries which have witnessed non-democratic regimes. Again, the simple point is that India is not a country where a large number of people think that they can do without democracy. Something of this diversity frame which has been guaranteed by democracy has worked.

Does it hold true for all sections of society? That’s a natural question will come to mind. Here is a look at the classic political efficacy question. Does your vote make a difference?

#5 Sense of Political Efficacy
Crafting State-Nations, p. 79.

Honestly, I am always stunned to see so many people who believe that their vote makes a difference. I don’t know if my vote makes any difference. But the point here is not the objectivity of it but the perceptions because nations and communities are created in minds and destroyed in minds. We look at this from 1971, 1996 and 2004; three points of time through the national election study conducted from CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). The simple point is that the sense of political efficacy has increased. More importantly, it has increased in every single disadvantaged group that we could possibly think of.

What’s the point of this positive story? The point of this entire evidence is to say that this very risky experiment which began in 1947 did succeed in some basic ways not merely in holding the federation together — we don’t need surveys to find out that India is one single country even today. But that this is not merely a legal fact. There is more to it. Institutions and in terms of citizen subjectivities too, this experiment has succeeded in some fundamental ways.

India as a State-Nation: The Failures

Are there no failures? Of course, there are. And let me just speak about some of the big failures before I close with some general observations. Kashmir is one of the best known most spectacular and comprehensive failures. Comprehensive because through the last 50 years it’s only fair to say that people in the Kashmir valley have remained unintegrated in the imagination of India. We have asked tough questions in the Kashmir valley and the answer has been somewhat flat over the last 12 years or so during which we have conducted surveys in Kashmir; the answer is that is 4 out of 5 persons in Kashmir want to secede from India — they don’t want to go to Pakistan but they want to have an independent state of their own. This is as comprehensive a failure as it can get. After 60 years, if 80% of the people say: we don’t want to live in this country, that’s bad.

The question is, is it a failure of state-nation policies? Or is it a failure of inability to extend state-nation policies? My argument is that, if you look at Kashmir’s history more closely, it is an even more fundamental failure. It is a failure to extend minimum democratic conditions to that part of India. Although in the Constitution it was provided with more autonomy than any other state of India, in reality it has worked like a colony, a place where we have had military presence, where basic democratic rights have never been extended, elections have never been fair with some exceptions, and puppet regimes have been imposed from the top. This is the lack of basic democratic conditions which, of course, is not conducive to the state-nation policies at all. So, the lesson I learnt from Kashmir is that democracy is a necessary condition.

Similarly, with Nagaland — a tiny state on the North-East of India — which has refused to integrate with India right from the beginning. What we have today is probably not that deep a sense of alienation as in Kashmir but I would still say there is no deep relationship to India. What we have is a military stalemate. The rebels in Nagaland have got tired. The Indian state has also got tired. And they are trying to work their way out to negotiation which have ended up in a deadlock. But compare that to another state in the North-East itself, Mizoram, which presented itself with similar diversities. Mizoram had a condition which, at one point, was worse than Nagaland. The Indian state used Air Force bombing on its own people in the 1960s but by 1987, the situation was reversed completely in Mizoram and today, Mizoram is one of the most peaceful and integrated states of the Indian Union. The lesson I pick up from the North-East is, if the initial moment is not impossible, then recoveries do take place. And recoveries take place only when a package of state-nation policies is extended. In Mizoram, the recovery took place because finally the Indian state said: alright, you run your own country but agree to be part of India. So, they used Schedule VI to work out this provision. Virtually, large number of laws passed by Indian parliament do not apply there. Of course, budgetary grants do go there. That’s an arrangement that worked.

For one decade, the insurgency appeared to be bordering on secession in Punjab. And it seemed that Punjab was headed that way. Many scholars observed that it was a classic case of minority alienation resulting in secession. We take a very close look at that example in this book. The argument here is that Punjab is not the case of deep alienation of a minority religion. That, actually, the Sikhs had done better than the Hindus in almost every possible respect. There is very strong evidence of that. What we saw was a classic democratic breakdown in which the elite was playing its own too clever by half games resulting in a temporary breakdown which allowed a recovery in 1996. And the recovery has been as spectacular as was the collapse.


Let me summarise this entire story so far. Diversity and its relationship to democracy is no longer a question which concerns some peculiar societies as was imagined 50 years ago. 50 years ago, the dominant wisdom was that there are normal countries where homogeneity was the norm and then there are some peculiar countries — I am sure they must have thought of Canada as one of those peculiar places where there is too much of a mix. Today, it’s time to reverse that assumption. And to begin to think that countries like Japan, Sweden, and some other European countries, may actually turn out to be something of an exception in human history. That, actually, the global situation would be of lack of fit between cultural and political boundaries. And that this is actually not so bad a news because these two things can be brought together in ways which are profitable both for democracy and for sustaining diversity.

In order to do so, while in reality the question of diversity has expanded — it has started attacking even Europe; when Switzerland has those laws about minarets,[11] you know the question of diversity is hitting very hard in all places where people never expected it to come — our imagination is not expanding in a corresponding way. This is what we need to do: we need to expand our moral and political imagination to keep with the changing realities of our time. The idea of state-nations is one possible paradigm of thinking about it. I do not mean to say:  junk the nation-state in Sweden; junk the nation-state in Japan. These are decent practices. They have worked. I am also not saying: adopt state-nations everywhere else. We don’t know sufficiently about the world. Our notion of the world is still limited to half the world even now. We would have many practices of different kinds. And I do not mean to suggest that the Indian case provides us with a recipe book which can be applied everywhere else. If European and US recipes have not worked in the rest of the world, there is no reason why the Indian recipe should. It is just a way to expand our imagination; to begin to think in ways which are diverse and rich to keep with a reality which is diverse and rich.

This might also achieve something else in the process; this might shift the locus of democratic theory from a tiny part of the world — Europe and the US — to most of the world. Because while democracy has expanded to all nooks and corners of the world, our notion of what it means to be democratic has not expanded. To do that is one of the biggest challenges of our time. And by thinking of something like state-nations we can begin to take a small step towards doing democratic theory in a way which is truly democratic.

End Notes

[1] Nationalism

[2] “Asymmetrical federation is a federation that does not treat all the units within the federation equally; which works out unique solutions, different solutions for different places. The US is a typical example of a symmetrical federation while India is an example of asymmetrical federation in the extreme.”

[3] “John Rawls would call it a partial veil of ignorance but I like to think of the Bombay cinema in whose movies accidents like this routinely happen and the whole movie then revolves around that accident. So, John Rawls or Bombay cinema, you take your pick but basically you happen to lose that slice of your memory but you know everything else.”

[4] “You could say 25 if you wanted to look at languages which have print culture of their own, languages which have some kind of recognition and intellectual culture around it, but if you were a linguist you would probably go up to 700. So, anything from 25 to 700. You have as much variety of languages as you would find, for example, in the whole of Europe, maybe more.”

[5] “I say this with some hesitation now because I know I have not arrived in the right week in Canada to advocate a parliamentary form of government and the beauties of coalition making.”

[6] For instance, the Sikhs. I mention this because I know this is a debate in Canada right now. Whether the Sikhs can carry a little sword with them as a sign of their religious affiliation is something which is provided in India as a fundamental right of religious minorities. The right to carry a symbolic sword as a part of your religious rights — not the full sword; in fact, the smallness of size is also prescribed in the Constitution — is granted by the Constitution.”

[7] “Interestingly, the Indian constitution does not recognise any national language although many Indians believe that Hindi which is spoken by 40% of the population — which is also my mother tongue — is the national language but actually Indian constitution does not recognise any language as national language at all. There is simply a list which is called the Eight Schedule of the constitution which began with 14 languages has now become 22 which are official languages of the Union and that’s all.”

[8] “Reservation not in the Canadian sense of the term but let’s say, quota…yeah, that’s the North American expression — there are quotas for them.”

[9] supra note 7

[10] “It has huge consequences for corruption which is going on right now in the country. Sharing power also means sharing booties of corruption which has been happening at a very large scale but that’s not my story today. My story is only to look at diversity related consequences.”

[11] Swiss Minaret Referendum, 2009.



Field Experiments in International Relations by Robert O. Keohane — Lecture Transcript

Title: Field Experiments in International Relations
Presented by: Robert O. Keohane
Presented on: September 20, 2012
Presented at: The Wheatley Institution, Brigham Young University

  • The original transcript is available at the Wheatley Institution’s website. Click here to view it.
  • This modified transcript does not include the Q&A.

Introductory Remarks

More than ninety years ago, at the end of World War I, Max Weber gave two now famous lectures, published in English as “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation”. They well repay reading and rereading. They are short, so if you haven’t read them, I recommend you do so. Thinking of those lectures, it seemed appropriate to me to reflect on political science as a vocation. As the title of my lecture indicates, I am directing my comments both to my fellow political scientists in the audience and to students in attendance here who may be beginning careers in our field.

I am going to reflect on our vocation from the vantage point of someone who has been a practicing political scientist — teaching, reflecting, and writing about politics — for forty-seven years. It is hard for me say that and to believe that, but it is true.

I begin by pointing out that, viewed historically, you are in distinguished company. Aristotle was probably the first systematic Western political scientist, theorizing the relationship of politics to other spheres of life and creating a typology of regimes. He created what we would now call comparative politics. This was in the 4th century B.C. Machiavelli not only advised the prince but sought to analyze the nature of leadership, the characteristic hypocrisy of political speech (which is not a new phenomenon and is certainly still a current one) and the sources of republican greatness. Hobbes provided what is still one of the most compelling discussions of the causes of political violence and the sources of and justification for the state. Montesquieu and Madison developed a durable theory of constitutionalism, and Tocqueville put forth insights into the nature of democracy that remain vibrant today (for example, in the work of Robert Putnam). I have already mentioned Max Weber.

In the generation of political scientists born in the first three decades of this century, I will list (somewhat arbitrarily) Gabriel Almond, Robert Dahl, Elinor Ostrum, Judith Shklar, and Kenneth Waltz, all of whom profoundly affected our knowledge of politics. There are so many fine colleagues doing insightful work now that to mention a few would be to risk slighting others whose work is equally important. The point is that, to the undergraduates, if you decide to go on to join in the political science profession and become a graduate student and then a faculty member in it, you are joining a vibrant profession with a rich history. If you are studying it, you are studying in a profession with a rich history. I hope your instructors don’t start the syllabus in 1975. If I were conversant with classical Indian and Chinese sources, I could probably add to this list and extend this history even further into the past.

Following Virginia Woolf, many of you will probably notice that except for Ostrum and Shklar, this is a procession of men. Fortunately, however, this lamentable situation, which was characteristic of this profession as well as others, has changed. If I had listed contemporary political scientists of note, I would have had to include Theda Skocpol, Margaret Levi, Carole Pateman and Susanne Rudolph, all of whom have been president of the Association, as well as many younger women who are now leaders in the field. Although exclusion on the basis of gender and race was long a reality, our profession is increasingly opened to talented people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

What is Political Science?

What, then, is political science? What do we mean by it? I have an economist colleague who likes to say that any discipline with science in its name is not really a science and that it protests too much. Were one to adopt a narrow view of science as requiring mathematical formulations of its propositions, precise quantitative testing, or even experimental validation, political science would, indeed, for the most part, be an oxymoron.

Today, I will defend our nomenclature by taking a broader view. I would define politics as involving attempts to organize human groups, to determine internal rules, and, externally, to compete and cooperate with other organized groups, and reactions to such attempts. This definition is meant to encompass a range of activity, from the governance of a democracy such as Great Britain to warfare, from corporate takeovers to decisions made from the U.N. Security Council. It includes acts of leadership and resistance to leadership, behaviour resulting from deference and defiance. I define science as a publicly-known set of procedures designed to make and evaluate descriptive and causal inferences on the basis of the self-conscious application of methods that are themselves subject to public evaluation. As transparency, public evaluation, and criticism are inherent in science, all science is carried out with the understanding that all conclusions are uncertain and subject to revision or refutation. So, political science is simply the study of politics through the procedures of science. Most of my lecture will be devoted to an explication of how, in my view, political science should be carried out. That is, the process of thinking and research that yields insights into politics.

Teaching as an Intrinsic Part of the Political Science Vocation

I want to begin by talking about teaching. Teaching is sometimes disparaged. Colleagues bargain to reduce their “teaching loads”. The language is revealing, since we speak of research opportunities but teaching loads. National and global reputations are built principally on written work, not on teaching. But when we look around, we see that virtually all top ranked political scientists in the world today are active teachers. Some are not good teachers, but they are all active teachers.  Few of them have spent their careers at a research institutes or think tanks. In my view, there is a reason for this. Teaching undergraduates compels one to put arguments into ordinary language accessible to undergraduates, and therefore to smart people who have not absorbed the arcane language of social science, which can be evasive as well as it can be illuminating. Teaching graduate students exposes one to new ideas from younger and more supple minds, as long as the students are sufficiently critical of the professor’s views. I want to emphasize this point about criticism. In my experience, most students, rarely the best, are too deferential. In fact, one of the disappointments in my career is that students were less deferential in the 60s and 70s. They are more deferential now, and it is a bad thing.

In 1927, so the story goes (I think it is a true story that comes out of my father’s notebooks; he was an honest man), the Chief Justice of the United States, former president William Howard Taft, came to Yale Law School, where his host was a Chancellor of Yale Law School, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Taft was former president, chief justice, a man of ample girth (350 pounds), somewhat pompous as well as very intelligent and distinguished, and he was a conservative. Hutchins was dean at 28 years old; he was a radical. Yale was seen as a radical place. So, the Chief Justice said to Dean Hutchins, “Well, I understand that you at Yale teach your students that all the judges are fools”, to which Robert Maynard replied, quick as a wink, “No, Mr. Chief Justice. At Yale, we teach our students to find that out for themselves”. Like the Yale law students, you need to discover for yourself which senior political scientists are wise and which are fools. It doesn’t come from their CVs, their nominal reputations, or their titles. You have to do so by using your own critical facilities.

Teaching is rewarding other ways. I learned a lot from my colleagues and directly from my students, who come to me with insights or works to read that were suggested to them by other faculty members. In the long run, one might see former undergraduate students become politicians or even rise to other high positions. A former student of mine is now a U.S. Senator, and another one just retired as president of the World Bank. (Both undergraduates, of course. The graduate students are all professors.) With former PhD students, ties are much stronger, since they remain in the profession. Two of my most valued colleagues and best friends at Princeton are former students, including Helen Milner, who is co-running this conference, and the eminent student of the European Union, Andrew Moravcsik. Former students of mine are scattered at colleges and universities around the United States, with some in Europe or Japan. In my office, I keep a shelf of books that began as Ph.D. dissertations under my supervision.

Never disparage teaching. It is an intrinsic part of political science as a vocation. Furthermore, it provides much more immediate gratification than research. When I am working on a major project, I never know where the results will be worthwhile. I have left unpublished a good deal of work when I realize the premises or methods I used were flawed. Sometimes, even once-published work will be ignored. Like politics for Weber, research can seem like a long, hard “boring of hard boards”, in his phrase. Eventual awards may be substantial or may be meager; you never know until quite a bit later. If you give a good lecture or teach a lively, thoughtful seminar, the gratification is immediate. You know you accomplished something that day. During periods of self-doubt, teaching can keep you going.

The “Science” in Political Science

Now let me turn to the science in political science. Turning to research. What do political scientists do? What are the processes they go through in their search for knowledge? I am going to focus on four activities: puzzling, conceptualizing, describing, and making causal inferences.


First, puzzling. Interesting work begins, in my view, not just with a problem — for example, how does democracy work in the United States? — but with a puzzle. Puzzles are anomalies: what we have observed does not fit with our preconceptions based on established theory. Hobbes sought to make sense of civil war and regicide. Tocqueville wanted to understand how a decentralized, individualized society, such as the United States in the 1830s, could exhibit such overall cohesion and even suffer from oppressive public opinion, in his view. Barrington Moore and a line of successors have sought to explain why some societies develop stable democracies while others do not. Scott and others seek to account for great revolutions and their absence.

Great leaps forward in political science often take place when someone sees puzzles where others are only seeing facts. The great philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos say that science proceeds on a “sea of anomalies”, which certainly applies to political science. That is, science only really progresses when you find anomalies, puzzles that don’t fit either conventional wisdom or established theory, not when you just plug away, crossing the “t” or dotting the “i”.

Now, I am not very satisfied with much of political science today. It seems to me that it often just does call attention to relationships that conventional thinking expects to obtain. I think there is a herd instinct in political science. It has been quite marked in the last decade or two, where people follow the same lines of work, just adding small amounts to it. So, showing with more precision that democracies are relatively peaceful toward one another is an example. It is an important piece of knowledge that they are. The 150th article estimating in a little different way how they are, it seems to me, is not. That civil wars thrive in poorly-governed countries with places to hide, or that economic failure is bad for incumbents, resolves no major puzzles. It is important, then, I think, to begin with an interesting puzzle for which the answer is not obvious.

One implication of my point here is to find something puzzling to study. Don’t just stop when you find something that is a topic in political science, that is a subject matter. There is another implication of the importance of puzzles: never dismiss what appears to be a naïve question. This is true for teaching and also true in research. The naïve questions are often the most fundamental ones. I will give you a true story which taught me this.

I was at Stanford in the 1970s, teaching political science with no training in economics and trying to understand economics better. I was trying to pick it up on the fly by attending economics seminars. I would walk across the street and attended those. I remember one such seminar by an eminent student in a multinational corporation whose work I knew. He spoke very well in a highly-organized way. After about three minutes, in true economics fashion, a young bearded man asked a question which the speaker answered to my satisfaction. After three or four minutes, the same hand went up again, and then again a few minutes later with a different question, each seeming rather obvious to me. After three or four questions, I was getting annoyed and impatient saying to myself, “Can’t you let the speaker proceed?” After five or six questions, it dawned on me (perhaps I was the last person in the room to see it) that the questioner was the only person in the room who understood the topic and that his series of apparently naïve questions had dismantled the questions of this professor’s talk. There was literally nothing left.

I forgot everything else about the seminar, except I remember how the room looked and where the guy was. I know who he was now. But the apparently naïve questions of this questioner had dismantled the talk’s premises.  So, the lesson is that the apparently naïve questions are often the most fundamental. If you are puzzled, ask. In our field, there are no dumb questions. It is true. Probably 90%, maybe 95% of naïve questions are just that. They are naïve. You don’t understand what the speaker said, and then you can only gain by asking the question because you learn something about it. Maybe 5% of the time, you may be the only person in the room to see the anomaly and to sense, like a good detective, that there is something wrong about the story you are being told. The rewards for identifying the major puzzles, for the profession and for yourself, are very large indeed.


After you have a puzzle, the next step is conceptualization and being clear about the meaning of concepts. Giovanni Sartori pointed out long ago that concepts get stretched out of shape by political scientists trying to do too much with too little. It much often depends on definitions. How we think about the relationship between democracy and liberty, for example, depends on how we conceptualize democracy and liberty. Are they in conflict or not? Likewise, whether democracies ever fight one another, or whether international institutions degrade or enhance democracy, depends heavily on how one defines democracy. Whether civil wars are becoming more or less frequent may turn on how we conceptualize what a civil war is, rather than a lesser form of civil conflict. Whether peace requires justice or is at odds, in conflict with, justice depends on how we define both of these contested terms. There are, in my view, no right or wrong definitions — I am a positivist in that way — but there are explicit and implicit definitions, those consistent with ordinary usage and those that are not. Authors can be consistent or inconsistent in their use of terms. At the conceptualization stage, it is our obligation to pull forward explicit definitions (I tried to define political science earlier in this lecture) and to seek to operationalize them consistently. The more definitions conform to ordinary usage, furthermore, the less confusion is likely to result.


Now I come to description and interpretation. The core of what most political scientists do most of the time is descriptive inference. Inference means drawing more general conclusions from established premises plus a particular set of facts. For example, from known facts, such as that each of 150 countries has a different form of government and economic characteristics, we may infer that there is a correlation between wealth and democracy. That is a descriptive inference. Properly speaking, though, such a conclusion rests on a chain of inferences. It is often necessary to probe those. For instance, we may have inferred from a sample survey of tax returns what per capita GDP is for the country, or from observations of three elections where the country is democratically governed. These inferences are subject to error. People might systematically falsify their tax returns in one country, for example, and not in another. The incumbent government might conceal decisive manipulations from election monitors. Other examples of descriptive inferences in political science are the generalization that democracies don’t fight one another, the claim that international institutions typically provide information to governments but other governments compliance with rules, and the claim that the European Union was formed more about economic gains than security benefits.

These examples indicate that descriptive inferences can be generalizations about a wide set of cases or statements about a particular set of events at a particular time and place. We can make inferences about individuals; for example, the sincerity or hypocrisy of leaders or our perceptions about other leaders’ behavior. We can also make inferences about the behavior of collective actors that may have subunits pulling in different directions: what the “United Kingdom” or “China” did in a situation, or whether the “United States” (or, rather, unauthorized individuals) engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. We can make inferences about relationships: were there backchannel communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis between the Soviet Ambassador and Robert M. Kennedy, and, if so, what were they about? Are the informal conversations between Israeli and U.S. leaders today as hostile as might be inferred by their public comments? Often, political scientists try to make their descriptive inferences more precise by attaching numbers to whatever process they are seeking to understand. Precision is certainly enhanced by numbers that are both reliable and valid, and so such activities are to be encouraged.

It is important to recognize the importance of both reliability and validity. Reliability essentially means that, using the criteria publicly employed, the number could be replicated by an independent observer. If by criteria defining “wars” as organized violence involving 1,000 or more deaths, one team of observers finds fifty wars at a given period of time, another team using the same criteria should also find fifty wars. That is the reliability side. Get the same answer to the same question if you do it again.

Validity is different. It refers to whether the measurement used — in this case, 1,000 battle casualties — fairly reflects the underlying phenomenon being discussed — that is, war. Are all conflicts involving 1,000 deaths war? Even if some involve small societies so that 1,000 deaths is a large portion of the population and some involve very large societies that suffer more deaths by traffic accidents in a couple of weeks? Should all wars, from the skirmish that took 1,100 lives to World War II, be counted equally? Are they all wars? You see right away, these are constructions. These aren’t factual descriptions. They are dependent on an interpretation of what we mean by a term, what we mean by a war. How are we going to categorize something? Very often, our conclusions rely on these, and all too often, people don’t interrogate the interpretations that lie behind the supposed descriptions. So, these are questions of validity that can’t themselves be solved by clarification, but for which one has to think hard about how one’s conceptualization relates to the phenomena that can be measured. Are we measuring what we are meaning to measure? So, before we accept a descriptive inference, we need to have asked questions of validity as well as reliability.

This issue is highlighted by the famous philosophical distinction between a wink and a twitch. As Clifford Geertz writes, “The difference between a wink and a twitch is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to take the first for the second knows”. I want to add vice versa — if someone who is attractive to you is moving her eyelids rapidly, you need to engage in an interpretation before moving to a descriptive inference. If you interpret the eye moving as a wink, you may infer: She loves me, too! But what if you act on the interpretation and it was only a twitch?

Political scientists engage in interpretation all the time. When states “reject” a public offer, as Spain has rejected loan terms from the European Central Bank, are they really rejecting it entirely, or are they establishing a bargaining position? When the United States brings an auto trade case against China, as it did this week, is it seeking to maintain a level playing field or to help President Obama’s reelection chances, in Ohio in particular?  When Hillary Clinton was overseas during the Democratic National Convention, was she merely following non-partisan tradition for Secretary of State, or was she signaling disinterest in a run for the presidency? Or, perhaps, sealing interest in the run for the presidency through an odd twist of logic? My point of this inference is twofold. It is not the same as simple description. We may think we are describing something, like I am describing that I am hitting this table. It involves an inference from known to unknown that can be incorrect or otherwise flawed. Both description and descriptive inference often rest on the interpretation of inherently (sometimes deliberately) ambiguous actions such as the wink-twitch.

Making Causal Inferences

Now I come to causal inference. Causality necessarily involves consideration of a counterfactual situation. If Charles II had not been executed in 1649, would Great Britain have a different political system now? If nuclear weapons had not been invented, would the United States and the Soviet Union have fought World War III in the 1950s? If the United States had not supported democratization in Egypt, would the Muslim Brotherhood be in charge there now? Since we inherently cannot observe at the same time what actually happened and what didn’t happen, making causal inferences is always difficult. The descriptive inferences are hard enough, but causal differences are really difficult because you can’t observe both the action and the non-action. You can’t observe two situations. So, we do not observe causality. You never observe causality. You always infer causality, and it is always a problematic or uncertain inference.

Now, if we can find and measure many highly similar instances of the same action — for example, votes for parliament or expressions of party preference in surveys — we might be able to make quite good causal inferences through the use of quantitative methods. If it is a common unit (unit homogeneity, in the jargon word), a vote is a vote is a vote, as opposed to being different kind of actions. Even then, our procedures may contaminate our findings. For example, people often make up answers to public opinion polls because they don’t want to seem to not to know something. We know they recall having voted for winning candidates more than can actually have been the case. You can prove, with high significance, that more people report voting for the presidential winner than actually voted for the presidential winner, which of course is a contradiction.

More seriously, our inferences may be flawed because of omitted variables: something else changed that we failed to measure. This change, rather than the one on which we focused, may explain what we want to understand. Or we can confront endogeneity: what we stipulate as the effect is actually in wholer part a cause. There is a reciprocal relationship, for example. Furthermore, anticipation of consequences may create false impressions of causality. States may comply with international law, not because they have incentives to follow it or because they believe they are obliged to do so, but because they have carefully agreed only to rules with which they intended, in any event, to comply. If that is the case, it might appear to be causal, that the law leads to the action, but it would not be true, given my assumption. Conversely, real causality may be obscure. Political scientists seeking to determine the effect of deterrence threats in international crises did not find any significant effects. But critics point out that the states that would submit to deterrence threats should have anticipated the threats and their submission and therefore would not have stimulated a crisis in the first place.

The difficulties of causal inference seem endless. Indeed, I am here at BYU today because of an attempt led by some members of your faculty to explore another approach to the problem of causal inference: experiments. Experiments are standard in medicine, not yet in political science. Now, it is not possible to experiment on some issues. We can’t replace the Egyptian military regime a year ago with, on the one hand, a military dictatorship, and, on the other hand, a second democracy and see how they would react differently to attacks on the American Embassy. For problems on which we can use experiments, the method has enormous advantages. At this conference, we are going to will talk about those.

There are also limitations of this and any other method. The one limitation of experimental methods is what is known as external validity. You may be quite sure that you got the right answer and that you have a causal inference for this particular set of people at this time, at this place, in this context. There is no guarantee that, if the context would have been a little bit different, you will obtain the same results. With respect to large scale problems, like the ones I am mostly interested in, experiments will probably always remain unavailable. Unfortunately for science (but probably fortunately for the human race), we cannot manipulate large scale political phenomena for our convenience, even if human subjects-committees would allow us to do so. So, on these issues, our causal inferences are always likely to be problematic. We could not construct a French Revolution for the treatment and have no French Revolution be the placebo.

Aspirations to causal inference are often linked to hopes for prediction. Our causal knowledge of gravity helps us to predict the movement of planets and other celestial objects, and our causal knowledge of biology and, increasingly, genetics help us to predict the incidence of disease. Sometimes we can make predictions of election outcomes on the base of economic conditions, but even our best predictions are imperfect. For my own subject of international politics, the situation is even worse, because it revolves around conscious strategies of reflective actors: I act as I do because I anticipate what you will do. But you, knowing this, act differently than I expect, and I, in turn, anticipating this, change my behavior. This is an infinite regress about which no prediction can be made. One would have to know how many cycles the players would go through, but if this could be ascertained, smart players would learn it and go one step further.

Why Choose Political Science as a Vocation?

So, why choose political science as a vocation? If causal inferences in our field and predictions are as intractable as I have argued, why should we choose our profession? My short answer is that we study politics not because it is beautiful or easy to understand, but because it is so important to all fields of human endeavor. I readily admit that I cannot prove that politics is important. Weber, in “Science as a Vocation”, says that “[the] presupposition [of something as worth knowing] cannot be proved by scientific methods. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning”.

Without governance, though, as Hobbes said, life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Democracy is, in my view, however flawed it is (and I will mention that in a minute), immensely better than autocracy, much less tyranny. Making democracy work is hard, and imposing democracy seems close to impossible. Ironically, around the world, the flaws of democracy are becoming increasingly evident in the wake of the spread of democracy worldwide. At the same time, we have a celebration of democracy; the last fifteen years has probably been the period of the greatest celebration of democracy in the history of the world. And yet, you can’t pick up a newspaper or a political science journal without seeing the pathologies of one democracy or another.

One of the interesting experimental papers for this conference by Dan Nielson, Helen Milner, and Mike Findley purports to be about foreign aid in Uganda. It shows that people in Uganda seem to prefer multilateral or even bilateral foreign aid from foreigners to government projects of a similar type from their own government. What the paper doesn’t observe is how devastating that is for theories that say that democracy is the best form of government, because Uganda is a democracy (at least nominally), and foreign aid by the World Bank or U.S. Government is not democratic. The people of Uganda have no accountability or control over it. Yet the situation where they have no influence, they can’t hold the provider accountable, they regard in a higher esteem than the situation in which they have (at least in principle or nominally) some ability to hold the providers to account.

We are going to see, I think, in the next ten or fifteen years, a lot of soul-searching about democracy. We have been through a period of celebration and, as C. Wright Mills said a long time ago of the United States, periods of celebration are usually overdone, and there is an underside. I think we are going to see more critical attention to democracy rather than the assumption that has, in fact, dominated public policy but also much of the profession, that democracy is necessarily and, out of context, the best form of government. I am kind of with Churchill that it is the worst form of government except for all others. That is a somewhat different orientation toward it.

Back to political science. Without a political science, it would be hard to have effective democratic leadership because it depends on accountability, and that is based on critiques of action which are realistic with respect to what is possible. Without a vibrant political science, leaders would be guided only by their limited personal experiences, historical analogies, and folk wisdom — all highly unreliable as a basis for inference. Publics would be deprived of a scientific basis for criticism. We should therefore judge our work not according to some idealization of science or by the standards of the physical and biological sciences, in which case we fall short and will for a long time fall short. Unlike Newtonian physics, we cannot properly aspire to knowledge of grand, covering laws that explain a myriad of disparate events. Instead, we should ask the more modest question: whether knowing the political science literature on a given topic has prepared us better to anticipate what could happen, to assign probabilities to these various scenarios, and to judge actual results.

Are the findings of political science superior as a guide to historical analogies, extrapolation from the very recent past, and common sense? The answer is not always affirmative, unfortunately. Indeed, as I already criticized the herd instinct in political science, I think we need to widen our focus to topics that we haven’t focused on enough. For example, I would say one of the most important questions in politics right now is, “What is the impact of new social media on politics, comparatively and internationally?” We don’t know very much. We know virtually nothing, scientifically, about that subject. I think that is fair to say. That is not surprising; it is new. What is surprising is that almost nobody I know in political science is studying that question. I don’t know why every graduate student in the country is not after that question. The only answer I can think of is that their professors aren’t asking that question because we are too old to understand social media. That is not a good reason. So, we need a lot more boldness and imagination in the pursuit of our field.

Democracy and Political Science

At the outset of this lecture, I praised criticism and counsel of one’s elders. I hope that all of you, from students to middle-aged professors, are dissatisfied with the accomplishments of earlier generations, sceptical about their inferences, and sceptical about what I am telling you right now. I hope you see puzzling anomalies in some of the conventional wisdom, issues that need to be unpacked, and I hope that you have objections to express to what I have just been saying. Many of you will have noticed that my sources and examples come almost entirely from Europe and the United States and from international politics, which has been dominated for five centuries by Europe and its offshoots. There is a sort of parochialism, therefore, about the way I have interpreted and presented this subject. This parochialism is presumably due, in some measures, to my own limitations, but also reflects the discipline, which is heavily American, to some extent European, with relatively few genuinely important, independent contributions from scholars on other continents.

As the economic and political centres of gravity shift away from Europe and the United States, and as we move into the “post-American era”, as Fareed Zakaria calls it, this is bound to change. Political science will become a global discipline; it will, however, only prosper if liberal democracy, for all its weaknesses, thrives. If we are doing our job, we political scientists will be irritating to political leaders since we illuminate their deliberate obscurities and deceptions, point to alternative policies that could be followed, question their motivations, and dissect the operations of organizations that support them and the governments over which they preside. They will try to buy us off or, failing that, if not prevented from doing so, to shut us up. As a result, we have a symbiotic relationship with democracy. We can only thrive when democracy flourishes, and democracy, in a smaller way, needs us, if only as a small voice of dispassionate reason.

Our symbiotic relationship to democracy means that political science cannot be value neutral, nor can we be neutral with respect to order versus chaos and war versus peace. In our particular investigations, we need to seek objectivity, a goal that is never realized but that we should strive for. Otherwise, people with other preferences or who do not know what our values are will have no reason to take our findings seriously. In the absence of a serious culture of objectivity, no cumulative increases in knowledge can take place. But the overall enterprise, despite what I have said about objectivity, can never be value neutral.  We should choose important problems because we care about improving human behaviour and human politics. We should explain those choices to our students and readers, and we should not apologize for making value-laden choices even as we search unflinchingly for the truth, as unpleasant as the truth may be.

I hope you will consult your values as well as the literature in deciding what to work on. Try to work on things that are important, where the answer matters to you.  It is not simply a puzzle, like you might solve a crossword puzzle; it is something that really matters, and if people knew the right answer to this puzzle or this anomaly, we would have a better world in one respect or another. In conclusion, let me express the hope that younger political scientists will see openings where we older political scientists see closure, and that you have ideas about how to move through those openings to the insights that surely lie behind them. There are certainly productive, new interpretations to offer and new descriptive and causal discoveries to be made. Some of you have already been formulating some of these new views. I look forward to your questions and to a stimulating discussion.

A Genealogy of the State by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript

Title: A Genealogy of Liberty
Presented by: Quentin Skinner
Presented on: November 9, 2011
Presented at: Nicholas D. Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University

  • This is a highly sanitised transcript.
  • Sections in square brackets are (mainly) digressions which can be skipped. Those between curly brackets are additions made to ensure proper grammatical sense.
  • The video lecture is embedded at the end of the post.

Why Genealogy?

In the modern world, we are all citizens of specific states and I am going to talk about the state. But before I get going, I do need to make three remarks as quickly as possible of a methodological kind. First, it seems to me that the best way — not the only way but the surest way — of getting at concepts is through their verbal expression and that is what I am going to do. So, I am very specifically going to talk — this is really important to my talk — historically about just those writers who talked not about the concept of the state but who talked about the ‘state’, who used that term to express a concept. Of course, you could be in possession of the concept without being in possession of the term. That raises large questions and I am evading them very deliberately. I am talking about those people who talked about the ‘state’. The second point — and this is to keep the material under control — (is that) I am going to concentrate exclusively on the Anglophone tradition. And this happens to be a story in which the Anglophone tradition, especially the contemporary American tradition, is of supreme importance.

Third, I am going to talk genealogically. If you ask why, I feel strongly that — [I have goten into so many muddles about this and genealogy has been a method that has really helped me. I want to say (that)] — it is not a choice. That with certain concepts — and the state is one of those — there’s no option but to proceed genealogically. And the reason that this method is forced upon us is that there has never been any agreed concept to which the term state has referred. And that is one of the things that I am going to try to show. It continues to be an aspiration in political science to provide neutral operative definitions of the state. This is an illusion. That cannot be done. Everything you’ll find out to have done is ideological. And the danger of political science becoming ideology is ever present and a way to avoid it is by genealogy.

What I am really saying is that what genealogy shows you is that there is no essence to the concept of the state. It doesn’t have natural boundaries. It has been in continuous contestation how we should think about this concept no less than the closely associated concept of political liberty. That is not at all to say that one understanding of the term and thus of the concept has not come to predominate because of course it has. There is a very strong tendency in recent times, and I think especially in Anglophone thought, to accept that the term state is simply a synonym for government. The issue is whether our political thinking has impoverished as a result of that. A genealogy of the state will bring to light other highly normative understandings of the state. Is there any loss in our having abandoned those? Or does genealogy free us to reimagine the state in more fruitful terms than the ways that we currently talk about it. I think that the answer to that has got to be yes and I am going to return to that explicitly at the end.

But let me first turn to my genealogy. I very aware that the strands of thinking that I am going to talk about are in origin in the early modern world and they are, by origin, mainly European traditions of political theory. We reach an international stage and we reach the shores of the United States about halfway through the lecture. Genealogies don’t have clear beginnings. But the nearest to a clear beginning in talking about the genealogy of the state — the earliest moment, as far as I can see, in which you come upon widespread discussions of statehood, the state, the powers of the state: that whole vocabulary — is at sometime around the very end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. That is more or less firm.

The Absolutist View

Where we begin is that the term state in this first period is used to refer to a specific type of civil association in which the community of people live in subject to the sovereign authority of a recognised ruling group, usually a monarch, who is designated as head of state. That is not to say that, in this period, the term state is the only or even the most usual one used to refer to this kind of civil association. Some writers prefer to speak about realms; some even talked about nations in this context. But eventually the concept of the state and its expression in those terms wins out. And it does so by quite a simple process which is a kind of semantic drift — this is very common in terms which have very strong normative content — (which) works as follows: in Renaissance discussions about advice to princes, which is a very large scale genre in Renaissance political philosophy, the most famous example being Machiavelli’s Il Principe (1513)… what these discussions are about, and this includes Machiavelli, is how a ruler, a prince, a principe, should act in order to maintain his state. This phrase echoes through Machiavelli. An example is mantenere lo stato which means your status. The question is how should you act in order to maintain your status, your standing, your stato, your state as a prince.

It is generally agreed that one of the things that you got to do as a prince if you are going to maintain your standing, your status, your stato as a prince, is to look after the body of the people. Even Machiavelli is extremely keen on that: if you don’t do that you’ll be hated; if you are hated, you will lose your stato… you will lose your position as a prince. As the French have it, there will be a coup d’etat, a blow against your state i.e., your state as a ruler, your condition as a ruler [etat, stato, just meaning your condition, status].

But if you can’t hope to maintain your status as a prince unless you keep the people in the body politic in good health, in security and in prosperity, then there is something that you have to maintain in order to maintain yourself: you have to maintain that body politic in good health and prosperity. The semantic drift is that mantenere lo stato, to maintain your state, comes to mean your maintaining your position and your maintaining your position by maintaining this thing, the state. And I think the Italian language is the first one in which — stato, which is what the Italians still use as their word lo stato, meaning the state as we would say — we see that semantic drift. It then happens very quickly in French and in English. And much later in German (staat).

So, the term is originally used as a head–body metaphor. There is a head of state and he is head of the body of the state. Now, there is a very celebrated work of history that we come upon at exactly this moment, Ernst Kantorowicz’s masterpiece, The King’s Two Bodies. Kantorowicz’s saw himself in this great work as tracing the emergence of the modern idea of the state. And he traced it in the idea which you find in late 16th century English discussions, specifically English law discussions, that kings have two bodies. They have the natural body but they also have an official body as head of state.

I am going to call this view the Absolutist View of the state. It is the idea that the proper metaphor for thinking of the state is that it is the head of a body: the body is the state; the head is the head of state, and that is the ruler. This is the first way of thinking about the state that develops in European political speculation and it develops in two strands of absolutist thought in the early modern period. On the one hand are writers on sovereignty (souveraineté, summa potestas) of whom the pioneer is Jean Bodin in the Six Books of the Commonwealth published in 1576, first translated into English as early as 1606. In the 1606 translation, Bodin begins by asking, and I quote it: “What makes a city or state?” And Bodin answers: “It is not the walls and not the subjects that make a city or a state but the union of the people in submission to a single sovereign as head of state”. Absolutely unambiguous and an extremely influential statement there.

The other strand of thinking in which this head–body imagery is taken just as seriously is in the theory which we’ve tended to call the Divine Right of Kings. (It is found) in the speeches of some monarchs themselves and most notably, King James I of Great Britain who is very fond of haranguing his own parliament on his role.He tells his parliament in the speech of 1605 and I quote:  “Kings are appointed by god himself with supreme authority over their states, over the whole body of our state.” You’ve got that semantic drift but it has moved because he is head of our state and that is what gives him the state of being a king.

Kantorowicz supposes that with those two strands of absolutism, we have the modern concept of the state: the idea of a head of state and the body of which he is the head. The absolutist view is one view — [Kantorowicz was writing in Germany in the 1930s and that is certainly one view of the state and in our current vocabulary we speak of people as heads of state]— but I am bound to say, although this is to criticize a masterwork of history, that Kantorowicz should have continued. He stops just around 1600 and if you do that, then this is indeed the only concept of the state that was current in political speculation. He would only have to go on two generations to find it vehemently denounced by a completely different and rival view about the state to which I now want to turn.

The Populist View

I am going to call this rival view the Populist view of the state as opposed to the Absolutist View. Populists agree that when we speak about the state we are referring to a civil union: that is to say, a union of people under a government. But what it is to be a populist in my terminology is to repudiate the head–body metaphor. You want to say: The people is not this kind of torso without a head so that it can’t act without a head. Of course, that is the persuasive force of the metaphor: without the head, the body can’t act. What the populist wants to say is that sovereignty — they are all talking about sovereignty and the state is sovereign — is possessed not by the head but by the body. The body of the people is itself sovereign. There’s the rival claim. You don’t have to have a head. The body is the sovereign power.

So, you find the term state being used in this rival way to refer not to a sovereign head of a body but to a sovereign body. Who speaks in those terms? We need to single out two completely distinct but convergent views about the state which I am calling Populist. First, although early modern Europe is largely monarchical — [it is amazing how Europe is still monarchical: Scandinavia, Britain, Netherlands, there it all is] — but there were some very important republics and they have their own tradition of political speculation, especially in Florence and in Venice in the 16th century, not merely describing institutions of republics but vindicating the idea of the Populist theory of the state. And I suppose the most important of all these treatises in the 16th century is Machiavelli’s Discorsi written about the idea of the Florentine republic. Just to say a word about Machiavelli, he grounds his preference for self-governing republics — [which is very strong: although he wrote a book about the prince, really his major work is vindication of self-governing republicanism] — on a view about how it is possible to remain free as a citizen of a self-governing state.

And the view of freedom that he puts forward — [it is written all over the Discourses] — is the one according to which you lose your freedom if you become dependent upon an arbitrary will. But of course, what Machiavelli wants to say — [Discourse II, the two opening chapters, that is the crucial passage] — is that if you live under a monarchy, you do live in dependence upon somebody’s arbitrary will. So, all monarchies enslave. If you want to live a vivere libero — as he wants to say in the Italian, if you want to live a free way of life — then you must live without dependence politically and that can only be achieved if you rule yourself.

What is the constitution under which you can rule yourself? Only a very broad based republicanism. And that story becomes fantastically important in its Anglophone version in James Harrington and then Algernon Sidney and for the Founding Fathers of the United States. That is why in Early modern political discourse republics are called free state to contrast them with monarchies; the vivere libero, because you can live free if and only if you live in a state by contrast with a monarchy i.e., a free state. So, there’s another very important pun: if you want to live in a free state, you’ve got to live in a free state.

Secondly and yet more important as a challenge to view that I began with is the challenge that arises actually out of the religious wars in France — [and then you could think of the English Revolution of the 17th century maybe as the last of the great religious wars of early modern Europe] — in which the attempt is being made to stop the forcible imposition of just one religion upon bodies of people.

The way in which that politics was challenged, first in France and then in Great Britain, was to insist that although governments may be invested with sovereign power, such sovereignty was originally the property of the people. So, you get this contractarian tradition emerging in which what is envisaged is an ‘as if’ story — of course, but there’s a thought experiment going on here — that if you envisage us without government, how are we? You’d have a body of the people, a society or societas of people and they would of course have all power to dispose of themselves as they wish. Now, they can set up any form of government they want but the governments they set up are mere delegates of their sovereign authority and if they find that those delegates are not acting for the good of the sovereign body, they can remove them.

So, there you have the whole structure of radical contractarianism running right through to John Locke at the end of the 17th century in the Anglophone tradition where tyranny is the usurpation of the sovereign power, the original sovereign power that is granted for good use to the common good to a government. The property of sovereignty is here seen as the property of the people and the people are equated with the state. That is what you find in the most important founding text of this tradition, the so-called Vindication Against Tyranny, the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, published at the height of the French religious wars as an attack on French monarchy in 1579. And it is the light of those same arguments that travels to Great Britain and becomes the foundation of the parliamentarian case against the Stuart monarchy in the 1640s and in 1649 when the British not only execute their king but abolish the institution of monarchy by an act of parliament — [they abolished monarchy forever in Great Britain and it lasted 11 years but they had a republic]. The great exponent of this exact view is John Milton whom we know as one of the greatest poets in the English language but he was also secretary to Oliver Cromwell and who was employed to write propaganda in favour of this radical image of the need to live in a free state and he publishes only months after the execution of the king his amazing tract called The Tenure of Kings and Majesties — here, we really do come to some of the texts which the Founding Fathers treated with such reverence especially this one. Of course, that is a joke in American universities because the point is kings and majesties don’t have tenure. You can get rid of them whenever you want. The tenure just means that they are tenants, they are not free holders. Who is the free holder? We are the free holders and I quote: “Sovereign power is held at all times by the body of the people or state nor can it be taken from them without a violation of their natural birth-right and it leaves them the authority to remove from power any ruler they judge to be a rebel to law and an enemy to the state.” So, there’s the Populist theory of the state. But what I want next to note is that no sooner has that vindicated the revolution in France and then the revolutionary movement in England than it in turn is vehemently attacked and we move into a third phase of the genealogy.

The Fictional View

Now, there are two prongs to this attack. One is that a number of writers just go back to the story about the Divine Right of Kings. The greatest exponent of that ideology, Sir Robert Filmer in the Anglophone tradition, has a final burst of energy after 1649 and writes his most important treatises between 1649 and 1651 — [not the one that John Locke replies to, Patriarcha, that is not published until much later] — denouncing the republic from the position of Divine Right theory. But I am more interested in the fact that there are some writers who denounce both the Absolutist theory and the Populist theory. They have nothing to do with either of these rival views about the state and the most important of those writers writing in the immediate aftermath of the English revolution — [think of this extraordinary confluence with John Milton who is his archenemy] — is Thomas Hobbes. And I want to talk about Hobbes’ theory of the state. It is his greatest contribution to Anglophone philosophy and it turned out to be fantastically influential. It is somewhat intricate and it will take me a few minutes to give you an exposition of it because, curiously, it is not part of his philosophy that I think has been well handled in the voluminous literature.

Hobbes opens his Leviathan — [1651, you see he writes at breakneck speed. He doesn’t begin writing until 1649. After the regicide, he has it published. He writes it in a year! He has it published by April 1651] — (or at least) the political part, Chapter XIII, by reflecting on what he calls the natural condition of mankind. And what that chapter is, and this isn’t often enough said, is a scathing attack on the Populist theory of the state. The Populist theory of the state says, by origin, that there was a society of people who had all sovereign power. Hobbes’ way of attacking that is to say that it can’t be that there is society of people with all sovereign power because there wasn’t a society. The natural condition of mankind is not a social condition. It is an anti-social condition. And he uses that vocabulary, he says — [of course, he’s famous for saying that it is nasty, brutish and short; it is a condition of war] — it is a non-social condition. It is asocial.

What’s wrong with the Populist theory of the state is that it is grounded on an illusion, according to Hobbes. There’s no such thing as a body of the people. That is just a construction. There’s no such thing in nature. In nature, there’s just each one of us at war with everyone else. So, there was no original possession of sovereignty by the body of the people because there was no original body of the people. Hobbes is a complete enemy of the Populist theory of the state. But also, a complete enemy of the Divine Right of Kings. He doesn’t like anyone! Because what Hobbes wants to say about sovereigns is that they’re just representatives. You’ll never find in Hobbes any of this genuflection towards monarchs — indeed he accepts a republic — that you find in theories of Divine Right. For Hobbes, there is no lawful authority unless you consent to it. He is a radical thinker. No lawful authority unless you have given your consent. And it has to be explicit consent. You have to have a covenant before you can become a subject. So, the notion that your subjection is owed to God having placed a political apparatus from heaven upon earth — Filmer’s kind of story — is, for Hobbes, a mere superstition. Politics is artifice; we make it. It is not God-given; it is man-made. That fundamental distinction is what we are seeing in the mid-17th century.

So, Hobbes repudiates both theories of the state and he has a rival view. His fundamental view is that a sovereign is just an authorised representative. That is what he wants you to understand. Sovereigns are very important: he’s an absolutist, no question. But sovereigns are just authorised representatives. So, he has to begin by telling us what he means by an authorised representative. What does it mean to be a representative? He has a very good answer. He is not interested in the visual notion of representation at all. For Hobbes, a representative is just like a court of law. A representative is someone whom you have authorised to speak in your name. Not just on your behalf but in your name. And the importance of the distinction is that when I authorise someone — [you know, I am in a court of law and I have committed a murder, this is a fiction of course, and I say to my counsel: Look, get me off. I don’t know how to do this. Speak for me. That is representation. And the judge says to me: Who represents you? I say: He’s the man. Listen to him. That is representation. It is as simple as that for Hobbes. It has to be an authorisation. I have to say: He is my representative. Now, what’s crucial about the notion is that] — he is not just speaking on my behalf but that he is speaking as me; his speaking in my name is that his actions are attributable to me. I am the author of his actions. So, I authorise him. I can only authorise him if I am his author. So, his actions as a representative are attributable to me as the represented person. That is sovereignty. The sovereign is an authorised representative and we do the authorising.

Now, here’s the question: if sovereigns are authorised representatives, what’s the name of the person they represent? It is very clear in a court of law. The judge says: Who do you represent? And he (the counsel) points to me. If a sovereign is the representative, who does he represent? You can’t say he represents the body of the people because there’s no such thing as a body of the people. So, Hobbes wants you to see that it is a big puzzle. To solve the puzzle, you have to focus on Hobbes’ idea of the political covenant. What he denies is the traditional idea of the political covenant which is the body of the people on the one hand and a designated and agreed sovereign on the other and they contract with each other on (certain) terms. [You can be king on (the) condition that ____. And in the famous Spanish oath which they gave to their kings, it ended with ‘and if not, not’ meaning you can do this if you are the king but if you (don’t) you’re not the king. That was the form of the oath.] That contract, Hobbes says, is just based on an illusion that the people is a legal entity. Of course, it is not. So, how can there be a covenant? Hobbes says there can be a covenant between each of us. [This is how you get a representative. You agree that way on a representative — you covenant with you and you and… or it could be some group of you or you could covenant… that is us, all of us are sovereign, that is called democracy that you can do; Hobbes thinks that is not a very clever idea because there’s too many of us but there’s nothing wrong with having a democracy, it is just that it is very hard to operate.] You covenant with each other as to choose and designate someone to be a representative. That analysis brings Hobbes to his central contention about the implications of the political covenant. And here’s the implication: when you do that (i.e., make the covenant and make a person the authorised representative) — [you each agree with the other that it is me, that is one possibility… probably not very wise but you might do that… by the way Hobbes has a mild preference for sovereigns being women because he says women are more prudent than men and that is what you want in a sovereign but men are stronger and that is why you get got kings. Here is what happens when you make that decision, man or woman, if it is a monarchy now you have decided. In making that person your authorised representative, you do something to yourselves] — from being a multitude, you (become) one, e pluribus unum. You were a multitude and now you’re one. What does that mean? It means you have one will because there’s one person here but his will now counts as your will because you authorised him to speak in your name and act in your name. His will in action is yours but that means that you now have one will. But if you have one will, then you are one person. I quote Hobbes: “A multitude of men are made one person when they are by one person represented”.

Now, I can go back to my original question. If the sovereign is a representative, what’s the name of the person he represents? Because it has got to be a person you’re representing. You can’t represent a multitude because they have a multitude of wills. You can only represent one will; one person. Hobbes gives an epoch-making answer to this question. He says: The person whom the sovereign represents is the person of the state. I quote: “The multitude so united in one person is called a Common-wealth, in Latin, civitas.” So, the sovereign represents the person of the state and that is what Hobbes calls it: the person of the state, quoting and translating Cicero, persona civitatis. Now, this person, Hobbes says, is a fiction. He’s not a real person. The state is not a real person. The state is a person, as Hobbes says, by fiction but, nevertheless, this fictional person is the sovereign, is the seat of sovereignty. The sovereign, the person we call the sovereign, is just a representative of this person. So, Hobbes categorically distinguishes the state not merely from the sovereign, who is the representative of the state, but also from the unity of the people, which changes all the time. Sovereigns come and go, individual members of the multitude or even the unus of the people are born and die, that is never unified, but the person of the state is always there. We have created, Hobbes says, a person with “an artificial eternity of life”. Or he says… it doesn’t actually work, states are not eternal but you want them to be eternal. You want them to be an artificial eternity.

Kantorowicz would say, and he does mention Hobbes, that this is precisely what the claims about kings in virtue of their having two bodies. So, Kantorowicz wants Hobbes to be in his story. He thinks it is a two-bodied story but if you have been following me, Kantorowicz is completely wrong here because we have got three bodies and that is what’s so crucial. This is why it is a separate theory. The first is the body of the sovereign, the man or woman in his or her natural person, that is to say of a certain age, of a certain demeanour [and that is actually quite important because kings should look like kings… the problem with Charles I was that he was only 4 foot 11; did you know that? It was a bit of a problem. Van Dyck had to be brought in with these enormous horses and then he was on top of the horses to make him look alright. So, there’s the king in his natural person.] But the king is sovereign, of course. So, he has, what Hobbes calls, an artificial person; that is to say, he is a representative. But he is a representative of a third person, it is a three-person story because the person he represents is the person of the state.

I am going to call this the Fictional theory of the state and before I leave it — [Hobbes’ great founding, it is a great moment in early modern political philosophy; massively taken up, as we are about to see, in continental European public law] — I want to underline two points about it. Notice that if you ask: What is the seat of sovereignty? On this account, the seat of sovereignty is the state not the sovereign although we call him/her sovereign. Secondly, notice that sovereigns are people with offices; they are representatives and just like in the court of law (where) my counsel has the duty to try to get me off, they have clear duties — Hobbes has a whole chapter on the duties of the sovereign. And what is the duty of the sovereign? The duty of the sovereign is to look after not the people — [you can’t look after all the people because they have different wills and different aspirations, but you can and you must look after the person of the people] —  but to look after the common good. Amongst the multitude, there is this person, there are things we will as citizens, there is a common good, there is a public interest. And the fundamental duty of the sovereign is to act in government such that all government actions are for the common good. If they are not, they are not acts of state because they do not procure the good of the person of the people. So, this is a view about what makes governments legitimate and that is what’s crucial about it. Government actions may or may not be legitimate. They are legitimate if and only if they are for the benefit of the person of the state i.e., for the common good of the people.

Alright, there’s Hobbes’ Fictional theory, I’ll call it. It is quite difficult to understand. It is quite intricate. I think it has been poorly understood in literature. But it was extremely well understood in European public law. And a group of absolutely crucial European writers on the jus gentium come forward with this theory. The first and in some ways the most important is Samuel Pufendorf in his great treatise on international law, the De jure naturae et gentium, 1672, in which he says: “My study is based on Mr. Hobbes’ ingenious draft of the person of the state.” I am quoting from the English translation of 1717. I quote Pufendorf again: “The state exists as one person endowed with its own understanding and will and performs particular acts distinct from those of the private members who make up its subjects. It is true that the state is just a moral person,” — what Rousseau is going to call a personne morale, quoting Pufendorf — “so, cannot act in its own name and stands in need of being represented. But the duty of the representative is to preserve the safety and tranquility of the state which is not merely the bearer of sovereignty but guarantees the legitimacy of government over time.”

Yet more important in the theory of International Relations, and indeed an absolute founder of the theory of International Relations and the greatest, according to Kant and Hegel, was Emer de Vattel in his book on the jus gentium called Le Droit des gens published in 1758, (translated into) English as quickly as 1760. I quote Vattel: “The state is a distinct moral person possessed of an understanding and a will peculiar to itself. This person is a fiction and may not act. If it is to speak and act, some agreed form of public authority must represent it. But the duty of that authority is to preserve the state i.e., the good of the people as a whole.” And that view of Pufendorf and Vattel comes into English common law and thus into American law with the extraordinary important date of 1765; (it is) beginning of the publication of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. These are philosophical preliminaries to that work which entirely take up this fictional theory of the state. The idea of a political contract, as Blackstone calls it, which issues in the creation of a sovereign state and he uses that vocabulary, of course. By that time, everyone is using this vocabulary. So, there’s the Fictional theory. And we have come to the mid-18th century.

Reactions to the Fictional View

But what happens now, and this is continuous dialogue I am talking about, towards the end of the 18th century (is that) this Fictional theory which holds the stage and is vital to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right — [in fact, it sort of is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; the state as the name of a person with a real will of its own: that is the whole point taken, of course, from the tradition I have been talking about. But in the Anglophone tradition, it] — branches out very suddenly towards the end of the 18th century and an almost lethal attack is mounted on it. And the attempted murder is committed by Jeremy Bentham. Bentham’s first published work was an extraordinarily violent attack on Blackstone and this whole tradition that Blackstone stood for in Bentham’s mind. The attack on the Fictional theory of the state rolled forward in two successive waves. They overlap with each other but let me, for heuristic purposes, try to separate them out from each other.

And the first is associated not just with Bentham but with the rise of classical utilitarianism. Bentham’s first work, the Fragment on Government of 1776, is his scornful critique of the whole discussion in Blackstone’s philosophical preliminaries about the state of nature, the contract, the forming of the person of the state. What does Bentham want to say about this? I quote: “The season of fictions is over. The time has come to ground legal argument on observable facts about real individuals. And especially in their capacity for experiencing, in relation to political power, the pain of restraint and the pleasure of liberty.” So, Bentham’s response to this discussion of the state of nature, the body of the people, the creation of the state is to say: It is not that I disagree with that. It is completely meaningless. There’s nothing to disagree with it. It is complete rubbish. It is an extraordinarily violent attack on this whole tradition to say that fictions have no place in the law. And that is the whole burden of Utilitarian jurisprudence. No fictions in the law. And, of course, the greatest fiction in law, in public law, at the time was the fiction that the state is a person. That attack has an incredible influence on early utilitarian thought.

[Here’s something you can try for yourselves. Try this at home. I defy you to find in any of the early utilitarians, in James Mill, in Godwin, even in the early John Stuart Mill, any discussion of the theory of the state. They think of it as a fiction; they think they’ve got to keep away from it. The exception is John Austin’s Lectures on Jurisprudence — a classic text of Utilitarian legal philosophy published in 1853, very influential on the development of English common law and in this country in the 19th century. But Austin mentions the state in order to dismiss it. And I quote: “When we speak of the state, we must understand that we are merely referring to the actual bearer of sovereign power.” So, the state and the sovereign are just the same thing. The sovereign might be the people, it might be the monarch, or whatever you like but notice that he is already saying that the word state and the word government are just synonyms. Don’t get yourself tied up with anything fancy is what they are telling you as strongly as possible.]

It is true that in the generation after the high tide of utilitarian legal philosophy in the mid-19th in England, there’s an interesting moment of reversal and that comes with something which also preoccupied me, a very interesting moment in Anglophone political philosophy: a sudden insurgence of Hegelian theories of the state into Anglophone discourse. At the end of the 19th century, this suddenly becomes rather important. And by a curious irony, a theory which was Anglophone in origin — Hobbes’ theory of the state as the name of a person which will become central to Hegel’s theory of the Reichstaat — is brought back into Anglophone discourse as Hegelian theory and the leading exponent of it is Bernard Bosanquet in his book The Philosophical Theory of the State, 1899. The philosophical theory of the state, according to Bosanquet, is dual. This is where  he is a real Hegelian and not a Hobbesian. The state is the name of a person, a separate person; it is separate from the sovereign; it is separate from the people. But it is not the name of a fictional person. It is the name of a real person. The state is a real person with a real will of its own and the will of the state is your rational will. So, it gets very sinister at this moment. If you’re thinking rationally, you will obey the state because you’ll thereby be obeying your own true will. And that in German philosophy… it is very interesting that Carl Schmitt uses this way of thinking as a defence of Nazism in his book on the state in the 1930s. His hero is Hobbes. He is quite right about that. This is Hobbes’ theory. But, of course, it is seen as a Hegelian theory. The distinction is that Hobbes is quite clear that the state is a fiction. Whereas this tradition is quite clear the state is a real person. By the way, what do we mean by a real person? Philip Pettit has just written an amazing book on the identity of corporate persons in which he thinks that corporate persons are real persons and that the state is a corporate person. And is that a real person? We really have to think what we mean by a person before we dismiss too easily the notion that the state might be the name of a real person.

What happened in Anglophone political discourse is — I am sure you know all of this — that this is regarded as really obvious and very sinister nonsense, and there is a huge reaction especially after the First World War. Leonard Hobhouse, in his book The Metaphysical Theory of the State, which is a kind of satire on Bosanquet, says: I read this book in London and as the bombs were dropping I saw myself realise the folly of the Hegelian theory of the state. There’s the idea of the state as a real person and look what it did to London. “It is positively sinister,” I am now quoting Hobhouse “to think of the state as anything more than the name of a governmental organisation and its apparatus of power. When we speak of the powers of the state, we are simply referring to acts of government.” So, there it is. So too does Harold Laski, very influential in the early 20th century, say in his major work, Authority in the Modern State. I quote: “When we talk about the state, we are merely referring,” now he’s been reading Weber, listen to this, “to a prevailing system of sovereign authority together with an associated apparatus of bureaucracy and coercive force which operates over some determinate territory.” So, there’s Weber’s definition of the state, an attempt to insulate it and make it purely operational. So, there’s the first wave of the attack on the idea of the state as a person.

The second wave of the attack that I want to talk about was already well underway by this time. Notice that Laski in 1919 is still content to assume something that no theorist of the state that I have talked about so far has ever doubted which is that states are sovereign bodies. But by the time Laski was writing, it was exactly that union of the notion of the state and the notion of sovereignty which was beginning to be cast in serious doubt. If you think of early modern theories of sovereignty in relation to the theory of the state, what is the theory of sovereignty the Bodin initiates, that Hobbes takes up quite explicitly from Bodin, is that what it means to be sovereign is to be able to command without being commanded. That is Bodin’s epigram. That is sovereignty. So, it is unitary. And it is absolute. And it is lodged with the state. The e’tat of the state. The state commands but it is not commanded within its territory. That is sovereignty.

It began to be noted after the First World War that if that is sovereignty then states are not sovereign. And the best example in here, the United States’ President played an extraordinary role, is the establishment by the League of Nations in 1922 of the Court of International Justice because that court — of course after the First World War which in a way had been sort of civil war — was there in order to question the sovereignty of individual states and to insist that there was a legal authority threat had the right to infringe the legal sovereignty of states with its own superior jurisdiction. Reflecting on these changes, what you then find is that a growing number of political theorists in the 20s and 30s disjoin the notion of sovereignty from the state. They may be states but they can’t be sovereign, is what they are saying. I quote, for example A. D. Lindsay, a very influential programmatic statement of this in 1920. I quote: “The first thing to be said about the doctrine of the independent sovereign state is that political fact obviously outrun it We have lived on into a world where the state as the be all and end all of political theory is finally out of date. We now stand in need of a theory focussed instead in the international arena and on the prospects of a world-state.”

If you think of the closing decades of the 20th century, you find the decline and the fall of the sovereign state as an absolute cliché of political theory and International Relations theory alike. And in the last decades of the 20th century, a large literature especially in International Relations theory emerges. Some really important figures, Richard Falk for example, repeatedly draw our attention to the discrediting of the idea of state sovereignty. What discredited it? Well, various obvious things are pointed to, the most obvious being the rise of multinational corporations and other institutions of international reach. And multinational corporations especially in the developing world with their power to control investment and conditions of employment are visibly able to coerce local states into doing what they want and regularly demand special deals in relation to employment and, indeed nowadays, in relation to laws about the conservation of the local environment because if these special deals are not given, they will withdraw their capital. The state is powerless in the face of these in the developing world. The notion of state sovereignty has completely evaporated in the face of such international agencies.

But as well as these agencies, what we are continually observing now in our world — and here the extraordinary development, in my lifetime, of an overarching ideal of Human Rights (which) has played a very important role — in the increasing development of international legal organisations. [The United States has rather resisted these and you are not actually signatories to the Convention on Human Rights and to the law that underpins that because … let’s not go into that. But all other civilised states are. That is all I can say.] The crucial thing about this is that this is a jurisdiction which totally supervenes upon the legal jurisdictions of the member states. It totally supervenes upon it. The International Convention on Human Rights, for example, totally supervenes upon the common law of the United Kingdom and they are regularly in collision. It is very important that… it is a highly reformist thing having a convention on human rights because the convention on Human Rights prevents the discrimination for example on grounds of sex or age or religion. All of these are scheduled as Human Rights. All of these is jurisprudence which is international.

So, what has become of the sovereign state? It looks as if it has evaporated. And so, so great a writer as Richard Falk says, and I quote him: “The old statist categories that have informed diplomacy and statecraft for centuries are now so evidently superseded that we shall soon cease to describe political life in these terms at all. The power of individual states is in terminal decline. The state is shrinking, retreating, fading into the shadows and the concept has lost any theoretical significance.” Frank Ankersmit — an extremely influential the Dutch political theorist — in an article last year concluded, and I quote him, just to round of before I tell the moral of this tale: “Now, for the first time in more than half a millennium, the state is on the way out.” That was written last year and my genealogy comes down to today.

From Genealogy to Critique

I want to turn now from genealogy to critique. Genealogy is always critique. So, what is the relationship in this case? Isn’t it striking that we have an extremely complex intellectual heritage in talking about the state. And we have chosen to confront it in this extremely etiolated way in which what we want to say is: Well, it is just a way of talking about government if nothing else. This seems to be deeply unsatisfactory. Of course, states are no longer sovereign but don’t you feel that this announcement of the death of the state is a little bit premature. I mean the world’s leading states remain the principal actors on the international stage. How can that be denied? Furthermore, they are unquestionably the most significant political actors within their territories, at least in the developed world. It is a very different matter in the less developed world. But here states are more aggressive than they used to be. They’re patrolling borders with increasing attention and are maintaining unparalleled levels of surveillance and information about their citizens. They are also interventionist in interesting ways. [I was in the United States under the Bush regime in September 2008 when the state — although he didn’t call it that, he called it a republic— stepped forward as the lender of last resort to save capitalism. It had to be done.] Meanwhile, these states continue to print money; I mean more and more of it. They continue to impose taxes, to enforce contracts, to engage in wars, a lot of wars, to imprison and otherwise penalise errant citizens, they legislate with an unparalleled degree of complexity. What other institution in the world except states does any of those things legally? None. So, what is all this stuff about the end of the state? It is pure inattentiveness. Where are these people living?

The state exists. But the question that remains is: are we operating with the right understanding of the state? Have we lost something serious in political reflection by simply equating state with government? What about the Absolutist Theory of the state? What about the Populist View of the state? What about the Fictional View of the state?

I am quite clear that the Absolutist and the Populist View of the state are of no conceptual interest for us here and now. But the Fictional View of the state, in my view, should have never been set aside.  And that is a point that is being made now by a number of legal and political philosophers — Janet Mclean, Runciman, Philip Pettit, Brian Trainor. A number of legal and political philosophers just in these last four or five years have started to say that we really cannot do without the idea of the state as a fictional person. I completely agree.

I’ll make two points. One arises from the fact that, as we saw, a key contention of the Fictional theory is that the person of the state is,  by intention at least,  immortal. It is possessed, you remember Hobbes, with an artificial eternity of life. It seems to me that in the present state of contract law — we can imagine contract law very different, but in the present condition — I do not see how you can coherently do without that idea in talking about the actions of states. Let me take the most obvious example. It is very interesting how this example is now being talked about. It is only three years old, this example, but it is of overwhelming importance to all of us now: something that is now being called sovereign debt. Interesting. Sovereign debt. Who owns this debt? That is the question. We have these unbelievable burdens of debt in Europe and in the United States and who is the debtor? You can’t say: Well, it must be the body of the people.  Perhaps the most important fact about 2008 in the western world was that the people were not asked. There was no contract with the people. We cannot be the debtor. Furthermore, if it is claimed that we are the debtor, then it is very important that we can’t pay. The level of debt is such that it will have to be repaid over the lifetime of our children’s children. The people cannot pay. But also, they didn’t enter into this debt. So, who is the debtor? Not the people.  So alright we say: Government debt. Obviously, it is government debt. Well that would be nice. Because if the government was the contracting force when the government changes the debt goes. That would be good. But that is ridiculous. That is not going to happen. Changes of government do not produce changes of debt. That is why they are calling it sovereign debt. But sovereign debt is a very stupid way of thinking about it. It is state debt. That is the debtor. The state is the only person who can claim to be the debtor. Because the state has artificial eternity of life. We are all going to be dead long before this money is paid back if it is ever paid back. So, there must be a debtor who is there to do the paying. That can only be the person of the state.

But there is another point. And it is far more important than the first. Remember that the Fictional theory did not equate government with state because the reason it wanted to hold those apart was that it wanted to be able to judge the legitimacy of the actions of government. When we talk of the state as a fiction, we are not introducing any new material into the world. We are seeing ourselves under a special description. We are seeing ourselves as a union who have many different interests within the union but who have certain common interests. Those common interests of the people as a union are the interests of the person of the people. The person of the people is the name of the state. Government action is legal if and only if it is for the benefit of that person. And that is a view about how to judge the legitimacy of democratic governments which so powerful that I simply can’t imagine why we ever gave it up.

A Genealogy of Liberty by Quentin Skinner — Lecture Transcript

Title: A Genealogy of Liberty
Presented by: Quentin Skinner
Presented on: October 27, 2016
Presented at: Stanford Humanities Center for the Harry Camp Memorial Lecture 

  • This is a sanitized transcript intended for reading. The video is embedded at the end if you’d rather watch it.
  • Sections in square brackets are digressions which can be skipped. Those between parentheses are corrective or complementary additions.
  • Images are screenshots from the lecture video.


As has been noted, the requirement of the occasion is that the lecturer should address “an issue concerned with the dignity and worth of the individual, both in its historical development and in its present significance”. And that was what decided me to try to say something about the concept of liberty which is surely the core concept in our thinking about the dignity and worth of the individual. Since, in speaking of liberty or freedom — I shall use those terms interchangeably — we are undoubtedly referring to one of our core moral and political values, it would be good if I could work towards a definition of the term on which we might, at least in principle, be able to agree.

But here, I am a Nietzschean and that’s, of course, reflected in my title. And what Nietzsche has to say about these definitions in On the Genealogy of Morality (is that) concepts that have histories cannot have definitions. This is a really deep point. Of course, some concepts have definitions but if they have a history, they can’t. Freedom is unquestionably one such concept because the meaning and the application of the term have been contested throughout the history of the modern world. So, there is a big methodological question how, in such a case, should we proceed. And I am going to follow Nietzsche’s suggestion: which is, by genealogy — trying to see how the concept evolved in our culture but also how it was contested, how rival understandings of how to think about it emerged and did battle.

[Nietzsche loves this idea that concepts… I mean Wittgenstein tells us that these concepts are tools. Nietzsche prefers to say: No, they’re weapons. We are doing battle here and these are all ideological conflicts. So, this kind of genealogy is what I shall attempt.]

However, this is obviously a vast undertaking and I am going to have to do something arbitrary to bring my materials under some kind of control. So, what I have decided to do — it is arbitrary — is to concentrate on the genealogy as it unfolds in the English language tradition of classical liberal political philosophy. Why? Because if I make that my focus, I am not simply tracing a descent or a series of descents. I am also pointing to a set of views that are alive in our culture here and now and which help to supply many of us with an element of our moral and political identity.

The Liberal Concept

To begin, within the classical liberal tradition, the earliest treatise in which the concepts of civil and political liberty are systematically analysed is also, as it happens, one of the most important works of political philosophy in the English language. And that is Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, first published in 1651. Chapter 21 of Hobbes’s Leviathan is entitled ‘Of the Liberty of Subjects’ and that really inaugurates the modern discussion. I don’t think that’s in dispute and that’s why I am going to start there.

A further merit of beginning with Hobbes is that his understanding of civil liberty has turned out to be extraordinarily influential so that his analysis is also a very familiar one as this shows us at once.

Quentin Skinner A Genealogy of Liberty 01

Within the classical liberal tradition, the earliest treatise in which the concepts of civil and political liberty are analysed is (in) Hobbes and we’re looking at the analysis. And I have called this ‘The Liberal Concept’.

And as you see, it’s a very simple concept: it just has two components. It proposes that for an individual to enjoy freedom as a citizen of a state, there must be power on the part of the individual to act in pursuit of a given option or, at least, alternative and there must be no interference on the exercise of that power by any external agency.

So, let me take these two ideas in turn. First, power. Hobbes insists — and this is a valuable insistence — that it makes no sense to talk about freedom except in a relation to whether you have a power to perform that action or not. That’s contrary to a very strong tendency in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy which is to suppose — I mean I quote Jerry Cohen, for example, in his essay Freedom and Money — that “inability is a sufficient condition of unfreedom” or — Amartya Sen makes the same claim in his great treatise, Development as Freedom. I quote — (that) “if you are unable to perform an action, you are unfree to perform it.”

Now, Hobbes suggests, avant la lettre obviously but usefully, that that is not a good way to think about the relationship. He would want to say that if you lack the power to act in a certain way — I don’t know what… the power to walk on water — then you are neither free to do that nor are you unfree to do that because you are simply unable to so it. And if you are simply unable, the question of freedom does not arise: you are not free but you are not unfree; we’re in the wrong discourse; you are just unable. You can put that point the other way around and if you do so, you bring out it’s philosophical significance; which is that if you are unfree to act in some particular way, that must be because you have been disempowered by some identifiable agency. This is the point that Foucault, in his discourses of power, has made important, made famous, in our time. All talk about freedom is nested within discourses of power and that seems, to me, right. And that’s the Hobbesian thought — Foucault, of course, taking it from Hobbes.

I turn secondly to this idea of interference. Hobbes’s claim, here, is, in effect, about how to understand this idea of disempowerment. You’re said to be disempowered, and hence unfree, if and only if someone has interfered with your capacity to exercise a power. So, on this analysis, freedom simply consists in absence of interference by such external agencies.

[By the way… I mean that explains why in current political theory freedom is so often defined as a negative concept. Not wrongly because the suggestion that we have got here is that the presence of freedom is always marked by an absence. And if you ask me what absence? the answer is absence of interference. That marks the presence of liberty.]

So, there’s Hobbes’s view. But obviously, that doesn’t get us very far because if freedom turns out to consist in absence of interference, then what is interference? That’s not a clear concept at all. But it turns out that freedom is the blank: freedom is the negative concept. What we’ve actually got to understand is interference. That’s where all the conceptual work is being done.

Of course, Hobbes hasn’t failed to notice that and he goes on to give us an account of interference. And again, it’s an extremely straightforward one. Here’s Hobbes’s understanding of the concept of interference.


External agencies are said to interfere when they act on the body of the individual in such a way that an action within the power of the individual is prevented or compelled. Notice (that there are) always two modalities for taking away freedom. You can stop someone from acting or you can prevent them from doing anything else. So, limiting choices. Two modalities of limiting choices due to the application of physical force by the external agency in such a way that any alternative is rendered impossible.

So, we have arrived at Hobbes’s definition of freedom. Freedom is, I quote the beginning of Chapter 21, “absence of external impediments to motion”. There is the Hobbesian analysis.

May we just contemplate it for a moment and as you do so, you’ll immediately notice one very important implication which I need to underline. It is said to be only bodily interference that takes away freedom of action. So, the implication here is that if it is only your will that is coerced… I mean, if, for example, you only obey the law because you are frightened of the consequences of disobedience — which is the state’s standard assumption about you — then what Hobbes wants to say is that when you obey the law, you are nevertheless acting freely and you are always free to disobey. Because this is only coercion of the will and that does not take away freedom.

Again, Chapter 21 of Leviathan, “Fear and liberty are consistent.” Hobbes really means that and he doesn’t illustrate but one can illustrate it with an example which is extremely common in early modern philosophy — John Locke, for example, uses it — and this is the example of the highwayman. The highwayman is the person who points the gun and says Your money or your life? Hobbes says You’re being offered a choice! That’s what you have to recognise. You’re being offered a choice. You could decide to hand over your money or you could decide to hand over your life. But choice is freedom and that’s a choice. And Hobbes summarises this in a nasty joke when he says that when you decide to hand over your money, you not only do it willingly, and therefore freely, but very willingly.

So, there’s the Hobbesian analysis of what I am calling the ‘Liberal’ view of freedom. It’s a version of that view. And it’s important for me to add because I am doing genealogy this evening, that this way of thinking remains widely endorsed in contemporary political philosophy. For example, you’ll find exactly this view elaborated and defended in two of the most ambitious recent works on the theory of individual freedom. I am thinking of Ian Carter’s book with Oxford, The Measure of Freedom, or Matthew Kramer’s book, also with Oxford, The Quality of Freedom. So, this genealogical strand runs right down into our own time.

Looking at this though, you might think, look, something has obviously gone wrong in the Hobbesian analysis because something is amiss with this analysis that there is compatibility of freedom with coercion of the will. And the view that there is something amiss with that thought was what got taken up in the next generation after Thomas Hobbes. So, I now… my genealogy is already on the move. I am moving down into this next generation and in particular in the criticism to be found in the most celebrated work of political philosophy in the Anglophone tradition of that next generation, namely John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government first published in 1689.

I want to say a word about Locke’s retort to Hobbes. Locke agrees, of course, that you’re unfree to act if you’re prevented bodily from exercising a power. It would be remarkable to deny that. You’d get into the Stoic paradoxes of freedom if you denied that. But Locke wants to insist that you will also be rendered unfree whenever your will is coerced. Here is Locke in Paragraph 176 of the Second Treatise: “Should a robber break into my house and with a dagger at my throat make me seal documents to convey my estate to him? Would that give him title?”

The question is purely rhetorical because what Locke wants you to agree is that in such a predicament, you really do not have an alternative. It’s really idle to say that you have an alternative. So, coercion of the will may not render the action impossible — which of course is Hobbes’s condition, the impossibility condition — but it certainly renders it, what Locke calls, “ineligible”. Ineligible: that’s to say, it’s not an object of choice. You’d never choose it. So, to that degree, you just are not free. The addition of Locke’s critique makes the genealogy look like this.


We now have Thomas Hobbes over on the extreme left wing — he doesn’t want to be there but that’s where I have put him. There is Hobbes’s analysis coming down on the left-hand side. — or most people within the classical liberal tradition have wanted to say that a bending of the will by coercion also takes away freedom of action. Notice, however, that we are now dealing with a concept that makes no appearance in Hobbes’s analysis as it’s coming down the left-hand side here — that of coercion. And indeed, according to this view, if you’re going to understand freedom, that is one of the fundamental concepts that you’ve got to understand.

Now, you see how clever Hobbes was. Because what do we mean by coercion? That’s not a clear concept at all but it’s suddenly being made central to the liberal analysis. You’d think that Locke — the founder, as it were, of the Anglo-American liberal story — would have something to tell us about coercion. He gives no analysis of this concept in the Treatises of Government. It is a very surprising omission. All he does is to give us some of what he takes to be clear examples of coercion. So — the usual fatal move in analytical political philosophy — he invites you to consult your intuitions and you think Yes, that’s definitely coercion. He gives four examples: threats, promises, offers, bribes. All of these, he says, ‘bend the will’ and, in that way, take away your freedom.

But don’t those examples point to the need for an analysis because if we were consulting our intuitions we would surely want to say This list is looking a bit dubious. Consider, for example, the fact that the list includes bribes. Is it really true that if I offer you a bribe I coerce you into acting in a certain way? Suppose a politician accused in court of having accepted a bribe assures the judge that he should not be held responsible because the sum of money involved was simply so enormous that he had no choice. (And that) he couldn’t fail to take it. That’s not going to be a legal defence, oddly enough. What this shows is that the Lockean account needs something that Hobbes deliberately keeps free of.  We’ve got to engage with this idea of what it means for the will to be coerced. That’s to say, what’s to count as the sort and extent of the bending of the will that we do want to say takes away freedom. That’s not something that Locke provides and as far as I can see, there’s no one in the Anglophone classical liberal tradition who really faces this squarely until Jeremy Bentham does in his great treatise written in the 1780s called On the Limits of the Penal Branch of Legislation.

So, the genealogy is now moving from the late 17th-century down towards the late 18th-century. Bentham proposes that we need to distinguish two different ways in which you can bend someone’s will. Fundamentally two opposed ways. One is that you can promise that you will reward them for compliance with your will. So, I say something like If you do what I want, I’ll give you a million dollars. Now, if you refuse you’re no worse off. If you accept you’re better off. You’re a million dollars better off. Contrast that, Bentham says — he doesn’t give the dollars example — with a case where I threaten you with penalties for non-compliance with my will. So, for example, I say If you don’t do what I say I’ll kill you. So, in that case you either comply with my will in which case you’re no better off or you don’t comply with my will in which case you’re substantially worse off. In fact, you’re dead!

Bentham’s proposal is that coercion, we can only properly speak of in the second type of case. The second type of case is coercion — that is, threatening me with penalties for non-compliance — as long, Bentham adds, as certain features of the threat itself are fulfilled. And these are, I think, ingenious and important. One is the threat must be credible. That’s to say, you’re going to have to avoid this threat. Secondly, the threat must be serious. That’s to say, well worth avoiding it. And thirdly, it’s got to be immediate. So to speak, you can’t run away; you’re going to have to face it. So, if there is a threat which fulfils those three criteria, then coercion is what we are facing.

Now, in contemporary political philosophy, there’s been a lot of work done on coercion. Some of the classic work was done by Robert Nozick, especially a major essay of his called Coercion. And he, of course, uses Bentham’s analysis — everyone has used Bentham’s analysis — and he ingeniously points out that it doesn’t quite work because you can think of cases where there would be a reward which is nevertheless coercive. But what I think we’d have to say — and which even Nozick agrees with — is that Bentham has isolated the paradigm case of coercion and so I think we can incorporate the refinement.


Coercion is rendering alternatives ineligible standardly and basically by means of threats so long as the threats are credible, immediate and serious.

Is that perhaps the analysis of freedom that you want? If so, this is a very short lecture. It’s worth asking that question because within the classical liberal tradition the answer that we have unhesitatingly been given for a long time was Yes, that is it. That’s the analysis we want of the idea of freedom. And indeed, you might reflect on the most celebrated single contribution in our time to my subject this evening, namely Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, Two Concepts of Liberty. Among the two concepts that he analyses, Berlin has a preferred account of freedom. So, what is his favoured account? You’re looking at it. That’s his preferred account. So, it’s entitled to our very respectful attention because notice again the genealogy has come right down to our time.

However, within the liberal tradition there arose a further complicating moment with the publication of what is undoubtedly the most celebrated text on my exact topic this evening, namely John Stuart Mill’s essay called On Liberty of 1859. One of the moves that Mill makes in that very original text is to point out that that the liberal tradition thus far — and he is thinking of what I have been talking… he’s thinking about Hobbes, he’s thinking about Locke, he’s thinking about the utilitarians, of course, and especially Bentham — endorses one principle that Mill considers questionable. And there it is … at the middle at the top of the chart: that freedom consists in the absence of interference with the exercise of your powers by external agencies. That’s to say, by another person, or by a group or, important of course for these writers, natural agencies: anything that threatens to leave you powerless.

But what Mill asks in Chapter 3 of the essay On Liberty is this: Is it true that freedom is necessarily interpersonal in this way that we’re looking at? or Could it be the case, somehow, that the agent who takes away your freedom could be you? It’s not interpersonal… that you could be the agent of the destruction of your own freedom. As soon as you entertain that thought, the liberal tradition begins to look a lot more complicated and this complication is one of the major nodes of late 19th-century social and political philosophy as people begin to ask Can we make sense of this radical extension of the classical liberal tradition? So here it is with the extension added.


No interference by external agencies or, some people want to add, by the self. The self can prevent or compel its own actions due to the operation of… what? How are we going to start to fill this out? That’s the analytical challenge that we now face. Here we are wading into extremely deep philosophical waters about the notion of the self. And is it a divided notion in the way that this is presupposing? But the writers that I am interested in this tradition this evening are resourceful about this and have a number of answers and here is the first.


The suggestion is that the will, so to speak, can ally itself either with reason or with some passion of the soul — as Descartes would call it, some passions de l’âme: anger or envy or hatred or something that just blows you away. Where the resulting action is motivated not by one of those passions but by reason conquering those passions, the resulting action is said to be free. That’s a free action. Notice very strong conceptual connection being suggested here between freedom and reason. Where on the other hand it is passion that has blown you away, the resulting action is held to be not fully free.

The writers who like to think in these terms from the 17th-century onwards make a distinction between liberty and license. If you’re acting out of passion, that is not free action. That is licentious action. It’s only if you’re acting according to freedom as your motive that you act freely. There are deep roots for that view. For example, what I just said is a paraphrase of what John Locke already says in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690. Mill certainly alludes to this idea especially when he is comparing the higher and lower pleasures when he is criticising Bentham. But Mill isn’t so much interested in (passions). Mill is much more interested in what he takes to be a second possible internal constraint on our freedom and it’s this.


Mill introduces this suggestion with the claim that, as he says at the start of the essay, “In our time,” — he’s speaking of mid-Victorian England — “the yoke of law has become lighter but the yoke of opinion has become heavier.” I think that’s right in as much as most of the protests that were offered in the name of freedom in the early modern period were offered in the name of freedom as against the state. But Mill, who is here closely following his elder contemporary Tocqueville, is much more impressed by the power not of the state but of civil society within the state to limit your freedom. And that that happens through demands for conformity to convention. Demands of civil society — they are implicit demands of civil society — for you to follow certain norms and conventions of behaviour. And Mill thinks that where that demand is very strong, as he thought it was in 19th-century Britain, then the effect will be to cause you inauthentically to internalise those social norms until you follow them in preference to your authentic desires. He is very concerned about this point. I quote Chapter 3 — it’s a beautiful epigrammatic passage of the essay On Liberty: “The people of England think themselves free but they choose what is customary in preference to their inclination until it does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary.”

So, people — this is Mill’s point — are not reflecting on their choices and if you don’t stand back in this Socratic way that he always asks you to do from your choices, then they’re not genuinely free choices because you’re simply allowing the circumpressures of your society to dictate what you think are your choices.

I have spoken of Mill as the great spokesman for that view in the Anglophone classical tradition of liberalism and I think that is correct. But notice that that came down to our time in existentialist moral philosophy which is an enormous extension of just that idea of how the self can enslave the self through inauthenticity.

Let me round up this part of my discussion by adding a word about one other possibility in late 19th-century social philosophy although I have to say that this will cause me to skid off my purely English language track just for a moment although the works I want to talk about are all translated into the English language. So here is the possibility that I want to put before you.


The idea that you might undermine your own freedom by acting with a consciousness which is false. False to what? False to your own true or real interests. Maybe not false to your phenomenal desires but false to your real interests. Notice how close Mill comes to this when he talks about the permanent interests of men — he’s talking about men always, I am sorry — as progressive beings.

But the classic expression in late 19th-century social philosophy of this view is in Karl Marx. And Marx’s key suggestion is, as you know, that social being determines consciousness. If your consciousness is determined by society in which freedom of action is conceived of in bourgeoise terms, then you will become the agent of your own servitude. Because you will be endorsing a bourgeoise — and Marx would wish to say a false — understanding of what is in your real interest. And I don’t need to tell you that that strand of genealogy has also come powerfully down into our own time especially through the German tradition. But Habermas — the great exponent of the distinction between phenomenal desires and real interests in social philosophy in our time — has of course been in the English language since the 1960’s and so this part of the liberal story also comes down to our time.

[I seem to be in a Foucauldian mood this evening — Foucault of course famous for the claim that there’s no such thing as an exhaustive taxonomy. That must be right! And in any case, I want to leave the enquiry as open as we can possibly leave it. We are talking about freedom. So, I would be very happy if people had more say about that in the discussion.

By the way, the most obvious thing that’s going to occur to us is the unconscious. Freud always saw himself as a theorist of freedom and very unfortunately sexist way of putting it but he said the aspiration of his theory was to make people a master in their own house again. That’s to say… well, you all know the theory and it skids away from social philosophy so I haven’t talked about it but there might be other candidates besides Freud’s theory.]

We know have — I think you’d agree — an array of different conceptions of freedom and it’s definitely beginning to look like a genealogy in that some choices are required, there are disputes here which are going to be irresolvable: some people are going to say We don’t want to add the self; some are going to say We have to add the self; some are going to say The external interference has to be only bodily; some are going to say It includes the will. So, there is no way of turning this into a narrative now. This is the collision that Nietzsche talks about.

However, we should notice that all of what you’re looking at have one basic element in common as they explicate freedom. They all think of it as absence of interference. Notice, interference turned out to be an incredibly complex concept. There it is at the top. It’s doing all the work. It’s all about what it means for there to be interference. Intrusions of various kinds — they may well up from you, they may be circumpressures of your society, they may come from the state: they’re all intrusions — are all interferences.

The Hegelian Concept

But towards the very end of the 19th-century — which is where my genealogy has now reached — a number of Anglophone political philosophers begin to argue that what you’re looking at is radically incomplete. And these are the people who are drawing on the philosophy of Hegel who had argued that to think of liberty like this — as Hegel says in a wonderful passage in The Philosophy of Right only the English could be so crude. This is freedom? You haven’t even started!

This is the negative moment of a dialectic. Freedom is a dialectical moment. You are free from something but you’re also free to do something. Of course, the liberal tradition is not without a response to Hegel. And you find the response at the top of the chart. We want to be impeded. If you ask impeded from doing what? The answer is impeded from doing whatever you want. That’s the glory of the liberal tradition. It doesn’t block that off.

You could say, therefore, that there’s always kind of positive element in the notion of freedom because you can always ask why you want to be free from impediments. I mean, what is this freedom for? Why is it a value for you? And that is a positive question. But I so think it’s a great strength of this tradition that I have so far laid out that it answers the Hegelian question with whatever you want. Although, of course — and Mill is famous for this — within the bounds of what he calls the ‘harm principle’: whatever you want, provided it doesn’t harm others.

But I need at this stage to notice a very different answer that rose to prominence in English language political philosophy at the very end of the 19th-century. And according to the view of things that I now want to say a word about, we want to be free not in order merely to act at will so that it’s a kind of blank space but rather, in order to act in such a way — and here’s the Hegelian thought — as to realise the essence of your nature.

In Anglophone political philosophy, the leading exponent of this view was the philosopher T.H. Green (and also) of course, F.H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet (and) a large number of philosophers at the turn of the 19th– into the 20th-centuries. Green wrote an essay called On the Different Meanings of Freedom. And he ends by saying: “To be free is to have realised that which we have in ourselves to become.”

So, being and becoming (are) very important in this Hegelian way of thinking about freedom. And according to this view, we ought, therefore, to characterise as free — that’s to say truly free, wirklich, real freedom as Hegel would say — only those persons who, as Green puts it, have in fact acted in such a way as to realise the essence of their nature.

Notice that a wide conceptual gulf has now opened up at this point between this view and everything that we’ve so far looked at. The Hegelians do not think of freedom as absence of interference on any understanding of interference. Rather, they’re claiming that freedom is self-realisation.


What has happened is that this tradition of thinking has helped itself to a massive additional premise which is that human nature is normative. There’s a normativity in human nature which this is saluting. And that’s Hegel’s objection to the liberal tradition. It doesn’t accept the normativity of human nature.

You may not think it makes sense to say that human nature is normative although we do talk like this. We say of certain things that is completely inhuman. So, it’s in our thinking that human nature might be normative. And if you’re willing to entertain that thought, then, obviously, there are going to be as many different theories of liberty as self-realisation as there are coherent views about what constitutes the essence of what it is to be truly human — that normative essence of human nature.

So, we need to ask what view about the normativity of human nature did these writers actually espouse. You could espouse many I guess but if you think about the western way of traditional thinking about this in very general terms, we really only ever espouse two large pictures at this point. One is classical and one is Christian. Now, Green is a Christian and he is very taken with the idea — this Christian paradox — that what freedom might be is service. Service to God might be freedom because it’s in service to God that you realise the essence of your nature.

There’s a very strong story. Of course, it’s the one the Nietzsche is denouncing, isn’t it? — in On the Genealogy of Morality, that’s the slave morality. But that’s not a political theory. On the contrary, that’s sort of a rejection of politics. If we’re talking about a political theory of this kind, then we are driven back into the classical story that the way in which we most fully realise ourselves — that’s to say, the arena for our talents, the arena for our virtues — is the civic arena. And it is not service of God but service of fellow human beings that discloses you as a free person. So, I am suggesting we’ve inherited two principle views about his idea that liberty has this positive concept and one is essentially the Arisotelian view that we are the ‘zôion politikòn’ or the political animal. And that’s what it is to be free — it’s to realise that that’s your nature.


And here of course is the superceding view that No, our true nature is spiritual.


Again, I want to emphasise that this way of thinking has come right down right down into our time. Amongst recent philosophers who have unambiguously taken up position A — which of course is all I am talking about because I am talking about politics this evening — the most prominent has been Hannah Arendt, hasn’t it? Especially in her wonderful essay called What is Freedom? I quote it: “Freedom is politics.” Now that is a wonderful remark. She’s not saying freedom requires politics or… she’s saying the activity of politics is the arena in which your virtues and your talents are put to work in such a way as to make you most fully the free person that you have it in yourself to become. So, there is your self, realised.

[Another Hegelian which… I mean…. I think this is… I suppose… mediated through Heidegger in Hannah Arendt’s case but] A pure Hegelian writing in the English in our time is Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor, in his great treatise Sources of the Self, has this distinction where he wants to say freedom is usually understood as an ‘opportunity concept’, as he calls it. That’s to say, to be free is just to have options which, of course, is what we are seeing all over the left-hand side of this genealogy. But he wants to say (that) that’s not how to think about freedom. Freedom is not an opportunity concept. It is an ‘exercise concept’. That’s to say, I can only tell if you are a free person once I have seen how you conduct yourself.


The Neo-Roman Concept

I want to pause at this juncture because I think it would be quite generally agreed — [and you’d have to be a quite wide minded contemporary analytical philosopher in political theory to think that we need to incorporate so much: I mean, what is the currently the latest and therefore in bold would be unhesitatingly crossed out by a lot of the people I have talked about down the left-hand side] — that this (is) where we’ve now got the genealogy.

If you think that, then, I think you’re missing an element in the genealogy which has indeed been largely successfully effaced by the ideological triumph of classical liberalism but which needs crucially, I think, to be added to the picture. And my desire to add something to the picture which is not there — we’ve left Isaiah Berlin very far behind, haven’t we? — is really my excuse for standing before you this evening and it’s with this further force that I want to end.

I can best begin by suggesting that we can see what’s missing by making a point about Hobbes’s argument that commentators on Hobbes philosophy never seem to point out which is that when he gives you this story — which I have put all the way down the left-hand side — this is extremely polemical. It begins a story which has become our story. So, we are prone not to see that this a fiercely polemical thing that he is doing in talking about freedom. He is trying to discredit a completely a completely different way of thinking about freedom. And look how successful it was. I mean, this is a story that rolls through right down into contemporary political theory. So, what Hobbes was objecting to has rather got effaced.

To see the contention that Hobbes is trying to discredit, I think the best thing to do is to go back to what is in fact one of the founding texts of modern western political theory. And that is The Codex of Roman law, which has an extraordinary influence in all our cultures, begins by making a distinction between the figure of the free man or woman, liber homo, and the figure of the slave.

According to this view, ex hypothesi, a slave is unfree. But notice that in order to understand what freedom is, on this account, what you crucially need to understand is what makes a slave unfree. Then, you’ll understand freedom. It’s crucial to see that the answer has nothing to do with interference. This was something that was very prominent in Roman comedy and in classical reflections on slavery. (We have) slave characters in Plautus whose master is either completely benign or is always away: they do whatever they want. This was put on the Roman stage. They’re not interfered with in the pursuit of their goals. But they are still slaves. That’s what makes those comedies so uneasy.

A slave who only ever did his master’s bidding and did it willingly would never suffer coercion and so you’d have a deep paradox of a free slave. By contrast, many free citizens in antiquity would have had extremely circumscribed lives, especially circumscribed by poverty. So, what is this distinction between the free and the slave? The answer given in the Roman law — and it’s extremely influential — is that it’s the mere fact of having a master that makes you unfree. The mere fact, that is, of living in a state of dependence on the arbitrary will of somebody else. As the digest of the Roman law expresses the point, it’s the fact of living in potestate, that is to say within someone’s power and hence at their mercy: that’s what takes away freedom. That’s what takes away your status as a liber homo — homo of course in Latin meaning man or woman — a free man or woman.


It’s nothing to do with non-interference. It’s absence of dependence. It’s the core idea of what it means to be free. And the reason is that you will not be a liber homo, free man or a woman, but you will be a slave if there could be interference contrary to your interests and undertaken with impunity because of your dependence on the arbitrary will of someone else. There’s the fundamental claim.


Notice here that there is a continuity with most liberal accounts of freedom, that’s to say the presence of freedom is still said to be marked by an absence. But it’s not absence of interference, it’s absence of dependence. But there’s also a major contrast here with the classical liberal story because it’s possible on this account to be unfree even if there is no interference with the exercise of your powers and not even any threat of any such interference. You could still be unfree. That claim looks absurd to some contemporary political theories. For example, Matthew Kramer, in his book The Quality of Freedom, which by the way is the longest book review I have ever received, says how can there be loss of freedom when there is no interference? How can that be?

According to the writers I am, talking about whom I want to call neo-Roman writers on freedom, it can be the case. And in two related ways. First, there’s an epistemological point to be made. If you are wholly dependent on the goodwill of someone else, then you never act according to your own will which is what freedom requires. Any action you perform will be the outcome both of your own will and of the silent permission of the person on whose goodwill you depend who could with impunity have stopped you but chose not to. That’s always going to be there. That permission. So, all of what look like free action are actually permissions. So, you never act autonomously. There’s the first claim.


It is the fact of dependence that takes away freedom. You’re never autonomous.

The second point that the neo-Roman writers make stems from the consideration that it’s obvious that you couldn’t live subject to the arbitrary will of someone in any domain of your life let alone if you are a chattel slave in every domain of your life… you couldn’t remain for long ignorant of being in someone’s power in any domain of your life without noticing it. You are quickly going to notice that. But as soon as you notice it, what’s going to happen? It’s going to generate self-censorship. It cannot fail to generate self-censorship. And there’s the second way in which your freedom is going to be undermined.


Let me just spell that out. This is really a core claim I think. The first claim is very important because it’s about how power is silent. You could say classical liberalism is very bad about power being silent. It always wants to see the interference… see the noise. But some power is completely silent. This is what this tradition is more sensitive to I think. And the way this core claim works is that if you know that your predicament is that you are in somebody’s power, you never know what might happen to you. You are in their power. You don’t know what could happen. Anything could happen. Maybe nothing will happen; or maybe nothing bad will happen; but anything could happen. You’re going to want to do everything, in respect of the person at whose mercy you’re living, to keep out of trouble. So, you cannot fail to self-censor systematically in the hope of keeping out of trouble. You don’t know what the trouble is but you have to mould yourself in such a way that you do your best to keep out of trouble. Summarised by Tacitus in a very unpleasant epigram — but you see what he’s saying, as he says — (that) there is no chance for a slave — he means a true slave, a chattel slave — not to be slavish. How could you be other than slavish? Because that’s your existential predicament.

As you have seen, with the rise of — what you’ve got on the board which I have now pushed over to the right wing which is where it all belongs — this story that I have told you, (the neo-Roman concept) mainly gets effaced but not entirely. There’s a kind of rocky descent that we can end this lecture by looking at. Because we can ask this question. I am not talking about chattel slavery. This is… the question is very precisely formulated.


Who live as slaves in some domain of their life(sic) — some domain or other — in someone’s power? If that’s true in any domain in your life, then you are living in that domain as a slave. Let’s see what the answers that were given to that question.

The main answer given in the 17th-century — the answer given by James Harrington to Hobbes in the most important English language 17th-century treatise on Republicanism, James Harrington’s Oceana of 1656 — was this: anyone who lives as the subject of a monarch lives as a slave in certain domains of their lives.


Because all monarchs — as Harrington says — have prerogatives; but prerogatives are, ex hypothesi, discretionary powers. To the extent that a monarch has discretionary powers, their subjects depend on that monarch’s will. It’s arbitrary. But to live in any domain of your life in the state of dependence on someone’s arbitrary will is what it is to lack freedom.

The next claim we find becomes very important with the emergence of the empires of the enlightenment period.


All who live in colonies under imperial powers live as slaves. That is the argument used against the British by the 13 American colonies in 1776. And it’s the argument used by such defenders as the American colonies in England as Joseph Priestly, Richard Price and, above all, Thomas Paine. The common core of their argument — best known as Paine’s argument — is that if you are governed, and especially if you are taxed, by a colonial power, and thus have no representation in the legislative that’s imposing those taxes, that’s to say that in that domain of your life, you are entirely dependent on the goodwill of that representative assembly for the level of taxation that is imposed.

But this dependency, as the colonists claim in the Declaration of 1776, serves in itself to take away freedom in that domain because they’re entirely at the mercy of the English parliament as to what level of taxation will be imposed and so their property is in permanent jeopardy: because they’re subject to arbitrary power.

So, that explains why the declaration of 1776 was called, and still is called, The Declaration of “Independence”. Independence from what? Well, from dependence, of course. Declaration of not being dependent on the arbitrary powers lodged the British constitution. So, notice that this country is founded on this view of what it is to be a free person.

Further quick answer comes powerfully to the fore in the revolutionary decades of the 1790s.


All women who lack independent means live as slaves. This is Mary Wollstonecraft’s central theme in the pioneering remarkable text of 1792, The Vindication of the Rights of Women. The starting point is with the fact that most women or at least very many women are or were at the time economically dependent on men. “The effect is that in order to survive, such women have to learn how to become the sort of people that men like.” And to the extent that that is how they are obliged to form their characters, they cannot act autonomously. In a number of domains in their lives, these people are not free.

John Stuart Mill writes the last of his major political texts in 1869, ten years after the essay On Liberty, and his tract as I am sure you know is called The Subjection of Women. It’s a little-observed fact about John Stuart Mill that he appears as the 19th-century apostle of classical liberty but he changes his mind. He comes over to this view and he begins the tract on The subjection of women by saying that because women do not have testamentary will — which was true in England at that time, they couldn’t make their own will, so he’s punning on will — they can’t make their own will. So, in that domain of their life they don’t have a will. And he says at the beginning of Chapter 1, “I see no such difference between the position of such women and that of bond slaves.” So, Mill, the great apostle of liberalism in his late life becomes what I am calling a neo-Roman theorist of liberty.

Now, how about this?


Have they been eliminated? What about this?


Deunionised labour forces, bosses who have it within their power to dismiss at will and with impunity — there are certain examples of that in my country, I am sure this is a more virtuous country than mine. We have to ask if these citizens are on this account living in that domain of their lives as free men and women. What about this?


Many democratic states — certainly mine and, again, I am sure America is more virtuous — possess extensive powers of surveillance over their citizens that can be exercised without the consent or even the knowledge of those citizens. So far, criticism has tended to focus on the exercise of those powers and it’s agreed that exercise of these powers is an affront to privacy. But that the payoff is security. And that’s a quotation from Obama. But on the view of liberty that I am now considering, this is not at all the right way to analyse the costs and benefits. On the neo-Roman account, it’s not exercise of these powers but the existence of these powers which matters and is the affront. And the affront is not to privacy, it’s an affront to liberty. Both because it is arbitrary — we don’t know what use could be made of it — and because since we don’t know what use could be made of it, we are very liable to start to self-censor. So, there’s a paradigm of unfreedom on this account.


Well here I draw to a close. In fact, I am a minute over 7 o’clock but I [have got one… Is that alright if I…? Because I really want this extra minute because I] want to place before you a compete genealogy with all the bits and pieces taken out — that’s to say all the bold which introduced each section and there it is.



And with the whole thing in front of us, the reason I want this final minute is to say: Well, what is the point of these remarks? What is the point of genealogy? I want to make two points here in fact and the first is that genealogy — in the way that I have been laying it out — is always critique. Genealogy is critique. Critique of what? Conceptual analysis. And the way that that works in the present instance is as follows. We are repeatedly told in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy that there is, I quote John Rawls, “one coherent way of thinking about liberty. It is a negative concept and it consists in the absence of interference.” That is the analysis of freedom that underlies Rawl’s account of justice as equal freedom.

But there isn’t just one way of coherently analysing the concept of freedom in our time. I have spoken of writers like Arendt and Taylor who don’t think about it in these terms at all but they think coherently. And I have spoken of a legal tradition which insists that even if liberty is seen as negative, it’s not to be seen in terms of interference but, on the contrary, of domination and dependence. Each of these positions — we end up with three major features of the genealogical tree — are, I think, coherent in their own terms.

My other and final point is that while each of these accounts is, I think, coherent in its own terms, you can’t combine them. This in genealogy. You can’t get it to be a concept… the concept of liberty. You’re going to have to make some choices because they don’t fit together. So, what choice should you make?

And that brings me lastly to the most important point I want to make in this lecture which is that I do not think that university teachers should go around telling people what to think especially not in very great universities like this one. You can all think. You all know this. This is what Wittgenstein calls ‘assembling reminders’. So, that’s what I have done. I have assembled reminders for a particular purpose. And that I think is the task of the teachers — to try to clarify what it is that one needs to be reminded of in order to think about it. And that’s all I have tried to do in this lecture. I have tried to present you with information relevant to answering the question: how should we think about freedom? But as to the answer, I leave that to you.