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Debating Democracy: Individual, Society, and Tradition

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Course DatesWeeksMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRN
June 29, 2015 - July 10, 20152M-F 12:15-3:05POpenJonathan Sozek10654

Course Description

All of us are formally equal in a democracy. But does equality breed conformity? Can we really be individuals in the crowd? And conversely, given our many differences - social, economic, and personal - is formal equality enough to keep a democracy going? Or do we need something more, like a shared sense of tradition or purpose? What does a commitment to democracy require of us today?

We will explore and debate these questions by engaging foundational texts in modern political theory, philosophy, and social thought. The course offers students an excellent introduction to historical debates in these fields and a strong foundation for future work.

In the first week, we will explore the rise of democracy in the modern period. After touching on Plato’s classical critique of democracy and the emergence of modern political science in Hobbes, we will examine Locke’s and Rousseau’s conceptions of individual rights and the social contract, then turn to the controversies around the French Revolution as represented in the works of Burke and Paine. Finally, we will consider Tocqueville’s account of the social effects of democracy in America and assess the continuing relevance of his work. In these studies, we will discover how at the origin of modern democracy, conceptions of the individual, society, and tradition interacted to establish what the basic terms of debate still are in our political culture today.

In the second week, we will put this understanding to work to learn how these conceptions were brought into new constellations, and newly challenged, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After assessing how realities of gender discrimination (Wollstonecraft) and slavery (Tocqueville and Douglass) have distorted the theory and practice of democracy, we will examine Marx’s call for a truly ‘human’ emancipation in his early work and Mill’s account of the individual’s relation to society. All of these figures were, in short, debating democracy - its promise, prospects, and dangers - and we will do the same. In conclusion, we will debate Arendt’s theory of political ‘action’, which has been important in much recent democratic theory, and assess a 2008 work by the Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated , where he claims that, due to corporate power, American democracy today is a ‘managed democracy’, and slipping toward ‘inverted totalitarianism’. Wolin’s claims - informed by his reading of Arendt - are provocative but well argued, and students will be well-equipped to engage them by this point in the course.

In addition to laying a foundation for future work in philosophy, political theory, and related disciplines, students will be encouraged to form and articulate their own views about democracy and the concepts here linked to it: the individual, society, and tradition.