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The Birth of the Democratic Social Contract

Date and Time: 
Thursday, May 9, 2019. 02:30 PM - 04:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Watt Dining Room
Workshop: 
History of Political Thought
Meeting Description: 

This talk will argue that the early modern liberal social contract was complemented by the emergence of a more pragmatic, regulatory Democratic Social Contract in the first half of the nineteenth century, paving the way for a modern democratic state. An examination of this pragmatic contractualism reconsiders origins stories on nineteenth-century democracy that emphasize formal constitutional arrangements, universal suffrage, and the tension between parliamentary representation and plebiscitary direct democracy. Instead, building on W.E.B. Dubois’s observation that “the failure of democracy lies in the fact that it has not been tried in precisely those activities of life where it is most important,” this history focuses on the profound creativity of a second foundational moment during which a new wave of social practices and theories reinvented the conceptual foundations of the democratic tradition.

Stephen Sawyer is currently a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavior Sciences at Stanford University and professor of history at the American University of Paris. He recently published the first volume of his history of democracy Demos Assembled: Democracy and the International Origins of the Modern State, 1840-1880 with University of Chicago Press.

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