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"Tradition and Dissent in Political Philosophy"
Course Times and Location:
MWF, 2:15 – 3:05 pm
Room: G208

Course Description

Political philosophy (if not philosophy in general) can be said to have been born out of democracy – as a critique and a rejection of democracy by Plato and Aristotle. Looking at the tradition of political philosophy, we find a focus on the few, the rulers, the dominant part of society and on the state, through which it appears as a justification of this domination. As a result, political philosophy, as we find it for instance in Hobbes and Hegel, has tended to adopt the view of the few on society and on justice.
However, as a reaction to this dominant trend in philosophy, we can also find a ‘counter-tradition’, a tradition of dissent that is rooted both in the philosophical tradition and in the struggle of the many against political power. This contact with the dominated and the exploited in society, whose point of view is seldom adopted, led thinkers such as Spinoza and Marx to dissent both philosophically and politically and to suffer the political consequences of dissent: excommunication, exile, and poverty.
We can still find this opposition in contemporary political philosophy. John Rawls, in his attempt to bring forth realistic reforms that would ensure that inequalities would favour the most disadvantaged, still retained the dominant point of view over society. In direct opposition to Rawls, Iris Marion Young’s philosophy is rooted both in phenomenology and in the experience of political struggle of social movements, and especially of feminism, following her attempt to give a theoretical expression to this experience of dissent.
This course will focus on Spinoza’s political writings and Marx’s early writings as expressions and actions of dissent, while giving an overview of the tradition of political philosophy through short readings of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hegel, and Rawls. It will conclude on the avenues opened by Young in her relationship to dissidents, in her own dissidence from the tradition of political philosophy and in her effort to think from the point of view of the many, beginning with their differences and the lack of power that marks their dominated status.

Course Objectives and Expectations

I have four main objectives in this course. First, to present an overview of the history of the tradition of political philosophy; second, to present philosophers who dissented against this tradition as well as against the powerful of their times; third, to help you read political texts; and fourth, to begin a reflection about the continuing relevance of these texts and of the ideas they develop, outside of an historical perspective. Some courses will then offer a synthetic overview of the tradition, while others will offer an in-depth look at a few texts. Open-book exams are aimed both to measure and to further develop these skills and the philosophical form of reflection on politics.
Throughout this course, you will become familiar with the main concepts of political thought and their origins, as well as with the overall perspective of the thinkers who developed them. In the process, you will gain a sense of historical change and continuity and you will learn to read texts that can sometimes be technical and difficult. You will also be able to see how ideas emerge as a response to political situations, problems and relationships and learn to use distinctions and concepts to understand your own political life, as you will be encouraged to relate these ideas to your own situation. After the semester, you should be able to use these skills as you read assigned texts in your other courses and follow political events. Hopefully, you will gain an appreciation for the classics of political thought and be able to go back to them or recall what they have to offer when political reflection becomes necessary.
As a result, you will be expected to read all the selected texts attentively – more than once if possible – and to attend class: without these two requirements, you cannot succeed in this course, which is based on my lectures and the work we can do together on the texts and ideas. While your participation in class will be not marked, you are expected to participate by taking notes, asking questions and contributing in discussions, and/or by bringing in your own perspective throughout your assignments. Your assignments are your chance to make the topic of this course yours by choosing a topic that interests you – that you find relevant.
Prerequisites: second-year standing or higher.
The following books are available at the Augustana bookstore, and purchasing them is recommended as they will be often used and referred to in class. Readings are mandatory.
  • Spinoza, Political Treatise (Hackett);
  • Marx, Writings of the Young Marx (Hackett);
  • A readings package.
Books and articles will also be put on reserve at the Augustana library. Readings will be indicated both in class and on eClass.


Mid-term exam, worth 20% of the grade. Take-home, due on February 10.
A take-home exam where you will have one week to answer two questions out of the three that will be submitted to you. These will be essay questions and will cover the subject matter of the first half of the course (from Plato to Spinoza).
Final exam, worth 30% of the grade. Take-home, due during exam period.
A take-home exam where you will answer three questions out of the five that will be submitted to you. These will be essay questions and will cover everything seen in class, with an emphasis on the second part of the course (from Hegel to Young).
Short assignment, worth 20% of the grade. Due on March 8.
A 5-6 page reflective essay on the theme of dissent. You will be able to study a philosophical approach to dissent or a philosophical expression of dissent, or to lead your own reflection on the theme of dissent. You will be encouraged to present it publicly (but in no way required to do so, although presenting will give you an additional 2 pts/20 on the assignment).
Assignment, worth 30% of the grade. Due on April 5.
A 12-15 page paper on the topic of your choice in the history of political philosophy. A bibliography of the major works of political philosophy will be provided along with further details and requirements as well as topic ideas.

Course outline and reading schedule

(Tentative and subject to change)
Introduction: The Death of Socrates and the Tradition of Political Philosophy
I. Opposing the Democratic Consensus
A. Plato. Philosophy outside the Polis
“Seventh Letter”
B. Aristotle. Philosophy inside the Polis
From the Nichomachean Ethics
II. The Subject in the State
A. Thomas Hobbes. The Duty to Obey the State
From The Citizen
B. Benedict Spinoza. Freedom of Thought and Democracy
Political Treatise
III. The Role of the State
A. G.W.F. Hegel. Universal Recognition through the State
Principles of the Philosophy of Right (on reserve and online)
B. Karl Marx. Oppression, Exploitation, and the Promise of the End of the State
Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State
On the Jewish Question
Selections from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
Selections from The German Ideology and from The Poverty of Philosophy
IV. Reforming Our Institutions
A. John Rawls. Fairness in the Liberal State
From Political Liberalism
B. Iris Marion Young. Social Movements and the Politics of Difference
From Justice and the Politics of Difference