Proseminar on individualism and the social contract

In the summer term of 2018, I will offer a German language undergraduate seminar (“Proseminar”) that will address some of the most prominent concepts in modern political philosophy: the idea of using “the individual” as the key reference point in justifying certain conceptions of statehood and political authority, and the forms it takes in various philosophical conceptions of the social contract.

In a sense, the course has a focus in the history of political philosophy, as it deals with the development many of the core concepts of liberal democracy (even though, of course, not all of the conceptions of the social contract can be called liberal or democratic). At the same time, however, I also believe that the currently often cited “crisis of (liberal) democracy” across Europe, the US and many other parts of the world means that we have to re-address the concepts of classical liberalism – and the first step towards this should consist in making an effort to understand why and in what historical situation these ideas came into being.

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse, via Wikimedia Commons

Parts of the seminar are based on an introductory course on political philosophy that I visited myself as a student of political science in 2006 (then held by Marcus Obrecht) and that I consider one of the best seminars throughout my course of study!

The seminar is structured into three main blocks:

  • The first block will introduce the historical and conceptual basis for the rest of the seminar. The main goal here is to have a common vocabulary and some historical context for the remainder of the course.
  • In the second block, we then discuss the philosophical concept of the social contract in three of its classical variants, as formulated by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and how these respectively make use of the idea of “the individual”.
  • Finally, in the third block, we then historically jump forward to the 20th century (mostly) to take up two separate strands of the discussion: (1) the revitalization of the philosophical conception of the social contract by John Rawls and the ensuing debate on social justice; and (2) the formation of a comparably new fundamental right, the right to privacy, in its interplay with liberal conceptions of individualism.

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