Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought / Edition 1

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This is a significantly expanded edition of one of the greatest works of modern political theory. Sheldon Wolin's Politics and Vision inspired and instructed two generations of political theorists after its appearance in 1960. This new edition retains intact the original ten chapters about political thinkers from Plato to Mill, and adds seven chapters about theorists from Marx and Nietzsche to Rawls and the postmodernists. The new chapters, which show how thinkers have grappled with the immense possibilities and dangers of modern power, are themselves a major theoretical statement. They culminate in Wolin's remarkable argument that the United States has invented a new political form, "inverted totalitarianism," in which economic rather than political power is dangerously dominant. In this new edition, the book that helped to define political theory in the late twentieth century should energize, enlighten, and provoke generations of scholars to come.

Wolin originally wrote Politics and Vision to challenge the idea that political analysis should consist simply of the neutral observation of objective reality. He argues that political thinkers must also rely on creative vision. Wolin shows that great theorists have been driven to shape politics to some vision of the Good that lies outside the existing political order. As he tells it, the history of theory is thus, in part, the story of changing assumptions about the Good.

In the new chapters, Wolin displays all the energy and flair, the command of detail and of grand historical developments, that he brought to this story forty years ago. This is a work of immense talent and intense thought, an intellectual achievement that will endure.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education Supplement - John Dunn
[T]he original edition . . . provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured, and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance. . . . [T]hat first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing; but it is now accompanied by a second and very different book. . . . Its message is chilling: . . . that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from the experience of human beings. Each of these books is a remarkable achievement.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2006 David and Elaine Spitz Prize, Conference for the Study of Political Thought

"[T]he original edition . . . provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured, and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance. . . . [T]hat first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing; but it is now accompanied by a second and very different book. . . . Its message is chilling: . . . that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from the experience of human beings. Each of these books is a remarkable achievement."—John Dunn, Times Higher Education Supplement

Times Higher Education Supplement
[T]he original edition . . . provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured, and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance. . . . [T]hat first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing; but it is now accompanied by a second and very different book. . . . Its message is chilling: . . . that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from the experience of human beings. Each of these books is a remarkable achievement.
— John Dunn
Times Higher Education Supplement
[T]he original edition . . . provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured, and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance. . . . [T]hat first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing; but it is now accompanied by a second and very different book. . . . Its message is chilling: . . . that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from the experience of human beings. Each of these books is a remarkable achievement.
— John Dunn
From the Publisher

Winner of the 2006 David and Elaine Spitz Prize, Conference for the Study of Political Thought

"[T]he original edition . . . provided the most impressive synoptic interpretation of politics by any recent Western thinker. Measured, assured, and resolutely independent, it was also wonderfully lacking in self-importance. . . . [T]hat first book remains just as illuminating and every bit as imposing; but it is now accompanied by a second and very different book. . . . Its message is chilling: . . . that politics itself, in its generous Western understanding, is well on the way to being eliminated from the experience of human beings. Each of these books is a remarkable achievement."--John Dunn, Times Higher Education Supplement

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691126272
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/9/2006
  • Edition description: Expanded
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 784
  • Sales rank: 298,074
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 1.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Sheldon S. Wolin is Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. He taught political theory for forty years at Oberlin College, the Universities of California, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles, Princeton University, Cornell University, and Oxford University. He was the founding editor of the journal "democracy". The first edition of "Politics and Vision" received the American Political Science Association's Benjamin E. Lippincott Award. Wolin's other books include "Tocqueville between Two Worlds" (Princeton) and "The Presence of the Past".

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Read an Excerpt

Politics and Vision

Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought
By Sheldon S. Wolin

Princeton University Press

Sheldon S. Wolin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691119775

Chapter One


. . . To express various meanings on complex things with a scanty vocabulary of fastened senses.
-Walter Bagehot


This is a book about a special tradition of discourse-political philosophy. In it I shall attempt to discuss the general character of that tradition, the varying concerns of those who have helped to build it, and the vicissitudes that have marked the main lines of its development. At the same time, I shall also try to say something about the enterprise of political philosophy itself. This statement of intentions naturally induces the expectation that the discussion will begin with a definition of political philosophy. To attempt to satisfy this expectation, however, would be fruitless, not merely because a few sentences cannot accomplish what an entire book intends, but also because political philosophy is not an essence with an eternal nature. It is, instead, a complex activity which is best understood by analyzing the many ways that the acknowledged masters have practiced it. No single philosopher and no one historical age can be said to have defined it conclusively, any more than any one painter or school of painting has practiced all that we mean by painting.

If there is more to political philosophy than any great philosopher has expressed, there is some justification for believing that political philosophy constitutes an activity whose characteristics are most clearly revealed over time. Stated somewhat differently, political philosophy is to be understood in the same way that we go about understanding a varied and complex tradition.

Although it may not be possible to reduce political philosophy to a brief definition, it is possible to elucidate the characteristics that distinguish it from, as well as connect it with, other forms of inquiry. I shall discuss these considerations under the following headings: political philosophy's relations with philosophy, the characteristics of political philosophy as an activity, its subject-matter and language, the problem of perspectives or angle of vision, and the manner in which a tradition operates.

Ever since Plato first perceived that the inquiry into the nature of the good life of the individual was necessarily associated with a converging (and not parallel) inquiry into the nature of the good community, a close and continuing association has persisted between political philosophy and philosophy in general. Not only have most of the eminent philosophers contributed generously to the main stock of our political ideas, but they have given the political theorist many of his methods of analysis and criteria of judgment. Historically, the main difference between philosophy and political philosophy has been a matter of specialization rather than one of method or temper. By virtue of this alliance, political theorists accepted as their own the basic quest of the philosopher for systematic knowledge.

There is a still another fundamental sense in which political theory is linked to philosophy. Philosophy can be distinguished from other methods of eliciting truths, such as the mystic vision, the secret rite, truths of conscience or of private feelings. Philosophy claims to deal with truths publicly arrived at and publicly demonstrable.1 At the same time, one of the essential qualities of what is political, and one that has powerfully shaped the view of political theorists about their subject-matter, is its relationship to what is "public." Cicero had this in mind when he called the commonwealth a res publica, a "public thing" or the "property of a people." Of all the authoritative institutions in society, the political arrangement has been singled out as uniquely concerned with what is "common" to the whole community. Certain functions, such as national defense, internal order, the dispensing of justice, and economic regulation, have been declared the primary responsibility of political institutions, largely on the grounds that the interests and ends served by these functions were beneficial to all of the members of the community. The only institution that ever rivaled the authority of the political order was the mediaeval Church; yet this was made possible only because the Church, in assuming the characteristics of a political regime, had become something other than a religious body. The intimate connection existing between political institutions and public concerns has been taken over in the practices of philosophers; political philosophy has been taken to mean reflection on matters that concern the community as a whole.

It is fitting, therefore, that the inquiry into public matters should be conducted according to the canons of a public type of knowledge. To take the other alternative, to ally political knowledge with private modes of cognition, would be incongruous and self-defeating. The dramatic symbol of the right alliance was the demand of the Roman plebs that the status of the Twelve Tables of the law be transformed from a priestly mystery cognizable only by the few to a public form of knowledge accessible to all.


Turning next to the subject-matter of political philosophy, even the most cursory examination of the masterpieces of political literature discloses the continual reappearance of certain problem-topics. Many examples could be listed, but here we need mention only a few, such as the power relationships between ruler and ruled, the nature of authority, the problems posed by social conflict, the status of certain goals or purposes as objectives of political action, and the character of political knowledge. No political philosopher has been interested in all of these problems to the same degree, yet there has been a sufficiently widespread consensus about the identity of the problems to warrant the belief that a continuity of preoccupations has existed. Nor does the fact that philosophers have often violently disagreed about solutions cast doubt upon the existence of a common subject-matter. What is important is the continuity of preoccupations, not the unanimity of response.

Agreement about subject-matter presupposes in turn that those who are interested in extending knowledge of a particular field share in a common understanding about what is relevant to their subject and what ought to be excluded. In reference to political philosophy, this means that the philosopher should be clear about what is political and what is not. Aristotle, for example, argued in the opening pages of the Politics that the role of the statesman (politikos) ought not to be confused with that of the slave-owner or head of a household; the first was properly political, the latter were not. The point that Aristotle was making is still of vital importance, and the difficulties of preserving a clear notion of what is political form the basic theme of this book. Aristotle was alluding to the troubles that the political philosopher experiences in trying to isolate a subject-matter which, in reality, cannot be isolated. There are two main reasons for the difficulty. In the first place, a political institution, for example, is exposed to impinging influences of a non-political kind so that it becomes a perplexing problem of explanation as to where the political begins and the non-political leaves off. Secondly, there is the widespread tendency to utilize the same words and notions in describing non-political phenomena that we do in talking about political matters. In contrast to the restricted technical usages of mathematics and the natural sciences, phrases like "the authority of the father," "the authority of the church," or "the authority of Parliament" are evidence of the parallel usages prevailing in social and political discussions.

This poses one of the basic problems confronting the political philosopher when he tries to assert the distinctiveness of his subject-matter: what is political? what is it that distinguishes, say, political authority from other forms of authority, or membership in a political society from membership in other types of associations? In attempting an answer to these questions, centuries of philosophers have contributed to a conception of political philosophy as a continuing form of discourse concerning what is political and to a picture of the political philosopher as one who philosophizes about the political. How have they gone about doing this? How have they come to single out certain human actions and interactions, institutions and values, and to designate them "political"? What is the distinctive common feature of certain types of situations or activities, such as voting and legislating, that allows us to call them political? Or what conditions must a given action or situation satisfy in order to be called political?

In one sense, the process of defining the area of what is political has not been markedly different from that which has taken place in other fields of inquiry. No one would seriously contend, for example, that the fields of physics or chemistry have always existed in a self-evident, determinate form waiting only to be discovered by Galileo or Lavoisier. If we grant that a field of inquiry is, to an important degree, a product of definition, the political field can be viewed as an area whose boundaries have been marked out by centuries of political discussion. Just as other fields have changed their outlines, so the boundaries of what is political have been shifting ones, sometimes including more, sometimes less of human life and thought. The present age of totalitarianism produces the lament that "this is a political age. War, fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc., are what we think about." In other and more serene times the political is less ubiquitous. Aquinas could write that "man is not formed for political fellowship in his entirety, or in all that he has . . ."2 What I should like to insist upon, however, is that the field of politics is and has been, in a significant and radical sense, a created one. The designation of certain activities and arrangements as political, the characteristic way that we think about them, and the concepts we employ to communicate our observations and reactions-none of these are written into the nature of things but are the legacy accruing from the historical activity of political philosophers.

I do not mean to suggest by these remarks that the political philosopher has been at liberty to call "political" whatever he chose, or that, like the poet of Lord Kames, he has been busy "fabricating images without any foundation in reality." Nor do I mean to imply that the phenomena we designate political are, in a literal sense, "created" by the theorist. It is readily admitted that established practices and institutional arrangements have furnished political writers with their basic data, and I shall discuss this point shortly. It is true, too, that many of the subjects treated by a theorist owe their inclusion to the simple fact that in existing linguistic conventions such subjects are referred to as political. It is also true, on the other hand, that the ideas and categories that we use in political analysis are not of the same order as institutional "facts," nor are they "contained," so to speak, in the facts. They represent, instead, an added element, something created by the political theorist. Concepts like "power," "authority," "consent," and so forth are not real "things," although they are intended to point to some significant aspect about political things. Their function is to render political facts significant, either for purposes of analysis, criticism, or justification, or a combination of all three. When political concepts are put into the form of an assertion, such as, "It is not the rights and privileges which he enjoys which makes a man a citizen, but the mutual obligation between subject and sovereign," the validity of the statement is not to be settled by referring to the facts of political life. This would be a circular procedure, since the form of the statement would inevitably govern the interpretation of the facts. Stated somewhat differently, political theory is not so much interested in political practices, or how they operate, but rather in their meaning. Thus, in the statement just quoted from Bodin, the fact that by law or practice the member of society owed certain obligations to his sovereign, and vice versa, was not as important as that these duties could be understood in a way suggestive of something important about membership and, in the later phases of Bodin's argument, about sovereign authority and its conditions. In other words, the concept of membership permitted Bodin to draw out the implications and interconnections between certain practices or institutions that were not self-evident on the basis of the facts themselves. When such concepts become more or less stable in their meaning, they serve as pointers that "cue" us to look for certain things or to keep certain considerations in mind when we try to understand a political situation or make a judgment about it. In this way, the concepts and categories that make up our political understanding help us to draw connections between political phenomena; they impart some order to what might otherwise appear to be a hopeless chaos of activities; they mediate between us and the political world we seek to render intelligible; they create an area of determinate awareness and thus help to separate the relevant phenomena from the irrelevant.


The philosopher's attempt to give meaning to political phenomena is both assisted and delimited by the fact that societies possess some measure of order, some degree of arrangement which exists whether philosophers philosophize or not. In other words, the boundaries and substance of the subject-matter of political philosophy are determined to a large extent by the practices of existing societies. By practices is meant the institutionalized processes and settled procedures regularly used for handling public matters. What is important for political theory is that these institutionalized practices play a fundamental role in ordering and directing human behavior and in determining the character of events. The organizing role of institutions and customary practices creates a "nature" or field of phenomena that is roughly analogous to the nature confronted by the natural scientist. Perhaps I can clarify the meaning of "political nature" by describing something of the function of institutions.

The system of political institutions in a given society represents an arrangement of power and authority. At some point within the system, certain institutions are recognized as having the authority to make decisions applicable to the whole community. The exercise of this function naturally attracts the attention of groups and individuals who feel that their interests and purposes will be affected by the decisions taken.


Excerpted from Politics and Vision by Sheldon S. Wolin Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Expanded Edition xv
Preface xxiii


Chapter One: Political Philosophy and Philosophy 3
I Political Philosophy as a Form of Inquiry 3
II Form and Substance 4
III Political Thought and Political Institutions 7
IV Political Philosophy and the Political 9
V The Vocabulary of Political Philosophy 12
VI Vision and Political Imagination 17
VII Political Concepts and Political Phenomena 20
VIII A Tradition of Discourse 21
IX Tradition and Innovation 23

Chapter Two: Plato: Political Philosophy versus Politics 27
I The Invention of Political Philosophy 27
II Philosophy and Society 32
III Politics and Architectonics 37
IV The Search for a Selfless Instrument 47
V The Question of Power 51
VI Political Knowledge and Political Participation 54
VII The Limits of Unity 58
VIII The Ambiguities of Plato 61

Chapter Three: The Age of Empire: Space and Community 63
I The Crisis in the Political 63
II The New Dimensions of Space 65
III Citizenship and Disengagement 70
IV Politics and the Roman Republic 75
V The Politics of Interest 79
VI From Political Association to Power Organization 82
VII The Decline of Political Philosophy 85

Chapter Four: The Early Christian Era: Time and Community 86
I The Political Element in Early Christianity: The New Notion of Community 86
II The Church as a Polity: The Challenge to the Political Order 95
III Politics and Power in a Church-Society 103
IV The Embarrassments of a Politicized Religion and the Task of Augustine 108
V The Identity of the Church-Society Reasserted: Time and Destiny 111
VI Political Society and Church-Society 115
VII The Language of Religion and the Language of Politics: Footnote on Mediaeval Christian Thought 118

Chapter Five: Luther: The Theological and the Political 127
I Political Theology 127
II The Political Element in Luther's Thought 128
III The Bias against Institutions 136
IV The Status of the Political Order 139
V The Political Order without Counterweight 143
VI The Fruits of Simplicity 145

Chapter Six: Calvin: The Political Education of Protestantism 148
I The Crisis in Order and Civility 148
II The Political Quality of Calvin's Thought 151
III The Political Theory of Church Government 158
IV The Restoration of the Political Order 160
V Political Knowledge 164
VI Political Office 166
VII Power and Community 170

Chapter Seven: Machiavelli: Politics and the Economy of Violence 175
I The Autonomy of Political Theory 175
II The Commitments of the Political Theorist 182
III The Nature of Politics and the Categories of the New Science 187
IV Political Space and Political Action 195
V The Economy of Violence 197
VI Ethics: Political and Private 200
VII The Discovery of the Mass 205
VIII Politics and Souls 211

Chapter Eight: Hobbes: Political Society as a System of Rules 214
I The Revival of Political Creativity 214
II Political Philosophy and the Revolution in Science 218
III The Promise of Political Philosophy 222
IV The Language of Politics: The Problem of Constituency 230
V Political Entropy: The State of Nature 235
VI The Sovereign Definer 238
VII Power without Community 243
VIII Interests and Representation 248
IX Politics as a Field of Forces 252

Chapter Nine: Liberalism and the Decline of Political Philosophy 257
I The Political and the Social 257
II Liberalism and the Sobrieties of Philosophy 263
III The Political Claims of Economic Theory 268
IV The Eclipse of Political Authority: The Discovery of Society 273
V Society and Government: Spontaneity versus Coercion 277
VI Liberalism and Anxiety 282
VII Beyond the Pleasure Principle: The Problem of Pain 292
VIII Liberalism and Moral Judgments: The Substitution of Interest for Conscience 297
IX Liberalism and Conformity: The Socialized Conscience 307

Chapter Ten: The Age of Organization and the Sublimation of Politics 315
I The Age of Organization 315
II Identifying a Tradition of Discourse 319
III Organization and Community 325
IV Rousseau: The Idea of Community 330
V Freedom and Impersonal Dependence 334
VI Saint-Simon: The Idea of Organization 336
VII Organization Theory and Methodology: Some Parallels 342
VIII Organization, Method, and Constitutional Theory 348
IX Communal Values in Organization 352
X The Attack on Economic Rationalism 360
XI Organization Theory: Rationalism versus Organicism 364
XII The Attack on the Political 371
XIII Elite and Mass: Action in the Age of Organization 376
XIV Concluding Remarks 384


Chapter Eleven: From Modern to Postmodern Power 393
I Celebrating the Death of the Past 393
II The Baconian Vision of Power 395
III Cultivating Mind and Method 397
IV Modern Power Realized 399
V Modern Power and Its Constituent Elements 400
VI Containing Power 402

Chapter Twelve: Marx: Theorist of the Political Economy of the Proletariat or of Uncollapsed Capitalism? 406
I Marx and Nietzsche: Economy or Culture? 406
II Marx and the Theoretical Vocation 407
III Marx and the Idea of a Political Economy 410
IV Working through the Idea of Democracy 412
V The Power of Theory 415
VI The Politics of Economy: The 1844 Manuscripts 416
VII The Historical Origins of Power 420
VIII Power, Force, and Violence 423
IX Modern Power Revealed 425
X Marx and Locke: Parallel Narratives 427
XI The Alienation of Power 430
XII The Worker as Political Actor 432
XIII Capitalism and the Political Shaping of the Working Class 435
XIV Capital: Contradiction and Crisis 436
XV Inheriting the Power-System of Capital 438
XVI The Status of Politics 439
XVII The Question of Dictatorship 440
XVIII The Paris Commune 445
XIX Anticipating the End of Politics 448
XX Defending a Post-politics 450
XXI Underestimating the Capitalist 452

Chapter Thirteen: Nietzsche: Pretotalitarian, Postmodern 454
I From Economy to Culture 454
II "Some are born posthumously" 456
III The New Nietzsche 457
IV Totalitarianism as a Form 458
V Nietzsche: A Political Theorist? 460
VI The Theorist as Immoralist 462
VII The Politics of Critical Totalitarianism 464
VIII The Extraordinary versus the Normal 467
IX The Totalitarian Dynamic 468
X The Extermination of Decadence 471
XI Cultural Wars 472
XII The Crisis of Nihilism 474
XIII The Aesthete and the Herd 475
XIV The Politics of Culture 477
XV A New Elite 479
XVI The Theorist of Anti-theory 481
XVII Rediscovering Myth 484
XVIII The Making of the Herd 485
XIX Myth and Theory 486
XX Looking for a New Dionysius 489
XXI Nietzsche as Political Analyst 490
XXII The Will-to-Power in the Twentieth Century 492

Chapter Fourteen: Liberalism and the Politics of Rationalism 495
I Popper, Dewey, and Rawls: Playing Out Liberalism 495
II The Closed Society 496
III The Open Society 500
IV Hints of an Emerging Ambiguity 502
V Dewey: The Philosopher as Political Theorist 503
VI Bacon Redivivus 504
VII Educating for Power 506
VIII Democracy's Means: Education 507
IX Democracy and Economy 508
X The Contest over Science 510
XI The Idea of a Public 511
XII Great Society and Great Community 513
XIII The Scientific Community as Model Democracy 514
XIV The Fading Aura of Science 518
XV Totalitarianism and Technology 519
XVI Totalitarianism and the Reaction against Democracy 520
XVII Democratic Revival? 522

Chapter Fifteen: Liberal Justice and Political Democracy 524
I Liberalism on the Defensive 524
II Freedom and Equality: Liberal Dilemma 525
III John Rawls and the Revival of Political Philosophy 529
IV Economy and Political Economy 530
V Justice and Inequality 531
VI The "Original Position" and the Tradition of Contract Theory 536
VII Liberalism and Its Political 538
VIII Rawls's Genealogy of Liberalism 540
IX The Reasonableness of Liberalism 542
X The Threat of Comprehensive Doctrines 545
XI Liberal Political Culture 547
XII Liberalism and Governance 551
XIII Neo-liberalism in the Cold War 551

Chapter Sixteen: Power and Forms 557
I Old and New Political Forms 557
II Superpower and Terror 559
III Modern and Postmodern Power 562
IV Political Economy: The New Public Philosophy 563
V Collapsed Communism and Uncollapsed Capitalism 565
VI Political Economy and Postmodernism 566
VII The Political and Its Absent Carrier 567
VIII The Demythologizing of Science 568
IX Rational Political Science 570
X Political Science and the Political Establishment 574
XI The Odyssey of the State: From Welfare to Superpower 575
XII Faltering Vision 578
XIII Towards Totality 579

Chapter Seventeen: Postmodern Democracy: Virtual or Fugitive? 581
I Postmodern Culture and Postmodern Power 581
II Nietzschean Pessimism Transformed 582
III The Self as Microcosm 584
IV Centrifugals and Centripetals 585
V Centripetal Power 587
VI The Political Evolution of the Corporation 587
VII Empire and the Imperial Citizen 590
VIII Superpower and Inverted Totalitarianism 594
IX The Limits of Superpower? 594
X A Land of Political Opportunity 595
XI Capital and Democracy 596
XII Democracy at Bay 598
XIII Postrepresentative Politics 599
XIV Fugitive Democracy 601

Notes 607
Index 741

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