In Fall 2015, I'll be teaching PHIL 3330A: Topics in History of Social and Political Philosophy, at Carleton University. The purpose of the course is, loosely speaking, to familiarize students with political thought from the early modern period to the 19th century, while covering some of the big names in political theory, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Probably J.S. Mill, too, but he didn't make the cut for reasons that may or may not become clear below.
My first impulse was to arrange the readings as a debate about the valences and vagaries of consensus and dissensus, but I opted not to, since that distinction seemed to look backwards at a project I'd just completed. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I would prefer to teach without knowing the theoretical trajectory of the course in advance.
I chose, then, to use the course as a chance to investigate some of Miguel Abensour's work on what La Boétie calls voluntary servitude. It forms part of a larger project on Abensour's critico-utopian philosophy. If you happen to be familiar with Abensour's only book translated into English, and are somewhat surprised by this, he was involved in bringing a critical edition of Le discours de la servitude volontaire to press in 1976 (reissued by Payot & Rivages in 2002), which includes essays by Abensour and Marcel Gauchet (before they became enemies), Claude Lefort, and Pierre Clastres. He's revisited La Boétie's "contr'un" in more recent work, and that will, in part, guide the readings for the course.
Here's the course description:
According to prominent accounts of the topic, the goal of political philosophy is to elaborate the conditions that make it possible to protect individual liberties and distribute goods fairly. The history that tracks the development of this task of political philosophy leads from John Locke to John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Without necessarily disputing the democratic ideal of this approach, we will study another persistent problem in social and political philosophy: the concern that social institutions emerge not from procedures of consensus and well-reasoned debate, but as forms of voluntary servitude. We will examine this other tradition of philosophical inquiry—which includes La Boétie, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx—in order to consider the following questions:
- What is voluntary servitude?
- Is it significant that democratic institutions might have arisen from institutions originally dedicated to policing society?
- Are there forms of democracy that do not involve voluntary servitude?
And the readings:
- John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980). ISBN: 978-0-915144-86-0.
- Etienne de la Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Trans. James B. Atkinson and David Sices (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-60384-839-8.
- Miguel Abensour, “Is There a Proper Way To Use the Voluntary Servitude Hypothesis?” Journal of Political Ideologies, 16/3 (2011), 329–348.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Revised Student Edition. Ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). ISBN: 9780521567978.
- Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Second Edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001). ISBN: 978-0-87220-607-6.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses. Ed. Susan Dunn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). ISBN: 9780300091410.
- G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Ed. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), Preface (pp. 20–23); §182–208; §230–249.
- Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990). ISBN: 9780140445688.