State Theory & The Historical State

There is probably not a historical work that does not use “the state” directly or indirectly in its analysis, making it perhaps the most basic historical category. It remains profoundly uninterrogated and under-problematized. This course offers a chance to investigate a thought-provoking literature on the theory and practice of the modern state. That literature stimulates us to question received wisdoms and common senses of the state, and it also encourages us to employ the term critically and intelligently. What do we mean by the state in a given historical context, and how does it function as a heuristic tool? How can the term help us examine a given historical question, and how might we modify it in order to enhance our historical vision? Most importantly, we will ask throughout how a refined appreciation of the state can help us in our historical thinking, research, and writing. It cannot be thrown out, but we can use it in searching ways and modify it, whatever our topics of research. Since much the same can be done with any number of other basic categories – society, economy, culture – this is also an exercise in critical analysis. The course it at once theoretical and historical. Hobbes and Hegel set the tone in their contrasting interpretations of the state, the one seeing the state as autonomous and discrete, the other as integral. We propose that both interpretations are commonplace in the scholarship and in usage. The contrast serves a basic purpose: to remind us that our loose use of the term obscures two basic and distinct meanings of the state – as a superordinate entity that is separate from the population, and the all-encompassing locus of popular participation. More specific works, but still classics in their own right, suggest how a series of thinkers tackled particular aspects of the state, including its relation to civil society (Gramsci and Hebermas), its all-inclusiveness in certain visions (Russian Communists, on the one hand, and the modernity school, on the other), its relationship to the economy (Keynes and Polanyi), and its transformation in the hands of post-1968 thinkers (Foucault, Poulantzas, Laclau, Negri, and Williams). Historically-specific works approach questions of the individual, imperialism, and resistance.

Approaches to the theory and practice of early modern and modern state formation. An early emphasis on political philosophy and critical theory yields to a focus on historical case studies from across Europe and the European colonies.

Course Information



4 Points

Term Section Instructor Schedule Location

Fall 2017

Yanni Kotsonis
W: 9:30 AM - 12:15 PM KJCC 607