Comparative Political Thought in a Multipolar World

A Workshop under the Auspices of the History of Political Thought Project,
University Center for Human Values, Princeton University

October 16th/17th, 2009 - 301 Marx Hall
Provisional Schedule and Papers

This workshop seeks to examine the potential and pitfalls of an emerging area of scholarly analysis which has generated equal amounts of excitement and skepticism: comparative political thought. While we want to debate method and welcome contributions purely focused on the ‘how’, the primary purpose of the workshop is not to lay down disciplinary divisions or establish yet another sub-sub-field. Rather, we want to focus on substance and have the workshop be problem-driven, and the problem we are particularly concerned with is the emergence of non-liberal or post-liberal normative justifications of political regimes – i.e. not obvious outright authoritarianism, but normative political justifications that show at least some plausible overlap with broad conceptions of Western liberal democracy, even if just by way of concept such as ‘consensus’ and ‘consultation’ (examples would be Russian ‘sovereign democracy’, the Turkish AKP’s ‘conservative democracy’, China’s New Confucianism).

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Further Specifics and Basic Questions to be Discussed:
We do not take for granted that there actually is a distinct area of scholarly concern that could usefully be called ‘comparative political thought’, and, in particular, we want to ask whether normative political thinking and investigations in the history of political thought are not always necessarily comparative. If nonetheless comparative political thought is a free-standing enterprise – what can its practitioners learn from historians and from other disciplines? And to the extent that comparative political thought is said to involve a comparison of national political cultures, or of Western and non-Western modes of political thinking, we will ask about such enterprises’ possible methods.

Furthermore, we want to ask the following:
If comparative study implies distinguishable objects, then what exactly are these objects: concepts, discourses, political languages, civilizations as a whole, or something else? What is the added value of comparing them? And is comparison not a sure way to reify national, civilizational, etc. traditions?

What, if any, relation should there be between comparative political thought and the comparative study of political institutions? Is the study of the state – as a set of institutions, but also as a set of cultural practices – a particularly promising way into comparative political thought?

What, if any, should be the normative purposes of comparative political thought? The emancipation of certain traditions, mutual understanding, the search for transnational consensus and shared normative justifications? Or ought the comparative study of political thought in fact be freed from such directly political goals?

Finally, we will try to relate comparative political thought to long-running debates about universalism and relativism, and, in a more directly political context, we will ask what role it might practically play in a world that is increasingly characterized as multipolar, with competing liberal, antiliberal and postliberal forms of legitimacy and public justification.