Foundationalism in Political Theory

Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 1987

24 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2008

See all articles by Arthur Ripstein

Arthur Ripstein

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law

Date Written: August 19, 1987


This paper explores a particular way of looking at the justification of political institutions, which I will call "foundationalism." Foundationalist political theories attempt to justify political institutions without presupposing any political considerations. In a foundationalist theory, some set of considerations is held to support a particular form of political order, without itself depending on any substantive assumptions about the legitimacy of particular forms of human interaction. Hence the metaphor of a foundation, which holds up an edifice without itself being supported by anything else.

I will concentrate on a particular foundationalist account of political structures: Hobbes's argument for absolute sovereignty and political obedience in the Leviathan. Hobbes seeks to demonstrate the acceptability of particular arrangements by showing that it would be rational for people to agree to conform to them. If only the details could be cleaned up, the Hobbesian project holds out the promise of providing a foundation for political institutions- an unjustified justifier that cannot be called into question because it does not presuppose any controversial political principles.

My main concern is to display the structure of a particular type of foundationalist argument that Hobbes exemplifies, and assess its limitations. I shall argue that although much of its plausibility stems from its apparent foundational structure, in the end it cannot succeed in providing a foundation for politics. The same factors that make the notion of a foundation appealing undermine its very possibility. I will close with some more general remarks about the limitations of foundationalism in political theory and elsewhere.

Suggested Citation

Ripstein, Arthur, Foundationalism in Political Theory (August 19, 1987). Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 1987, Available at SSRN:

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University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

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