The People Unfounded: A Question of Method, Not Ontology

Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 15 Sep 2010

See all articles by Christopher Meckstroth

Christopher Meckstroth

University of Cambridge -- Faculty of History

Date Written: 2010


Democratic theory typically considers "the people" as a real thing in the world; theories differ over what kind of thing it is. But this assumption leads inevitably to a string of familiar paradoxes, since it seems that the people would both have to found itself, and to have been already founded before it could do so. Moments of crisis lay bare the arbitrariness of such foundations and render the paradox acute. I argue that "the people" should be understood as a methodological postulate that makes possible normative critique, not as any kind of thing at all. Thinking of the people as a thing mistakenly leads us to look for its cause, and its beginning at a particular point in time. If we understand the people instead as a normative postulate, then the question becomes how we can fairly judge competing claims to speak for it in a particular case. The first step in learning to navigate the paradox is refusing to take a methodological question for an ontological one.

Suggested Citation

Meckstroth, Christopher, The People Unfounded: A Question of Method, Not Ontology (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Christopher Meckstroth (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge -- Faculty of History ( email )

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Cambridge, CB3 9EF
United Kingdom

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