Contra Politanism: Against the Teleology of Political Forms

46 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2012

See all articles by Jacob T. Levy

Jacob T. Levy

McGill University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: August 6, 2012


In this article, I diagnose and critique pervasive forms of teleological thought about basic structures of political organization in modern and contemporary political thought: arguments that the sovereign state, the nation-state, or some variant of a cosmopolis both represents the unfolding of history’s moral logic and offers us full moral personhood, agency, and maturity. Despite the received wisdom that modern political thought beginning with Hobbes broke with teleology, I argue that early modern social contract theory was deeply teleological. The emergence of the normatively self-contained sovereign state from the state of nature represented both decisive historical-moral progress from the medieval European non-state polities, and the possibility of true moral personhood thanks to the unity of will and judgment created by a unified authority structure. In other words, social contract theory depicted the then-recent emergence of the modern European sovereign state in ways that necessarily implied the moral, cognitive, and historical backwardness of both pre-modern Europeans and contemporaneous non-Europeans who had not yet reached the decision to exit the state of nature. The article then argues that this overattachment to unity, both as an historical culmination and as a prerequisite to full personhood, was carried over into subsequent nationalist and cosmopolitan thought, where we see over-moralizations of historical processes, excessive claims for the teleological causal force of moral progress, and critiques of the immaturity of those persons who do not live in the recommended political form. The article closes with a sustained critique of both historical and individual-moral teleologies of these sorts.

Suggested Citation

Levy, Jacob T., Contra Politanism: Against the Teleology of Political Forms (August 6, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Jacob T. Levy (Contact Author)

McGill University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Montreal, Quebec H3A 1G5

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