Isaiah Berlin's Neglect of Enlightenment Constitutionalism

Jeremy Waldron

New York University School of Law

April 2014

NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-12

One of the most important achievements of the Enlightenment is what I shall call Enlightenment constitutionalism. It transformed our political thinking out of all recognition; it left, as its legacy, not just the repudiation of monarchy and nobility in France in the 1790s but the unprecedented achievement of the framing, ratification, and establishment of the Constitution of the United States. It comprised the work of Diderot, Kant, Locke, Madison, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Sieyes, and Voltaire. It established the idea of a constitution as an intricate mechanism designed to house the untidiness and pluralism of human politics.

Yet Isaiah Berlin, supposedly one of our greatest interpreters of the Enlightenment, said almost nothing about it. The paper develops this claim and it speculates as to why this might be so. Certainly one result of Berlin's sidelining of Enlightenment constitutionalism is to lend spurious credibility to his well-known claim that Enlightenment social design was perfectionist, monastic, and potentially totalitarian. By ignoring Enlightenment constitutionalism, Berlin implicitly directed us away from precisely the body of work that might have refuted this view of Enlightenment social design.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 31

Keywords: bills of rights, constitutional design, constitutionalism, Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin, Madison, Montesquieu, separation of powers, Sieyes, US Constitution

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Date posted: March 18, 2014 ; Last revised: April 25, 2014

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Isaiah Berlin's Neglect of Enlightenment Constitutionalism (April 2014). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-12. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2410388 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2410388

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Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)
New York University School of Law ( email )
40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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