The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course The instructor did an excellent job presenting philosophical ideas in their historical context. I think it is possible that the less enthusiastic reviews of this course are from people with little background in the subject matter who are not up to the challenge required by the material. This isn't a broad, bland survey course -- it addresses ideas in their glorious complexity and ambiguity. The instructor was even able to present Hegelian philosophy so that I actually understood a bit. This course has provided me with a vocabulary and set of ideas that allow me to look at political questions in entirely new ways, making new connections and broadening my view of the world and my place in it.
Date published: 2020-09-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Incomtrhensble Lots of readings and authors I never heard of......
Date published: 2020-07-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Review This was a very helpful and enjoyable review of the evolution of political thought. This course helped define and explore concepts in political thought, as well as a nice introduction to those individuals who were important in this evolution.
Date published: 2020-06-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not what I expected I have a BA in Political Science and I was going for a bit of a refresher. The Professor is not what I expected. He seems on the dry side and the information was not all consistent with what I learned in school. For a beginner it is OK, I suppose.
Date published: 2020-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Challenging & Rewarding I would have rated this 4.5 stars if that was allowed -- because yes the professor should work on his delivery which needs to be more fluid. His uneven cadences can be distracting. However -- a very complex subject presented so clearly that this novice understood almost everything. The course requires your close attention. If you don't want an intellectual challenge, take a course on flower arrangement. Some of the characters you will meet are not very likable, and some are just plain crazy (Rousseau, I'm looking at you). However, the material provides valuable insight as to how we got into our current distressing situation. (Unfortunately it doesn't offer any practical advice on how to get out of it.) There are no visuals so save your money & get the audio.
Date published: 2020-01-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Could be clearer It's probably an impossible task, trying to summarize complex arguments from such a range of thinkers and eras. But I found myself feeling utterly lost in these lectures all too often. Perhaps I need the high school version.
Date published: 2020-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not Just A Review of the Standard Theorists I was a political science major in college and graduated in 1973. What I particularly liked about this course is that after a review of the usual political theorists, the last half of the course was a discussion of contemporary political developments and concerns. I'm not sure why he decided to start at Hobbes because with the inclusion of Plato and Aristotle he would have completely covered the subject of political theory (and he does talk a little bit about the ancients), but since he defined the course as starting at Hobbes, I can't complain. To get the ancients, buy Dennis Dalton's course, Power Over People, an oddly idiosyncratic course that completely neglects american political tradition, has curious inclusions (Emma Goldman, Ghandi), but is thoroughly delightful and well worth listening to.
Date published: 2019-08-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Broad ranging but dense The course covers a very wide range of philosophers and philosophies, which allows for dipping one's toes into a sea and then deciding whom (or what topics) you may wish you may wish to explore in greater detail. The problem I found with the course was that it was dense and often difficult to follow. Many of these are complicated concepts what may be explained in one lecture and then referred to much later when the memory is fainter. I also found the professor's style a bit dry and droning, which seemed to encourage my mind to wander quite a bit. I found I needed to replay large portions of the course several times. All that being said, this course may be a better choice if one has at least a passing knowledge of the philosophers - or at least the basic concepts - the professor dwells on. (I found the earlier lectures easier to follow for just that reason.) I played a portion of the course to someone who was a philosophy major (albeit before several of the philosophers touched on were well-known) and he found it absolutely fascinating and enlightening. Perhaps it just wasn't to my taste...
Date published: 2019-07-31
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The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas
Course Trailer
Origins and Conflicts of Modern Politics
1: Origins and Conflicts of Modern Politics

Kick off the course with a discussion of political philosophy's continuing influence in the world and its major concepts, including democracy, republicanism, and liberalism. Consider moral realism versus moral relativism, and learn how the history of modern political thought has evolved from its formation through its contemporary period.

35 min
Ancient Republics, Empires, Fiefdoms
2: Ancient Republics, Empires, Fiefdoms

Modern political philosophy emerged, along with the rise of modernity, out of medieval feudalism. Delve into the history of politics leading up to 16th-century Europe, including the development of ancient political organization, the ideas of Plato and Aristotle-the first Western political theorists-and the contributions of medieval philosophy, such as the notion of "just war."

30 min
Machiavelli's New Order
3: Machiavelli's New Order

Does politics demand behavior that is ethically immoral? Do the ends justify the means? Explore the legacy of Niccolò Machiavelli, the first modern political philosopher and political scientist, who broke with the classical virtue politics of Plato, Aristotle, Rome, and medieval Christianity, establishing a new order of political thought that focused on politics in the real world.

29 min
Hobbes, Natural Law, the Social Contract
4: Hobbes, Natural Law, the Social Contract

Explore the first version of social contract theory as espoused by Thomas Hobbes, who based his view on moral relativism and a pessimistic state of nature in which there is a war of all against all. Learn why for society to function, according to Hobbes, the people must give up control to the sovereign, upon which no limits can be placed.

32 min
Locke on Limited Government and Toleration
5: Locke on Limited Government and Toleration

Turn to John Locke and his more "liberal" notion of the state of nature and the social contract, which reinterpreted civic republicanism in terms of the preservation of property. Follow the arguments he presented in his Second Treatise on Government and Letter on Toleration, which ultimately established the foundation of the Anglo-American version of modern republicanism.

33 min
Rousseau's Republican Community
6: Rousseau's Republican Community

As the Enlightenment's greatest champion of equality, Swiss writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau endorsed the social contract-but his ideas differed from Hobbes and Locke in critical ways. Here, examine Rousseau's legacy and thought, which sought to structure modern civil society in a way that might recapture what he saw as the independence and equality of primitive society.

32 min
Kant's Ethics of Duty and Natural Rights
7: Kant's Ethics of Duty and Natural Rights

Immanuel Kant is attributed with creating one of the two most influential theories of ethics, deontological ethics-the other being utilitarianism-each of which became the background for an enduring view of modern republicanism. In this lecture, examine Kant's fundamental arguments, which are key to understanding much of modern political theory....

31 min
Smith and the Market Revolution
8: Smith and the Market Revolution

Inspired by the commercial success of Holland and England, a number of 18th-century intellectuals argued that a society of self-interested producers is good, despite its flaunting of traditional, classical, and Christian virtues. Investigate these thinkers, including Voltaire and Adam Smith, who each believed commerce promotes liberty, peace, and prosperity.

32 min
Montesquieu and the American Founding
9: Montesquieu and the American Founding

The complexities of the American Constitution and system of government are a consequence of disagreements between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Look at their arguments and contributions to political thought-including the Declaration of Independence, parts of the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers-along with the ideas of Montesquieu, whose notion of the separation of...

31 min
Debating the French Revolution
10: Debating the French Revolution

As the greatest political event of the 18th century, the French Revolution inspired political thinkers around the world. In the first of three lectures tracing the uprising's philosophical impact, delve into the liberal, conservative, and proto-progressive arguments made during "the battle of the pamphlets"-the first intellectual feud over the meaning of the Revolution.

31 min
Legacies of the Revolution-Right to Left
11: Legacies of the Revolution-Right to Left

Where do the political terms "right" and "left" come from? Find out here, in a lecture that explores powerful 19th-century thinkers on both sides of the spectrum, whose reactions to the polarizing French Revolution helped pave the way for more extreme conservatism and anarchist socialism that lasted throughout the century.

33 min
Nationalism and a People's War
12: Nationalism and a People's War

Part of the legacy of the French Revolution was the development of two phenomena: nationalism and the modern way of warfare. Look at the philosophical work of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who distinguished between "real war" and "pure war" (the latter being the type ushered in by Napoleon), as you consider the novelty and significance of these changes.

29 min
Civil Society-Constant, Hegel, Tocqueville
13: Civil Society-Constant, Hegel, Tocqueville

Between the extremes of left and right, Benjamin Constant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Alexis de Tocqueville made major contributions to political theory by examining the idea of what a free republic can and should be. Examine their writing, which demonstrated that two kinds of republicanism exist: liberal and civic.

33 min
Mill on Liberty and Utility
14: Mill on Liberty and Utility

Despite later declaring himself a socialist, John Stuart Mill is admired by neoliberals and libertarians for his "harm principle" and rejection of paternalism as expressed in On Liberty. Investigate Mill's doctrine of individual liberty and redefinition of utilitarianism, as well as his economic stance, all of which became crucial to subsequent political and economic theory.

30 min
Marx's Critique of Capitalism
15: Marx's Critique of Capitalism

German philosopher Karl Marx's critique of capitalism and vision of communism went unapplied until 1917 in Russia. By 1980, approximately one-third of the world's population lived in countries adhering to his work. Explore Marx's basic claims (formulated in conjunction with Friedrich Engels), which represented the most powerful version of socialism and the greatest threat to liberal capitalism.

31 min
Modern vs. Traditional Society
16: Modern vs. Traditional Society

The modern world brought higher standards of living, unprecedented scientific knowledge, and widespread literacy, yet it also undermined tradition and, for many, led to a loss of community. Learn how figures from the newly emerging social sciences, including Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, changed the intellectual environment in attempting to describe this shift.

32 min
Progressivism and New Liberalism
17: Progressivism and New Liberalism

From 1900 to 1920, American progressives such as Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Dewey argued for an "organic" view of society against the natural rights, atomistic individualism, and limited government of the 19th century. Understand the role, effects, and issues raised by progressivism and new liberalism in America, including the welfare state.

30 min
Fleeing Liberalism-Varieties of Socialism
18: Fleeing Liberalism-Varieties of Socialism

Explore the growing variants of socialism, including a milder, "evolutionary" socialism in western Europe, an intermediate version of "Western Marxist" political theory, and a more radical, authoritarian communism in Russia. Look closely at the ideas of Vladimir Lenin and get a clear explanation of capitalism vs. communism.

31 min
Fleeing Liberalism-Fascism and Carl Schmitt
19: Fleeing Liberalism-Fascism and Carl Schmitt

In the 1920s, opposition to bourgeois-led parliamentary democracy split between internationalist socialism and a new nationalist socialism, which came to be called fascism. Explore the roots of fascism and its most sophisticated political thinker, Carl Schmitt, who presents a deep philosophical critique of parliamentary democracy and liberal republicanism.

32 min
Totalitarianism and Total War
20: Totalitarianism and Total War

Explore the events surrounding World War II, including the role philosophers played and how political philosophers interpreted the new totalitarianism of Russia, Italy, and Germany. Grasp how this period produced our familiar spectrum of international politics, with communism on the far left and fascism on the far right.

31 min
Conservative or Neoliberal-Oakeshott, Hayek
21: Conservative or Neoliberal-Oakeshott, Hayek

Neoliberals and economic conservatives disagree widely on many points, but they share a common enemy: expansive, progressive government. See the two paths conservatism took in the post-WWII world and examine the thought these camps produced-all of which serves as background for today's arguments about government and economy.

30 min
Reviving the Public Realm-Hannah Arendt
22: Reviving the Public Realm-Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th century's premier political philosophers, was critical of the modern dominance of economics over politics in both communism and liberal capitalism, and she called for a return to civic republicanism. Here, look closely at the ideas she puts forth in The Human Condition and related works.

31 min
Philosophy vs. Politics-Strauss and Friends
23: Philosophy vs. Politics-Strauss and Friends

Now, turn to another German émigré philosopher who, like Arendt, probed further into the conflict between politics and philosophy while turning to the ancients for a political approach that avoids the mistakes of modernity. Examine Leo Strauss's work, which has significantly influenced American neoconservatives, and the related writings of his friend, Alexandre Kojève.

29 min
Marcuse and the New Left
24: Marcuse and the New Left

Although the "old" left declined in the West after WWII, Frankfurt School thinker Herbert Marcuse was able to help create what was sometimes called a Freudian left through a psychological reinterpretation of Marxism. Delve into the New Left of the 1960s and Marcuse's ideas, which critiqued capitalism's seduction of society through the welfare state and culture industry.

31 min
Rawls's A Theory of Justice
25: Rawls's A Theory of Justice

Is it just for one man to drive a luxury car and eat at expensive restaurants while another goes homeless and hungry? Consider such questions of justice as you explore the views of John Rawls, whose 1971 A Theory of Justice became the most famous justification of welfare liberalism in the late 20th century.

32 min
Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, Libertarianism
26: Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, Libertarianism

Take a nuanced look at libertarianism, starting with the views of novelist Ayn Rand, who defended laissez-faire and espoused a philosophy of "objectivism." Then turn to the work Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in which philosopher Robert Nozick provided a libertarian rebuttal to Rawls, laying the groundwork for future disagreements over the welfare state.

32 min
What about Community?
27: What about Community?

As Rawls's theory of distributive justice, and some libertarian critics, were dominating political philosophy, a new group of political theorists called communitarians emerged to critique their views. See how this diverse movement of thinkers concerned with community, civic republicanism, and civil society responded to the individualism and neutrality of Rawls and Nozick.

33 min
Walzer on Everything Money Shouldn't Buy
28: Walzer on Everything Money Shouldn't Buy

Michael Walzer created perhaps the most interesting alternative to the distributive justice theories of Rawls and Nozick in his Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Explore his more communitarian theory of distributive justice and the distinction he draws between "thin" and "thick" political discourse, in attempting to deal with criticisms of his view.

30 min
Identity Politics-Feminism
29: Identity Politics-Feminism

The personal is political. This phrase, coined by Carol Hanisch in her 1969 essay of the same name, succinctly describes how feminism forever altered the boundary between the private and the public, which liberalism has always tended to reinforce. Here, consider the feminist challenge to liberal republican political theory and look at the many versions of feminist philosophy.

30 min
Identity Politics-Multiculturalism
30: Identity Politics-Multiculturalism

Is "color-blindness" inherently unequal? Does a cultural group have rights? Is the goal of liberal democratic equality to treat citizens indifferently with respect to their racial, ethnic, or cultural distinctiveness, or to take that distinctiveness into account and value it? Here, explore the question of how recognizing cultural differences changes liberal republicanism.

30 min
The Politics of Nature-Environmentalism
31: The Politics of Nature-Environmentalism

Environmentalism has been associated with the political left because it is often in the position of opposing major economic interests. Yet it's fundamentally conservative in that it wants to "go back" to an earlier time. Survey some of the ideas and arguments of this movement and gauge its effect on liberal republican political theory.

31 min
Postmodernism, Truth, and Power
32: Postmodernism, Truth, and Power

Postmodern critique has changed the discussions of sociology, literature, philosophy, and political theory by pressing feminist and multiculturalist versions of egalitarian liberalism or progressivism in a radical, anti-Eurocentric direction. Explore some of the ideas-both leftist and conservative-behind postmodernism in politics, as put forth by Cornel West, Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak, and o...

31 min
Habermas-Democracy as Communication
33: Habermas-Democracy as Communication

No one has done more to give both a historical and a systematic philosophical defense of modern republicanism in the postwar period than Jürgen Habermas. Explore his philosophy of communication, as well as his arguments for liberal republicanism and social democracy against philosophical and theoretical attacks by conservatism, Nietzschean "will to power," and postmodernism.

32 min
The End of History? Clash of Civilizations?
34: The End of History? Clash of Civilizations?

The fall of communism and rise of economic globalization appeared to solidify the supremacy of liberal republicanism. Yet we have since witnessed a reassertion of ethnic nationalism and radical Islam, leading to an even more politically complex world. Is liberal republicanism destined to be universal, or is it inapplicable to some civilizations?

30 min
Just Wars? The Problem of Dirty Hands
35: Just Wars? The Problem of Dirty Hands

Revisit the topic of the ethics of war, which was touched upon earlier in the course. First, review the three active philosophical positions-pacifism, realism, and just war theory-then look at Michael Walzer's version of just war theory and his take on recent wars from a moral perspective.

32 min
Why Political Philosophy Matters
36: Why Political Philosophy Matters

Do we need more government or less? Will the liberal republican model stand up to and address the problems its ever-modernizing society will create? Professor Cahoone concludes by demonstrating how he would work through some of the issues covered. Also, see how Americans-while seemingly hopelessly divided politically-actually disagree less than we might believe.

33 min
Lawrence Cahoone

The Great Courses deeply challenged my skills in teaching philosophy, while making it fun too.


Stony Brook University


College of the Holy Cross

About Lawrence Cahoone

Dr. Lawrence Cahoone is Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where he has taught since 2000. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. A two-time winner of the Undergraduate Philosophy Association Teaching Award at Boston University who has taught more than 50 different philosophy courses, Professor Cahoone is not only a skilled teacher, but also an author. With a background in recent European, American, and social and political philosophy, as well as interests in postmodernism, metaphysics, and the latter's relation to the natural sciences, he has written:

  • The Orders of Nature
  • Cultural Revolutions: Reason versus Culture in Philosophy, Politics, and Jihad
  • Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics
  • The Ends of Philosophy: Pragmatism, Foundationalism, and Postmodernism
  • The Dilemma of Modernity: Philosophy, Culture, and Anti-Culture

He edited From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology and his play, Wise Guys: A Philosophical Comedy, is available at

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