Montesquieu’s PassionKnox Peden (University of Melbourne)
Menzies Building, fifth floor, Room E561
20 Chancellor's Walk
Clayton, Melbourne 3800
Abstract: Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) has long been recognized as a classic in the history of political thought for its case for a separation of powers, its approbative analysis of politics in England, and its influence on the founders of the American republic. Yet in the years following the Second World War scholars turned to the French nobleman with an approach that tethered his political ideas to the advent of capitalism. Representing different political tendencies, thinkers such as Louis Althusser, Albert Hirschman, and J.G.A. Pocock – a philosopher, an economist, and a historian – delivered interpretations of Montesquieu’s work that clustered around a range of related concepts: interests, principles, manners and morals, and, perhaps most crucially, passions. Their interpretations do not align, even as they connect in certain points. Notoriously discrepant in structure and content, The Spirit of the Laws has sustained divergent readings, among which the convergences are no less significant. My aim in this paper is two-fold: first, to assess these modern readings, using the treatment of ‘passion’ in Montesquieu’s thought as a thread; and second, to consider what work is done by staging Montesquieu as a thinker of epochal transition in a moment when the historical mutability of social arrangements had become a subject of heated political and academic debate. In effect, Montesquieu gives us an opportunity to think more generally about the uses of the early modern.
Bio: Dr Knox Peden is Senior Lecturer in the History of Philosophy (Gerry Higgins Lectureship) at the University of Melbourne. From 2020, he will be Senior Lecturer in Continental Philosophy at Flinders University. He is the author of Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford, 2014), as well as many articles on modern French thought, intellectual history, and historical theory. Oxford will publish his French Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, co-authored with Stephen Gaukroger, in 2020.
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