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3 - Idealism and the idea of a constitution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2013

Chris Thornhill
Affiliation:
University of Manchester
Nicholas Boyle
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Liz Disley
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
John Walker
Affiliation:
Birkbeck College, University of London
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Summary

The Enlightenment and sociological formation of power

The Enlightenment, observed both as a historical and as a conceptual event, had its centre in the conviction that the European state needed to be constructed as a state under law. As a result, the legitimating function of the constitution was a matter of intense political concern for the Enlightenment. Most essentially, the Enlightenment converged around the view that a state could only be seen as legitimate if it was defined by a legal personality (a constitution), which distinguished acts of public will from acts of factual bearers of political authority and from all transient and particular interests seeking access to state power. Underlying the politics of Enlightenment, thus, was the general normative insistence that the state had to be constructed as a categorically public order, whose primary laws distinguished its power from all privately owned and exercised power, and constructed its authority as a sui generis resource, clearly separated from other spheres of social exchange.

This emphasis on constitutional formation was expressed in the political theories of the Enlightenment. Gaining momentum after Hobbes, the attempt to separate the state, under the public-legal order of a constitution, from mere acts of government unified all the diverse stances broadly categorised as reflecting the Enlightenment. Yet this emphasis was also evident in the practice of the Enlightenment. The most important reflection of this was in the tendency towards the codification of the legal system that was prevalent throughout Europe in the eighteenth century. The drive to codification was also motivated by the idea that the state could only be legitimate if it was framed by a single legal corpus, through which it ordered its relations with other societal actors. Indeed, the core Enlightenment concept of natural rights played a vital role in this process of codification, and the construction of natural rights became the basis for the formation of the state as an abstracted legal person.

Type
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The Impact of Idealism
The Legacy of Post-Kantian German Thought
, pp. 51 - 81
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2013

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