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Empire and Political Thought: A Retrospective


Event Summary

Photo by Robert Heishman

Over the past two decades, scholars in political theory, intellectual history, and related fields have approached the study of European imperialism with renewed attention. This event, sponsored by the Theorizing Indian Democracy project and presented in partnership with the UChicago Political Theory Workshop, attempted to take stock of this scholarship by bringing together scholars who have been pivotal in initiating the study of imperialism’s effects on globalization, historiography, citizenship, sovereignty, multiculturalism, and law. What motivated the initial turn towards questions of empire and colonialism within European and American academia, and do those motivations still hold today? The group also asked how studies of empire might reconstruct critical forms of political thought and practice from non-European intellectual traditions.

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Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the faculty director of the University of Chicago Center in Delhi, a faculty fellow of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, an associate of the Department of English, and by courtesy, a faculty member in the Law School. His books include The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories (2018), The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth (2015), Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (2002), and Provincializing Europe (2000). His research is currently focused on the implications of the science of climate change for historical and political thought, on democracy and political thought in South Asia, and on the cultural history of Muslim-Bengali nationalism.

Jeanne Morefield is incoming professor in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection (2014) and Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (2005). Her research interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century liberalism, pluralism, anti-colonial and postcolonial theory, and the history of political thought in relation to sovereignty, international relations, empire, and contemporary global politics. She is currently completing a study of Edward Said’s work in the context of contemporary discourses of international crises and humanitarian intervention.

James Tully
is emeritus professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Victoria. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Emeritus Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation. In 2010 he was awarded the Killam Prize in the Humanities for his outstanding contribution to scholarship and Canadian public life. His two-volume work, Public Philosophy in a New Key (2008), was awarded the C.B. Macpherson Prize by the Canadian Political Science Association in 2010 for the best book in political theory written in English or French in Canada. He was consulting editor of the journals Political Theory and Global Constitutionalism, co-editor of the Clarendon Works of John Locke and former co-editor of the Cambridge University Press series Ideas in Context. He has published eleven authored and edited volumes, including A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries (1980), Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought (co-edited with Annabel Brett) (2006), On Global Citizenship: James Tully in Dialogue (2014), and the recent co-edited volume Resurgence and Reconciliation (2018). He specializes in the history of political and legal thought and issues related to constitutionalism, nonviolence, civic engagement, and Indigenous-Settler relations.


Jennifer Pitts is Professor of Political Science and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her book Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire (Harvard University Press, 2018) explores European debates over legal relations with extra-European societies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She is also author of A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (2005); co-editor of The Law of Nations in Global History (2017); and editor and translator of Alexis de Tocqueville: Writings on Empire and Slavery (2001). Her research interests lie in the fields of modern political and international thought, particularly British and French thought of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; empire; the history of international law; and global justice. She is a co-editor of the Cambridge University Press series Ideas in Context. At the University of Chicago, she is a member of the faculty boards for the Human Rights Program and the Stevanovich Institute for the Formation of Knowledge.