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International Philosophical Quarterly

Volume 43, Issue 4, December 2003

Martin Harvey
Pages 477-502
DOI: 10.5840/ipq200343438

Classical Contractarianism
From Absolutism to Constitutionalism

The fundamental presupposition of political philosophy is that the legitimate rule of one individual over another requires justification: political power may come out of the barrel of a gun but political authority does not. Classically, the philosopher of politics looked to nature. In the seventeenth century, however, the philosophical tide turns in a decidedly different direction: contractarianism. Political society becomes a consensual construct created through the heuristic vehicle of a hypothetical social contract. Simultaneously, within the confines of contractarianism itself, a remarkable transformation occurs. The theory originates in the hands of Grotius, Hobbes and Pufendorf as a justificatory tool for political absolutism and, paradoxically, reaches its zenith in Locke with a firm commitment to constitutionalism. I explore this transformation in detail, culminating with what I term the “Lockean Synthesis.”

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