Popular Sovereignty and National Self-Determination

Course Information

Registration Information

Meeting Times

Day Time Location
TUE, THU 2:15 - 3:30 pm TNH 2.123

Evaluation Method

Type Date Time Location


I have argued in print that Woodrow Wilson is in fact the most influential single figure of the 20th century—moreso, say, than Lenin, given that communism is in tatters as an ideological system—because of the continuing importance of what is often called “Wilsonian national self-determination” as an operative ideal.  That is, it is not only an important idea in political theory; it also serves as the foundation for many political movements around the world who claim a right to such self-determination against those alleged to oppress them or, in some cases, those who simply suppress the opportunity of the claimants to exercise a sufficient degree of cultural autonomy linked with the notion of nationalism.

The idea of popular sovereignty can be traced back to ancient times, but It becomes dominant intellectually only beginning in the 17th century and then politically with the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century. Nationalism in many ways becomes a dominant idea in the 19th century and then, even more so, in the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the great trans-national (or multi-national) empires.

This course will be devoted to examining the some of the tensions generated by taking “national self-determination” seriously.  Start only with deciding who is, and who is not, a member of the relevant “nation” or, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the “people” claiming the right to secede from the British Empire.  Not surprisingly, the claimed “right to secede,” including some of the recent debates in the United Kingdom vis-à-vis Brexit (and then regarding the propriety of Scottish secession from the U.K) will play a significant part in our inquiries.

You should be on notice that this will be a somewhat old-fashioned lecture course, not least because I find myself wrestling with some of the difficult ideas we’ll be looking at, and preparing fairly formal lectures has always been a productive way of finding out exactly what I in fact think.  So we’ll meet twice a week for 75-minutes, during which I expect to lecture for roughly 50 minutes or so on aspects of the assigned readings, followed by discussion.  These reading materials will be drawn from political theory, political science and sociology, history, and law, and it is really essential to keep up with the reading in order to participate productively in the discussions.   

The final grade will be based on a standard-form two-hour in-class final examination, the questions for which will be handed out in advance at the last class (50%); two “response papers” written during the semester of approximately 2000 words each regarding the some portion of the  assigned reading that particularly interests you (40% total); and class participation (10%).