Sheldon Wolin

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Sheldon S. Wolin (born August 4, 1922) is a political theorist. He is professor emeritus of Princeton University and a writer on contemporary politics. He is married to Emily Purvis Wolin.



Early life

He attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate. During World War II, he was a bomber pilot.

Academic career

In 1950 Wolin received his Harvard University doctorate for a dissertation titled Conservatism and Constitutionalism: A Study in English Constitutional Ideas, 1760-1785. After teaching briefly at Oberlin College, Wolin taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1954 to 1970. In a political science department that was largely composed of empirical studies of micro-political issues, Wolin was a political theorist who managed to build that component of the program by bringing Norman Jacobson, John Schaar, and Hanna Pitkin into the department. He was a major supporter and interpreter to the rest of the world of the theory behind the Free Speech Movement, and he became a mentor to one of the FSM's more prominent activists, Michael Lerner on whose Ph.D. committee he served.

From 1973 through 1987 Wolin was Professor of Politics at Princeton University where he mentored a large number of students who have subsequently become leading figures in contemporary political theory, including most notably: at Berkeley, Hanna Pitkin (Emeritus, Berkeley), and at Princeton, Uday Mehta (Amherst College), Wendy Brown (Berkeley), Frederick Dolan (Emeritus, Berkeley and California College of the Arts), Dana Villa (Notre Dame), Nicholas Xenos (Massachusetts), Kirstie McClure (UCLA) and Cornel West (Princeton). At Princeton, Wolin led a successful faculty effort to pass a resolution urging university trustees to divest from endowment investment in firms that supported South African apartheid.

Aside from Oberlin, UC Berkeley and Princeton, Wolin has also taught at UC Santa Cruz, UC Los Angeles, Cornell University, and Oxford.

Political theorist

Wolin made his name with the 1960 publication of Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton 1960, 2nd Ed. 2004). He published some articles that challenged positivist political science and enlivened the field of political theory. In addition to the usual canon of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli and Rousseau, Wolin wrote penetrating essays on Augustine of Hippo, Richard Hooker, David Hume, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and John Dewey as well as books on the American Constitution and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.

As leading political theorist William E. Connolly notes,

Politics and Vision did not simply tell us how important it is to address the “tradition” of Western political thought, it engaged comparatively a series of exemplary political thinkers in pre-Christian thought, Christendom, and the modern world in a way that revivified the energy, confidence, and vision of an entire generation of political theorists.’ (Democracy and Vision, Princeton 2001).

Wolin's work has energized participatory democracy in the United States by theorizing democracy as a mode of being that is external to the political institutions of the state. This shift has encouraged a decoupling of democracy from political liberalism (towards postliberal democracy) which restores to 'democracy' its rightful power to judge Power.

Wolin is often[citation needed] described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of 'superpower democracy' and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an 'inverted totalitarian' state (with all of the fascist implications). However, Wolin might also be understood within either the conservative or socialist traditions of political thought in providing a prophetic counter to the excesses and dangers of political liberalism embodied in the 'megastate'.

Wolin's propheticism about U.S. political life seeks to recognize the fugitive character of democracy in order to retain its reformative power, encouraging local and particular modes of political participation which can resist the totalizing tendencies of statist power.