Northern Illinois University

                                          Department of Political Science



Political Science 651                                                                     Fall 2009

Seminar in Modern                                                                         Professor Glenn

Political Philosophy: Burke                                                               Office Hours: 

6:30-9:10 PM                                                                                    MTW 11:00-11:50  

DU 466                                                                                       & by appointment                                                                                  753-1091                                            

This seminar will study the speeches and writings of Edmund Burke with a view to the tradition of political philosophy. The readings will be from the  edition by Ross J. S. Hoffman and Paul Levack Burke's Politics: Selected Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke on Reform, Revolution, and War. The professor has also identified some secondary readings that he has found useful. A list of these readings is appended to this syllabus. They are not required reading for the seminar and will not be discussed in class. However, some of them deal with the suggested paper topics and some will be useful for the final exam. They are available in the Library Reserve Room. I would recommend that you make a copy and read them by way of broadening and deepening your understanding of Burke. Alternately, if you would like a copy of all of them I can have them printed and bound. They will cost you only what they cost me. If you want a bound copy, please let me know within the first week of the semester.


                                                      CLASS SCHEDULE


DATE        READING (Page numbers are from Hoffman and Levack)


8/25        Introduction: What is the purpose of studying political philosophy? Why should students of political philosophy study Burke? To what seemingly permanent problems of political philosophy is Burke particularly relevant? Who else, besides students of political philosophy, might benefit from studying Burke and for what ends? Problems in Burke=s thought.


9/1         The American Problem. Observations on `The Present State of the Nation' (1769) pp. 46-55.


9/8         Observations (Cont.) Speech on American Taxation(1774), pp. 55-61.


9/15        Speech on Conciliation with America (1775), pp. 61-93.



Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789), pp. 277-391 (These pages will be covered over 5 classes.)


9/29        Research paper topic to be agreed upon in writing by today.

9/29        Reflections continued.


10/6        Reflections continued


10/13       Reflections continued


10/20       Reflections continued.


10/27       Reflections continued.



Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791), pp. 390-400.

Thoughts on French Affairs (1791), 401-424


11/10       Letters on a Regicide Peace (1794-96), pp. 457-73.



11/17       continued, pp. 474-511.

11/17       Research papers due today.



Letter to a Noble Lord (1795), pp. 512-536.


12/1        Wrap up. Take home-final exam questions handed out today.


12/8        Scheduled Final exam time. Take home final exam due in class today.

Note: The scheduled exam time is 6:00pm rather than 6:30. We can decide whether 6 or 6:30 is more convenient for us.


                                          DAY-TO-DAY EXPECTATION OF STUDENTS


1. Attend each class.

2. Prepare for class by doing the readings to be discussed that day.

3. Bring the appropriate readings to class, and be prepared to ask and answer thoughtfully questions about them.


                                      CLASS PARTICIPATION


Good quality class participation is expected and is a substantial part of the final grade. "Good quality" does not mean talking frequently. It means

1) regular evidence of studying the readings;

2) the ability to reflect and comment intelligently on the issues raised in the readings and lectures;

3) asking apt questions that aim to make sense of the readings;

4) showing evidence of making progress in fitting together the pieces of Burke=s thought, or the professor=s interpretation,into a coherent whole.


                                                WRITTEN REQUIREMENTS


1. A research paper of 1500-3000 words is due Tuesday November 17. The paper topic is to be agreed upon between the professor and student no later than Tuesday September 29. Please submit the proposed topic in writing. In general, I recommend that you select a topic which seems to you important as well as interesting. The paper is to be primarily your own grappling with Burke=s text and only very secondarily about any relevant scholarship. Additional guidelines and expectations concerning the papers, including some possible paper topics,is attached to this syllabus.


2. Each student will make an 10 minute oral presentation to the class explaining their research topic. The student should schedule the date with the instructor for after September 29. The purpose is to enable you to benefit from explaining your topic to your fellow students, why you think it both important and interesting, and perhaps gaining some useful questions and perspectives from them.


3. There will be a take home final examination. The questions will be handed out Tuesday December 1 and the essays will be due at the scheduled final exam time  Tuesday December 8 at 6:00 pm. Since we are required to meet at the exam time, I will be prepared to discuss matters related to the course with you at that time but there will be no required reading for that day. This class is intended as an opportunity for a more unstructured discussion that is ordinarily the case. 




An A grade in the class requires daily evidence of having read and thought about that days readings; raising questions about what the text seems to mean or whether what it seems to mean makes sense, either in itself or in relation to the text's apparent meaning elsewhere.

An A grade in the class also requires that you be able to answer, both thoughtfully and to the point, questions put by the professor. Comments not germane to the topic under discussion are discouraged.

A grade of A in the class also requires the paper to be written with clarity, economy, and focus.

A grade of A in the class also require that both the paper and the final take-home examination show understanding of the material beyond the obvious.  Showing how the text sheds light on contemporary issues might be important but should not get in the way of first understanding the text in the manner intended by Burke.

Course grades are based first on the quality of oral participation in the seminar and second on the two written assignments.




Except as indicated above, incomplete=s are given only for unforeseeable events which make impossible completion of the course work by the end of the semester. Students are responsible for informing the professor of such events, and for securing his consent to an incomplete, as promptly as possible. Receiving an incomplete should not be taken for granted and will not be given for insufficient reasons, e.g. "I want to do the best possible job on the paper."



                                      POSSIBLE PAPER TOPICS

                           And additional guidelines and expectations


Directions: The following are possible paper topics but you are free to formulate your own. Whether you do so or use one of the topics below, your topic should be approved no later than September 29. Only one person may work on each of the following topics and the principal is "first come, first served." The paper is due Tuesday November 17. Verbum sapienti sat.


Directions:  The paper should interpret and make intelligent observations about some aspect of Burke's teaching or about some controversy in Burke scholarship. The intention is to see how well you can understand and propose solutions to problems of interpretation on the basis of the text. The paper must be a minimum of 1500 words and a maximum of 3000 words. Please include a word count. Papers without a word count, or which exceed the maximum word count, will be returned unread.


1. "Political philosophy by its very nature casts a shadow on all existing regimes by demonstrating their deficiencies as illumined by the theoretically best regime." (Steven Lenzner, "Strauss's Three Burke's: The Problem of Edmund Burke in Natural Right and History, Political Theory, August 1991 p. 370.) Does Burke have a teaching about what regime is theoretically best? If he does, what is the relation of that regime to the British Constitution? If he does not, what does that say about the status of his teaching as political philosophy and his status as a political philosopher?


2. Burke defends a particular tradition, the British constitutional tradition, with reasoned arguments. But one might construe doing so as already having, in some manner, abandoned tradition. For example: "to engage in argument is already to contribute to the death of...tradition" (Don Herzog, "Puzzling Through Burke", Political Theory August 1991, p. 361.) Is this true? If not, from what perspective does the assertion of such a radical incompatibility between reason and tradition come? Can there be a sense in which arguments (or reasons) embedded in tradition can be restated to defend, not merely the `traditionness= of a tradition, but also its rationality?


3. One commentator distinguishes thusly between "political philosophy" and "political thought in general." "Political thought may not be more,...than the expounding of defense of a firmly held conviction or of an invigorating myth; but it is essential to political philosophy to be set in motion, and be kept in motion, by the disquieting awareness of the fundamental difference between conviction, or belief, and knowledge. A political thinker who is not a philosopher is primarily interested in, or attached to, a specific order or policy; a political philosopher is primarily interested in or attached to the truth." (Leo Strauss, "What Is Political Philosophy" 1959. From the point of view of this distinction, can one still argue that Burke's thought is, or elements of it are, political philosophy? This essay is published in several places. One is Strauss' book of the same title. More recently it is in Hilail Gilden ed., Political Philosophy.  I also have copies available. In all the versions, the passage is about 4 pages from the beginning.)


4. How can one reconcile Burke's talk of "the eternal and immutable rules of morality" (Hastings Trial, 7 May 1789 in Works [Little, Brown edition] vol. X, p. 408) with the apparently contradictory statement "Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral, or any political subject." (Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, 1791, Works IV, p. 80)? And if these statements cannot be reconciled, how does that effect the soundness, coherence or truthfulness of Burke=s thought?


5. It is sometimes argued that one of the features of modern thought is that its principles tend towards self destruction-and nihilism-as one tries to render them consistent. This might mean that such thought can be preserved only if one refrains from too great an insistence on consistency. A striking feature of Burke's thought is his characteristically critical remarks on "theory" although it is unclear  whether everything called `theory= is simply rejected or whether `theory= is preserved in some form or some manner. Could it be that Burke did not present a treatise on political philosophy, after the manner say of Hobbes, because he somehow understood the tendency identified in the first paragraph and sought to avoid it?


6. Burke has been accused of many inconsistencies both of thought and of action. Here are some of them. 1) A willingness to decrease the franchise but to expand it to Dissenters and Catholics (Hoffman and Levack, p. xxiii). 2) A supporter of the American revolution and opponent of the French revolution (Peter J. Stanlis ed., Edmund Burke, Selected Writings and Speeches pp. 19-20. 3) A defender of a sensist epistemology (in his essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful) which is said to be incompatible with his adherence to natural law. 4) Whether his thought ultimately appeals to justice or to expediency (Charles Parkin, The Moral Basis of Burke's Political Thought p. 10 citing C.E. Vaughn, Studies in the History of Political Philosophy Before and After Rousseau,  2 Vols. Vol. II, p. 59.) Take one of these alleged inconsistencies and try to figure out whether they are really such or whether they can somehow be reconciled.


7. Two hundred years before contemporary "political correctness", Burke devoted eight years of struggle in Parliament to an attempt to protect the people of India against the depredations of the British East India Company. The importance Burke placed on this effort is shown by two facts. 1) Four of the twelve volumes of Burke's collected Works consist entirely of speeches and writings concerning this matter. 2) Near the end of his life, Burke said that he regarded his attempt to help India his life's most important work.

Many of Burke's friends were puzzled about this enormous expenditure of effort in a cause that was certain to lose and which would gain him no other apparent political advantage. One of those friend, Miss Mary Palmer, wrote to him from Calcutta asking why he was doing this, especially since his party was not united about the issue. Burke responded: "I have no party in this Business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your Lillies and Roses in their faces; but who are the images of the great Pattern as well as you and I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not." (Holden Furber ed., The Correspondence of Edmund Burke Vol. 5 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965] p. 255).


Today, a sensitivity to oppression of dark skinned people by whites, stemming from a commitment to equality, would lead some to defend people situated like the Indians. However, Burke was no egalitarian. What, then, in his thought accounts for his sensitivity to their oppression and for his willingness to expend himself in their behalf, not only at enormous length but even against the advice of "white people"? 


8. Contemporary reformers frequently appear indifferent to whether political change grows in any way out of present or past arrangements. On the contrary, change seems to be understood as essentially a rejection of those arrangements. In contrast, Burke seem to think that it is important that reform of a people's way of life, especially their political way of life, must take its bearings from, and build upon, their past. Why does he think so?  (A place to start is Michael Mosher, "The Skeptic's Burke" Political Theory August 1991 p. 400 ff.) How does this emphasis on reforming on the basis of the received tradition, consist with his view that "Prudence in new cases can offer nothing on grounds of retrospect" (Thoughts on French Affairs 1791, in Hoffman and Levack, p. 415). 


9. What are the grounds for Burke's defense of religious toleration (or is it religious freedom?) for Irish Catholics?  The relevant texts are primarily Tract on the Popery Laws [1765]), Letter to a Peer of Ireland on the Penal Laws against Irish Catholics [1782], Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe [1792]), A Letter to Richard Burke on the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland [1793], A Letter to William Smith on the Subject of Catholic Emancipation [January 29, 1795], and a Second Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe [May  26, 1795]. Are these in any way different from the grounds for his defense of religious toleration for Protestant Dissenters? The relevant texts are Speech on the Acts of Uniformity (1772), Speech on the Relief of Protestant Dissenters (1773), and Speech on the Petition of the Unitarian Society (1792).    


10. How can one account for the fact that Burke, who is allegedly not only a conservative but the founder of conservatism, is so concerned about freedom and justice for minorities of various descriptions (the Americans, English Protestant dissenters, Irish Catholics, the East Indians, and African slaves)? If conservatism is supposed to be somehow s defense of "tradition", why is Burke such a reformer respecting the traditional treatment of these minorities?


11. Explain and respond to the following: "Burke is widely respected as a conservative who was intelligent enough to provide solid philosophical foundations for his conservatism.  It is perfectly true that many of his observations upon society have a conservative basis; but if one studies the kind of argument which Burke regularly employed when at grips with concrete policies, one discovers a strong addiction to the argument from circumstance.  Now for reasons which will be set forth in detail later, the argument from circumstance is the argument philosophically appropriate to the liberal.  Indeed one can go much further and say that it is the argument fatal to conservatism". (Richard Weaver, "Edmund Burke and the Argument from Circumstance" in The Ethics of Rhetoric [Chicago: Regnery, 1953], p. 58). One will learn a great deal about rhetoric from studying Weaver's essay.


12. As a followup to Weaver=s thesis in the previous topic, a contemporary scholar Nancy Rosemblum in Liberalism and the Moral Life argues that Burke should be included in the liberal tradition. So does Jennifer Pitts in A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France. These represents either an attempt to expand `the liberal tradition= so as to include Burke; or else it might be a return to the 19th century view of Burke interpreters like John Morley who regarded him as liberal because of his defense of various groups who were oppressed by, or in the name of, the British government. A paper laying out the evidence of Burke=s `liberalism= could be valuable.