Faculty & Staff Directory

Ross J. Corbett

Ross Jacob Corbett

Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science
412 Zulauf Hall
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115-2854

Curriculam Vitae

Political Philosophy, American Political Thought



Courses Offered

Spring 2012
Number Name Room Days Time
POLS 350 Ancient & Medieval Political Theory DU 246 MoWe 3:30–4:45pm
POLS 651 Topics in Modern Political Philosophy:
Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy
DU 464 We 6:30–9:10pm
Office Hours ZH 412 MoWe 1:50–3:20pm
All courses have Blackboard webpages. Please submit all work there.
Past Syllabi
POLS 150 Democracy in America Fall '09 Fall '10 Fall '11 (H)
POLS 350 Ancient & Medieval Political Theory Spring '10 Spring '11
POLS 352 Nietzsche & Postmodern Politics Spring '10 Fall '11
POLS 452 Religion & the Constitution Fall '10
POLS 650 Basic Problems in Ancient Political Philosophy Spring '11
POLS 651 Topics in Modern Political Philosophy Fall '09

Overview of Scholarly Activity

Ross J. Corbett (Ph.D., University of Toronto) is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University and teaches courses relating to the history of political philosophy and the theoretical foundations of the American regime. Before coming to NIU he taught for three years at Brown University as a postdoctoral research associate in the Political Theory Project.

His research explores issues of emergency powers, the rule of law, and legalism. In 2009, he was named a Jack Miller Center Fellow and was awarded a Templeton Fellowship by the Independent Institute for his essay on liberal education and civic virtue. He has published in The Review of Politics, The History of Political Thought, Political Science Quarterly, and The Good Society. His recent book, The Lockean Commonwealth (SUNY 2009), reappraises John Locke's thoughts on the need for an executive to be able to meet emergencies, the importance of the rule of law, and what happens when it seems that the two clash. He is currently working on a book about emergency powers and the U.S. Constitution.

The Lockean Commonwealth

The Lockean Commonwealth Cover

State University of New York Press, 2009
The tension between executive prerogative in times of emergency and the importance of maintaining and preserving the rule of law has been a perennial concern for modern democratic states. The Lockean Commonwealth reappraises John Locke’s contribution to this timely topic. By paying careful attention to the arguments put forward in Locke’s famous Two Treatises on Government, Ross J. Corbett advances a new interpretation of Locke’s political agenda, one that argues that the interplay between “prerogative” and “legislative supremacy” formed the axis around which turned the practical component of Locke’s political theory. With a firm grasp of Locke’s historical context, Corbett is able to show how Locke’s attempts to balance these competing interests provides insight, not only into the development of the liberal democratic state, but also into questions that trouble us to this day and into questions of political life more generally.[AMAZON]

Articles, Chapters, & Essays

Crisis and Law, Political Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Abstract: Scholars who argue for an extralegal prerogative power make two related but distinct claims. One is that it is impossible to handle some crises according to the rule of law. The other is that it is better if we do not attempt to handle crises by law but instead choose to leave them to an extralegal prerogative. The first of these relies upon a peculiarly narrow understanding of law. The second is impractical, yet the arguments its supporters advance against accommodationism are sound. A full alternative or supplement to extralegalism has not been adequately theorized but begins to come to light when the arguments in favor of both versions of the extralegalist thesis are examined.

Locke's Biblical Critique, Review of Politics 74, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 27–51.

Abstract: The essay clarifies the relationship between Locke's political and his religious thought. To the extent that Locke's political thought is an outgrowth of a particular strand of Christianity, its claims to universality would be significantly diminished. Several plausible interpretations of his political thought rely on his religiosity. Others maintain that this religiosity was a façade. Close attention to Locke's analysis of the Hebrew text of Gen. 1:28 unambiguously points to a critique of the Bible on semantic grounds. Locke subtly argues that the wording of the Bible makes the interpretation of scripture by scripture alone impossible. The fact that Locke goes out of his way to critique the Bible refutes interpretations of Locke's thought that rely on his religiosity and reestablishes the universalist claims of his political thought. [Cambridge Journals]

Political Theory Within Political Science, PS: Political Science and Politics 44, no. 3 (July 2011): 565–70.

Abstract: This article addresses Andrew Rehfeld's attempt to ensure a place for political theory within political science, which he does partly by showing how political theory fits into a defensible definition of political science and partly by excluding much political theory from the discipline in order to safeguard the rest. His account of what the discipline should comprehend is overly narrow, however, and does not serve the interests of the sorts of political theory he strongly believes are worth doing. I argue instead that political science must be defined by its subject matter alone, and that political theory's contribution to this subject matter must be defended. [Cambridge Journals]

Aristotelian Kingship and Lockean Prerogative, in Recovering Reason: Essays in Honor of Thomas L. Pangle, ed. Timothy Burns (New York: Lexington Press, 2010).

Abstract: One common target of thoughtful criticism is political legalism, or the conviction that government action is justifiable only as the application of pre-existing general laws to particular cases. This conviction is open to two objections. First, circumstances can arise to which the existing law is poorly suited and which require an immediate response. Second, laws cannot be simply just, no matter how ingenious. Both Aristotle and Locke evince support for both objections, yet the fact that they turn their readers' attention more completely toward one objection or the other sheds light on the deeper disagreements between them regarding man's relation to politics, the role of the philosopher, and the basis of a natural right teaching. Locke's doctrine regarding extralegal action cannot be reconciled with a healthy political life because of his disagreements with Aristotle on these question. Aristotle's teaching seems to give less immediate political guidance but is ultimately more capable of improving the practices of political men. [AMAZON]

Locke and the Challenges of Crisis Government, The Good Society 18, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 20–25.

Abstract: The turn to John Locke’s doctrine of prerogative sheds light on the problem of crisis government, but is out of place in discussions of American politics. The specifics of Locke’s doctrine are tied to his narrowly positivistic conception of law, a conception that was rejected in Anglo-American jurisprudence. We permit more discretion within the law, rendering that discretion safe through a system of checks and balances, and so there is less justification for stepping outside of the law. What appeals to the deficiency of law in the American context in fact do is seek to sidestep checks and balances, not remedy the inherent defects of law. [ProjectMuse]

Liberal Education for Liberal Democracy, 2009 Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest, 2nd prize.

Abstract: This essay argues that a liberal education is the best defense against the more venal manifestations of materialism and uninformed political judgments that most seriously threaten to corrode liberal democracy. Consequently, support for the independence and intellectual seriousness of universities is crucial to the development of the virtues required by civic life. [Independent Institute]

The Question of Natural Law in Aristotle, History of Political Thought 30, no. 2 (Summer 2009), 229–50.

Abstract: Aristotle continues to be associated with natural law. Some scholars see this association as untenable; other adhere to Aquinas’ reading, even if unconsciously. This article departs from both. It restores the plausibility of an Aristotelian natural law, but concludes that it is ultimately incompatible with Aristotle’s doctrine. It is plausible because Aristotle does suggestively point toward it. He does so, however, in order to distance himself subtly from it. He must do so subtly because what he in fact points to is a confusion attendant with the virtue of justice. [IngentaConnect]

The Extraconstitutionality of Lockean Prerogative, Review of Politics 68, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 428–48.

Abstract: This article examines the relation between John Locke's doctrine of prerogative and constitutional government. Scholars have shown increased interest in Locke's doctrine in recent years, yet there is disagreement about its precise character. The Two Treatises of Government can be read such that this power is the result of the social compact and, thus, is a constitutional means of addressing emergencies. This paper instead argues that prerogative as it appears in the Two Treatises must be understood to be a natural power and, consequently, beyond constitutional control. It stands outside of the constitution because its logic denies that a good constitution is sufficient for liberal government. [Cambridge Journals]

Conference Papers

The Philosophic Context of the Development of Natural Law—Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association, April 2012

Abstract:The modern critique of natural law theory is unpersuasive, focusing on peripheral issues on which natural law theorists can yield. This results from a lack of awareness of the philosophic context in which Thomas Aquinas reworked natural law theology. Turning to the ancient and medieval precursors to natural law opens us to a more thoroughgoing engagement with it, one that begins with political philosophy rather than with physical or metaphysical doctrines. [SSRN]

Statesmanship and Precedent—Paper presented at the Statesmanship Center Symposium at Morehead State University, April 2011

Abstract: This paper explores a tension within liberal democratic statesmanship, one that is most visible regarding crises but which operates even in times of relative tranquility. One of the hallmarks of constitutionalism is that those in power have various constraints placed upon the exercise of that power. Dutiful service to the public good can suggest to public officials that they must evade some of these constraints and appropriate the powers they need. Crucially, statesman can be correct in this judgment. This problem led Locke to proclaim that good princes have been the greatest threat to their people’s liberties, for they set an example for unworthy successors. It has been suggested, therefore, that statesmen ought to avoid setting such an example of lawlessness in the first place, even if it was justified. This course of action requires that statesmen deny themselves the glory that goes with being at the head of an “extraordinary execution,” like a Machiavellian prince or captain. A desire to preserve constitutionalism, aware that one cannot choose one’s successors too far into the future, suggests tempering the ambition that leads statesmen to desire to serve the public good (and hence to preserve constitutionalism) in the first place. This is to say that statesmanship has not been perfectly reconciled to constitutionalism.

Locke's Biblical Critique—Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 2011

Abstract: This paper seeks to clarify the relationship between Locke’s political and religious thought. To the extent that Locke’s political thought is an outgrowth of a particular strand of Christianity, its claims to universality would be significantly diminished. This would be the case, however, only if Locke were genuinely religious. Plausible accounts of his religiosity have been offered by Dunn, Waldron, et al., but such accounts become implausible given the presence of a biblical critique within the Two Treatises. The evidence for a critique of the Bible on moral grounds pointed to by Strauss, Pangle, et al. is ambiguous, however, and so fails to refute the pious-Locke hypothesis. This paper argues that close attention to Locke’s analysis of the Hebrew text of Gen. 1:28 unambiguously points to a critique of the Bible on textual grounds. This serves to set the moral critique upon firmer foundations, to imply that the moral critique really is present in the text, and to reestablish the universalist claims of Locke’s political thought. [SSRN]

Aristotelian Kingship and Lockean Prerogative—Paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., September 2010

Abstract: [The paper delivered is in Recovering Reason (Lexington, 2010). For copyright reasons I will not make it available online. This is a link to my presentation.][WORD]

For the Good of the People—Paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Toronto, September 2009

Abstract: This paper addresses some difficulties arising from how liberal democracies address crises. It presents and compares two alternative methods for controlling executive discretion while permitting enough flexibility to preserve the public good. The first tightly constrains the executive with laws while acknowledging that some necessary actions will have to be performed extralegally. The second permits almost anything to be done within the ordinary powers of government, so long as it is done with the concurrence of an independent office. This paper argues that the second is preferable to the first but that there is no unobjectionable institutional solution to the problem of crisis government. It leaves for another place the application of its conclusions to the American constitution and the war on terrorism. [PDF]

Carl Schmitt and the Myopic Treatment of Prerogative—Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 2009

Abstract: The war on terrorism has revived discussion of how liberal democracies ought to approach dangers which defy or at least seem to defy lawful treatment. Debate is split into those who conclude that the executive must be given a relatively free hand in such cases and those seeking to balance flexibility with accountability. The assumption of all involved is that someone must be authoritative, each side differing only on who should have that authority. There is a proper way to handle emergencies, it is assumed, so it falls to political theorists to identify it. This is mistaken. It relies upon the possibility of giving rules to prudence, the impossibility of which is precisely what emergencies and challenges to the capacity of law to address them demonstrate. Even answering that all should be trusted to the chief executive is to say that there is a single, right answer. This paper traces this tendency to the intellectual atmosphere created by those who have absorbed the conceptual categories of Carl Schmitt. [WORD]

Aristotle and Natural Law—Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 2008

Abstract: Aristotle continues to be cited as the father of natural law theory. Aristotle’s discussions of natural justice and absolute kingship are better read as a denial that there could be a natural law. [WORD]

Flux, Fortuna, and the Role of Philosophy—Paper presented at the New England Political Science Association, Boston, April 2007

Abstract: One of the easier targets for criticism is political legalism, or the conviction that government action is justifiable only as the application of pre-existing general laws to particular cases. This conviction is open to two objections: 1) circumstances can arise which require immediate redress and for which the existing law is poorly suited, and 2) justice cannot be expressed without distortion as a set of rules of the sort desired by political legalism. Different philosophers focus on different objections, yet a generalization can be made: the first is the special concern of modernity, the latter of the Ancient natural right tradition. Locke justifies extralegal public action on the basis of flux, which is in turn a reflection of Machiavelli’s fortuna. Aristotle, on the other hand, devotes his discussion of extralegality to the second problem. It is clear, however, that Aristotle’s objection to political legalism cannot have (nor was it meant to) the same immediately salient implications for actual political practice as the Lockean/Machiavellian objection does. The difference in focus is explained by differing conceptions of the role of philosophy in political thought. The moderns saw the philosopher as properly giving immediate direction to political life, thereby calling into question any account of justice that did not give this direction. The moderns fail by their own standard, however, for in refusing to comprehensively address Aristotle’s question they fail to give meaningful philosophic direction to statesmen faced with the necessity to transcend the laws. In this way, Machiavelli’s amoralism is more philosophically at home with his political philosophy, whereas Locke must either assert a moral fiat or have recourse to ancient natural right. [PDF]

Locke and Aristotle on the Limits of Law—Paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, September 2006

Abstract: Both Locke and Aristotle suggest that deviations from the rule of law may be necessary, but their primary reasons differ: the former attributes these failures to the constant flux of things, while the latter emphasizes the irreducibility of virtue to law. Yet a careful reading of each shows that they recognize the other's point. Aristotle acts as a guide to why this difference in emphasis concerning extralegal action reveals their deep disagreement regarding the relationship of philosophy and politics. [PDF]

The Missing Judiciary in Locke's Separation of Powers—Paper presentated at the Southwest Political Science Association, San Antonio, April 2006, and the Midwest Political Science Associaiton, Chicago, April 2006

Abstract: This paper examines the place of the judiciary in the Lockean commonwealth. For reasons which shall become clear, it is more an explanation of this issue than its resolution. Part I lays out why the Lockean judiciary ought to present more of a problem than it often does. Part II is an analysis of Blackstone’s method of legal interpretation. There I argue that this method — and, consequently, the common law tradition — has much in common with a natural law-style jurisprudence. Part III draws the conclusion that Locke’s political society, as he presents it, must forbid to judges the discretion which Blackstone would grant and which they traditionally exercised in England. Part IV addresses an insurmountable barrier to the interpretation I advance in part III, but one that does not permit us to revise the conclusion of that part. We are, therefore, left with a contradiction — one that we cannot so easily dismiss as another of Locke’s famous inconsistencies. I conclude with a possible explanation of this contradiction. [WORD]

Papers on SSRNBlogLinkedInAcademia.edu