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Georgetown University


Detailed Course Information


Fall 2017
Nov 20, 2017
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GOVT 493 - Dept Sem:Concepts:Constitution
Concepts of Constitution – Ancient, Modern, and Contemporary themes and problematics

This is an exploratory seminar in political theory and jurisprudence.  We consider the question: “What is a constitution, and how might we conceptualize it?”   In considering this question, we will also consider others, both normative and empirical:  What purposes should (or do) constitutions serve?  How are they (or should they) be crafted, maintained, enforced or changed?  How do they (or should they) incorporate cultural differences and/or protect cosmopolitan or universalist conceptions of human/individual rights? How are they to be interpreted and by whom?  Of course, none of these are new questions, and the literature exploring them is large, and of variable quality.  A principal focus of the course will be the contemporary American constitution, but our approach will be comparative across both time and political (national) context.   

We will read Aristotle and Polybius to consider both ancient Greek and Roman considerations of this important and politically contested concept.  We will consider two competing understandings of how constitutions ought to be crafted in the early modern period.  We will consider the universalist and contextualist claims for and against constitutionalism, and for constitutional change in the contemporary world. 

The second half of the course turns to interpretive debates on the nature and substance of the American Constitution among thinkers such as Ronald Dworkin, Antonin Scalia, Cass Sunstein and Jeremy Waldron.  We will read selected books and articles and very few, if any, American Supreme Court cases [although case analysis might feature in the paper project as a vehicle in developing one or more of the contested concepts of constitution]. 

Hanna Pitkin has argued: “[T]o understand what a constitution is, one must look not for some crystalline core or essence of unambiguous meaning but precisely at the ambiguities, the specific oppositions that this specific concept helps us to hold in tension.”  Without making claims for either the truth or persuasiveness of this claim, it is perhaps an interesting place to begin.  

Requirements:  a short reading note (2-3 pages) in selected weeks in preparation for the seminar; a ten page paper due at the completion of the course.

3.000 Credit hours
3.000 Lecture hours
0.000 Lab hours

Levels: MN or MC Graduate, Undergraduate
Schedule Types: Lecture, Seminar

Government Department

Course Attributes:
College/GOVT: Dept Seminar, Mean Grade is Calculated

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