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John Dunn In Freiburg

John Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King’s College, Cambridge, delivered a talk entitled "Why We Need A Global History of Political Thought", 21st November 2013 at Freiburg University. During a workshop he expounded his theory on how to discover common values and facilitate understanding through prudence.


"Why We Need A Global History of Political Thought" John Dunn 1

21st November 2013, University of Freiburg, HS 1199, 8 pm

In his talk, John Dunn pointed out that there is a need for opening up our notions to integrate global thinking into a world that is becoming increasingly pericious, where individual interests are being usurped through political ideologies and by the governments exercising those ideas, governments that are supposed to protect individual interests. A new approach is to question the social sciences and their aims, and to analyse history as a place where human endeavour can be viewed. By drawing on a global history of political thought we might also understand how to avoid pretentious theories, for example those of ecologies that are no longer a part of the real and practical interests of the people who exercise their judicious lives in that context.




Workshop On "The Significance Of The Category Of Prudence For Political Thinking"

22nd November 2013, University of Freiburg, HS 1003, 10 am John Dunn 3

In the course of the workshop John Dunn elaborated on the category of prudence as a means to think through the conditions of human existence and the queasiness of powerrelations. According to him, the insistence on the category of prudence is also an insistence on the fact that everyone is capable to see the current disorientation and to start to think again of the fundamental character of the problems we face. The positive aspect of prudence is to enhance a collective self-education as a matter of civic responsibility. Dunn refered to Plato's 'Republic' in order to clarify his idea of political judgement. The 'Republic' should not be translated into an up-to-date global text that is aiming at practical proposals about how to run the human world and subject Athens or Syracuse to this program. It should rather be read as enhancing the idea of democratic self-education. Dunn said that "what we can bring from this part of the world to the dialogue between the different communities that make up the human world is rather more senstive and imaginative understanding of what that book is saying". The task of social sciences would therefore be to learn to recognise how bad we are at practical judgement. From that perspective, prudence can be seen as negative, i.e. prudence has to start with the problems and not with theory, it should help to solve the problems we are facing. Therefore, we have to implement prudence in singular contexts. But prudence in itself is also positive. We can use our human historical background and our human understanding  to focus the thoughts that we have to face situations we find ourselves in as questions and not as opportunities. Rather than thinking of rationality as a self-certifying good we should see it as a conjury of competing doctrines of personal validity. In the end, there are only questions for which we have no answers.

 John Dunn 2

  • Dunn, John (1990): Reconceiving the Content and Character of Modern Political Community, in: John Dunn.: Interpreting Political Community. Essays 1981-1989. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 193-215.
  • (2000): The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics. London: Harper Collins.

  • (2005): Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic Books.

  • (2014): Breaking Democracy's Spell. New Haven: Yale University Press.



Dr. Martin Baesler, Department of Philosophy, University of Freiburg, in cooperation with Prof. Gisela Riescher, Department of Political Theory, University of Freiburg, and Prof. Jürgen Rüland, Colloquium Politicum.

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