Dunn, John 1940–
Dunn, John 1940–
PERSONAL: Born 1940.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Politics, University of Cambridge, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge CB2 1RX, England.
CAREER: King's College, Cambridge, England, professor of political theory.
Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1972, 2nd edition, 1989.
(With A.F. Robertson) Dependence and Opportunity: Political Change in Ahafo, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1973.
Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1979, 2nd edition, 1993.
Political Obligation in Its Historical Context: Essays in Political Theory, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1980.
The Politics of Socialism: An Essay in Political Theory, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Locke, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition published as Locke: A Very Short Introduction, 2003.
Rethinking Modern Political Theory: Essays, 1979–83, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor, with Donal B. Cruise O'Brien and Richard Rathbone) Contemporary West African States, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1989.
The Economic Limits to Modern Politics, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Interpreting Political Responsibility: Essays, 1981–1989, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1990.
(Editor) Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1992.
(With Antonio M. Hespanha, Lorenzo Ornaghi, Angelo Panebianco, and Jean Claude Thoenig) Politica (dictionary), edited by Lorenzo Ornaghi, Jaca Book (Milan, Italy), 1993.
Contemporary Crisis of the Nation-State?, Blackwell (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
The History of Political Theory and Other Essays, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Aquinas, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NH), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Aristotle, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Augustine, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Grotius, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Hobbes, three volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Hume, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Locke, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Machiavelli, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris; as J.M. Dunn) More, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Ian Harris) Plato, two volumes, E. Elgar (Lyme, NY), 1997.
(With others) What Is Left? Il futuro della sinistra democratica in Europa, edited by Riccardo Viale, La Rosa (Turin, Italy), 1997.
The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Pensare la Politica, Di Renzo (Rome, Italy), 2002.
Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, Atlantic (London, England), 2005, published as Democracy: A History, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Cambridge professor John Dunn may be best known within the world of political science as one of the founders of the "Cambridge school" of historical philosophy. The Cambridge school is notable for its emphasis on understanding the historical context in which works of political importance were written—for example, the historical meanings of specific terms and phrasings, the ideas about society that were generally held by thinkers of that time, and the audiences for which the writers intended their works.
Dunn has also been the author of many books, both scholarly and popular, over the course of his career. In Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993, Dunn and his coauthors trace the history of this political idea from the founding of the Athenian democracy in 508 BC through modern times. They discuss what the Athenians meant by the term "democracy," whether or not such governments as the Italian city-states of medieval times and the Paris Commune of 1871 should be considered true democracies; and how the fact that American democracy began as a system which was only democratic for white male property owners affects the current political status of women and minorities. "Democracy will serve admirably as a departure for anyone wishing to learn more of these eruptions of popular rule throughout history," Patrick J. Deenen wrote in Commonweal, and "each author brings an impressive expertise to his or her historical purview."
The History of Political Theory and Other Essays collects essays that Dunn wrote on a variety of topics in the early 1990s. The essays range from the historical—beginning, appropriately enough, with "The History of Political Theory"—to the contemporary, including analyses of modern racism (in "Specifying and Understanding Racism") and the electoral prospects of the European left wing. "While some of his historical probes may put even the literate nonspecialist on the ropes," Stephen L. Esquith noted in the American Political Science Review, "unlike some historicists, Dunn does not hide behind trade secrets or avoid pressing issues in the name of academic modesty. All of his methods are above board, and his views, though often hedged, are never sidetracked by trivial scholastic debates."
Outside the world of political science Dunn may be best known for Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, which was published in the United States as Democracy: A History. Into this short book (under 190 pages in the British edition) Dunn attempts to pack the entire history of democracy, from ancient Athens to the present, while also discussing democracy's relationship to capitalism. "Inevitably, he leaves gaps," David Marquand commented in the New Statesman, but "his ambition is heroic, and his achievement magnificent."
Dunn's historical survey of democracy serves to buttress his main argument, which explains why the modern system of American governance calls itself "democracy," despite the fact that the current representative government (properly called a republic) is very different from the direct system of democracy practiced in ancient Athens. In Athens, all of the citizens (that is, all of the free adult men, excluding slaves, women, and resident aliens) were politically equal, with equal power to address the legislature and to otherwise influence decision making. In the United States, on the other hand, there are very clear differences in power between professional politicians and the average voter. Dunn argues that the decision to continue to use the word "democracy" to describe American government is an attempt by politicians to convince American voters to support the capitalist republic by wrapping it in the emotionally charged term "democracy." "If you want to think harder about democracy's shortcomings and challenges," concluded a reviewer for the Economist, Setting the People Free "is an excellent place to start." Robert F. Nardini, writing in the Library Journal, called the book "thought-provoking and thoroughly grounded." Spectator reviewer Jonathan Sumption declared it "among the most original and thought-provoking books on politics to have been published in England for many years."
Dunn told CA: "All my writing stems from a combination of dismay and puzzlement about politics which had its roots in childhood and adolescent experiences in Occupied Germany after the war, Iran in the early 1950s (when the oil fields were nationalized), and India at the time of the invasion of Suez. I grew up vividly disbelieving in the imperialist vision of my parents and their parents before them, but unable to share the optimistic left wing picture of a far kinder and less alarming world within ready reach, which most of my friends believed in all too readily.
"The big question I have tried to think about throughout is why the human political world comes out as it does and how far we can reasonably hope to learn to cause it to come out better. This has taken me through many different fields of political experience, from the history of political thinking in the West several centuries back to its faltering course towards the present, through the painful trajectory of modern revolutions, the postcolonial miseries of West Africa, the tight constraints of economic reality in an increasingly globalized world, the close but paradoxical relation between those tightening constraints and the great surge of democratizing energy which has swept the world over the last two decades, and the growing grounds for fear that the awesome scale of our economic achievements is destroying the only habitat in which we can live at a pace which our limited political skills as a species simply cannot handle.
"When I set out on this course, I was especially heartened by a sequence of philosophers, Alasdair Mac-Intyre and Charles Taylor in my early youth and later the remarkable depth and vitality of Bernard Williams, and from my friend and contemporary Quentin Skinner with whom for decades I worked very closely on the history of political ideas. More recently I have drawn especially from Raymond Geuss and Istvan Hont, and from a range of writers, I have found inspiring and political leaders I have greatly admired. Against the scale of the intellectual and practical challenges I have tried to take up, all my books were bound to fail at least partially. The ones I still feel warmest towards are my first book on John Locke, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics, and perhaps especially my most recent attempt to capture why democracy means so much to us and yet can always offer us so depressingly little. I hope the main merit of my writing as a whole is that it does face very deep and distressing issues and that over the decades it has learnt to do so with increasing frankness."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Political Science Review, March, 1997, Stephen L. Esquith, review of The History of Political Theory and Other Essays, p. 168.
Cato Journal, winter, 2006, Patrick Basham, review of Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, p. 208.
Commonweal, April 9, 1993, Patrick J. Deneen, review of Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993, p. 35.
Economist, June 18, 2005, review of Democracy: A History, p. 82.
Ethics, January, 1998, Chandran Kukathas, review of The History of Political Theory, p. 431.
Foreign Affairs, November-December, 1995, Francis Fukuyama, review of Contemporary Crisis of the Nation-State?, p. 117.
History Today, June, 1993, Paul Cartledge, review of Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, p. 51.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2006, review of Democracy, p. 446.
Library Journal, June 1, 2006, Robert F. Nardini, review of Democracy, p. 138.
National Interest, winter, 2000, Kenneth Minogue, "The Vanity of Reason," p. 119.
New Republic, November 13, 2000, Peter Berkowitz, "And Lofty Flows the Don," p. 42.
New Statesman, June 27, 2005, David Marquand, "As Good as It Gets?," p. 48.
Publishers Weekly, August 21, 2000, review of The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics, p. 59; April 10, 2006, review of Democracy, p. 53.
Spectator, June 18, 2005, Jonathan Sumption, review of Setting the People Free, p. 34.
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge Web site, http://www.sps.cam.ac.uk/ (September 19, 2006), "John Dunn."