Systemic Political Change in the West from the Greeks to the French Revolution

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* Book: Before the State: Systemic Political Change in the West from the Greeks to the French Revolution. Andreas Osiander. Oxford University Scholarship Online, 2007



"This book challenges the habit of conventional historiography of taking the ‘essential’ state – a ‘bounded entity’ equipped with a ‘sovereign’ central power — for granted in any period and of not taking period political terminology seriously. It refutes the idea, current both in historiography and in International Relations theory (in particular Realism), that the fundamental nature of ‘international’ politics is historically immutable. Nothing akin to what we call the ‘state’ existed before the 19th century: it is a recent invention and the assumption that it is timeless, necessary for society, is simply part of its legitimating myth. The development over the past three millennia of the political structures of western civilization is shown here to have been a succession of unrepeatable but path-dependent stages. In examining structural change, the book adopts a constructivist approach based on the analysis of period political discourse. This approach both reflects and illuminates the evolution of western political thought: on the one hand, political thought is a vehicle of the political discourse of its period. On the other hand, the assumption that political theory must in any age somehow be centred on the ‘state’ has forced our understanding of it into a straight-jacket: abandoning this assumption permits fresh and unexpected insights into the political thinking of earlier eras. Close attention, however, is also paid to the material constraints and opportunities (e.g., ecological and economic factors, or military technology) impacting on the evolution of society."