5 minute read


OverviewCitizenship In Contemporary Debates

Not surprisingly, the problem of citizenship has continued to shape contemporary debates in political philosophy. Communitarianism, at least as expressed in the work of Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel, presented itself as a new vocabulary for articulating an old complaint about the attenuated character of liberal citizenship. (This is emphatically not the case with the communitarianism of Alasdair MacIntyre, who fundamentally rejects modern nation-state-based citizenship as a site for moral community.) In the case of Sandel, for example, the more he has continued to develop his theoretical concerns, the clearer it has become that his real concern is not with community per se, but rather with the eclipse of richer possibilities of civic engagement and civic identity in an age dominated by liberal-proceduralist conceptions of politics. This basically civic-republican critique of liberalism should be set within a broader resurgence of civic-republican theorizing. Civic republicanism has surged back to life, philosophically, in the influential work of Hannah Arendt and, in a more historical vein, in the work of John Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and Philip Pettit.

More recently, new challenges to liberal citizenship have arisen in the debates about feminism and multiculturalism. As regards the latter, important arguments have been mounted to the effect that civic norms defined within the horizon of liberalism cannot do justice to the profound forms of cultural diversity ("deep diversity") that characterize virtually all political communities today. The basic multiculturalist idea is that liberal societies cannot fully honor the citizenship of their members if essential aspects of the identity of those members are slighted or treated as irrelevant to citizenship. Like any doctrine in political theory, multiculturalism comes in strikingly different versions. In Iris Young's view, liberal citizenship must be radically reconstructed so as to acknowledge an emphatic "politics of difference." In Will Kymlicka's more moderate view, accommodations to cultural difference are themselves required by liberal justice, rightly understood. According to the latter view, multiculturalism is merely a more effective (and more just) vehicle for the integration of minorities into a liberal civic regime, whereas according to the former view, the liberal vision of citizenship is intrinsically flawed, since liberal universalism is simply a mask for the hegemony of a majority culture.

At the same time, one can say that the powerful challenges to liberal understandings of citizenship generated by communitarian, civic-republican, and multiculturalist theorists have provoked, in response, more robust and more philosophical theories of citizenship from the liberal side. Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action can be interpreted as a new liberal (or post-liberal) doctrine of citizenship, and John Rawls's ambitious meditation on the notion of "public reason" in the latter phase of his intellectual career offers another such doctrine. The fundamental issue is posed by Rawls in relation to what he calls "civic humanism" ("classical republicanism" he regards as a more modest doctrine): "[Civic humanists believe that] the activity in which human beings achieve their fullest realization, their greatest good, is in the activities of political life.… [Liberal justice as Rawls understands it] rejects any such declaration; and to make the good of civil society subordinate to that of public life it views as mistaken" (Rawls, pp. 420–421; cf. pp. 205–206).

The opposing side is represented by Hannah Arendt when, at the conclusion of On Revolution, she endorses the ancient Greek solution to the problem, posed by Sophocles, of how "to bear life's burden": "It was the polis, the space of men's free deeds and living words, which could endow life with splendor" (Arendt, p. 285). The issue here, as it was originally in Aristotle's doctrine of citizenship, is whether civic life constitutes a privileged location for the expression of our proper humanity, or whether it ought merely to furnish a procedural framework for more diverse, privately defined activities in which we express our humanity. So we see that one of the core debates that has animated political philosophy throughout its history—for instance, in the argument between Rousseau, with his uncompromising republicanism, and his liberal critics such as Adam Smith (see Ignatieff) and Benjamin Constant (1767–1830)—continues to be a living question in contemporary thought.


Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Viking, 1965.

Aristotle. The Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Beiner, Ronald, ed. Theorizing Citizenship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Hegel, G. W. F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Höfert, Almut. "States, Cities, and Citizens in the Later Middle Ages." In States and Citizens: History, Theory, Prospects, edited by Quentin Skinner and Bo Stråth, 63–75. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Ignatieff, Michael. The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on Privacy, Solidarity, and the Politics of Being Human. New York: Viking, 1984. See chapter four.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Plant, Raymond. "Hegel and Political Economy." New Left Review no. 103 (May/June 1977) and no. 104 (July/August 1977).

Pocock, J. G. A. "Introduction." In Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Riesenberg, Peter. Citizenship in the Western Tradition: Plato to Rousseau. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. On the Social Contract. Edited by Roger D. Masters. Translated by Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin's, 1978.


Born of Mexican parents in 1940 in Parral, Chihuahua, Juan Gómez-Quiñones has been active in the articulation and political negotiation of cultural citizenship since the 1960s. His experience in the United States' Chicano civil rights movement led to his authoring of foundational papers on the history and identity of Chicano peoples of the southwestern United States. Soon after, he expressed the importance of and developed an epistemology for Chicano studies as a new interdisciplinary field. Such efforts helped to establish Chicano studies in institutions of higher education throughout the nation. Among his published works are Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990 (1990); Mexican American Labor, 1790–1990 (1994); and Roots of Chicano Politics, 1600–1940 (1994). In 1971 he helped found Aztlan: International Journal of Chicano Studies Research, the United States' premier journal of Chicana and Chicano studies. He is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and lives with his family in Santa Monica, California. In 2003 UCLA presented him with the Rosenfield Distinguished Community Partnership Prize for community service.

Ronald Beiner

Rebecca Kingston

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterCitizenship - Overview - Citizenship In The History Of Political Philosophy, Citizenship In Contemporary Debates, Bibliography, Juan GÓmez-quiÑones