Université d'Erfurt

Prof. Dr. Michael Seidler

Fellow am Max-Weber-Kollegvon September 2014 bis Mai 2015



Renovating Pufendorf – Natural Law as Naturalistic Positivism

The best and perhaps only reasons why we devote effort to certain projects are either historical or functional. That is, we tell a story or we explain how some activity allows us to ‘do’ certain things, be it intellectual, practical or – better – both. All such accounts are, like the practices they justify, contingent – i.e., largely dependent on time, place, association and many other variables, including that situated thing we call choice. In my own case, as the historical account would be too long, I shall try at the end to suggest some of the latter kinds of reasons.

My work on Pufendorf this year consists of three interrelated projects. The first is to complete my edition of his Dissertationes academicae selectiores (DAS, 1675), a set of Latin theses written (mostly by Pufendorf himself) between 1662 and 1676, and covering both his Heidelberg and Lund periods. The pieces vary in length and importance, but the earlier essays, especially, show how Pufendorf’s thought developed between his Elementa jurisprudentiae universalis (1660) and the De jure naturae et gentium (1672), particularly how he moved away from the artificial systemic approach of the former to the more historical, consequentialist and (one might say) casuistic approach of the latter. Here the notion of what constitutesan ‘argument’ loosens, experience (incl. political experience) intrudes, and the general (vs. universal) arises only through the particular. Pufendorf’s dissertations are relatively unknown and underutilized in the scholarly literature, and some have been unavailable for centuries because they were not part of the original Sammelband. So my edition will be an important volume in Pufendorf’s Gesammelte Werke, gen. ed. Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann (Akademie Verlag/De Gruyter), where it will appear. The DAS project will culminate many years of work, during which I have also published other editions and written essays on various aspects of Pufendorf’s thought.

My second project this year will be to write a monograph on Pufendorf based on my already published essays as well as on new research. The latter will focus on the impact of Pufendorf’s concrete political experience (including his brother Esaias’ diplomacy); on the struggle of the one and the many, as it were (i.e., the tension between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘system’, as I put it in a recent essay – suggesting the difficulty of locating and attributing collective agency); on the empirical, experiential and contingent aspects of Pufendorf’s mature method (his ‘casuistical’ approach, so to speak); and on the characterization of his thought as ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ in some sense of these terms. Though alert to historical influences at either end, my aim is not to locate Pufendorf in an established ‘from-to’ narrative (particularly Kantian) but, by a new reading of the texts, to present a frankly revisionist view.

This will put the book more or less at odds with various existing treatments, including the last full-length book on Pufendorf in English, by Leonard Krieger (1965). Krieger was a careful reader of Pufendorf, and he noticed many of the factors that will be my focus. However, he regarded them very differently – as faults, concessions, compromises, or ‘discretions’, rather than as positive features of Pufendorf’s method. Thus, for him, Pufendorf turned out to be an interesting failure. My aim is to turn this verdict, and Krieger’s arguments for it, on its head.

My third project will be to collect my previous publications on Pufendorf into an integrated volume, unified by standardized citations, cross-references, indices, and an introduction discussing the emergence and interrelation of the individual pieces.To return to my beginnings, above, I come at Pufendorf as a historical thinker with various contemporary concerns in mind. These include philosophical quandaries about moral and political authority, the status of international law, the relation of philosophy to the sciences (particularly biology and its accounts about the development of sociality; as well as psychology and neurology, with their implications for choice, responsibility, accountability and so-called perfectibility or [self-]‘realization’). In the end, my account is not only revisionist but also deflationary or reductionist, as my title suggests. Pufendorf is a naturalistic positivist, I shall argue. However, here as in my take on Krieger, I see this as a positive and constructive thing rather than as something to regret or excuse.

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