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Why rethink civil society?

Talk of civil society is all around us, but what it means remains elusive. One reviewer complains that a seminal treatment defines ‘civil society’ in at least 25 different ways, perhaps forgetting Nietzsche’s dictum that only that which has no history can be defined. Civil society is an idea with history. It shapes thought and action in politics within and between states across the world, all the while transmitting assumptions about ideas, values, and institutions that are products and residues of that history. It carries its history around in these assumptions, which are buried within, but radiate out of, the language we use when thinking and speaking about civil society. To understand what it means, all it promises, and whether it can deliver on its promises, we need to understand its history anew.

Rethinking Civil Society: History, Theory, Critique is generously supported by the Leverhulme Trust as part of a Research Leadership Award to Timothy Stanton (grant ref. RL-2016-044) and by the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Göttingen.

THE PROJECT INVOLVES AN INSTITUTIONAL COLLABORATION WITH THE LICHTENBERG-KOLLEG, THE INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED STUDY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GÖTTINGEN

Institute website

Photograph: Kirsch-Schroeder

THE PROJECT IS ORGANISED AROUND SIX INTERCONNECTED STRANDS OF RESEARCH

Photograph: Kirsch-Schroeder

‘The truly distinctive feature of modern life – the one with which we lose touch at our peril – is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society. More precisely civil society’