The International Conference for the Study of Political Thought (CSPT) is an international, interdisciplinary organization of scholars and informed citizens concerned to promote the study of past and present political thinking especially with respect to the proper ends of political activity and the means permissible for their attainment. Founded in Toronto in 1967 by J.G.A. Pocock (The Johns Hopkins Univeristy), Melvin Richter (CUNY), and Neal Wood (York). CSPT is now composed of a world-wide network of affiliated groups and scholarly organizations.
CSPT's members are for the most part drawn from theorists in political science, history, philosophy, the classics, language departments, sociology, and economics. It began as a North American initiative firmly anchored in a number of regional groups throughout the United States and Canada. Since then scholars from other countries have formed affiliated organizations in Australia, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. (Recent events from these chapters may be found on our News page).
The Conference is closely tied to several journals, whose editors are ex-officio members of the Conference's Executive Committee: Political Theory, The Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory and The History of Political Thought are published respectively in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
The Conference was established both to support the study of political thought by scholars and to induce citizens to think seriously about the proper ends of politics and the means permissible for their attainment. Political theory and its history engage thinking persons in rational and civilized discussion of that all-important area where politics and ethics converge in the critical analysis of goals, imperatives, priorities, and conflicts in public life. For the problems that divide us are those that have preoccupied the great political thinkers, as well as those less well-known. In every generation, it is necessary both to keep alive those texts that transmit knowledge of how politics was understood in the past, and to apply political theory to contemporary concerns.
To encourage the practice of political theory is fully compatible with attending to what has been transmitted to us from previous periods. The Conference regularly addresses both concerns in its international meetings. These have included conferences on: "Classical Greek Political Philosophy" (1983), "Machiavelli" (1969), "Hegel" (1970), "Locke" (1980), and "Images of the Enlightenment" (1990). Equally prominent have been conferences on subjects crucial to our own time: "Political Theory and Political Education" (1975), "Contemporary Citizenship" (1979), "Political Community" (1971), "Feminism and Political Theory" (1981), "Poverty, Charity, and Welfare: Theory and Practice of the Welfare State" (1985), "Liberalism and the Moral Life" (1988), and "Markets and Political Theory" (1989).
Nor have important occasions in American political thought gone unremarked. Our "Political Thought in 1976" in that year had its counterpart in a 1987 meeting on "Conceptual Change and the Constitution," commemorating the bicentenary of the American founding. Other geographical and temporal foci have also received attion; "East Asian Political Thought" (1977), "Switzerland's Contributions to Politcal Thought" (1984), "Ethics and Social Science in the Enlightenment" (1982).
The Conference for the Study of Political Thought is a confederation of regional, urban, and national groups, each of which decides its own membership, schedule, and programs. These vary widely. Because of the large area through which its membership is scattered, the Western Canadian group can be convened but once or twice a year. In New York City, meetings are held monthly as Columbia University Faculty Seminars.
From the time of its inception, the Conference has performed important functions for students of political thought and its history. Perhaps most significant have been the creation of interdisciplinary communities, which, although badly needed, were not brought into being by any other professional organizations. The Conference operates almost completely through voluntary efforts by its members; there are no permanent paid employees. Thus the Conference has been an intellectual self-help organization, which does much on very little money. It has become a model for those who have long advocated interdisciplinary cooperation both within the humanities and between the humanities and the social sciences. Conference groups provide intimate and continuing settings for those sharing interests in political theory and its history. In this way, thought, research and publication are all encouraged on the part of those who might otherwise be adversely affected by their isolation, disciplinary or geographical. For students of political thought are often the only members of their subject within their respective departments. Conference groups have built and maintained the infrastructure essential to the interdisciplinary interchanges that greatly aid theorizing about politics, or writing its history.
The Conference came into being at a time when its concerns were at risk in the social sciences, and relatively ignored even in the humanities. Yet its founders predicted in 1967 that, if properly encouraged, a renaissance of political thought would occur. This renewal has indeed taken place. Philosophical analysis of political issues, applications to international politics, public policy, and to professional ethics are now practiced on a scale unknown twenty years ago. The history of political thought now has become a lively subject both in its new methods and in the matters it treats.
Since 1970, we have seen the founding of at least a dozen new professional journals related to political theory and its history. At the American Political Science Association annual meetings, political theory panels have for a number of years attracted audiences larger than in any other field of the discipline. Of course the Conference was not alone it its efforts, and in many developments it cannot claim to have been decisive. But it did rally many who were dispirited by the positivism apparently triumphant at the time of its foundation. The Conference's activities encouraged graduate students in its subjects to enter these fields or to continue their work. Above all, it contributed to establishing a sense of common purpose, and to providing a means of communication where none had previously existed. Among such channels of communication established by the Conference, two are particularly important: its international meetings and its Newsletter.
The international meetings serve a number of purposes. Among them is the identification or encouragement of interests that might otherwise be neglected. Conference annual meetings convene international authorities, who have to confront the full variety of disagreements on their subjects. Even a partial list of participants indicates that their diversity of positions is no less striking than their intellectual quality. These meetings provide young scholars and graduate students with opportunities to observe in person the most prominent practitioners of their subject, as well as the possibility of meeting and exchanging ideas with them. Now established scholars have told of how they were affected by such exposure to Raymond Aron, Sir Isaiah Berlin, or Eric Voegelin, all of whom made themselves available to their juniors. A notable feature had been the presence in the audience of prominent scholars ready to join the discussions.
A 1975 meeting had in attendance Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas, Leszek Kolakowski, Hans Morgenthau, and Gregory Vlastos. As might be expected, conferences in large cities have attracted the most considerable audiences. New York meetings usually average more than 200. But in order to meet the needs of its varied constituencies, the Conference has sought to hold international meetings in widely diversified settings. Since membership in the Conference includes the receipt of papers given at the annual meeting, those unable to attend can nevertheless follow the proceedings. By prorating its charges, the Conference in effect subsidizes its student and junior faculty members. It would be more desirable to be able to bring to international meetings a number of those otherwise unable to attend. Future funding requests will include some provision for such subsidies.
On occasion volumes edited from annual proceedings of the Conference are published as books. Those already printed include Machiavelli and the Nature of Political Thought, ed. M. Fleisher (New York: Atheneum, 1971); Political Theory and Political Education, ed. M. Richter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); and Ideology, Philosophy, and Politics, ed. A. Parel (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1981); Rights, Responsibility and Welfare, ed. J.D. Moon (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988); Conceptual Change and the Constitution, ed. T. Ball & J.G.A.Pocock (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988); and Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. N. Rosenblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Another means of communication among Conference members is furnished by its Newsletter, published twice a year, and distributed to all members. In addition to reporting the activities of the Conference and its constituent groups, the Newsletter provides members with opportunities for queries, as well as announcements of their own publications, and requests for communications from those sharing their interests. There is also an announcement section open to other organizations. Finally, the Newsletter also informs its readers about programs and social occasions it sponsors at national and regional meetings of professional societies.
The Conference regularly organizes programs at the conventions of the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, the Canadian Political Science Association, as well as at regional meetings of these organizations. The Editor of the Conference Newsletter is Frank Lovett of Columbia University, which kindly subsidizes its publication. Previous editors have been Tim Fuller and Eve Grace (both from Colorado College), Lyman Sargeant (University of Missouri-St. Louis), Michael Mosher and Thomas Horne (both from the University of Tulsa), Alan Gilbert, David Mapel and Simone Chambers (all of the University of Colorado at Boulder). Their universities also provided for the publication of the Newsletter. Since the Conference has lacked any continuing source of funding, it has been obliged to compete annually for foundation support. In this arduous task, it has been remarkably successful to date, a record that attests to the recognition by impartial agencies of the high standards met by the Conference's international meetings. Such support has come from national foundations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Canada Council, the Stiftung Pro Helvetia and the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. Private foundations have played an indispensable part. Such sponsors have included the Earhart Foundation, the Exxon Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Finally thanks is due to two generous decisions that made possible the establishment of the Conference in the first place: two concurrent three-year grants from the Chancellor's Fund of the City University of New York, and another three-year award from York University, Toronto. Other universities that have supported international meetings include the University of Toronto, the University of Calgary, the Murphy Institute, Tulane University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Yale University, especially The Yale Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics.
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