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Re-Imagining Democracy: Government, Participation and Welfare in German Territories:
Aims of the Conference

Two-day Conference, January, 9th-10th, 2009, at the Center for Advanced Studies, LMU, organised by the Research Project "Re-Imagining Democracy" at the University of Oxford, the German Historical Institute, London, and the Historical Seminar, LMU München

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Conference Programme (by Joanna Innes and Mark Philp)

This meeting is being organised against the background of an Oxford-based project, ‘Re-imagining democracy 1750-1850’, convened by Mark Philp (Politics Faculty, Oxford) and Joanna Innes (History Faculty, Oxford). They hope over a period of years to build a network of researchers in Europe, North and South America (and possibly more broadly) who are interested in meeting for workshops and conferences to exchange ideas about this central theme, and to collaborate on publications.

In a sense the larger question with which the project seeks to engage is, How should the history of democracy be written? How should this history be formulated and set out, to meet the needs and expectations of scholars operating in the early 21st century? As the project is conceived, it is particularly concerned with a formative period in the history of modern democracy: a period in which ‘democracy’ ceased to be almost universally a term of reprobation, and came to be re-imagined as desirable, or at least as an emergent force, with which it was important to come to terms. It is not however assumed that the ways in which democracy was imagined in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in all ways anticipated later understandings. On the contrary, the specificity of ways in which it was imagined in particular times and places is one of the chief things the project seeks to illuminate. (For example, in this period the antonym of democracy seems often to have been not authoritarianism, as might be expected now, but instead ‘aristocracy’ or indeed sectionalism. In France, theorists of democratic politics were especially interested in developing systems of consultation, in Britain less so – probably largely because the French were much warier than the British of allowing intermediate bodies to represent public opinion).

The project has a soft central focus, inasmuch it is concerned both with what contemporaries called ‘democracy’ -- with ways in which the word was employed and this form of regime conceptualised – and with a larger set of practices and attitudes relating to what we might think of as democratic. Clearly, the two need to interact: it would not be good to lose sight of what people at the time thought democracy was, or to impose entirely anachronistic concepts. However, to limit the project only to the study of applications of a word would be to limit its ability either to illuminate the contexts in which the word was employed, or to construct comparisons across space and time. The project is not concerned only with political life: it also aims to illuminate ways in which social theories, policies and practices shaped and were shaped by democratic ideas and practices (however these are construed).

In the German case the initial assumption (perhaps to be disproved) is that the term was not widely used to describe local, contemporary political or social phenomena. Although it is proposed that the conference give some attention to uses of the word, it is therefore proposed that most time be given to exploring on the one hand political conduct and attitudes, on the other, social theories and practices. In recent decades historians of early modern or ‘ancien regime’ states have often argued that in fact there was also quite wide public participation in the government and politics of these polities: what have in the past been taken to be ‘democratising’ trends need to be reinterpreted as entailing changes in forms as much as in the extent of participation. The Enlightenment and French Revolution in different ways helped to direct attention to popular welfare as a criterion of good government; it may be that against this background, new and more broadly conceived ideas about the meaning and implications of citizenship and belonging developed. These are the kinds of issues which the conference might illuminate, both empirically and conceptually.

List of Speakers and Papers