Justice and the state form
: conceptual history, marxism and the separation of state and society

  • Matthew Bolton

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis critically examines the relation between the concept of ‘justice’ and the historical processes of state formation. It traces this relationship from classical antiquity and the natural law tradition through to contemporary Anglo-American theories of justice, with a particular focus on the vicissitudes of ‘justice’ and ‘the state’ within Hegelian and Marxist debates. Bringing together the methodology of conceptual history developed by Reinhart Koselleck with Heide Gerstenberger’s theory of the historical constitution of state structures, the thesis argues that the changing shape of the ‘state form’ is intimately connected to philosophical discussions of justice, in ways that are rarely explicitly acknowledged in the literature.

    The thesis contends that the construction of justice as a critical concept is a fragile and by no means inevitable historical achievement. It suggests the key historical precondition for contemporary debates around ‘social justice’ was the formal separation of the state from society. The bulk of the thesis thus explores the ways that this separation is defined, explained and critiqued – or ignored altogether - in both the liberal and Marxian traditions.

    The thesis argues that the precarity of the freedom generated by the separation of politics from society is routinely underplayed, both by liberal theories which regard it as a ‘rational’ response to a ‘state of nature,’ and by radical critiques which portray it as a form of ideology or a structural function of ‘material’ transhistorical processes. But the thesis also acknowledges that the concept of justice contains within it manifold contradictions, which can produce experiences of negativity and alienation while simultaneously ‘implying’ a possible reconciliation. It argues that these contradictions cannot be simply erased through a clearer articulation of the concept, but rather must be ‘recognised’ as constitutive of the concept and worked through.
    Date of Award20 Jan 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SponsorsTECHNE Doctoral Partnership
    SupervisorTed Vallance (Supervisor) & Nina Power (Supervisor)


    • Justice
    • State
    • Conceptual history
    • Marxism
    • Hegel
    • Rawls

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