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Sheldon S. Wolin (born August 4, 1922) is an American political philosopher and writer on contemporary politics. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. His most famous work is Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought.
In 1950, Wolin received his Harvard University doctorate for a dissertation titled Conservatism and Constitutionalism: A Study in English Constitutional Ideas, 1760–1785. After teaching briefly at Oberlin College, Wolin taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1954 to 1970. In a political science department that was largely composed of empirical studies of micro-political issues, Wolin was a political theorist who managed to build that component of the program by bringing Norman Jacobson, John Schaar, and Hanna Pitkin into the department. He was a major supporter and interpreter to the rest of the world of the theory behind the Free Speech Movement, and he became a mentor to one of the FSM's more prominent activists, Michael Lerner on whose Ph.D. committee he served. He also published frequently for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s.
From 1973 through 1987, Wolin was Professor of Politics at Princeton University where he mentored a large number of students who have subsequently become leading figures in contemporary political theory, including most notably: at Berkeley, Hanna Pitkin (Emeritus, Berkeley), J. Peter Euben (Duke University) and Harlan Wilson (Oberlin), and at Princeton, Uday Mehta (Amherst College), Wendy Brown (Berkeley), Frederick M. Dolan (Emeritus, Berkeley and California College of the Arts), Dana Villa (Notre Dame), Nicholas Xenos (Massachusetts), Kirstie McClure (UCLA) and Cornel West (Princeton). At Princeton, Wolin led a successful faculty effort to pass a resolution urging university trustees to divest from endowment investment in firms that supported South African apartheid.
Wolin made his name with the 1960 publication of Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton 1960, 2nd Ed. 2004). He published some articles that challenged positivist political science and enlivened the field of political theory. In addition to the usual canon of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Machiavelli and Rousseau, Wolin wrote penetrating essays on Augustine of Hippo, Richard Hooker, David Hume, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and John Dewey as well as books on the American Constitution and Alexis de Tocqueville.
Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgement which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the megastate.
As leading political theorist William E. Connolly notes,
Politics and Vision did not simply tell us how important it is to address the “tradition” of Western political thought, it engaged comparatively a series of exemplary political thinkers in pre-Christian thought, Christendom, and the modern world in a way that revivified the energy, confidence, and vision of an entire generation of political theorists.’ (Democracy and Vision, Princeton 2001).
Wolin's work addresses participatory democracy with primary focus on the United States. He makes a distinction between democracy as system of governance and any of the formal political institutions of the state. In other words, he decouples democracy from governance and towards a political system based on democratic principles.