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Debates between realists and idealists in contemporary political theory have been confused by a tendency to conflate several distinct methodological theses. This article distinguishes between four dimensions of realism and shows how a novel reading of Hume’s politics can help us make sense of the importance of these theses and the relationships between them. More specifically, we argue that a theory we call normative conventionalism can be distilled from two of Hume’s more surprising and controversial essays, “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” and “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science.” This theory views norms and institutions as conventional solutions to problems of coordination and conflict that are historically contingent, but also provides us with an approach to gaining leverage on our practices so that we can say something about which norms and institutions are worth emulating.


This article was originally published in The Journal of Politics in 2022.

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Southern Political Science Association

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

Available for download on Friday, January 13, 2023