The Rise and Fall of Utopian Thinking

Course content

The aim of this course is to provide an introduction and critical analysis of utopian thinking in Western political thought. The theme of utopia – a perfect human society – has fascinated and sent chills down spines since Thomas More’s “Utopia” saw the light of day in 1516. As More’s masterpiece attests to, utopia (“non-place” or “nowhere”) is an ambivalent concept, which at once represents a hope of living in a better, more human condition beyond misery and injustice, as well as the totalitarian nightmare of a completely administered society cleansed of all fissures and conflicts. In dreams of utopia, the spectre of dystopia is never far behind.

In the modern political imaginary, the idea of utopia has served as a wellspring of dreams for progress and a better future, as a resource for radical social critique, as an engine of revolutionary revolts, and as a fig leaf for the most brutal kind of repression imaginable. In recent decades, however, utopian thinking is often observed to have disappeared from our political consciousness. Why did utopian thinking thrive in earlier historical periods, and why do – in the words of Jürgen Habermas – utopian energies seem exhausted today?


The course will examine the origin and central strands of utopian thinking in Western political thought, with an emphasis on the ambivalence that seems to lie at its core. Moreover, the course will continuously reflect on the historical and intellectual conditions for utopian thinking to flourish or disappear, situating texts in their historical context (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, early industrialization, the first half of the 20th century, etc.). Finally, the course will ask, what we may have we lost with the disappearance of utopian thinking; whether it really is the case that we live in a post-utopian (if not necessarily post-dystopian) age; and if we still have need of utopia today.


Bachelor student: 10 ECTS

Master student: 7.5 ECTS

Learning outcome

The objective of the course is to enable the students to:



  • Describe the main approaches in the utopian tradition of political theory.
  • Understand and explain main divisions and developments in the utopian tradition of political theory.
  • Evaluate the validity of the various theorists’ arguments.



  • Present and analyze key trends, tensions and contradictions in utopian thinking.
  • Combine and synthesize the ways in which the approaches studied envision utopia.
  • Apply the theories to discussions about our political world broadly understood. 



  • Critical thinking across different theories and styles of argumentation. 
  • Writing and presentation in a concise and clear manner.
  • Ability to develop a coherent argument.


This course will consist of a combination of lectures, student presentations and discussions, and possibly talks by guest lecturers.

The following is a preliminary reading list of primary texts and books, from which extract will be read. Other materials will be added and some may be replaced or removed before the beginning of the semester.


  • Benjamin, Walter (1986), “Critique of Violence”; “Theological-Political Fragment”, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings
  • Bloch, Ernst (1986), The Principle of Hope.
  • Campanella, Thomas (2008; [1602]) The City of the Sun.
  • Condorcet/Keith Michael Baker (2004 [1795]), “Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind: Tenth Epoch”, Daedalus, (133/3), 65-82.
  • Estlund, David (2014), “Utopophobia”, Philosophy & Public Affairs (42/2), 2014, 113–134
  • Firestone, Shulamith (2015; [1970]), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.
  • Forst, Rainer (2014), “Utopia and Irony: On the Normativity of a Political
Philosophy of ‘Nowhere’”, Justification and Critique.
  • Fourier, Charles (1996; [1808]), The Theory of the Four Movements.
  • Frase, Peter (2016), Four Futures. Life after Capitalism.
  • Habermas, Jürgen (1986), “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies, Philosophy & Social Criticism, (11/1), 1-18.
  • Lenin, Vladimir I. (1987), “The State and Revolution”, Essential Works of Lenin.
  • Manuel, Frank E. & Fritzie P. (1979), Utopian Thought in the Western World.
  • Marx, Karl (1978), “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”; “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, The Marx-Engels Reader.
  • More, Thomas (2016; [1516]), Utopia.
  • Nozick, Robert (1974), Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
  • Rawls, John (1999), The Law of Peoples.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (2002; [1762]), The Social Contract.
  • Wright, Erik Olin (2010), Envisioning Real Utopias.
Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Oral examination
Oral exam with a synopsis
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28