The Rise and Fall of Utopian Thinking

Course content

The aim of this course is to provide a critical introduction and 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 image of an completely administered society cleansed of all fissures and conflicts. In dreams of utopia, the spectre of dystopia often comes creeping after not 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 world almost without a trace. 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 we truly live in a post-utopian (if not necessarily post-dystopian) age; and if we still have need of utopia today.


Bachelor student (2012 programme curriculum): 10 ECTS

Bachelor student (2017 programme curriculum): 7.5 ECTS

Master student: 7.5 ECTS



Learning outcome

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



  • Gain knowledge of the main approaches in the utopian tradition of political theory.
  • Understand and explain main divisions and developments in the utopian tradition of political theory within their historical context



  • Evaluate the validity of the various theorists’ arguments.
  • Analyze key trends, tensions and contradictions in utopian thinking.
  • Write and present in a concise and clear manner.
  • Develop a coherent arguments



  • Apply the theories to discussions about our political world broadly understood. 
  • Combine and synthesize the ways in which the approaches studied envision utopia and utopian thinking.
  • Reflect critically on and across different theories, styles of argumentation and historical periods.



Alignment between learning outcomes and teaching activities

  • Teaching activities will be tailored to facilitating students’ attainment of the knowledge, skills and competences described in the previous section. Teaching activities will be (roughly) equally divided between lectures, guest lectures and plenum discussion on the one hand, and group activities, student presentations, mini-conferences, etc. on the other. In groups, students will train their ability to evaluate arguments and to develop coherent arguments of their own.
  • In lectures, guest lectures, and plenum discussion, the focus will be on advancing the students’ knowledge of the main approaches in the utopian tradition of political theory and to understand and account for the divisions and developments in this tradition. The assigned literature will be discussed in class, difficult passages and arguments will be unpacked and explicated, and texts will be situated with reference to other texts in the assigned literature, in order to account for the divisions and developments throughout the utopian tradition. Moreover, each class will end with an introduction to the literature assigned to the following class, and depending on the level of difficulty of the texts in question, students will be equipped with more or less comprehensive reading guides, including guidance on the important points and passages on which to focus attention, the historical context of the text and its author, an account of the structure of difficult texts, and so on.
  • In student presentations (ranging from poster presentations over jigsaw techniques to mini-conference presentations), students will train their ability to present and analyze trends, tensions and contradictions in the literature, to combine and synthesize different approaches, to critically reflect on the literature and its historical context, and to apply the theories and arguments to aspects of contemporary political life. Moreover, the task of each group activity will be to produce a clearly pre-specified product, which will further students’ abilities to develop and present products (posters, mind-maps, abstracts, role-play, etc.) of their group activities in front of other groups or the whole class.

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

Literature: (Pages total: 1200. NB! Subject to revision)

Benjamin, Walter (1986), “Critique of Violence”; “Theological-Political Fragment”, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings New York: Schocken Books


Bloch, Ernst (1986), The Principle of Hope: Volume II Cambridge MA: The MIT Press


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. REX


Estlund, David (2014), “Utopophobia”, Philosophy & Public Affairs (42/2), 2014, 113–134. REX


Firestone, Shulamith (2015; [1970]), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution London: Verso Books


Forst, Rainer (2014), “Utopia and Irony: On the Normativity of a Political
Philosophy of ‘Nowhere’”, Justification and Critique Cambridge: Polity Press


Fourier, Charles (1996; [1808]), The Theory of the Four Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Frase, Peter (2016), Four Futures. Life after Capitalism. London: Verso


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. REX


Kant, Immanuel (1970; 1784), “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent”. Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lenin, Vladimir I. (1987), “The State and Revolution”, Essential Works of Lenin. New York: Bantam Books


Manuel, Frank E. & Fritzie P. (1979), Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press


Marx, Karl (1978), “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”; “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, The Marx-Engels Reader. London: Norton


More, Thomas (2016; [1516]), Utopia London: Verso


Nozick, Robert (1974), Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell’s


Rawls, John (1999), The Law of Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press


Rawls, John (2007) Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. Samuel Freeman (ed.). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (2002; [1762]), “The Social Contract”, in The Basic Political Writings. Second Edition London: Hackett


Wright, Erik Olin (2010), Envisioning Real Utopias London: Verso


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