The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights
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The Architecture of Concepts proposes a radically new way of understanding the history of ideas. Taking as its example human rights, it develops a distinctive kind of conceptual analysis that enables us to see with precision how the concept of human rights was formed in the eighteenth century.
The first chapter outlines an innovative account of concepts as cultural entities. The second develops an original methodology for recovering the historical formation of the concept of human rights based on data extracted from digital archives. This enables us to track the construction of conceptual architectures over time.
Having established the architecture of the concept of human rights, the book then examines two key moments in its historical formation: the First Continental Congress in 1775 and the publication of Tom Paine's Rights of Man in 1792. Arguing that we have yet to fully understand or appreciate the consequences of the eighteenth-century invention of the concept "rights of man," the final chapter addresses our problematic contemporary attempts to leverage human rights as the most efficacious way of achieving universal equality
on June 5, 1774, in which he noted that “we are now called on . . . to struggle for the preservation of those rights of mankind which are inexpressibly dear.” Two Discourses on Liberty (Newburyport, Mass.: I. Thomas and H. W. Tingers, 1774), 32. 77. The same issue over the source of legitimation for American rights was raised with respect to the authority of textual precedent in Silas Downer’s A Discourse at the Dedication of the Tree of Liberty, given in 1768. Downer notes that “it is of the
a grassroots phenomenon, was very sensitive to issues of entitlement. The working men who met in taverns and the like to discuss republicanism did not do so entirely upon theoretical grounds, nor for anything like theoretical objectives. It would equally be inaccurate to portray Paine as an intellectual, or someone well versed in the political theory and history of political thought of the Western tradition. It is unlikely that he would have lasted long in debate over the conceptual refinements
what Ignatieff characterizes as the purpose and significance of human rights, that is, to “protect agency.” As he writes, “To protect human agency necessarily requires us to protect all individuals’ right to chose the life they see fit to lead.”24 The problem, however, with this formulation is the conceptual architecture of “agency.” In Ignatieff’s account, that concept is compounded with the “individual,” or, to put that in terms that his critics would use, the bourgeois liberal subject (the
our understanding as well as enable it. If one wishes to explore how rights can be something other than contestable claims, and thus how “human rights” might be understood as nonconflictual, it will be necessary to find a different architecture. The concept of “right(s)” as it has been articulated and networked through the European natural-law tradition will not allow us to open out that new terrain. This is because the ideational concept of rights, operating with a dual functionality, containing
conceptual forms are structured in different ways, the standard readings of the history of political thought throughout the Anglophone eighteenth century need at the very least some attenuation. More precisely, the conceptual analyses proposed by this book indicate that an error has been made with regard to the genealogy of “human rights” that sits at the center of both historical and contemporary theoretical accounts of this concept. 17. To some cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind,