Dennis Rasmussen

Political Theory
Associate Professor
Ph.D., Duke University, 2005


My research interests center on the Enlightenment and on the virtues and shortcomings of liberalism. I teach courses in the history of political philosophy and contemporary political theory.

My first book, The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau (Penn State University Press, 2008), explores the thought of one of commercial society's first great defenders, Adam Smith, and one of its first great critics, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I show that Rousseau's writings had a significant influence on Smith's thought and that Smith actually shared many of Rousseau's rather severe misgivings about commercial society, thereby highlighting the nuanced character of his outlook. Smith anticipated many of our current dissatisfactions with commercial society even as he defended it, and I argue that this makes his thought an especially valuable resource for our own age in which the debate is too frequently dominated by dogmatic critics and doctrinaire champions of commercial society alike. The book received an Honorable Mention for the Delba Winthrop Award for Excellence in Political Science in 2008.

My second book, The Pragmatic Enlightenment: Recovering the Liberalism of Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire (Cambridge University Press, 2014), offers a broader examination of the Enlightenment, and of the liberalism that we have inherited from it.  While the Enlightenment did much to inspire our way of life in the modern West, it is routinely associated, on both the left and the right, with a hegemonic form of moral and political universalism, a blind faith in abstract reason, and a reductive and isolating focus on the individual. I contest these charges through a recovery and defense of a central strand of Enlightenment thought that I call the "pragmatic Enlightenment," focusing on the thought of David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. I argue that these thinkers in fact exemplify a particularly attractive type of liberalism, one that is more realistic, moderate, flexible, and contextually sensitive than many other branches of this tradition. The book is the subject of a forthcoming symposium in the Adam Smith Review.

I am currently working on a book on the friendship and philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith.


PS 004-02 - First-Year Tutorial: Capitalism, For and Against
PS 42/Phil 42 - Western Political Thought II
PS 140/Phil 140 - Liberalism and Its Philosophical Critics
PS 144 - The Meaning of America
PS 149 - Contemporary Political Theory
PS 154 - Romanticism and Revolution: The Political Philosophy of Rousseau
PS 156 - Seminar: Enlightenment Political Thought
PS 157 - Seminar: Markets, Morals, and Religion: The Political Theory of David Hume and Adam Smith




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