Political Ontology and Institutional Design in Montesquieu and Rousseau


  • Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the 2007 meeting of the American Political Science Association and to the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2008. The author would like to thank the audience of both talks as well as Ryan Patrick Hanley, Ari Kohen, and the anonymous reviewers and editor of AJPS for their insightful comments on previous drafts.

David Lay Williams is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Science, College of Letters and Sciences, University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Stevens Point, WI 54481-3897 (dawillia@uwsp.edu).


Historians of political thought have been puzzled by Montesquieu's simultaneous appeals to the diversity of human practices and eternal norms of justice. Isaiah Berlin famously referred to this as an impassable “contradiction” burdening his work. Careful examination of Rousseau's appropriations from and developments on Montesquieu, however, reveal that these observations are not merely reconcilable—they provide a fruitful way to approach legislation and constitution drafting. This is accomplished by understanding his employment of the principle of transcendent constrained indeterminacy.