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American Imaginaries and Aboriginality in Early Modern Political Thought Open Access


Other title
Social contract theory
Myth of the Noble Savage
Foucault, Michel
Early modern political theory
European perceptions of the Americas
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Martens, Stephanie B.
Supervisor and department
Kellogg, Catherine (Political Science)
Examining committee member and department
Davidson, Judy (Physical Education and Recreation)
Carmichael, Don (Political Science)
Nichols, Robert (Political Science)
Arneil, Barbara (Political Science, University of British Columbia)
Department of Political Science

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
This dissertation proposes an original reading of two important texts in early modern social contract theory: Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s Treatises of Government. It analyzes the references to the Americas made in these texts to show how their illustrative use in depictions of the state of nature is articulating a particular, long-lasting, and highly consequential conception of otherness, one coined “Aboriginality.” Two goals are pursued through this investigation of the role of the Americas in social contract theory. First, it is shown that by applying Michel Foucault’s critical methods to canonical texts, we can uncover new paradoxes and propose new interpretations of “old” texts. Through the analytical lens of “Aboriginality,” social contract theory is not as much the modern affirmation of natural rights as a theoretical funnel, channelling “American imaginaries” into a rigidified conception of the state of nature, initiating what would become our modern understanding of civilization, subjectivity, and citizenship. The historical context, the post-1492 apparition of the “Americas,” literally as a New Continent and figuratively as a new trope in literature and in the European mind, is analyzed as a “social imaginary,” and the impact of the travel literature on philosophical and legal discourse assessed. Particular attention is devoted to the Spanish Scholastics’ view on the “nature of the Indians”—showing how the Americas and its Indigenous inhabitants posed a theoretical and anthropological challenge for Western legal and political theorists of the time. The Scholastic approach can then be contrasted to that of Hobbes and Locke, whose association between state of nature and Indigenous America contributes to the development of modern “civilizational thinking”—this theoretical shift would be fairly harmless if it were not necessarily associated with the exclusion of “Aboriginality,” and with it, of those deemed natural and uncivilized. This interpretation sheds new light on the distinction biopower/sovereign power established by Foucault, stressing the importance of contract theory and of the “juridico-political” discourse in genealogies of the modern subject.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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