Norberto Bobbio

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Norberto Bobbio signature.

Norberto Bobbio (October 18, 1909 – January 9, 2004) was an Italian philosopher of law and political sciences and a historian of political thought.


  • Lewis has written that "man makes history." Althusser unleashes a pamphlet at him maintaining that such is not the case: "Ce sont les masses qui font I'histoire." I challenge anyone to find a social scientist outside the Marxist camp who can seriously pose a problem of this type.
    • In: Telos Nr. 35-38, (1978), p. 11
  • If, then, at the end of this analysis, I am asked to take off the mortar-board of the academic and put on the hat of someone deeply involved in the political developments of the age he lives in, I have no hesitation in saying that my preference is for the rule of law rather than of men. The rule of law is now celebrating its final triumph as the basis of the democratic system. What is democracy other than a set of rules (the so-called rules of the game) for the solution of conflicts without bloodshed? And what constitutes good democratic government if not rigorous respect for these rules? I for one have no doubts about how such questions are to be answered. And precisely because I have no doubts I can conclude in all good conscience that democracy is the rule of law par excellence. The very moment a democracy loses sight of this, its inspiring principle, it rapidly reverts into its opposite, into one of the many forms of autocratic government which haunt the chronicles of historians and the speculations of political thinkers.
    • The Future of Democracy: A Defence Of The Rules Of The Game (1984), Ch. 7: The Rule of Men or the Rule of Law

Quotes about Bobbio[edit]

  • Philosophically, Bobbio’s response to the contemporary political condition of the West is the opposite of that of Rawls and Habermas. Where they have sought to efface the difference between sein and sollen, in a continual slide between idealizations of the existing world and factualizations of velleities beyond it, he has held fast to the principles of the legal positivism and political realism that formed him: values and facts are categorically separate domains, that are not to be confused. This is certainly an intellectual advantage he enjoys over them. But it comes at a price: to cut all connexion between the historical and the desirable risks delivering the world to what is undesirable, in the name of the same realism.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 6 : Plotting Values: Norberto Bobbio
  • Bobbio’s starting point, by contrast, lay in Hobbes. For theorists of natural law, the passage from a state of nature to a civil union required two distinct contracts: the first an agreement between warring individuals to form an association, the second to submit to the decisions of an authority in case of disputes among them – a pact of non-aggression, and a pact for pacific settlement of conflicts. For Hobbes, neither were possible in relations between states. For them, peace could never be more than a temporary suspension of war, the inescapable condition of competing sovereign powers. [...] For what was still missing from the contemporary inter-state system was the juridical figure of the Third – Arbiter, Mediator or Judge – created by any pact of submission, of which Hobbes’s Leviathan, governing those who had voluntarily made them- selves its subjects, had offered a compelling, if autocratic, intra-state model. Today, the abstract outline of such a Third could acquire a democratic form as a cosmopolitan sovereignty based on the consent of states, empowered to enforce universal peace and a catalogue of human rights. The first condition of such a desirable order had already been perceived by Kant. It was the principle of transparency, abolishing the arcana imperii that had always characterized the foreign policies of democracies and tyrannies alike, under the pretext that affairs of state were too complex and delicate to broadcast to the public, and too dangerous to reveal to the enemy. Such secrecy could not but erode democracy itself, as innumerable actions – at home as well as abroad – of the national security services of contemporary states testified. Here a vicious circle was at work. States could only become fully democratic once the international system became transparent, but the system could only become fully transparent once every state was democratic. Yet there were grounds for hope: the number of democracies was increasing, and a certain democratization of diplomacy was visible. As Kant had once seen in general enthusiasm for the French Revolution a ‘premonitory sign’ of the moral progress of humanity, so today universal acceptance of human rights, formal as this still might be, could be read as a portent of a pacified future to come.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 7 : Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre
  • Bobbio’s account of human rights is thus a far cry from the deontological versions of Rawls or Habermas. It is radically historical.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 7 : Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre
  • Bobbio’s realism, what can be seen as the conservative strand in his thinking, had always coexisted, however, with liberal and socialist strands for which he is better known, and that held his primary moral allegiance. The balance between them was never quite stable, synthesis lying beyond reach. But in extreme old age, he could no longer control their tensions. So it was that, instead of simply registering, or welcoming, the Hobbesian facts of American imperial power, he also tried to embellish them as the realization of democratic values, in a way that – perhaps for the first time in his career – rang false and was inconsistent with everything he had written before. The triptych of liberation invoked as world-historical justification for the Balkan War is so strained as virtually to refute itself. The victory of one set of imperialist powers over another in 1918, the American contribution to mutual massacre tipping the balance: a glorious chapter in the history of liberty? The D-Day landings of 1944, engaging less than a sixth of Hitler’s armies, already shattered in the East: ‘totally responsible for the salvation of Europe’? An apotheosis of Reagan for his triumph in the Cold War: who would have imagined it from the descriptions of Il Terzo Assente? There was something desperate in this last-minute refrain, as if Bobbio was trying to silence his own intelligence.
    • Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (2005), Ch. 7 : Arms and Rights: The Adjustable Centre

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