William E. Connolly

William E. Connolly
Born William Eugene Connollly
Flint, Michigan
Alma mater University of Michigan
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Main interests
Political theory, political philosophy, international relations, pluralism
Notable ideas
"Agonistic democracy", "immanent naturalism", "new pluralism", "neuropolitics", "global resonance machines", "critical responsiveness"

William Eugene Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism. He is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His 1974 work The Terms of Political Discourse won the 1999 Benjamin Lippincott Award.[1]


Connolly was raised in the town of Flint, Michigan. His father was of one of the nearly 80,000 people who worked for General Motors in Flint during its peak years. Connolly received his B.A. from University of Michigan at Flint, and went to get his Ph.D. at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Connolly took up an assistant professorship at Ohio University from 1965 to 1968, then an assistant professorship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst from 1968 to 1971. He later went on to become an associate professor from 1971 to 1974 and professor from 1974 to 1985. Connolly took up a professorship in 1985 at Johns Hopkins University and was the Department Chair for Political Science from 1996 to 2003. He remains the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor today. Connolly has taught as a visiting professor at numerous schools including The University of Exeter, European University Institute, Oxford University, and Boston College. His book The Terms of Political Discourse won the Benjamin Evans Lippincott Award in 1999: the book is widely held to be a major work of political theory. In 2004, he won the Fulbright Award to deliver the keynote address at the Kyoto Conference in Japan. In 2013 Connolly delivered the inaugural Neal A. Maxwell Lecture in Political Theory and Contemporary Politics at the University of Utah entitled “Species Evolution and Cultural Freedom.” It was subsequently published as part of a symposium in Political Research Quarterly. Connolly is also a contributing writer to The Huffington Post and a founding member of the journal Theory & Event.

Political theory

The theory of pluralism

Over the course of the last four decades Connolly has helped to remake the theory of pluralism. Connolly challenges older theories of pluralism by arguing for pluralization as a goal rather than as a state of affairs. Connolly's argument for the "multiplication of factions" follows James Madison's logic in engaging groups, constituencies, and voters at both the micro and macro level. Essentially, he has shifted the theory from a conservative theory of order, to a progressive theory of democratic contestation and engagement.[2] By engaging Nietzsche and Foucault, Connolly explores the nature of democratic contestation and its relation to pluralism. A more comprehensive look on pluralism can be found in the work Pluralism.[3]

An extensive engagement with Connolly can be found in The New Pluralism (Duke University Press, 2008), edited by David Campbell and Morton Schoolman.[4] There Morton Schoolman, Thomas Dumm, George Kateb, Wendy Brown, Stephen White, Bonnie Honig, Roland Bleiker, Michael Shapiro, Kathy Ferguson, James Der Derian, and David Campbell engage his accounts of pluralism, cosmopolitanism, agonistic respect, subjectivity, politics and global capitalism. The book closes with an interview in which the editors invite Connolly to clarify several themes and to outline his future work. This work has been acknowledged as an authoritative text on Connolly's thought.

Agonistic democracy

Connolly is one of the founders of this subfield of thought in political theory. He promotes the possibility of an "agonistic democracy", where he finds positive ways to engage certain aspects of political conflict. Connolly proposes a positive ethos of engagement, which could be used to debate political differences. Agonism is based on contestation, but in a political space where the discourse is one of respect, rather than violence. However, Connolly is cautious on speculating whether this imagination could come true, because he claims the value of such speculation is overrated. Also, his critical challenges to John Rawls's theory of justice and Jürgen Habermas's theory on deliberative democracy have spawned a host of new literature in this area. His work Identity\Difference contains an exhaustive look at positive possibilities via democratic contestation.[5]


Connolly has explored some of the problematic aspects of secularism. He notes the predictive failure of secularists in the 1970s, who theorized it would be the most dominant view in the public sphere, only to be proven wrong by the evangelical movement that dominated politics for two decades soon after. He writes that, "Secularism is not merely the division between public and private realms that allows religious diversity to flourish in the latter. It can itself be a carrier of harsh exclusions. And it secretes a new definition of "religion" that conceals some of its most problematic practices from itself." Connolly has also written on the relationship between religion and faith in politics, arguing for non-believers to respect the views of the faithful, who make up a large portion of the electorate. His work, Why I am Not a Secularist explores some of these ideas in further detail.[6]

Capitalism and Ecology

In his recent books Connolly has explored the relations between capitalism, inequality and ecology. In Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008) he explores the formation of the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” in the States, explaining how it has made the United States an outlier among the older capitalist states with respect to inequality and climate denialism.[7] In The Fragility of Things (2013), he criticizes neoliberalism for its quaint focus on only one self-organizing system—markets.[8] It is not only that markets are also subject to elite manipulation, it is also the case that neoliberal states bump into a whole series of nonhuman processes with self-organizing powers of their own. When you consider these interconnected systems together the fragility of capitalism comes into view and the irrationality of neoliberal ideals of market autonomy shines through. In a forthcoming book, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (2017) Connolly reviews how the earth scientists belatedly exploded their previous notions of “planetary gradualism” in the 1980s.[9] After discussing how climate, glacier flows, species evolution and the ocean conveyor have gone through periods of stability punctuated by rather rapid changes, he pursues a philosophy of “entangled humanism” and a “politics of swarming” to respond to the contemporary conjunction between bumpy, self-organizing planetary forces and contemporary capitalism as a geologic force.


Peter Price criticizes what he takes to be Connolly's attempt to redeem capitalism. He writes that "any system in which people's ability to obtain as much work as they want, sends the economic components of the system into inflationary spirals and other harmful consequences, treating human wastage, social and cultural damage, as a regrettable but necessary by-product, is not a system that lends itself easily to redemption".[10] In contrast, Robert Booth Fowler, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, writes that to Connolly "American capitalism and Christianity work together...at all levels of society in ways which violate [Connolly's] main goals: a dramatically more egalitarian society, an environmentally responsible nation and world, and a deep respect for human diversity".[11]

Princeton University theorist Cornel West writes that "William E. Connolly is a towering figure in contemporary political theory whose profound reflections on democracy, religion, and the tragic unsettle and enrich us."

Caleb Henry, in The Journal of Church and State, raises a few questions about Connolly's views. "Can immanent naturalism present a defensible ethic? Can his morality defend against a warrior morality? Might not a Nietzsche-influenced immanent naturalist tend towards elitism rather than egalitarianism? Can Connolly authoritatively argue that no preferences transcend cultural formation of personal identity?"[12]

Bradley Macdonald has recently interviewed Connolly “In Confronting The Anthropocene and Contesting Neoliberalism” (New Political Science, 2015). The interview addresses his engagements with activism and ecology from the 1970s to today, reviews his relations to other theories of political economy, debates his critique of “sociocentrism” in the human sciences, and discusses why students of politics must become much more attuned to recent work in the earth sciences.


Books (as author)

Revised as: The Augustinian imperative: a reflection on the politics of morality (2nd ed.). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. 2002. ISBN 9780742521476. 
Reviewed as: Cahalen, Deborah J. (October 1996). "Review of Connolly, William E., The ethos of pluralization". H-Pol. H-Net Reviews. 

Books (as editor)

Series editor

  • Titles in the Contestations series:
  • Orlie, Melissa (1997). Living ethically, acting politically. ISBN 9780801484728. 
  • Seery, John (1996). Political theory for mortals: shades of justice, images of death. ISBN 9780801483769. 
  • Zerilli, Linda (1994). Signifying woman: culture and chaos in Rousseau, Burke, and Mill. ISBN 9780801481772. 
  • Kateb, George (1992). The inner ocean: individualism and democratic culture. ISBN 9780801480140. 
  • Honig, Bonnie (1993). Political theory and the displacement of politics. ISBN 9780801480720. 

Journal articles


  1. Chambers & Carver, Samuel & Terrell (2008). William E. Connolly: Democracy, Pluralism and Political Theory. New York: Routledge. p. 3. ISBN 0822355841.
  2. Chambers & Carver, Samuel & Terrell (2008). William E. Connolly: Democracy, Pluralism and Political Theory. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415431231.
  3. Connolly, William (2008). Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3567-0.
  4. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0822342707
  5. Connolly, William (2002). Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4086-6.
  6. Connolly, William (2000). Why I am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-3332-0.
  7. Connolly, William (2008). Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-4272-4.
  8. Connolly, William (2013). The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5584-7.
  9. Connolly, William (2017). Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-6341-5.
  10. Price, Peter (November 2008). "Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William E. Connolly" (PDF). Eras. 10. Retrieved 2013-08-04.
  11. Fowler, Robert Booth (2009). "Book in Review: Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, by William Connolly. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 192 pp. $21.95 (paper)". Political Theory. 37 (3): 442–445. doi:10.1177/0090591709332341. ISSN 0090-5917.
  12. Henry, Caleb (2009). "Capitalism and Christianity, American Style". Journal of Church and State. 51 (1): 186–188. doi:10.1093/jcs/csp024. ISSN 0021-969X.


Further reading

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