Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Stephen Turner, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Charles Guignon, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Joanne Waugh, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Martin Schönfeld, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Michael Morris, Ph.D.


Legitimacy, Essentially Contested Concept, Modern State, Civil Disobedience


This dissertation argues that there is an agreed upon commonsense view of violence, but beyond this view, definitions for kinds of violence are essentially contested and non-neutrally, politically ideological, given that the political itself is an essentially contested concept defined in relation to ideologies that oppose one another. The first chapter outlines definitions for a commonsense view of violence produced by Greene and Brennan. This chapter argues that there are incontestable instances of violence that are almost universally agreed upon, such as when an adult intentionally smashes a child’s head against a table, purposefully causing harm. It is also claimed that, because political, ideological distinctions between kinds of violence arise from the creation of moral equivalences to the commonsense view of violence, political ideology is the source of disagreement. The second chapter argues that the concept of violence and of the political are essentially contested concepts. Gallie’s criteria for what counts as an essentially contested concept are utilized in order to argue that violence is an essentially contested concept at the level of the political, though not at the level of the commonsense view of violence. In fact, the paradigmatic cases that the commonsense view of violence pertains to serve as the core cases that are then interpreted as kinds of violence at the ideological level. To define violence as altogether wrong, or to define kinds of violence as acceptable and others as wrong is itself a politically ideological move to make, such as when liberalism defines its own uses of violence as justified and legitimate, and its enemy’s violence as unjustifiable and illegitimate. The World Health Organization and Bufacchi’s definitions for violence are presented, as are the definition for terroristic violence defined by Nagel. Erlenbusch’s critique of a liberal view, such as that of Nagel and the World Health Organization, is addressed as a reflection on the fact that, beyond the commonsense view of violence, violence is an essentially contested concept for which an ideologically, politically non-neutral definition is unlikely. The third chapter outlines numerous definitions produced by various philosophers, historians, and theorists, such as Machiavelli, Arendt, Hobbes, Kant, Treitschke, Weber, Bakunin, Sorel, Žižek, and Benjamin. The definitions produced by each demonstrates that person’s political ideological assumptions. Their definitions demonstrate an ongoing disagreement, in the sense of Rancière’s formulation for what counts as a disagreement in that each theorist defines kinds of violence under the yoke of their own political ideology. They all might agree that a single act is violent, under the commonsense view of violence, but they disagree concerning what kind of violence it is. So, though they may point to the same events and actions as examples of violence, what they mean fundamentally differs, and this means that they disagree. Their disagreement arises due to their respective political ideologies. This disagreement shows that there is no neutral justification for the neutrality of a state, particularly if a neutral state must defend itself. The state is instead defined in historically contextual terms of how the state relates to kinds of violence, and the distinctions between kinds of violence are not themselves politically, ideologically neutral. So, the concept of violence, beyond the commonsense view, is an essentially contested concept for which a non-neutral definition is unlikely. Beyond the commonsense view, political ideology is inextricably bound up within distinctions between kinds of violence. The fourth chapter then examines arguments on the question of whether nonviolence counts as a kind of violence. If distinctions between kinds of violence are essentially contested and non-neutrally defined, and nonviolence is defined as distinct from violence, then it follows that nonviolence is an essentially contested concept for which no non-neutral definition is possible, at least beyond a commonsense view of nonviolence. A commonsense view of nonviolence is defined as the assumption that nonviolence is not violent in the way that the commonsense view defines violence. That is, nonviolence occurs when there is no action or event that most people would define as a violent one. Definitions for nonviolence, civil disobedience, nonviolent political actions, and nonviolent direct actions are then outlined. These definitions aim at showing that the doctrine of nonviolence does not merely refer to nonviolent acts, but to a strategy that is a means to defeating violence. Given that what counts as the nonviolence that defeats violence is ideologically a matter of disagreement, nonviolence, in this sense, can count as a kind of violence. The fifth chapter concludes, raising questions concerning how violence can be valued, the degree to which a state cannot neutrally justify its neutrality, and the degree to which, beyond the commonsense view of violence, there ever could be agreement concerning what counts as kinds of violence.

1 In this dissertation, I draw on a number of ideas/passages that appeared earlier in my paper “The Efficacy of Scapegoating and Revolutionary Violence," in Philosophy, Culture, and Traditions: A Journal of the World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies, ed. William Sweet, 10(2014), 203-219. I am grateful to the editors of the journal for permission to draw on this material here.

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