Posted by: HAT | October 3, 2007

A definition of utopia

I like Ruth Levitas’s proposed definition of utopia, proposed in her book The Concept of Utopia, Syracuse University Press, 1990, where she says “Utopia expresses and explores what is desired; under certain conditions it also contains the hope that these desires may be met in reality, rather than merely in fantasy.  The essential element in utopia is not hope, but desire — the desire for a better way of living.” (191)

Levitas takes a whole book to discuss the reasons this definition surpasses others, whether those formulated descriptively, formally, or functionally; I’m obviously not going to reprise her whole — really excellent — analysis here.  I’m going to add, however, that her definition is particularly helpful for me, in looking at what strikes me as clearly utopian discourse in my chosen philosophers, even when they are not explicitly talking about utopia, or are talking about utopia but not obviously hopeful (as I think of Adorno).  Understanding “utopia” as the expression of desire, a desired world or way of living, makes it possible to see the utopian element in abstract philosophical discourse about art or language, that eschews precise description of what the good world will look like because it is too early to sketch those precise contours — if, indeed, we ever will get close enough to it to actually be in a position to do that.  (One can always hope, even if it sometimes seems ridiculous.)


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