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Issue #3       May 2010
Dean Jeffrey D. Straussman

Dear Friends, 
     In past issues of Rockefeller College's e-news, you've heard from Professor Bruce Miroff, an expert on American politics and the presidency, and the author of five books on the topic, including The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party. You've met Dr. Rod MacDonald, a leader in the field of system dynamics who's using computer simulation modeling to address important public policy issues ranging from mental health services to traffic safety. In this edition, I'd like to introduce you to Torrey Shanks, a political scientist who tells us why the words and views of 17th century English philosopher John Locke are still relevant. Let me know what you think by e-mailing me at
And please visit us online to learn more about the important work being done at Rockefeller College.

Dean Straussman's Signature
Jeffrey D. Straussman
Dean, Rockefeller College
of Public Affairs & Policy
About Torrey Shanks
Torrey Shanks

Torrey Shanks researches and teaches in the areas of political theory, gender and politics, and language and politics. Within political theory, her interests include early modern political thought, feminist theory, rhetoric, and political imagination. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the history of political thought (ancient and modern) and contemporary feminist and democratic theory. 

Before coming to UAlbany in 2008, Shanks completed her PhD in political science at Northwestern University and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia. She is also affiliated with the Department of Women's Studies.

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Reopening Locke: Rockefeller College Scholar Takes a Fresh Look at the Great Political Thinker

"It's a pretty hard claim to make that after 300 years I have a new interpretation of Locke's social contract but that's what I'm trying to do." - Torrey Shanks

Professor Torrey ShanksNew insights into John Locke -- the great English philosopher of the late 17th century, Oxford scholar, medical researcher and physician, revolutionary, and one of the most important influences on America's founding fathers -- are hard to come by.  Hundreds of years of scholarship on the man and his work have solidly established the conventional wisdom on the subject.  Nevertheless, new -- and notable -- insight is precisely what Torrey Shanks, assistant professor of political science at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, is delivering through her research on Locke.
John LockeOften referred to as the "Father of liberalism," John Locke is responsible for such cherished political and social concepts as rule of law, government by consent, and natural rights. Shanks's fresh look at one of the greatest thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment is yielding a new interpretation of the social contract and revealing a picture of the philosopher not only as a master of reasoned political and social thought, but also as a skillful rhetorician who engages political imaginations.  She is also examining Locke's theories in relation to 21st century global and gender politics, considering whether his ideas have universal application across cultures, and analyzing just how robust Locke's model of liberalism may or may not be in today's shrinking, yet culturally and politically diverse world.  "One of the things I like about studying Locke," explains Shanks, "is that over the last three centuries many people have written on him.  He is such a shared area of conversation.  I'm trying to introduce a less familiar version of somebody who's taken for granted."

Drawing on political and literary theory as well as philosophy, Dr. Shanks is currently working on a book that builds on the doctoral dissertation she completed while at Northwestern University, Political Imagination and Thought of John Locke.  Shanks holds that Locke understood that profound political change relied not just on new theory, but on the ability of the people to understand or imagine themselves in new roles, as citizens who have rights, who live equally under the law, and under a government whose authority is limited.  Dr. Shanks suggests that to achieve this change in political psyche, Locke brought his ideas to many different audiences by weaving together diverse traditions of thought and integrating them into a new political self-understanding -- a new way for subjects to imagine themselves living with rights under law.  Shanks points to Locke's effective use of rhetoric, and sometimes biting satire, to communicate a vision to the citizenry.  Although Locke has come to be seen as very formal in his philosophical arguments, Professor Shanks sees a different Locke who steps outside formality and uses language and political argument familiar to ordinary people "in interesting and innovative ways." 

She also acknowledges the "two faces of Locke" -- the celebrator of liberty whose words inspired our founders to espouse "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" and "unalienable Rights" in the Declaration of Independence, and the proponent of authority and wealth he represents through his support of property rights.  For Shanks, this dichotomy reflects Locke's recognition of the different audiences he attempted to reach and sway.  "I would say Locke can be associated with some of the best and worst in American political culture, so that certainly speaks to his influence.  Examining his texts is about what I'd call 'critical inheritance,' meaning these ideas we've inherited from Locke are influential, we need to question them, figure out what's going on.  Do we throw them out or find something new in them?  I'm arguing that there's something new and better to find in these deeply familiar ideas."

Shanks hopes to complete her manuscript by year's end; however, her research and teaching on John Locke will continue.  Next, she'll shift her attention away from his writings on the rule of law and focus more on Locke's arguments for religious toleration, a concept she notes is one of the most pressing issues of our day.  She's also eager to dive into the work of other great writers and philosophers of the early modern period.  "I'm excited to find important elements of political imagination in Locke, but I think there are richer texts out there that I want to explore."

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