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Definition: Utopia from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Any ideal state in literature, named after philosopher Thomas More's ideal commonwealth in his book Utopia 1516. Other versions include Plato's Republic, Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, and City of the Sun by the Italian Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639). Utopias are a common subject in science fiction. See also dystopia.

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More, Thomas: From Utopia


Summary Article: Utopia from Political Philosophy A-Z

Utopia is a term originally coined by Sir Thomas More in the book of the same name. A Utopia is a vision, or an account, of a perfect world. Utopian thinking about what the world could, or should, be like, functions in several different ways. First, utopian thought generates aspirations, and consequently acts as a motivation for change. Second, utopian thinking gives an exemplification of an account of human nature: utopian societies are human societies and so reflect what must be trans-historically true about human nature, and not the historically specific features of individual social forms. Third, utopian thinking provides a point of view from which to assess and criticise actually existing societies – by means of constructing a ‘critical utopia’. Rousseau’s Social Contract has been interpreted in this way.

Criticism of utopian thinking centres on the obvious charge that utopianism is unrealistic – prompting the obvious thought that this is precisely what it is supposed to be. What matters is whether the utopian model in mind is possible or impossible, not whether it is realistic or unrealistic. Thus utopianism in political philosophy requires an (Aristotelian) distinction between what is necessary and what is accidental. Critics of particular Utopias will then make the cut between accidental and necessary properties of human societies in different ways. A slightly different tack is taken by Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. There, he is critical of the disconnection in utopian socialist thought between the account of the new society and the agency of change.

Further reading
  • More, Thomas [1516] (1995), Utopia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • © Jon Pike, 2007

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