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Civil society

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S006-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

In modern social and political philosophy civil society has come to refer to a sphere of human activity and a set of institutions outside state or government. It embraces families, churches, voluntary associations and social movements. The contrast between civil society and state was first drawn by eighteenth-century liberals for the purpose of attacking absolutism. Originally the term civil society (in Aristotelian Greek, politike koinonia) referred to a political community of equal citizens who participate in ruling and being ruled.

In the twentieth century the separation of philosophy from social sciences, and the greatly expanded role of the state in economic and social life, have seemed to deprive the concept of both its intellectual home and its critical force. Yet, approaching the end of the century, the discourse of civil society is now enormously influential. What explains the concept’s revival? Does it have any application in societies that are not constitutional democracies? From a normative point of view, what distinguishes civil society from both the state and the formal economy?

Citing this article:
Cohen, Jean L.. Civil society, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S006-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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