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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S064-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

Article Summary

Utopianism is the general label for a number of different ways of dreaming or thinking about, describing or attempting to create a better society. Utopianism is derived from the word utopia, coined by Thomas More. In his book Utopia (1516) More described a society significantly better than England as it existed at the time, and the word utopia (good place) has come to mean a description of a fictional place, usually a society, that is better than the society in which the author lives and which functions as a criticism of the author’s society. In some cases it is intended as a direction to be followed in social reform, or even, in a few instances, as a possible goal to be achieved.

The concept of utopianism clearly reflects its origins. In Utopia More presented a fictional debate over the nature of his creation. Was it fictional or real? Was the obvious satire aimed primarily at contemporary England or was it also aimed at the society described in the book? More important for later developments, was it naïvely unrealistic or did it present a social vision that, whether achievable or not, could serve as a goal to be aimed at? Most of what we now call utopianism derives from the last question. In the nineteenth century Robert Owen in England and Charles Fourier, Henri Saint-Simon and Étienne Cabet in France, collectively known as the utopian socialists, popularized the possibility of creating a better future through the establishment of small, experimental communities. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and others argued that such an approach was incapable of solving the problems of industrial society and the label ‘utopian’ came to mean unrealistic and naïve. Later theorists, both opposed to and supportive of utopianism, debated the desirability of depicting a better society as a way of achieving significant social change. In particular, Christian religious thinkers have been deeply divided over utopianism. Is the act of envisaging a better life on earth heretical, or is it a normal part of Christian thinking?

Since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a number of theorists have argued that utopianism has come to an end. It has not; utopias are still being written and intentional communities founded, hoping that a better life is possible.

Citing this article:
Sargent, Lyman Tower. Utopianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S064-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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