Richter Dissertation Prize
The Melvin Richter Prize is awarded annually for the best doctoral dissertation in the history of political thought.
The Melvin Richter Prize is awarded annually to the best doctoral dissertation in the history of political thought. Melvin Richter was one of the co-founders of CSPT and a leading scholar of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and the theory and method of conceptual history. Through his influential scholarship, his lifelong support of CSPT, and his generosity as a teacher and mentor, Richter shaped the intellectual world of political theory for decades. CSPT is proud to honor and extend this legacy through the Richter prize, which has been established with the support of Melvin Richter’s family and friends.
Eligibility, Nominations, and Timeline TBD
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Melvin Richter was a distinguished historian of political thought and co-founder of the Conference for the Study of Political Thought. Born in Revere, Massachusetts in 1921, Richter received his B.A. in Nineteenth-Century History and Literature from Harvard College in 1943. Soon after, he joined the Army and came to work at the Office of Strategic Services in China. For his service, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal and Parachutist Badge, as well as the Chinese Yün Huei Medal. Returning to graduate studies at Harvard, he completed his Ph.D. in 1953 under the supervision of Samuel H. Beer. The dissertation would form the basis of his first, award-winning, book, The Politics of Conscience: T. H. Green and his Age (1964).
From 1956 to his retirement in 1998, Richter taught at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Over a long, prolific, and celebrated career, Richter held visiting posts at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Oxford, New York, and Wesleyan Universities. In 1998, he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Prestigious fellowships awarded to Richter included Fulbright Senior research fellowships in Paris and Munich, membership of the Institute for Advanced Study (twice), as well as residential fellowships at the National Humanities Center and the History of Ideas Unit, Australian National University. Additionally, Richter’s scholarship was supported by Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and National Humanities Foundations, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Following the early work on T.H. Green, Richter turned his attention to French political thought, especially the study of Montesquieu and Tocqueville. In 1977, Richter published The Political Theory of Montesquieu, which presented new and consistent translations of selections from Montesquieu’s major political writings, some of which had not appeared in English since the eighteenth century. These were framed by a masterful, extended introduction to Montesquieu as a political theorist. In addition to analyzing Tocqueville on democracy, despotism, and revolution, Richter published the earliest treatment in English of Tocqueville’s writings on Algeria. Importantly Richter was also interested in presenting and understanding Montesquieu and Tocqueville as innovators of concepts and methods, especially as admirable practitioners of comparative analysis.
This was a part of another of Richter’s longstanding scholarly passions, namely the theory and history of political concepts. In a series of articles published in the 1980s, and later reworked into the monograph, The History of Political and Social Concepts: A Critical Introduction (1995), Richter almost single-handedly brought the ambitious projects around Begriffsgeschichte or conceptual history to the attention of Anglophone scholars. He offered a rigorous exposition of its purpose, methodology, and contribution to political theory. Never one to let methodological discussion substitute for practice, Richter produced his own richly-developed conceptual histories. He wrote perceptively on what he called “a family of political concepts” centered on despotism, tyranny, dictatorship, Bonapartism, and Caesarism. A gifted linguist, who began graduate school working in Mandarin before moving to the study of English, French, and German political theory, Richter’s most recent work explored the theory and practice of the translation of political and social concepts. As the field of political theory becomes increasingly comparative and global – a move that Richter wholeheartedly endorsed – his discerning and serious reflections on questions of conceptual translation and comparison will become ever more important.
Richter’s life and work have profoundly shaped the world of political theory in enduring ways. In 1967, with J.G.A. Pocock and Neal Wood, he co-founded the Conference for the Study of Political Thought. Throughout his life, he remained a stalwart member of the executive committee of CSPT. He organized many of its annual conferences, edited an important volume of essays on political education which grew out of a CSPT conference, and played an essential role in keeping the organization alive. At the last CSPT conference he attended in 2013, he was as ever insightful and generous in conversation, especially with younger scholars with whom he was so keen to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. He dedicated his final years to the completion of his leading work on Tocqueville and the two Napoleons. The book will be published by Oxford University Press. CSPT is proud to honor Melvin Richter’s life and legacy with an annual prize in his name awarded to the best doctoral dissertation in the history of political thought.