The Concept of Representation

Hanna Pitkin.¬†The Concept of Representation¬†(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967).  


What happens to the idea of representation when a writer concentrates on the representing of unattached abstractions is nowhere shown more clearly than in the thought of Edmund Burke. For Burke, political representation is the representation of interest, and interest has an objective, impersonal, unattached reality.

Since Burke seems to present no consistent doctrine of representation, we must begin by identifying several separate and seemingly inconsistent views of the concept. The first and perhaps most familiar view is elitist, ratiocinative in character, and¬†national in scope. It appears particularly when Burke is speaking of the representing of the whole nation by Parliament, or derivatively by each member of Parliament. These members are an elite group, discovering and enacting what is best for the nation; that activity is what representation means. Burke holds that inequalities are natural and unavoidable in any society, that some “description of citizens” must always be uppermost. In well ordered society, however, this ruling group is a genuine elite, what he calls a “natural aristocracy.” Such an elite “is an essential integral part of any large body rightly constituted.” because the mass of the people are incapable of governing themselves, were not made “to think or act without guidance and direction. ” Power “in the bands of the multitude … admits of no control, no regulation, no steady direction whatsoever.”

This is the second concept encountered in Burke’s thought: the representation of interests. Although the city of Birmingham elects no members to Parliament, it can still be virtually represented there because Bristol sends members; and these are really representatives of the trading interest, of which Birmingham, too, is a part. Although a member may be called the Representative of Bristol since he is elected there, he really represents Bristol’s interest, which may also be the interest of many other cities like Bristol.

Burke conceives of broad, relatively fixed interests, few in number and clearly defined, of which any group or locality has just one. These interests are largely economic, and are associated with particular localities whose livelihood they characterize, and whose over-all prosperity they involve. He speaks of a mercantile interest, an agricultural interest, a professional interest. To a very great extent, these interests are conceived as “unattached”; it is not the interest of farmers but the agricultural interest – an objective reality for Burke apart from any individuals it might affect. A locality “partakes of” or “participates in” such an interest; the locality does not “have” the interest, nor is the interest Bristol’s any more than it is the farmers’. Burke almost never speaks of an individual’s interest, or of the interest of a group, or of one group or locality as having more than one interest. His concept is thus very different from the subjective, personal interests of Utilitarian thought, and from the modern idea of a multiplicity of self -defined, changing interests at all levels of society.

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