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37 J. Legal Educ. 167 (1987)
Idea of a Constitution, The

handle is hein.journals/jled37 and id is 179 raw text is: Idea of a Constitution

The Idea of a Constitution
Hanna Fenichel Pitkin
The requirement to be extremely brief today is welcome to me, for on the
idea of a constitution, if I know anything at all, I am surely a hedgehog (who
knows one big thing) rather than a fox (who knows many things).' All I
have to offer is the fact that our idea of what a constitution is, is inevitably
tied to how we ordinarily-that is, naturally, spontaneously-use the
word constitution and related words; and that the patterns of use of such
important, abstract, and politically contested words always involve deep
inconsistencies. So, to understand what a constitution is, one must look not
for some crystalline core or essence of unambiguous meaning but precisely at
the ambiguities, the specific oppositions that this specific concept helps us
to hold in tension.
In particular, it is worth attending to two uses of the word constitution
which may at first seem wholly irrelevant to our obviously public and polit-
ical concerns, irrelevant to the Constitution of the United States, whether
considered as the document whose bicentennial we celebrate or as a tradition
of interpretation and public practice.
The first of these uses is constitution in the sense of composition or
fundamental make-up, the constituent parts of something and how they
are put together, its characteristic frame or nature. Concerning a person,
''constitution can mean either physical make-up (we say someone has a
robust or a delicate constitution) or temperament, the frame of one's
character. With respect to a community, this use of constitution suggests a
characteristic way of life, the national character of a people, their ethos or
fundamental nature as a people, a product of their particular history and
social conditions. In this sense, our constitution is less something we have
than something we are. This sense, is, I think, what Charles Mcllwain meant
by the ancient idea of a constitution; no doubt he had in mind Aristotle's
politeia, which refers not to fundamental law or the locus of sovereignty but
to the distinctive shared way of life of a polis, its mode of social and political
Hanna Fenichel Pitkin is Professor of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley.
This paper was prepared for the Plenary Session program, The Idea of the Constitution, held
at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in Los Angeles on January
5, 1987. The paper has been prepared from a transcription of oral remarks, without the qualifi-
cations and citations one might expect in a formal paper.
1. Sir Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (New York, 1957).
01987 by the Association of American Law Schools. Cite as 37 J. Legal Educ. 167 (1987).

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