Thinking About Citizenship, and Beyond

Professor Richard Vernon

For more than 40 years, Richard Vernon has contributed his teaching and research to the Political Science Department at Western, enhancing the Department’s international reputation.  His research and teaching range very widely, and he has been described as “one of the most intelligent and insightful theorists of his generation.”

During his distinguished career at Western, Vernon has amassed an impressive track record of excellence in research, teaching, and service – elements that he describes as being “equally important and mutually reinforcing”. When he was awarded both the Hellmuth Prize for Achievement in Research and the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching, he entered a “class by himself”.  Then he moved to the top of that class in 2009 when he was named a Distinguished University Professor, Western’s highest honour.

The path he took to his current research and teaching is a fascinating one.  “As a history student at Cambridge, I became especially interested in the history of ideas” he explains. “In particular, I became interested in the history of political ideas, and for my doctoral work I went to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I wrote a thesis on French socialism, at the time (late 1960s!) a hot topic.”

After he came to teach at Western in 1970, he continued to write about the history of political thought in France and, eventually, in England too.  Gradually his work came to centre around the idea of citizenship. “I began to ask questions about what it means to share citizenship with other people,” he continues. “How is this different from other important relationships, such as sharing ties of nationality, or having common religious beliefs, or being members of a single family?”

Many innovative thinkers are not good writers but thankfully Vernon is both – his prolific body of published work continues to expand each year. While he continues to challenge his students to develop their own critical views on ideas of citizenship, he now sees a new phase emerging in his own thinking. Ever modest, he claims he is still in the process of working it out, but those who know him, know that (of course) he’s already off and running with it.

In my career at Western I have been able to explore ideas wherever they may take me in both my teaching and my research.

He describes it this way. “Citizenship is a relationship among people who are close in space and time – you and me, in this society, here and now. People who are distant in space (outsiders) and time (our ancestors and descendants) are not, it seems, part of the relationship. But it dawned on me, at some point, that space and time, as well as separating people, also connect them together. The space that divides us also connects us; the time that divides us also places us within a shared history.”

It is these ideas that have guided his work in the last decade and continue to do so.  “In a series of articles and in a book published by Cambridge University Press (Cosmopolitan Regard), I set out a view that supposes that what we owe to co-citizens is not unlike the obligations that we have to strangers who are distant in space.  On the ‘time’ side, my most recent book (Historical Redress) discussed what it is that we may owe in light of what earlier generations have done: are we responsible for what our societies have done in the past?

“I’m now working on the future side of that topic: what do we owe to our descendants? Do they have rights against us that we are duty-bound to respect, even at serious cost in terms of our own interests? Do we even have a duty to ensure that future generations exist?”

Vernon values his collaboration with colleagues in the Philosophy Department at Western.  Most recently (June 2013), this collaboration led to a conference on procreative ethics that brought together moral and political philosophers from around the world.