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Inventing Human Rights: A History Paperback – April 17, 2008

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393331998 ISBN-10: 0393331997 Edition: Presumed to be 1st as edition is unstated

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This comprehensive work traces the development of human rights from its conceptual roots in the Enlightenment to its full expression in the United Nation's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hunt begins with a wonderfully detailed lexicographical survey of 18th century uses of rights language ("rights of man," "natural rights," "rights of humanity") to show the many currents that led to the first modern declaration of human rights, the Bill of Rights. She then triangulates the upswing in rights language with both the appearance of the novel of letters (such as Rousseau's Julie and Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa) and the rise of portraiture in the mid- to late-18th century. These particular art forms, she argues, fostered a sense of individuality in their audience and empathy for their subjects, most frequently "regular folks" rather than nobles, royalty, or saints. She then takes the reader through 250 years of rights legislation, covering the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, various anti-torture measures and 20th century campaigns against human rights violations, among others. Despite the obvious academic grounding of this sweeping work, it is aimed at a wider audience and will appeal to most readers interested either in the history of human rights or in European or American history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Elegant... intriguing, if not audacious... Hunt is an astute historian.” — Joanna Bourke (Harper's)

“Fast-paced, provocative, and ultimately optimistic. Declarations, she writes, are not empty words but transformative; they make us want to become the people they claim we are.” — The New Yorker

“A provocative and engaging history of the political impact of human rights.” — Gary J. Bass (New Republic)

“This is a wonderful story of the emergence and development of the powerful idea of human rights, written by one of the leading historians of our time.” — Amartya Sen

“Rich, elegant, and persuasive.” — London Review of Books

“As Americans begin to hold their leaders accountable for the mistakes made in the war against terror, this book ought to serve as a guide to thinking about one of the most serious mistakes of all, the belief that America can win that war by revoking the Declaration that brought the nation into being.” — Alan Wolfe (Commonweal)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Presumed to be 1st as edition is unstated edition (April 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393331997
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393331998
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #57,391 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Joshua Malle on May 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"Inventing Human Rights" is a short, jargon-free book that would be appropriate for an undergraduate class or general readership. The introduction and first chapter is an examination of the cultural origins of the human rights ideology. The second chapter is a history of torture. Chapters 3-5 are a "conventional" history of human rights as traced through laws, constitutions, political philosophy, etc. from roughly 1750 to the present. There is a refreshing emphasis on the French Enlightenment (which is too often neglected in works in English).

Regarding research methods, Professor Hunt is good at tracing the circulation of ideas via the circulation of books. Careful attention is paid to when certain phrases (e.g. "rights of man", "human rights") were first used, how many times important books were reprinted, what percentage of 18th century homes and libraries they could be found in, and literacy rates.

The introduction poses the question "How is it that rights came to seem self-evident in the late 18th century?" Prof. Hunt proposes an explanation in terms of the diffusion of the cultural practices of "autonomy" and "empathy", where autonomy supplies the substance of the new ethic and empathy, the motive (pp. 29-30).

When Hunt writes of autonomy as a "cultural practice" she is referring primarily to the increasing sense of delicacy regarding the human body described in the work of Norbert Elias. She thinks, for instance, that here one can find the origin of the new repugnance at judicial torture (pp 82-83).
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Todd K on July 3, 2014
Format: Paperback
Although written by a professor, this book is not just an important tool for students, but also an appealing read to those interested in constitutional history, European and American history, and political rights and freedoms. I found this book incredibly relevant since I see America as a whole and each subculture within struggling to define human rights in almost every political and social aspect! From immigration, marriage equality, to gun control, just to name a few. In that respect, understanding the history of how our rights as humans evolved and how our constitution was initially interpreted is viscerally important for every member of a nation founded on the notion of "self-evident truths" and "inalienable rights."

How interesting is it then, when Hunt brings up that "...the claim of self-evidence, crucial to human rights even now, gives rise to paradox: if equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to be made and why was it only made in specific times and places? How can human rights be universal if they are no universally recognized?"

This thought-provoking book uses straightforward structure and wording to cover the topic and delves even further into history by exploring the French Enlightenment and the humanities. Hunt attributes literature to founding the principles that our own Constitution was built on. We've certainly come a long way from the barbaric days of trials by ordeal, which Robert Bartlett brings to life brilliantly in Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal. Inventing Human Rights is a great book, add it to your reading list!
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Margaret R. Miles on May 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Hunt's thesis, as I read this fine book, is that although compassion was not a new idea in the eighteenth century, injunctions to compassion (from Christianity, for example) were not working to affect public life. Torture, public executions, etc. were habituating Western European populations to high levels of violence in daily life. Associating the rise of the novel to new sensibilities that began to alter society, Hunt argues that novels enabled large numbers of people (especially the designers and administrators of society) to understand the subjectivity of people unlike them, and thus to empathize with the sufferings of others. She suggests that these new sensibilities had real social effects in the development of human rights. Hunt traces these real effects in the language by which human rights came to be seen as universal and "inalienable." Historical theses based on simultaneity can never be proved, but Hunt makes a strong case for novels' ability to make compassion work in eighteenth century Western Europe.
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20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Three hundred years ago, the idea that people in the world should regard themselves as equals or that all had important rights just because they were humans would have largely been regarded as laughable. Now human rights are taken for granted, and even are regarded as more important than that old standard, property rights. How did such a change happen? Lynn Hunt, a professor of modern European history, has some ideas, and has related them in _Inventing Human Rights: A History_ (Norton). There was a Bill of Rights in England in 1689, but it merely referred to "ancient rights and liberties" that derived from the tradition of English law. It did not have what Hunt describes as three interlocking qualities that are essential to human rights: "... rights must be natural (inherent in human beings), equal (the same for everyone) and universal (applicable everywhere)." The acceptance of such rights was a revolution in human thought and in the understanding of how governments were to prioritize their functions. It is a great story, one we can be proud of, and though progress toward acknowledgement of human rights has stumbled and halted at times, it has proved unstoppable.

The boom in concepts of human rights during the eighteenth century can never be fully explained, but Hunt thinks she has a clue. People began to read novels, especially epistolary ones in which characters themselves wrote out their feelings onto the page. Reading such a novel made people view the characters on the pages with empathy because the "narrative form facilitated the development of a 'character,' that is, a person with an inner self." The more lurid of the novels included scenes of torture, producing a revulsion in readers that would eventually help end the long tradition of judicial torture.
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