Is the “state” a universal category or a historically contingent and transient form of human organization?

The topic at hand questions one of the most fundamental concepts which throughout the history of political discourse has been answered by various philosophers, thinkers, each augmenting its definition with their knowledge and beliefs. Some have defined the concept of “state” as a system that holds its true essence in power or welfare, others have defined it as a class system, or an organization that transcends all notions of class altogether. But, to date, we have not reached one definitive definition of this concept which is why I believe that the key to effectively answer this question lies in the definition we take of this very concept of “state”. Even though philosophers and thinkers have not found that one definitive definition of “state”, there are still some characteristics which are considered as common grounds for the definition of “state”.

Defining a “state”

Theories defining a “state” have all been based on different ideas, beliefs, etc. On one hand, we have philosophers who believed that the “state” is the most powerful and universal organization, the “state” being the link between individuals and organizations. On the other hand, we have theories asserting that a “state” is a power system with the power held by one person or a family or a group of individuals.

1. Despite these differences, one can find some fundamental similarities in the concept of the “state” which form a basic framework for all possible theories definitions of “state”. Meaning, any definition of “state” should agree with or include or adhere to the following characteristics or key features.

2. A “state” has to have a community of people, united by bonds other than family. This is essential as “humans being social animals” ought to form communities and no state can exist without the people who form it in the first place.

3. The “state” needs to be within a well-defined territory for its people to have a common life and in case of growth by conquering other lands, the state needs to be bounded so that the losers do not simply move away but rather join as part of the two classes: the rulers, and the ruled.

4. Continuing from the second point, the population needs to have a clear governing body. It can be a single person, a family, a group of people from different classes, or an elected leader.

5. The governing body should be capable enough to protect the sovereignty of the state i.e. protect the state from the control of outsiders and continue to exist as an independent state.

6. The presence of laws/rules/regulations to benefit the state, promote the systematic functioning of the state and prevent any breach in the system.

Based on these features of a “state”, it can be concluded that “state” is a community with its own defined territory and a structured government, and is not subject to any foreign control.

Based on this rudimentary understanding of the “state”, it would now be useful to trace the origin of the state as an entity, which would help us determine whether the “state” is a universal category (meaning the state has the same role in political entity) or a historically contingent ( meaning the state evolves with change in times, policies, practices, etc.) and transient (temporary) human organization.

Origin of State

There have been many conflicting theories as to the origin of the state. The most dominant of which is the Theory of Divine Right, Social Contract Theory, The Force Theory. However, none of these theories have been accepted in their entirety because each of these theories was based on some invalid postulates. However, if we try to trace the origin of state, possibly the first thing that would come to our minds when we think of early humans, would be us as cavemen. When humans were cavemen, we were a lot more exposed to external dangers, like wild animals for instance, and in such scenario, staying together or being united for the sake of survival can be understood as the most reasonable explanation for the development of tribes. Even tribes adhere to all features of “state” except for a definitive territory as tribes were always on the move for food and safety. However, tribes were its community, they had their set of rules and had their of own governing authority i.e. the strongest person in the tribe became the leader, the tribe fought with other tribes to protect their freedom and existence as an independent tribe. So it is safe to infer that these tribes would only develop to form the very first civilizations when they would settle on the fixed territory.

The earliest human civilizations known to man are the Nile Valley, Indus Valley, and Mesopotamia. We know for a fact that these states did not have any contact between themselves but still these states were formed in such similar structures: for example a rigid social hierarchy, authoritative religious structures and a dependence on slavery. This similarity is too big to go unnoticed which suggests that the “state” is a universal category. Meaning people living in different parts but in similar scenarios would react in similar ways with one another. This begs the question that if our actions are truly determined by our biology, and considering that state anywhere is created as a result of human actions ( human biology) then states elsewhere must be similar due to the common biology of all humans. This further implies that “state” as a result of human biology is universal.

However, the conclusion drawn is overly simplified. For example, let us consider two states: Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. If the “state” is universal, then the two versions of the state should have been similar. But as we know it the two states had differences in the very features of a state. Like Mesopotamia had an authoritarian ruler whereas Mesoamerica had a Confederacy. Seemingly so, maybe the “state” is not universal. Modern-day scenarios can account for the same. For example, in some countries, the state’s role is to provide public services such as healthcare or education or in some countries’ unemployment allowance, etc. Therefore, the role of the state in all modern-day nations is not the same or universal.

However, the explanation may lie in the fact that all civilizations started with a similar universal state but have evolved in different ways to become the nations they are now today.

Evolution of State

As previously established in the essay, the state is a human organization. We know for a fact that humans undergo several changes, all part of evolution which leads us to a realization that with time as humans evolve, our systems and the features of our systems change or rather evolve as well. For example, China grew as a powerful state much before any other state in the region, and this holds an influence on the authoritarian regime in China today. But, what we can infer, is that this would classify “state” as historically contingent. Meaning, states pass through several phases and develop characteristics at particular points in history which all contribute to the developing of the state and its role in respective nations. These characteristics which develop over the years can be classified as the development of a modern bureaucracy, rule of law and political accountability, the foundation of the modern state. Moreover, we can also derive from this that instead of the “state” being a universal category, it is the nature of the state which is universal because all “states” go through such phases to become more effective in the long-term. It should also be brought to notice that it is not the semblance of features that are universal but rather just that category of features and development of characteristics that are universal in all “states”.

Furthermore, we need to realize that just having such characteristics is not enough for nations to successfully work over time. The key to succeeding in this sense means having a balance of such characteristics and developing those characteristics. For example, let us the European region into consideration. Nations such as Great Britain, France, Germany were all regarded as the most powerful in the region because they had a good balance of characteristics and they developed on those characteristics leading to success. For the same, if we compare nations like the USSR, which did not develop but continue with the same form of fundamentals, it eventually led to the division and the downfall of the, once so prestigious, Soviet Union. The conclusion we can draw here is that nations which di develop can sustain and those which do not, collapse. The fact that a “state” goes through evolution to be more effective proves that a “state” is a human organization and not universal because every nation would have different phases of history and each nation would require an evolution differently.


Whether or not the state is a human organization is much easier to determine. Without humans, there would be no state. Would the concept of the state still exist? This is entirely arbitrary, in my opinion, the concept of anything only exists if there are people to conceptualize it- flying cars exist as a concept only because we can imagine them. As long as members of the animal kingdom cannot envisage or create a system of government, the state will remain a human concept. And so, it must be a human organization.

Despite all of this, the question still remains: “Is the state a universal category?” What I have realized through this entire passage is that it all comes down to the basic definitions that we take. For example, at the beginning of this essay, I took the definition of a state bound by certain features as per the theory of some thinkers and philosophers. However, if I were to take another definition of the “state” and then look at the question, my analysis and conclusion may come out differently. For example, if I take “state” as what Max Weber did, a “state” would be “a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”. This definition would draw out the similarity between the “state” of China and Britain This definition would also draw out the similarity between the earlier civilizations of Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. Should the need arise, the state should be able to control its population through whatever means necessary, including violence. This definition makes the state a universal category because all “states” hold the authority over its citizens to control them. It then makes sense that specific events in history shape the nature of the state to be different from the basic “universal” state of nature.

Ergo, a state is a universal category because with every new definition we realize that there are some of the other factors which act as a universal category, and also historically contingent as the exact nature of state depends on the history of the particular place and of its people.

Finally, the question of the nature of the state, as a universal category or a historically contingent and transient form of human organization is one which cannot be definitively answered. I think that it is, at its base a universal category, built on and developed by history. It is, however, not transient because of its roots in human behavior. As long as one assumes that human behavior and humanity remain extant, the state will continue to exist in one form or another.