Political Theory

views updated May 11 2018

Political Theory

I. ApproachesArnold Brecht


II. Trends and GoalsSheldon S. Wolin


The articles under this heading deal with general problems of political theory and their study. Specific concepts are discussed in Authority; Charisma; Consensus; Democracy; Duty; Equality; Freedom; General will; Ideology; Justice; Legitimacy; Majority rule; National interest; Natural law; Natural rights; Power; Responsibility; Social ontract; Sovereignty; State. The development of political thought, primarily its development in the West, is also reviewed in Anarchism; Conservatism; Constitutions and constitutionalism; Isolationism; Liberalism; Marxism; Militarism; Pacifism; Pluralism; Socialism; Totalitarianism; Utilitarianism; Utopianism. For discussions of non-Western political thought, see Chinese political thought; Indian political thought. Other relevant material can be found in Government; Political science; Science, articles onthe history of Scienceand The Philosophy of Science; and in the articles listed in the guides under Lawand Religion.


1. What is “theory”?

The term “theory” is used in various ways. It always refers to “thought,” as distinct from “practice” or “acting.” Not every thought is theory, however; reminiscing, for example, is not. The original Greek meaning of theoria was that of a well-focused mental look taken at something in a state of contemplation with the intent to grasp it. In this sense, it covered apprehension of being (ontology) as well as causal explanation, religious and philosophical as well as empirical and logical thought. In current usage, two meanings must be distinguished at the outset. One is as broad as the ancient one, or even broader. It comprises a thinker’s entire teaching on a subject (his Lehre), including his description of the facts, his explanations (no matter whether religious, philosophical, or empirical), his conception of history, his value judgments, and his proposals of goals, of policy, and of principles. This broad usage prevails, in particular, in dealing with the history of political theory (see section 5). Theory, in its more technical contemporary use, however, has a far narrower meaning. It denotes “explanatory” thought only or, at least, primarily. A “theory,” then, is a proposition or set of propositions designed to explain something with reference to data or interrelations not directly observed or not otherwise manifest. Mere “description” is no theory. Nor are “proposals” of goals, of policy, or of evaluations. Only the explanations, if any, offered for descriptions or proposals may be theoretical; the description or the proposal as such is not. On the other hand, theory does include “prediction,” provided that it follows from an explanation.

No particular quality is expressed when the term “theory” stands alone; the explanation given may be true or false, mature or childish, professional or nonprofessional, religious, philosophical, or scientific—any explanation someone offers for a phenomenon may be called his “theory.” If used within a scientific context, however, theory is generally meant to refer to scientific explanations only (see next section).

2. What is “scientific” theory?

That explanations may be either “scientific” or “nonscientific” is hardly controversial, but the meaning of this distinction is. A fundamental split runs through the ranks of contemporary political theorists and other social scientists. On one side are those who only regard as “science” work done in line with scientific method in the strict sense of empirical observation and logical reasoning; on the other side are those who use the term in a broader sense, in which it also accommodates other types of (true or putative) knowledge, in particular knowledge supplied by “pure reason,” intuition, self-evidence, or even religious revelation. The split shows most in moral valuations. The former group holds that the validity of ultimate moral standards of valuation cannot be established through scientific means; the second, using a broader concept of science, holds that it can. No scientific argument can compel a theorist to agree that the term “science” must be used in only one sense. Rather, like “theory,” it is used in various ways. It will here be employed in the narrower sense, as modified below. Not every scholar has to accept this use, nor is it claimed that a scientific explanation is always “better” or “truer” than a religious or philosophical one, but merely that it is something else and that the knowledge it supplies is “transmissible qua knowledge” to a larger degree (see next section).

3. Transmissibility of knowledge

Whichever way social theorists may use the term “science,” they generally concede that there are degrees in the transmissibility of knowledge. We can, as a rule, communicate our “belief” that we know something to others with no particular difficulty, but we cannot always transmit our (real or putative) knowledge qua knowledge to them. Some knowledge is transmissible qua knowledge to anyone who is able to understand the language used and to carry through the experiments or tests referred to; some is not. This makes it advisable to distinguish between scientia transmissibilis and scientia non transmissibilis, although there are gradual transitions, as we shall see presently.

First, there would be no transmissible knowledge at all, and consequently no intersubjective type of science, unless certain minimal assumptions were accepted, all of the common-sense type, especially the following: (a) “consubjectivity” (Hocking 1956), that is, the assumption that human beings obtain similar impressions through their senses; (b) some regularity in nature, without which there could be no explanations in general terms; and (c) some degree of human freedom to form an opinion on truth and falsehood. The validity of these assumptions cannot be scientifically demonstrated; they are “methodologically immanent.” As they are universally accepted, however, or at least universally comprehended, they do not block transmissibility of knowledge.

Second, while “descriptions” of observations are entirely transmissible in principle, other phases of scientific procedure are not to the same degree, especially not the acceptance of (a) observations as sufficiently exact, (b) descriptions as sufficiently precise, (c) results of observations as actual facts (“reality”), and (d) hypotheses of causal interrelations as valid. Rather, all decisions to accept are exposed to the possibility of challenge. Important as this limitation of transmissibility is, it does not justify the verdict that on that ground no knowledge at all is transmissible, since the knowledge of documentary descriptions remains fully transmissible and so does purely analytical reasoning, as in formal logic and mathematics. Furthermore, our reasons for accepting or refusing to accept and the reports on additional evidence through further observations are also transmissible. Michael Polanyi, who in his book Personal Knowledge (1958) argues impressively that any type of knowledge, even scientific, is ultimately based on personal “belief” or “commitment,” has failed to pay attention to the difference between nontransmissible “decisions to accept” and the transmissible material to which they refer; even so, he does not seem to deny the heuristic advantages of generally recognized standards of science.

There is a great qualitative difference between the limitations of intersubjective transmissibility in the area of empirical knowledge and those that block transmissibility of moral valuations in the face of opposing valuations held in good faith by others. Here intersubjective transmissibility fails much earlier or indeed altogether. It should not be overlooked, however, that the factual assumptions on which evaluations are based, as well as the biological and psychological factors accounting for evaluations, and the consequences and risks to which the pursuit of cherished values leads, lend themselves to inter subjectively transmissible examinations. Full exploitation of these methods can do much to reduce the significance of the cleavage between the two schools (see sections 6 and 9).

4. Some distinctions

Theory and practice

Practice may serve to generate, test, or refine theories. We learn by doing, by trial (practice) and error (bad theory). But to go ahead in practice with no previous theoretical thinking may prove very costly and lead to irreparable damage that could have been avoided by forming good theories before acting. If a scientific theory is right and complete, it is self-contradictory to say that something “may be good in theory but is not in practice.”

Theory and description

Both “description” and “theory” (explanation) are legitimate functions of science. To achieve, if not an explanation, at least a full description of observable phenomena may significantly augment the corpus of human knowledge. Although, as denned above, mere description is not theory, theory may help discover describable phenomena and aid in getting them properly described; it alone can determine their “relevance.”

Theory and hypothesis

The term “hypothesis” denotes a tentative assumption of facts or of interrelations; it is chiefly used in the latter sense. A “theory,” in explaining phenomena, generally refers to some new or old “hypothesis” or law but itself is not a hypothesis; it merely employs one for the purpose of explanation and may even consist solely of that, especially in formulating a new hypothesis.

Theory and law

If used in the realm of “is,” the term “law” denotes regularity of interrelations. Propositions intended to describe regularities (laws) are, in principle, always subject to challenge in view of conflicting observations. Strictly speaking, therefore, there are no “statements” of laws but only “hypotheses” about laws. If used in the realm of “ought,” the term “law” denotes a “norm of conduct” that has been set by someone, man or God. To enumerate “nature” among the potential originators of moral norms is logically objectionable unless nature is conceived of as itself having a moral will or purpose; otherwise the moral norms cannot be logically regarded as “set” by nature. If, however, moral norms are conceived of as set by God, it is not in conflict with logic to look to nature for intimations of the moral intentions of its creator. Theories of this kind, therefore, are not blocked by the demands of logic; but they are “nonscientific” (except in hypothetical terms) because of their reference to premises that can be neither confirmed nor refuted with scientific means.

Theory and philosophy

A theory tries to explain “something”; a philosophy, in one use of the term, “everything.” Philosophical explanations are theories, too, but in their most characteristic efforts, nonscientific ones. They begin where science in the narrower sense of the term leaves off. A few philosophers have attempted to reduce philosophy to strictly scientific work (Edmund Husserl); yet the prevailing use of the term leaves the philosopher free to follow intuition and to speculate about things and interrelations not accessible to science, at least if that is done with full regard to the results of scientific work. Nor is the meaning of philosophy limited to “explanations”; philosophers may, and often do, attempt to “describe” Being as they see it. To that extent philosophy is not “theory,” not even nonscientific theory, but rather “ontology.”

The advantage of philosophy

over science is its greater freedom in methods; its disadvantage, the lack of transmissibility qua knowledge. Despite this shortcoming, philosophy performs an irreplaceable function in human society because of the irrepressible human search for the unknown.

Theory and reason

Any attempt to explain something is an act of reasoning. “Scientific” theory tends to preclude “loose” reasoning in favor of precisely determined types of reasoning, especially strictly logical deductions from premises whose origin is exactly stated, and logical inductions (generalizations) from observed facts, rendering account of the number and type of observations. When, in deductive reasoning, premises are not won through induction but regarded as religiously revealed, self-evident, grasped by intuition, accepted as traditional, or merely postulated as heuristically useful starting points, this should be clearly stated. Time and again there have been attempts to break through the walls of strictly scientific reasoning by recourse to principles or maxims considered “reasonable” in daily speech, especially humanitarian principles or “the foundations of Western civilization.” However, if those principles themselves are questioned, reference to a person’s intuition, received revelation, etc. offers no “transmissible” knowledge. What can be transmitted, even then, is thought on the consequences and risks involved in following or failing to follow the principles in question.

No limits are set in scientific theory to the heuristic type of reasoning (for example, by analogy, intuition, guessing, etc.) engaged in during the preparatory stage of selecting promising topics for research or working hypotheses.

Theory and models

In order not to be bogged down by the great number of variables in theoretical research in political science, it is often helpful to construct a “model” out of assumptions and hypotheses, for example, a specific type of society or of government (see section 12), and then to work within the framework of that model. The model may reflect either conditions actually prevailing at a definite time and place or alternative conditions considered for the purpose of theoretical explorations. In either case, assumptions and working hypotheses should be clearly stated.

5. History of political theory

Writing on the history of political theory has rarely if ever been limited to “explanations” and even less so to strictly “scientific” efforts in this direction. Rather; employing the term “theory” in its broadest sense, it has generally included (a) nonscientific types of explanation, especially those of a religious and philosophical character, (b) nonscientific value judgments, especially moral ones, (c) proposals offered for the selection of political goals and for political actions, and (d) mere descriptions of phenomena as seen by political philosophers of the past. It has, therefore, been a blend of philosophy, scientific theory, and description, with far more space and emphasis given to nonscientific philosophical aspects than to strictly scientific ones. Typical issues have included Plato’s “ideas” conceived of as essences having some sort of reality, Christian theological dogmas based on revelation and tradition, and philosophical doctrines that claim to constitute superior knowledge, especially those ascribing to pure reason the power to reveal truth independently of experience. They have included, more specifically, the doctrines of natural law in the sense of a code of moral prescriptions allegedly to be found in nature or reason, and its progeny, the doctrines of natural rights. Indeed, natural law constituted the very core of political science and political theory from about 1600 to 1900. The main topics treated under the guidance of the various doctrines and approaches were the state, its nature, origin, and proper ends; the theory of social contract; the proper relationship between church and state; sovereignty; the best form of government; and the implications of natural law for politics.

Many of these historical efforts have been important stages in the development of human thought and Western civilization; they have influenced ideals, actions, and the history of institutions. As theories, however, most of them were based on belief rather than science in the narrower sense of the term. This is not meant to say that their results must have been false or that religious or philosophical reasoning ought to be abandoned. The only concern here is with the fact that the history of “scientific” political theory must be culled from its fusion with nonscientific religious or philosophical thought.

Ideas and methods of a strictly scientific character have rarely been entirely absent in political thought. The ancient Greek ability of abstraction and of logical and mathematical thinking laid the foundation of modern science. Sophists and their opponents amply referred to empirical observations. The Socratic method of confronting debaters with questions on the meaning and the implications of their propositions and with objections that led them to reconsideration, modification, or selfcontradiction was the early prototype of good scientific method (“clarification of the meaning of propositions and of their implications”). Plato’s and Aristotle’s works abound in psychological observations that, although not subjected to tests in the modern sense, still offer valuable scientific contributions or cues. Aristotle cultivated the methodical gathering of factual data as the base for theoretical work; he carefully examined the risks and consequences involved in institutional arrangements, actual or imagined ones. There has hardly been a political philosopher who did not take some time off from speculation to examine facts and human motives. The preponderance of religious authority in medieval thought, however, beginning with St. Augustine (354–430), led to a millennium of dearth in strictly scientific work. There was a partial revival when reason and Aristotelian thought were being readmitted into scientific work as supplementary sources of knowledge to the extent that they were not in conflict with revealed religious truth (Thomas Aquinas, 12257–1274). But several centuries were still to pass before the typically modern type of scientific theory emerged in the realistic examination of actual conditions and motivations by Machiavelli (1469–1527), the emphasis on inductive methods by Bacon (1561–1626), the experimental and mathematical approaches of Galileo (1564–1642), Kepler (1571–1630), and Newton (1642–1727), and the ensuing ascendancy of empiricism. These new methods stimulated scientific reflection in political theory. No sharp lines, however, were being drawn yet between religion, philosophy, and science. The various approaches were used side by side, often queerly intermingled and, even if scientific in intent, frequently based on erroneous factual assumptions (for example, social contract) or fallacious logical thinking (for example, inferring “ought” from “is,” as in natural law, or necessity from consistency, as in theories of sovereignty [see section 11]).

Important further steps toward modern scientific theory include the emphasis on the significance of “doubt” in the works of Descartes (1591–1650) and Hume (1711–1776), and the rejection of “pure reason” as a source of knowledge by Hume and, less radically, by Kant (1724–1804). Kant restricted the reliability of pure reason as a source of theoretical knowledge in the realm of “is” to only a few conditions and steps of thought, such as the “categories” of mental operations; in moral (“practical”) questions, however, his doctrine that we have a priori knowledge of the basic moral law still maintained an absolutistic approach. Another great scientific impulse for political theory sprang from the work done by Montesquieu (1689–1755) on the political influence of environment (geography, milieu, etc.) and on methods that are apt to check the abuse of power (separation of powers). The vigor with which, pursuing these approaches, the founding fathers of the United States studied the implications, risks, and consequences of institutions and the methods by which the abuse of power could be checked (separation, federalism, a bill of rights) highlighted the development of scientific political thought. For this reason, the Federalist became a milestone in the evolution of scientific political theory. But the authors blended scientific with religious and philosophical approaches (trust in God, natural law, natural rights). Characteristic of this promiscuity are the celebrated words in the Declaration of Independence that proclaim not that all men are equal but that they are “created” equal, and not that they possess certain inalienable rights but that they are “endowed by their Creator” with them. Indeed, to an extent seldom fully realized, our Western values are based not on science but on religion, history, tradition, and the creative idealism of man intent on forming a world in which he considers life worth living.

The separation of philosophical and scientific ways of thinking from religious ones began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England and France. Philosophical and scientific approaches remained interwoven, however, until, in the course of the nineteenth century, they, too, began to part company; indeed, their separation did not grow sharp and consistent until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. What finally brought it to completion, at least within a broad and influential section of social theorists, was the deliberate elimination of nonscientific elements in what came to be called “scientific method” and in its offspring, “scientific value relativism” (see next section).

6. Scientific relativity of political values

“Philosophical” value relativism is dead today, but “scientific” value relativism is not. There is no need of relativity in speculative philosophical thinking on values. Dogmatic relativity is rather out of place there. Any proposition asserting, as a compelling doctrine, that “there are no absolute values” or that “all values are relative” must indeed be rejected; to claim absolute truth for a proposition that there is no absolute truth is self-contradictory. But an examination of values that keeps within the boundaries of well-defined scientific methods must be as relative in its results as it is in its methods. This is the meaning of “scientific value relativism.” It does not teach that all values are relative and that there are no absolute values. Instead, it merely says that the question whether something is “valuable” can be examined scientifically only in relation either to (a) some goal or purpose for the pursuit of which it is or is not useful (valuable), or to (b) ideas held by someone regarding what is or is not valuable. “Ultimate,” “highest,” “absolute” values or standards of values are “chosen” by mind or will, or conceivably “grasped” by faith, intuition, or instinct; but they are not “proven” by science, although science can help a great deal in clarifying the meaning of ideas about values and the consequences and risks entailed in their pursuit (Brecht 1959, pp. 117–118). On these grounds, the relative approach to values is mandatory for “scientific” examinations only; it does not bind religious or philosophical thought. Nonscientific convictions held on the absolute character of certain moral values may well be in line with transcendental truth; they are if there is a God who has set the order of values as we feel it to be, but whether that is so is not for science either to affirm or to deny. The rebuttal that scientific arguments too are in need of “acceptance” (Kaufmann 1944) or in need of “belief” or “commitment” (Polanyi 1958) does not wipe out the qualitative difference in transmissibility that severs evaluative from scientific arguments (see section 3).

Historically speaking, scientific value relativism is of rather recent origin. It did not come to be overtly postulated until the turn of the century. Its first formulations—still imperfect in part—were published by German and Austrian scholars who had to vindicate their academic independence from the dominant fashion of political value judgments around them. Among them were philosophers Heinrich Rickert and Georg Simmel, political scientist Georg Jellinek, sociologist Max Weber (who in 1904 wrote the most influential article on it), and the jurists Hermann Kantorowicz, Gustav Radbruch, and Hans Kelsen. The first four did not use the name “relativism”; the last three did. Less outspoken varieties of the same methodological principle (“latent” relativism) had begun to permeate the work of many other social scientists elsewhere— especially American pragmatists and lawyers such as Justice Holmes, French sociologists, and legal positivists everywhere—at about the same time, and have spread ever since.

7. Scientific and legal validity distinguished

Scientific validity of moral and legal principles derived from nature (natural law) has frequently been claimed on the ground that otherwise law courts, government officials, and the public at large would have to accept as legally valid any governmental commands, even those of the most cruel character, if given in a formally correct manner. This reasoning is fallacious, however. Rejection of the scientific validity of natural law does not imply acceptance of legal positivism; the latter is not a scientific necessity. Whether commands issued in the form of law (for example, laws declaring attempted suicide, mercy killing, adultery, homosexuality, racially mixed marriages, or violations of “National Socialist principles” to be punishable crimes, or laws ordering mass killings of a certain type of people) should be considered legally valid, that is, binding for courts, government officials, and the public at large, depends on human ideas and designs concerning the legitimate powers of government. These ideas and designs are motivated not only, and not even chiefly, by scientific thought, but more generally by ideas concerning the desirable type of government and the desirable way of life. Whether commands exceed the powers people want to concede to government is a question quite distinct from that of violating scientific truth. He who denies scientific validity to higher law or natural law may yet deny legal (juridical) validity to legislative commands not because they are in conflict with scientific truth, but because they have been issued in excess of the powers conceded to government.

8. Natural law and scientific political theory

Many references to natural law as a legitimate source of scientific political theory either are logically defective because they derive inferences in the form of “ought” from observations in the realm of “is” or are otherwise lacking in intersubjective transmissibility because they presuppose the divine will they want to prove. There are, however, three natural-law categories that can be fruitfully developed in scientific political theory. They constitute a significant meeting ground for the two antagonistic schools.

Universal characteristics of human nature

Our knowledge of typical characteristics of human nature is “transmissible” qua knowledge to the extent that the respective traits are actually shared. But which traits are present in all men, or even in all members of a large group, cannot be decided by pure reason, since inductive generalizations are in need of empirical corroboration. Often empirical evidence is so strong as to leave no room for reasonable doubt; this applies to the characteristic phenomena of hunger, thirst, pain, joy, sexual desire, desire for affection, and the ability to think, to remember, to reflect, and to concentrate attention on something that is being thought of as real or as only imaginary. Regarding some other traits, the evidence, while less compelling, may still be strong enough to justify the tentative “hypothesis” that a feature is universal, for example the desire for being respected by others and for self-respect. Similarly in the area of justice, there is strong evidence that the experience of ideas or feelings of justice and injustice is a universal human phenomenon and that even under the most diverse cultural environments such ideas or feelings always include postulates of (a) truth, or veracity, in discriminatory statements, (b) generality of the system of values applied, (c) equal treatment of what is equal under the accepted system, (d) respect for freedom insofar as it is not in conflict with that system, and (e) respect for the limits of possibility set by nature.

Empirical research on the universal nature of these and other human traits is highly significant for political theory. Tentative hypotheses, formed on the basis of material already available, may anticipate the results of further research. But the ever-present temptation to consider one’s own preferences universal must be resisted in strictly scientific work. Furthermore, the theorist must always keep in mind that universality of a human trait alone constitutes no sufficient ground for the inference that it must be universally respected. The principle that all men, in spite of their individual differences, ought to be treated as being essentially equal has its source in religion, history, tradition, and man’s creative idealism rather than in science, which can do little more than try to find out in what respects men are or are not equal. The only scientific conclusion safely to be drawn from the universality of human traits is that ignoring them will lead to resentment, opposition, and possibly revolt or revolution; respecting them will please those concerned, but will possibly antagonize others. These inferences are by no means negligible. They enable us, for example, to expect wide support for shining acts of justice and wide opposition to acts of flagrant injustice even where support or opposition does not immediately show up.

Self-avenging laws of human conduct (poena naturalis)

Just as our knowledge of the nature of things often enables us to predict undesired consequences of individual behavior (for example, the early waste of physical strength and moral fiber in the dissipated life of a playboy and drunkard), so our knowledge of social interrelations justifies predictions of undesired consequences likely to follow, for example, from selfishness, visionless materialism, corruption, and lack of “virtue,” especially from absence of a spirit of service and devotion in public life.

Impossibility (limited possibility)

The objection raised against a proposed political action that it cannot be executed, or against a proposed goal that it cannot be reached by the means available or by any means, is relevant irrespective of any value judgment regarding the desirability of the goals pursued. The limits set by nature or environment to what can be done or attained are manifold; there are physical, biological, psychological, logical, and legal impossibilities. Most are so obvious that political scientists tend to overlook their theoretical significance. It is impossible to work continuously for 24 hours a day, or to work without food, or to work hard when ill and underfed; or not to think when fully awake, or to enforce a command not to think of something; to equalize the physical and mental conditions of all individuals, their state of health, the length of their lives, their character, the family life in which they grow up, the happiness of their matings, the number, length of life, and behavior of their children and friends, the satisfaction they find in their work, and many other conditions of personal happiness; to establish full economic equality or, if established for a day, to maintain it over any length of time; to supply desired goods to everyone who wants them if there are fewer goods than wanted; to have any two of the following at the same time: equality per capita, equality according to need, equality according to quality of work, equality of opportunity; to make economic conditions more equal than they are without interfering in liberty (Brecht 1959, pp. 425 ff.). Also, it is often impossible to reach a desired goal with no undesired side effects. More specifically, it is impossible to guarantee that a person to whom dictatorial power is given, even if he be good and wise today, will be so tomorrow and that his successor will also be good and wise. It is impossible for one man, or a small group, personally to watch over many millions of people or to control the conduct of more than a small number of agents and keep well informed of their doings without the aid of independent institutions (ibid., pp. 437 ff.). The limits set by nature to a man’s direct “span of control” illustrate that social scientists can make certain nonmoral statements based on the laws of nature (in this case, biological ones) with the same assuredness as natural scientists. [SeeNatural law.]

9. Political goals

It has often been said that scientific political theory can deal with means only and must leave the deliberation of ends (goals, goal-values) entirely to politics, philosophy, or religion. This sharp antithesis is incorrect, however. Scientific political theory is able to deal with ends in various significant ways. It can examine (a) the meaning of goals or goal-values and all the implications of that meaning, (b) the possibility or impossibility of reaching them, (c) the cost of pursuing and reaching them, especially the price to be paid through the sacrifice of other goals or values and through other undesired side effects, (d) all other consequences and risks involved, and (e) implications, consequences, and risks of alternative goals (goalvalues), so as to make an informed choice possible.

To engage in these various types of legitimate examination of goals is the proper task of scientific political theory. Far greater efforts of political scientists should be diverted to the critical examination of goals and goal-values than have been in the past several decades; indeed, the examination of goals might well be put back in the center of political theory, where it used to be in former centuries; however, in scientific work it should now be carried through with strictly scientific means only.

10. Basic units of political theory

There has been a growing trend recently toward “conceptualization” in political theory, especially a search for “basic” concepts apt to be useful as building stones for a mature political theory. To be useful they have to be not only clear but realistic in the sense that they or their analytical derivatives correspond to carefully observed and politically relevant facts. The following concepts have been suggested as basic:

Group (Arthur F. Bentley, Harold D. Lasswell, David Truman, David Easton, Oliver Garceau, Earl Latham, Richard W. Taylor, Phillip Monypenny, Gabriel Almond, et al.). The group is in many contexts regarded as a more realistic basic concept in political theory than the individual [seePolitical group analysis; Political science].

Equilibrium (same authors). Borrowed from physics and economics, this concept is considered particularly useful for political theory as well, although some writers have wondered whether “disequilibrium” would not be more realistic as a focal point in politics since no full equilibrium ever seems to be established.

Power, control, influence (George E. G. Catlin, Charles Merriam, Harold Lasswell, C. Wright Mills, Bertrand Russell, Hans Morganthau, James G. March, et al.). These have been called the “most basic” concepts for political theory.

Action (Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, Hannah Arendt, et al.). This concept, in the sense of a deliberate new start from a given situation directed toward some anticipated goal and engaged in with intelligence and expense of energy, puts emphasis on a distinctly human factor.

Elite (Vilfredo Pareto, Harold Lasswell, Milovan Djilas, et al.). The idea of elite emphasizes the basic relevance of the phenomenon that there are leading groups or strata in any system of society [seeElites].

Choice and decision making (Max Weber, Gustav Radbruch, Chester I. Barnard, Herbert Simon, Talcott Parsons, Arnold Brecht, et al.). These are concepts that have risen sharply in the esteem of political theorists as basic ones for descriptive as well as theoretical work [seeDecision making].

Anticipated reaction (Carl J. Friedrich) and game (John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern, et al.). Both are subconcepts within the general theory of choice and decision making—and they have led to a particularly intensive, highly technical series of studies [seeSimulation].

Function (Robert K. Merton, Talcott Parsons, et al.). In the sense of a function or dysfunction performed—either purposively or with no purpose —for or against society as a whole or some part of it by any socially relevant factor (including usage, belief, behavior pattern, institution, science), this is primarily a sociological concept apt to serve descriptive purposes, but it also has some explanatory merit [seeFunctional analysis].

There is, furthermore, a marked tendency to form concepts that are apt to serve as basic units not for one field alone but for all the social sciences or indeed for all science.

Useful as the newly developed concepts are, it would be misleading to expect that they will supplant the continuing relevance of older concepts, such as institution, government, justice, liberty, equality, and—more basic perhaps than all others —cause and effect, consequences, risks, possibility and impossibility (see section 8), and universal human features. No all-comprehensive political theory can be based on only one of the older or newer concepts in isolation, and no single concept is likely to emerge as the most basic, most constructive one. Each deals with a different aspect of the multifaceted phenomena referred to when we say “political.”

This warning applies, in particular, to overestimating the concept of “power” as the basic unit of political science. This concept, not unlike that of happiness, which previously had long dominated Anglo-American political theory, is too broad and too vague to serve as a well-defined basic unit. It disregards the great variety of both means and purposes of power. Brute force or threat of its use, prestige, authority, persuasion, wealth, personal attraction, beauty, charisma, heroic deeds, prominence in sports or arts, humility, altruism—all give “power.” Even ideas have often been called powers. Furthermore, a person may not have sought the power he has and may not use it for political purposes. Although not apt to be treated as the basic unit in political theory, the concept of power, if used with care and qualification, is indispensable for it. We must, in particular, distinguish between that type of power (“p-power”) that denotes the constitutional or legal right or authority to do something (for example, the power of a legislature to issue valid laws), and the factual power (“7r-power”) to influence the use of the legal power or to circumvent it [seePower].

11. Changes in theoretical topics

The topics that had attracted the most attention up to the beginning of this century, such as the ends of the state and the proper goals and the best form of government (see section 5), have receded to the background under the impact of the distinction between scientific and nonscientific political theory, since scientific theory is unable to say what is “best” or “proper” in absolute terms, that is, with no reference to the questions “for whom” and “for what” it is best or proper. Once that has been specified, scientific theory can offer its services; but it cannot, by itself, answer the questions “for whom” or “for what” in absolute terms (see section 12).

Likewise, the concept of “sovereignty” has lost much of the glamour that held political theorists spellbound for more than three hundred years [seeSovereignty]. It has not, however, completely lost theoretical significance. It is logically conclusive to argue that (a) as long as people are inclined and able to resort to violence, peace can be secured only by preventing such outbursts, if need be, coercively, and (b) as long as several agencies, whose measures may be in conflict, assume that preventive function, peace is not secured unless one agency or body is given the final decision on quarrels between them. Hence, under the two major assumptions that peace is always more desirable than violent action and that coercive intervention by some higher authority is always more valuable than private violence, the postulate of sovereignty remains theoretically useful, provided it means no more than the logical derivations from those two assumptions. The orthodox theory of sovereignty, however, did involve far more than that. It included a sort of triangular definition of sovereignty, state, and law to the effect that “state” is the unit within which “sovereignty” determines what is or is not “law,” and that law is only that, and all that, which the sovereign state determines to be law. This conceptual triangle, persuasive by its logical consistency, cannot claim to be the only logically consistent theory or to be the only desirable one. Even under its own terms it would be more consistent to ascribe sovereign power to a global type of government rather than to isolated state governments. Furthermore, some functions may be either so peaceful or so specific in character as not to need a common sovereign to prevent violence among the agents devoted to their care. Finally, certain norms may be considered legally valid without being laid down by the government (for example, those demanding respect for human dignity) or legally invalid despite being proclaimed by it (for example, cruel commands). Analysis of such problems remains a proper function of political theory.

Other topics of strictly scientific political theory include the following:

(a) Types of power and influence, with special regard to novel methods and discoveries of psychology, manipulation of opinions, and mass-media and other communication problems.

(b) Types of choices and decision making, with special regard to distinctions to be made between them.

(c) Types of values or valuations that can be distinguished theoretically as objects of choice (decision), or types of goals, and the implications, consequences, and risks of their pursuit.

(d) Rival forms of government, conceivable alternatives never tried, and the implications, consequences, and risks involved in each.

(e) Details of constitutions, and the implications, consequences, and risks of each.

(f) Alternatives in the setup of administrative institutions and in the methods of manning them, and the implications, consequences, and risks of each.

(g) Alternatives in the conduct of foreign policy, and the implications, consequences, and risks of each.

12. Scientific political theory of democracy

This section will illustrate briefly the manner in which modern scientific theory tackles types of government. Although only democracy will be analyzed here, other types of government are subject to the same method of scientific examination.

No scientific argument enables us to compel the use of any particular definition of the terms “democracy,” “communism,” “socialism,” and the like. Neither the etymological origin of the terms nor the meaning that has been actually associated with them at a particular time and place justifies conclusive statements to the effect that they should be used one way and not another, especially since their use has actually changed a great deal in the course of history. Scientific political theory can, however, greatly facilitate an orderly discussion by listing and, through neutral symbols, distinguishing the changing historical and contemporary uses, and the evolving alternative uses. Thus, a theoretical analysis of democracy (D) may list the following contemporary uses:

D1 = M = Majority rule in the sense that the majority is considered entitled to decide any question in any manner.

D2 = hR + iC + M[l – hR + iC]) = Human rights and independent courts considered exempt from executive and legislative interference, majority rule limited to other affairs (this is today the prevailing use of the term “democracy” in Western language).

D3 = → gW + E = Successful promotion of the general welfare and of equality, regarded as both goal and criterion of democracy, its achievement, if necessary, to be taken care of by a specifically trained “vanguard” of the people (this is the current communist use of the term “democracy”).

D4, D5,… = Any other meaning of the term; either discovered in actual usage or proposed.

From these basic distinctions, political theory can proceed to further specifications by listing, in each case, the ends (ideals, goals) whose pursuit is meant to be suggested or postulated by the term democracy, and the means (institutions) by which they are to be pursued. Under alternative D2 (current Western use) we may tentatively put down as ends: government for the people, respect of human dignity, development of each to the best of his abilities, general welfare, liberty, equality (at least of opportunity and before the law), and justice; and as means: government by the people, universal adult suffrage, periodic elections of legislatures and of the chief executive or cabinet, independent courts, civil liberties (freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, etc.), and other items. Again, both these lists of ends and means cannot be fixed dogmatically as the only correct ones, but must either refer to definite historical examples, such as the American, British, French, West German, Swiss, or Scandinavian specimens, or be kept open for any proposed modification or addition. All this amounts to building a series of “models” as the base for detailed work (see section 4).

Each item on the list of ends is then to be subjected to a thorough cross-examination of its meaning, possible alternatives of its meaning, implications, consequences, risks (see section 9), and of its compatibility with the other goal-items. Whenever goal-items collide, possible modifications and relative priorities must be explored.

Each item on the list of means is likewise examined as to its meaning, possible alternatives of meaning, implications, consequences, and risks, and especially regarding the compatibility or incompatibility of consequences to be expected from the use of the respective means with the ends in the previous column. To illustrate: (a) The meansitem “periodic elections” involves the emergence of parties and of uneven influences exercised on the outcome of the elections by party bosses or secretaries, press lords, radio magnates, money interests, etc. (b) Elections may be carried through in various ways (plurality, absolute majority, proportional representation, etc.). Scientific political theory examines the distinctly different consequences of these methods for the results of elections, for the types of candidates that are likely to be presented and elected, for their behavior before election and after, especially in the legislative bodies (on the assumption that they want to be re-elected), and the influence all this is likely to have on the election of cabinets where that is a function of the assembly (majority or coalition cabinets), on the frequency and character of cabinet crises, on presidential elections, and the like, (c) Majority decisions of legislative assemblies differ according to the modes of vote taking used, particularly in the event that three or more alternative proposals are put to a vote. Small groups (like the Gauche radicale in France from 1924 to 1932 or the Free Democratic party in West Germany around 1960) may obtain pivotal importance and power quite out of proportion to the number of people represented by them. The internal organization of the legislatures (committees, rules of procedure, etc.) also influences the results, (d) The item “executive branch” involves the problem of public administration. Scientific political theory examines the consequences and risks that must be expected from the establishment of any of various alternative systems of administrative organization, such as the American “departmental” or the European “ministerial” system, and of either a relatively stable body of public employees (civil service) or a relatively floating one (spoils system), and of the various types of education and training of employees, (e) The institutional item “civil liberties” calls for an examination of the extent to which the respective institution is apt to serve the ideal goals or to thwart their realization. Numerous other topics and subtopics can be examined in the same way.

The result, almost item for item, is certain to be that some of the consequences of the institutional means inevitably collide with the envisaged ends. These means lead, in part, to nonequality instead of equality, to decisions by minorities instead of majorities, to government not consented to instead of government by consent of the governed, and to bargaining for special interests instead of promotion of the general welfare; in the case of public administration they lead either to favoritism (nonequality) and inefficiency (no general welfare) or to bureaucracy (rule by minorities, nonequality, although possibly efficiency); in the case of civil liberties they lead to criminals going scot-free because of procedural restrictions (nonjustice) and to slander and blackmail facilitated by the institutional liberty of the press (nonliberty, nonjustice), etc.

Examination of these and other inconsistencies can be accompanied by the discussion of potential “remedies” (reforms), such as corrupt practices acts or new elections (“turn the rascals out”).

Other great problems calling for theoretical investigation include the handicaps that, under the democratic rules of the political game, slow down or entirely prevent long-range planning not only where such planning is clearly undesirable but also where, in the interest of the democratic goals, it is actually desired by the majority of the people. Under the democratic rules, no majority of today can bind the majorities of tomorrow, except by constitutional amendments (or, to a lesser degree, treaties and contracts). This handicap calls for close theoretical studies of its consequences and risks and of possible remedies, especially the drafting of minimal deviations from the democratic structure that might be considered, for example, when an underdeveloped country is in need of industrialization or other reforms that cannot be achieved under the democratic rules or at least not as quickly as desirable or necessary.

It is theoretically of great importance also to examine the conditions of life, communication, education, public spirit, etc., that must be assumed to prevail in a country in order to enable the democratic form of government to operate in line with expectations. Distortions that are likely to follow from the absence of any or all of those conditions must be exposed to adequate attention.

Finally, no theory of democracy is complete unless it includes a comparative analysis of the implications, consequences, and risks that pertain to rival forms of government, since the claim to superiority raised for democracy is based, to a considerable extent, not on faultless excellence but on the graver perils that threaten from other forms of government, especially totalitarian ones. [SeeDemocracy; Dictatorship; Totalitarianism.]

This illustration shows not only that there are a great number of topics that need close theoretical examination but that a scientific political “theory of democracy,” fully carried through, would fill many volumes. This may serve to explain why no such comprehensive work yet exists. Concentrating on a few items that seem most important to a particular writer is feasible, of course, and may be useful. Also, the painstaking work on individual items that is going on in many countries might be supplemented by periodic surveys of the whole field, which would consolidate the results of the partial studies.

Whenever a political leader, a political philosopher, or a scientific theorist produces what he claims to be constructive ideas about a desirable remodeling of democracy through new formulations of goals or new modifications of means, it becomes the task of scientific political theory to examine the implications, consequences, and risks.

Arnold Brecht


The history of political thought is reviewed in Dunning 1902; 1905; 1920; Ebenstein 1954; Friedrich 1955; and Sabine 1937. For the history of scientific research see Anderson 1964. Brecht 1966; 1967; Passerin d’Entreves 1951; Rommen 1936; Strauss 1953; Verdross 1958; Wolf 1955 provide historical and analytic discussions of natural law. Surveys of contemporary political theory and its study appear in Crick 1959; Hyneman 1959; Robson 1954; UNESCO 1950 (especially the contributions by Raymond Aron, Thomas I. Cook, Harold D. Lasswell, and B. E. Lippincott); and Waldo 1956. The following works contribute to contemporary political theory and its problems: Barker 1951; Brecht 1959; Catlin 1962; Dahl 1956; Duverger 1959; Easton 1953; Flechtheim 1953; Friedrich 1963; Jouvenel 1955; Kaufmann 1944; Kelsen 1945; Lasswell 1948; 1963; Lerner & Lasswell 1951; The Limits of Behavioralism in Political Science 1962 (essays by David Easton, Heinz Eulau, Mulford Q. Sibley, and Richard C. Snyder); Lippincott 1965; Maclver 1947; Merriam 1945; Meynaud 1959; Parsons 1951; Riemer 1962; Truman 1951; Weber 1904–1917 (note particularly the essay on pages 49–112, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy”); Weldon 1953.

Almond, Gabrriel A. 1966 Political Theory and Political Science. American Political Science Review 60:869–879.

Anderson, William 1964 Man’s Quest for Political

Knowledge: The Study and Teaching of Politics in Ancient Times. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Barker, Ernest 1951 Principles of Social and Political

Theory. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Brecht, Arnold 1959 Political Theory: The Foundations of Twentieth Century Political Thought. Princeton Univ. Press. → Subsequently published in German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Brecht, Arnold 1966 Aus ndchster Ntihe; Lebenserinnerungen: 1884–1927. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags–Anstalt. → See especially the theoretical chapters— 12, 23, 30, and 49.

Brecht, Arnold 1967 Mit der Kraft des Geistes; Lebenserinnerungen zweite Hälfte: 1927–1967. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt. → See especially the theoretical chapters—15, 35, 42, and 50.

Catlin, George E. G. 1962 Systematic Politics: Elementa politica et sociologica. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Crick, Bernard 1959 The American Science of Politics. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1956 A Preface to Democratic Theory. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Dunning, William A. (1902) 1936 A History of Political Theories: Ancient and Mediaeval. New York: Macmillan.

Dunning, William A. (1905) 1938 A History of Political Theories: From Luther to Montesquieu. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dunning, William A. (1920) 1936 A History of Political Theories: From Rousseau to Spencer. New York: Macmillan.

Duverger, Maurice (1959) 1961 Methodes des sciences sociales. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → First published as Methodes de la science politique.

Easton, David 1953 The Political System: An Inquiry Into the State of Political Science. New York: Knopf.

Ebenstein, William (1954) 1960 Modern Political Thought: The Great Issues. 2d ed. New York: Holt.

Eschenburg, Theodor 1965 Uber Autoritdt. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Suhrkamp.

Flechtheim, Ossip K. 1953 Politik als Wissenschaft. Berlin: Weiss.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1955) 1958 The Philosophy of Law in Historical Perspective. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in German.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1963 Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hocking, William Ernest 1956 The Coming of World Civilization. New York: Harper.

Husserl, Edmund (1913) 1952 Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. New York: Macmillan. → A translation of Volume 1 of Ideen zu einer reinen Phdnomenologie und phdnomenologischen Philosophie.

Hyneman, Charles S. 1959 The Study of Politics: The Present State of American Political Science. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Jouvenel, Bertrand De (1955) 1957 Sovereignty: An Inquiry Into the Political Good. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Translated from the French edition and expanded by the author.

Kaufmann, Felix 1944 Methodology of the Social Sciences. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Kelsen, Hans (1945) 1961 General Theory of Law and State. New York: Russell.

Kelsen, Hans 1957 What Is Justice? Justice, Law, and Politics in the Mirror of Science: Collected Essays. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Lasswell, Harold D. 1948 Power and Personality.New York: Norton.

Lasswell, Harold D. 1963 The Future of Political Science. New York: Atherton.

Lerner, Daniel; and Lasswell, Harold D. (editors) 1951 The Policy Sciences: Recent Developments in Scope and Method. Stanford Univ. Press.

The Limits of Behavioralism in Political Science: A Symposium. Edited by James C. Charlesworth. 1962 Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Lippincott, Benjamin E. 1965 Democracy’s Dilemma: The Totalitarian Party in a Free Society. New York: Ronald.

Maciver, Robert M. 1942 Social Causation. Boston: Ginn

Maciver, Robert M. (1947)1961 The Web of Government. New York: Macmillan.

Merriam, Charles E. (1945) 1962 Systematic Politics. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Meynaud, Jean 1959 Introduction a la science politique. Paris: Colin.

Parsons, Talcott 1951 The Social System. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Passerin D’Entreves, Alessandro 1951 Natural Law: An Introduction to Legal Philosophy. New York: Longmans; London: Hutchinson.

Polanyi, Michael 1958 Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Popper, Karl R. (1945) 1963 The Open Society and Its Enemies. 4th rev. ed. 2 vols. Princeton Univ. Press. → Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. Volume 2: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath.

Radbruch, Gustav (1914) 1950 Gustav Radbruch: Legal Philosophy. Pages 43–224 in The Legal Philosophies of Lash, Radbruch, and Dabin. Translated by Kurt Wilk. 20th Century Legal Philosophy Series, Vol. 4. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in German. The 1950 edition was translated from the revised and rewritten edition of 1932. A sixth German edition, edited by Erik Wolf, was published in 1963.

Riemer, Neal 1962 The Revival of Democratic Theory. New York: Appleton.

Robson, William A. 1954 The University Teaching of Social Sciences: Political Science. Paris: Unesco.

Rommen, Heinrich A. (1936) 1947 The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. St. Louis (Mo.) and London: Herder. → First published in German.

Sabine, George H. (1937) 1961 History of Political Theory. 3d ed. New York: Holt.

Strauss, Leo 1953 Natural Right and History. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Truman, David B. (1951) 1962 The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion. New York: Knopf.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 1950 Contemporary Political Science: A Survey of Methods, Research, and Teaching. Paris: Unesco.

Verdross, Alfred (1958)1963 Abendldndische Rechtsphilosophie: Ihre Grundlagen und Hauptprobleme in geschichtlicher Schau. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Vienna: Springer.

Waldo, Dwight 1956 Political Science in the United States of America: A Trend Report. Documentation in the Social Sciences. Paris: Unesco.

Weber, Max (1904–1917) 1949 Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by Edward Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Weldon, Thomas D. 1953 The Vocabulary of Politics: An Enquiry Into the Use and Abuse of Language in the Making of Political Theories. London: Penguin.

Wolf, Erik (1955)1959 Das Problem der Naturrechtslehre: Versuch einer Orientierung. 2d ed. Karlsruhe (Germany): Müller.


Organized political societies flourished long before men theorized about them. Political beliefs, including notions of authority, obedience, justice, and political explanations, also preceded the appearance of theories and are to be found in the myths, sagas, and folklore of all ancient literate peoples.

The idea of theory as a form of systematic knowledge systematically pursued developed out of the intellectual revolution which, beginning in the sixth century B.C. in Greece, resulted in remarkable achievements in drama, science, mathematics, history, and philosophy. One of the radical notions which accompanied this creative outburst and which came to form the basic presupposition of political inquiry was that thought could abstract certain colligated phenomena from their more comprehensive setting and subject them to scrutiny, explanation, and even control. Political life was gradually defined as one form of colligation, or “family,” of phenomena. The crucial step in the process was the attempt to understand political life as formed of both the actions between men and those between men and their environment. This understanding was pursued with progressively less reliance upon explanations based on occult forces or the intervention of the gods.

Classical political theory

The classic form of political theory took shape in fifth-century Athens and was largely the work of Socrates and his circle. This achievement was consolidated by Plato and Aristotle, and it involved primarily an attempt to forge a synthesis of three elements: politics, the idea of a theory, and the practice of philosophy. The success of the endeavor is suggested by the fact that the synthesis survived until the late nineteenth century, when science came to usurp the place of philosophy in the synthesis. The nature of the classical synthesis is best revealed by considering its constitutive words and their meaning. [See the biographies of Aristotleand Plato.]

“Political” derives from a family of Greek words relating to the polis, or city-state—for example, politeia (“constitution”), polites (“citizen”), and politikos (“statesman”), all of which connoted public concerns and, hence, formed a contrast with what was regarded as private or “one’s own” (idion). Thus, the subject matter of political theory consisted of those matters and happenings that were of public concern.

The second element of the synthesis, theory (theoria), also represents a confluence of meanings. Originally, a “theorist” (theoros) was a public emissary dispatched by his city to attend the religious festivals of other Greek cities. Theoria referred at first to a festive occasion, but gradually it acquired the connotation of a long journey undertaken to see (theorein) different lands and to observe their diverse institutions and values. The way in which these meanings were gathered together and given a political orientation is illustrated in Plato’s Laws. Among the institutions of the projected city was one which provided for a few carefully selected theorists (theorei), who were to be sent abroad for the purpose of observing the educational and legal systems of other cities and conversing with politically wise and learned men there. Upon his return, the theoros was required to present the results of his investigations to the highest political authority in the community. This cluster of notions furnished some of the features which were to become the distinguishing marks of a theory: the observation of practice and the collection of experience; the achievement of perspective upon one’s own society by an act of liberation which brought the theorist into contact with a wide range of comparative political experience; and, finally, the process of appraising the importance of what had been observed in the light of what was known.

As the third element in the synthesis, philosophy provided the conventions which were to govern the systematic pursuit of knowledge. They centered on the task of establishing the grounds for believing some assertions to be true and others erroneous. In addition to signifying the quest for reliable knowledge, philosophia meant the love or passionate pursuit of wisdom–that is, a knowledge which would enable men to become wiser in the conduct of life. When directed to political matters, the aim of philosophy was, as Plato stated it, to make men wiser in the handling of common affairs and, thereby, to benefit all who lived in the political community.

Although many ancient writers contributed to the development of political theory, Plato and Aristotle were the most influential in determining its methods and objectives for the next several centuries. The viewpoint of the present discussion is that political theory consists of certain fairly well-defined conventions relating to methods of inquiry, the constitution of the subject matter, and the purposes of inquiry. A new theory represents an attempt to challenge the prevailing conventions in order to substitute new ones. The history of political theory contains a record of these challenges and of the changing conventions which have governed the practice of theorizing. For most of these challenges, the point of departure was the idea of political theory as formulated by Plato and Aristotle. Their formulation represents the truly classical paradigm, and if later alternatives are to be understood, some attempt must be made to state what that paradigm consisted of.

(1) Political theory was the practice of systematic inquiry whose aim was to acquire reliable knowledge about matters concerning the public province. Knowledge was valued as the supreme means for improving the quality of human life in the political association. As a philosophical pursuit, theory sought to establish a rational basis for belief; as a politically inspired pursuit, it sought to establish a rational basis for action.

(2) Classical theory identified the political with the common involvements which men shared by virtue of membership in the same polis. Romans of the republican period called their political order a res publica, literally, “a public thing”; the same idea was reflected in the sixteenth-century English usage of “commonweal.” The core meaning of “political”-a sharing of what is common–was eloquently expressed by Cicero: “Further, those who share Law must also share Justice; and those who share these are to be regarded as members of the same commonwealth” (De legibus i, 7.23). Theory was not restricted to the problems of securing and extending the common benefits of political life; it was shaped by the sobering recognition that there were common predicaments and a common fate issuing from politics and that the ordinary evils besetting human existence tended to be magnified by politics because where power was concentrated, the possibilities of injustice and violence, whether intended or inadvertent, were enhanced.

(3) The polis was the basic unit of analysis adopted by classical theory. It was, according to Aristotle, the highest and most comprehensive association, which included all lesser associations within it. This belief formed the basis for the classical idea that theory dealt with political wholes or, stated differently, that a theory must be as comprehensive and inclusive as the political association itself. In working out this assumption, classical theory specified what were the significant “parts” of the polis, how they functioned, and what their effect was on the quality of life in the polis. In this way theory came to view the polis as composed of, and dependent upon, various interrelated structures. The structures which received most attention were certain structures of activity (e.g., ruling, warfare, the settling of disputes, education, religious practices, and economic production); certain relationships (e.g., between social classes, between types of superiority and inferiority, between authorities and subjects); and certain structures of belief (e.g., concerning the gods, the meaning of justice and equality). Here, as in so much of classical theory, a moral concern with the quality of political life provided the impetus for developing analytical methods and concepts. In trying to state what a “right” structure looked like, theory was led to inquire into the ways in which a wide range of factors affected the polis. For example, it not only examined the institution of private property and its relationship to inequality and class conflict but tried to specify the different effects which different degrees of inequality and conflict produced. Thus, theory undertook to provide explanations of what caused certain states of affairs and not others and of what might cause other states of affairs. The task of explanation also accomplished one other objective: it provided cues indicating what among the welter of phenomena was significant or relevant, and in this way it suggested what it meant to think in political terms.

(4) The notion that a political society constituted a whole served as the basis for the abstract idea of an order. No idea in the history of theory has exercised greater influence; it is the source of many later conceptions of balance, equilibrium, stability, and harmony. To conceive of a political society as an order was to conceive of it as having a discoverable structure of one kind rather than another, depending on the arrangement of functions, the relationships among various subgroups and associations, and the institutional forms in existence. But, as the classical discussion of political disintegration suggests, every order had an element of the problematic, because every order necessarily tended to the advantage of some and to the disadvantage of others. Consequently, theory was preoccupied with analyzing the sources of conflict and with trying to enunciate the principles of justice which might guide the political association in discharging its distributive function of assigning material and nonmaterial goods in a context of competing claims.

There was an obverse side to the concern with order. Like most forms of inquiry, theory was a response to problems, not so much problems of an intellectual kind as ones arising from perceived derangements in the world. The attempt to explain disorder led classical theory to develop the basic political vocabulary of diagnosis: instability, anarchy, anomie, and revolution. Here, too, investigation centered upon the conditions and causes of instability, adhered to a comparative approach, and was moved by the same therapeutic motivation that governed theorizing about order.

(5) From the beginning, classical theory insisted upon the significance of comparative studies for supplying a more comprehensive form of explanation and a wider range of alternatives. In order to cope with the many and diverse phenomena introduced by comparative studies, classical theory developed a classification for political forms (e.g., monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, their variants, and their perversions) and a set of concepts which enabled the theorist to place comparable phenomena side by side. Concepts such as law, citizenship, participation, and justice were used to order the relevant phenomena, thus preparing the way for an explanation which would account for differences or similarities.

(6) The theoretical imagination of the classical writers felt challenged more by the diversity of political phenomena disclosed by comparison than by the regularities. This response was rooted in a moral outlook which conceived of a constitution as a manifestation of a particular culture. Each constitution represented distinct beliefs about the ordering of society, the treatment of individuals and classes, the possession and distribution of power, the qualifications for participating in political deliberations, and the promotion of certain collective values. Theory undertook to appraise the various constitutional forms, to determine the form most suitable for a particular set of circumstances, and, above all, to decide whether there was one absolutely best form.

(7) The quest for the absolutely best form of polity, which was among the most important preoccupations of classical theory, had a profound bearing on the practice of theory, but it has been greatly underestimated and often dismissed as visionary and Utopian. It reveals, as perhaps nothing else can, the intellectual boldness and radicalism of classical theorizing; it deserves comparison with another achievement recorded by an ancient historian: “Anaximander the Milesian, a disciple of Thales, first dared to draw the inhabited world on a tablet.” The creation of ideal states was a way of teaching the fundamental element of theorizing: the reduction of the world to manageable proportions and its simultaneous reassembling in a new way so that others could see the concatenated relationships of the whole. Far from being an idle pastime, the projection of ideal states provided an invaluable means of practicing theory and of acquiring experience in its handling.

The preoccupation with the best form of governance was based upon fundamental conviction about the purpose which ought to govern theorizing. Plato’s query “Can theory ever be fully realized in practice? Is it not in the nature of things that action should come less close to truth than thought?” (Republic, 473B) implicitly rejected the assumption that a theory ought to be a verbal miniature of an existing state of affairs in which the theoretical statements corresponded to the way things appeared to observation. Instead, classical theorizing hoped to effect an alliance between thought and action, which would lead to the world becoming the embodiment of a theory. This was exactly opposite to what became the main motive of theorizing inspired by modern science, which was to make theory into a miniature of the world.

To summarize the main features of the classical paradigm: The quest for political knowledge was an attempt to organize, explain, and, hopefully, master the phenomenal world. A theory embodied an organization of concepts which often were refinements of notions in everyday use, such as justice, equality, and law. By means of logical analysis and observation, these concepts were connected to form a unified construction. In binding together a set of concepts—for example, justice, law, authority, and citizen–the “facts” of experience and observation, as well as the constructs of everyday thought, were heightened, refined, and modified, and, ultimately, reaffiliated in a new way by the colligative relations established by the theory. This procedure of reassembling the political world was governed by the conviction that it could be better understood and explained by exposing its interconnections and that successful action must be preceded by a knowledge which simultaneously explained things as they were and stated what they should be.

This approach may entail a logical confusion between description, explanation, and prescription or between empirical explanation and normative discourse. Without trying to evaluate this objection, we must try to understand why the Greeks proceeded as they did. In Plato’s formulation, reliable knowledge was identified with knowledge of the forms. A form (eidos) was immaterial, immutable, and universal. It was apprehended by an arduous process of thought (the dialectic) which gradually progressed from reliance upon sense experience and conventional beliefs to the contemplation of pure form. Aristotle retained the eidos but modified it with the assumption that forms revealed themselves dynamically over time and that an intimate connection existed between forms and observable realities. “Observation tells” and “experience shows that” were favorite expressions of Aristotle. He held that for each class of things there was a nature or structure which was seeking realization through the matter composing it; the refractory nature of matter often prevented the perfect fulfillment of the form and, under certain circumstances, it was possible for art to supplement and assist nature.

Political theory and political reality

The vexed problems surrounding the Platonic and Aristotelian doctrine of forms—whether they are “true” or whether it makes sense to ask whether they are true—cannot be treated here. What is important to the idea of theory is the question which the doctrine of forms tried to answer: What must the world be like to permit a theory to be true? The classical response was that it is a world arranged into a hierarchy of forms. Although later theorists abandoned the classical formulations, they relied on other ideas of what the world or man must be like, in order to render political knowledge a possibility. Thus, Machiavelli assumed that “men have, and always have had, the same passions, whence it necessarily comes about that the same effects are produced” (DiscoursesUpon Livy in, 43). Hobbes postulated “a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” (Leviathan, chapter 11). Tocqueville found his starting point in the “social condition” of man rather than in certain traits of human nature: “the gradual development of equality,” which he traced back to the Middle Ages, is a fundamental “fact” which is “universal, lasting, constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress” ([1835] 1945, vol. 1, p. 6). Marx’s well-known conception of historical materialism provided a similar example of what the nature of the political and social world was like and of how that nature rendered theoretical knowledge possible. Contemporary theories may use slightly different language, as when they refer to the “regularities of human behavior” or to “the expectation that the universe does in fact contain the essential data and processes that may be necessary for the solution” of political problems (Deutsch 1963, p. 238). Yet the same assumption persists, that the political world must possess certain characteristics for theory to be possible.

Although each theory rests on some notion of what the world is like, this knowing in itself is not an automatic response, but a decision. A theory is preceded by, and is a working out of, a decision to study political life in one way rather than another. Whether it is the classical way of dialectical inquiry, the Machiavellian way of juxtaposing contemporary and ancient practices, the Hobbesian procedure of developing axioms about human nature, or the Marxist search for the dynamics of historical development, every theory represents a commitment to a particular way of viewing political realities, a particular method of inquiry, a particular language or way of talking about political subjects, and a particular distribution of emphasis indicative of what the theorist deems important. The paradox that is involved in this enterprise—and it is a paradox common to all forms of theorizing, not just to political theorizing—is that while aiming at a complete understanding of the subject matter of politics, it is deliberately selective, that is, it omits some matters and exaggerates others. By a complete understanding of politics is meant the ancient and persistent attempt to grasp the political society in the round, so to speak, and to explain its workings as a unified whole. To achieve this, the theorist has been compelled to select what is significant and relevant and, above all, to reduce the world to intellectually manageable proportions. An important part of this procedure involves the establishing of perspective so that phenomena are reduced in scale, some even eliminated altogether, and others enlarged. The perfect expression of this procedure is a metaphor employed by Tocqueville:

My present object is to embrace the whole from one point of view: the remarks I shall make will be less detailed, but they will be more sure. I shal perceive each object less distinctly, but I shall descry the principal facts with more certainty. A traveler who has just left a vast city climbs the neighboring hill; as he goes farther off, he loses sight of the men whom he has just quitted: their dwellings are confused in a dense mass; he can no longer distinguish the public squares and can scarcely trace out the great thoroughfares; but his eye has less difficulty in following the boundaries of the city, and for the first time he sees the shape of the whole…. The details of the immense picture are lost in the shade, but I conceive a clear idea of the entire subject. (1835, vol. I, chapter 18)

This same paradox of wholeness and distortion was present in Hobbes’s Leviathan, the civil polity of Locke, and Rousseau’s model community and can be found as well in contemporary notions of a political “system” or of an “input-output model.”

According to our preceding discussion, a theory is a complex way of organizing, seeing, explaining, and altering the world. This view suggests that the difference between one theory and another resides in the handling of these four elements. To these elements one more must be added in order to complete the considerations: each theory presupposes a notion of what is plausible or what is required for the theory to be accepted as true. The briefest glance at the history of political theory reveals an astonishing variety of beliefs concerning what makes for plausibility: Aristotle’s reliance upon reasoning and observation, Machiavelli’s appeal to the facts of history, Hobbes’s abstract and geometrical axioms, Locke’s reliance upon natural law and common sense, Marx’s “scientific” laws of history, and the contemporary appeal to “empirically verifiable hypotheses.” Each of these is not only an appeal to a particular conception of plausibility but is accompanied by a conception of what is considered implausible. For example, Hobbes ridiculed Aristotelian forms of proof, while today’s theorist may be equally harsh on “metaphysical explanations.”

There are many disturbing questions raised by these considerations. Does each theory present us with a different political world? Is political theory a bedlam of subjectivity and relativism? How does one decide whether one theory is truer than another? Is the history of political theory merely a succession of different theories, instead of successive additions to our knowledge and understanding of politics? These questions cannot be answered here, even assuming that they can be answered satisfactorily at all; what can be done is to suggest some of the relevant considerations by examining aspects of the questions as they have appeared in earlier and more recent theories.

A useful case in point is the political theory of the early Christian writer St. Augustine, who, it is sometimes alleged, was not a political theorist at all. The grounds for this allegation, however, usually rest on a different notion of what is plausible; sometimes it is said that Augustine appealed to revelation rather than reason, that he was unsystematic, or that his arguments were neither confirmable nor refutable by logic or fact. Obviously, these criticisms themselves presuppose an agreement about what shall constitute acceptable proof and what makes “sense.” They also presuppose a different kind of world in which theory is possible—a world in which God is not the immanent presence that he was for Augustine, a world in which supernatural forces have ceased to be credible.

Yet the example of Augustine is important, not for its supernaturalism, but for the way in which it illuminates recurrent characteristics of theorizing. In the first place, Augustine made it clear that he was offering not simply a list of criticisms but a new and comprehensive explanation which deliberately contradicted the prevailing one in fundamental respects. He spent a great many pages criticizing the inadequacies of classical theory as transmitted by Roman authors—especially Cicero —and arguing that it had ceased to provide a satisfactory or plausible explanation of the political world.

Second and equally crucial, he was contending that the political world itself had changed. Classical theory could not truly account for the novelty of Christianity or for its implications. The broader bearing of this point cannot be stressed too much. It suggests one of the crucial problems which frequently bedevil the political theorist and render his task quite different from that of the scientific theorist. For the physicist, the world does not change, but his way of perceiving it may, as the contrast between Newton and Einstein shows. For the political theorist, the world itself changes, as is shown by a comparison of the Greek polis with the Hellenistic and Roman empires (or feudalism with the nation-state). Thus, political theory exhibits a twofold complexity: theoretical perspectives change in response to a changing political world and theoretical perspectives can differ even when viewing the same world, as is demonstrated by contrasting the views of Paine and Burke regarding the French Revolution [see the biographies ofBurkeandPaine].

Third, as a result of the growth of Christianity in the ancient world, politics came to be viewed from a different perspective and through different categories, such as sin and grace. The shift in perspective, concept, and language resulted in a new way of talking about politics and political orders, one which extended to new notions of space (universal rather than in terms of monarchies or empires) and of time (providential and apocalyptical rather than cyclical). Despite all these differences, Augustine retained the ancient theoretical purpose of trying to organize and account for the world. His De civitate Dei contained an explanation of human behavior, social conflict, imperialism, and war. Above all, it is one of the most sustained analyses of the interconnections of order and the causes of disorder that has ever been formulated in Western thought. Despite its very different notions of plausibility, the theory constituted a mighty effort at accounting for the way things appeared, what caused events to happen in the way that they did and men to behave as they did. Like all theories, it did not purport to discover new facts or provide new information, but rather—by the use of new concepts, such as original sin, predestination, and the symbolism of the “two cities”—to supply a new interpretation of the facts. The classical writers did not need to be told by Augustine that men were wicked, any more than Hobbes’s contemporaries needed to be told that political disobedience was a widespread fact. The function of theory is not to amass new facts but to disclose hitherto unsuspected relationships between them. This disclosure is achieved by looking at the facts differently—that is, from a new theoretical perspective.

When we examine Augustine’s theory it is apparent that we are witnessing a profound departure from the classical paradigm of Plato and Aristotle. The change involves a shift in perspective, language, and a redistribution of emphasis among the concepts in the Augustinian theoretical network. The continuities are not easy to locate, for the change is a radical one, extending to a wholesale redefinition of politics and to what is properly political. For Augustine unredeemed man is incapable of developing a politics which will not be deeply streaked by conflict, aggression, and violence. At the same time, he strips the political order of the proud function assigned to it by the classical writers, the maintenance of an educative ethos (paideia) which will assist in the perfection of men. [See the biography ofAugustine.]

The re-evaluation of central political concepts has occurred many times in the history of political theory. For example, Plato defined political activity largely in terms of eradicating conflict; Polybius and Machiavelli, on the other hand, perceived a revitalizing force in contending political groups and interests; Madison deplored conflict but figured that the costs of eradication were excessive [see the biography ofMadison]. Or, to take another example, the scope of what is political has also varied enormously. For Plato the political comprised all significant relationships in society; for many liberal writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what was political was restricted to the narrow functions of enforcing law, maintaining peace, and defending the society from foreign invasion and domestic authority, while others have treated it like some dangerous Gulliver and bound it with innumerable legal restraints. Some writers have, like Rousseau, exalted political participation into the highest form of social activity, while others have described it as of negligible significance, and still others have praised the opposite value of “political apathy.” Although this state of affairs, where the same concept is assigned different weight and significance, is often deplored for preventing the cumulative growth of political knowledge, it is important to recall that as long as one of the major functions of a theory is to account for events happening in the world and as long as that world is a changing one, the diversity of meanings is inevitable. It might even be argued that far from being a deficiency, it is one of the achievements of the language of Western political theory that it has been sufficiently elastic and adaptable to be used for a wide variety of circumstances.

Although every theory strives to present a rounded picture of the political world in terms set by the theory itself, the danger of an autarchic condition in which each theory presents a surface impenetrable to criticism is minimized by certain practices inherent in theorizing. Most of the major political theories of Western history have disputed ground held by previous theories. Thus, Augustine attacked the classical writers; Machiavelli tried to dismiss the Utopian tradition; Hobbes disputed Aristotle and the Schoolmen; Marx contended with liberal and radical theories; and contemporary writers feel compelled to combat the “ancient myth about the concern of citizens with the life of the democratic polis” (Dahl 1961, p. 281) or, alternatively, the nineteenth-century liberal theory of rational citizenship (Berelson et al. 1954, pp. 306 ff.). The act of disputation itself necessitates the acceptance of some common matters; otherwise the disputants risk being ignored. Thus, Augustine accepted much of the vocabulary established by his predecessors; his discussion of power, authority, government, and law presupposed an understanding rooted in a pre-existing tradition of political discourse. Like all previous and subsequent theorists, Augustine introduced new meanings, yet much of his thought followed customary significations and, hence, rendered itself susceptible to external criticism. Further, Augustine addressed himself to certain common or public facts —for example, the sack of Rome, the decline of Roman power—and hence it was possible to scrutinize his construction of the facts from a very different theoretical vantage point. What was true of Augustinian theory was true also of later theories: the particular perspective of a theory does not isolate it from criticism and judgment. A tradition of common conceptual language with fairly stable meanings combined with the existence of public facts makes it possible to appraise every theory and assign it worth.

It is often said that a theory should be appraised in terms of criteria regarding the consistency and clarity of definitions and the adherence to logical reasoning. Granting the importance of these criteria does not advance us very far. They are too formal to provide anything more than minimal requirements. Far more complicated and interesting problems are raised by the criterion of “adequacy,” which may refer either to the sufficiency of evidence, the methods of proof, the range of matters included, or the solutions proposed. Each of these raises different kinds of questions and each remains a continuing source of controversy. What deserves notice, however, is that the purposes and conventions which inform a particular theory may enable it to fulfill some criteria, while preventing it from fulfilling others. For example, Machiavelli may have achieved his purpose of describing the actual behavior of rulers, but his theory is almost wholly useless for the purpose of analyzing the obedience of citizens, a subject which dominated political discussion during the last half of Machiavelli’s century.

The quest for scientific political theory

Since the seventeenth century, there have been repeated expressions of dissatisfaction with the state of political theory. These have been inspired mainly by the example of progress in modern scientific knowledge. The complaint, as voiced by Hobbes and later by others, has contrasted the steady, incremental advance of scientific knowledge with the seemingly static condition of political knowledge and has located the cause in the failure of political theory to adopt scientific methods of inquiry. It is essential, however, to separate two problems: the adoption of scientific methods— whether mathematical, empirical, or a combination of the two—and the problem of incremental knowledge. It is too easily assumed that the systematic exploitation of scientific inquiry is the only method for steadily adding to our supply of knowledge. Science—particularly its method of organizing inquiry—may be the most efficient and powerful means, but it is not the only means.

The history of political theory supplies an important illustration of this. If, as it is sometimes suggested, the progress of science has been the result of the careful and exhaustive working out of a given theory in order to discover how much it can account for and what problems it presents, a roughly analogous situation has occurred over long stretches of the history of political theory. It is no exaggeration to say that the theories of Plato and Aristotle have served longer as models of political inquiry than any comparable pair of theories in the natural sciences. Not only did each of these writers found research institutions which were occupied with amassing new facts and classifying them, but both theories provided the framework whereby writers of later centuries tried to account for new phenomena and to resolve new problems. For example, during the struggles between the papal and secular powers of the Middle Ages, apologists for both sides attempted to apply Aristotle’s theory to a state of affairs that he had never anticipated. Although modern textbook writers are inclined to deride this achievement by pointing out that Aristotle’s theory had been designed to explain the polis, not the imperium or sacerdotium, it is well to recall that among scientific theories, one of the basic criteria for preferring one theory over another is its capability for being extended to cover phenomena not anticipated by the theory. The history of political theory is full of such examples of viable theories which have been amplified by writers who have followed in the footsteps of the giants: Augustinianism and Thomism have persisted as the basic theoretical outlook for countless Roman Catholic theories; Locke’s theory was used to analyze conditions in Revolutionary America and Revolutionary France; Marxism has been extended to cover diverse problems of colonialism, imperialism, and the newly emerging nations.

The foregoing suggests that in the history of political theory there has been a succession of theories which have been fruitfully used for long periods of time to explain and account for political events. The same history also shows that dissatisfaction with the capabilities of a theory has led to new forms of theory. Dissatisfaction, for the most part, has issued not from intellectual reasons alone; that is, it has not been their lack of logical consistency, their infidelity to fact, or their sterility that has caused theories to be abandoned, but rather changes in the political world, giving rise to problems that seem to be insoluble by means of accepted theories. Moral and political motives, not purely intellectual ones, have been the primary inspiration for new theories. The first great exponent of scientific politics was Hobbes, and yet every one of his theoretical writings originated in his avowed purpose of settling the basis of authority and providing secure grounds for obedience during an age of revolution. Only during the past half century has scientific politics sought to disentangle itself from moral and political concerns, and even now there are sufficient protests among contemporary political scientists to make naive disengagement seem disingenuous.

Despite these continuities, however, the quest for a scientific theory of politics has altered the character of theorizing in several significant ways. Before examining these, it is necessary to note the conditions under which such a quest became intellectually compelling. This means asking not only what view of the world was held which made scientific theory possible but also, more crucially, what kind of political world came into being which rendered the application of scientific methods fruitful and its criteria of truth plausible.

Prior to the sixteenth century, the political orders of Europe were characteristically decentralized. Uniform legal systems were a rarity, and centralized bureaucracies still in the formative stage. Order itself was not a presupposition of daily life but a precarious achievement. Habits of civility were dictated by local loyalties, and the whole complex of national duties, rights, and codes of deference were only slowly being developed. In brief, political life lacked those qualities of uniformity, regularity, routine, and settled expectations that we now take for granted.

Against this background, it is not surprising that political theory had eschewed making regularities in political behavior and processes the basis of theorizing and had, instead, been more intent on establishing them. To the extent that scientific theory presupposes order and regularity in phenomena, political societies prior to the establishment of the modern centralized, bureaucratized state could not furnish the necessary basis for scientific theorizing. To be sure, Machiavelli ridiculed those who denied such regularities—“as if the sky, the sun, the elements, men, were changed in motion, arrangement, and power from what they were in antiquity” (Discourses Upon Livy i, preface)—and both he and Hobbes contended that under specified conditions it was possible to predict how men would respond, because it was possible to know the mainsprings of human motivation [see the biography ofMachiavelli].

Indeed, Hobbes had made the first sustained attempt to incorporate politics into a scientific explanation which would comprehend matter, man, and society. Basing his theory upon the laws of motion, which he believed were operative universally, he proposed a deductive science of politics, which would proceed from simple to more complex forms of social motion. The concept of the state of nature provided an imaginary condition in which the laws of human psychology were best observable; it was then possible to reason out the structure of political society which would best accord with the laws of psychology governing human behavior. Hobbes’s theory was hardly empirical by contemporary standards, yet it remains the first systematic effort to assimilate political to scientific and mathematical reasoning. At the same time, the Hobbesian political order was in no sense a replication of what the political world was like, but rather a projection of what it must or should be. Stated differently, Hobbesian theory was not a report of regularities but an attempt to create them, as was suggested by his wistful remark (Leviathan, chapter 31) that “this writing of mine may fall into the hands of a sovereign” who would put the theory into practice. [See the biography ofHobbes.]

In the three centuries that have elapsed since Hobbes wrote Leviathan, the major Western societies, on the whole, have developed and enforced complex mechanisms for directing and ordering human behavior. Bureaucracies, legal systems, the police, together with national conceptions of citizenship and of authority, have conjoined to produce sustained regularities in political life, far greater than in any previous era. At the same time, the development of industrialization has added a powerful element to the routinization of life, and the appearance of the modern city is the symbol of a condition wherein men live lives of remarkable similarity and uniformity. This list could be extended to include the growth of standardized education and the spread of popular literature, but the point would be the same: the destruction of localism and of discrepancies in wealth, education, culture, and power and their replacement by uniformities have created the conditions for a science of politics.

In the eighteenth century the popularization of Newtonianism gave a strong impetus to the search for “laws” governing society and politics, laws which would express the true political and social “nature of things” rather than the will or preferences of rulers, priests, and aristocrats. One of the earliest and most ambitious attempts at a science of politics was made by Montesquieu. Denning “law” as “the necessary relations arising from the nature of things,” he tried to show that various types of political societies were an embodiment of necessary relationships arising out of the conditions of that society. His list of conditions was based on geography, economic occupations, religion, government, and mores; these operated as forces which determined the kinds of laws, practices, and institutions which would prevail in a particular society. Each society exhibited a definite “set,” or “spirit,” in the way that it fitted its relationships to its conditions; each society was, in a sense, a system of interrelationships in which political, social, religious, and economic institutions sustained and modified each other. When rightly adjusted, the system represented a kind of Newtonian equilibrium. Although Montesquieu favored a constitutional monarchy tempered by aristocratic privileges and corps intermediates, the comparative basis of his theory tended to sanction all political forms as the natural products of adaptation to environment, save only for despotism, which he viewed as a monstrous aberration. [See the biography ofMontesquieu.]

By showing how the complex facts of a society were informed by a common structure, Montesquieu’s typology of political systems permitted comparison between political societies. During the last half of the eighteenth century, however, theorists tended to follow a different path toward a science of politics. They turned to the nature of man rather than of things and found psychological laws of human behavior, usually involving some principles of attraction and aversion or pleasure and pain and, on this basis, erected theories which claimed to be empirical and universal. Yet, in the case of the major writers in this tradition, such as Helvetius and Holbach in France and Bentham in England, the theories remained dominantly a priori, with facts serving primarily as illustrations [see the biography ofBentham]. Above all, there was nothing scientifically neutral about their formulations. All three writers were critics and reformers who were mainly intent on having the political world reflect their theories rather than having their theories reflect the world.

Although many of the major theorists of the nineteenth century—such as Hegel, Tocqueville, and J. S. Mill (excluding the Logic)—practiced theory in ways dominantly traditional, there was a growing tendency toward making politics a scientific study [see the biographies ofHegel; Mill; Tocqueville]. Nevertheless, it is not easy to characterize this tendency, because so many diverse understandings of science were competing. For Comte and his followers, “positive” science was the search for the smallest possible number of “invariable natural laws” which controlled “all phenomena” [see the biography ofComte]. To the social Darwinists science meant classifying phenomena according to categories of evolution and struggle made famous by Darwin and now adapted to social and political uses [seeSocial Darwinism], For the Marxists, science meant extending the “necessary” laws of history, which were laws of economic development, to explain the past and present and to predict the future [seeMarxism].

Toward the close of the nineteenth century, however, the social sciences had sufficiently developed to enable men like Durkheim and, somewhat later, Max Weber, to fight clear of most of these earlier disagreements about the nature of science and to lay down some basic ideas about what a theory should be [see the biographies ofDurkheimandWeber, Max].

Twentieth-century concepts of political theory have continued to evolve beyond the point attained by Weber and Durkheim, particularly by borrowing from the fields of social psychology and psychoanalysis and by seeking to utilize mathematics and statistics. The result has been a profound change in the notion of what theory is and what are the appropriate conventions governing its use. Most theoretical efforts now aim at establishing knowledge by methods that are empirical and quantitative; to a considerable degree, they aspire to a form of knowledge that will be precise, rigorous, verifiable, and predictable. Like its predecessors, contemporary theory embodies a decision about what is worth studying, how it shall be studied, and what shall be accepted as knowledge.

Contemporary political theory

Although it is risky to attempt a characterization of contemporary notions of theory, some of the main features may be indicated. It should be mentioned that sharp disagreements exist, not only among those who purport to share the same scientific orientation, but between them and others who remain loyal to traditional methods. What follows is an attempt to designate the main characteristics of what is new—that is, of the scientific conception of theorizing.

The alliance with philosophy has been severed, at least temporarily. Although there are some signs of attempts being made to utilize contemporary philosophical techniques of language analysis and its variants, most theorists proceed on the assumption that the adoption of scientific methods obviates the need for elaborate philosophical techniques.

This development has been accompanied by the abdication of the traditional attempt to formulate synoptic pictures, or epitomes, of the whole society. Although conceptions of a “political system” are widely utilized, these are avowedly artificial constructions which are not intended to represent actual societies either literally or in the transfiguring way of older theories. They are artifacts whose sole justification is their utility, which remains a moot point. The contemporary conventions reject so-called grand or comprehensive theories and prefer to pursue testable hypotheses. According to one representative viewpoint, “Whether the proposition is true or false depends on the degree to which the proposition and the real world correspond” (Dahl 1963, p. 8). “Analysis” has tended to replace “theory” as the preferred expression; this change is accompanied by a determination to utilize whatever methods appear to have scientific authority: survey data, psychological and sociological findings, decision making, bargaining, communications theories, etc. Those of an empirical and quantitative persuasion frequently express the hope that by patient and systematic investigation it will be possible to establish tested propositions of ever-increasing generality and that, gradually, an interconnected and logically consistent series of propositions will culminate in a general theory of universal validity.

As we have previously noted, the scientific impulse in eighteenth-century theory took the form of seeking “laws” which would embody the true “nature of things.” Twentieth-century theory has perpetuated the quest but has abandoned the assumption that there is any underlying “nature” to political phenomena. In this respect contemporary theory is in the tradition of Hobbes, who was the first to launch a systematic attack against the classical notion that there was a natural structure appropriate to every political form and that man possessed a nature which required a political association for its fulfillment. The divorce of politics from nature and of theory from nature did not become complete until the twentieth century. One effect has been to liberate the theoretical imagination, for instead of seeking to approximate natural structures, it has felt free to experiment with all manner of artificial models and constructs, insisting that such artifacts are to be judged solely by their “pay-off” in explanatory or predictive power. Accordingly, the “real world” is discussed in very different terms, usually as a kind of whirl of phenomena to which a theory is “plugged in” in an admittedly arbitrary way. Theory no longer seeks to grasp the political world synthetically; rather it seeks to slice into it. The political world is, as one contemporary theorist has described it, “a resource” which is to be exploited on the expectation that the universe does contain “the data and processes” necessary to the solution of theoretical problem (Deutsch 1963, p. 238). Theorizing tends to be sustained by the belief that the political world exhibits sufficiently recurrent regularities and repetition of causal sequences to allow for the testing of generalizations. Theory thus becomes the search for what is “repetitious, ubiquitous, and uniform” (Easton 1965a, p. 15). “It is the task of theory to detect in the welter of the unique facts of experience that which is uniform, similar, and typical” (Morgenthau 1959, p. 18).

The concern with regularities forms part of an outlook which contrasts sharply with the traditional preoccupation with the dangers and derangements besetting the political order. Traditional theory had been powerfully influenced by the hope of providing knowledge for action; its language, concepts, and values were primarily those of the actor. Contemporary theory, with its emphasis upon objectivity, scientific detachment, and testable hypotheses, tends to be governed by the values of inquiry rather than of potential action. This appears most strikingly in systems theory, where conceptions such as equilibrium, homeostasis, inputs and outputs are, whatever their value for research, wholly irrelevant to action. For the present, at least, theory appears to have surrendered the critical function, which has been one of its dominant characteristics since Plato.

Throughout the first half of the present century, most advocates of a scientific approach to theory accepted a naive distinction between “facts” and “values” and contended that science could not pronounce on questions of preference but only deal with matters of fact. Gradually, this austere position has been relaxed into an attitude which insists that scientific knowledge can contribute to the clarification of choices, by indicating that some choices are unfeasible and that others are too costly. It is still insisted, however, that “new theory tends to be analytic, not substantive, explanatory rather than ethical…” (Easton 1965a, p. 22). It is fair to say that most scientifically minded theorists today are bored by the factvalue controversy and are trying to negotiate an armistice along the lines of a division of political theory into “empirical” and “normative” theories. The former would represent theorizing based upon scientific methods of collecting and classifying data and of testing hypotheses by statistical or mathematical methods. Its goal would be the empirically verified hypothesis. To normative theory would be assigned an ill-assorted collection of activities whose common element would be a lack of scientific methods. It would include all questions regarding values, all historical studies, and all conceptual inquiries.

One would be hard-pressed to concoct a better solution for the sterilization of political theory. Not only does it rest on a profound ignorance, or even arrogance, regarding the nature of traditional theories and their subtle blend of empirical observation and theoretical speculation, but more strikingly, it flies in the face of the kind of experience which the proponents of such a division would be expected to be the first to recognize —namely, the history of theory in the natural sciences. Historians of science are generally agreed that few, if any, of the great scientific theories have been the product of strictly empirical research. Such a belief is a remnant of the Baconian myth concerning the primacy of induction. It has also been argued by philosophers of science, such as Popper, that theories which are shown to be wrong can still be of inestimable value, for examination of them allows us to be quite precise in locating the source of the error. But there are other reasons which are equally telling and should caution against a too easy acceptance of the distinction between empirical and normative theories.

The assumption that there can be some kind of purely empirical theory derives from the naive positivist assumption that facts can be known accurately if only we could lay aside our prejudices and biases. Although it is always admitted that facts rest on a principle of selectivity, this admission does not dispose of the issue. The difficulty is that we know facts only by means of the linguistic-conceptual apparatus with which we think and perceive; facts are only interesting when observed through theoretical concepts, and hence, facts present themselves as “theory-laden.” The result is that when the empirical theorist employs a procedure in which observations are matched with theory, his enterprise is more circular than he is usually willing to admit, for the observations themselves represent theory-laden facts.

It is also important to recognize that the indispensability of concepts in all forms of theorizing— empirical and otherwise—raises special problems which cast doubt upon the desirability of rendering empirical theory autonomous. Although the selection of concepts for use in empirical inquiry will, of necessity, be determined by their empirical relevance and utility, concepts are abstractions, not empirical entities. Moreover, the nature of concepts shares a family resemblance with the concerns of so-called normative theory, not because concepts are “idealized” constructions, like “frictionless bodies” in physics, but because they possess the basic characteristic of all normative constructions–that is, they are discriminatory and selective. Every concept is a distillation achieved by deciding to disregard some features of reality and to emphasize others.

Perhaps the most important problem besetting contemporary political theory is not the question of whether theory ought to be firmly wedded to the methods and outlook of the natural sciences, but rather what version of science it will choose: the rigorous, fact-minded, anticonceptual view which believes that cumulative knowledge is the result of patient and dogged application of scientific methods or the view of science as an imaginative undertaking, with its full share of speculation, playfulness, proclivity to error, and its ability to imagine worlds as yet undreamed of–an ability which would maintain the critical, projective quality that has enabled past theories to speak meaningfully to the quandaries of political existence.

Sheldon S. Wolin

[See alsoPolitical science.]


The following studies identify the major political theorists, introduce their work, and provide a commentary: Mcllwain 1932; Sabine 1937; Strauss 1953; Voegelin 1956–1957; Wolin 1960. Continuing discussion of problems of political theory can be found in Laslett 1956; Laslett & Runciman 1963; and in the periodicals History and Theory, Nomos, Political Studies, Der Staat.

Adkins, Arthur W. H. 1960 Merit and Responsibility: A Study in Greek Values. Oxford: Clarendon.

Allen, John W. (1928) 1957 A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century. 3d ed. London: Methuen.

Arendt, Hannah 1958 The Human Condition. Univ. of Chicago Press. A paperback edition was published in 1959 by Doubleday.

Arendt, Hannah 1963 On Revolution. New York: Viking. Barry, Brian M. 1965 Political Argument. New York: Humanities Press.

Barth, Hans (1945) 1961 Wahrheit und Ideologic 2d ed., enl. Zurich: Rentsch.

Berelson, Bernard; Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; and Mcphee, William N. 1954 Voting: A Study of Opinion Formation in a Presidential Campaign. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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DerathÉ, Robert 1950 Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la science politique de son temps. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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Figgis, John N. (1896) 1922 The Divine Right of Kings. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. → First published as The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings. A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harper.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1957 Constitutional Reason of State: The Survival of the Constitutional Order. Providence, R.I.: Brown Univ. Press.

Friedrich, Carl J. 1963 Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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HalÉvy, Élie (1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

Hampshire, Stuart 1959 Thought and Action. London: Chatto & Windus.

Hartz, Louis 1955 The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt.

Hempel, Carl G. 1952 Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 2, No. 7. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Idea. Princeton Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harper.

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Jouvenel, Bertrand De 1963 The Pure Theory of Politics. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. 1957 The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton Univ. Press.

Kelsen, Hans 1957 What is Justice? Justice, Law, and Politics in the Mirror of Science: Collected Essays. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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Philosophy, Politics and Society (Second Series): A Collection. New York: Barnes & Noble.

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Political Philosophy

views updated May 11 2018


POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. At the dawn of early modern Europe, political philosophy had been largely shaped by the categories and language of Aristotelian thought as integrated into the Christian Scholastic framework during the preceding two centuries. According to Christian Aristotelians, political "science" constituted the highest form of practical knowledge, but ultimately was subordinate to the still higher forms of theoretical excellence and transcendent truth to be found in the pursuit of philosophical and theological wisdom. Scholastic political philosophy thus promoted government that comported with the virtue and salvation (and thus happiness) of members of the community. The Latin recovery of the main social writings of Aristotle (the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics as well as the Economics of Pseudo-Aristotle) in the mid-thirteenth century provided the framework within which medieval Christian political ideas were ultimately crystallized and systematized.

The history of political philosophy during the fifteenth and subsequent centuries should be recounted against this Scholastic backdrop, negatively as well as positively. Despite a renewal of Scholastic energy in the midst of the Counter-Reformation fervor of the sixteenth century, the political ideas associated with Christian Aristotelianism served as targets of widespread attack throughout the early modern era. Yet at the same time, themes familiar to readers of medieval Scholastic writings recurred and refused to disappear entirely.


Repudiation of Scholasticism commenced with the Italian Renaissance. The republican doctrines commonly associated with the so-called civic humanists of the Renaissance (especially in Italy) were not inherently antagonistic to Aristotle. Indeed, Latin translations of the Politics and the Economics produced by one of the pillars of Renaissance humanism, Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444), converted Aristotle into an intellectual figure amenable to civic humanist values. Yet the humanists consciously rejected the methods of the Scholastics as well as the general perception of their civic disengagement. Without disputing or denigrating the Christian aim of salvation, the civic humanists stressed sacrifice for the sake of one's fellow citizens and city as the fullest expression of a virtuous earthly life. Many famous humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries themselves served as secretaries and diplomats in the service of Italian cities, so that their glorification of citizenship reflected their own civic commitments. Drawing upon the rhetorical style of the ancients, they praised urban life in general as well as the mores and physical assets of their own cities in particular. The humanists realized that the quality of civic life depended heavily upon the wealth generated by trade, commerce, and other economic activities. Hence, they lauded the enterprise of merchants and manufacturers, to the extent that Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (13801459) contended that industriousness and self-acquired possessions constituted the foundation of morality and the greatness of the city.

There has been a tendency for scholars to equate Italian humanist political thought almost entirely with the civic version of humanism. Yet many leading humanists showed a notable preference for monarchy and even universal empire. Thus, Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina (14211481), and Giovanni Pontano (14261503), among others, wrote treatises de principum (of principle) that praised kingship and advised rulers how to conduct themselves and display their majesty. Like-wise, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (14051464), who became the humanist pope Pius II (reigned 14581464), composed a defense of Roman imperial authority that nonetheless borrowed directly from the political concepts and categories familiar to humanism. It would be disingenuous to claim that such writings were somehow less authentically representative of humanist thought than tracts reflecting the urban ethos.

The migration of humanism over the Alps during the course of the sixteenth century underscores the adaptability of humanist learning to political affairs. The so-called northern humanists concentrated (sometimes critically) on the issues shaping the courtly life of the monarchies that ruled the emergent national territorial states of early modern Europe. In his pursuit of a spiritually revitalized Christian commonwealth, Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) offered advice about the education of the Christian prince. Sir Thomas More (14781535) imagined a New World utopia where the ills of his modern, supposedly "civilized" societywar, greed, abuse of powerwere unknown and human beings lived communally without conflict arising from political and economic inequality. Jean Bodin (15301596) proposed a definition of sovereignty as absolute and indivisible, so that the ruling power possessed sole final authority over the legislative, judicial, administrative, and military functions associated with the state. In formulating this conception of sovereignty, Bodin explicitly challenged many of the central tenets of Aristotle's political science, such as the distinction between the governance of the family and the rulership of the state.

It is noteworthy that northern humanism spoke with a decidedly legal accent. A large number of the most prominent of the northern humanists received education in the law and often served as members of university law faculties. This legal inflection rendered humanist doctrines considerably more applicable to the political practices of the northern monarchies, which were organized around systems of royal courts and, increasingly, of legislative pronouncements. The emerging character of state power in sixteenth-century Europe may also help to account for the diffusion of the "Machiavellian" doctrine of ragione di stato or raison d'état (reason of state). From soon after the death of Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) until the era of the French Revolution, Machiavellism formed a central feature of political theory, as well as of literary culture more generally.

Whether Machiavelli would have recognized himself in the Machiavellism of later times is an open question. The historical Machiavelli seems to have been a dedicated republican whose civic humanism, although tinged with the realism of a career politician, remained grounded in the values and principles espoused by the literature of Florentine political thought that preceded him. His Discorsi sopra la Prima Deca di Tito Livio (1514?1518?) and other political writings testify to this consistent streak of republicanism. However, it was Il Principe (15131514), a short work that he seems to have composed in great haste, that earned him his later reputation. In it, Machiavelli overturns many of the standard conventions about the personal qualities necessary for rulers to conduct themselves effectively. He argues that politics is principally guided by considerations of self-interest. Hence, political success requires the capacity to use violence against one's enemies, to engage in systematic deception, and to violate the tenets of religionin sum, to do whatever is required to "maintain one's state." While he by no means rejects the practice of virtue in its ordinary sense when this does not interfere with the prince's goals, Machiavelli insists that the ruler can only be assured of his supremacy when he possesses virtú, construed as the ability to adapt to political circumstances rapidly and without reference to moral standards or religious pieties.


Machiavelli's emphasis on political success as the only standard for politicians appeared to substitute power for civic virtue as the decisive issue of public life. The political justification of violent acts, even those such as murder that are clearly criminal, became synonymous with his name. Subsequent authors who wrote in this intellectual vein were often called Machiavellians, but they generally rejected the label in preference to the phrase "reason of state." This nomenclature seems to have crystallized by 1589, when Giovanni Botero (15401617) published Della Ragione di Stato. "Reason of state" was primarily applied to international relations, which supposedly constituted a special sphere of human conduct. Advocates of "reason of state" hold that appeals to justice or other moral values in dealings between states have no efficacy. Rather, force, treachery, deception, and similar uses of power, regardless of moral worth, are considered legitimate in gaining the upper hand in intrastate rivalries. The appeal to the primacy of power fundamentally transformed political discourse in early modern Europe and paved the way for many forms of so-called political realism, seemingly devoid of moral content.

A clear example of this interest in power is found in the writings of Thomas Hobbes (15881679), especially his masterpiece, the Leviathan (1651). An avowed opponent of Aristotelianism and the Scholastic approach in natural philosophy as in political affairs, Hobbes proposed to create an entirely "scientific" and "mathematical" foundation for the study of human nature and of government. According to Hobbes, all human motivation may be reduced to the twin principles that people desire self-preservation and that they fear pain and especially violent death. Thus, he insists that our moral concepts and our political institutions are correctly arranged only when they are strictly derived from this postulate with Euclidean precision. The Leviathan itself purports to offer such a derivation.

Like Bodin, Hobbes insisted that the only justifiable form of sovereign authority is absolute and indivisible. Hobbes ascribed to human beings natural liberty and equality, which license them to undertake any actions necessary in order to preserve themselves and to avoid pain. He believed that the pursuit of self-preservation by free and equal creatures left to their own devices (the "state of nature") logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear. Frustrated in their realization of their basic desires, human beings voluntarily exchange their chaotic natural freedom for peace and order by means of a social contract, the terms of which call upon the parties to renounce all liberties and rights they possess by nature (with the exception of self-preservation itself). Any contract that permits the retention of some rights and thus a limitation on the sovereign's absolute authority will fail to achieve the peace sought and will eventually slip its members back into the state of nature. Power thereby replaces virtue as the central concern of the "science of politics."

Hobbes also identifies religion as an especially fertile source of political conflict. To remedy the divisive consequences of religion, he offers the rather extreme solution in the second half of Leviathan of strictly limiting the autonomy of ecclesiastical officials and offices and reinterpreting Christian theology in a manner consonant with his conceptions of human nature and sovereignty. While Hobbes's Erastian proposals were highly unusual, his comments about the corrosive effects of religion on public order were widely echoed among other early modern philosophers. The success of Protestant reformers during the early sixteenth century in challenging the Roman Church's monopoly over the interpretation of Christian doctrine and the maintenance of clerical obedience generated waves of violent persecution and suppression of religious dissent as well as forceful resistance by the oppressed confessions. Catholic princes and cities burned reformers of all stripes; Protestant rulers and communities did the same to Catholics as well as to members of other reforming sects. The state as an agent of confessional enforcement only reinforced the impression that effective use of coercion and violence (even if in the name of the salvation of souls) were the real qualifications for political leadership.

The controversial role of religion in public life in turn spawned major contributions to political philosophy. Authors began to argue for toleration of differences of conviction and rite. Sébastien Castellion (15151563) argued that coercion is an inappropriate tool for effecting a change of religious views since Christian belief must be held with sincere conviction. Hence, clerics and magistrates must refrain from persecution of convinced Christians who cling to doctrines that do not coincide with official teachings. Many important European philosophers came to the support of some principle of religious toleration. Without doubt, the most famous advocate of tolerance proved to be John Locke (16321704), who proposed to extend respect for liberty of conscience and worship to many Christian (and perhaps some non-Christian) confessions in his Epistola de Tolerantia (1689; A letter concerning toleration). Locke proposed that the magistrate should not concern himself with caring for the condition of human souls. Rather, political authority ought to be confined to the maintenance of public tranquility and the defense of individual rights. Locke was not, however, the first (or even the most extreme) defender of toleration during the seventeenth century. In the writings of Baruch Spinoza (16321677), the right to liberty of thought and belief without interference from a sovereign power or a church was enunciated. According to Spinoza, no such "external" authority enjoyed the prerogative of determining the truth or falsity of one's ideas. Similarly, Pierre Bayle (16471706) condemned the persecution of religious diversity, claiming that it encouraged hypocrisy and eroded social order. Bayle maintained that an erring conscience, if it be held in good faith, merited protection just as surely as a correct one. He even extended this principle to atheists, a view that Locke adamantly rejected.


Locke also stood at the culmination of another important line of early modern thought concerning the rights of populations to refuse obedience to tyrannical rulers, especially in matters of religion. Reforming Christians of a Calvinist persuasion led the way in articulating a theory of resistance to illegitimate applications of power. Initially, John Knox (c. 15131572) and other British exiles propounded the view that government has a responsibility to God to eliminate all forms of idolatry (the cipher for Catholicism). If the ruler refuses to act on this duty, then lesser magistrates and even the common people must step in to suppress idolaters and their sympathizers, that is, Catholic priests and their royal protectors. The Huguenot reformers of France developed this basic insight into a general account of resistance to an oppressive regime that aids, abets, and even guides the violent persecution of religious minorities. Authors including François Hotman (15241590) and Théodore de Bèze (15191605) produced a sizable literature combining traditional Christian prohibitions against popular rebellion with the view that so-called "intermediary" magistrates, officials in service to a prince, are obliged to repel and contravene commands by their superiors that require religious persecution.

In his Second Treatise of Government (published in 1689), Locke in many ways extended the application of Calvinist resistance theory. Arguing that a ruler who systematically violates the natural rights of subjects to life, liberty, and estate violates the bond of trust that authorizes his office, Locke insists that no one is obligated to obey his commands. If the magistrate attempts to coerce their obedience, members of civil society may legitimately use force against him, just as they would in the case of robbery or assault. Locke's argument is framed carefully so as to remain consistent with the general Christian view that active revolt against duly constituted authorities violates divine law. For Locke, it is the ruler who breaches the public trust, not the disobedient subjects.

The political philosophy of the eighteenth century witnessed the extension of the themes of constitutional limitation of power and the protection of individual freedom that had been pioneered in earlier centuries. In his De l'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of the laws), Charles-Louis de Secondat, marquis de Montesquieu (16891755), examined issues surrounding the distribution of authority that had been previously left aside, including the separation of powers and the nature of political representation. Montesquieu thereby supplied many of the missing pieces of the puzzle of how power might be constrained.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) raised more fundamental questions about the project in which modern political philosophy had been engaged. Reversing the standard view that civilized society had led to the enhancement of human liberties and capacities, Rousseau pointed out how humanity had in fact become enslaved by political, cultural, legal, and economic practices and institutions. Only the creation of a communal life, and an attendant system of law and government, consonant with the general will of all citizens, could rectify the oppressive character of modern civilization. Hence, Rousseau pioneered a synthesis between individualistic and republican conceptions of political power and its purposes, which pointed toward to the extension of democratic rights that would occur in succeeding centuries.

See also Absolutism ; Aristotelianism ; Bayle, Pierre ; Bèze, Théodore de ; Bodin, Jean ; Democracy ; Divine Right Kingship ; Equality and Inequality ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Humanists and Humanism ; Knox, John ; Law: Lawyers ; Liberty ; Locke, John ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Monarchy ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; More, Thomas ; Natural Law ; Persecution ; Resistance, Theory of ; Rights, Natural ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Scholasticism ; Theology ; Toleration ; Utopia .


Primary Sources

Franklin, Julian H., ed. Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza, and Mornay. Translated by Julian H. Franklin. New York, 1969.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, 1994.

Kohl, Benjamin G., and Ronald G. Witt, eds. The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society. Manchester, U.K., 1978.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Chief Works and Others. Translated and edited by A. Gilbert. Durham, N.C., 1965.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, marquis de. The Spirit of the Laws. Edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Basic Political Writings. Translated and edited by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Franklin, Julian H. Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.

Kelley, Donald R. Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship: Language, Law, and History in the French Renaissance. New York, 1970.

Pagden, Anthony, ed. The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1978.

. Visions of Politics. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Tully, James. An Approach to Political Philosophy: John Locke in Contexts. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Van Gelderen, Martin, and Quentin Skinner, eds. Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 2002

Viroli, Maurizio. From Politics to Reason of State: The Acquisition and Transformation of the Language of Politics, 12501600. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

. Machiavelli. Oxford, 2000.

Cary J. Nederman

Political Philosophy

views updated May 29 2018

Political Philosophy


In Europe, political philosophy had come into its prime during the sixteenth century, prompted by the great political, military, and religious events of the period which inspired numerous treatises aimed at resolving the problems confronting rulers. The most significant problems rulers faced in the era arose from resistance to the state's ever-growing demand for revenue. By the sixteenth century the "Military Revolution" sparked by the introduction of guns and cannons was well underway. Princes either had to keep up with the latest military technology or risk becoming a victim of it. The only way to keep up with technological innovation was with money, and the only way to get money was through taxes. Raising taxes, however, angered taxpayers and risked rebellion. Princes thus faced a dilemma. They might tempt neighboring states by ignoring defense but keep their subjects happy. Or they could frighten off their neighbors but make their subjects unhappy through the imposition of unpopular taxes. Most chose the latter course, but in doing so, their subjects began to respond with increasing vehemence that kings were violating longstanding contractual notions of government. The religious problems of the age further complicated relationships between princes and their people, and religious turmoil often provided a further justification for rebellion. If the prince was Catholic and the subject Protestant, the argument went, the subject had a right to defend his "true" religion against the encroachments of the state.

Divine Right of Kings.

As a response to both kinds of arguments—those that opposed new taxes and those that sought to defend "true religion"—royal apologists of the day began to promote the doctrine of the "divine right of kings." Princes were, in the words of the English king James I (r. 1603–1625), "God's lieutenants on Earth." As such, subjects owed the same obedience to their king as they owed to God. Yet merely identifying a "divinely instituted" right to rule did not answer the bristling dilemmas that were raging all the same about just when and how a king might exercise his authority. To justify the increasingly enlarged view of royal power, sixteenth-century political theorists had turned to examine issues about sovereignty. They had argued that since the king had the final say in formulating laws, he, in fact, stood above the law, and was consequently the "absolute" authority in the nation. As James I again observed, "Kings were the authors and makers of the laws, and not the laws of the Kings." By the early seventeenth century, ideas of divine right, which asserted that the prince derived his authority from God, combined with these ideas of absolutism, thus producing new theories of divine right absolutism. In his True Law of Free Monarchies (1598), James I first gave expression to its key tenets. Sir Robert Filmer (1588–1653), an apologist for the absolutist ambitions of James and his descendents, wrote his Patriarcha (1680) to give such theories biblical support, although during the period of rising Puritan ascendancy in England he did not dare to publish his thoughts. Patriarcha appeared only after Filmer's death and the Restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne. Like many previous works, Filmer treated the state as a "family writ large," and the king as its father. But then he went on to trace a line of descent of princely fathers that started with Adam and ended with Charles I, the reigning monarch in England when he was writing. The greatest developer of such theories of divine right absolutism was Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), perhaps the most influential churchman in France during the first half of Louis XIV's reign. As he argues in his posthumously published Statecraft Drawn from the Very Words of the Holy Scripture (1707) the person of the king is "sacred," and to attack him in any way is "sacrilege." It is through rulers, Boussuet explains, that God "exercises his empire." The power of the prince, he concludes, is "absolute," although he recommends that kings exercise this authority with humility. Against the enormous power of a prince, the people's only power exists in their own innocence.


introduction: Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan was the greatest work of political philosophy produced in seventeenth-century England. Hobbes' insights arose from a particularly dim view of humankind, and they caused him to support an authoritarian state that might rise above human egotism (the Leviathan mentioned in the work's title). In the famous passage below, he summarizes his view of human nature.

Again, men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him at the same rate he sets upon himself, and upon all signs of contempt or undervaluing naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them in quiet is far enough to make them destroy each other), to extort a greater value from his contemners, by damage; and from others, by the example.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

source: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651): 61–62.


In Leviathan (1651), the work generally recognized as the first great text of modern political science, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) set out to make a case for absolutism that did not build upon such religious notions. Like his younger contemporary John Locke, Hobbes gained the patronage of a great aristocratic family very early in his career, and was drawn into politics from that family's vantage point. The Cooper family that employed Locke had republican sympathies, and Locke wrote in defense of constitutionalism. The Cavendish family that maintained Hobbes was royalist, and Hobbes' political writings all make the case for monarchy. As tutor to the second and third earls of Devonshire, Hobbes spent a good deal of his life traveling the Continent. During these tours he added to his outstanding command of Greek and Latin—the abilities that first brought him to the attention of the Cavendish family—an expertise in geometry and optics. These interests helped shape Hobbes' approach to writing about politics, furnishing him with a concern to establish first principles from which other arguments might be deduced. While Hobbes had this rationalist instinct, he may also be viewed as an empiricist before the fact. Hobbes was among the first writers to advance a mechanistic explanation for the operations of the human mind, mapping the path sensations travel through thoughts to actions. In 1640, sensing the coming outbreak of civil war in England, Hobbes resettled in Paris, where, with the situation in England clearly in mind, he turned to writing about politics. Among the works he completed during his eleven-year stay in France the Leviathan (1651) stands out from the others, not for the uniqueness of its ideas—all Hobbes' political writings defend royal absolutism—but for the completeness of its case. Hobbes begins there with a discussion of human psychological motivations, focusing on the desire for pleasure and the fear of death as powerful stimuli in producing human actions. Hobbes then proceeds to discuss how different political systems accommodate these forces before he turns to consider the "state of nature" that exists wherever and whenever there is no common consent for a form of government. In such a state, where everyone acts out of pure self-interest, every human being will be at war, and because of this, human life will be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." In this state of nature, human desires and motivations cannot possibly produce positive outcomes. Thus human society needs government to help human beings realize their own ambitions. Hobbes rejects, in other words, the idea that some human beings have been born with a "divine right" to rule over others. There are differences in strength and intelligence among individuals, but every individual has the capacity to kill every other. Hobbes' point is that government is by definition a result of mutual agreement. Behind every form of government there is at least an implicit compact or covenant that acknowledges the rights individuals give over in exchange for government protection. But the question that lingers for Hobbes is which form of government is the best? He concludes that in a state ruled by a constitution, there will always be disagreement over whose interpretation of the constitution takes priority. Thus in constitutional states an inescapable tendency toward war will exist. The best form of government is rather an absolutist monarchy where the ability of one individual to serve and protect the polity is not compromised by the self-interest of any other individual or group in the state.

English Constitutionalism.

Hobbes attempted to put the argument in favor of absolutism on a "scientific" footing. In his Two Treatises on Government (1689), Locke made a similar effort for constitutionalism. Locke's two treatises are not just important as foundation texts of political science, however. They played a crucial role in restructuring the political debate in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In seventeenth-century England the constitutional structures favored by the middle and laboring classes were different from that supported by the rich and powerful. Eventually, it was the constitutionalism this latter group supported that won the day, and Locke's arguments in his Two Treatises was used to justify this development. "When Adam delved and Eve spanned, Who was then a gentleman?" was the pithy phrase that had once been the rallying cry of English peasants during Wat Tyler's Rebellion in the 1380s. The phrase had reappeared around 1600, a fact that points to the challenges to the political status quo that were being mounted in England by the lower classes. Puritanism had helped to create a high level of literacy in England and had provided many ordinary people with the intellectual skills to participate in the great debate over absolutism versus constitutionalism. While the pamphlets written and read by ordinary folk made use of religious arguments, they also used historical arguments based in the "myth of the Norman Yoke." This notion alleged that monarchy in England had only dated from the eleventh-century Norman Conquest. William the Conquerer, in other words, had done away with the simple democracy that had reigned in the country's Anglo-Saxon past, and had subjected English people to a tyranny of aristocracy and monarchy. During the English Civil Wars the Levelers, a movement of ordinary folk, tried to re-establish a democratic republic in the island. The Levelers captured a good deal of sympathy and support in the lower echelons of the New Model Army, the Puritan force that eventually defeated Royalists. As the English Civil Wars were drawing to a close in 1647, the Putney Debates took place. These were a series of debates that pitted the New Model Army's rank-and-file soldiers, who represented the "people" of England, against their superiors, who defended the interests of England's political and economic elite. During the course of the debates one soldier expressed the hope that "all inhabitants that have not lost their birthright should have an equal voice in Elections." To this, General Ireton, who represented the New Model Army's officers responded that only those who had a "permanent fixed interest in the country should be allowed to vote." Here Ireton was reaffirming the traditional practice that stipulated that only those men who paid an annual tax of 40 shillings should enjoy the franchise. Few of the Levelers were convinced, and it was only after violent repression that their movement fell apart.

Locke 's Response to the Call for Democracy.

Although the Leveler movement was eventually suppressed, the sentiments that its adherents expressed did not die out in later seventeenth-century England. In his Two Treatises, Locke addressed the lingering view that property qualification was a tool of oppression that had its origins in the "Norman Yoke." In Locke's constitutional theory he developed a notion of the state of nature that was very different from that of Hobbes's Leviathan. He argued that individuals extract from the environment valuable things by virtue of their hard work. Property arises from these efforts, and should therefore be protected by the state, along with life and liberty, as a fundamental, natural right. Government, he reasoned, came into existence through the efforts of property holders, who organized themselves under some form of authority to protect their interests. Thus Locke concluded there had never been a time when everyone had "an equal voice in Elections." Rather, from its very first existence, government had been concerned to protect the property of those with a "fixed permanent interest" in a state. Such arguments proved immensely popular in late seventeenth-century England, where the political instability caused by problems of the Stuart succession bred fears of a resurgent radicalism among the country's political elites. Locke's constitutional ideas as expressed in the Two Treatises became cherished ideas among the aristocracy and gentry, people of vast interests in land. But they were also embraced by the growing class of merchants and commercial men, who were anxious to protect the wealth they were acquiring.

The Spirit of the Laws.

At the end of the eighteenth century Europeans looked across the Atlantic and saw in the nascent state created out of Britain's former North American colonies a living testament to their own political ideas. It was obvious to all who had read Locke, for example, that the rights declared to be inalienable in the American Declaration of Independence—those that allowed for the search for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"—had been inspired from Locke's Two Treatises on Government (with the anti-democratic word "property" changed to the less offensive "pursuit of happiness"). Those who had read Jean-Jacques Rousseau could recognize that the very way in which the political nation was conceptualized by the former colonists referred back to Rousseau's The Social Contract. It took a bit more learning, however, to appreciate that the boldest application of European political thought was to be discovered in the American Constitution, which articulated a principle first found in the Baron de Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws (1748): the idea that the power to rule must always be shared among competing governmental offices. Montesquieu's ideas are as fundamental to understanding the political philosophy of the eighteenth century as Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776) is to comprehending the age's economic theory. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), was an outstanding example of France's noblesse de robe, a category of bureaucratic nobles that received their titles for the services of administration they offered the crown. Montesquieu was trained as a lawyer, and then inherited the position of president of the Parlement of Bourdeaux, a regional court based in that city. He served in that capacity for eleven years before his fame as a writer made him a celebrity. That fame arose largely on the basis of his Persian Letters, a scathingly satirical critique of European society revealed through the imaginary letters of two Persian travelers in Europe. The profits generated from that work allowed Montesquieu to sell his office in the Parlement of Bordeaux and to concentrate on his writing. Montesquieu brought the sensibilities of a working bureaucrat to the task of explaining how government works. Thus the point he seeks to drive home in The Spirit of the Laws is that the greatest danger confronting any government arises from the threat of despotism. He understands despotism as being the logical result of allowing all discretionary authority to fall into the hands of any one official. The way to keep despotism in check, Montesquieu thus outlines in The Spirit, is to balance the discretionary power in the hands of one official with that of other officials in other parts of the government. In Montesquieu's view, the goal of government is not to protect property, as it was for Locke, but to maintain liberty, and he understands liberty to mean the freedom to do those things that do not harm others. It is a given, according to Montesquieu, that those who are endowed with power will ultimately abuse their authority and harm others. And so the best government is one that limits the opportunities for officials to exercise discretionary powers in this way. He identifies three different sources of government power that arise from decision-making powers in the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of governing. In the best government those who exercise any one of these functions will necessarily have to compete for authority against the other two offices, and thus this "balance of power" will cancel out the tendency for any one official to use his power indiscriminately.


The sophistication of Montesquieu's analysis reminds modern scholars of the impact that Europe's political theorists had in fashioning modern systems of democratic and constitutional rule. From the Renaissance, Europe's seventeenth-century political theorists had inherited a curiosity about the arts of government and the state of affairs that had existed in primitive societies. Political theory, too, had been catapulted into the center of Europe's intellectual discussions by the rise of divine right absolutism in many states around 1600, a controversial development that had produced both apologists and critics of the rising authority of monarchs and the state. While many royal apologists argued that such conditions were "natural" and divinely established, others like Thomas Hobbes built trenchant defenses for strong governmental authority by examining the "state of nature" that existed before governments arose. Although Hobbes supported strong monarchical authority, he also shifted the boundaries of discussions of political theory by basing his conclusions on seemingly scientific analysis, rather than biblical or religious precedents. His Leviathan ranks as one of the great intellectual contributions of the Age of Absolutism. Yet its chief arguments in favor of absolutism were soon superseded by the clamor of others like Locke, who argued in a more optimistic vein for greater political participation across the spectrum of a state's inhabitants. Those who followed Locke fashioned new ways of examining the powers of the state in an effort to try to unlock the secrets they hoped might allow good government and human liberty to co-exist. Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, then, stands as one mature expression of this attempt to fashion government that conforms to the needs of human society. That society, as the political philosophers of the Enlightenment were often convinced, was composed of a humankind that was fractious and wont to exercise despotic tyranny, but which was all the same charged with the intellectual powers and restraint necessary to exercise self-rule.


M. W. Cranston, John Locke: A Biography (London: Longmans, 1966).

J. Daly, Sir Robert Filmer and English Political Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979).

S. P. Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

I. Hampsher-Monk, A History of Modern Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

J. Meyer, Bossuet (Paris: Plon, 1993).

S. Priest, The British Empiricists: Hobbes to Ayer (London: Penguin, 1990).

Philosophy, Political

views updated May 21 2018

Philosophy, Political





The scholarly analysis of politics, as the realm where human beings interact and associate with each other, tends to be approached through two partly overlapping but distinct disciplines: political science and political philosophy. While political science seeks to impose order or meaning upon phenomena in the real world through observation, experimentation, and measurement, political philosophy covers more abstract and more fundamental thoughts about politics. Hence, while political science may be interested in analyzing the workings of the democratic process in a particular society (e.g., the factors that determine voter behavior in democratic elections), political philosophy takes a step back and asks second-order questions about the political concepts we use in those analyses: What is actually meant by democracy ? What rights and duties should be bestowed on the individuals living in a democracy? And do we need political institutions such as a state, a government, or the law to ensure that these rights are upheld and the duties honored? Although infinitely more could be added, these are the questions that have proved enduringly important to human life in general and the discipline of philosophy in particular, today as much as two hundred or two thousand years ago. The student of the discipline is therefore exposed to concepts, ideas, and philosophers that often date back to Greek antiquity.


Arguably, the most fundamental concern of political philosophy is the question of political authority. In its broadest sense, authority is the means by which one person can make others do what they would otherwise not have done. It is usefully distinguished from the related concept of power, in that both may be forms of control, but the latter refers to the ability to influence the behavior of others (through persuasion or coercion), whereas the former defines the right to do so (expressed through the moral duty on the part of the ruled to obey). While thus might does not make right, the question remains when we should regard authority over us as rightfully exercised by the ruler and therefore morally justified and, crucially, what the source of that authority should be. In the view of some, notably anarchists, authority is always impermissible, and the only form of human association is one in which there are no persons or institutions issuing commands. Others believe in divine authority, whereby Gods supreme might or goodness is granted, initially by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden and subsequently to Gods descendants on earth who then claim unquestionable rule, for example as king over Egypt or as pope over Christendom.

The most common justification of authority, however, is the idea of the social contract as developed in various versions by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Immanuel Kant (17241804), and even Plato (427347 BCE). The writings of the first three in particular had considerable impact on the creation of democratic states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Significant differences between them notwithstanding, these thinkers ask us to imagine a hypothetical state of nature before there is any political authority. Individuals are on their own, in the sense that there is no higher authority that would command their obedience or protect their interests and possessions. Since their self-interested behavior may lead to a situation of conflict between them, individuals agree to establish institutions that define and impartially enforce binding decisions on them so that their lives are preserved in a physically and economically more secure environment. They enter a voluntary agreement, the social contract, to create a state to which they hand over their power and whose laws and actions they pledge to abide by. In return, the state guarantees the protection of individuals liberties at home and against aggression from abroad. Most democracies possess features that guarantee the legitimacy of this form of authority, such as constitutional governments, regular elections, a competitive party system, and checks and balances between the executive, legislature, and judiciary.


Once individuals have agreed to live in a state so depicted, the question arises as to what sorts of institutions they ought to try to bring about politically. In the nineteenth century, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (17481832) and his student John Stuart Mill (18061873) established a broad consensus, commonly referred to as utilitarianism, according to which the yardstick in assessing political institutions is the happiness, or pleasure, of the people affected by them. On this view, all human beings are motivated by self-interest, which can be defined as the desire to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. Institutions should therefore act so as to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, which is made possible by measuring happiness in terms of its intensity and duration (and calling the resulting metric utility ).

By virtue of its mathematical and therefore ostensibly objective approach to making moral judgments, utilitarianism succeeded in having a lasting impact upon political issues in real life, most notably the social, political, and legal reforms in nineteenth-century Britain. Yet, it also became heavily criticized for its individualistic view of human nature, which is both asocial and ahistorical, as well as its disregard for the divergent concerns, agendas, needs, powers, and wealth of individuals. What is more, the focus on utility maximization makes utilitarianism endorse acts widely considered to be unjust. To use a simplified example, it is morally wrong and a violation of human rights to harvest someones organs, and kill one life in the process, even though in numeric terms utility is maximized because three patients could be saved by the donors liver, heart, and lung respectively.

It took more than a century before a similarly comprehensive theoretical framework emerged as an alternative ordering principle of society. In 1971 the American philosopher John Rawls (19212002) published A Theory of Justice, in which he developed a contract-based argument of how to arrive at the principles by which members of a just society would want to distribute rights, duties, and goods amongst each other. To prevent asymmetries of power and wealth bringing about unjust contracts and principles, he asks us to imagine an original position where individuals exist behind a veil of ignorance and are deprived of any knowledge about their own particular properties, including their social status, wealth, talents, gender, and race. Free and rational agents, so he argues, would then agree to commit to two basic principles: a liberal principle according to which each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, and an egalitarian difference principle, whereby social and economic inequalities are only justified if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. With this device, Rawls seeks to ensure that individuals are not penalized for factors over which they have no control, such as gender, race, and genetic inheritance, while still maintaining a level of inequality that provides them with sufficient incentive for economic enterprise.

The technological, social, and political developments the world saw in the second half of the twentieth century induced political philosophy to extend its thematic and geographical scope and engage with issues beyond the immediate set-up of the individual society. Not only were attempts made to transfer Rawlss conception of justice from the domestic to the international realm, but other cross-border issues began to be explored as well, such as the protection of ethnic minorities; the right of nations to wage (just) wars; secession and national self-determination; the universal applicability of human rights; as well as environmentalism and sociobiology. These topics have since come to define the research frontier of the discipline, and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future.


Political philosophy of the type described above is driven by a rigid analytical methodology, and hence it is often referred to as analytical philosophy. Yet, as a scholarly discourse it dominates the academic community much more in the Anglo-American sphere than in other regions. In continental Europe, for example, a school of thought called postmodernism holds that because society in the twentieth century is increasingly based on shared information and communication, all knowledge must be dependent on discourse and language and can by definition only be partial and local. What is more, language itself is a product of complex relations of power (on the part of the media, politicians, businesses, and other interest groups). Postmodernists such as Martin Heidegger (18891976), Michel Foucault (19261984), and Jacques Derrida (19302004) therefore deny that philosophy is capable of standing above such power relations. It cannot represent a moral or rational high point from which claims about knowledge, universally applicable values, and objective truths can be made. Rather, philosophy is an intrinsic part of the power relations it purports to analyze.

The postmodern disruption serves as a useful reminder to us that philosophy consists of many legitimate ethical and political positions and that the concepts employed by the discipline may not always be as neutral as they appear to be.

SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah; Enlightenment; Foucault, Michel; Justice; Justice, Distributive; Justice, Social; Locke, John; Philosophy, Moral; Plato; Rawls, John; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Smith, Adam; Social Constructionism; Social Contract; State of Nature


Goodin, Robert E., and Philip Pettit, eds. 1993. A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1982. Leviathan. London: Penguin.

Locke, John. [1689] 1986. The Second Treatise on Civil Government. London: Prometheus.

Plato. 1985. The Republic. New York: Norton.

Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wolff, Jonathan. 2006. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dirk Haubrich

Political Theory

views updated May 23 2018


POLITICAL THEORY. The term "political theory" is used in both narrow and broad senses, but the two are not easily separated. In the narrowest sense, it refers to that branch of the academic discipline of "political science" that concerns itself with the theoretical analysis of political institutions and practices. This analysis generally relies upon the normative use of certain abstract concepts believed to be central both to the understanding of political behavior and to the formulation of sound public policy—concepts such as liberty, rights, citizenship, sovereignty, legitimacy, justice, representation, the state, federalism, equality, constitutionalism, and law. But even when one starts within this relatively narrow understanding, "political theory" ends up sprawling out over an enormous amount of territory, running the gamut from the broadly philosophical works of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, and Rawls, which treat political theory as one element in a comprehensive inquiry into the nature of the human person, to a more narrowly gauged technical professional literature, grounded in the careful empirical and historical analysis of existing societies, and directed toward the solution of specific problems.

In its broader sense, then, "political theory" can refer to any serious and systematic reflections upon the political aspects of human existence, particularly when such reflections are pitched at a sufficiently high level of abstraction to shed light on a wide range of times, places, and circumstances. Sometimes it concerns itself with mapping

out in detail the mechanisms by which particular political systems actually operate; other times it inquires into how those systems ought to operate, and what ends they ought to subserve. Generally, however, when it is at its best, political theory finds itself doing all of these things at the same time. Perhaps such multiplicity reflects the porousness and diffuseness of the field, many of whose practitioners do not even agree about what its proper objects are or should be. But it also reflects the deeper lineage of political science itself, as a discipline rooted in canonical works such as Aristotle's Politics, which combine inquiry into the specific forms of political life with a more general normative and philosophical account of both the natural and human worlds. Political theory, perhaps more than any other aspect of political science, has found it hard to sustain the Weberian distinction between facts and values, since it must perforce deal with them both.

Modern political science, however, beginning with such figures as Machiavelli and Hobbes, set out to move things in the opposite direction. It sought to make the subject of politics more "scientific" precisely by freeing it from its teleological moorings in moral philosophy, abandoning such formative goals as the cultivation of moral virtue in the citizenry, and instead focusing upon the value-neutral, quantitative study of observable political behavior, with a view toward the usefulness of such knowledge in promoting equilibrium and stability. The definition of politics offered in 1953 by David Easton: "the behaviors or set of interactions through which authoritative allocations (or binding decisions) are made and implemented for a society," can be taken to typify the behaviorist, functionalist, and scientistic strains that came to dominate American political science for most of the twentieth century. That dominance has reached a pinnacle of sorts in the current reign of "rational choice" theory, which exceeds all its predecessors in setting the production of precise (and experimentally testable) mathematical models for political behavior as the only goal worthy of political science.

In the resulting intellectual environment, political theory, as a "soft" practice with at least one foot in the traditional concerns of philosophy and the other humanities, has been put on the defensive and increasingly pushed to the edges of the field. Instead, the dominant tone continues to be set by empirical work that makes claims of "hard" scientific precision and is able to propound the kind of detailed research agendas that more readily attract the support of deep-pocketed funding agencies. Even under such adverse circumstances, however, the reflective voice of political theory has continued to be heard and cultivated by such thoughtful scholars as Sheldon Wolin, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Harvey Mansfield, William Connolly, Peter Berkowitz, Nancy Rosenblum, George Kateb, Michael Walzer, and many others who work to perpetuate the discipline's humanistic traditions.

The fact that a higher status is accorded the "harder" and more "useful" social sciences is nothing new in American history. It accords well with certain established propensities. Alexis de Tocqueville claimed in 1840 that Americans were "addicted" to "practical science," while indifferent to any "theoretical science" that could not promise some concrete payoff. The historian Daniel Boorstin went even further in 1953, asserting that the United States was "one of the most spectacularly lopsided cultures in all of history," because the amazing vitality of its political institutions was equaled by "the amazing poverty and inarticulateness of [its] theorizing about politics." What is more, Boorstin seemed to think this unreflectiveness should be considered a virtue, part of "the genius of American politics," a built-in protection against the destructive force of revolutionary ideologies such as Nazism and Communism.

Such observations greatly exaggerated matters, but also had more than a grain of truth in them. The documentary basis of American political thought was a patchwork of disparate pieces, composed in response to very particular audiences and circumstances—Thomas Paine's Common Sense ; the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia; the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, including the newspaper articles making up The Federalist; Washington's Farewell Address ; the Adams-Jefferson correspondence; the Webster-Hayne debates; the writings of John C. Calhoun; the Lincoln-Douglas debates; the speeches of Lincoln; and the like. Most were produced in the white heat of political exigency; none was the product of systematic and detached reflection on a par with the great treatises of European political thought. Considered by the loftiest standards of political theory, the American political tradition might seem a bit scrappy.

One would have a hard time, however, producing just one historical example of an equally durable government based on more weighty foundational treatises. True, the American political tradition can point to no Rousseaus or Hegels. But what it does have is a rich tradition of intelligent debate on certain recurrent themes, a political mid-rash devoted to the endless reconsideration of such matters as the proper locus of sovereignty, the separation and division of powers, the meaning of federalism, the sources of political authority, the proper place of religion in public life, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. Such debates presume a high degree of prior agreement about certain first principles, notably the natural rights of individuals and the desirability of republican institutions. Once one moves beyond these desiderata, however, the debates quickly ensue. Even The Federalist, rightly praised for its perspicacious blend of theoretical, historical, and prudential wisdom, cannot stand alone as a complete expression of America's political philosophy. Even the Constitution itself, the principal object of Americans' political veneration, began life as the revision of a previous effort, was itself the object of several compromises, and has to

be read "as amended" by the Bill of Rights—a remarkable fact that suggests an institutionalization of debate was incorporated into the very beginnings of the new nation's history.

The profession of political science has been a participant in these public debates, but never their moderator or ringmaster. In that sense, the original hopes of the discipline's American founders have never been realized. John W. Burgess of Columbia University, arguably the discipline's American founding father, and his Progressive-era successors, sought to devise a neutral and transpartisan "science" of administration. Although their vision has influenced the debate, and altered the structure of some American political institutions, it has never carried the day and is now widely held in disrepute by a public that distrusts all claims of disinterestedness. One suspects that even the fairy dust of rational-choice theory will not change this and provide the long-sought breakthrough that will render Americans' debates over ideology and values—and therefore the work of political theory itself—obsolete.

Such a mixed outcome well befits the appropriate role of intellect in a democracy, where even the most accomplished experts must learn to be persuasive to the wider public. It also suggests that political science will have a bright future and a contribution to make to American political discourse, precisely to the extent that it is willing to look beyond the scientistic dreams at its disciplinary origins and make more room for the deeper themes that have always animated serious political reflection.


Ceasar, James W. Liberal Democracy and Political Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Crick, Bernard. The American Science of Politics: Its Origins and Conditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

Kloppenberg, James T. The Virtues of Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Ross, Dorothy. The Origins of American Social Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Somit, Albert, and Tanenhaus, Joseph. The Development of American Political Science: From Burgess to Behavioralism. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1982.

Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Rev. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776– 1787. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998.

Wilfred M.McClay

See alsoDemocracy in America (Tocqueville) ; Federalist Papers ; Liberalism ; Locke's Political Philosophy .

Political Theory

views updated May 21 2018

Political Theory


Political theory lies at the intersection of the contemporary disciplines of philosophy and political science. Among philosophers, political philosophy is often distinguished by its preoccupation with practical matters. Among political scientists, political theory is often understood as the least practically relevant of the major subfields. In truth, self-identified political theorists are engaged in a wide range of activities, both normative and empirical, scientific and spiritual, esoteric and practical. In addition, the history of political thought encompasses many people who would not necessarily understand themselves to be primarily political thinkers or philosophers (e.g., Julius Nyerere, Sophocles, and the Buddha).

The meanings and purposes of political theory are contested within the academic discipline because a great deal of political theory involves thinking about the nature of politics itself. Therefore, rather than describing what political theory is, it is more appropriate to describe what it has been concerned with thus far, with the understanding that the contours of the history of political thought are also part and parcel of the discussion of what constitutes politics.

In general, political theory attempts to understand and form the human character, with particular emphasis on how people coordinate their ways of life, aims, needs and desires, and their potential to act together as a collective. One of the most important insights of political philosophy is the notion that human beings have the capacity to explore, imagine, and implement associations configured in various ways. Across cultures and throughout recorded history, at least three important and interrelated themes recur in such configurations:

  1. Femininity and masculinity. Notions of gender often divide labor, determine the distribution of goods, and create and order the public and private spheres.
  2. The spiritual and material worlds. Understandings of the interplay between God or gods and human beings, along with the idea that the spiritual world does not exist, often shape the nature of authority and rule.
  3. Human beings and the environment. Ideas about the place of human beings in the natural world, and the idea that people can be distinguished from it, typically undergird various political orientations.

As these themes suggest, political theory often intersects with philosophical perspectives in sociology, economics, ethics, and theology. However, political theory lays special claim to understanding and developing ideas about formal and informal rules of collective action and interaction, such as when and how decisions are made, who can and cannot speak, and what kinds of actions are required, sanctioned, or prohibited. This interest in institutions involves the study and development of certain concepts, including justice, power, consent, citizenship, duty, legitimacy, sovereignty, freedom, equality, punishment, property, oppression, rights, liberation, and deliberation. In the last two centuries, approaches to these concepts have often been framed in terms of ideologies, including nationalism, fascism, authoritarianism, democracy, theocracy, communism, secularism, socialism, liberalism, Islamism, republicanism, colonialism, and postcolonialism.

Such concepts form the parameters of governance and law, habits and customs, appropriateness, and virtue in a wide variety of groupings. Such groupings are themselves the subject and creation of political thought and include families, extended kinship relations, castes, factions, interest groups, tribes, parties, communities, cities, classes, ethnicities, nations, races, confederations, states, genders, caliphates, dynasties, empires, colonies, international organizations, and the relations between these entities. Indeed, the idea of humanity itself is a primary subject, and some would argue a creation of, political thought. Deconstructing and reconfiguring such arrangements is also an important task of political theory.

Political theorists often posit new ideas through the resuscitation and reinterpretation of old ideas, frequently by analyzing the thought of a particular thinker or thinkers. Examples include: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, in the ancient Greek tradition; al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Sohravardi, in the Islamic tradition; Saint Augustine, Nyerere, Nkrumah, and Sékou Touré in the African tradition; Confucius, Mencius, Mo-tzu, Chuang-tzu, Han Fei-tzu, and numerous thinkers influenced by Taoism and Buddhism in the Chinese tradition; Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Mill in the European tradition; Bartolomé de las Casas, Jefferson, Madison, Bolivar, and José Marti, in the American tradition; and the Vedas, written by many seers, as well as the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) and Mahatma Gandhi, in the Indian tradition. A full accounting of influential contemporary political thinkers would include hundreds of names from various philosophical schools and political movements (e.g., existentialism, feminism, the Frankfurt school, postcolonial studies, and environmental philosophy). Listing individual thinkers also raises questions about the proper conduct of political theory and, in particular, its relationship to political action by necessarily excluding the oral traditions of many cultures both living and dead.

SEE ALSO Party Systems, Competitive; Philosophy, Political; Political Science; Political System; Politics


Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, ed. 2001. Political Philosophy: Theories, Thinkers and Concepts. Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Dustin Ells Howes

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Political philosophy

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