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Political Philosophy Contents

Week 1 Summary  

           Week 2 Plato




1. Introduction to philosophy:


(a) What is philosophy? Love of knowledge – philos + sophos.

(b) What does philosophy do? ‘Deep’, fundamental questions. Convincing (logical) answers. Grounded knowledge. Agreed meanings of concepts and words.

(c) Other kinds of knowledge. Science (evidence-based). Faith?

(d) Branches of philosophy. Logic, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology. ‘Applied philosophy’ – philosophy of science/history/ etc and of politics.


2. What is political philosophy? The application of philosophical methods to understanding politics and the study of politics. Normative (to do with value-judgements).


3. What is politics concerned with (that philosophers can ask questions about)?


(i) Key concepts: Authority, power, legitimacy; justice, fairness; law, rules, obedience and disobedience; democracy, and other types of political system; freedom; equality; rights; the collective vs. the individual.


(ii) The political community (polis).


4. What kind of questions do political philosophers ask?

(a) Analytical: what do we mean by...? How do we classify?

(b) normative: values – freedom vs. equality etc, ethical questions – e.g. why should I obey?

(c) arguments: rigorous, logical, consistent, truthful, well-grounded, justified.


5. What, in general, do political philosophers ask about? Human nature; nature and origins and purpose of political communities.


6. Approaches to political philosophy. Comparisons and contrasts; ideology; thematic; chronological; classifying political thinkers; ‘models’.




1. Introduction to philosophy:


(a) What is philosophy?


The study of what we know and how we know it. From: philos: love (*) [note at end]; sophos: knowledge or wisdom.


(b) What does philosophy do?


(i) It asks questions in order to explain (understand) the nature, origins and purpose of everything around us (and inside us!) – to push these questions as far as they can go, so as to find the most convincing “ultimate” or “final” answers, to ask the “deepest” questions.


(ii) It aims to “ground” our knowledge and explanations in logic (reasoning) as well as in evidence.


(iii) To clarify concepts – and the meaning of words.


At the beginning of the 20th century, philosophers argued that much, if not all, philosophy really only amounted to discussion of the meanings of words. If there was a disagreement between two thinkers, it probably meant that they were using words differently, or hadn’t agreed to their definition. (Logical positivism).


Philosophy has not given up as a result of this point of view – in fact logical positivism is now generally rejected, but philosophers always have to pay a lot of attention to the meaning of words. (Starting with Socrates, in Plato’s Republic: What is justice? And through to Isaiah Berlin, with “two kinds of freedom”).


(c) Other kinds of knowledge:

(i) Science.

Note that whilst philosophers make use of facts and evidence, (that is, information gathered by observation and experiment – by scientists) they are more concerned with the meaning of and explanations for the facts. Science is empirical – it collects evidence, describes and classifies it. Political science is, then, a field of study in its own right, and to some extent distinct from political philosophy. Political science seeks to understand, and ask questions about e.g.: voting patterns, political representation, parties and their structures and policies – based on evidence (statistics, behavioural studies etc).


(ii) Faith… revelation etc – are these valid kinds of knowledge?


(d) Branches of philosophy:


(i) Logic… metaphysics… ethics… epistemology.


(ii) We can study each of these, but also, philosophy can be applied to other disciplines/areas of knowledge:


- philosophy of science, of education, of social sciences etc.


- hence:


2. Political Philosophy:  the application of philosophical methods to understanding politics and the study of politics. The kinds of questions that philosophers ask, and the methods philosophers use, are applied to aspects of politics.


Political philosophy - like ethics, but unlike epistemology or logic - is sometimes normative that is, it asks “should”- or “ought”- type questions; it is concerned with value-judgements (see further below).


3. What is politics concerned with (that philosophers can ask questions about)?


(i) Key concepts:

Authority and power (– what’s the difference? Legitimacy?)


Justice, fairness (– how do we decide what is fair or just?)


Law, rules, obedience and disobedience (– is it ever right to disobey the law?)


Democracy, and other types of political system (how do we know when we have democracy? Democracy means “power to the people” – but who are “the people”?)


Freedom (freedom from or freedom to…?)      


Equality (of opportunity or outcome?)


Rights (what are rights? Who should have them?)


The collective vs. the individual (how to balance the needs and well-being of the two).


(ii) Central issue: the political community:

Note that the word “politics” originated from the way communities were organised in ancient/classical Greece, where the word for a collection of people living together, under agreed rules and conventions (a town or city) was “polis”… Some argue that the Greeks – by questioning how we could best live in communities - “invented” politics… Contemporary societies, e.g. Egypt, were authoritarian, and characterised by unquestioning obedience)


4. Categorising the kind of questions that political philosophers ask:


(a) Analytical, conceptual questions.

“What do we mean by (justice, democracy etc)?”

Also such questions as: how do we classify different political systems (aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy etc)?


(b) Normative questions. In other words questions about what is ethical - best, or right, and about values.

“Whom or what should I obey?” “Why do we obey the law?”

“Is freedom more important than equality?”

Is democracy better than dictatorship?


(c) And, of course, they always ask: is such and such an argument rigorous, logical, consistent, truthful, well-grounded, justified… etc.


5. What else do political philosophers ask about?


(a) Since political philosophy is seeking to understand the way people interact in a political environment, it is inevitably also concerned with questions of “human nature” – many political philosophers start from a set of assumptions (that they try to prove are accurate accounts) about human nature: Hobbes believed we all seek to control others; Locke that we have a basic right to property; Rousseau that we are “feeling” beings before we are thinking beings.


(b) What are political communities, how are they organised, and why are they set up in the way that they are?


The “other side” to the relationship between people and the political environment is of course the way that politics is organised – you could say that consciously arranged political organisations are a feature of human (as distinct from animal) life: but how did they originate? What is their purpose?


6. How can we approach political philosophy?


Comparisons and Contrasts:


It is clear that one way to study political philosophy is to compare the ideas of different political philosophers. It is quite amazing how many differences of opinion there are!


For example, on the question of “political obedience”:


Anarchists argue that political leaders either forced or tricked their subjects into obedience.


Liberal theorists (Locke and others) argue that at some point we must have agreed to live in a community with agreed rules etc. (there is therefore a contract between rulers and ruled). For Locke, the purpose of the political community is protection of our lives and property. We obey in order to protect our own property.


For the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, the political community exists to ensure the development of good citizens. This implies that we have a natural desire to be better people…


Rousseau went along with this idea too, though he also (like but well before Marx!) believed that those who took things from nature and said “this is my property” were the founders of political life – and they brought along with this war, conflict, greed and many other evils!! This is one view of the origin of conflict.


Marx had another (“class conflict”) theory. He believed that all hitherto societies have been class societies, and we obey because we are obliged to (to earn our living) and because we have been convinced that the ruling class is acting in our interests (what some Marxists call “false consciousness”).


Political philosophy and ideology.


It should immediately be clear that political philosophers may take up political positions. Some try to avoid this – Hegel for example had some followers who were “conservative” and others who were “radical”. However, it is much more common for the way that a philosopher reasons, and the conclusions they come to, to “fit” a political “line”. This is a vexed question, and many would draw a distinction between an ideology (that is clearly committed) and a philosophy of politics (that is open to being persuaded otherwise). Nevertheless, I personally take the view that it is impossible to pretend to be “neutral” when talking about politics – and I shall not hide my own “line”!! For one thing, it helps you to assess my interpretation of a thinker if you know my own values and beliefs (which may, whether I want them to or not, colour my interpretation).


However, the point about being open to persuasion is crucial: we are not philosophising but preaching if we are not prepared to listen to others’ points of view, take them seriously, and question our own.


Approaches to Teaching Political Philosophy:


One approach to political philosophy would be to take themes such as “obedience” and see how different writers approach the themes (a thematic approach). However, the question then arises: what themes to choose, and in what order (to be systematic)…


Another approach - my own on this course - is to proceed chronologically.

This has several advantages:

- we can relate ideas to their social and political context

- we can see how one set of ideas grew out of another, or was a reaction against another

- it is natural to start with the “founding fathers” – the first people to “think philosophically about politics”

- and finally, many others have been down this road, and there are plenty of books etc on the History of Political Thought!


Classifying Political Thinkers:


However, to avoid simply going through a (long!) historically arranged list of thinkers, it helps if we classify these ideas. Here are some ways of classifying different approaches in political philosophy:


- a theory can be individualist (the individual is more important than the state) or collectivist (the individual must suppress their own wants for the sake of the community)


– or a more modern variant of this might be that some theorists emphasise the importance of key individuals and their personalities, others say that leaders are trapped by their circumstances – the environment. Most Marxists argue the latter, whilst liberals believe that individual charisma is crucial.


- a theory can describe a political system as a machine (a mechanistic model), or as a living organism (organic model) – or we can use another concept such as class, or we can argue that only a historical analysis will help us to understand the nature of political systems


- a theory can emphasise consensus, or conflict


- if a theory (like Marxism) stresses the fundamental importance of the economy, production, technology etc, then it is materialist (in a philosophical sense); if (like Marx’s predecessor Hegel – and Plato was one of the first philosophers to argue this way) a theory says that the most important aspect of politics is what people believe, and that the right ideas can bring about political change, then a theory is (philosophically, again) idealist.


Each of the philosophers’ approaches is built up into a “model” (or a “theory”).


It is my view that political philosophers try to build up a systematic set of arguments and conclusions – models, if you like – about individuals and the political environment they find themselves in, drawing on the different approaches described above.


To understand and make our own judgements on these theories, or models, we need to: identify any assumptions made about basic questions, e.g. about human nature, the natural world, ideas etc – what we call premises. Next we need to identify the implications and conclusions drawn from these premises, noting that the same basic assumption may lead to different conclusions. And of course we need to test the logic used to see if we agree that the conclusions do follow!


For example, we may say that because we believe that all people are in conflict with each other, we need law to provide security, – the Hobbesian view – or if we believe, with Locke, that most people are rational, but some people may cause trouble sometimes, then this is why we need the law. The kind of laws we need will differ according to which line of argument we follow. With Hobbes we get an absolutist state where the ruler is almost above the law, and the individual citizen is pretty powerless. With Locke we get a ruler constrained by the law, and (in theory at least) citizens who are able to exercise all their rights freely.


In political philosophy we “take apart” the starting assumptions (are they correct?), the way that implications are drawn from the starting assumptions (is it logical?), and the conclusions reached (is this what we want?).


(*) the Greeks had seven different words for ‘love’:

agape – the love of humanity

eros – romantic and erotic love

ludus – playful affection, flirting

storge – love of family

philia – the love that arises from shared experience

pragma – enduring love, as between long-established couples

philautia – love of the self, self-esteem


(Lucy Mangan, Guardian G2, 19.05.14

A History of key thinkers, and key ideas:


I also believe that it is possible to identify a small number of key ideas that characterise the writings of each political thinker. These are summarised (this is not necessarily a comprehensive list!) below.


7. Key ideas of the philosophers we aim to study:




The truth is knowable


The analogy of the cave

Justice: doing what each knows best and not interfering in others activities





Man is a political being, and politics is natural

Telos: nature of a thing is in its end or purpose; natural to seek "good"

Eudaimonia (“happiness”) is the highest good

Purpose of the state is the highest good

Rule of the "middle" class, and critique of Plato

The city-state and citizenship: ruling and being ruled


Augustine and Aquinas:


Obedience to secular rulers - sinfulness of man and need for controls/punishment (esp. Augustine)

The "two cities" (Augustine)

Relative powers of secular and religious spheres

Highest good is not in this life but beyond - need for faith

Natural law accessible to reason (esp. Aquinas)


Thomas More:


"Utopia(s)": Criticism of the times?  Ideal state?  An academic exercise? Pointless exercise?

Conditions in Utopia: desirable or not?

Planned societies: desirable? Communism.


Luther, Calvin and the Reformation:


Freedom of conscience, individualism and liberalism

Unexpected consequences of reformation (in both religion and politics)

The right to resist




Stability in the state is the highest good.

The ruler need not conform to morality, but might want to appear moral.

Virtu vs. fortuna.





The state of nature: nasty, brutish and short?

Reasoning as calculating our interests and how to achieve them.

Humans as insecure and power-seeking.

Natural laws and rights.

Social contract.




The state of nature: simply “inconvenient”?

Reason as a law of nature

Rights to life, liberty, property

All are born equal, but inequality is justified




General will - what is it? Would it work?

Sovereignty of the people based on the general will

Rousseau's critique of existing society ("man is born free, but is everywhere in chains"): justified?

"Forced to be free" – Rousseau as liberal or totalitarian?

Romanticism - feelings/sentiment against reason?

Direct democracy in small communities


Tom Paine:


Common sense

Rights of man

Politics a simple matter

Society (‘from our wants’) vs. government (‘from our wickedness’)


The state and welfare


Edmund Burke:


Complexity of society and government

Change should be gradual

Benefits of experience, tradition, custom: “prejudice”

Natural (‘abstract’) rights are dangerous.