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Approaches To Political Theory Notes

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*Cross-reference - PO201 Hobbes: Conflict in the State of Nature; Edmund Burke & Historical Legitimacy // PO219 Constructivism;


1. Which kinds of context, if any, are important to consider when contemplating a text in the history of political thought? [2017]
Should we try to uncover an author's intentions in writing political theory if we are to interpret a text accurately?
[2016, 2014]

2. Should we read political theory as artefacts from their period, or as philosophical texts to mine for good arguments and ideas? [2017]
'It is perfectly proper to treat a text as a source of arguments, without worrying about its context'. Is it?

3. Are there 'perennial' questions in the history of political thought? [2015]


Ontology - A branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of being and reality. Political ontology, then, concerns political being and the units which constitute political reality, e.g. society, economy, etc.

Epistemology - The study of knowledge. Whereas the ontologist asks: 'what exists to be known?', the epistemologist asks: 'what degree of certainty may we defend our judgement of competing political explanations about that which exists?

Political ideology
Ideology is calcified philosophy; a normative frame of reference through which we interpret/orient ourselves in the world, and organize political action.

Political theory
Political entails the application of philosophical ideas (about liberty, power, equality, citizenship,
distributive justice, etc.) to the political realm such that the world becomes as it 'ought' to be.
'It has been said that there are only two questions in political philosophy: 'who gets what?' and
'says whom?'... The first of these questions is about the distribution of material goods, and of rights and liberties. The second question concerns the distribution of political power [which]
includes the right to command others, and to [inflict] punishment if they disobey' [Wolff]

For Sabine, a political theory should include:
 Descriptive claims (A) about the present posture of affairs; e.g. 'human beings are intrinsically...'

Normative claims (B) about how the present posture of affairs should be - e.g. human beings ought to behave in a specific manner...' - with respect to the following questions:
What are the political consequences of our human condition?

How should humans best be governed, if at all? What is the ideal form of government?


Are there good grounds for consenting to state authority; in particular, its 'monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory' [Weber]?


What is the proper extent of political power? Is there a private domain (e.g. household,
religion, economy) which can be invoked to curb state interference?

Causal statements regarding what aspects of 'A' hinder the attainment of 'B'.
In short, political theory includes an estimate of probabilities (what is likely?) and an estimate of values (what is desirable?).

Internal consistency (see: 'PHILOSOPHICAL')

Perennial significance - 'The greatest political theorizing is that which excels in both respects, in analysis of a present situation and in suggestiveness for other situations' [Sabine]


Cyclical philosophy of history, with alternating Dark and Golden Ages - 'What has been will be again, what has

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