Political philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 17, 2017, from

Article Summary

Political philosophy can be defined as philosophical reflection on how best to arrange our collective life - our political institutions and our social practices, such as our economic system and our pattern of family life. (Sometimes a distinction is made between political and social philosophy, but I shall use ‘political philosophy’ in a broad sense to include both.) Political philosophers seek to establish basic principles that will, for instance, justify a particular form of state, show that individuals have certain inalienable rights, or tell us how a society’s material resources should be shared among its members. This usually involves analysing and interpreting ideas like freedom, justice, authority and democracy and then applying them in a critical way to the social and political institutions that currently exist. Some political philosophers have tried primarily to justify the prevailing arrangements of their society; others have painted pictures of an ideal state or an ideal social world that is very different from anything we have so far experienced (see Utopianism).

Political philosophy has been practised for as long as human beings have regarded their collective arrangements not as immutable and part of the natural order but as potentially open to change, and therefore as standing in need of philosophical justification. It can be found in many different cultures, and has taken a wide variety of forms. There are two reasons for this diversity. First, the methods and approaches used by political philosophers reflect the general philosophical tendencies of their epoch. Developments in epistemology and ethics, for instance, alter the assumptions on which political philosophy can proceed. But second, the political philosopher’s agenda is largely set by the pressing political issues of the day. In medieval Europe, for instance, the proper relationship between Church and State became a central issue in political philosophy; in the early modern period the main argument was between defenders of absolutism and those who sought to justify a limited, constitutional state. In the nineteenth century, the social question - the question of how an industrial society should organize its economy and its welfare system - came to the fore. When we study the history of political philosophy, therefore, we find that alongside some perennial questions - how can one person ever justifiably claim the authority to govern another person, for instance? - there are some big changes: in the issues addressed, in the language used to address them, and in the underlying premises on which the political philosopher rests his or her argument. (For the development of the Western tradition of political philosophy, see political philosophy, history of; for other traditions, see Political philosophy in classical Islam; Political philosophy, Indian; African philosophy, Anglophone; Marxism, Chinese; Bushi philosophy; Shōtoku constitution; Sunzi; Marxist thought in Latin America.)

One question that immediately arises is whether the principles that political philosophers establish are to be regarded as having universal validity, or whether they should be seen as expressing the assumptions and the values of a particular political community. This question about the scope and status of political philosophy has been fiercely debated in recent years (see Political philosophy, nature of). It is closely connected to a question about human nature (see Human nature). In order to justify a set of collective arrangements, a political philosophy must say something about the nature of human beings, about their needs, their capacities, about whether they are mainly selfish or mainly altruistic, and so forth. But can we discover common traits in human beings everywhere, or are people’s characters predominantly shaped by the particular culture they belong to?

If we examine the main works of political philosophy in past centuries, they can be divided roughly into two categories. On the one hand there are those produced by philosophers elaborating general philosophical systems, whose political philosophy flows out of and forms an integral part of those systems. Leading philosophers who have made substantial contributions to political thought include Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Hegel and J.S. Mill. On the other hand there are social and political thinkers whose contribution to philosophy as a whole has had little lasting significance, but who have made influential contributions to political philosophy specifically. In this category we may include Cicero, Marsilius of Padua, Machiavelli, Grotius, Rousseau, Bentham, Fichte and Marx. Two important figures whose work reflects non-Western influences are Ibn Khaldhun and Kauṭilya. Among the most important twentieth-century political thinkers are Arendt, Berlin, Dewey, Foucault, Gandhi, Gramsci, Habermas, Hayek, Oakeshott, Rawls, Sartre and Taylor.

Citing this article:
Miller, David. Political philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S099-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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