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Political philosophy, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S043-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

The history of political philosophy attempts to yield a connected account of past speculation on the character of human association at its most inclusive level. ‘History’ or ‘philosophy’ may be stressed depending on whether the organizing principle is the temporal sequence or conceptual framework of political thought. Anglophone work has increasingly been organized around distinctive political ‘languages’ defined by specific vocabularies, syntaxes and problems, for example, classical republicanism, Roman law, natural law, utilitarianism. Chronologically it has been usual to observe divisions between ancient, medieval, Renaissance, early modern and modern periods of study.

Ancient Greece is the source of the earliest political reflection, with a continuous history in the West. Here reflection on the nature and proper organization of political community stimulated inquiry into the difference between nature and convention, the public and the domestic realm, the distinctive character of political rule, the relationship between political life and philosophy, the identity of justice, and the taxonomy of state-forms – as well as a more sociological investigation of the stability and decline of political regimes.

Greek political vocabulary was adapted to existing Roman republican practice (by Polybius and Cicero for example), which soon gave way to an imperial constitution stressing peace, order and unity. Rome thus generated two contrasting political ideals – that of the virtuous active republican citizen, and that of the unified empire governed by Roman law. Together with questions about the causes of its own rise and decline, Rome thus provided political values and historical material for subsequent philosophical and historical reflection.

Christianity undermined the pagan autonomy of politics in the name of a higher, transcendent ideal. However, it adapted much of Greek rationalism and the political vocabulary of classical culture in elaborating a creed and an institutional form. In turn it lent legitimacy to imperial and royal officeholders of Rome and barbarian successor-kingdoms.

Medieval political philosophy was characteristically preoccupied with the relationship between pope and king, church and regnum, but philosophy as a discipline was subordinated to theology. This was challenged by the rediscovery of Aristotle’s self-sufficiently secular political ideal, a challenge met for a while by Aquinas’ synthesis. However, the autonomy of secular politics was continually reasserted by a sequence of writers – Bartolus of Sassoferrato, Marsilius of Padua, Bruni and Machiavelli – who revived and reformulated classical republicanism using both Roman law and new Renaissance techniques and insights.

The Reformation, although initially politically quiescent, gave rise to new conflicts between secular and sacred rule. In particular, radical claims about the responsibility of all believers for their own salvation fed through in various ways into more individualistic political philosophies. In early modern Europe, using the strikingly new (and originally Catholic) vocabulary of natural right, Hugo Grotius aspired to provide a common secular basis for a shared political morality, on the basis of individual rights derived from a universal right of self-preservation. This was widely explored by seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers, notably Hobbes and Locke, and culminated politically in the American and French Revolutions. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, language of natural rights was rejected both by conservative thinkers, such as Burke, and by a new, utilitarian radicalism largely forged by Bentham.

Attempts to grasp the political character of economic transformations and Empire in early modern Europe resulted in a growing engagement with the essentially historical character of politics, the dynamic of which republican discourse was particularly well suited to exploring. Avoiding the loss of liberty which the acquisition of Empire had seemed to entail in Rome involved rethinking possible patterns of politico-economic development, providing a new definition of liberty which stressed personal and economic over political freedom, and proposing that impersonal institutional devices could replace virtuous motives in guaranteeing political liberty and stability. Such possibilities were explored by Montesquieu and Constant in France, Hume and Smith in Britain and ‘Publius’ (Madison, Hamilton and Jay) in America. They were rejected outright by Rousseau, for whom only the active citizen could guarantee rights, civic or civil.

The French Revolution was not only an event in which political philosophy played an important if hotly contested role; it also, like the rise and fall of Rome, provided a central topic for subsequent political reflection. The character of modernity, the nature of revolution, the relationship of political ideas to political action, the strength or weakness of rationalism as an informing principle, the viability and desirability of the Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, all became topics of philosophical speculation by post-Revolutionary thinkers such as Constant, Cabet, de Tocqueville, Burke, de Maistre, Saint-Simon, Owen and Coleridge, as well as a later generation including Comte, Carlyle and Marx.

In contrast to his predecessors’ use of Lockean psychology and the conditioning effects of experience and association to understand the processes of socio-economic change, Kant’s postulation of the transcendent self initiated a new vocabulary of idealism. This culminated in Hegel’s attempt to show how philosophical and historical (including political) change could be understood as the development and realization of a trans-historical consciousness or Geist, seeking to overcome internal tensions through a process of projection and transcendence.

The notion that human self-understanding and practices are to be understood historically immensely influenced subsequent political thinking, being central to the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (as well as shaping many of J.S. Mill’s modifications of classical utilitarianism). All three of the former owed insights to Hegel’s claims about the crucial and emblematic character of the master–slave struggle. However, while for Hegel and Marx the slave’s insights represent the transition to a higher form of consciousness – mediated in Marx’s case by a class revolution – for Nietzsche (despairingly) and Freud (resignedly) repression was a constitutive and self-perpetuating feature of modern politics.

While nineteenth century political thought was preoccupied with the historical conditioning of political sensibilities, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious was accompanied by the emergence of a mass, irrationalist politics, characteristic of the twentieth century, and more suited to sociological than philosophical analysis. Nevertheless rationalist political theory, deriving from utilitarianism, and frequently drawing on (and contributing to) economic thought, remains the dominant accent in contemporary political philosophy.

Citing this article:
Hampsher-Monk, Iain. Political philosophy, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S043-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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