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Political theory, what is it all about?

Politics, considered as the set of principles that applies to a group of people have a legitimation problem at all times. Why do we uphold that rule rather than another one? The attempt to answer this pressing question calls for a thorough examination of our values and conceptions of good. After all, we need a stable justification point outside politics to make up our minds when questioned why that but not the other. This is where political theory comes into play. By deliberating on our values, political theorists position themselves above the policymakers to criticize, assess and guide their policies.

In simple terms, political theorists direct the why question to everyday politics and thus shape how politics ought to be. Yet there are other two main factors aside from political theory which affect how we do politics: history and political science. The relationship between these three subjects has been summarized vaguely by the following canonical saying: from Plato to Nato. There is theory, history and political science in this statement.

Beginning in the 50’s, politics started to disregard its normative component in two distinct ways.

First of all, the rise of the behavioural scientists contributed to the neglection of theory. For instance William Riker rejects ‘‘belles letters, criticism, and philosophic speculation’’ (1982a: 753) in politics. This trend led the quantitative papers to dominate the politics journals. These papers were full of numbers, charts, GDP comparisons yet they lacked any discussion of, let us say, which criteria to use for assessing the prosperity of two nations: sustainable growth or GDP?

The second factor for the downfall of philosophy came with relativist undertones. In an essay published in 1989, Richard Ashcraft called upon political theorists to acknowledge the fundamentally historical character of their enterprise. It is a bit of a tricky assumption to make because the political theory is theorized and written as if it is an objective truth rather than an ideology. Those who come up with the western ethnocentrism charge might even accept this reply, yet they point out the subconscious assumptions that the prominent theorists make. For example, Rawl’s theory is a perfect example of political theory which is stripped of historicism and political science. He imagines a society behind a veil of ignorance and theorizes what justice would amount to when people are ignorant about who they are in the social hierarchy.

Yet this innocent looking methodology has been repeatedly challenged. Post-structuralists and communitarians argue that the individual of Rawlsian liberalism is not neutral but an ideological premise with significant, political effects and assumptions (Sandel 1982; Honig 1993). The idea is that when Rawls strips his pre-political individual of every(most) contingent fact about human beings, his race, nationality, individual tastes… he ends up with NOBODY. What is a man without his race or individual tastes? For some, the starting point of Rawl’s theory is too individualistic and does not do justice to the fact that we are defined by our race, nation, neighbours… Thus they argue that Rawls’ is moving with a western individualist assumption which has no basis in, let us say, African, Middle-Eastern societies.

This is quite a tricky topic. In his later works, Rawls also acknowledged the impact of his cultural on his work. But the question of how far to take this charge remains unresolved. Does it shatter all forms of universalism or is it just a warning sign for the philosophers who are fond of making assumptions about human nature and global justice.

The critique of ‘‘foundationalism’’ used to arouse heated debate among political theorists e.g. Rorty. Many were incensed at the suggestion that their claims about universal justice, equality, or human rights had no independent grounding, and accused the sceptics of abandoning normative political theory. It looks like the debate is ongoing in the recent literature. But there is surely a room for universal claims. After all, despite our differences, we share more than we realize in common. The study of ideals and universal values can still guide our search for a better society. After all, how do we navigate around the world without sketching out, even vaguely, who we are and what end we are striving for?


Leading comparativist Bo Rothstein (2005) has expressed the worry that the empirical arm of the discipline has lost its moral compass. As he puts it “technically competent barbarians would have no defence against lining up in support of a political force like Nazism, should that be expedient?”

Rothstein himself sees the remedy in political theory: ‘‘The good news is that, unlike other disciplines, I think we have the solution within our own field of research. This, I believe, lies in reconnecting the normative side of the discipline—that is, political philosophy—with the positive/empirical side’’ (2005, 10). Despite the likelihood of some resistance to this from both sides of the divide, the examples discussed above suggest that such connection (or reconnection) is indeed possible.”

Yes it is indeed possible.

Written in 2017

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