political theory

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Critical, systematic reflection about power in its public and private forms, particularly about the claims of government to possess legitimacy and authority; and, more generally, such reflection about the place of politics in social life. There is no generally accepted distinction between political theory and political philosophy, but two differences of emphasis may be mentioned. First, political philosophers have developed and defended particular conceptions of human nature, before going on to explore the implications of their view for political life; but political theory may be less ambitious, exploring what follows if assumptions are made about that nature. Secondly, because political theory is eclectic, it draws upon the work not only of philosophers but also of lawyers and social scientists: particularly sociologists, economists, and psychologists—as well as, of course, political scientists. Its ambitions are to explain the political realm, to explore what is at stake in political practice, and to elucidate the values which motivate political action or which are affected by it.

One approach to the fulfilment of these ambitions is conceptual inquiry, aiming to elucidate the meaning and value‐content of ideals by which political actors are guided, like liberty, equality, and fraternity, or terms of political debate and analysis like power and authority. A second approach has been the provision of models of behaviour generated by a restricted set of assumptions and compared to experience. In particular, there has been some emulation of the process of model‐building in economics, and often the direct use of the assumption of self‐interested behaviour associated with it. So, for example, democracy has been modelled as a market in which parties (producers) meet voters (consumers). More generally, game theory has been applied to explore what ‘rational’ actors would do in political contexts. Thirdly, reflecting its eclectic nature, political theory has aimed to synthesize the findings or insights of the many disciplines upon which it draws. For example, the political theory of property has tried to embrace the philosophical, psychological, sociological, legal, and economic components of the social significance of property. Fourthly, there is the critical evaluation of the findings of political science, in particular a concern with the methodology of inquiry which is informed by the philosophy of the social sciences. Fifthly, prescription may result from analysis of contemporary conditions: for example, arguments in favour of greater participation are associated with a particular diagnosis of democratic malaise. Finally, there is a concern with the exploration of political ideologies, particularly socialism, conservatism, and liberalism. Because such exploration has a necessary historical component, political theory and political philosophy are brought together to the point where many practitioners would deny that a useful distinction may be made between them.


Subjects: Classical Studies — Politics.

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