A brief introduction to the study of political philosophy
A Brief Introduction to the Study of Political Philosophy
Political Philosophy - What Is It?
In general, we can say that political philosophy isthatbranch of philosophy which deals with political life,especially with the
essence, origin and valueof the state. The fact that men livein political organizations,and thatpolitical organization involvesrights
and duties of an imperative nature, provides us with the subjectmatter of political philosophy.The subject-matter of this enterprise
is the state and the main problem is the justification of its claimto possess sovereign power over the wills of its subjects.Political
philosophy asksquestions such as:
What is the ultimate justification for the existence of any form of government?
The government of a state claims absolutesovereignty over its subjects.Upon what grounds can this claimbe justified?
What are, or ought to be, the proper limits of governmental power over the members of society?
Is itpossibleto have rigid control over the economic affairs of people without curtailingtheir political freedom?
Should elected representatives to a legislaturebeallowed to vote as they see fit, or should they merely reflect the majority
opinion of their constituency?
It is importantto define some important terms in the study of political philosophy,so there is no confusion amongthem:
A society is any group of people held together by actual or potential common interests.
A state is a society organized to make lawpossible.In a general attempt to identi fy state characteristics thatwould be recognized by
a substantial number of political philosophies,onecan say that the state is separated conceptually and historically fromother kinds
of political ruleby
its extreme centralization or concentration of power internally,coupled with its rejection of so-called supranational power
its secularism,or atleastits nonreligious basis,necessitating,ata minimum, toleration of religious diversity;
its emphasis on the legal rights of its citizens rather than on the direct participation of all in day-to-day decision making;
its relianceon the authority of laws that itmakes, interprets, and enforces itself through its own agents;
its operation -- once lawis in effect -- through a bureaucracy,or civil service,thatexists mainly to perform services for the
its refusal to leave decisiveportions of power with any private or voluntary association,such asa church or a corporation.
A government is an organization,within society,whose function is to make and administer the laws.Note that the state is notthe
It is also importantto distinguish political philosophy per se from the academic disciplineknown as political science. Political science
a branch of the social sciences dealingwith the theory, organization,government, and practiceof the state. It embraces both politics
and administration,thetwo parts being coordinaterather than exclusive.
What about the commonly-used term "political theory"? For our purposes here, this term refers generally to the entire body of
doctrine relatingto the origin,form, behavior,and purposeof the state. Somewhat arbitrarily,this body of doctrinemay be given a
The firstof these classifications (ethical and speculative) is sometimes termed "political ethics"or "political philosophy"and is a
branch of ethics for some political philosophers,whileother political philosophersarguethat ethics itself is a branch of politics.
Regardless of where one stands on that issue,the ethical and speculativedimensions deal with whatought to be in the realm of
matters political and its method consists of systematic rational analysis of commonsense notions and relevant data .Specifically,
speculativepolitical theory consists of imaginativeconstructionsof ideal or utopian states such as may be found in
Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia (1516),and Tomasso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623).
Sociological political theory may well be described as a part of the broader theory of society. Its method is analytical and empirical
and it seeks to determine the relation of the state to other aspects of society and to analyzethe state as a form of social
Legal political theory deals with the nature of law, the juristicconceptof sovereignty, and legal situationsarisingoutof the
institutions and devices for distributingand controllingthe exerciseof political power.
Scientific political theory consists largely of empirical observationsof political phenomena to ascertain probabletrends or
generalizations,the equivalentof "laws"in the empirical sciences,such as biology and physics.The study of the courseand natureof
political change,the relativeefficiency of various governmental and administrativeforms and processes,and the probableeffect of
given political institutionsupon human liberty and social well-being,fall into this category.
It may also beuseful to distinguish between the art of politics and the science of politics. The art, ideally,is thepracticeof
government so that it accords with justice,so thatthe dignity and the effectiveness of institutions aremaintained and good and able
men are kept in control of public affairs.The science of politicsanalyzes and elaborates thetheory of the state and examines the
various types of public administration,past,present, and proposed. The two things flowinto each other. The fields of "mora ls and
legislation"tend to become closely united.It has been a common conception from the time of Thomas Hobbes to the present time,
that the state itself creates morals or standards of conduct;that what the state decides and commends is ethically right.But there is
a different view; namely, that there is a Moral Order higher than any human laws,higher than the state itself,by which all actsof
authority are to be judged.
History of Political Philosophy
The scienceor philosophy of politicsisoneof the richestfield of human inquiry.Itpossesses a greatand classical literaturein
The ancientGreek philosopher Plato and his Republicis the beginning. This colossal work,whose main subjectis justicein the
individual and thestate, contains conceptual analysiscritical for both ethics and descriptive-explanatory inquiry.Plato attempts to
define what justiceis,firstas a matter of individual justaction,and eventually as a characteristic of the justindividua l and thejust
society.Furthermore, Plato's work outlines the structure and functions of the ideal state. It became the pattern for all the Utopias of
The scope and form of reasoningin political philosophy,however, were firstclearly developed by the Greek philosopher,Aris totle,
whose Politics lies atthe baseof subsequent discussion.Aristotle's studies were limited to the Greek "city-state" or polis, which,to
his mind,represented the highest attainment of human freedom and law.His method was concrete and inductive.He collected
hundreds of city-stateconstitutions,compared their provisions,and deduced general principles.The state, to Aristotle,was not a
Utopia such as thatimagined by Plato,but it was an actual institution realized in hundreds of examples throughout the Aegea n and
Mediterranean seas.No writer has stated better, or in fewer words, the purposeof civilized society."The state," says Aristotle,
"comes into existence, that man may live.It continues, that man may livewell." "Good life,"in all its rich and nobleexpressions,is
the aimand object of the state.
Centuries after Aristotle, another political philosopher,the Italian statesman Niccolo Machiavelli,examined the city-states of his
own day,with results that offer startingcontrasts.Machiavelli's political studies areembraced in two works. The first,called The
Prince, is a discussion of the sinister principles whereby the Italian despotof that day maintained himself in power. The other, The
Discourses, which is a far nobler and more suggestive work, examines the principles whereby a republic may endure.
A century later comes the period where national governments riseabovefeudal conditions.The kingattains an absolutepower and
destroys the independence of the nobles.This monarchical movement met with opposition.In England itwas overthrown by
revolution.Out of the struggles of the period came several notableworks -- The Republic by Jean Bodin,in which is firstessayed a
definition of the difficultconception of "sovereignty"; The Leviathan, of Thomas Hobbes, who attempted to justify monarchical
absolutismby the theory of a "social contract"between subjects and king; The Patriarcha, of Sir Robert Filmer,an attempt to found
monarchy upon patriarchal authority conferred by God upon Adam.
A littlelater,in the 18th century, John Locke, in Two Treatises on Civil Government, turns the doctrine of the social contractagainst
the monarchists,layingthe basis for the "rightof revolution"in the abusiveexerciseof a power which monarchs have contra cted to
use with justiceand discretion."Men are," said Locke, "by nature all free, equal, and independent." Only by free consent does man
enter into the obligations of society,resigninghis natural rights to a public authority in return for benefits which,if not satisfactorily
conferred, he is at liberty to end. Misruleby a monarch,in Locke's view, not only justifies rebellion butmakes it inevitable.Locke
powerfully affected the minds of the English colonistsin America,and some of his actual languageappears in the Declara tion of
Independence. The revolutionary ideas of Locke we put into a winged form by Jean-Jacques Rousseau,whose Social
Contract contributed incalculably to the French Revolution and has remained to the present day an inspiration to political revolt.
Need for Government
There is a widespread disposition,by no means of recent origin,to question the usefulness of the state. To the anarchist,l aws area
stumblingblock and a stone of offense, and, to extremist reformers generally,governments areinstitutions for the exploitation of
the many by the few. But a scientific canvassof society in its variousstages,fromsavagery to civilization,reveals thecertain fact
that, however much governments have been and still areassociated with acts of oppression,there is no escapefrom human illsin
Mankind,without a common authority, is predatory.Society released, as occasionally happens,fromthe respect and dread of
government, promptly exhibits the most violent and terribletendencies. Imperfect as governments are, discriminatingin their
bestowal of advantages as they too frequently are, nevertheless they arethe safeguard and security for the advantages of life.
The sentimental philosophers of the 18th century imagined a natural stateenjoyed by savagepeoples, in which the blessings of
simplicity and freedom were attained. Modern study of primitivesociety reveals no such happy "state of nature," but everywhere a
cramped and cruel savageexistence in which lifeis never free from danger and the human mind seldomreleased from terror.
Noel C. Jopson, MATSS