Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political philosophy


Political philosophy

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.

Political institutions and ideologies

What are the issues that, historically and today, have most exercised political philosophers? To begin with, there is a set of questions about how political institutions should be arranged. Today we would think of this as an enquiry into the best form of state, though we should note that the state itself is a particular kind of political arrangement of relatively recent origin - for most of their history human beings have not been governed by states (see State, the). Since all states claim Authority over their subjects, two fundamental issues are the very meaning of authority, and the criteria by which we can judge forms of political rule legitimate (see Legitimacy; Contractarianism; General will; Power; Tradition and traditionalism). Connected to this is the issue of whether individual subjects have a moral obligation to obey the laws of their state (see Obligation, political), and of the circumstances under which politically-inspired disobedience is justifiable (see Civil disobedience; Revolution). Next there is a series of questions about the form that the state should take: whether authority should be absolute or constitutionally limited (see Absolutism; Constitutionalism); whether its structure should be unitary or federal (see Federalism and confederalism); whether it should be democratically controlled, and if so by what means (see Democracy; Representation, political). Finally here there is the question of whether any general limits can be set to the authority of the state - whether there are areas of individual freedom or privacy that the state must never invade on any pretext (see Law, limits of; Freedom of speech; Coercion; Property; Slavery), and whether there are subjects such as religious doctrine on which the state must adopt a strictly neutral posture (see Neutrality, political; Toleration).

Beyond the question of how the state itself should be constituted lies the question of the general principles that should guide its decisions. What values should inform economic and social policy for instance? Part of the political philosopher's task is to examine ideas that are often appealed to in political argument but whose meaning remains obscure, so that they can be used by politicians from rival camps to justify radically contrasting policies. Political philosophers try to give a clear and coherent account of notions such as Equality, Freedom and liberty, Justice, Needs and interests, Public interest, Rights and Welfare. And they also try to determine whether these ideas are consistent with, or conflict with, one another - whether, for instance, equality and liberty are competing values, or whether a society might be both free and equal at once.

Further questions arise about the principles that should guide one state in its dealings with other states. May states legitimately pursue what they regard as their national interests, or are they bound to recognize ethical obligations towards one another (see Development ethics)? More widely, should we be seeking a cosmopolitan alternative under which principles of justice would be applied at global level? (see International relations, philosophy of; Justice, international; GLOBALIZATION). When, if ever, are states justified in going to war with each other? (See War and peace, philosophy of.)

Over about the last two centuries, political debate has most often been conducted within the general frameworks supplied by rival ideologies. We can think of an ideology as a set of beliefs about the social and political world which simultaneously makes sense of what is going on, and guides our practical responses to it (see Ideology). Ideologies are often rather loosely structured, so that two people who are both conservatives, say, may reach quite different conclusions about some concrete issue of policy. Nevertheless they seem to be indispensable as simplifying devices for thinking about a political world of ever-increasing complexity.

No political philosopher can break free entirely from the grip of ideology, but political philosophy must involve a more critical scrutiny of the intellectual links that hold ideologies together, and a bringing to light of the unstated assumptions that underpin them. The most influential of these ideologies have been Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, nationalism (see Nation and nationalism; Eurasian movement; Pan-Slavism; Zionism; Pan-Africanism) and Marxism (see Marxism, Western; Marxist philosophy, Russian and Soviet; Marxism, Chinese). Other ideologies are of lesser political significance, either because they have drawn fewer adherents or because they have been influential over a shorter period of time: these include Anarchism, Communism, Fascism, Libertarianism, Republicanism, Social democracy and Totalitarianism.

Contemporary political philosophy

The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen a powerful revival of political philosophy, which in Western societies at least has mostly been conducted within a broadly liberal framework. Other ideologies have been outflanked: Marxism has gone into a rapid decline, and conservatism and socialism have survived only by taking on board large portions of liberalism. Some have claimed that the main rival to liberalism is now communitarianism (see Community and communitarianism); however on closer inspection the so-called liberal-communitarian debate can be seen to be less a debate about liberalism itself than about the precise status and form that a liberal political philosophy should take - whether, for example, it should claim universal validity, or should present itself simply as an interpretation of the political culture of the Western liberal democracies. The vitality of political philosophy is not to be explained by the emergence of a new ideological revival to liberalism, but by the fact that a new set of political issues has arisen whose resolution will stretch the intellectual resources of liberalism to the limit.

What are these issues? The first is the issue of social justice, which in one form or another has dominated political philosophy for much of the century. Most of the many liberal theories of justice on offer have had a broadly egalitarian flavour, demanding at least the partial offsetting of the economic and social inequalities thrown up by an unfettered market economy (see Market, ethics of the; Justice; Rawls, J.; Dworkin, R.; though for dissenting views see Hayek, F.A. von; Nozick, R.). These theories rested on the assumption that social and economic policy could be pursued largely within the borders of a self-contained political community, sheltered from the world market. This assumption has become increasingly questionable, and it presents liberals with the following dilemma: if the pursuit of social justice is integral to liberalism, how can this be now be reconciled with individual freedoms to move, communicate, work, and trade across state boundaries?

The second issue is posed by feminism, and especially the feminist challenge to the conventional liberal distinction between public and private spheres (see Feminist political philosophy). In many respects feminism and liberalism are natural allies, but when feminists argue for fundamental changes in the way men and women conduct their personal relationships, or advocate affirmative action policies for employment that seems to contravene firmly-entrenched liberal principles of desert and merit, they pose major challenges to liberal political philosophy (see Desert and merit).

Third, there is a set of issues arising from what we might call the new politics of cultural identity. Many groups in contemporary societies now demand that political institutions should be altered to reflect and express their distinctive cultures; these include, on the one hand, nationalist groups asserting that political boundaries should be redrawn to give them a greater measure of self-determination, and on the other cultural minorities whose complaint is that public institutions fail to show equal respect for those attributes that distinguish them from the majority (for instance their language or religion) (see Nation and nationalism; Multiculturalism; Postcolonialism). These demands once again collide with long-established liberal beliefs that the state should be culturally neutral, that citizens should receive equal treatment under the law, and that rights belong to individuals, not groups (see Citizenship; Affirmative action; Discrimination). It remains to be seen whether liberalism is sufficiently flexible to incorporate such demands.

Finally, liberalism is challenged by the environmental movement, whose adherents claim that liberal political principles cannot successfully address urgent environmental concerns, and more fundamentally that the liberal image of the self-sufficient, self-directing individual is at odds with the ecological picture of humanity's subordinate place in the system of nature as a whole (see Green political philosophy; Environmental ethics; SUSTAINABILITY). Liberalism, it is said, is too firmly wedded to the market economy and to consumption as the means of achieving personal well-being, to be able to embrace the radical policies needed to avoid environmental disaster.

None of these problems is capable of easy solution, and we can say with some confidence that political philosophy will continue to flourish even in a world in which the sharp ideological divisions of the mid-twentieth century no longer exist. We may also expect a renewal of non-Western traditions of political philosophy as free intellectual enquiry revives in those countries where for half a century or more it has been suppressed by the state. Political questions that have concerned philosophers for two millennia or more will be tackled using new languages and new techniques, while the ever-accelerating pace of technological and social change will generate new problems whose solution we can barely begin to anticipate.

How to cite this article:
MILLER, DAVID (1998). Political philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved December 04, 2021, from

Please note, this site uses web standards that your browser does not support.
See help for further information.

Back to Top