A handle on brain jammers

Political Thought . First Edition - Introduction to Political Philosophy. First Editio - Modern Political Philosophy. First Edition
May 26, 2000

Political philosophy involves critical analysis of historically developing ideas. Introductions to the subject, though, often separate the analysis of current concepts and ideologies from the study of the history of political thought. For an analytical introduction, Geoffrey Thomas's thorough and well-organised textbook, Introduction to Political Philosophy , would be hard to beat. It offers a complete grounding. Within the first few pages one is introduced to various approaches to understanding politics, such as the teleological and the pre-suppositional, and axiological autonomy. Thomas's philosophical approach is characterised as a hierarchy of conceptual analysis, high-level theorising and the investigation of aporias. Still, if one is daunted by some of these terms, and not reassured by being told, for instance, that an aporia is much what Kant meant by an antinomy, then, Thomas suggests one can just think of it as "brain jammer". The actual "brain jammers" of political thought - such as the paradox of democracy - are presented in the body of the book as accessibly as they can be without oversimplification. If Thomas does not conceal difficulties, he does offer help in overcoming them, with many useful hints for students and teachers.

The main chapters apply rigorous analysis to core conceptual clusters: power, authority, sovereignty, law and state; justice, equality, rights and property; freedom, democracy and public interest. These are followed by a chapter on ideologies, and a 30-page endnote - "filling the gaps" - where Thomas explains, among other things, why nationalism or environmentalism are not included under "ideologies" - the reason being that they do not seem to have a distinctive take on politics as such - although he is open-minded about this, particularly in the case of green political theory, "of which the ideological credentials improve by the day." Because the book is so clearly structured, with helpfully subdivided sections fully detailed in its contents, it lends itself to selective reading, suitable for students who might struggle to work through it from cover to cover. It is also abundant in references for further reading.

Richard Hudelson's book, Modern Political Philosophy , presents a contrast in nearly every respect. I confine my comment to its advertised claim to take an historical approach. In the early chapters, this amounts to a rough periodisation of ideas: eg in the 19th century utilitarianism supplants natural-rights theory in the anglophone world. Yet, even this periodisation seems to count for little, when, for instance, a section on Kant introduces the "great 18th-century German philosopher" as "a firm critic of utilitarianism". Questions arise about the point of such an ostensibly historical approach if chronology can be so casually short-circuited. And the later chapters do not seem to have much use for history. On justice, on libertarianism, and its critics, Hudelson is largely conceptual, devoting most of his attention to John Rawls. I suppose this could be viewed as part of recent United States history, and the last couple of chapters do address some contemporary political preoccupations, but to the extent that an historical take on them is offered, it is rather speculative and sweeping. I doubt that many UK political-philosophy courses are organised in such a way as to make this an appropriate textbook.

Political Thought offers 140 excerpts from texts spanning the history of western political thought from Plato to Francis Fukuyama. These are arranged under thematic headings like "Justification for the state", "Democracy and its difficulties", and so on. The aim is to reveal what canonical thinkers had to say about questions political philosophers find important today, treating them, in effect, as contributors to contemporary debates. It is always good sport to see who makes the cut in an anthology. Faithfully reflecting the typical university syllabus, there is nobody from the time of Aristotle until the 16th century, and even then neither More's Utopia nor, interestingly, Machiavelli's The Prince are deemed to speak to our present concerns. The main social contract theorists are there, the 19th century is well-represented, and 20th-century contributors are numerous. Among contemporaries, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty get a look in; Jean-Francois Lyotard does not. Quentin Skinner is not only in, but is allowed a piece much longer than any other in the book: given that his own contextual approach to historical texts is at odds with the very rationale of this reader, I was struck by this compliment. A nice touch is the inclusion of other literary genres: Aesop, Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot get an airing.

Less sportingly, I wondered how contemporary the themes are. The section on the state has readings on civil disobedience, for instance, but not on arguably more current questions about sovereignty, constitutionality, or cosmopolitanism; there is nothing on deliberative democracy; feminism is not counted among "alternatives to liberalism"; and green political thought is entirely unrepresented. Still, given the otherwise comprehensive coverage of central themes and the wide range of thinkers carefully chosen to speak on them, the volume is a useful and stimulating resource.

Of the books reviewed, I would only really consider one to be a textbook. Current research assessment exercise imperatives discourage textbook writing in favour of research monographs. However, I suspect many of the latter will ultimately contribute less to research in the subject than a book like Thomas's, which offers such a sound grounding for the next generation of political philosophers.

Tim Hayward is senior lecturer in politics, University of Edinburgh.

Political Thought . First Edition

Editor - Michael Rosen and Jonathan Wolff
ISBN - 0 19 2898 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.00
Pages - 442

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