There has been a flood of introductory guides to political philosophy, no doubt the spill-over effects of "the publish or perish" climate in academia over the past few years, many of them rather mediocre and pedestrian. It seems that teachers of such introductory courses think it useful, or are encouraged by publishers, to convert their lectures into a book no matter how dull they might be. However, there is a strong need for interesting, well-written and clear introductory texts. As many teachers of core political philosophy courses can attest, teaching the subject to undergraduate students can be an arduous task, especially when a significant number of them are compelled to attend by the requirements of their degree programme. Those students who lack any interest in the subject (and sometimes even those who are as keen as mustard) cavil at having to read difficult articles or obtuse historical texts. They seek reliable introductions in their quest to find an easier way to understand difficult primary sources. What is more, the general public, whose interest in issues such as "rights" or "justice" is aroused by day-to-day events, also values clear and interesting introductory guides.
All three books under review genuinely offer useful contributions to solving these problems, despite differing markedly in approach and content. Two of them (Martin Cohen's and Dudley Knowles's) aim largely to be clarificatory and expository, while the third (Will Kymlicka's) offers an in-depth analysis of liberalism and its critics, as well as spin-offs such as multiculturalism and citizenship theory.
Cohen's approach is the only one that offers a broad sweep across the history of political thought starting with Plato's Republic and ending with Mao's Little Red Book . This wide range is covered with surprising agility and clarity. The book offers an engaging account of political philosophy where great schools of thought are audaciously summarised in a paragraph or two. The time lines that precede each chapter are intriguing even if a bit quirky at times.
The central advantages of this book are undoubtedly its lucidity, range and unorthodox approach to presenting key thinkers who have deeply influenced political philosophy. Who would not be intrigued, for example, by a chapter titled "Behold the man! the deceptive appeal of power: Hegel, Nietzsche and the Fascists"?
However, this book's main limitation, especially as an academic text for undergraduate students, is its lack of rigorous and systematic argument. It remains throughout almost entirely descriptive and lacks the depth to facilitate a critical and sophisticated understanding of the material. However, those who want a well-written and broad introduction to the subject will richly enjoy this book. Its appropriate market, like those books that present the history and development of science for non-scientists, is the intelligent layperson interested in political philosophy.
Knowles's contribution focuses on the great issues within political philosophy such as "liberty", "rights", "distributive justice" and "political obligation". This text is the one that I believe students will find the most appealing of the three. It is largely expository, but it offers the in-depth overview of topics that students crave when drafting essays or seeking a useful summary of a particular topic. For example, Knowles's chapter on "Democracy" begins with an excellent account of Rousseau's contribution that then leads the reader through a number of twists and turns until they reach the contemporary debates concerning democratic deliberation and disagreement. It provides an excellent account of the big picture, although it does have a recognisable slant. Knowles himself alerts us to this when he describes himself as "a partisan, even militant, liberal". One concern is that readers will not find the detailed arguments that are behind the claims for and against a particular conclusion, whether it is in a discussion about deliberative democracy or issues concerning liberty. For these, we need to turn to the book by Kymlicka.
Kymlicka's beefing-up of his first edition of Contemporary Political Philosophy adds two chapters ("Citizenship theory" and "Multiculturalism") and expands previous chapters to respond to recent developments in liberal political philosophy since 1990. These changes make this edition still more attractive and useful than the first. Its depth, lucidity and rigour mark it out as one of the better introductions on the market for anyone who wishes seriously to engage with the important recent debates within contemporary liberal theory. It stands out as that rare introductory book that offers the hard analytical work required if one is really to get to grips with the issues. However, I do have two caveats. First, its analytical and argumentative approach makes it tough going for those who struggle with philosophical inquiry. Second, Kymlicka's presentation tends to make his conclusions seem definitive when they ought to be understood as part of a continuing and largely unresolved debate. For example, his dismissal of John Rawls's later work in Political Liberalism gives the erroneous impression that this is a settled issue when it remains hotly contested.
Overall, these three books are welcome and offer something for everyone. The need for them seems especially high in light of the seismic events of recent months in the United States and elsewhere, which have given students and the public at large, now as never before, a strong incentive to become far better acquainted with these eternally important issues of justice and liberty that have traditionally been the concerns of political philosophy.
Stephen de Wijze is lecturer in political theory, University of Manchester.
Political Philosophy. First edition
Author - Dudley Knowles
ISBN - 1 85728 760 6 and 550 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 392