New ideas and old wisdoms

September 18, 2008

A History of Political Thought: From Antiquity to the Present

Author: Bruce Haddock

Edition: First

Publisher: Polity Press

Pages: 320

Price: £60.00 and £18.99

ISBN 9780745640846 and 0853

The very idea of normative political theory has been beset by critics since the late 20th century from a series of perspectives, variously communitarian, relativist or postmodern in outlook. But as the closing chapter of Bruce Haddock's new survey argues, this predicament is a new variation on time-honoured themes.

His story begins with the confrontation between Socrates and Plato, who sought to ground the concept of justice in principles natural and immutable, and Sophists such as Protagoras who had argued that "man is the measure of all things". In these encounters, the argument is not only about this or that particular conception of justice, but addresses the very possibility of dialogue about common principles negotiated between different perspectives, interests and traditions. As Haddock retells it, the story of political thought has thus come full circle.

Haddock's approach builds on three theoretical commitments. Firstly, he sees the contingency of historical circumstances as crucial to the contexts with which political theorists grapple. But secondly, his account of the various phases of theoretical engagement refers continually to a perennial human need for social co-operation as a substratum informing all political thought, whatever other commitments theorists may have debated. This helps ground a third argument - that there remains an enduring need to engage in contention about normative principles and foundational commitments that can justify different forms of co-operation, no matter how tentative, and despite the challenges posed by the new sophists of post-foundationalism.

Haddock's prose is clear and engaging and its texture is enriched by a wide range of reference. His account combines the virtues of two distinct approaches: firstly, chapters run consecutively in a more or less continuous chronological narrative, each zooming in on particular thinkers or texts in concise critical discussions. Secondly, each chapter prioritises a particular theme such as the tension between nature and convention for the Greeks and the emergence of the modern state for early moderns such as Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Haddock's general belief that political thought changes with circumstances supports a decision to identify key preoccupations and exigencies at each phase in the narrative that provide a leading concern suitable for characterising the period. Combining the two approaches has its difficulties as well as its advantages. Highlighting one theme sometimes causes other significant topics to fall back into shadow, and more might have been done in introducing the book to explain and justify the approach at the outset - but the benefits outweigh by far the costs on the whole.

Haddock's text will serve as an excellent overview for students of political thought, introducing them to the major concepts and thinkers and helping to persuade them of their continued importance.

Who is it for? Particularly useful to undergraduates taking courses in political theory and its history.

Presentation: Highly readable, well balanced between thematic focus, historical narrative and analysis of key theorists.

Would you recommend it? Yes.

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