No magic mix

Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy

May 30, 2003

This volume is a sizeable collection of journal articles and book chapters by some of the most influential political philosophers of recent years. A good range of substantive concerns is addressed, with the essays and extracts grouped around topics that include distributive justice, democracy, nationalism, and citizenship and multiculturalism.

Given the line-up of authors and topics, the volume would appear to be a valuable teaching resource for relatively advanced courses in contemporary political philosophy. Yet, I have certain reservations.

The editors characterise contemporary political philosophy as starting with John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, a work they take to have marked a turn from explanatory to normative theory. Given that the field as thus delineated yields a vast literature, I am not sure why the first four chapters are allocated to topics in the philosophy of social explanation that do not quite fit it.

This is not to deny that students would benefit from reading Steven Lukes' seminal treatment of methodological individualism, or Jon Elster on game theory, for instance, but the editors could have allowed more space for items closer to the heart of contemporary debates in normative political philosophy.

Among contemporary debates students might expect to encounter but will not find here are those dealing with feminist issues, environmental issues, human rights and global justice.

For a volume that professes to show how political philosophy is flourishing and keeping pace with political change beyond the academy, it has a dated feel. This is not because some of the essays were originally published ten years before today's generation of students was born, but because some of the selections are rather backward looking.

The general level of the essays is quite difficult, and students with a sufficiently wide and deep knowledge to benefit may well have reached a stage at which the selections appear restrictive.

In short, while congratulating the editors on putting together a collection in which every item is worth reading, I cannot help thinking that judged purely as a teaching resource the whole does not quite have a value equal to the sum of its parts.

Tim Hayward is reader in politics, University of Edinburgh.


Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. First edition

Editor - Derek Matravers and Jonathan Pike
ISBN - 0 415 30210 2 and 30211 0
Publisher - Routledge/Open University
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
Pages - 454

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