Six men's big ideas

Reading Political Philosophy
June 1, 2001

This book is well geared to the needs of courses introducing political philosophy by way of canonical texts. Written for the Open University course, Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill provides a complete study guide to key texts of six thinkers. Those covered, between Machiavelli and Mill, are Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx (with Engels). Each chapter begins with introductory material on the life and times of its thinker, explaining and contextualising difficult concepts, and suggesting exercises and discussion questions. Care is taken to make clear what political and philosophical concerns animated the historical texts and the debates they have given rise to. Each chapter then has a set of four or five essays, representing a suitable variety of perspectives, from eminent commentators such as Isaiah Berlin, C. B. Macpherson, Quentin Skinner, Carole Pateman, Brian Barry, G. A. Cohen, Will Kymlicka and Jeremy Waldron. The quality of secondary literature represented is first rate and the quantity is nicely judged for a stimulating but realistic student workload.

The book could also lighten the workload of tutors, considering what it takes to assemble not only informed and approachable background notes and fertile discussion topics, but also secondary readings that are accessible to a large number of students. Some teachers might have qualms about spoonfeeding a homogenised curriculum, but the book is so designed that it really depends on students going to the original texts. Even while a tutor aims to maintain a more independent approach to the material, I see no harm having to justify it against the standards set by a textbook such as this.

The volume has a basic educational and intellectual soundness that outweighs any quibble or minor scruple the conscientious teacher might have about adopting it as a solution to the logistical problems of securing access, sometimes for several hundred students, to disparate and limited holdings of copyrighted publications. Students will also appreciate the book's convenience, user-friendliness and vibrancy.

Tim Hayward is reader in politics, University of Edinburgh.

Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill. First Edition

Author - Derek Matravers, Nigel Warburton and Jonathan Pike
ISBN - 0 415 21196 4 and 21197 2
Publisher - Routledge, in association with the Open University
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 382

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