Theoretical foundation

The Nature of Political Theory
September 24, 2004

Much of contemporary political theory does not address the urgent and distressing political issues of our day. One cannot but wonder whether there is something wrong with the way that theory, which has only very recently become a fully fledged academic discipline, has developed.

This book offers a comprehensive overview of the major strands of contemporary political theory and presents a case for the importance of metaphysics to the study of politics. Andrew Vincent sees himself as a critic of the consensus among professional political theorists, which has a definite anti-metaphysical bias. Professional political theorists are inherently sceptical of any claims that politics has "necessary" foundations.

Vincent holds that "political theory is an intrinsically plural discipline - a mixed mode or polyvocal form of study... There are no overarching authoritative exemplars, methods or absolutely key foundational concepts within the discipline." However, he argues that this very anti-foundationalism is itself a metaphysical position, although one that is oriented towards anti-dogmatism and an open-minded and pluralist attitude. In his view, the rehabilitation of metaphysics can help to solve important disagreements in political theory.

One kind of disagreement that dogs political theory is that between "universalists" and "conventionalists". The former group holds that there can be a set of politically relevant general principles for action that are accepted by all and applicable in all circumstances, whereas the latter believes that political principles must always be located in their concrete historical situation.

Vincent argues that no universal principles, as envisaged by "universalists", have managed to acquire general acceptance and proposed "universal laws" are usually too abstract to have a concrete bearing on daily decision-making. Conventionalists tend to exaggerate the significance of cultures and traditions in shaping people's capacity to think and judge for themselves. But Vincent is not at all clear in explaining how metaphysics could help to resolve this debate.

As traditionally construed, metaphysics was supposed to offer substantive guidance in political and moral life. But given the history of the 20th century, we are sceptical about bold claims that political theory contains systematically privileged knowledge of morality and politics. This scepticism would seem to be no more than common sense, not something specifically metaphysical.

Those of us concerned with the disparity between political theory and reality would do well to keep our minds open. But we must be careful not to confuse open-mindedness with promiscuity. To insist on foundational pluralism, even if we argue for it by depicting our condition as one of being irrecoverably thrown into a "hermeneutic circle", does not equip us with criteria for avoiding the confusion.

Zeev Emmerich is completing a doctoral dissertation on political philosophy at Cambridge University.

The Nature of Political Theory

Author - Andrew Vincent
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 354
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 19 9125 9

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