Political philosophy, or political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why (or even if) they are needed, what, if anything, makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law needed for society, and what duties of citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.
In a vernacular sense, the term "political philosophy" often refers to a general view, or specific ethic, political belief or attitude, about politics, synonymous to the term "political ideology".
Political philosophy is considered by some to be a sub-discipline of political science; however, the name generally attributed to this form of political enquiry is political theory, a discipline which has a closer methodology to the theoretical fields in the social sciences (like economic theory) than to philosophical argumentation (like that of moral philosophy or aesthetics).
- Is the ordinary person incompetent? No judgment is more decisive for one's political philosophy. It was perhaps the single most important difference in judgment between Plato and Aristotle.
- Robert A. Dahl, After the Revolution? (1970; 1990), p. 26
- Ask me if you choose if a Cynic shall engage in the administration of the State. O fool, seek you a nobler administration that that in which he is engaged? Ask you if a man shall come forward in the Athenian assembly and talk about revenue and supplies, when his business is to converse with all men, Athenians, Corinthians, and Romans alike, not about supplies, not about revenue, nor yet peace and war, but about Happiness and Misery, Prosperity and Adversity, Slavery and Freedom? Ask you whether a man shall engage in the administration of the State who has engaged in such an Administration as this? Ask me too if he shall govern; and again I will answer, Fool, what greater government shall he hold than he holds already?
- Epictetus, Golden Sayings, 117.
- A major danger in using highly abstractive methods in political philosophy is that one will succeed merely in generalizing one’s own local prejudices and repackaging them as demands of reason. The study of history can help to counteract this natural human bias.
- Raymond Geuss, “Neither History Nor Praxis,” Outside Ethics (Princeton: 2005), pp. 38-39
- In attempting to teach the prince how to achieve, maintain, and expand power, Machiavelli made his fundamental and celebrated distinction between "the effective truth of things" and the "imaginary republics and monarchies that have never been seen nor have been known to exist." The implication was that moral and political philosophers had hitherto talked exclusively about the latter and had failed to provide guidance to the real world in which the prince must operate. This demand for a scientific, positive approach was extended only later from the prince to the individual, from the nature of the state to human nature. Machiavelli probably sensed that a realistic theory of the state required a knowledge of human nature, but his remarks on that subject, while invariably acute, are scattered and unsystematic.
- Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (1977), p. 12-13
- The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.
- John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Ch. 24 "Concluding Notes" p. 383-384
- There is the same difference between political theory and constitutional laws as there is between poetics and poetry. The illustrious Montesquieu is to Lycurgus, in the intellectual hierarchy, what Batteux is to Homer or Racine. Moreover, these two talents positively exclude each other, as can be seen by the example of Locke, who fumbled badly when he presumed to give laws to the Americans.
- Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France (1796), ch. VI
- Today political science is often said to be ‘descriptive’ or ‘empirical,’ concerned with facts; political philosophy is called ‘normative’ because it expresses values. But these terms merely repeat in more abstract form the difference between political science, which seeks agreement, and political philosophy, which seeks the best.
- Harvey Mansfield, A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy (2001), p. 6
- Some anarchists have claimed not merely that we would be better off without a state, but that any state necessarily violates people's moral rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Our starting point then, though nonpolitical, is by intention far from nonmoral. Moral philosophy sets the background for, and boundaries of, political philosophy. What persons may and may not do to one another limits what they may do through the apparatus of a state, or do to establish such an apparatus.
- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Ch. 1 : Why State of Nature Theory?; Political Philosophy, p. 6
- If I were to attempt to put my political philosophy tonight into a single phrase, it would be this: Trust the people. Trust their good sense, their decency, their fortitude, their faith. Trust them with the facts. Trust them with the great decisions. And fix as our guiding star the passion to create a society where people can fulfill their own best selves—where no American is held down by race or color, by worldly condition or social status, from gaining what his character earns him as an American citizen, as a human being and as a child of God.
- Adlai Stevenson, speech at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, September 13, 1956. Stevenson, The New America, ed. Seymour E. Harris, Jr., p. 13–14 (1971).
- The founder of modern political philosophy is Machiavelli. He tried to effect, and he did effect, a break with the whole tradition of political philosophy. He compared his achievement to that of men like Columbus. He claimed to have discovered a new moral continent. His claim is well founded; his political teaching is "wholly new." The only question is whether the new continent is fit for human habitation.
- Leo Strauss, "What is Political Philosophy?", published in What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies (1959)
- ... we rarely think from first principles, even first principles we ourselves sincerely endorse, but rather from sentiments instilled in us by our culture. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of humanity’s moral attitudes toward non-human animals. Even most utilitarians, who by their own ideals ought to consider the suffering of all beings important, are still in fact exceptionally anthropocentric in their attitudes. The insights of Darwin have not yet trickled fully into our moral consciousness, not even among those whose moral views demand it. Such is the heavy momentum of culture, which is reflected in every facet of modern politics and political thought. The anthropocentrism of most political philosophy is, to put it mildly, a massive failure.
- Magnus Vinding, Reasoned Politics (Ratio Ethica, 2022), Ch. 10: "Non-Human Beings and Politics", p. 109
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