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Political philosophy


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 is, and what duties 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).

Chinese political philosophy dates back to the Spring and Autumn period, specifically with Confucius in the 6th century BC. Chinese political philosophy was developed as a response to the social and political breakdown of the country characteristic of the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period. The major philosophies during the period, Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, Agrarianism and Taoism, each had a political aspect to their philosophical schools. Philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Mozi, focused on political unity and political stability as the basis of their political philosophies. Confucianism advocated a hierarchical, government based on empathy, loyalty, and interpersonal relationships. Legalism advocated a highly authoritarian government based on punishments and laws. Mohism advocated a communal, decentralized government centered on frugality and ascetism. The Agrarians advocated a peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism. Taoism advocated a proto-anarchism. Legalism was the dominant political philosophy of the Qin Dynasty, but was replaced by State Confucianism in the Han Dynasty. Prior to China's adoption of communism, State Confucianism remained the dominant political philosophy of China up to the 20th century.



  • Thomas Aquinas: In synthesizing Christian theology and Peripatetic (Aristotelian) teaching in his Treatise on Law, Aquinas contends that God's gift of higher reason—manifest in human law by way of the divine virtues—gives way to the assembly of righteous government.
  • Aristotle: Wrote his Politics as an extension of his Nicomachean Ethics. Notable for the theories that humans are social animals, and that the polis (Ancient Greek city state) existed to bring about the good life appropriate to such animals. His political theory is based upon an ethics of perfectionism (as is Marx's, on some readings).
  • Mikhail Bakunin: After Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Bakunin became the most important political philosopher of anarchism. His specific version of anarchism is called collectivist anarchism.
  • Jeremy Bentham: The first thinker to analyze social justice in terms of maximization of aggregate individual benefits. Founded the philosophical/ethical school of thought known as utilitarianism.
  • Isaiah Berlin: Developed the distinction between positive and negative liberty.
  • Edmund Burke: Irish member of the British parliament, Burke is credited with the creation of conservative thought. Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is the most popular of his writings where he denounced the French revolution. Burke was one of the biggest supporters of the American Revolution.
  • Confucius: The first thinker to relate ethics to the political order.
  • William E. Connolly: Helped introduce postmodern philosophy into political theory, and promoted new theories of Pluralism and agonistic democracy.
  • John Dewey: Co-founder of pragmatism and analyzed the essential role of education in the maintenance of democratic government.
  • Han Feizi: The major figure of the Chinese Fajia (Legalist) school, advocated government that adhered to laws and a strict method of administration.
  • Michel Foucault: Critiqued the modern conception of power on the basis of the prison complex and other prohibitive institutions, such as those that designate sexuality, madness and knowledge as the roots of their infrastructure, a critique that demonstrated that subjection is the power formation of subjects in any linguistic forum and that revolution cannot just be thought as the reversal of power between classes.
  • Antonio Gramsci: Instigated the concept of hegemony. Argued that the state and the ruling class uses culture and ideology to gain the consent of the classes it rules over.
  • Thomas Hill Green: Modern liberal thinker and early supporter of positive freedom.
  • Jürgen Habermas: Contemporary democratic theorist and sociologist. He has pioneered such concepts as the public sphere, communicative action, and deliberative democracy. His early work was heavily influenced by the Frankfurt School.
  • Friedrich Hayek: He argued that central planning was inefficient because members of central bodies could not know enough to match the preferences of consumers and workers with existing conditions. Hayek further argued that central economic planning—a mainstay of socialism—would lead to a "total" state with dangerous power. He advocated free-market capitalism in which the main role of the state is to maintain the rule of law and let spontaneous order develop.
  • G. W. F. Hegel: Emphasized the "cunning" of history, arguing that it followed a rational trajectory, even while embodying seemingly irrational forces; influenced Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Oakeshott.
  • Thomas Hobbes: Generally considered to have first articulated how the concept of a social contract that justifies the actions of rulers (even where contrary to the individual desires of governed citizens), can be reconciled with a conception of sovereignty.
  • David Hume: Hume criticized the social contract theory of John Locke and others as resting on a myth of some actual agreement. Hume was a realist in recognizing the role of force to forge the existence of states and that consent of the governed was merely hypothetical. He also introduced the concept of utility, later picked up on and developed by Jeremy Bentham.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Politician and political theorist during the American Enlightenment. Expanded on the philosophy of Thomas Paine by instrumenting republicanism in the United States. Most famous for the United States Declaration of Independence.
  • Immanuel Kant: Argued that participation in civil society is undertaken not for self-preservation, as per Thomas Hobbes, but as a moral duty. First modern thinker who fully analyzed structure and meaning of obligation. Argued that an international organization was needed to preserve world peace.
  • Peter Kropotkin: One of the classic anarchist thinkers and the most influential theorist of anarcho-communism.
  • John Locke: Like Hobbes, described a social contract theory based on citizens' fundamental rights in the state of nature. He departed from Hobbes in that, based on the assumption of a society in which moral values are independent of governmental authority and widely shared, he argued for a government with power limited to the protection of personal property. His arguments may have been deeply influential to the formation of the United States Constitution.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli: First systematic analyses of: (1) how consent of a populace is negotiated between and among rulers rather than simply a naturalistic (or theological) given of the structure of society; (2) precursor to the concept of ideology in articulating the epistemological structure of commands and law.
  • James Madison: American politician and protege of Jefferson considered to be "Father of the Constitution" and "Father of the Bill of Rights" of the United States. As a political theorist, he believed in separation of powers and proposed a comprehensive set of checks and balances that are necessary to protect the rights of an individual from the tyranny of the majority.
  • Herbert Marcuse: Called the father of the new left. One of the principal thinkers within the Frankfurt School, and generally important in efforts to fuse the thought of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Introduced the concept of "repressive desublimation", in which social control can operate not only by direct control, but also by manipulation of desire. His work Eros and Civilization and notion of a non-repressive society was influential on the 1960s and its counter-cultural social movements.
  • Karl Marx: In large part, added the historical dimension to an understanding of society, culture and economics. Created the concept of ideology in the sense of (true or false) beliefs that shape and control social actions. Analyzed the fundamental nature of class as a mechanism of governance and social interaction. Profoundly influenced world politics with his theory of communism.
  • Mencius: One of the most important thinkers in the Confucian school, he is the first theorist to make a coherent argument for an obligation of rulers to the ruled.
  • John Stuart Mill: A utilitarian, and the person who named the system; he goes further than Bentham by laying the foundation for liberal democratic thought in general and modern, as opposed to classical, liberalism in particular. Articulated the place of individual liberty in an otherwise utilitarian framework.
  • Baron de Montesquieu: Analyzed protection of the people by a "balance of powers" in the divisions of a state.
  • John Rawls: Revitalized the study of normative political philosophy in Anglo-American universities with his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, which uses a version of social contract theory to answer fundamental questions about justice and to criticise utilitarianism.
  • Mozi: Eponymous founder of the Mohist school, advocated a form of consequentialism.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher who became a powerful influence on a broad spectrum of 20th-century political currents in Marxism, anarchism, fascism, socialism, libertarianism, and conservatism. His interpreters have debated the content of his political philosophy.
  • Robert Nozick: Criticized Rawls, and argued for libertarianism, by appeal to a hypothetical history of the state and of property.
  • Thomas Paine: Enlightenment writer who defended liberal democracy, the American Revolution, and French Revolution in Common Sense and The Rights of Man.
  • Plato: Wrote a lengthy dialog The Republic in which he laid out his political philosophy: citizens should be divided into three categories. One category of people are the rulers: they should be philosophers, according to Plato, this idea is based on his Theory of Forms.
  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Commonly considered the father of modern anarchism, specifically mutualism.
  • Murray Rothbard: The central theorist of anarcho-capitalism and an Austrian School economist.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Analyzed the social contract as an expression of the general will, and controversially argued in favor of absolute democracy where the people at large would act as sovereign.
  • Ayn Rand: Founder of Objectivism and prime mover of the Objectivist and Libertarian movements in mid-twentieth century America. Advocated a complete, laissez-faire capitalism. Rand held that the proper role of government was exclusively the protection of individual rights without economic interference. The government was to be separated from economics the same way and for the same reasons it was separated from religion. Any governmental action not directed at the defense of individual rights would constitute the initiation of force (or threat of force), and therefore a violation not only of rights but also of the legitimate function of government.
  • Carl Schmitt: German political theorist, tied to the Nazis, who developed the concepts of the Friend/Enemy Distinction and the State of exception. Though his most influential books were written in the 1920s, he continued to write prolifically until his death (in academic quasi-exile) in 1985. He heavily influenced 20th century political philosophy both within the Frankfurt School and among others, not all of whom are philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben.
  • Adam Smith: Often said to have founded modern economics; explained emergence of economic benefits from the self-interested behavior ("the invisible hand") of artisans and traders. While praising its efficiency, Smith also expressed concern about the effects of industrial labor (e.g., repetitive activity) on workers. His work on moral sentiments sought to explain social bonds which enhance economic activity.
  • Socrates: Widely considered the founder of Western political philosophy, via his spoken influence on Athenian contemporaries; since Socrates never wrote anything, much of what we know about him and his teachings comes through his most famous student, Plato.
  • Baruch Spinoza: Set forth the first analysis of rational egoism, in which the rational interest of self is conformance with pure reason. To Spinoza's thinking, in a society in which each individual is guided by reason, political authority would be superfluous.
  • Max Stirner: Important thinker within anarchism and the main representative of the anarchist current known as individualist anarchism.
  • Leo Strauss: Famously rejected modernity, mostly on the grounds of what he perceived to be modern political philosophy's excessive self-sufficiency of reason and flawed philosophical grounds for moral and political normativity. He argued instead we should return to pre-modern thinkers for answers to contemporary issues. His philosophy was influential on the formation of Neo-Conservativism, and a number of his students later were members of the Bush administration.
  • Henry David Thoreau: Influential American thinker on such diverse later political positions and topics such as pacifism, anarchism, environmentalism and civil disobedience who influenced later important political activists such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy.
  • François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire): French Enlightenment writer, poet, and philosopher famous for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade.
  • Bernard Williams: A British moral philosopher whose posthumously published work on political philosophy In the Beginning was the Deed has been seen—along with the works of Raymond Geuss—as a key foundational work on political realism.
  • Academic journals dedicated to political philosophy include: Political Theory, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Contemporary Political Theory, Theory & Event, Constellations, and Journal of Political Philosophy
  • Assiter, Alison (2009). Kierkegaard, metaphysics and political theory unfinished selves. London New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN . 
  • James F. Bohman; William Rehg (1997). Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. MIT Press. ISBN . 
  • Gad Barzilai (2003). Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities. The University of Michigan Press. ISBN . 
  • Amy Gutmann; Dennis F. Thompson (1996). Democracy and Disagreement. Harvard University Press. ISBN . 
  • Gutmann, Amy; Thompson, Dennis (2004). Why Deliberative Democracy?. Princeton University Press. ISBN . 
  • London Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: Political Philosophy
  • Parkinson, John; Mansbridge, Jane (2012). Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale. Cambridge University Press. ISBN . 
  • Alexander F. Tsvirkun 2008. History of political and legal Teachings of Ukraine. Kharkiv.
  • Bielskis, Andrius 2005. Towards a Postmodern Understanding of the Political. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010)
  • Zippelius, Reinhold (2003). Geschichte der Staatsideen. C.H.Beck. ISBN . 
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