Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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What is political philosophy, what is it for, and how the hell do we do it?

Over the past weeks I’ve been doing three things bearing on the questions above. First, I’ve been explaining to my new colleagues, in a university without a philosophy department, what on earth it is that I do. Second, I’ve been writing and preparing to teach three political philosophy modules pretty much from scratch. Three, I’ve been getting ready to guide political theory students on a very broad political methods course. One of the things I’m keen to do is to give political theory students enough material to be able to explain their method when it comes to writing their dissertations; I’ve found over the years that this is something that students really struggle with (and not just political theory ones). While thinking about these topics I’ve read quite a lot of really useful texts on the subject, so I thought I’d turn them into a political theory methods reading list. So, here it is below – hopefully of some use to somebody.

The: ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ Reading List:

Brooks, Thom. ‘In Defence of Political Theory: Impact and Opportunities’. Political Studies Review 11, no. 2 (1 May 2013): 209–15. 007.

———. ‘What Is the Impact of Political Theory?’ Political Studies Review 13, no. 4 (1 November 2015): 500–505.

Brownlee, Kimberley and Stemplowska, Zofia (2016 – forthcoming) ‘Trapped in an Experience Machine with a Famous Violinist’ in Methods in Analytical Political Theory . Adrian Blau (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (draft version here)

Cohen, G. A. ‘How to Do Political Philosophy’. In On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy, edited by Michael Otsuka. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Holland, Ben. ‘Political Theory and the Impact Agenda’. Political Studies Review 13, no. 4 (1 November 2015): 471–73.

McDermott, Daniel. ‘Analytical Political Philosophy’. In Political Theory, edited by David Leopold and Marc Stears. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. [chapters 2 and 3 of this book are also very useful]

Pettit, Philip. ‘Analytical Philosophy’. In A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, edited by Robert E. Goodin, Philip Pettit, and Thomas W. Pogge, 2nd ed. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

Plamenatz, John. ‘The Use of Political Theory’. Political Studies 8, no. 1 (1 February 1960): 37–47.

Rawls, John. ‘Introduction: Remarks on Political Philosophy’. In Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, edited by Samuel Freeman. Massachutsetts: Belknap Press, 2008.

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Poltical philosophy ought to feature in all politics courses

Today I had a very brief, but interesting, chat with some colleagues who teach on an introductory unit on international politics. Our discussion centred around teaching about security, terrorism, and piracy. That chat really brought home to me both how different theoretical perspectives inform teaching, and how very important political theory is across the broad spectrum of politics.I was interested, since my own research explores political violence and the issue of terrorism, on whether they did any conceptual work on terrorism. It turns out that this is not covered with the students at all, despite terrorism being a centre of discussion over several weeks.

One reason for the lack of conceptual analysis was concern that any attempt to conceptualise terrorism necessarily requires us to lay out the terms of acceptable violence. Obviously, I thought, but why would this be a bad thing? None of the people in the discussion were committed pacifists, we all thought that violence was sometimes justified and that some reasons for violence were better than others. Yes, it’s important to understand what’s at stake when doing conceptual work, but that shouldn’t make us fearful of doing it at all.

Another reason was that conceptualising terrorism made its meaning conform to the wishes of whichever dominant force was busy defining it. Better to not define the term at all (with the risk of allowing it to mean almost anything!) Again, a notion I found odd since my own work demonstrates that it’s important to define what counts as necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct ascription of the term precisely so as to prevent it being defined in accordance with a narrow political or social agenda. If a term is allowed to mean whatever an individual wants it to mean, then there really isn’t any scope for disagreement about what is or isn’t terrorism (we’re into subjectivism and the dominant power can say what it likes).

Anyway, the point I wanted to make in this post, is that teaching politics without ever discussing the features of concepts like terrorism risks students walking away without engaging in critical analysis or rigorous and examination of a topic. Do we really want students absorbing knowledge without reflecting on it or coming to a considered view of their own? Political theory – analytic political philosophy – needs to be embedded, even if only lightly, across the politics syllabus because words and concepts do have meanings, and understanding them helps us distinguish between facts and states of affairs both for our empirical research, and in order to make normative judgements about them.


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On writing essay introductions

I’ve just spent a week endlessly marking exam scripts and this has prompted me to write something about how to approach philosophy/political theory essay introductions.

The vast majority of undergraduate essays I have seen either skip an introduction altogether or, more commonly, look something like this:

Philosophers have disagreed about whether theory X is a good theory for n period of time. In this essay I will consider theory X. I will examine some arguments in favour of X before looking at some arguments against X.

Please, if you are writing an essay, do not begin like that! I’m beginning to get cramps in my hand from writing the same comment alongside every introduction I read (perhaps I should buy a stamp?). Whilst the quality of your introduction will not make a huge difference to your overall mark it does a) provide a valuable first impression, and b) help you organise your own thoughts. So, how should you approach the introduction? Here’s what your introduction should do:

  • Lay out your key claims.
  • Tell the reader what reasons you plan to give in support of your conclusion.
  • Outline any reasons against your conclusions and say how you will overcome them.
  • Define any key terms.
  • Signpost to the reader how your essay will be structured.

Note, these rules are of course there to be broken, but it’s better to wait until you’re a good writer before you start doing so. When you define your terms, it’s OK to do so briefly in the intro and then give a fuller definition later. Also, avoid making the intro a long list of such definitions. The most important thing you can do is to say what your claims are and what premises they rest upon.

Once you’ve introduced your essay, use the main body of your essay to show that the reasons you give in support of your conclusion are a) true or likely to be true, and b) lead logically to your conclusion (i.e., that if the premises are true, then so must the conclusion be).

Here are a couple of examples:

 Q. Are Jaffa Cakes better described as cakes or biscuits?

A. In this essay I will show that Jaffa Cakes are better described as cakes than they are biscuits. A biscuit is a small baked product, either savoury or sweet, whereas a cake is a bread-like, sweet, baked dessert. In the first part of my essay I will offer fuller conceptualisations of the terms cake and biscuit, before moving on to demonstrate that the physical characteristics of Jaffa Cakes mean that they are most properly conceived of as cakes. The latter part of my essay will be devoted to addressing two common objections to the claim that Jaffa Cakes are cakes. These objections are: first, that Jaffa Cakes are too small to be cakes, and second, that Jaffa Cakes are more commonly eaten like biscuits than they are cakes. In response to the first objection, I will demonstrate that a particular size range is not a necessary condition for correct ascription of the term cake, and in reply to the second objection, I will show that although desserts usually conclude a meal, it is not necessary that they always do so. Finally, before concluding, I will consider the claim that biscuits are a form of cake, meaning that Jaffa Cakes can correctly be called either cake or biscuit. Although I concede that all biscuits are cakes, I argue in turn that it does not follow that all cakes are therefore biscuits.

 Q. Is Manchester United a better football team than Manchester City?

A. In this essay I defend the claim that Manchester City is a better team than Manchester United. I begin defining what makes a football team good, focussing on: team spirit; trophies won; recent and current league form; financial stability; quality of strip; player haircuts and tattoos; managerial tactics; and who has the best supporters and chants. I argue that Manchester City is a better team because a) its supporter chants are better, and b) it is a richer club. Further, I claim that the difference between United and City is negligible in most of the other categories listed above. In response to the claim that current league form and number of trophies should be weighted more heavily than haircuts and bank-balance, I will respond by claiming ‘Who are ya? who are ya?’. I conclude with a two-fingered salute.

So, to conclude, don’t just tell the reader that you will do X, make sure that you also tell them how you will do X. Doing so will enable the reader to follow your argument more easily and will force you to clearly structure your essay, it will also save me from marking-induced insanity.


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Undergraduate writing & academic feedback

At last: I’ve spent far too many days marking student essays and seminar participation, and now I have finished. A quick check reveals that for the fifty ‘ish essays I’ve marked, I’ve written over 12,000 words of feedback. Hopefully, it will be useful for my students, who’ve been a really good bunch this year.

Apropos of this, I was chatting about feedback with a colleague earlier today; specifically the kind of responses to poor feedback that academics get from their students. I suspect that all academics will be used to the odd angry and baffled email from a student who has had a bad mark, or some feedback that they disagree with. I dread those accusatory emails, especially when they’re from a good student who I know should have done much better, and there are always one or two of those. Interestingly, I recently got a rather snippy response to my comments as an anonymous peer reviewer – so I guess not all academics eventually learn to take criticism entirely on the chin.

Anyway, our chat concerned how different the undergraduate writing experience is to the process they’ll go through if they go further in academia. For the undergraduate, the process is a solitary one – they receive an essay title, write their essay alone, submit, receive a mark and some feedback, and then that’s the end of it. However, for academics, the writing process often seems collaborative (well, it does for me anyway), and the initial feedback is only the beginning. We write something (often after a discussion with colleagues), present it at a seminar or conference, respond to audience comments, rewrite, repeat, submit to a journal, receive horrible feedback, rewrite, resubmit, receive more feedback, and then (if we’re lucky) finalise our paper and publish.

Now, the sensible undergraduate student will send an essay plan to their tutor, maybe talk through it with them, and email them questions – it’s just a shame that more don’t do this. They may even get a better taste of how academics write if they do a dissertation. But, it seems to me that the way undergraduates write – the way the structures we set in place shape how they write – is probably not the way that will benefit them the most either in terms of experience or learning. So, this evening I’ve found myself thinking about how we can make writing more collaborative for undergraduates, whilst also being able to assess them easily. I have some ideas: like undergraduate peer review of weekly tutorial questions, but suggestions from others would be gratefully received! How would you engage students in collaborative writing,is it a terrible idea?