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.