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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The Animal Court: animal ethics and political theory in 18th century Japan

animal court coverI’ve been doing so preliminary research into Japanese approaches to animal and environmental ethics. In many respects this has been something of a frustrating exercise. However, along the way I’ve discovered The Animal Court by Ando Shoeki, which is proving a real pleasure to read (my copy is a translation by Jeffrey Hunter). Shoeki’s work, written in the 18th century, is a rather biting satire directed at Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism. The book recounts various discussions held in each of the animal kingdoms (birds, beasts, crawling creatures, and fish), where the animals discuss how awful humans are. In one passage, he likens the Nichiren Buddhists to the Bird of Paradise, who says ‘I eat nothing but air, and do nothing but fart.’ Ouch.

Shoeki’s work is interesting for a political theorist and animal ethicist because, woven into the story, are interesting bits of normative moral philosophy (although his metaphysics is utterly bonkers). In the first chapter, he criticises the three religions above for depending upon exploitative labour relations and for exhibiting vices of greed, selfishness, and ignorance. And, he makes a claim, reminiscent of social contract theorists, that humans are born equal and thus no one possesses a natural right to rule: ‘among humankind there are no divisions into superior and inferior, noble and lowly, rich and poor.’ The three religions, he writes, have created social structures that have moved people away from their naturally virtuous selves, making them behave as animals and live in exploitative hierarchical structures. Here, I was reminded of Rousseau’s theory of human nature. Within the chapter are claims about the wrongness of inequality (because it brings suffering and exploitation), and about the badness of wars (with an implicit claim that those outside of national borders are worthy of moral concern). There’s even a notion of false consciousness sitting alongside the complaints about exploitation (only a century before Marx).

The chapter finishes by claiming that people who capture and keep millions of birds are evil. He writes: ‘What can they be thinking that they fail to understand how it would feel if they were put in the cage, if their wife and children were put in cages, and taken to be sold! No, they do not deserve to be regarded as human beings.’ In other words, to be human is to be able to empathise with non-human animals and treat them with respect and compassion.

Shoeki wasn’t exactly influential in Japanese ethical thought, which is a shame, but he provides a promising vein of thought to draw upon for contemporary theorising. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book..


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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.