Monday, October 09, 2006

What is Political Theory?

Originally posted April 25th, 2006

Political theorists are concerned with how we ought, collectively, to live together. The job of the political theorist is to bring some precision to fundamental (yet contested) political concepts- like freedom, equality, democracy and justice. Ideas are powerful things, they exert great influence on the real world and help determine the fate of the lives of billions of people. So the political theorist’s job is an important job. A diverse range of social, economic and political arrangements can (and have been) defended by reference to abstract political values. And the theorist helps equip us with the analytical tools necessary to differentiate between legitimate functions of government and the arbitrary use of power.

Suppose a political theorist puts forth a new theory, or advances a nuanced spin on an existing theory. By what standards should we evaluate such a theory? In other words, what are the criteria by which we measure success and failure in political theory? What makes good theories “good”, and lousy theories “lousy”?

It is not surprising that political theorists of different stripes will give different answers to these questions. Liberals will likely emphasize criteria they believe are important to a defensible political theory (e.g. the promotion of toleration and autonomy), while socialists want a theory that recognizes the exploitative nature of capitalism. Feminists believe a theory must be equipped to deal with patriarchy and multiculturalists want a theory that addresses cultural inequality and difference. With so many theorists functioning with different specific ideas of what makes for good political theory, it is not surprising that students often find it difficult to know what they are expected to do in a political theory class (when it comes to writing an essay and critically assessing these debates).

I suspect everyone who has taught a course in political theory frequently encounters the following kind of comment when students begin debating rival normative theories: “Isn’t it all just a matter of opinion? There are no right or wrong answers!”. To this remark an instructor will no doubt invoke his/her well rehearsed response, which goes something like this- “Some theories are backed by reasoned arguments and sound premises, while others might be based on mistaken or misguided premises. Our job is to figure out which positions can withstand rigorous critical analysis and which cannot”. But such manoeuvring simply side-steps the important question: What makes for “good argument” or “sound premises” when one is talking about a normative discipline like political theory? Great question! And like all great questions it is difficult (yet fun!) to try to answer. To answer this question I think one needs to provide a few more specifics about what political theory actually is.

I think the best characterisation of political theory is that advanced by John Dunn (1990) in ‘Reconceiving the Content and Character of Modern Political Community’. Dunn claims that the purpose of political theory is to diagnose practical predicaments and to show us how best to confront them. Doing this, he adds, requires us to develop the following three distinct skills.

1. Ascertaining how we got to where we are and understanding why things are this way.

2. Deliberating about the kind of world we want to have.

3. Judging how far, and through what actions, and at what risk, we can realistically hope to move this world as it now stands towards the way we might excusably wish it to be. (Dunn, 1990, p. 193)

The three skills identified by Dunn require a political theory to be well grounded in terms of both the normative and empirical assumptions and arguments it relies upon. The first skill requires a good comprehension of the empirical realities of the world. What are the social, political and economic histories of our societies? Telling this story is useful for understanding the current predicaments of one’s society. It might help us to understand why concerns of racial or gender inequality arise, or concerns about environmentalism, healthcare and welfare reform. Knowing something about the history of the culture, people, political institutions, economy, etc. of the society in question is important for being able to both diagnose its current ills and make a realistic prescription for remedying these predicaments.

Knowing one’s past is important for deliberating about what is feasible for one’s future. Thus the first skill relates to the second and third skills noted by Dunn. The third skill requires a political theory to be somewhat pragmatic in terms of confronting the range of options realistically open to us as we aspire for a more just and desirable social arrangement. If a political theory is not adequately grounded in reality it risks being discarded as mere “pie in the sky”. And this raises important questions about the second skill. As Dunn notes, this second skill is less explicit in its demands for imaginative self-discipline. If this second skill is not tempered by the first and third skills I believe we risk jeopardizing the value of political theory/philosophy.

Keeping Dunn's three skills in mind are helpful when constructing and assessing political theories. A good deal of the disagreement among contemporary political theorists stems from differing opinions concerning what constitutes a "healthy exercise" of these different skills.