Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Political philosophy is the study of the fundamental questions about the state, government, politics, property, law and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why they are needed, what 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.
Two key aspects are the political economy by which property rights are defined and access to capital is regulated, and the rules of truth and evidence that determine judgements in the law. Each theory of criminal justice is derived in part from some such view of these.
History of political philosophy
The classical period
Political philosophy most broadly concerns the nature and forms of power; more specifically, it involves the principles for proper governance.
As an academic discipline, political philosophy has its origins in ancient Greek society, when city-states were experimenting with various forms of political organization including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. The first classic work of political philosophy is Plato's The Republic, which was followed by Aristotle's Politics. Roman political philosophy was influenced by the Stoics, and the Roman statesman Cicero wrote on political philosophy.
The early Christian philosophy of Augustine was by and large a rewrite of Plato in a Christian context. The main change that Christian thought brought was to moderate the Stoicism and theory of justice of the Roman world, and emphasize the role of the state in applying mercy as a moral example. Augustine's City of God is an influential work of this period that refuted the thesis, after the First Sack of Rome, that the Christian view could be realized on Earth at all - a view many Christian Romans held.
The rise of Islam based on both the Qur'an and the political philosophy of Muhammad drastically altered the power balances and perceptions of origin of power in the Mediterranean region. Early Muslim philosophy emphasized an inexorable link between science and religion, and the process of ijtihad to find truth - in effect all philosophy was "political" as it had real implications for governance. This view was challenged by the Mutazilite philosophers, who held a more Greek view and were supported by secular aristocracy who sought freedom of action independent of the mosque. By the medieval period, however, the Asharite view of Islam had in general triumphed and all philosophy was henceforth subordinated to theology - a situation that persisted until the rise of modern Islamic philosophy.
Medieval political philosophy in Europe was heavily influenced by Christian thinking. It had much in common with the Islamic thinking in that the Roman Catholics also subordinated philosophy to theology. Perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the medieval period was St. Thomas Aquinas who helped reintroduce Aristotle's works, which had been preserved in the interim only by the Muslims. Aquinas's use of them set the agenda for scholastic political philosophy, and dominated European thought for centuries.
The most influential work, however, was that which ended this period, that being Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, 1532. It is that work, and The Discourses, a rigorous analysis of the classical period, from which modern political philosophy is largely derived.
During the Enlightenment, new theories about human psychology, the discovery of other societies in the Americas, and the changing needs of political societies (especially in the wake of the English Civil War and the French Revolution) led to new questions and insights by such thinkers as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau - known by most for his influential theory of the social contract.
These theorists were driven by two basic questions: by what right or need do people form "states," and what is the best form for a "state." These large questions involved a conceptual distinction between "state" and "government." Basically, "state" refers to a set of enduring institutions through which power is distributed and its use justified. "Government" refers to a specific group of people who occupy these institutions, and exercise particular policies. This conceptual distinction continues to operate in political science, although some political scientists, philosophers, historians and cultural anthropologists have argued that most political action in any given society occurs outside of its state, and that there are societies that are not organized into states which nevertheless must be considered politically.
Political and economic relations were drastically changed by these views as the guild was subordinated to free trade, and Roman Catholic dominance of theology was increasingly challenged by Protestant churches subordinate to each nation-state and which preached in the "vulgar" or native language of each region.
In the Ottoman Empire, these reforms did not take place and these views did not spread until much later. Also, there was no contact with the New World and the advanced civilizations of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, Mohican, Delaware, Huron and especially the Iroquois, who gave a great boost to Christian thought and in many cases actually inspired some of the institutions adopted in the United States: for example, Benjamin Franklin was a great admirer of some of the methods of the Iroquois Confederacy, and much of early American literature emphasized the political philosophy of the natives.
Industrialization and the early modern age
The industrial revolution produced a parallel revolution in political thought. Urbanization and capitalism greatly reshaped society. While many socialists at that time attempted to argue otherwise, the lives of the poor were dramatically improved as capitalism and markets spread. During this same period, the socialist movement began to form. In the mid-19th century, Marxism was developed, and socialism in general gained increasing popular support, mostly from the urban working class. By the late 19th century, socialism and trade unions were established members of the political landscape. In addition, the various branches of anarchism and syndicalism also gained some prominence.
World War I was a watershed event in human history. The Russian Revolution (and similar, albeit less successful, revolutions in many other European countries) brought communism - and in particular the political theory of Leninism - on the world stage. At the same time, social democratic parties won elections and formed governments for the first time, often as a result of the introduction of universal suffrage.
In response to the sweeping social changes that occurred in the years after the war, ultra-reactionary ideologies such as fascism began to take shape. In particular, the rise of the nazis in Germany would later lead to the Second World War.
All political thought was deeply affected by the Great Depression, which led many theorists to reconsider the ideas they had previously held as axiomatic. In the United States, President Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. In Europe, both the extreme left and the extreme right gained increasing popularity.
Contemporary political philosophy
After World War II the peace movement became the dominant mode of political philosophy in the Western world, due largely to fear of nuclear war. Opponents tended to line up on either side of the arms race debate. Communism remained an important focus especially during the 1950s and 60s. Zionism, racism and colonialism were important issues that arose. In general, there was a marked trend towards a pragmatic approach to political issues, rather than a philosophical one. Much academic debate regarded one or both of two pragmatic topics: how (or whether) to apply utilitarianism to problems of political policy, or how (or whether) to apply economic models (such as rational choice theory) to political issues.
Some scholars date the emergence of contemporary political philosophy to 1962, since many important things happened in that year:
- The Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the arms race debate to a head and forced the peace movement to action which has never actually ceased;
- Rachel Carson published her Silent Spring which signalled the beginning of the modern ecology movement and environmental movement;
- Milton Friedman published influential works that laid the foundations of neoliberalism against which the above struggle to this day.
Soon after, there was a major revival of academic political philosophy as a result of the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971. Rawls used a thought experiment, the original position in which representative parties choose principles of justice for the basic structure of society from behind a veil of ignorance. Rawls also offered an effective criticism of utilitarian approaches to questions of political justice. Robert Nozick's book Anarchy, State, and Utopia responded to Rawls from a libertarian perspective. A rich debate ensued.
Another rich debate developed around the (distinct) criticisms of liberal political theory made by Bernard Williams and Charles Taylor. The liberalism-communitarianism debate is often considered valuable for generating a new set of philosophical problems, rather than a profound and illuminating clash of perspectives.
Today some debates regarding punishment and law center on the question of natural law and the degree to which human constraints on action are determined by nature, as revealed by science in particular.
- Classics of political philosophy
- Consensus decision making
- Consequentialist justifications of the state
- Critical Theory
- Electoral reform
- The justification of the state
- Political media
- The purpose of government
- Social contract
- Tolerances versus preferences
- Voting system
- Important publications in political philosophy
- "Philosophie / Politique - Revue permanente de philosophie politique" (Resources in political philosophy - In French)
- An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Paul Newall, aimed at beginners.
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