Published on

Political theory An introduction 政治学概论随笔


Political theory: definition

Political science is a child of the seventeenth century. In the traditional sense, science refers to a group of means of acquiring knowledge through observations, experiments, and measurements. A scientific result involves gathering empirical evidence, proposing hypotheses, and verifying them against collected evidence. Thus, political science is essentially descriptive, such as behavioralism, which helps policymakers understand reasons and assist the policy decisions process through experiments on observable and measurable human behaviors.

Compared to political science, political theory, in a normative sense, could provide a precise description of idea transition in history. It is considered an non-empirical, non-scientific inquiry towards political realities. Thus, because of the lack of empirical support, it should have been strictly tested and revised, becoming an important component of a wide concept of political theory.

Political philosophy and political theory are often used interchangeably in academic research because of their ability to describe concepts precisely. That said, they could also be distinguished by different focuses and emphases. Although they both are theoretical disciplines focused on an abstract political reality, political philosophy is more affected by the general philosophy enterprise. And the same as political theory, political philosophy is more often seen as a second-order discipline, which is under the dominance of political science. In other words, political philosophy is not so much concerned about revealing the truth in the manner of science, as with concerning secondary questions such as what constitutes knowledge and how understanding is expressed. For instance, a political scientist may be interested in how a democratic system works, and a political philosopher may express interest in what the precise meaning of "democracy" is. Political philosophy therefore focused on two main tasks:

  • First, it attempts to clarify the concepts employed in political discourse.
  • Second, it critically evaluates political concepts and their assumptions, coherence, and implications.

thus, political philosophy is a self-consciously normative subject, it is concerned with justifying particular understandings of concepts, and particular social institutions or arrangements.

Given these characterizations of political theory and political philosophy, political theory could be rephrased to a more inclusive position, which could be seen as both political science and political philosophy, Sheldon Wolin, in his masterful work "Politics and Vision", called this explication. Explication has both a normative side and a descriptive side, Wolin argues that political theory is an activity of "vision", vision has both a descriptive side and an imaginative side, such as when we see a speaker addressing a political rally(descriptive side), or what politicians always talk about the future politics will looks like. (imaginative). Description, imagination, explanation, and prescription. Political theory involves the analytical, critical, and normative study of ideas. This gives political theory two main tasks:

  1. rendering political institutions, life, behaviors, and events meaningful.
  2. enabling action and decision amongst the complexity of political life.

Political theory, in its own way, has a different emphasis from political philosophy, political theory is more about bringing right actions to the social sciences and political world.

Political theory in transition

Political thought begins with the Greek tradition of philosophical thinking of community, this classical period became what we call the source of Western political culture. This classical period is concerned with 

  • What is a good community?
  • What are the obligations of citizenship?
  • What are the appropriate actions of the political vs. private world?

These questions did not disappear with the death of ancient Greece, they followed time and entered the medieval Christian world, The object of the above issues changed from the relationship of people and community to people and divine, secular authorities and religious. 

Interestingly, early modern and modern political thought are equally concerned with the classical and medieval questions. And with the appearance of Modernity, political issues became quite complex, it involves the relationship between Modernity and multiple pluralism. And different political issues under the system of institutional nation or state.

From the history of political thoughts, we can understand the methodology of researching political issues is through analysis, interpretation, and argumentation, and those theories we could lay our methods on are both descriptive and normative, such as "What is politics?" or "what is political power?", or normative question like "why should I obey the state/law?", the reason why we study political theory from well-known thinkers, is how do these people understand political reality and how does them justify their answers?

Contemporary political theory has usually been thought to appear post-Second World War, in a more narrative sense, It started with the liberal political thought from John Rawls in his masterful piece A Theory of Justice, Rawls proved political theory is not only alive but also successfully developed several key features, such as:

  •  Contemporary political thoughts tend to emphasize the history the role of history in reason telling. Theorists often use past theories to account for his theory.
  • Contemporary political theory has been influenced by the emergence of "anti-foundationalist" critiques that question the rationalism and universalism that were central to Western intellectual life. Anti-foundational is not tradition or has appeared in history, it seriously questioned the contingent of universal principles, and doubt that there is no universally valid, transcendently established position from which political arguments could be made, it through uncover obscured dimensions leads us into unseen political phenomenon and events, and understand ignored side of the political system.
  • Political theory has a variety of political-ideological traditions, which shows that the nature of political theory is quite contested, multiple ideologies compete with each other using different approaches. 

Such diversity gives political theory a new way to its normative side, debates in political theory are and will continue to be restless, and every political thought is fundamentally exclusive, so that under the gradual inclusion of Western constitutional and democratic process, more groups will be included into democracy society, more collisions between traditions will happen. Although we often see Western tradition as inclusive, it also happens to be the original which oppresses and silences other theories.

Raw material about political theory

Many students of social science are practically minded and want the study of politics to conform with modern scientific virtues of rationality, objectivity, reliability, and impartiality.
But to complete this matter further, we have discussed that there is a variety of ideological traditions of political theory, and neither one of them could guarantee political values are objective, We don't have sufficient evidence or data to confirm the objectivity of political theories., thus, a question like this divided political theory into different ways: critical, normative, formal-conceptual, historical and materialist. But despite the diversity of political theory, These traditions were bonded by their raw material, defined by their origins and the perspectives of their developers.
Political theory relies on social science methods and findings, but its primary source of ideas, concepts, and arguments is raw textual material.

descriptive and normative

Political concepts, in its first problem, are difficult to disentangle from moral or philosophical views that advance them. We referred to these concepts as "values", which implies that our actions should align with these values. If said "values" are more questionable, then the other concepts like "power", "law" and "authority" are less questionable and have a relatively solid foundation. Concepts such as "power" could be described rather than prescribed, and used in a more value-neutral context.

Contested concepts

Political concepts are not only used by scholars but also in political controversy, with politicians trying to use exclusive meaning to define what they think is "justice", "freedom" and so on. So that W.B.Gaille suggested that concepts like "justice", and "freedom", controversy runs so deep that no neutral or settled definition could ever be developed. Furthermore, each concept encompasses several rival concepts, none of which can be accepted as its true meaning. To acknowledge that a concept is essentially contested is not to abandon the attempt to understand it, but to acknowledge the complexity of the concept which is caught up in the controversy of different understandings. There are two paths around Gaille's claim:

  • First, some scholar is still trying to insist on their interpretation of concepts, defend and argue from their perspective.
  • Others believe that certain concepts were once widely accepted, such as "democracy", which was once thought to be the politics of citizens who lack virtuous but has since been accepted by millions of people around the 18th century.

Fetishism of concepts

Another problem within the political theory is concepts are been treated as if they are separated from human beings. To solve this problem, Marx Weber attempted to limit the explanatory power of concepts by classifying particular terms as "ideal types". An ideal type concept is a mental construct that draws out from almost infinite complex reality through logical extreme, thus, ideals or concepts are explaining tools to reality, not "approximations" of reality, concepts or ideas do not "exhaust reality", nor do they offer an ethical ideal. So that, concepts like "democracy" "justice" are more coherent and rounded than the unshapely realities they seek to describe. Concept, in Derrida's expression, "it is an illusion to believe that language, and therefore concepts, can 'fit' the world".

Problem of political theory