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date: 25 August 2019


Abstract and Keywords

Although this volume is a text on the history of political philosophy, dividing lines between that field and the closely related history of political theory and of political thought are not hard and fast. Part I of the book covers questions of method. This part includes discussion of the contextual method, classically articulated by Quentin Skinner, which is widely regarded as the standard method for studying the history of ideas, including the history of political philosophy. Currently, the chief alternative methods are those associated with Leo Strauss and his followers and a less clearly defined postmodern approach. Part II provides an overview of the entire history of Western political philosophy, with some articles tackling thematic topics such as the influence of Roman law or medieval Arabic political philosophy, socialism, and Marxism. Part III addresses aspects of the history of political philosophy that transcend specific periods and generally change and develop in interesting ways between periods. Part IV explores three major non-Western traditions: Confucianism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Keywords: Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, political philosophy, Quentin Skinner, socialism, Marxism, Leo Strauss, Roman law, history

Study of the history of political philosophy has a long history. Along with political texts that date back to the ancient Greeks—and similarly far back in some non-Western cultures—came historical work in the field. An important extant example is Book II of the Politics, in which Aristotle examines some of his predecessors' views on ideal societies. Most notable, of course, is Plato, who is subjected to a harsh and largely inaccurate critique of aspects of the Republic and Laws. But, while Aristotle's account is generally recognized as bad history, it is still valuable as political philosophy. For instance, although Aristotle's attack on community of property in the Republic falls wide of the mark as criticism of Plato's actual proposals, Aristotle's main lines of argument have been recognized ever since as important criticisms of socialism.1

As this example illustrates—as is also evident in the field's name—the history of political philosophy spans two different disciplines, history and philosophy. In working in the area, it is essential to keep the two separate. As a branch of history, the field focuses on the great texts as historical objects. Although exactly what this entails is not without controversy—as is seen throughout Part I of this volume—there is now widespread agreement about how the historical meaning of texts is determined. Especially amongst philosophers, it is generally agreed that, in examining texts of past theorists, one should attempt to identify the actions they took, what they were doing, when they wrote them.2 Although, once again, this approach is not without controversy, at root it encapsulates what many historians regard as common sense, and what they have always done. To determine what authors were doing, we should focus on the specific questions or problems they addressed, particular audiences they had in mind, results they wished to achieve, and similar concerns, although our ability to reconstruct the intentions of long dead authors will vary along with the clarity of (p. 2) particular intentions, the availability of evidence, and other factors. By this standard, Aristotle's account of Plato's communism—as with many of his other forays into the history of philosophy—comes up short.

But the history of political philosophy has other aims as well. In addition to being a historical figure, Aristotle was, of course, a great political philosopher. In his works, he called attention to specific aspects of the human condition and drew out their implications. In large part, it is the quality and depth of his insights that account for his works' classic status. Mill calls the great thinkers “one-eyed men” (Mill 2006 [1838]: 94). Although the views they developed capture only parts of reality, by focusing relentlessly on their chief concerns, they worked out timeless depictions of political life. To switch to another example, although the questions of political authority that Locke addressed differ significantly from our own, by studying the strengths and weaknesses of his approach, we prepare ourselves to address the related problems that directly concern us. More than this, because the works of the great theorists represent different approaches to questions of political association, their works provide an essential language, a set of references that can be employed by people working on related questions. Although Hobbes died more than three hundred years ago and the problems of authority he addressed differ in many respects from our own, all political philosophers understand what we basically mean by a “Hobbesian” approach, and should also recognize the value of developing such an approach with reference to specific contemporary concerns. For example, in the international arena, problems of nuclear proliferation and global warming are resistant to the blandishments of the UN—as, last century, the threat of war was not deflected by the League of Nations. Would an international body with Hobbesian authority be better able to deal with them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an arrangement?

In making this case, I am not saying anything new. Philosophers have long recognized that studying the history of philosophy is essential preparation in their field. In all or virtually all areas of philosophy, one comes to understand the ins and outs of a question by looking at how great figures in the past addressed related questions. For example, although the epistemological works of Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant do not address precisely the same questions, their concerns are sufficiently similar to one another and to contemporary epistemological questions to make studying their works not only relevant to but indispensable for sophisticated work on contemporary problems.

In addressing such issues, theorists do not rely on the authority of the historical Hume or Kant. To the extent they wish to develop positions similar to those of their great predecessors, they themselves take responsibility for defending the positions and the assumptions on which they rely. Because political philosophy is a part of philosophy, its history is relevant in much the same way. Because it is firmly rooted in two different fields, the history of philosophy, including the history of political philosophy, encounters special difficulties. Especially noteworthy, I believe, is failure to keep its two dimensions separate. Exactly how concerns of the two fields should relate to one another is a matter of considerable dispute. But, to my mind, a common problem is (p. 3) considering texts too philosophically. Scholars frequently distort a text's historical meaning—that is, the meaning intended by its author—by reading into it their own concerns, uncovering themes and arguments the author himself did not consider, or perhaps could not have conceived of. One measure of the greatness of any historical text is its relevance—that is, the extent to which it has interesting things to say about issues in other times and places, especially our own. And so, consciously or unconsciously, scholars are tempted to make texts appear more immediately relevant than they actually are—thereby, perhaps not incidentally, inflating the importance of their own research. It could almost be said that there is an institutional bias in favor of misinterpretation. A brief look at the literature on virtually any major figure in the history of political philosophy will confirm this tendency. Then again, philosophers may respond that, without significant application to contemporary issues, the history of political philosophy—as with the history of philosophy more generally—becomes pure antiquarianism—that is, studying historical artifacts simply for the sake of learning about them. But, as just noted, this criticism is wide of the mark. In studying great works of the past, we prepare ourselves to address issues that are of contemporary concern. In using the former to address the latter, it is imperative to recognize differences between an author's actual theory, expressed in his historical context, and a position like that one, based on assumptions similar to his or her own, but more useful for our present-day philosophical purposes. In other words, we should clearly distinguish between Locke's own theory and a “Lockean” theory. Although the latter is distinct from what Locke said and should not be passed off as a historically accurate account of his intentions, it may have significant philosophical value, along the lines discussed above.3 However, once again, the history that is applied to contemporary problems should be accurate history, based on careful interpretation of the author's own meaning, as opposed to anachronistically reading into texts contemporary concerns. Although Hume may have addressed issues similar to those that interest contemporary philosophers, we should be careful not to distort his actual meanings in directly applying his views to problems of the present day.

Although this volume is a handbook of the history of political philosophy, dividing lines between that field and the closely related history of political theory and of political thought are not hard and fast. This volume is not confined to the history of political philosophy in a narrow sense. Many contributors are members of Politics or History departments and would probably identify themselves as political theorists or intellectual historians, rather than philosophers or historians of philosophy. To a large extent, these different fields overlap, and terms that designate them are often used interchangeably. But the terms also have “focal meanings.” Political philosophy, strictly speaking, should be distinguished from political theory, and still more from political thought—although scholars will differ about criteria and precisely where to draw the lines.

(p. 4) Concerns of history and philosophy are related somewhat differently in each of the three fields. In the history of political theory and of political thought, the balance shifts in the direction of history. To my mind what distinguishes the three fields are levels of abstraction. Consider a basic political communication, such as an opinion piece or a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Such a composition probably expresses the author's views, in a form that is also largely devoid of overt philosophical content. In such a case, the author's intentions—what he or she was doing in writing the piece—are likely to be straightforward and so easy to make out. They may well be so clear that we do not consciously have to think about them. However, we could of course ask ourselves what questions the author was addressing, about their audience, about what they wished to accomplish, and so carefully bring their intentions to light.

Opinion pieces and letters to the editor are prototypical instances of political thought, at a fairly concrete and issue-specific level. As we move along a continuum of levels of abstraction, we eventually cross the dividing line between political thought and political theory, as the author's statements become more systematically worked out, drawing connections between multiple issues, perhaps supporting his or her political assertions with more abstract moral, religious, or psychological claims. If we accept this account, then many of the great works studied by political philosophers should actually be identified as political theory. Where we draw the line in regard to political philosophy is more difficult to say. To my mind, the key point concerns relationships between political views and other aspects of the author's philosophy, generally philosophical views that are more abstract and farther removed from politics—for example, metaphysical and epistemological views. Thus a work such as Hegel's Philosophy of Right would fit here, especially because Hegel viewed it as part of an overall philosophical system. One reason the work is so notoriously difficult is that it draws on methods of reasoning Hegel developed for other subjects of inquiry, which he assumes in Philosophy of Right and does not clearly explain (Hegel 1991 [1821]: 10). Although Hegel had definite political views that Philosophy of Right defends (as discussed in the essay by Paul Redding, Chapter 21, this volume), it is clearly less of a direct political intervention than Locke's Second Treatise and far less than a still more overt political tract, such as the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos or another sixteenth-century resistance tract, George Buchanan's The Powers of the Crown in Scotland. While it seems odd to refer to Philosophy of Right as political thought, it is probably still odder to refer to the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos or Buchanan's work as political philosophy. But, even in regard to works that differ relatively clearly from others, dividing lines in this entire area depend on considerations of degree and necessarily involve subjective judgments.

Because works in the history of political thought and of political theory have greater overt political content, specific features of their contexts aid in identifying their meaning. Because political texts were frequently intended to contribute to contentious political issues, their authors were often not alone in articulating their positions (see Skinner 1978: preface). Their contentions were frequently similar to those of other participants in contested political debates. Familiar examples of such positions are (p. 5) encountered in election campaigns, as is particularly evident in the “talking points” candidates and party operatives endlessly repeat. While this degree of echo may be exceptional, in many cases studying the contexts in which great political texts were written reveals multiple lines of argument common to partisans on different sides of the day's issues. These commonalities include overall patterns of argument, such as appeal to Chapter 13 of St Paul's Epistle to the Romans to support royal absolutism. In part, this reads: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Oxford trans.).

In contrast, versions of social contract theory and appeals to the consent of the governed were commonly invoked in order to limit governmental authority. But more particular, developed lines of argument were also used, as can be seen in clear resemblances between Locke's arguments for resistance and those employed in other resistance tracts (Skinner 1978: ii. 239–40). Close commonalities between a proposed interpretation of a given text and arguments of other thinkers during that period may provide important support for a particular interpretation. Such resemblances are most likely to be effects of political conflicts and so are more common in the history of political thought than in political philosophy. It is presumably because Skinner places the great texts he studies in contexts of closely related expressions by other authors—and so tends to emphasize overt political content over abstract philosophical qualities—that he called his pioneering work Foundations of Modern Political Thought, rather than Foundations of Modern Political Philosophy. Although, once again, the essays in this volume generally range between the history of political philosophy and of political theory, there is relatively little attention to the history of political thought more narrowly construed, which provides relatively little philosophical reflection on political circumstances and events.

The history of political philosophy is a large field, with a long tradition of distinguished scholarship. Because it is not possible to encompass the entire subject within a single volume, this collection concentrates on four major areas, although not without some overlap between them. In addition to coverage of great theorists in their historical contexts, this Handbook addresses questions about how the subject matter should best be studied, along with important themes not identified with individual theorists, which transcend specific historical periods. Also, given increased attention to non-Western political theory in recent years, three major alternative traditions are discussed, especially in regard to their relationship to the history of Western political philosophy. Accordingly, the volume is comprised of four—unequal—parts.

Part I, “Approaches,” covers questions of method. This section includes discussion of the contextual method, classically articulated by Quentin Skinner, which is widely regarded as the standard method for studying the history of ideas, including the history of political philosophy. Currently, the chief alternative methods are those associated with Leo Strauss and his followers and a less clearly defined postmodern approach. (p. 6) These are examined, sympathetically, by scholars who subscribe to them. This section also inquires into the value of the history of political philosophy, as viewed by scholars working in numerous other fields, and includes an overview of the history of the discipline itself.

Part II, “Chronological Periods,” provides an overview of the entire history of Western political philosophy. This part is comprised of twenty-three contributions. The authors of these pieces take a variety of approaches. Some provide discursive overviews of their periods, of course concentrating on what they view as most significant. Other essays are more focused, examining relatively narrow themes or aspects of the relevant periods. While most of these essays address recognizable chronological periods, as the title of the Part indicates, others are devoted to more thematic topics, including the influence of Roman law or medieval Arabic political philosophy, socialism, and Marxism.

Accordingly, dividing lines between Parts II and III are occasionally rough. Part III, “Themes,” addresses aspects of the history of political philosophy that transcend specific periods and generally change and develop in interesting ways between periods. Discussion of these themes are frequently bound up with the contributions of individual great thinkers and so shed additional interesting light on material discussed in Part II. But these essays are concerned mainly with thematic material, as opposed to the thinkers themselves. Although the development of ideas discussed in this part is inextricably bound up with developments in political forms and institutions, this Handbook addresses the history of political philosophy, not the history of politics. Thus entries such as those on “democracy,” “the state,” and “imperialism” trace theoretical developments over time. Though these are, of course, heavily influenced by changes in democracy, the form of the state, and the politics of imperialism themselves, discussion focuses on theoretical dimensions of the relevant themes.

Part IV addresses three major non-Western traditions: Confucian, Muslim, and Hindu. In this section, scholars focus on different themes, including reflections on Western political philosophy from these other perspectives, contrast between Western and non-Western ideas, and the evolution of these different traditions of political philosophy.


Hegel, G. W. F. (1991 [1821]). Elements of the Philosophy of Right, (ed.) A. W. Wood, trans. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Klosko, G. (1993). History of Political Theory: An Introduction, vol. i: Ancient and Medieval Political Theory. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Find this resource:

Mill, J. S. (2006 [1838]). “Bentham,” in J. M. Robson (ed.), The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. x: Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 77–115.Find this resource:

Simmons, A. J. (1994). The Lockean Theory of Rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

(p. 7) Skinner, Q. (1978). The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Skinner, Q. (2002). Visions of Politics, vol. 1: Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find this resource:

Stalley, R. F. (1991). “Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic,” in D. Keyt and F. D. Miller (eds), A Companion to Aristotle's Politics. Oxford: Blackwell, 182–99.Find this resource:

Tully, J. (1989) (ed.). Meaning and Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (p. 8) Find this resource:


(1) For discussion, see Klosko (1993: ch. 4) and Stalley (1991).

(2) This is view associated especially with Quentin Skinner. See the list of Skinner's articles in the bibliography of Skinner (1978). Useful collections are Skinner (2002); as well as Tully (1989); see also the discussions by Bevir and Ball, Chapters 1 and 4, this volume.

(3) A work that clearly distinguishes between Locke's own theory and a Lockean theory is Simmons (1994).