2 What is Theory and Why do we need Social and Political Theory

Lakshmi Radhakrishnan

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(Political theory has been an important component to understand political phenomena. The subject matter, nature and scope of political theory however has been differently perceived by different scholars and in different periods of time. Over the years, political theory has made a transition from speculation and philosophical claims of consensus to a more conflict-ridden and fragmented arena of the ‘political’ that has considerably expanded from a narrow focus on the state and government to a more fuzzy domain that transcends the narrow ‘regiments’ of political and social. The relationship between the empirical and the normative has also undergone changes with a broader agreement towards a mutual engagement between the two. This paper maps the changing contours of political theory by engaging with the shifts in the notion of the ‘political’ and how that impacts the role of political theory.)


Political theory comprises of two words- ‘political’ and ‘theory’. The meaning, nature and scope of political theory therefore depend on the changing notions of the two concepts. This essay deals with an introduction to the domain of political theory. It deals with the definitions/meanings that have been attributed to political theory as well as the changes that have occurred over the past few years that have changed the idea of political theory. The essay therefore proceeds in the following manner:


What is theory and why do we need theory?


What is distinctive in political theory, or how is it different from other social theories? What have been the changes in the nature and scope of political theory over the years? Why is political theory still important in the study of politics?


Understanding ‘theory’


Theories are generally understood as statements that explain a particular event or act. In this assumption, theory is an explanatory statement. This has however been contested especially by political theorists. Rajeev Bhargava (2010: 5) contends that theory is an explanatory statement but that this is not a sufficient understanding of theory. Bhargava points out two issues with theory as a mere explanatory statement: first, an explanatory statement does not constitute a theory, on its own; and second, all theories are not explanations. For example, if we argue that honour killing exists in some parts of India because the society is patriarchal, it is an explanation for honour killing but not a theory of honour killing. Theory therefore delves deeper into the issue, and is much more than an explanation. Secondly, a few theories may explain or justify actions, but not all of them. In Bhargava’s view, there are larger evaluative questions behind these justifications (ibid). For example, if we explain honour killing as a manifestation of patriarchy, we may also have to justify why there should be gender equality, or if there are other forms of equality that are required in conjunction with gender equality.


How do we define theory then? Theory is a very broad term that implies “an explanatory proposition, an idea or set of ideas that in some way seeks to impose order or meaning upon phenomena” (Heywood 2004: 10). In the nineteenth century, the term ‘theory’ had a negative connotation, as it was used to refer to speculations or ‘untested facts’ (Vincent 2007: 8). Theory has always been, however, linked with philosophy and knowledge, the earliest evidences being the works of Plato and Aristotle. However, in Greek philosophy, ‘theoria’ however was a spectacle or an event, and not something we build and apply as in the case of modern theories especially after the hegemony of natural sciences (see Vincent 2007). Vincent however argues that the nature of theory has always followed the broad contours of philosophy (ibid: 8-9).


Rajeev Bhargava defines theory as “a particular form of language-dependent systematic expression different from but related to other forms of systematic reflections on the world” (Bhargava 2010: 9-10). This alludes to the fact that theory is a product of reflections on certain events or experiences, and not mere explanations. Theorising is the ability of human beings by virtue of their existence as ‘concept-bearing animals’, who live the world through not only sensory experiences but also through concepts, images and representations (Bhargava 2010: 6-7). Such ‘lived experience’ distinguishes human life from the life of other species. However, all such reflections do not constitute theory.


Theory is therefore distinctive from all thoughtful reflections as well. Bhargava (2010) defines theory as a form of “systematic reflection” with six distinctive features:


Conceptual sensitivity Rational structure

Aspiration for a humanly achievable truth and objectivity Generality

An explicit mandate to unearth assumptions and presuppositions Strong non-speculative intent.


Bhargava uses these features to demarcate theoretical expositions from ideology, cosmology, speculations, empirical enquiries, rich insights, ad hoc reflections and all other related narratives (see Bhargava 2010: 17-8). Conceptual sensitivity is one distinctive feature of theory. For philosophers and theorists, there is an “almost obsessive and self-conscious concern with the internal structure of concepts, with how concepts relate to one another and come in clusters and how, in turn, they mark their own boundaries” (Bhargava 2010: 11). Conceptual sensitivity involves not only an elaboration of different conceptions of an idea, but also the reasoning as to the choice of the conception. For instance, it is not only the task of theory to explicate the different notions of freedom, justice, etc.; a theory of justice should also explain, say, why a capability theory of justice is chosen over procedural justice. Theories should also have a rational structure. There should be reasons, and a chain of reasons, that make a theory. For example, if we are espousing a theory of affirmative action, there could be many reasons- that this can foster diversity and politics of presence, it ensures redistribution in favour of the disadvantaged, that it is a corrective to historical injustice, etc. Though many theorists are particular with a final reason, the final justification is not a criterion, for it may not be possible. Bhargava contends that it is this persistent requirement of reasons that enhances the subversive potential of theories to transform the social order (see Bhargava 2010: 14). A third characteristic of theory is its aspiration to truth and objectivity. Some theorists, especially natural science theorists are obsessed with Truth and universalism. Natural science theories claim scienticity and objectivity along with universalism. Thus, that water freezes at zero degree celsius is a universal truth. Many theories of social phenomena have also tried this. August Comte’s ‘science of society’ and the behavioural movement in Political Science are examples. However, especially with post-positivism, social theories have tried to distance themselves from scientific claims by virtue of the latter’s deterministic claims, non- accommodation of the vantage points of the marginalised, etc. However, increasingly, social science theories emphasize on theories as objective only to the extent that they are not founded on subjective experiences and prejudices. They have also increasingly accepted the near impossibility of theories or any form of knowledge (including facts) to escape subjectivism. Bhargava thus stresses on an aspiration to objectivity but underlines the context dependent nature of every theory: “We must rid ourselves of the illusion that like god, we humans can stand outside all perspectives and attain god-like objectivity or an eternal truth of the matter” (ibid: 15). It may be exceptional for theories to be universal but there should be some degree of generality in a statement to qualify as theory. For instance, that women are victims in the existing social order need not be a universal statement, for women might be exercising agency in certain ways and contexts, and also because some women may be oppressors as well- for men and women. However, since most contexts suggest the victimhood of women, it can be a general statement. A theory should hence cover a ‘wide variety of related but disparate phenomena’ (ibid: 17). Also, theories cannot be purely speculative. It should pass through the empirical phenomena and lived experiences. In other words, modern theories cannot be exclusively metaphysical.


Shaun Best (2003) points out four characteristics common to all social theories:


An epistemology, or a body of knowledge of what we know and how we know An ontology, or the nature of



A historical location, ie., all social theories are products of a particular period of time and reflects realities of

that time


A set of prescriptions that suggest how we should behave, how the society should be organized, etc.


Social theories therefore deal with human beings as individuals as well as groups in society; they deal with society and the interaction of people with social structures, processes and institutions. Thus, the study of caste hierarchy, the conflicts around ethnicity, the dynamics of familial and even interpersonal and intrapersonal relations- all could be differentiated as understandings/ theories of social phenomena and not natural processes. If this is the case with any social theory that engages with social phenomena, what makes a theory ‘political’? This can be understood only if we explore what constitutes the ‘political’.


What is ‘political’?


The central question or object of political theory has been ‘what is political’ (Hindess 1997; Dean 2006: 752; Bhargava 2010). The meaning, nature and scope of political theory indeed then depends on defining or rather redefining the boundaries of the political (Held 1991; Farrelly 2003). As Held argues, “The debate over what constitutes the ‘political’ is a debate about the proper terms of reference for political reflection and about the legitimate form and scope of politics as a practical activity” (Held 1991: 7).


David Held (1991) argues that prior to the 1970s, ‘political’ mainly dealt with nature and structure of government; it was treated as a domain separate from society and the personal. In such understanding, political theory stood for the study of the nature of government as well as the proper ends of the government- the nature and limits of state action, and excluded for instance, the sources of power in society (Held 1991). For example, secularism as a policy of the state would be part of political theory but the civic or social relationships between two communities will be the domain of sociology; the vulnerability perceived in the psyche of a community – the fear of the other- again would not be accepted in this phase as the proper focus of political theory. In other words, prior to the 70s, modern social studies was based on strict disciplinary boundaries that demarcated ‘social’, ‘political’, ‘psychological’, etc. However, ‘political’ has increasingly changed today, making the subject of political theory also more diverse and complex (Held 1991; Ball 1995; Vincent 2007). Thus Andrew Vincent writes, “…politics is the site of multiplicity of vocabularies” (Vincent 2007: 9). This indeed makes the engagement of political theory with more diverse issues imperative. Interestingly, the expansion of ‘political’ also signifies the shift from politics as an arena of consensus to politics as a site of multiplicity of values, claims, experiences, etc particularly implies the increasing proximity of political theory to practice:


Politics becomes a much more elusive quarry. Politics is therefore neither an unmediated tabula rasa, nor a way of being that can be studied on an unproblematic empirical level and then simply be addressed by theory. The nature of political theory is therefore taken to be both internally complex and deeply contested (Vincent 2007: 10).


For instance, take the case of classical political philosophy. Most works reflect a consensus in the goal of state or politics- eudemonia in Aristotle, the General Will in Rousseau, etc. even liberal political theory, albeit its stress on individualism and aversion to ends-based theory is based on a single notion of Truth and a universal notion of the individual. Such consensus has been broken down in contemporary political theory. Politics is increasingly seen as a site of conflicting values and interests. For example, except for the deliberative democrats who believe in consensus, Marxists, feminists, critical race theorists, poststructuralists, etc- all bring out the conflictual nature of the ‘political’ in their own ways.


Bhargava (2010) also concedes that the term ‘political’ has multiple meanings. The earliest is the idea of political as decision making in a political community, a notion Bhargava traces to ancient Greek polis but also in Arendt’s idea that living in a polis implies decisions through words and persuasion and not through force and violence (Bhargava 2010: 20). In this classical view of ‘political’, Bhargava contends that there is no distinction between social and political theory and also no separation between empirical and normative. In this definition of political, “Political theory is about how and with what justification decisions are made concerning the good life of a community” (ibid: 21). Akin to David Held’s contention that the political is no longer an arena of consensus, Bhargava also argues that with the advent of modernity, differences between and within groups have become a reality within the political space; this has converted political to ‘power over others’ (see Bhargava 2010: 22). The central question of political theory in this more adversarial and competitive notion of the political is ‘who wields power over whom and why’ (ibid). However, unlike others who explain political theory as characterized by a conflict between the normative and empirical, or as a debate between political theory and political science, Bhargava speaks of a corresponding change in the relationship between the two after the advent of modernity:


Political science, then, came to mean an empirical enquiry into the exercise of this power, and political theory, the most general reflection on the processes, mechanisms, institutions, and practices by which some people are excluded, by others from significant decision making (Bhargava 2010: 22).


This however is also fraught with the problem that there is an end to the dialogue of the polis; decisions are taken by the sovereign and political becomes the domain of the sovereign (ibid: 23). In other words, this represents the transition to the notion of the political as the domain of the modern state and its institutions and processes; political science and political theory therefore tended to study exclusively the what – the components of the state and their existence, as well as the ‘how’ of decision making in these institutions. Such notion of political represents a clear separation of political theory from social theory. While state became the major object of study in political theory, social theory studied the structures and processes outside the state (Bhargava 2010: 23). The assumption was that the key decision making actor is the state, and hence a privileging of this narrow definition of ‘political’. Both Held and Bhargava therefore agree that the early phase of modern political theory is premised on the idea that political theory is exclusively about the study of state action and its limits- a very narrow field.


The narrow definition of political as a realm of state has been challenged especially by most sections of feminist theory that purport to dismantle the dichotomy between the public and private, as well as the idea that the public domain is exclusively the state (Held 1991). The state centrism in political science faced major challenges when the ‘embeddedness’ of the state in society or social relations and structures of power was exposed by Marxists, feminists, critical race theorists, postmodernists and others. For example, take the argument of Gopal Guru (2001) that the Indian Constitution guarantees legal rights against untouchability but lacks provisions for the moral goods of recognition, dignity and a guarantee against humiliation. Guru thus concedes that the legal rights recognised by the state are welcome; however, they do not change untouchability and other forms of caste discrimination in the civil society. Thus, caste hierarchies, their manifestations, personal relationships, civil society, the state- all are part of the political in this example. Also, it implies that the state cannot be studied as an independent actor. The state migt be free of caste discrimination; but the social fabric is characterized by casteism and the state may not be untouched by it, intentionally or unintentionally. Similarly, the radical feminist slogan ‘personal is political’ once again pushes the boundaries of the political by also including the intimate and the private as political. Power is located in patriarchy as a total system that pervades every aspect of life and society. The locus of the political is not the state; it is only one of the sites of political, albeit a strong site of power. For socialist feminists, capitalism and patriarchy were the real loci of power and not the state. This phase once again collapses the social and political into a single entity.


The postmodernists, especially, brought to the fore the idea that power is not concentrated in the sovereign as a direct command or control over others; on the contrary, power is more capillary and disciplinary and is located more in social institutions and norms (see Foucault 1975). Political theory is not really different from social theory in this perspective, though postmodernism questions ‘theory’ itself. In view of these new developments in the ‘political’, Bhargava (2010) defines political theory as a ‘particular form of word-dependent systematic reflection’ with a wide range of objects of study. Its objects of study include the collective power to take decisions ,about the good life of a political community, conflict over who should take decisions and the competing visions of good life, mechanisms of power, use of state power, as well as forms and manifestations of power in locations other than the state (Bhargava 2010: 25-6).


What is political theory?


The compound term ‘political theory’ is a product of nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Vincent 2007: 8). The subject and scope of political theory has been a contentious issue in recent times. For example, Nelson underscores the dimension of criticality as crucial to political theory, while Anderson identifies political process as the subject matter of political theory (see Mion 1987). Different scholars have therefore identified different issues as the foci of political theory. For example, Terence Ball argues that there is much scholarship on political theory that tends to look at political theory as the history of political thought or the study of canons. Ball defends this methodology in political theory on the ground that interpretation of texts is inescapable and necessary (Ball 1995: 5). Andrew Heywood speaks of two types of political theory- traditional political theory and formal political theory. In Andrew Heywood’s view, traditional political theory is the “analytical study of ideas” or doctrines in political thought and in that is clearly normative and ethical (Heywood 2004: 10). This is closer to philosophy and literary analysis, while formal political theory is based on economic model building to study the behaviour of rational, self-interested actors. All these point to the diversity in the methods, approaches and subject matter of political theory. At the same time, Dryzek et al. (2006) points out the commonalities in terms of commitments to democracy, justice, etc. despite the variety in terms of approaches, methods, etc. This perhaps vindicates Berlin’s argument in the 1960s that political theory can survive only in a pluralistic context and that it cannot be scientific; it should never aspire to be scientific (see Grant 2004: 175). Pluralities therefore are a hallmark of political theory today though we can identify certain themes like aspirations towards a just society, equality, etc.


One of the contentious debates in political theory has also been its relationship with political philosophy. Very often, the two are interchangeably used by virtue of the normative underpinnings of political theory. The discipline of political theory, often studied as a subset of political science, and more recently, the study of political life, is by and large, regarded as a normative discipline (see Pettit 1991; Hindess 1997). Leo Strauss (1988) argues, in a similar vein, that every political action has an end- either preservation, or change of the existing social arrangement. Writing on political philosophy, Strauss, defines the goal of the discipline as “the attempt truly to know both the nature of political things and the right, or the good political order” (Strauss 1988: 345). As Strauss contends, political goal is necessarily about common good though the latter is essentially controversial (ibid). These perspectives underscore the primacy of normative and prescriptive tasks of political theory.


The normative essence of political theory is reasserted by Philip Pettit in his work Contemporary Political Theory (1991). Following Plamenatz, Pettit argues that political theory should be engaged with the purposes or ends of government, and not how it functions (Pettit 1991: 1). Pettit outlines three types of endeavours that political theory has been preoccupied with, which establishes political theory as a normative enterprise: first, the study of values relevant to assessing political arrangements; second, the types of arrangements human beings will choose during a social contract; and third, the arrangements that are feasible. The assessment of values involves two tasks: deciding the values that are desirable, as well as establishing the relation between them. For instance, liberty and equality may be two values that are desirable; we also need to assess their priority in a political arrangement, how much of one can be sacrificed for the other, etc. As a normative study of political life, political theory is more concerned with ‘what ought to be and not what is; in other words, it is concerned with normative ends rather than explanations of political events. The overwhelmingly normative nature and role of political theory is visible in Philip Pettit’s definition of political theory:


Political theory is a normative discipline, designed to let us evaluate rather than explain; in this it resembles moral or ethical theory. What distinguishes it among normative disciplines is that it is designed to facilitate in particular the evaluation of government or, if that is something more general, the state (Pettit 1991: 1).


Andrew Vincent in his work The Nature of Political Theory (2007) offers another perspective on the normative nature of political theory. Vincent contends that standard texts of political theory are about a certain normative value- democracy, liberty, rights, justice, etc.- and their promotion. Hence, “[T]heory, in this mould, is commonly seen as a form of practical philosophy, orientated to, for example, certain kinds of substantive conceptual, normative, and evaluative forms of analysis” (Vincent 2007: 1). Thus a definitive goal of political theory, in Vincent’s analysis is ‘systematic self-critical reflection’ (ibid: 2). Vincent argues that all philosophy implies theorizing or theory, but all political theory is not philosophy (Vincent 2007: 9). This implies that political theory cannot be reduced to political philosophy. Others like Ruth Grant (2004) reduce the different normative questions in political theory into two types: to seek the best political option or to guard against the worst (Grant 2004: 179). As an example, Grant suggests that Plato was looking for the former while Locke was concerned about the latter in their respective engagements with the political.


That political theory is strictly not political philosophy has also been the claim of many works of political theory (see Mion 1987; Ball 1995; Parekh 1996; Pocock 2006). Mion argues that ‘methodological frustration and philosophical uncertainty’ are endemic to political theory (Mion 1987: 74). However, political philosophy, in this perspective, is expected to be linked with and informing political practice and should be in the service of the political processes. Similarly, J.G.A. Pocock defines political theory as “the construction of heuristic and normative statements, or systems of such statements, about an area of human experience and activity called ‘‘politics’’ or ‘‘the political”’’ (Pocock 2006: 165). In this definition, political theory acknowledges certain norms and procedures through which statements are constructed, validated and critiqued (ibid: 166). However, Pocock distinguishes theory from ‘political philosophy’ in that the latter seeks to find out how these procedures have been arrived at; in other words, political philosophy seeks to explore how the discipline of political theory has been constructed (ibid). Elizabeth Frazer (2008) further makes a distinction between ‘theory of politics’ and ‘political theory’. In Frazer’s account, the former denotes a certain distancing between theorizing and the object of theory, whereas political theory emphasizes ‘the extent to which the theory has political effects…” (Frazer 2008: 171).


The subject of political theory however has not been an exclusive engagement with normativity. Indeed there are others who see the expression ‘political theory’ itself as an oxymoron- while theory or theoria deals with the realm of thinking or contemplation, politics is about praxis (see Cavarero 2004). Caverero therefore makes a case for expressing political theory as ‘politicizing theory’ rather than as theorisation of politics, for the latter implies “the reduction of politics to the principles of theoria” (ibid: 60, italics in original).


Political theory has also raised questions on methods to arrive at these norms or political statements. Vincent (2007) iterates that the way one theorizes- the method- influences the substance of theory. He thus calls for study of political theory as not only the conventional domain of ‘internal substantive matter’ but also the processes of theorising (ibid: 2). Methodological discussions have been dominant in the writings of the ‘Cambridge school’ of historians of political thought, notably Quentin Skinner, John Dunn and Geoffrey Hawthorn (see Leopold and Stears 2008). For Ruth Grant (2004), political theory is not only about moral judgements but also their competing claims. As Grant writes, “Political theory as a discipline develops diagnostic tools to identify and to understand what sort of political disagreement is involved in any given situation, and theorists sometimes construct new alternatives that alter the nature of the conflict” (Grant 2004: 184-5).


At another level, many writers underscore the limitations of this division of labour between normative political theory and empirical political theory (see Shapiro 2004; Swift and White 2008). Adam Swift and Stuart White (2008: 49) argue that normative political theory can be limited in understanding the real phenomenon of politics unless coordinated with empirical social science. As Swift and White point out, “Some theorists are interested less in evaluating policy options than in questioning the basic assumptions that govern the way policies are discussed and decided in systems like our own” (Swift and White 2008: 52). This in turn brings us back to Pettit’s idea that accords importance to the feasibility of values and moral judgements. This also suggests possibility of conflict between the desirable and the feasible. The statement suggests a division of labour between political theory and other domains of political science. It presumes that political theory is more about basic assumptions or moral arguments and not about policy options. For example, a political theorist will be more occupied with reasons to justify the abolition of poverty or the mitigation of climate change and not in fact choosing a better strategy to eradicate poverty or address environmental issues. In Swift’s and White’s contention, this could  turn  out  to  be  a  limit  for  the  scope  of  political  theory.  Swift  and  White  therefore recommend a collaboration between normative political theory and empirical social science:


For us, the political theorist is making a vital yet distinctive contribution to a collaborative division of labour. She clarifies concepts, interrogates claims about how the political community should organize its collective affairs (including claims about what should count as that community’s ‘collective affairs’), and argues for particular principles (or conceptions of values, or balances of competing values). It is, typically, only when combined with empirical knowledge, of the kind generated by social science, that her analysis and justification of fundamental principles implies particular policies (Swift and White 2008: 68).


However, such collaboration is not new in the study of politics. One cannot argue that political philosophy or theory have been completely divorced from empirical reality (see Grant 2004). Aristotle’s discussion of regime types in Politics is an illustration (see Grant 2004: 176). Grant contends that empirical political theories cannot be devoid of normative values. However, for Grant, the unique contribution of political theory lies in its endeavour to engage in a humanistic study of political life. This indicates the significance of historical and philosophical dimensions of political theory (ibid: 187).


Evolution of Political Theory


Political theory is widely held to have originated in the modern period. Political theory hence is widely  regarded  as  a  product  of  modernity  that  was  ushered  in  by  Enlightenment  in  the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, there have been debates regarding the modern origins of political theory. A few scholars are of the view that political theory has its origins in classical Greece, which witnessed the first ‘reflective approach to the study of politics’ (Frank 2006: 176). In Jill Frank’s view, ancient Greek philosophers transcended the modern boundaries of ‘political’ by also reflecting on ethics, virtue, etc. The strength of this approach is explained as follows:


Eric Nelson, in a similar vein, speaks of ‘republican political theory’ that emerged in early modern Europe- alluding to the Greek and Roman traditions that qualify to be described as political theory (Nelson 2006). Contemporary scholars have also alluded to Islamic political theory, Confucian political theory, etc., challenging the euro-centrism in political theory. There are however those who endorse and reinstate the primacy of western political theory as well. John Dunn for instance defends the relevance of western political theory on two counts: the continuous and self conscious historical development of political theory; and its rigourous and systematic historical analysis (see Dunn 1996).


Most works on political theory speak of the ‘decline’ of the discipline, particularly, normative political theory in the 1950s and 1960s (see Miller 1990; Held 1991; Vincent 2007). The 1950s witnessed the decline of political theory echoed as its ‘death’ By Peter Laslett. The horrors of Nazism, the rise of empiricism and logical positivism, and behaviouralism were responsible for the crisis in political theory (White 2004: 1). The absence of any ‘commanding work’ of political philosophy in the 50s and 60s is taken as the ground for the decline in political theory (see Berlin 2012). David Held (1991) blames positivism and particularly logical positivism1 for displacing the place of value judgements and normative political theory with empirical political science, the hallmark of the ‘behavioural revolution’. This was exemplified by David Easton’s ‘systems approach’ that eschewed the normative concerns of the state (see Ball 1995: 39). The resistance to values and normativity was so profound that Peter Laslett declared the ‘death of political theory’ for the time being. On a different note, Bhikhu Parekh (1996) challenges the decline of political theory in the 50s and 60s. Parekh contends that these two decades saw some of the path-breaking works in political philosophy including those of Michael Oakeshott, Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and many others. The period also witnessed the reconstruction of Marxist political philosophy by Marcuse, Althusser, Sartre and Habermas (see Parekh 1996: 504). However, Parekh does recognise the two decades as a distinctive phase in political philosophy for three major reasons:


Most of the political philosophers of the period hardly engaged with the works of others. There was an awareness that political philosophy is under stress from various factors

including positivism; hence the general tone suggested that either it was an impossibility, or was a non-necessity, for the western world has agreed on philosophical principles.


1 The idea that all knowledge should be based on sensory perceptions and that social sciences should also follow the same methodology of natural sciences.


This tended their works to treat political philosophy as a distinct, self-contained mode of inquiry rather than an extension of political science.


They  critiqued  almost  all  existing  paradigms,  having  been  victims  of  Nazism  and Stalinism. Popper’s attack on historicism, Oakeshott’s criticism of rationalism and Berlin’s denouncement of moral monism in favour of pluralistic ends are a few examples. The fears arising of Fascist and Communist totalitarianism are abundant in these writings explain the apathy and often resistance to the prescriptive and normative roles of political philosophy.


Parekh therefore argues that political philosophy was ‘dead’ not because there was an absence of works in the field. It was deemed ‘dead’ because it did not conform to the established meanings of political philosophy:


As we saw, most political philosophers of the 1950s and 1960s did not share this view and regarded political philosophy primarily as a contemplative, reflective and explanatory inquiry concerned to understand rather than to prescribe. Since their writings did not conform to their critics’ narrow standards of what constituted “true” political philosophy, the latter predictably pronounced the discipline dead.

(Parekh 1996: 507).



In a similar vein, Terence Ball (1997) alluding albeit to the decline in political theory, contends that in the 1950s and 1960s, the task of political theory was deemed to be a mere clarification of concepts that can be used in political science. In other words, rather than being normative, works of this period wanted to clarify concepts as a helping hand to empirical political science (ibid: 31). Ball gives the example of Oppenheim’s efforts in the 60s to make freedom an empirical concept. Indeed, in his essay “Whither Political Theory?”, Terence Ball represents the debate on the decline in political theory in the 50s and 60s as a ‘paradox’: “political theory was in some quarters dead or dying; and yet it could not die” (Ball 1995: 43). Ball explains this by throwing light on the distinction made by such scholars between ‘first-order theorizing’ and ‘second-order theorizing’. While the first order theorizing was about political and social arrangements, the second order theorizing was about norms and political philosophy. Thus both Parekh and Ball bring home the point that engagements with political philosophy suffered a decline in the 50s and 60s, but engagements with institutions and processes were very much in vogue. This is iterated in MacIntyre’s thesis ‘the end of the end of ideology’ as he claims that first-order theorizing was happening even in classrooms and the social movements of the 60s (see Ball 1995: 48).


However, by the 1970s, challenges to positivism took the shape of different alternatives that were engaging not only with meaning and explanation of social phenomena; they were highlighting the role of history and contexts for understanding politics. Hermeneutics and other post-positivist methodologies gradually replaced the scienticism in social studies. The 1962 essay of Isaiah Berlin “Does Political Theory Really Exist?” throws light on the inefficacy of a science of politics, since questions of political obligation, nature of political arrangement, etc. involve conflicting arguments and answers. Indeed, for Berlin, a society where ends collide or where there is a clash of value judgements is the only society where political philosophy is possible. Berlin’s argument is also an attempt to rescue political theory from the dangers of monistic normativity that were also regarded as the bases for both fascist and communist totalitarianism in the 40s and 50s.


The revival of political theory is traced to 1970s, particularly with John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971). It was also spearheaded by the launch of three journals that deal with political philosophy: Interpretation (1970), Philosophy and Public Affairs (1971) and Political Theory (1971) (see Ball 1995; Parekh 1996). For David Held, it is at this stage of challenging behaviouralism that political theory’s critical role in social transformation was also underscored (see Held 1991: 14). Held (1991) perceives this renewal of political theory in seven forms:


As the history of political thought- an attempt to interpret the significance of texts in their historical context. Works of Quentin Skinner and John Dunn are examples.


As a form of conceptual analysis- that involves clarification of key concepts and issues like democracy, sovereignty, justice, rights, etc. For example, John Rawls’ attempts to define justice or Hayek’s work on liberty.


As a systematic elaboration of the foundations of political value, or as an invigoration of the moral foundations of political philosophy. Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is an example.


As a form of argument concerned with abstract theoretical questions as well as practical political issues. For instance, the works by Iris Young, Joshua Cohen and Jurgen Habermas on deliberative democracy are pointers towards the limitations of representative democracy; at the same time, they also raise larger questions of rationality, consensus-building, communicative action, etc.


Political theory has also, in its new form, been an arena of debate between the foundationalists like Rawls who reinstate universalist principles, and the anti-foundationalists who are votaries of the contingency of meaning (eg. Lyotard, Rorty). Michael Walzer offers another challenge to political theory through his assertion that political philosophy is ‘embedded’ in a specific community; it can only be an expression of the self-understanding of that community and is hence municipal in its scope (see Parekh 1996: 509).


As a form of systematic model-building. Antony Downs’ economic theory of democracy, and von Beyme’s rational choice approach to political science are examples for this.


One cannot disagree with Held that none of these renewed versions of political theory are beyond controversies and inconsistencies. What is interesting is that “political theory today cannot be based purely on political philosophy or political science” (Held 1991: 19, italics in original). Held highlights the brilliant career of political theory post its revival in the 70s in its combination of ‘philosophical analysis of concepts and principles’ and the ‘empirical understanding of political processes and structures’ (ibid). As he writes, “…political theory can occupy a space between these forms of inquiry, engaging critically with the competing values and interests that guide and orient modern politics” (Held 1991: 20). The conceptual-normative and the empirical-analytic and the strategic (the feasibility question- to what extent can we change the existing arrangements to reach where we expect to) become the vital components of modern political theory. This is also evident in Parekh’s argument that though contemporary political theory has a strong moral dimension, it is more contemplative and reflective rather than prescriptive; it is not normative in orientation (Parekh 1996: 509). For example, we should evaluate the different conceptions of justice, or philosophize a new notion; at the same time, we also need to analyse the political structures that subscribe to this concept of justice, or find an alternative political arrangement to apply the concerned idea of justice. For example, when Amartya Sen evolved his capability-based notion of justice, or the idea of development as freedom and not mere growth, he also suggested political and social arrangements that can work out the new propositions. Similarly, Rawls’ theory of justice is an engagement with political philosophy as well as practical issues of politics (see Ball 1995; Parekh 1996). That political theory is no longer normative is hence not agreed to by everyone. Many writers, as explained earlier, underscore the essentially normative orientation of political theory (see Pettit 1991; Hindess 1997; Farrelly 2003; Vincent 1999, 2007; Bhargava 2010). What is striking however is how all of them also point towards the spaces for social and political arrangements as well in contemporary political theory.


Another feature of political theory post its revival in the seventies is the pluralism in the discipline in terms of ideas, issues, approaches and methods. The danger of appropriation of normativity by totalitarian ideologies was addressed by Isaiah Berlin in his 1962 essay, “Does political theory still exist?”. Berlin’s answer was that political theory can survive only in a pluralist or potentially pluralist society- a society with competing and colliding ends (White 2004: 2). And indeed, this pluralism as been characteristic of political theory till date:


From the 1960s to the present, it is the production of paradoxes that stands out as Western moral and political thought have confronted the challenges of feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, critical race theory, and novel claims on the part of both nationalism and cosmopolitanism (White 2004: 3).


Andrew Vincent (2007) highlights the complex and internally contradictory nature of political theory in its modern and postmodern phases. Vincent concedes that politics itself has become so conflictual and complex and so has political theory. Vincent argues that there are five conceptions of political theory, each embodying a definitive foundational element: classical normative, institutional, historical, empirical, and ideological political theory. Bhargava’s explication of normative, explanatory and contemplative political theories also suggest the multiple foundations and tasks of contemporary political theory. However, while the complexity and diversity of issues in political theory expands its scope and ensure its longevity (Barber, cited in Ball 1995), others also view this expansion as a challenge to the survival of political theory. For example, Terence Ball (1995) views the distancing of political theory from its own subject matter-politics- as a major challenge to the discipline. Ball contends that akin to the behavourists, political theorists in the 80s and 90s also make the mistake of ‘professionalisation’ of political theory by virtue of their preoccupation with methods, techniques and the debate over ‘meta-theories’.


Why do we need political theory?


There has been a wide variety of reasons that justify the utility of political theory. Those like Michael Freeden (see Freeden 2005) who want to differentiate between political theory and political philosophy primarily underscore the role of theory in understanding and facilitating the political processes. Some others are uncomfortable with what Ian Shapiro calls the ‘narcissistic’ tendency of political theorists, wherein they treat political theory as a specialised activity disengaged from the discipline of political science (see Shapiro 2004). Ruth Grant (2004) makes it a central task of political theory, albeit the tensions with ‘political science’, for a mutual engagement with politics, without becoming a science. Grant’s argument is therefore on lines of mutual engagement between the normative and the empirical


All these works on political theory bring to focus the mistake of separating the empirical and the normative. The mutual engagement of philosophy and political theory is underlined by Bhargava as vital to understanding the role of political theory. Contemporary theory, Bhargava argues, performs four ‘interrelated functions’: “It explains at the most general level possible, it evaluates and tells us what we should do, and it speculates about our current and future condition. It also tells us who we are” (Bhargava 2010: 28). Depending on the roles of theory, Bhargava classifies them as explanatory, contemplative and normative theories (Bhargava 2010). Bhargava alludes to two functions common to social and political theory – interpretation and explanation, and secondly providing insights into social phenomena that may not be completely explained by empirical inquiries- the ‘contemplative’ role of political theory (Bhargava 2010: 35-6). For example, the interpretative and explanatory role of political theory may be explained in an inquiry as to why women face discrimination despite constitutional guarantees of equality. For example, Max Weber’s thesis that Protestant ethic was responsible for the rise of capitalism is an explanatory theory (Bhargava 2010: 42). Similarly, Engels’(1884) argument that the rise of private property, and the consequent patrilineal inheritance led to the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’ explains the rise of inequality of sex and patriarchy in relation to property. As far as contemplative role of political theory is concerned, the assumption is that certain phenomena cannot be explained completely by facts or empirical studies. An example is Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization in Hind Swaraj as he is contemplating the ill effects of modern civilization rather than looking at societies that have taken the road to modern civilization (Bhargava 2010). Another example is Marx’s analysis of capitalism and the prospective transition to socialism and communism. In other words, this approach argues that facts cannot capture and explain all of reality, and they have to be supplemented with some degree of contemplation. ` `


Political theory can also be a space for value pluralism. For example, Isaiah Berlin (1962) sees theory as the arena of value pluralism rather than as a prescription of common good. Politics here is distinct from the social, as politics is regarded as a sphere of political freedom, where individuals can choose their own values. Similarly, Hannah Arendt’s proposition of separating the personal from the political represents the fears of potentially totalitarian tendencies of normative theories. As Moon (2004) argues, Berlin brings `home the point that values are essentially plural; they are incommensurable and their order or priority cannot be established. Thus Berlin and Arendt do not prescribe norms; they however see politics as a space to evaluate competing claims of values- politics as a realm of value pluralism. Ruth Grant (2004) on the contrary gives a different picture. She argues that determining relative significance of values is necessary if political theory engages with complex problems. That leads us to a third role of theory-normative. Political theory primarily is seen here as either an arena of evaluation of norms or even as the instrument towards designing a good society or leading a good life. Value judgements and the ‘ought’ questions are critical in politics. In Bhargava’s viewpoint, facts cannot explain everything, and value judgements become necessary in political theory. In his account, it is normativity that makes political theory irreducible to social sciences and empirical theories (Bhargava 2010: 38).


Bhargava therefore lays down three major functions of political theory, which other social theories do not undertake, which he explains as the distinctive functions of political theory. First, political theory offers a “general reflection on the ‘human condition’” – this is more philosophical and closer to metaphysical knowledge; second, the exercise of power as well as the mechanisms of exercise of power- this involves not only studies of state but also on the capillaries of society, if they are sites of power; third, political theory is also the “study of how this power should be wielded, by whom and why, and in the light of which values and ideas of the good life” (Bhargava 2010: 41). The third element, Bhargava emphasises, is a prescriptive, normative and largely an ethical function of political theory (ibid). Evaluation of judgements and the methods of arriving at these principles of normative evaluation become significant for political theory in this distinctive function.




In sum, the meaning, nature and scope of political theory has undergone changes over time. Political theory has moved away from the narrow focus on state; to that extent that it has become more diverse and has encroached into the terrains of social theory and even phenomenology as in the case of experiential or standpoint theories. Political theory today engages with norms; however, it is also preoccupied with empirical questions including how to design necessary political arrangements for the cause of justice, equality, etc. At the same time, the anti-foundationalism presented by postmodernism challenges the idea of theory itself. While postmodernism questions meta-narratives or ‘grand theories’, the ‘micro theories’ also become questionable, for perceptions may vary with subjects and subject positions. From this angle, political theory has made a long trajectory from universalism to particularisms, from objectivism to subjectivism and from foundationalism to anti-foundationalism.

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