The Nature of Political Theory

(vip2019) #1

1 An Eclectic Subject

The basic question underpinning this book is—what do we think we are doing when
we practise political theory? The subject matter of this present book is usually touched
upon lightly in the first chapter of most political theory texts, namely the discipline
itself as a practice. It is often considered unproblematic and something to clear out of
the way as quickly as possible. The main body of the standard texts is then commonly
devoted to the substantive normative analysis and promotion of a concept or series
of political concepts, such as rights, justice, equality, and democracy. Theory, 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. In this context, the majority of introductory books on political theory
are not so much introductions to political theory, as introductions to aparticular
conception of political theory.
Any claim that theory should be discussed or introduced in any other way is usu-
ally met with the following kind of responses: no one really wants to spend time
mulling over the subject of theory, apart from the fact that it might be considered
to be intrinsically tedious. Theory is, so the argument goes, by nature an ‘active’ or
‘engaged’ discipline. A great deal of time can therefore be wasted looking over com-
parative methods of political theory. The important point about theory is to ‘do it’,
not stand back from it and wonder what it is one is doing whilst prosecuting it. The
task of theory, in this reading, might therefore be defined as the application of forms
of constrained, rigorous, and stringent value analysis to political issues in order to
produce substantive policy recommendations and forms of institutional design.
The above points have some cogency—however, there are a number of immediate
responses: primarily, the nature of theory itself can be intrinsically interesting, since it
blends in unexpected ways with the more substantive analyses. In fact, a closer exam-
ination of twentieth-century theory reveals how varied its approaches and readings
of politics actually are. Another formulation of this point is that the ‘nature of theory’
can itself be a substantive question for political theory. Thewayone theorizes can
affect quite radically the nature of the subject matter, or the way the political world
or public policy actually looks. A theory will configure what is the appropriate object,
area, and method of study. In consequence, the theory cannot be divorced from its
object. For some thinkers, indeed, political theory actually constitutes the political
object. This latter view is clearly contentious—however, it is nonetheless a viable and
philosophically-defendable conception of theory. Therefore, to carry on reflection in
political theory as if the divorce between on the one hand, theory, and on the other

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