The Nature of Political Theory

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2 The Nature of Political Theory

hand, the objective or practical world of politics, was set in some kind of foundational
stone—is simply unhelpful dogmatism.
Another response relates to the ‘political’ and ‘historical’ dimensions of theory. The
study of politics is always tied to human interests and conceptions of value. There is no
disinterested apolitical interest in political theory. In political theory, such immediate
interests are just taken to a higher level of theoretical sophistication and abstraction,
but they are not abandoned or bypassed. Furthermore, human reason can itself be
viewed as historically (as well as politically) contingent. Reason does not stand with
a ‘god’s eye view’ surveying the historical and political landscape. It is always tied
to certain contingent values or traditions. This historical perspective does not imply
that we become lost in some form of relativism, or even that we lose any sense of
objectivity. However, it does mean that we become more aware of our finitude and
historical situation, and that consequently we will have a much more constrained
or fallibilist sense of knowledge.
Finally, there is one function that any and all political theory regularly performs:
namely, to think as a political theorist is always to raise critical and perplexing ques-
tions. Systematic self-critical reflection is crucial to the health of the discipline. My
only claim here is that this critical reflection should be that much more thorough-
going and comprehensive, not just about substantive arguments, values, and concepts
in immediate political and moral theory, but also about the ‘process of theorizing’
itself. Again, the status of the theorist and the nature of theory are as puzzling as
the substantive problems of the political world and the two elements interweave and
play upon one another. This is not an issue of ‘meta-theory’; conversely, it is a deep
substantive issue of theory itself.
In summary, the manner in which the discipline has been practised (theoretically)
relates closely to its internal substantive character. Further, one should be careful of
the idea, often fostered within conceptually-orientated analytical political theory, that
there is just ‘one’ abstract method or subjectcalledpolitical theory, and then there
is another thing—the object that is explained or accounted forbytheory. Dividing
theoryand itsobjectin this way—thetheoryas neutral method and theobjectas the
substantive problem to be accounted for—is an epistemological position. It is not an
objective reality. In fact, it is a philosophically-contentious view of theory. In addition,
historically, the above conceptualist view is a limited perspective in terms of the way
theory has actually been practised during the twentieth century. To do theory in this
way alone could give the student of political theory the wholly-false impression that
a very particular, if hegemonic, philosophical method, is theonlyor thetrueway
that theory can or should be done. Many theorists have, nonetheless, still contended
that some form of rigorous conceptualist approach, tied loosely to public policy, is
the only viable defence of the utility of the discipline. Consequently, any other way
of approaching theory could be categorized as academic self-indulgence, or as simply
false. In the minds of such critics, political theory needs to earn its supper with clear
substantive guidance for policy-making and institutional design. However, there are
many ways of earning a supper, and whether ‘the utility of theory for public policy’
or ‘utility itself’ should be the only or key measure of the value of work, should also

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