Read This Before You Study Political Philosophy - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Read This Before You Study Political Philosophy

The following is excerpted from Harvey C. Mansfield’s excellent little book, A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy.


Political Philosophy is found in great books—those by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and others of the highest rank—and in books by professors. You should spend much more time with the great authors than with the professors, and you should use the professors to help you understand the great authors; you should not allow yourself to be diverted or distracted from the great books by the professors.

Why not go for the gold? Why be content with the dross? I am a professor; so take it from me that I am only a subordinate guide, one with the office of introducing you to the true guides.

Political philosophy can also be found outside the books—in actual politics—but here we see it only in its first strivings, before it appears under its own name. Citizens and politicians do not claim to be philosophers, whom they rather look down on as ingenious but inept. But politics and political philosophy have one thing in common, and that is argument.

If you listen to the talk shows, you will hear your fellow citizens arguing passionately pro and con with advocacy and denigration, accusation and defense. Politics means taking sides; it is partisan. Not only are there sides—typically liberal and conservative in our day—but also they argue against each other, so that it is liberals versus conservatives.

Partisan Differences

Each side defends its own interests, those of schoolteachers versus those of stockbrokers, for example, but they also appeal to something they have in common: the common good.

Defending their interests, each says, contributes to the common good. At the same time, the parties appeal to someone in common, a common judge who would decide the issues between them. Normally this judge is merely the person they are trying to persuade or impress, but he could be a person competent to judge. Arguments, good or bad, are made with reasons and so are aimed implicitly, if not usually, at a reasonable judge.

Here is where political philosophy enters. Most people reason badly, but they do reason—and political philosophy starts from that fact.

In America today, liberals argue that wealth is unjustly distributed, for example, but they overlook the need to generate wealth. Conservatives do the reverse; preoccupied with wealth generation, they pay little attention to how it should be distributed.

A partisan difference like this one is not a clash of “values,” with each side blind to the other and with no way to decide between them. A competent judge could ask both sides why they omit what they do, and he could supply reasons even if the parties could not. Such a judge is on the way toward political philosophy.

There is a long tradition of political philosophy dating from Socrates and consisting of a series of great books, each written to comment favorably or adversely on a contemporary or a preceding philosophy. A scholar can devote his life to this tradition or a part of it, and anyone serious about political philosophy will want to acquire at least some knowledge of the tradition. But one does not have to go to books of political philosophy to find political philosophy.

All the books of political philosophy could be lost, if one can imagine such a calamity, and yet the activity could be generated anew directly from political life. The partly rational character of politics calls for completion in political philosophy—even though it takes a great thinker, to whom we are all greatly indebted, to answer the call.

Politics always has political philosophy lying within it, waiting to emerge. So far as we know, however, it has emerged just once, with Socrates—but that event left a lasting impression. It was a “first.” I stress the connection between politics and political philosophy because such a connection is not to be found in the kind of political science that tries to ape the natural sciences. That political science, which dominates political science departments today, is a rival to political philosophy. Instead of addressing the partisan issues of citizens and politicians, it avoids them and replaces their words with scientific terms. Rather than good, just, and noble, you hear political scientists of this kind speaking of utility or preferences. These terms are meant to be neutral, abstracted from partisan dispute. Instead of serving as judge of what is good, just, or noble, such political scientists conceive themselves to be disinterested observers, as if they had no stake in the outcomes of politics.

As political scientists, they believe they must suppress their opinions as citizens lest they contaminate their scientific selves. The political philosopher, however, takes a stand with Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), who said that while he himself was not a partisan, he undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties.

To sum up: political philosophy seeks to judge political partisans, but to do so it must enter into political debate.

It wants to be impartial, or to be a partisan for the whole, for the common good; but that impartiality is drawn from the arguments of the parties themselves by extending their claims and not by standing aloof from them, divided between scientist and citizen, half slave to science, half rebel from it. Being involved in partisan dispute does not make the political philosopher fall victim to relativism, for the relativism so fashionable today is a sort of lazy dogmatism.

These relativists refuse to enter into political debate because they are sure even before hearing the debate that it cannot be resolved; they believe like the political scientists they otherwise reject that nothing can be just or good or noble unless everyone agrees. The political philosopher knows for sure that politics will always be debatable, whether the debate is open or suppressed, but that fact—rather welcome when you reflect on it—does not stop him from seeking a common good that might be too good for everyone to agree with.

Political Philosophy vs. Political Science

Political philosophy reaches for the best regime, a regime so good that it can hardly exist. Political science advances a theory—in fact, a number of theories—that promises to bring agreement and put an end to partisan dispute. The one rises above partisanship, the other, as we shall see, undercuts it. Now, why should we prefer the former? So far I have argued for political philosophy, but what’s wrong with seeking agreement instead of reaching for the moon?

The question is more complicated than we have seen so far, because an important historical fact has not yet been mentioned: political science came from political philosophy.

More precisely, political science rebelled from political philosophy in the seventeenth century and in the positivist movement of the late nineteenth century declared itself distinct and separate. The controversy we see now between political science and political philosophy within university departments of “political science” is a consequence of this earlier, deeper rebellion.

Today political science is often said to be “descriptive” or “empirical,” concerned with facts; political philosophy is called “normative” because it expresses values.

But these terms merely repeat in more abstract form the difference between political science, which seeks agreement, and political philosophy, which seeks the best. Political science likes facts because it is thought possible to agree on facts as opposed to values, and political philosophy provides values or norms because it seeks what is best.

When we contrast political science and political philosophy we are really speaking of two kinds of political philosophy, modern and ancient. To appreciate the political science we have now, we need to look at its rival; to do that, we must enter into the history of political philosophy. We must study the tradition that has been handed down to us. The great political philosophers read the works of their predecessors and commented on them, sometimes agreeing, often disagreeing.

This history has less of the accidental in it than other history because, to a much greater degree than citizens or statesmen, philosophers are reflecting upon, and reacting to, thinkers that came before them. In considering the history of Western civilization, one must not forget the tradition of Western thought that inspires and explains the actions of peoples and statesmen. It is both more and less than a tradition in the usual sense—more, as it is more thoughtful, and less, being divided against itself and open to argument and correction.

There’s No “Canon”

The tradition of political philosophy is not a sequence of customs; still less is it a “canon” established by some dominant political power, as is sometimes said. It is the only tradition that does not claim to be an authority, that on the contrary constantly questions authority; quite unlike the various non-Western traditions, it is not exclusive and not peremptory. It is philosophic. No one can count himself educated who does not have some acquaintance with this tradition. It informs you of the leading possibilities of human life, and by giving you a sense of what has been tried and of what is now dominant, it tells you where we are now in a depth not available from any other source.

Much political theory today feels no obligation to examine its history and sometimes looks down on the history of the subject as if it could not be a matter of current interest.

But our reasoning shows that the history of political philosophy is required for understanding its substance. The question of what view to take of partisan debate is still an issue today; some people relish their partisanship, some—perhaps a growing number—feel uncomfortable with loud arguments and deplore partisan attitudes. In recent decades the political science profession has been subject to successive new theories such as behavioralism and rational choice, each of which promises to put an end to the old debates over values and to do away with political philosophy.

But somehow political philosophy survives, despite efforts to supersede it, just as, despite the failure of those efforts, political science in the modern sense re-emerges periodically to make another try at bringing consensus and doing away with debate.


Harvey C. Mansfield studies and teaches political philosophy. He has written on Edmund Burke and the nature of political parties, on Machiavelli and the invention of indirect government, in defense of a defensible liberalism and in favor of a Constitutional American political science.

Free College Student's Guide to Political Philosophy

Ever felt intimidated by political philosophy, but wanted to understand it?

Harvard’s Harvey C. Mansfield, one of America’s leading political theorists, explains why the quest for the good life must address the type of government you want to uphold. He directs you to the thinkers and philosophies and classic works that have proved most influential throughout the ages.

This little 58-page book is packed with wisdom desperately needed in this confused and contentious political climate. It is an education in one sitting.

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