Defining Political Philosophy

By Mansfield, Harvey | Humanities, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

Defining Political Philosophy


Mansfield, Harvey, Humanities


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 the 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 a 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 (1803-59), 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. …

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