Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

Political Political Theory: Essays on Institutions

Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

Political Political Theory: Essays on Institutions

Article excerpt

POLITICAL POLITICAL THEORY: ESSAYS ON INSTITUTIONS. By Jeremy Waldron. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. xi + 403 pp.

Political theory is a field that continues to hold little sway in the discipline. The 2007 decision by the department of political science at Pennsylvania State University to eliminate political theory from those subfields available for graduate student training provoked an outcry that has all but abated. No drastic reformulation of the mission of the subfield-if there ever was an explicit one in the first place-has emerged justifying its position alongside American, comparative, and international politics. As Andrew Rehfeld (2010) has noted, "Theorists are often marginalized within their departments, their contributions to the general disciplinary journals have an 'odd man out' quality to them, and their scholarship is often treated as trivial" (466). So what steps might be taken to make theory more respectable within the discipline, beyond the glib suggestion to "be more relevant"?

In the collection of essays comprising Political Political Theory, Jeremy Waldron believes he has an approach to political thought that will elevate the field's status just in the nick of time. His solution: shift the attention of political theory to questions of institutional design, structure, and process and away from the abstract normative questions of justice and equality. For too long, he believes, political theory has titled too far toward philosophy and not enough toward "questions about political process, political institutions, and political structures" that govern and regulate everyday politics (3). Correcting this imbalance is his motive in writing Political Political Theory and, indeed, it characterizes Waldron's scholarly output in general. As he puts it in chapter 1, there is life beyond John Rawls, "beyond the abstract understanding of liberty, justice, and egalitarianism," if only political theorists will renew their engagement with the "old institutional questions" that long ago fell by the wayside (ix).

The book was put together during Waldron's tenure as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, a position that was also held by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, who believed the study of political theory is foremost concerned with higherorder questions concerning the "ends of political action," is Waldron's foil throughout the book (3). Waldron's criticism of Berlin is not simply that his "airy talk of freedom and openness" resolutely downplays the role of political institutions, constitutions, and the rule of law in preserving liberty (288). An equally grave consequence of Berlin's focus on "abstract philosophical theses" is its role in ushering in a trend toward the study of the meaning of liberty and justice but not the constitutional thought that represents "the realworld application" of political theory (289). Waldron is referring to the effects of the study of political theory in the classroom, but his polemic clearly extends to scholarship as well. I was not convinced by the link Waldron draws between Berlin and contemporary analytic philosophy, but within the confines of a book review I will leave that quibble aside.

Waldron largely succeeds in his goal of making old concepts feel new. Altogether these chapters show how engagement with even the most commonplace principles of liberal democracy (e.g., majority decision making, bicameralism, judicial review) can yield important new considerations for contemporary constitutional design. Superficially, such topics may appear so stale and uncontroversial that they need little further elaboration. But Waldron is not deterred from "discussing the obvious" since, as he cheerfully declares, "that's what philosophers do" (254).

The first half of the book addresses several "foundations of democracy"; the second half deals with various "issues of constitutional structure" (6). Chapter 2 discusses constitutional authority, arguing that constitutions empower the political process rather than merely restrain state power. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.