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What Is Political Theory/Philosophy?

Mark E. Warren

PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 22, No. 3. (Sep., 1989), pp. 606-612.

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political scientists often charac. Where the concerns of losophy beyond its traditional boundaries. "empirical theory" and research of politi. Since that time. And because political theorylphilosophy relies heavily on Theory/Philosophy? the history of political thought. is. the view that explanatory meaning depends entirely on reference to observ- able~. and this is no doubt one reason why the post-behavioralera has coincided with a resurgence of interest in political theorylphilosophy.Features What I s Political ditional political thought. Explanation depends t o a much greater extent than the positivists appreciated on conceptual relations and assumptions internal t o theory. These developments have in "normative theory" as a way of distin. however. that theories tention. Warren rather than political scienceinteresting Georgetown University and necessary for any culturally literate person. At the same time. have in part been stimulated by close at- guish it from "empirical theory" that can tention t o philosophy of science over the be confirmed or refuted by reference to last couple of decades. political theorylphilosophy are not just New assessments of the relation be- normative. and they reflect the influence that science as a whole. has long been superseded by other accounts of explana- tion. tween theorylphilosophy and explanation terize it as "speculative theory" to distin. Notwithstanding its neo-positivist views of explanation once renaissance in the last decade. political theorylphi- losophy has changed dramatically in the MARK E. all schools of philosophy of science agree that explanatory meanings are underdeter- mined by observables. For this reason political theories and philosophies have what I shall call a meaning-constitutive function within all explanations. of course. however. Terminological distinctions such as these The subdiscipline of political theory and solidified in an era in which behavioralist politrcal philosophy continues t o suffer agendas shaped subdisciplinary bounda- some misunderstanding within political ries. many see it as part of history and the humanities Mark E. but fundamentally distinct from contemporary political research. This func- tion is increasingly recognized within politi- cal science. Political theory and philosophy relate t o empirical theorylphilosophy is often referred to as research. Whatever their many differences. turn affected the way we understand the guishing its concerns with values from the explanatory concerns of political science. The behavioralist observable data.Positivism. political had within the discipline. WARREN last couple of decades. since it sought criteria of scientific grounded in certainties can and ought t o authority in positivist epistemology-that replace the speculative approaches of tra. agenda deserves some credit for this at- tinction suggest. and thus on the kind of systematic conceptual analysis traditionally practiced by political theorylphilosophy. Whereas it used t o PS: Political Science G Politics . The terms of such a dis. theorylphilosophy is still too often charac. we have developed more terized in terms that obscure its roles and sophisticated understandings of how functions within the discipline. while also expanding political theorylphi- cal science proper.

Explanation. more provide common languages and conceptu- al tools. ioralism). political scientists need t o cally exist. however. and today it includes a mixture of conceptual. ject to the tacit blinders of terminological distinctions. as always. the point im- sophical issues with those of explanatory plies that in add~tionto care in specify- theory. theoretical questions--something posit~v- bedded in explanatory theories. many different versions of how political science. of role of political theorylphilosophy within course. The distinctions I offer here as alternatives to those with a neo-positivist genesis suggest one way of more accurate- ly depicting the functions of political theorylphilosophy. we need t o recognize their differences so as not t o confuse philo. all explanatory theories involve. as well as losophy of soclal science. even if these th~ngsare them. They also suggest why explanations of the political world neces- sarily involve the diversity of theoretical and philosophical concerns that we are now seeing within the discipline. Accordingly. In the way I shall use the terms Ing empirical referents (a legacy of behav- here. Our failure leaves us sub. and thus the within a body of theory. and normative analysis. it is broader. are partly determined by. more eclectic. decades ago. I suggest that we reserve the term political theory (in contrast t o political philosophy) for those d~mensionsof conceptual schemes that select and orga- nize informat~onabout the political world for explanatory purposes-for example. and theories that are theories constitute thelr problems and part of the political world. What has changed in the post- sophisticated. As a subdisci- pline. requires that we distinguish empirical from suppositions and judgments that are em. But it also re- philosophical analysis is not directly explan. At the very least.Gu rational choice models of decis~onmaking. "grand" cal presuppositions that are essential to theories of society and polltics (which are their explanatory power--an issue t o which I shall return. values. and phi- cant problems and hypotheses. What Is Political TheoryIPhilosophy? be mostly the history of political thought. it is useful to recall a pre- positivist distinction between theoretical and philosophical problems: although closely interrelated. atory. the philosophi- linguistic. Political scientists have always appreciated that theories such as these suggest signifi- comlng back t o life in new forms). theories are about things that empiri. quires us to Interrelate both dimensions of September 1989 . neo-marxlst theories of the state or +. But we have been less suc- It is now an accepted tenet of the philos- cessful in developing alternatives t o the ophy of social science that explanatory neo-positivist terms we use to character- meanings of terms are interdependent ize the relations between political theory1 philosophy and explanation. Although ists rightly insisted upon. Philosoph~cal even their find~ngs. and more sensitive to ex- behavioral era is our appreciation of the planatory concerns than it was just two meaning-constitutivefunctions of theories. develop a greater awareness of how their selves ideas. this occurs and what its implications are. There are. Political Theory To begin with. concerns have to do with conceptual pre.

planation whose importance IS ~ncreasingly nize as a problem because they held that recognized is that it deals w ~ t hthe concep- the meanings of theoretical terms are re. whatever other rarely use theor~es as representat~onal discourse happens to impact on voting. models of organ~zat~onalstructure. To take a simple example. and so on The to perceptions. They have a causal force that is irreduc~ble theor~esof development. because they conceptually orient individ- tory powers of theor~esare ~nd~rect In a uals . language philosophy. cultures. i t s effi- clency. tual coherence of interpretative schemes ducible to their emp~ricalreferents. We dec~det o reduce complex~ty In one way rather than another for reasons that are. semiot~cs. theorists have been meet~ngthis challenge st~tut~ve meanlngs and normat~ve~mplica. since th~s1s how we characterize certa~nd~mens~ons of the world as problematic--say. by expanding their traditional concerns t~onsthat ~nev~tably follow from them with interpretation t o include ord~nary A second role of pol~t~cal theory In ex. This dimension of rather than meaning-const~tut~ve dec~s~ons polltical life is accessible only through inter- of a community of pol~t~cal scient~sts. that (empirically) enter into polltical ac- tions through actors' understandings and uses of the terms of polltical d~scourse.One pretations of meaning structures. or v~olence-and thus worthy of further In- vestlgatlon. or systems. Many political study Only then can one defend the con. "maps" of the pol~t~cal world at all. the intell~gl- bility of voting requires something more than observation: it requires (conceptual) interpretation of an emp~rically-existing universe of discourse in which are embed- A first step In recognlzlng the relat~ve ded understandings about democratic rep- autonomy of theory IS to not~cethat we resentation-or indeed. opinions. as well as everyday discourses as they come t o bear on the political world. discrete bits of data because actors are in- tuals IS a problem only ~fone uses them as fluenced by the internal coherence of their ~f theor~es were representat~onalmaps conceptual universe. just~ce. the act of vot- ing is caused in part by the way actors understand the normative significance and political function of voting w~thina demo- cratic system. Models of democracy work In th~sway. even These "textual elements of polit~csare " though this metaphor dom~natescommon an intrinsic part of the political world understand~ngs More often. towdrd -.Features meaning-a task pos~tivistsfailed to recog. more often than not.d~str~but~on of power. as do rat~onalcho~cemodels. norms that have been transformed into ponent of lhm~t~ng cases and counterfac. collective decisionmaking.phenome- PS: Political Science G Politics .. For this reason. attitudes. the explana. confl~ct. diplomatic docu- ments. way that prov~desthem w ~ t ha meanlng- const~tut~ve d~mens~onwe use them as l ~ m ~ t ~ cases ng and counterfactuals t o reduce the complex~ty of the pol~t~cal world so ~tm~ghtbecome a d~screteobject of study. can avo~dthese m~stakesonly by making through the methods traditionally em- the theor~esthemselves Into objects of ployed in the humanities. rhetoric. normat~ve This IS the way ~t should be.Ex- amples would be analyses of political ~deol- ogies. that is.

" In fact. theless. the problems of polrt~cal assumptions are so fundamental that we phllosophy fall into three dlstlnct. not. reality. Most ontological theory. tem- porality. the behavioralist claim that only observables that can be ordered into logi- cal associations count as a (knowable) part of political reality produces one kind of dis- ciplinary domaln. although take them for granted. ity as such. and interpretive the nature and fundamental properties of sociology. not understanding interrelated. The Weberian ogy refers t o the sclence that investigates focus on intentional actions molded by dis- September 1989 . categories of analysls and how they frame. These might properly terpretive problem. What Is Political TheorylPhilosophy? nology. only one of whlch IS normatlve. hermeneutics. causal determination. For exam- ple. select. second kind of domain. we are investigating. language. Polltlcal phllosophy typically In- volves questlons havlng t o do wlth the conceptual presupposltlons of theoretical orlentatlons. Decisions t o In- clude some features of the human condi- tion and exclude others are not trivial: they constitute disciplinary domains by defining objects of explanation. Political Philosophy We mlght reserve the term pol~trcalphi- losophy (as opposed t o pol~t~cal theory) for concerns that are not lmmedlately explan- atory. the term has been resurrected in tional choice theory from other Interpreta. None- action or~entations. as well as questlons of judg- ment about truth and value A common misconception In poiltlcal science IS that Although necessary. Thls confusion has be called ontolog~calassumptions because allowed rational choice theory t o inherit they are logically prior t o any explanatiori positivist expectations for a definitive and serve as its conditions of possibility. lawlike regularity--defines a political world as a knowable object of study. ties for explanation and judgment. All em- pirical research presupposes that some set of features of the human condition--such as consciousness. For good reason ontology as a tions that formulate instrumentally rational "science" has fallen out of favor. they cannot be em- most questlons of polltlcal phllosophy are pirically investigated because they charac- about normatlve Issues. "empirical theory" that would displace traditional political theory. We no longer believe we can carry terpretive approach is rational choice out such investigations because we no theory: it views the political world as longer presume intellectual access t o real- made up of conceptually coherent inten. The rational choice pre- supposition that politics is an effect of in- Ontological questions: Some of these strumentally rational actions produces a problems are ontological The term ontol. and limit possibili- judgment. scarcity. we unavoidably make general as- main of intentions by means of axiorcs sumptions about the nature of the reality rather than treatlng intentionality as an In. polltical philosophy for sllghtly different tive approaches is a confusion about the purposes: whether reality is knowable or status of its methods: ~tconstitutes the do.What dist~nguishesra. A less obvious examp!e of an in. hence ~ t soverly terize general properties of the world narrow ldentlfication wlth "normat~ve we seek to investigate.

or only of instrumental ac- t~ons. observations. This is consistent with posi- tually understood as part of a cultural sys. the~rsituations. This presup- ple-that influence both behavior and in. different an. From the point of "class structures" or "cultural systems" view of positivists. do we mean something that ble. ra- tional choice theory. and the l~keturn on these klnds of questlons Ontolog~cal decisions determine not only domain and crlterla of explanatory adequacy. An- tured manifestation of social interaction?" swers t o epistemological questions often will dictate different theoretical approach.Such questions have t o do with swers t o the (ontological) question. third. then observations underdeter- assignment of meaning by the actor in a mine explanation. or a struc. poses an interpretive (or "humanistic") tentional orientation. Acts of cal statement depends on its references to voting need t o be observed and concep. ogies are not "scientific" precisely because tually convenient ways of spec~fy~ng dif. since the such as these relate closely t o the explana. A stand "voting" as part of an interpretive structural analysis would require that one field within which the intelligibility of the postulate non-observable entities-a behavior depends in part on the actor's "class structure" or a "state. One must also under- way that partly accounts for the act. rnolog~cal. and their normative slgnifi- tional structures as irreducible t o behavior cance? Are linguistic structures reducible or intentional action produce still another t o the ind~vidualswho use language?Are definition of what features of the human soc~alregularities law-l~keor rule-like? If cond~tionmakes the political world possi.Features tinctive cultural possibilities produces a ferent k~ndsof actions. es and criteria of adequacy. "Is the authority of theories with respect t o voting a behavior. structuralism. voting is tem within which "voting" involves an an action. Take the example of voting: if voting is a Ion simply need t o be observed and their behavior.then what 1s their causal status In pol~t~cal life glven that rules can be broken? Many methodolog~caldebates about the explanatory powers of behavioralism. if one conceptualizes the polit~calworld as be~ngmade up only of behaviors. Voting behav. " For example. interpretive methodol- or "states"4r are these s~mplyintellec. their effects. the world they purport t o explain. political scientist must interpret the inter- tory status one gives t o concepts." for exam. If.then one has excluded by ontologl- cal fiat the causal force and transformat~ve possibilities of language and interaction This in turn will limit the horizons of politi- cal possibility without analysis or justifica- tion Each of these ontological assumptions about the nature of the political world Epistemological questions: A second kind guides and limits what is t o count as an of question in political philosophy is episte- "explanation. tivist epistemology. follow from different ontological positions. interpretations cannot be authoritatively PS: Political Science G Politics . an action. law-like. but also the way one concep- tualizes the normative possibilities of pol~t~cs For example. then the authority of a theoreti- regularities theoretically identified. herme- neutlcs. Those who see social and organiza. Are pretive field which partly constitutes the there really things called "institutions" or object of explanation. understanding of democracy. however. Ontological decisions component t o methodology. possesses the necessity of physical laws?If rule-l~ke.

up of behaviors. Thus. those having t o do with normative judgment. we usually that select for some kinds of applications call something "political" if ~tconcerns col. Normative questions: It is well recognized that political philosophy deals with a third category of questions. assuming that the relevant aspects of a political do- main are known. partly why Marxists are interested In the pretatlve phenomena. In contrast. how are they t o be judged?What are the criteria of judgment. in campalgn use of opin- tive problems. What Is Political TheorylPhilosophy? verified by referring t o theory-indepen. ion survey research to tailor medla images ulate thls dlmension of politics when they for deslred responses. as. theory of liberal-democracy within whlch pretive phenomena in the politlcal world. they are also closely related by the pecu. the form of knowledge pliclt. Marxlst theories downplay larities. This creasing lndlvidual capacities for choice and logical formulation has an empirical corre. voting is a central and definitive element. studylng voting democracy September 1989 . self-direct~on What behavioral research late: individuals act politically when they can be used for is behavlor modification are normatively oriented toward collec. and how are they related t o fundamental human values? What modes of political organ~zationwould maximize these values? Although normative judgments are logi- cally dlstinct from explanatory concerns. much political voting because of the normative judgment philosophy today has t o do with articulat. Political philosophers artic. Somewhat less obvious is the way that liar way that political science is defined as a different normative tendencies and possi- discipline. this is of social scientific interpretations of inter. Political science is unique among the one produces will lack connections t o in- social sciences in that its domain is precon. tentlonal and linguist~cphenomena Lack- stituted by normative questions. For example. and exclude others For example. presupposes that voting is problematic. such questions are intrinsic to useless-r at best insufficlentfor In- the possibility of a political science. for example. if one lective decisionmaking. cratlc. As (rather than. Recent critical effects of economic structures on politics. Whatever other disagreements bilitles follow from ontological decisions there might be about domain. dent observations. This is why positivists which in turn presupposes a normative deny a (knowable) causal status t o inter. we often assign significance to public discourse) they produce a blas political research according to normative toward technocracy and away from judgments. The classical form of questioning in political philosophy occurs when problems of explanatory judgment can be distinguished from those of normative judgment. say. it will be relatively otherwise. But such applica- reconstruct and analyze the normative tions are technocratic rather than demo- dlmension of political discourse. for example. where the ques. Stated ing these connections. In contrast. and seek t o reduce them t o lawlike regu. locatlng conditions of suggested. focuses on criteria of authority implicit in the intersubjective dimensions of action. constitutes the politlcal universe as made tion "what ought we t o do?" is always im. that political democracy is diminished in ing postpositivist accounts of the authority value without economic democracy. theory. Because behavioral forms of knowl- Normatlve and explanatory goals are edge can be more easlly put t o such uses closely related in other ways as well.

~fonly so that they can tween ontological. Conclusion matlve or~entat~onsand research can guard against "scient~stic"political science The resurgence of political theory and -that is. aware- ness about the interrelat~onsbetween nor. part of the discl- political or value problems w ~ t hsc~entific pline's recovery from self-~mposedmls- findings. study~ngrela.theory. political theorylph~losophy stralns In our pol~t~cal culture. understandings about the nature of the polit~calworld. epistemological. and currently worklng on a book questlon of learn~ngand borrow~ngfrom ent~tledDemocracy and the Seif whlch w~ll past masters. is t o make such normative judg. pol~tlcal as exemplars of the Interdependence of ~nteractlon.such theory. problems. The canon of About the Author pol~t~cal thought 1s close enough so we can recognlze our own assumptions w~thln~ t . but also one of seelng them examlne relat~onsbetween language. answers that express central roles. But ~t1s now tlme t o much of ~ t swork by means of the h~story do away with the term~nologicaldistinc- of pol~t~cal thought.tween theory and philosophy. PS: Political Science E Politics . discipline is healthier today because these questions F~nally. exactly. research that tacitly confuses philosophy is. in my view. but d~stantenough so we can recognlze Mark E Warren IS Ass~stant Professor of d~scretesets of values. and about how it is possl- History of Political Thought ble t o know and judge ~ tThe . He IS author of Nietzsche and Poirtical Thought (MIT posltlons.Features The alm of political ph~losophyhere.and k~ndsof answers t o many of the above they continue t o confuse us about what questions. and m~stakesIt 1s never s~mplya Press.and gain a ments into problems that one can treat awareness of our own cr~t~cal systemat~cally. In add~t~on. and be- cal culture--indeed. Government at Georgetown Unlverslty. replac~ng these terms and explaining these ness 1s no doubt valuable for ~ t sown sake: roles. and subject~v~tyIn democratic ph~losophy. of that we might understand the powers and course. The distinc- sc~ent~sts lnev~tablyrely on the conceptual t~onsand interrelations I offer here--be- and l~ngu~st~c tools prov~dedby the~rpol~tl. and take the commun~cat~on and slgn~ficanceof normative questions--provide one way of the~rresearch for granted.At the same tlme. They also advocate my own view how else could we know who the we IS that the current renaissance of political that 1s defined by a trad~t~on of pol~t~cal theorylphilosophy reflects a growing rigor d~scourse?But.a comment may be useful about are no longer marginallzed by an exclusive- why pol~t~cal theorylph~losophydoes so ly behav~oralagenda. and depth in our understand~ngof political tlvely comprehens~veand d~scretesystems l~fe of thought 1s an invaluable means of devel- oping an awareness about our own pre- suppos~t~ons and values. and explanat~on. Cultural aware. 1988). These terms suggest indefens~ble t o Marx and Weber--exempl~fy d~fferent roles for polltical theorylph~losophy. Class~calsystems of tions inherited from the behavioral era as pol~t~cal thought-from Plato and Ar~stotle well. presup. l~mitsof different possibilit~es. Pol~t~cal does play within the d~scipl~ne.