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NOTE: The following is assembled from three blog posts from April 2003; it was

not written as a single essay, and parts respond to some out-of-date blog conversations.
Some links might be broken. I post it here nonetheless, because undergraduate and
MA students often ask how to decide between political theory/ political science
doctoral programs and political philosophy/ philosophy doctoral programs.


meandering, inductive rather than deductive, and impressionistic rather than precise.
But that, as we shall see, is part of the point!

(One qualifier before I begin: In order to compare Granny Smiths with Golden
Deliciouses, I'm going to emphasize Anglo-American political theory and political
philosophy. Adding the Anglo-American/ Continental distinction to the mix makes
matters more confused still. I think political theorists are typically more open to
Continental approaches than are political philosophers, sharpening the institutuional
differentiation; but among Continental practitioners, the theory-philosophy distinction
is less sharp than it is among Anglo-American types. If that didn't make any sense to
you, ignore it and move on.)

Political theory and political philosophy... at the conferences I attend, the tendency for
discussion to come around to this dictinction eventually so strong as to rival Godwin's
Law. What is it that differentiates John Rawls, Christine Korsgaard, Thomas Scanlon,
Brian Barry, Thomas Nagel, G.A. Cohen, and Joseph Raz, and their students and admirers,
from Michael Walzer, Judith Shklar, George Kateb, Sheldon Wolin, and their students and
admirers? (These lists are only meant to be illustrative.) Why do the former often look
at the latter and say, "Where's the argument?" Why do the latter often look at the
former and say, "What's the point?" Where does some one or another figure (Isaiah
Berlin, Will Kymlicka) "fit in"? And so on.

In the U.S., we start with the obvious difference. Political theorists ordinarily receive
their PhDs from, and ordinarily teach in, political science departments. Political
philosophers from, and in, philosophy departments. The two groups study much the
same questions, read and write for much the same journals, and attend many (not all)
of the same conferences. They are intellectual next-door neighbors; to mix metaphors,
the wall between the humanities and the social sciences distinction is very thin at this
point. But they have different institutional homes. There are some exceptions. Some
philosophy PhD s are hired directly into political science departments, though the
reverse is almost never true. Some philosophers' interests gradually migrate toward
more empirical or historical work (about which more below), and they switch over.
And those who receive degrees from outside the U.S. are sometimes difficult to
pigeonhole and are able to move back and forth across the division. (Some of them
are difficult to pigeonhole and therefore fall between the cracks, satisfying neither set
of hiring committees.)
Given the structure of American doctoral programs, this means that a political theorist
and a political philosopher-- even if they have complete overlap in their core
interests-- will be differently trained. The philosopher will almost certainly study
formal logic, very likely study ethics and moral philosophy broadly rather than
political philosophy narrowly (and, often, legal philosohy as well), and study at least
some topics from philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology, and
metaethics. The theorist may well take statistics and/or formal theory (i.e. rational
choice and game theoretic mathematical models). The theorist will certainly study one
or more of American politics, comparative politics, and international relations in some
depth, and may also study American or comparative constitutional law.

All of this means that theorists and philosophers, even when thinking or writing about
the same questions, have different intellectual backup resources. To put it crudely: a
political philosopher is much more likely to appeal to a higher level of abstraction (to
general ethical theory, then to metaethics, then to epistemology...) while a political
theorist is much more likely to appeal to a lower level of abstraction (empirical
findings, history).

Relatedlythough this is probably the weakest tendency Ill mentiontheorists tend

to be more interested in institutions, in normative analyses of political systems as a
whole, and more willing to think that politics is importantly distinct from other realms
of ethics. Sometimes political philosophers are simply ethicists and moral
philosophers who apply their familiar tools to new situations. What a policymaker
should do is treated as a special case of what the person standing at the trolley switch
should do. This is not true of Rawls, and indeed isnt true of many of the most
prominent political philosophers. (Interestingly, it is sort of true of Nozick.) Moreover,
some theorists tend this way themselves. But (as Matt Yglesias notes), for this sort of
reason theorists have a loose tendency to find the turn to political liberalism in late
Rawls both more comprehensible and more justifiable than do philosophers.

Matt Yglesias said (in a post I can no longer find to link to, due to his MT troubles)
that the Andy Sabl piece on Micah Schwartzman's blog, like many arguments by
those who dirty their hands with empirical claims, left him not quite able to sort out
the level of abstraction at which the argument was supposed to operate. That's a fair
comment about a lot of political theory. The bad news is that that can allow a certain
slipperiness of argument and a mishmash of approaches. Turning a normative
question into an empirical one can happen at lots of different points in the argument.
(It's usually more transparent, and done for more narrowly-defined reasons, when one
moves from a normative question to a metaethical one.) The good news is that it
allows theorists to be very open to the messiness of the world. Throwing around
excessively stylized or stipulated or hypothetical facts gets you into trouble when
you're surrounded by social scientists (other than economists and economist
wanna-bes). There are many empirical questions that are relevant to many normative
ones-- questions about the short- and medium-term stability of the political coalition
that would support the normatively-preferred policies, about the kinds of institutions
that could bring them about, about the moral psychology or social psychology being
assumed by the policies, about macrohistorical changes like industrialization and
globalization that might render the policies obsolete or counterproductive, and so
on.Knowing which facts about the world to accept as given and which to treat as
subject to deliberate reform in a normatively desirable direction-- this is tricky,
complicated, and not prone to satisfactory resolution. As a theorist, I think that that
means messiness is likely to characterize the best normative arguments. But I also
recognize that it deprives those arguments of a great deal of their rigor.

One way I have described the philosophy-theory distinction is as one between rigor
and richness. Compare Rawls' Theory of Justice to Walzer's Spheres of Justice. (Ah, to
have been at Harvard in the 1970s, able to hear Rawls and Nozick and Sen, Walzer
and Shklar, all at the same institution!) In the original position, rational agents
understand the Humean conditions of justice, and know nothing else about the society
they are entering (not even the stage of history it occupies). Rawls aspires to the
construction of a very determinate theory from quite minimal premisses, and proceeds
with great rigor and sophistication. Walzer moves back and forth across space and
time, telling lots of fascinating stories from lots of places and moments. He constructs
a list of "blocked exchanges" that one prominent commentator referred to as an
unparalleled exemplar of the idea of "category mistakes," throwing together goods
that can't in their nature be sold, goods that Walzer thinks oughtn't be sold, goods that
can be given away but not sold, and things that aren't really goods at all. It's extremely
hard to get a grip on any real arguments. But there's a richness and nuance that is
missing in Rawls, an engagement with moral psychology and with the interaction of
different bits and pieces of a society.

A rigorous argument has the capacity to be definitive and right. It also has the
capacity to rest on an unexamined, unmentioned premise that is false, or to commit a
fallacious leap-- and then to be simply wrong. A rich argument is unlikely to be
convincingly, compellingly, finally right. Many readers of Theory of Justice have felt
"Eureka" moments, or felt compelled to change their minds. If you don't already share
Michael Walzer's intuitions about a lot of things, Spheres of Justice is pretty unlikely
to move you toward them. But a rich argument is also unlikely to be simply refuted or
shown to be flatly wrong. (This disqualifies it from being Popperian science-- but
Popper never claimed that ethical questions were relevantly like science.) And many
readers of Spheres of Justice learn something important from it, and bring away
significant lessons or changes in their understanding of things, even without being
moved to adopt Walzer's normative conclusions.

Nozick had a funny but thoughtful recurring riff about "coercive" and "non-coercive"
argumentation, the difference between making arguments that seem, if they succeed,
to require assent in the listener and making those that are suggestive or inviting or
provoking rather than compelling. We ordinarily mean it as a compliment about an
argument if we describe it as a "compelling" one. Nozick asked us to think about that
a bit more, most memorably with his image of the perfect philosophers' argument, on
the "coercive" model, being the one that was so definitively correct that it would set
up sympathetic vibrations in the listener's brain and physically force agreement. This
has been the object of some derision and much puzzlement. (For a very sympathetic
and thoughtful account, see David Schmidtz's introduction to his new edited volume,
Robert Nozick.) Insofar as the model for a philosophical argument is a mathematical
proof, it seems bizarre to talk about one's freedom to continue to disagree with a
successful argument-- one might have both the physical capacity and the legal liberty
to disagree, but one is simply wrong. Among political theorists, the aspiration to
mathematical proof-level certainty is much less in evidence; the hope for finality
much diminished.

One political consequence of all this: philosophers are much more willing to be
radical in some important ways. Theorists are much more likely to insist on remaining
tethered to some core intuition or some (relatively unexamined) political or moral
virtue. A philosophers' argument seems to have the potential to accomplish more. It
can show that all persons have the right to an unconditional basic income provided by
the state, regardless of fitness to work and availability of jobs. It can show that those
with no eyeballs have a right to have one, even if this requires coerced organ donation
from those who have two eyeballs. It can show that there's no such thing as deserving.
It can show that masturbation is morally intolerable (to tie this post back to recent
discussions on the Conspiracy), that the wealthy in the west are guilty of murder for
not transferring all of their available wealth to the starving and ill in the developing
world, and that adult rats have higher moral standing than human newborns. Theorists
are more likely to stick with a core moral notionrevulsion at cruelty for Shklar,
individuality for Kateb, something like individuality in Sabls response to
Cohenand to build a theory around it. Perhaps the most interesting case here is
Walzer, who tries to extract normative principles demanding radical change from
thick understandings of what he takes Americans shared moral convictions to already
benot to compel agreement by argument, but to show, like prophets used to show,
that his audience at some level already agrees with him.

To be more precise: philosophers (at least since Rawls introduced reflective

equilibrium) typically own up to relying on one or more intuitions. But they aim to
have those intuitions be parsimonious, a la axioms in mathematics, physics, and
(ostensibly) economics. The aim is to be able to go a long way starting from fairly
little. Theorists remain more closely tethered to intuitions for longer.

There are debates within ethics that look like this. Kantians and radical utilitarians
have always said to intuitionists and sentimentalists that our gut-level views about the
wrongness of the conclusions reached by Kantian or utilitarian theory dont constitute
any argument against them. Theres no reason to think that our intuitions and
conditioned prereflective responses really reflect the demands of morality; the point
of moral argument is to be able to unsettle our unreflective responses and practices.
There are, of course, both intuitionists and moral-sentimentalists among philosophers.
But the major Anglo-American political philosophers have mostly been either
Kantians or utilitariansthe two schools of ethics that are most universalistic and
promise to be able to do the most by way of argument. There are good reasons for this.
For someone concerned with the quality of arguments, theres bound to be something
unsatisfying about final reliance on either intuitions or sentiments. Kantian and
utilitarian universalist arguments look, well, more like real arguments. Theorists
areas a very loose and general ruleless eager to follow either of these rigorous (in
both senses of the word) paths, and more willing to hold tight to familiar political

Political theorists are notoriously more interested in the history of political thought
than are political philosophers. This has on occasion led to mutual mocking: a
political theorist doesn't know what he or she thinks unless he or she can first tell you
what Hobbes or Rousseau thought; a political philosopher with a clever thought won't
notice that it's a 2,500 year old thought, unless that fact has been mentioned in a
recent issue of the Journal of Philosophy or Ethics. (Related: jokes about reading
Rawls' "Justice as Fairness" article counting as historical work; after all, it came out
before 1971.) There are some very distinguished historians of moral and political
philosophy in philosophy departments-- Jerome Schneewind, Knud Haakonssen, etc,
many of them recently assembled for this conference on the history of philosophy-- but
they are rarely the avowed political philosophers. When political philosophers turn to
the history of political thought, it is typically to extract an argument, not to study a
particular person or group of persons or set of influences. Theorists, sometimes
sloppily and sometimes enrichingly and sometimes both, move back and forth
between historical and contemporary or normative arguments. This gives us, I think, a
rich vein to mine, a constant infusion of new-old ideas into current debates. When
contemporary debates show signs of becoming too formalistic and procedural in their
analyses of democracy and democratic institutions, there is a reawakening of interest
in Tocqueville, or in Madison's writings beyond Federalist 10, or in Rousseau beyond
the Social Contract. When arguments about multiculturalism get stuck in a rut
("individual vs. group rights," for example) there's an opportunity for someone to
bring Montesquieu or Herder or Constant to bear and to reframe the argunments. This
is all partly because of the fact that there can be relevant empirical claims at all sorts
of levels of abstraction or genera ity. So what we extract from Tocqueville isn't a
syllogism in ethical theory, but a very complex web of causal arguments about social
and polticial change, about what changes go together and what trends-- perhaps
independently normatively desirable-- don't. Of course, like the back-and-forth
between normative and empirical claims, this also encourages a certain slipperiness
and sloppiness, an unwillingness to let claims be tested according to either historical
or philosophical rules.

Relatedly, political theorists and political philosophers have somewhat different

historical canons, and pay attention to different works within them. Montesquieu and
Tocqueville figure much more prominently for theorists than for philosophers, Kant
the reverse. Sidgwick remains almost unwritten about among theorists, Sidney among
philosophers. Mill's On Liberty is shared by the two groups, but his Utilitarianism has
priority for one group, Representative Government for the other. And so on. Theorists
are more likely to take an interest in political pamphleteers or activists or statesmen
than are philosophers, and more likely to take an interest in the
apparently-minor-and-of-the-moment writings by a canonical thinker (Rousseau's
Government of Poland). Philosophers care about the best-developed version of a
philosopher's core arguments; that means that they look at the central works very
closely. Theorists often care about a thinker's political engagement and position, about
context that can be provided by minor works and correspondence and works by
contemporaries. Some theorists follow this path all the way to Cambridge school
contextualism; most do not.

Not all theorists (or all philosophers!) have the same canon, of course. Students of
Leo Strauss put an emphasis onto Francis Bacon and Maimonides that is pretty alien
to the rest of the discipline; I'm unaware of any significant Straussian treatment of
Constant. (NB: Those influenced by Strauss are somewhat anomalous in other ways.
They place great weight on a practice they identify as "philosophy," but mostly they
study others who have engaged in that practice rather than engaging in it themselves.
They are strongly pro-philosophy (as they understand it) and at least sometimes
serious critics of social science. Yet almost without fail they are located in political
science rather than philosophy departments, and few do work that contemporary
philosophers identify as philosophy.) But the general trend is that theorists cast a
wider net in the history of ideas, while overlooking some figures in the history of
ethics who are treated as central by those philosophers who care about the history of
moral philosophy. And, of course, there is a tradeoff between breadth and depth. As
Kieran Healey has noted, philosophers reading a major historical (or contemporary!) text
in a seminar will proceed argument by argument, paragraph by paragraph, trying to
sort out exactly what's going on. A theory graduate seminar is much more likely to
race through a major work or two, several minor works or letters, and some secondary
literature, trying to get a sense of the theorist's major claims, what they were arrayed
against, and why they were thought to matter politically. (Again, Straussians are an
exception here.)

The intellectual genealogy of analytic political philosophy travels throguh Rawls'

argument about the autonomy of moral theory back to conceptual analyses of
concepts such as liberty (think the first few sections of Berlin's "Two Concepts;"
Berlin was later to abandon analytic work, and his later writings are more like the
final sections of that essay). This in turn brings the geneaology back to the Oxford
analytic school of philosophy, whence also grew analytic jurisprudence-- note that
H.L.A. Hart's seminal book is called The Concept of Law. The sub-discipline of analytic
political philosophy is relatively of a piece with the other sub-disciplines that grew
out of the Oxford analytic turn in philosophy-- which, in many departments in the
English-speaking world, are considered the whole of philosophy excepting only the
history of philosophy. (This doesn't mean that other philosophers necessarily wholly
accept them. In many departments, ethical, normative, and political philosophy are
considered decidedly poor cousins to philosophy of mind, philosophy of language,
and epistemology. Harvard and the University of Arizona are two of the departments
where that has not traditionally been true.

Political theorists are situated in and trained by political science departments without
ever being so completely of them. The study of normative political thought and the
history of political thought is not an outgrowth of the same social-scientific turn as the
other sub-disciplines in the field. The relationship is often uneasy, and a political
theorist is much, much less likely to self-identify as a political scientist than a political
philosopher is as a philosopher. I do; but I give my former advisor George Kateb
hives by doing so, and for reasons I understand. The two groups do share some
common intellectual ancestry: Montesquieu and Tocqueville are shared with the
comparativists, Hobbes with IR, Madison with the Americanists. There are many
people who combine political theoretic and political scientific approaches, and some
do it very well. But the rule, I think, is that political theory sits much farther from the
center of gravity in political science than political philsophy does in philosophy. The
relationship works nonetheless, partly because the theorists have been in
"government" and "politics" departments since before serious statistics were even
developed, and so they were always there even during the height of the behavioral
revolution, and partly because political science has an especially subfields-based
structure in general, both at the departmental level and at the overall professional level.
Still, at the many conferences that have political theorists and political philosophers,
and not philosophers of mind or statistical voting behavior scholars, there's an air of
"ah, now here are people who understand each other." And, mostly, usually, we do...

Russell Arben Fox very helpfully and insightfully provides what I admitted that I
omitted-- a way to bring the continental- Anglo-American distinction into the picture.
Matt Yglesias follows up:

To use myself as an example, I go to Harvard which is considered to be a quite

historically-oriented [philosophy-- JTL] department by American standards.
Nevertheless, the list of authors I've never been assigned in a philosophy class include
not only the post-Kantian German idealists and the continental postmodernists, but
such seminal figures as Aristotle, Kant, Hume, J.S. Mill, Descartes, and William
James. I've also never been assigned anything at all from the long period between
Plato and Hobbes or the shorter, but still big, period between Adam Smith and Frege.
At the same time, the only authors I've ever been asked to read in translation are
Plato, Frege, and one page of Wittgenstein. Of course I've read many of these authors,
but when they've been assigned it's always been for non-philosophy courses.
What's especially odd about this is that I could tell you all about many of these people
since they're often commented by the authors I am assigned and because it's very
common to label such-and-such a position as "Humean, "Kantian," "Platonic,"
"Cartesian," "Aristotelian," or "Millian." 'Round the Harvard way "Kantian"
more-or-less means "correct" whereas "Humean" means "clever argument but he's
wrong" "Aristotelian" means "go ask Michael Sandel in the Government Department,
we don't talk about that sort of thing here" and everything else just means "wrong."

I had thought about including a comment in my post that said philosophers were more
likely to be interested in proper adjectives-- the Kantian position, which translates as
the best (i.e. Korsgaard's) reconstruction of an argument that Kant seems to have
made, the Humean argument, etc-- while political theorists were much more likely to
write about proper nouns, talking about an historical person's range of arguments in a
way that makes it difficult to extract an adjective from them. I couldn't figure out
whether that was fair or not, so I left it out. I was trying hard to write a comparison of
two closely-related and friendly but non-identical fields of inquiry, not to write an
apology for theory or a critique of philosophy. It's reading Rawls and Nozick that got
me started in this game, after all. But what Matt says seems to me broadly
representative (with important exceptions).

Maybe I subconsciously chose theory because my name ends in a pronounced vowel

and so is ineligible for conversion to an adjective ("Levyian"-- shudder). My first
name ends in a consonant, but "Jacobin" and "Jacobite" are both already taken, and
neither is something I want to be remembered as...

Lawrence Solum and Nate Oman have chimed in with posts on theory, philosophy, and
law-- they percieve an intra-law distinction that parallels the one I described between
political theory and political philosophy, though Nate is troubled by it and Lawrence
less so. They put very well what I put much more briefly when Aeon Skoble e-mailed
me to ask "What about law profs?"

Some other points from Aeon's e-mails:

As to the "philosophers-rigor/theorists-richness" bit... I would say that work that most

deserved to be taken seriously is both. A rich but non-rigorous work, like Spheres of
Justice, doesn't accomplish much. But the same author's Just and Unjust Wars is both
rich and rigorous. Narveson and Schmidtz are both. On the theorist side, surely some
are both.

I'd still stand up for the accomplishment of Spheres, but Aeon is certainly right to say
that richness and rigor together make for especially important and impressive work.
One person I'd mention in that light is Nuffield College (Oxford)'s David Miller-- a
first-rate example, by the way, of Tom Runnacles' point that at Oxford things are
sometimes different. (Only sometimes; Oxford can also be the world headquarters of
pure analytic philosophy approaches, and has housed some of the most important pure
political philosophers and legal philosophers in the world.)

In addition to the mechanism I described about graduate training in the two different
disciplines, Aeon noted

This is amplified, though, by the fact that courses one is asked to teach typically will
differ. When I teach upper level courses on the nature of rights or different
conceptions of authority or the development of the liberal tradition and its critics, I
imagine I'm doing the same sort of thing you might do, and vice versa. But I also have
to teach intro to philosophy, basic ethics, logic, etc., whereas you'd be asked to teach
(I'm guessing) intro to american government or the american legal system ot intro to
comparative politics or what have you. Prepping those different courses also plays a
role in shaping how we think about and approach issues, no?

To which I replied: The teaching part varies a lot. I'm certainly not expected to teach
comparative politics or American government; I could spend all year teaching Hobbes,
Locke, and Rousseau in one context or another. I have some political scienc-y and
some legal interests, so I don't do that; but it's not my teaching requirements that keep
me attached to political science. Indeed, at Chicago it works the other way 'round.
Everyone has to teach in the Common Core, which means that even the most
quantitative political scientist will probably have to teach Tocqueville or Hobbes or
Plato once per year, and even the most analytic philosopher of mind will probably
teach a history of philosophy once per year-- in other words, the teaching
requirements keep the political scientists and philosophers tethered to political theory/
political philosophy/ history of ideas, which is part of what makes this place so much

Finally, Aeon thinks that the dominance of Oxford-Harvard analytic ethics within
political philosophy is
starting to change...There's a revival of interest in Scottish-enlightenment/moral sense
theory, the neo-Aristotelian wing has both libertarian and communitarian sub-groups,
and the range of offerings in history of ideas seems to be expanding.
Aeon's a philosopher and I'm not, but I don't yet see evidence of that change
percolating through to the top journals or top philosophy departments. Sometimes
such places are slow to sense major intellectual changes that later crash on top of
them, but they also maintain substantial agenda-setting power themselves. (Note that,
for now, I'm agnostic on whether the dominance of the analytic style within
philosophy is a bad thing; as I said before, it allows for considerable rigor and for
argument-in-common-terms that permits of refutation. I am, as it were, not a citizen of
philosophy and don't want to commit myself to a view about the direction philosophy
as a discipline should be going.)
Other contributions: Brian Weatherson on philosophy of language, linguistics, and the
intra-philosophy hierarchy (I stand corrected). Brad De Long, Matt Yglesias, and Stuart
Buck on Nozick. (Incidentally, I just read a paper that cited work of Brad's, for the first
time that I'm aware of.) Julian Sanchez, making the case for rigor. I'm really enjoying
reading everyone else's posts on these questions; I'm learning a great deal.