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What Is Political Theory/Philosophy? Author(s): Mark E. Warren Source: PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 606-612 Published by: American Political Science Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/419629

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Features

What Is Political Theory/Philosophy?

MarkE. Warren Georgetown University

The

subdiscipline of

politicaltheory

continues

to

and

political philosophy

some

suffer

political

misunderstanding within

science as a whole.

Notwithstanding its

political

renaissance in the last decade,

theory/philosophy is stilltoo often charac- terized in terms that obscure its roles and

functions within the

discipline.

Political

theory/philosophy is often "normative

theory"

as a

referred to as

way

of distin-

guishing its concerns with values from the

"empiricaltheory" cal science proper.

and researchof

politi-

Where the concernsof

are not

just

political theory/philosophy

normative, political scientistsoften charac-

terize it as

guish

it from

"speculativetheory" to distin-

"empiricaltheory"

that can

reference to

by observable data. The terms of such a dis-

be confirmedor refuted

tinction suggest,

grounded

of course, that theories

ought

to

tra-

in certaintiescan and

replace the speculativeapproaches of

Features What Is Political Theory/Philosophy? MarkE. Warren Georgetown University The subdiscipline of politicaltheory continues to and

MARKE. WARREN

606

ditional

political thought.

And because

politicaltheory/philosophy relies heavily on

the

history of politicalthought, many see it

history

and

the

humanities

political science--interesting

for

any culturally literate

as part of rather than

and necessary

person,

but

fundamentally distinct from

contemporarypolitical research. Terminological distinctionssuch as these solidifiedin an era in which behavioralist

agendas shaped

ries, and

they

neo-positivist

had within

however,

sophisticated

theory

and

research. These turn affected the

subdisciplinary bounda- reflect the influencethat

views of

explanation

once

time,

more

how

the discipline. Since that we have

developed

understandings of

philosophy relate to

developments

way

we

empirical

have

in

understandthe

explanatory concerns of political science,

while also

expanding politicaltheory/phi-

its traditionalboundaries.

losophy beyond

New

assessments of the relation be-

tween

have in

theory/philosophy and explanation

part

been stimulated by close at-

philosophy of science over the of decades. The behavioralist

tention to

last couple

agenda

deserves some credit for this at-

tention, since it sought criteriaof scientific

authority

is,

the

in

view

positivist eplstemology-that

that

explanatory meaning

observ-

on reference to

long been

explana-

differences,all

science

are

agree

that

underdeter-

Explanation

extent than

depends entirely

ables. Positivism,however, has

superseded by

other accountsof

many

tion. Whatever their

schools of philosophy of explanatory meanings

mined

depends

the

by

to

relations

observables.

a much greater

positivistsappreciated on conceptual

and

assumptions

internal to

kindof systematic

theory, and thus on the

conceptual analysistraditionally practiced

by political theory/philosophy.

political theories have what I shallcall a

reason

and

functionwithin all

tion is

For this

philosophies

meoning-constitutive

func-

explanations. This

increasinglyrecognized within politi-

cal science, and this is no doubt one reason

why

the

post-behavioral era has coincided

of

interest in political

with a resurgence theory/philosophy.

At

the same

losophy

last

has

couple of

time, politicaltheory/phi-

the

changed dramatically in

decades. Whereas it used to

PS: Political Science & Politics

What Is Political Theory/Philosophy?

be mostly

the

history

of

politicalthought,

conceptual,

today linguistic, and normative

theories

it includesa mixture of

analysis,"grand"

of society and politics (which are

w 40

4

44 0"* 14

44t

kzkAk?4.

coming

back to life in new

forms),

and

phi-

losophy of social science. As a subdisci-

pline,

it is broader, more eclectic, more

and more sensitive to ex-

just

two

sophisticated,

planatory

concerns than it was

decades ago. But we have been less suc-

cessful in

developing

alternatives to the

we use to character-

neo-positivist terms

ize the

relationsbetween politicaltheory/

and thus the

philosophy and explanation,

role of

political science.

ject

to

the tacit blindersof

politicaltheory/philosophy within

Our failureleaves us sub-

terminological

distinctions.The distinctionsI offer here as

alternativesto those with a

genesis suggest one way

ly

depicting

the

neo-positivist of more accurate-

political

functions of

also

theory/philosophy.They

explanations

sarily

and

of the

involve the

now

suggest why

political world neces-

of theoretical

diversity philosophical concerns that we are seeing withinthe discipline.

Political Theory

To begin

positivist

and

with, it is usefulto recalla

pre-

distinction between theoretical

although

recognize

philo-

philosophical problems:

closely interrelated,we need to

here, theoriesare about

cally

exist, even if these

their differencesso as not to confuse

sophical

theory.

issues with those of

In the

way

explanatory I shall use the terms

things that empiri- things are them-

selves ideas, values, and theories that are

part

of the

political

world.

Philosophical

concerns have to do

suppositions

bedded in

and

with conceptual pre- that are em-

judgments

explanatory theories. Although

philosophicalanalysis is not directlyexplan-

atory, all explanatory theories involve,and

are partly

cal

determined

by,

the

philosophi-

presuppositions

that are essential to

issue to

their

explanatory power-an which I shall return.

Accordingly, I suggest that

the

term

politicaltheory

politicalphilosophy) for

conceptual

we reserve

(in contrast to

those dimensionsof

orga-

schemes that select and

nize informationabout the political world

for

explanatory purposes-for

of

the

neo-marxist theories

example,

state

or

rationalchoice

models of decisionmaking.

alwaysappreciated that theories such as these suggest signifi-

cant problems and hypotheses, as

provide

common

well as

languages and conceptu-

changed

in the

post-

appreciation of the

theories.

of the philos-

explanatory

al tools. What has

behavioralera is our

meaning-constitutive functionsof

It is now an

tenet

ophy

accepted of social science that

meanings of terms are interdependent

within

course,

a body

many

of

theory.

There are,

of

different versions of how

this occurs

and what its implications are.

Politicalscientists have

e4,^

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At the very plies that

least, however, the

in addition to care in

point im-

specify-

of behav-

need

to

ing empirical referents (a legacy ioralism), political scientists

develop

theories

even their

a greater awareness of how their constitute their problems and

findings.Explanation, as always,

requires that we distinguishempirical from

theoretical

questions-something

upon.

positiv-

ists rightly insisted

quires

But it also re-

us to interrelateboth dimensionsof

September 1989

607

Features

meaning-a task positivists failedto recog-

nize as a

problem

because

they

held that

the meanings of theoretical terms are re-

ducibleto their empirical referents.

p4

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vle

A first step in recognizing the relative

autonomy

rarely

of

theory

is to notice that we as representational

at all, even

use theories

"maps" of

though this

the political world

metaphor

dominatescommon

understandings. More often, the explana- tory powers of theories are indirect in a

way

that

provides

them with a

meaning-

constitutive dimension: we use them as

limiting

reduce

cases

the

and

counterfactuals to

political

object

complexity of the

world so it might become a discrete

of study. We decide to reduce complexity

way that are, more often than not, normative.

in one

ratherthan anotherfor reasons

This is the way it should be, since this is

how we characterizecertain dimensions of

the world as problematic-say, its effi-

ciency, justice,

distributionof

power,

or

violence-and thus worthy of further in-

vestigation.

this

way,

models

theories of

systems,

ponent tuals is a

democracy as do rational choice models,

of

organizational

development,

structure,

conflict, world

Modelsof

work in

and so on. The normative com-

of limiting cases and counterfac-

only if one uses them as

representational maps

problem if theories were

rather than

of a

meaning-constitutive decisions

community of political scientists.One

can avoid these mistakes the theories themselves into

only by making of
only by making
of

objects then can one defend the con-

implica-

study. Only stitutive meanings and normative

tions that inevitably follow from them.

A second role of

politicaltheory in ex-

608

planation whose importance is increasingly

recognized is that tual coherence of

that

tions

it deals with the

concep-

interpretative schemes

political

ac-

understandings and

(empirically) enter into

through

actors'

uses of the terms of political discourse.Ex-

amples

ogies,

would be

analyses of political ideol-

diplomatic docu-

discourses as

cultures, rhetoric,

ments, as well as

everyday

they To take a

ing

come to bear on the

political world. the act of vot-

way

actors

simple example, is caused in part by the

understandthe normative

political functionof

cratic

voting

bility

than observation: it

interpretation

of

significance and within a demo-

system. For this reason, the intelligi-

of

voting requires something more

requires (conceptual) an empirically-existing

universeof discourse in which are embed-

ded

understandings about democratic rep-

indeed, whatever other to

impact on voting.

politics

are

resentation-or

discourse

happens

These "textual" elements of

intrinsic part of the because

an

political world

orient individ-

decisionmaking.

they conceptually

collective

uals toward

l

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They have a causalforce that is irreducible They have a causalforce that is irreducible

to

perceptions,

attitudes,

opinions,

or

norms that have been transformed into discrete bits of data because actors are in- fluenced by the internalcoherence of their universe. This dimension of

conceptual

political life is accessible only through inter-

pretations of

through the

meaning

methods

structures, that is, traditionally em-

Many political

this challenge

traditional concerns

to

include

ordinary

ployed theorists have been

by

with

expanding their

interpretation

in the humanities.

meeting

languagephilosophy, semiotics, phenome-

PS: Political Science & Politics

What Is Political Theory/Philosophy?

nology,

hermeneutics,

and interpretive

of an in-

is rational choice world as

sociology. A less obvious example

terpretive approach

theory:

made

it

up of

views the

political conceptually coherent inten-

tions that formulate instrumentally rational

action orientations.What

distinguishes ra-

interpreta-

tionalchoice theory from other

tive

approaches status of its methods: it constitutesthe do-

is a confusion about the

main of intentions

by

means of axioms

rather than treating intentionality as an in- This confusion has

terpretive

problem.

allowed rational choice theory to inherit

positivist expectations that

"empiricaltheory" traditional politicaltheory.

for

a

definitive

would displace

Political Philosophy

We might

reserve the term

politicalphi-

losophy(as opposed to politicaltheory) for concernsthat are not

immediatelyexplan-

in-

do with the

atory. volves
atory.
volves

Political philosophy typically

questions having

to

conceptual presuppositions of theoretical

orientations, as well as

questions

of

judg-

ment about truth and value. A common

misconception in political science is that

most

questions

of

politicalphilosophy are

overly

"normative

about normative issues; hence its

narrow identification with

theory."

In fact, the

problems

of

political

philosophy fall into three interrelated, categories

judgment,only

distinct, although

of

analysis

and

one of which is normative.

W t4

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d^o

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qw

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44e.41L40-444~4440

c~&?

t?~~

O4441f.

Ontologicat questions:

Some of

these

that investigates

problems

are

ogy

September 1989

ontological. The term ontol-

refers to the science

the nature and fundamental properties of

reality. We no longer

out

believe we can

because we

carry

no

such investigations

longer presume as such. For

ity

intellectualaccess to real-

good

reason

ontology

as a

"science" has fallen out of favor. None-

theless, the term has been resurrected in

political philosophy for slightly

purposes:

whether

reality

not, we

unavoidably

sumptions

we are

be called

they

are

different

is knowable or

general as-

reality

make

about the nature of the

logicallyprior

as its conditions of

investigating. These mightproperly

ontologicalassumptions because to

any explanation

possibility.

and serve

A Covvso *

e^ftl.

4of

44,4 %Ces 44

3kct #* 4

*tlo1

od

4ic

-

^^^M

H4c44ot,q,

1

4,K*t

.

.

.

Although necessary, they

cannot be em-

charac-

of the world

Most

ontological

piricallyinvestigated because they

terize

we

general properties

investigate.

seek to

assumptions take them for

are so

how

they

ties for

fundamentalthat we

not

understanding

limit possibili-

em-

granted, frame, select, and

explanation and judgment. All

pirical research

presupposes that some set

of features of the humancondition-such

as

consciousness, language,scarcity,

determination,

tem-

lawlike

porality, causal

regularity-defines a political

knowable

object

of

study.

world as a

Decisionsto in-

clude some features of the humancondi- tion and exclude others are not trivial:

they constitute

definingobjects

ple,

the

disciplinary domains by of explanation. For exam-

only

logi-

behavioralist claim that

observables that can be ordered into

cal associationscount as a (knowable)part

of

politicalreality produces ciplinary domain. The rationalchoice

one kindof dis-

pre-

supposition that politics is an effect of in-

strumentally rational actions

produces

a

second kind of domain. The Weberian

focus on intentionalactions molded by dis-

609

Features

tinctive cultural

possibilities produces a third. Those who see social and

organiza-

tional structuresas irreducibleto behavior

or intentionalaction

produce definitionof what features of the human

still another

condition makes the political world possi- ble.

Dcciftf

4<% t4w

- -4 4 A 94Icr

VutZ^t

r

jj IAlr Aj

0

to ;i^i

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otlt

fota

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ki44(hlle

404#4%

4.

Each of these

ontological assumptions

the

world

about the nature of

political and limits what is to count as an

guides "explanation." For example, differentan-

swers to

voting

the

(ontological) question,

"Is

a behavior, an action,

or a struc-

tured manifestationof social interaction?"

will dictate differenttheoretical approach-

es and criteriaof

iors

simply

adequacy. Voting

behav-

need to be observed and their

regularitiestheoretically identified.Acts of

voting tually understood tem within which

need to

be observed and

concep-

as part of a

"voting"

cultural sys-

involves an

assignment of meaning by

way

that

partly

the actor in a

accounts for the act. A

require

that one

entities-a

structural analysis would

postulate "class structure" or a "state," for exam-

non-observable

ple-that

influenceboth behavior and in-

tentionalorientation. Ontological decisions

such as these relate

tory

there

closely status one gives to

to the

explana-

Are

concepts.

really things "class structures" or

called "institutions"or

"cultural systems"

simply

intellec-

specifying dif-

or "states"-or are these tually convenient ways of

ferent kinds of

actions, their situations,

signifi-

their effects, and their normative

cance? Are

linguistic structures reducible

language? Are

rule-like?If

to the individualswho use

social

regularities law-like or

we mean

necessity of

law-like, do

possesses

the

something that

physical laws?If

rule-like,then what is their causalstatus in

political life given that rulescan be broken?

Many methodological

debates about the

explanatory powers of behavioralism,ra-

tional choice

theory,

structuralism,herme-

neutics, and the liketurn on these kindsof

questions.

Ontological

only

decisions determine not

criteria of explanatory

way one concep-

possibilities

of

domain and

adequacy,

tualizes

politics.

the

but also the

the

normative

For

example,

if one conceptualizes made

being

up only

of instrumentalac-

by ontologi-

political world as

only

of behaviors, or

tions, then one has excluded

cal fiat the causalforce and transformative

possibilities of language and interaction.

This in turn will limitthe horizonsof

cal

politi-

possibility without analysis or justifica-

tion.

Epistemologicalquestions:

of

question

in

mological. Such questions

the

the

authority

world

swers to

A second kind

politicalphilosophy is episte-

have to do with

respect

to

An-

of theories with

they purport to explain.

epistemologicalquestions

often

follow from

Take the

different ontologicalpositions.

example

of

voting:

if

voting

is a

authority of a

theoreti-

on its referencesto

with posi-

voting

is

behavior,then the

cal statement

depends

observations. This is consistent

tivist

epistemology.

If, however,

an action, then observations underdeter-

mine explanation. One must also under-

stand

"voting"

as

part

of an

interpretive

field within which the

behavior

depends

in

intelligibility of the

part

on the

actor's

understanding of democracy. This presup-

poses an interpretive (or

component

to

"humanistic")

methodology, since the

interpret

the inter-

constitutes the

From the

point

of

political scientist must

pretive field which partly

object of

view of

explanation.

ogies

positivists,interpretive methodol-

are not "scientific" precisely because

authoritatively

interpretations cannot be

610

PS: Political Science & Politics

What Is Political Theory/Philosophy?

verified

by

referring

to

theory-indepen-

why positivists

inter-

political world,

lawlike regu-

political

much

dent observations. This is

pretive phenomena and seek to reduce them to

larities.

In

contrast,

philosophytoday

deny a (knowable) causal status to

in the

has to do with articulat-

ing postpositivist accounts of the authority

of social

pretative

theory,

for

scientific interpretations of inter-

phenomena. focuses on criteriaof

example,

in the

intersubjective

Recent

critical

authority implicit dimensionsof action.

presupposes that voting is which in turn presupposes

theory

of

problematic,

a normative

liberal-democracy within which

voting In contrast, Marxist theories

is a central and definitiveelement.

downplay

voting because of the normative judgment

that

political

democracy is diminishedin

this is

value without economic

democracy; partly why Marxistsare interested in the effects of economic structureson politics.

Normative

questions:

It is well

recognized

a third

having to do

classical

that politicalphilosophy deals with

category

with

of

questions,

those

normative judgment. The

form of

questioning in politicalphilosophy

problems

of

explanatory

occurs when

judgment can be distinguished from those

of normative judgment. that the relevant

aspects

of

main are known,

how are

Thus,

assuming

a political do-

they

to

be

judgment,

judged? What are the criteriaof

and how are

they human values? What modes of

related to fundamental

political

organization would maximizethese values?

Although normative judgments are logi-

cally they are also liar way that

distinct

from explanatory

closely

related

by

political science is

other

concerns,

the

pecu-

definedas a

discipline. Whatever

disagreements

we

usually

there might be about domain,

call

something

"political" if it concernscol-

the

ques-

im-

is always

uniqueamong

the

precon-

Stated

are intrinsicto

political science. This

empirical corre-

lective decisionmaking,where

tion "what

plicit.

ought

we to do?"

Politicalscience is

socialsciences in that its domain is

stituted

by

normative questions.

questions

otherwise, such

the

possibility of a

logical formulationhas an

late: individualsact

are

tive

normatively

politically when they

oriented toward collec-

problems. Political philosophers artic-

politics

the

when

they

normative

are

ulate this dimensionof

reconstruct and

analyze dimensionof political discourse.

Normative and

explanatory goals

closely related in other ways

suggested,

we

political

as well. As

often assign significance to

according

to

normative

research

judgments. For example, studying voting

o4 4/W^a

d4It

44A144W''W44fd40C

..

0' 44e4ccltv

-4.~e~o~c~J?.

Somewhat less obvious is the way that

different normative tendencies and

bilities follow from that select for some

possi-

ontological decisions kinds of applications

example,

if one

as made

and exclude others. For

constitutes the

political universe

form of

up of behaviors, the

one produces

tentional and

ing

knowledge

in-

will lack connections to

insufficient-for

linguisticphenomena. Lack-

it will be

relatively

in-

these connections,

at

best

useless-or

creasing individual capacities for choice and

self-direction. What behavioral research can be used for is behavior modification

as, for

example,

in

campaign use of opin-

media images

applica-

ion survey

for

desired

researchto tailor

responses.

But such

tions are technocratic rather than demo-

cratic. Because behavioralforms of knowl-

edge

can be more

easily put

to such uses conditions of

a

bias

from

(rather than, say, locating

public discourse) they toward technocracy democracy

produce

and away

September 1989

611

Features

The aim of

politicalphilosophy here, of

course, is to make such normative judg-

ments into

problems

that one can treat

systematically. At

the same time, aware-

ness about the interrelationsbetween nor-

mative orientations and research can

guard against

-that

is,

"scientistic" political science

tacitly

confuses

with scientific

research that

political or value problems findings,

History of Political Thought

Finally, a comment may be usefulabout does so

why

political theory/philosophy

much of its work by means of the

of

political thought.

history

Classical systems of

Aristotle

different

of the above

express central

culture. Political

on the

conceptual

their

politi-

they

can

so that

significance of

Culturalaware-

politicalthought-from Platoand

to

Marx and

Weber-exemplify

many

kinds of answers to

questions, answers that strains in our political

scientists

and

inevitablyrely

linguistic tools provided by

only

cal culture-indeed, if

take the communicationand

their researchfor

granted. ness is no doubt valuablefor its own sake:

how else could we know who the we is

that is defined

by

a tradition of political

studying

rela-

discourse?But, in addition,

tively comprehensive and discrete systems

of

thought is an invaluablemeans of devel- an awareness about our own

pre-

oping

suppositions and values. The canon of

politicalthought

recognize our

but distant

is close

enough

so we can

own assumptions within it,

enough so we can recognize

problems, presup-

never simply a

from

them

of

discrete sets of values,

positions,

and mistakes.It is

question of learning and borrowing

past masters, but also one of

as

exemplars

of the

seeing

interdependence

philosophy,theory, and explanation, such

that we

might limits of different

understandthe

powers and

possibilities, and gain a

criticalawareness of our own

Conclusion

The

resurgence of politicaltheory

in

view,

my

from

part

and

philosophy is,

of the disci-

mis-

pline's recovery

self-imposed

understandings about the nature

political world,

ble to

know and

and about how it is

it. The

of the

possi-

judge healthier today because these

are no

discipline is

questions

an exclusive-

longermarginalized by behavioral agenda. But it is now time to

ly

do

away

with the

terminological distinc-

tions inheritedfrom the behavioralera as

well. These terms suggest indefensible

roles for

they

politicaltheory/philosophy, continue to confuse us about what

and

roles, exactly, politicaltheory/philosophy

does

play

withinthe

discipline. The distinc-

tions and interrelationsI offer here-be-

tween theory

tween

normative

and

philosophy,

and be-

ontological, epistemological, and

questions-provide

one

way

of

explaining these

my

own view

of political

replacing these terms and

roles.

They

that the

also advocate

current renaissance

theory/philosophy reflects a growing rigor

and

life

depth

in our

understanding of political

About the Author

MarkE. Warrenis AssistantProfessor of

Governmentat

GeorgetownUniversity. He is

Political Thought(MIT

a book

which will

language,political

authorof Nietzscheand

Press,

entitled

1988), and currentlyworking on

Democracy and

the

Self

examinerelations between

interaction,and subjectivity in democratic

theory.

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PS: Political Science & Politics