Social and Political Theory


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6

Module description

You will be using theory-laden concepts throughout your studies: terms such as freedom, power and justice. The moment one pauses to explain what one means by them, one is theorising. Of course, a lot of the time we use these words without too much explication, and provided everyone feels pretty confident about taking their meaning for granted, that’s fine. But once in a while that tacit agreement breaks down. Then we need to think again. That’s when theory happens.

That’s why many of the significant works in this field are written around moments of historical crisis, when the assumptions that make sense of one’s social and political life fail. Machiavelli seeks to plumb the secrets of power, because Italy in his day is impotent in the face of foreign powers. Hobbes’s theory seeks to reconstruct unity in the face of civil strife. Burke seeks to articulate a vision of sustaining tradition just as the French Revolution ruptures it. Marx emerges from the aftermath of the French Revolution, surveys the suffering inflicted by the industrial revolution, and looks to another political revolution to redeem it. However abstract it may be, social and political theorising of any value is not divorced from reality, but seeks to re-engage with it on new terms; and however great its intellectual sophistication, it’s anything but bloodless. It’s driven by conviction, and it aims to make a difference.

This determines two defining features of the course:

  • First, we study these writings in the historical context in which they were written: to understand them adequately we must do our best to know what they were addressing and what they meant then. That’s why the course is organised chronologically.
  • Second, we’re also concerned with what they have to say to us now. Often the more deeply they engage with their own times, the more powerfully they speak to ours.

It’s important to take the course as a whole. You may end up writing about just three authors in your coursework essays. But implicitly or explicitly, these writers are engaged in a debate with each other across the centuries, even as we will engage in debate with their yet living voices. They illuminate each other, and they illuminate our times.

That’s why, though most of the sessions deal with particular thinkers, the course is punctuated with sessions on such themes as justice or freedom or the individual. These are moments at which to compare the positions of different writers, and to draw together the strands of the course and interweave them with our preoccupations in the present.

Recommended reading

Books that outline a general approach to the field from different points of view, and will help you to get your bearings, include:

  • Ball, Terence, Reappraising Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) [The first part discusses the significance we might today find in the classics of political theory and how to approach them; the second includes discussion of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Utilitarianism, Mill and Marx].
  • Ball, T., Farr, J. and Hanson, R. (eds.), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change (Cambridge: CUP, 1989) [essays on the historical development of concepts such as democracy, representation, the state, public opinion, property, revolution].
  • Dunn, John, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future (rev. edn.) (Cambridge: CUP, 1993) [Elegant appraisal of the (inadequate) resources of key strands in the western political tradition in relation to our current situation - with a streak of ecological pessimism].
  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Meditations on Modern Political Thought: Masculine/Feminine Themes from Luther to Arendt (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992) [includes discussion of Luther, Rousseau, Liberalism, Hegel, Freud, Arendt].
  • Gellner, Ernest, The Condition of Liberty (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994) [discussion of the socio-political conditions required to sustain civil society and political freedom on the western model; suggests that the affinity many suppose to hold between modernity and liberty may not exist].
  • Hawthorn, Geoffrey, Enlightenment and Despair (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) [a critical history of social theory from the eighteenth century to the present, including prehistory of social theory in Rousseau, Kant and Hegel].
  • Hindess, Barry, Discourses of Power (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) [analysis of the concept power from Hobbes and Locke to neo-marxism and Foucault].
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair, A Short History of Ethics (second edn.) (London: Routledge, 1998) [A history of moral philosophy from the Greeks to the present, emphasising the importance of historical context to moral concepts and ideas].
  • Manent, Pierre, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Balinksi (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994) [stimulating, if idiosyncratic, account of the character and problems of liberal thought].
  • Wolin, Sheldon, Politics and Vision (rev. edn.) (Princeton University Press: Press, 2004) [Combines thematic discussion with close attention to the work of particular writers; especially good on the Reformation, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the emergence of liberalism in eighteenth-century debates about civil society, Marx and Nietzsche].

However, the best way into the course is to start getting to grips with the texts we’ll be studying. They include:

  • Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. JGA Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co, 1987), especially the first half.
  • Hegel, G.F.W., Hegel's Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: OUP, 1952) [also ed. A Wood (Cambridge: CUP, 1991)], especially Introduction, Concept of the Philosophy of Right, of the Will, Freedom and Right; Part Three (iia), Civil Society, the System of Needs; Part Three (iiic) World History.
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: CUP, 1991) Parts I and II.
  • Locke, John, Second Treatise in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (CUP, Cambridge, 1988).
  • Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, ed. Quentin Skinner and Russell Price (Cambridge: CUP, 1988).
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G.D.H. Cole, rev. JH Brumfitt & John C Hall (London: Everyman, 1973).
  • Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, ed. IRH Campbell and AS Skinner (London: Liberty Fund, 1981) 2 Vols, esp. Book I chs. I-V; Book III chs. on economic and social history; and Book IV ch. II.