Political Political Theory: An Oxford Inaugural Lecture

24 Pages Posted: 15 May 2012 Last revised: 13 Jun 2012

See all articles by Jeremy Waldron

Jeremy Waldron

New York University School of Law

Date Written: May 15, 2012


This paper was given as an "Inaugural Lecture" for the Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory" at Oxford University on May 3, 2012. Political theorists study (1) political virtue, (2) political processes and institutions, and (3) political ideals (like justice, liberty, and equality). Since the time of Hume, Madison, and Kant, it has been thought that (2) is more important than (1), because maybe we can set up institutions that work for the general good whatever the state of virtue of the people who administer them. But in the revival of political philosophy heralded by John Rawls's book in 1971, there has been great emphasis on (3) and not nearly enough emphasis on (2). This is particularly true in the UK. Previous holders of the Chichele chair (G.A. Cohen and Isaiah Berlin) focused almost exclusively on (3) -- with Berlin going so far as to announce that political philosophy was really just the study of "the ends of life." The lecture argues that this way of conceiving the subject-matter of the Chichele chair is at best one-sided.

The lecture argues for a reorientation of political theory teaching and scholarship back towards institutions -- particularly the normative evaluation of various aspects of the political process and the detailed theoretical exploration of institutional principles like democracy, representation, bicameralism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism and so on. It argues that these issues should not be left to empirical or comparative politcial science, because they raise important and complex questions of evaluation -- including dignitary evaluation -- that may be sold short by the pragmatic and consequentialist emphasis of empirical and comparative work. But political theory should respect the empirical study of institutions more than it does, and it should dovetail the normative and evaluative work that political theory involves with the understanding of institutions, processes, and practices that political science generates.

Keywords: Arendt, democracy, dignity, G.A. Cohen, Hume, institutions, Madison, Isaiah Berlin, legislatures, Parliament, political theory, separation of powers

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Political Political Theory: An Oxford Inaugural Lecture (May 15, 2012). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 12-26, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2060344 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2060344

Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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