Political Theory

28 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2014

See all articles by Christian List

Christian List

LMU Munich; London School of Economics

Laura Valentini

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

Date Written: January 6, 2014


Political theory, sometimes also called “normative political theory”, is a subfield of the disciplines of philosophy and political science that addresses conceptual, normative, and evaluative questions concerning politics and society, broadly construed. Examples are: When is a society just? What does it mean for its members to be free? When is one distribution of goods socially preferable to another? What makes a political authority legitimate? How should we trade off different values, such as liberty, prosperity, and security, against one another? What do we owe, not just to our fellow citizens, but to people in the world at large? In this article, we review the methodology of a core branch of contemporary political theory: the one commonly described as “analytic” political theory. In Section 1, we briefly demarcate the scope of political theory. In Section 2, we comment on the analysis of political concepts. In Section 3, we introduce the notions of principles and theories, as distinct from concepts. In Section 4, we discuss the methods of assessing such principles and theories, for the purpose of justifying or criticizing them. In Section 5, we review a recent debate on how abstract and idealized political theory should be. In Section 6, finally, we discuss the significance of disagreement in political theory. Although we cover established ground, we do so from an angle that will be somewhat unfamiliar to at least some political theorists – namely an angle inspired by the philosophy of science. We have chosen this angle with a view to systematizing the activity of analytic political theorizing so as to make its connections with other fields of philosophy and positive science more transparent.

Keywords: Political theory, political philosophy, methodology

Suggested Citation

List, Christian and Valentini, Laura, Political Theory (January 6, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2376325 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2376325

Christian List (Contact Author)

LMU Munich ( email )


London School of Economics ( email )

United Kingdom

Laura Valentini

London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) ( email )

Houghton Street
London, WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom

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