Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part III

In two earlier essays I’ve speculated on divisions in the study of politics. First the division within social studies between topics that are political and those that are not. I labeled the latter topics apolitical for easier reference. Secondly the division within political studies between scientific and theoretical methods. In this final essay I will discuss philosophy, but this time I will only examine the differences between political theory and political philosophy. A comparison between political philosophy and “apolitical philosophy” would not be meaningful. There is no branch of philosophy dedicated specifically to apolitical phenomena, although many such phenomena are of course occasionally touched upon in philosophy.

In this essay I will discuss Raymond Geuss’ short book Philosophy and Real Politics, where he seeks to define political philosophy as something other than applied ethics. I agree with the basic premise. As useful as theories of justice may be in guiding political debates about right and wrong, there are other philosophical questions in politics which are not ethical. I will not discuss “ethics-first” political philosophy at all in this essay because it lies so far away from political science and political theory. Political philosophy as applied ethics is not of any use when the workings of political systems are to be understood.

Political theory ↔ Political philosophy

Somewhat to my surprise, Geuss actually repudiates the distinction between political theory and political philosophy (p. 16-17). However, his short note on this subject leaves me uncertain of how he conceives “political theory” in this context. Personally, I find it more enlightening to differentiate between four kinds of political inquiry than to blur the difference between two of them.

I start with political science, the empirical study of politics. As I indicated in Part I of this series, political science is a handicapped social science. It needs significant help from speculative theorizing to make any general statements at all. This kind of theorizing, which seeks to formulate a valid theoretical language for describing political phenomena, is what I call political theory. It bares no resemblance scientific theory. Political theory can perfectly well be rooted in mere practical experience or general observation. In Part II of this series I suggested that the language of law may provide an alternative route to conceptualizing a theoretical language for political science.

With those distinctions in mind, we can separate two further kinds of political inquiry. Normative political philosophy, or “ethics-first” political philosophy, is one of them. As I already noted above, I don’t think any interesting questions emerge from a comparison between ethics-first philosophy and political theory. I therefore want to place another kind of political philosophy closer to political theory. There’s no established name for it. Geuss calls his alternative “realist” political philosophy, but “epistemological” is a much more natural preamble from my perspective. After all, the primary goal of political science and theory is to understand the political system. Epistemological political philosophy sets and examines criteria for valid knowledge within political science and theory.

The most important task that Geuss sets for alternative political philosophy is conceptual innovation. He takes the concept of the “state” as an archetypical case of innovation.

“When they were introduced, concepts like “the state” did not exactly mirror any fully preexisting reality, because using these concepts represented as much an aspiration as a description. It is also the case that merely using the concepts did not by itself (…) bring any state into existence (…). Nevertheless inventing this new concept (…) could be an important contribution both to clarifying an obscure situation and to guiding action directed at institutional change.” (Geuss 2008 p.45-46)

But conceptual innovation also lies within the domain of political theory as I conceive it. There’s not necessarily a philosophical interest in every new concept. Geuss recognizes this as he contrasts philosophical innovations with more pragmatic ones.

“[I]n everyday cases one usually knows what the problem is before looking for the solution (…). In many of the cases of conceptual innovation that I have in mind, creating the conceptual tools is a precondition to coming to a clear understanding of what the problem was in the first place. It is very difficult to describe the transition after it has taken place because it is difficult for us to put ourselves back into the situation of confusion, indeterminacy, and perplexity that existed before the new “tool” brought clarity (…).” (Geuss 2008 p.48)

Some elaboration is needed on this contrast. I think it is too restrictive to think of political theory and philosophy in terms of problems and solutions, as Geuss does in the quotation above (although, having already equated theory with philosophy, he now contrasts “everyday” innovation with philosophy). In empirical sciences problems and solutions are a basic component of the dialogue between measurement and theory, but this does not apply to political inquiry, for reasons given in Part I of this series.

Conceptual innovation in political theory is therefore more likely to be a response to earlier theorizing. Established theories are considered deficient. This is the “problem” which a new theory can “solve”. What Geuss should have said, in my opinion, is that political theorists focus on the descriptive task of saying what they know, or what they think they know, about political systems. Regardless of what inspires new ideas in political theory – be it political science, legislation, the daily news or personal participation – the theoretical argument will anchored to presuppositions that are taken to be self-evident. Political theory questions knowledge only comparatively – as one source of information is considered more trustworthy than another.

To challenge the veracity of presuppositions is a philosophical task, and specifically an epistemological task. Following up on Geuss’ example, it is evident that no political scientist or theorist could have reached the concept of the state. No empirical study could point towards it, no law could have established it and no-one could directly have experienced it before the idea itself was conceived. The new idea required a conceptual innovation where earlier presuppositions were questioned. This is how I understand Geuss’ discussion of “problems” in the previous quotation. In an earlier part of the book he also suggests that philosophical innovations necessarily have a normative component.

“In interesting cases, like “the state”, introducing the “concept” requires one to get people not merely to use a certain word, but also to entertain a certain kind of theory, which has a strong normative component. You don’t “have” the concept of the state unless you have the idea of a freestanding form of authority. And the idea of authority requires some appeal to notions like “ought” or “should”.” (Geuss 2008 p.44)

A normative component is indeed in retrospect inherent in the concept of the state, just as it is in other conceptual innovations in political thought such as “democratic representation” or  “private property”. However, it seems to me that the formulation of a normative theory is a philosophical task separate from conceptual innovation. If epistemological political philosophy conceives a new concept, it is a task for ethical political philosophy to provide its normative component. This may be a good reason for keeping one’s knowledge up-to-date in both fields, but the philosophical tasks are clearly separate.

So I prefer to keep the idea of the “state” separate from the idea of “state authority”. Before we can ask whether the state ought to have authority, we have to clarify what exactly we mean by this new concept. Before we ask whether people should be ruled or rule themselves or be democratically represented, we have to clarify what representation is. An innovation in epistemological political philosophy needs normative philosophy before being put into practice, but the epistemological component can still precede the normative one.

To conclude this commentary on Geuss’ book, I will briefly note the final task he sets for political philosophy. It actually touches on presuppositions. He envisions political philosophy as a “critique of ideology”. He writes that political philosophy could be related to a given ideology in two ways.

“One possibility would be that [a political philosophy] could play a progressive role in combating ideological illusion, such as when the philosophy in question demonstrates the dependence of certain beliefs or desires on the continued existence of particular configuration of power that would otherwise remain hidden. (…) A second possibility is that [a political philosophy] itself played an ideological role in society in that it fostered certain common ideological illusions, made them more difficult to detect, or created new ones. ” (Geuss 2008 p.53)

To speak of ideology and misuse of power is beside the point. It is irrelevant from a philosophical standpoint whether the general public lives under illusions promulgated by those in power or under illusions that have evolved without any deliberate conniving. In both cases the philosophical task is the same: to uncover the linguistic and institutional presuppositions that uphold the old perspective; to innovate new concepts and new institutional frameworks required for a new perspective. I therefore cannot see this is as a separate task at all, but rather as a misinformed reformulation of the one and only reasonable task that Geuss presents: conceptual innovation.

As a little epilogue I suggest that epistemological political philosophy has a lot in common with a certain unfashionable branch in the philosophy of science. This is so even though political theory has so little in common with natural-scientific theory and political science lies completely apart from natural science. In his Essay on Metaphysics Collingwood maintains that the task of metaphysics is to study the presuppositions of the natural sciences. The task of an epistemological political philosophy would seem to be much the same.

As readers of Collingwood know, presuppositions integrate the study of history to the philosophy of science and, as I have indicated in this essay, also to the study of politics. Contemporary philosophy of science has certainly not adapted Collingwood’s idea of metaphysics. Contemporary political philosophy, still understood as a branch of applied ethics by the majority of its practitioners, does not seem inclined to move in that direction either. I think this is regrettable and I might revisit this parallel later to see what I can make of it.


Geuss, Raymond, Philosophy and Real Politics, Princeton University Press 2008.


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