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Introduction

A Correction to this article was published on 26 April 2022

This article has been updated

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Marx’s observation leaves him wide open to the rejoinder that there’s little point changing the world if you don’t understand it. Yet it does highlight a fundamental problem of political philosophy, namely, the nature and status of the relationship between philosophy and politics. Wrestling with that large and difficult issue is one that has preoccupied political philosophers since people began thinking seriously and systemically about politics.

If the history of Western political speculation has taught us anything, it is that the matter of what, if anything, connects politics and philosophy is unsusceptible to a uniquely true or final answer.Footnote 1 In this respect, it appears to share at least one characteristic of all authentically philosophical questions; it is a deep and meaningful problem that resists a definitive and settled solution.

But recognizing the recalcitrant character of this central question only gets us so far. All the slightly less large and germane questions remain, such as, What is the basis of our assumption that philosophy has political relevance? What kind of knowledge or understanding can philosophy realistically be expected to produce in relation to politics? What weight, if any, would such knowledge or understanding possess? And what difference would it make if our politics and society were more philosophically reflective?

These are just some of the questions that derive from a consideration of the connection between philosophical thinking and political reality. What they all tend to imply is that political theory is clear about its role and confident it can assume it if given the opportunity. But this is by no means the case. Political theory has always been plagued by doubts about its authority and purpose not just as an academic discipline but, more broadly, in relation to its place in the political sphere.

Deep scepticism about the rational basis of political theory has never been in shortage within the Anglophone analytic philosophical tradition. Indeed, during the 1950s, the subject was pronounced dead as a legitimate intellectual enterprise on both sides of the Atlantic.Footnote 2 While it managed to survive rumours of its passing, doubts concerning its standing as a viable and worthwhile activity have persisted.

It is against this general background that I asked five political thinkers to share their views about the state of analytic political philosophy. Their contributions largely confirm that the subject remains in uneasy relations with itself.

Eileen Hunt urges us to stay true to the original spirit of political theory by confronting the central political challenges of our time; Jonathan Floyd believes the subject is experiencing a seminal methodological moment which it must embrace if it wishes to ensure its intellectual health and political resonance; Maeve McKeown argues that political theory has become a cynical game which is crying out for radical reform, while Paul Kelly claims that the liberal paradigm which has defined the recent history of the discipline is facing major strains from the competing paradigms of political realism and genealogical analysis. The odd paper out is Philip Pettit’s which is more of an exercise in rather than a critique of contemporary political theory; as such, it unearths a potentially rich vein of enquiry by revealing the meaning and possible implications of the Kantian idea of a civil, as distinct from a just, society.

It seems clear that political theory has reached a new crossroads. A core question that keeps bubbling up is whether the subject can (re)connect with the actual world and demonstrate some true and pressing value? That is really two questions in one: in the first place, does analytic political theory possess the epistemological, normative and imaginative wherewithal needed to help us understand politics and why things work out the way they do? And, secondly, do analytic political theorists have what it takes to develop and apply the cognitive, historical and normative perspectives and tools required for us to properly grasp the very thing that shapes the world we inhabit and the future we must face together?

Of course, there is no guarantee that even if analytic political theory convinces itself of its authority and purpose in the arena of politics that it would accomplish the desired effect, either in the sense that its findings would prove instructive or in the sense that they would be sufficiently heard. Yet one thing seems certain—unless it shows the energy and ambition to transform itself into a discipline that is capable, at least in principle, of being genuinely pertinent to politics, it has absolutely no chance of being a tangible force for good in the world. In that respect, the combined vitality, rigour and urgency of the five papers that constitute this symposium give us pause for hope.

It is no doubt common for every age to think that it is living in the most defining of times. But we have good reason to believe that our age, the Anthropocene, is a uniquely unnerving and critical one. It is not so much that those of us in the West have observed the relative stability of the Cold War era give way to a radically different and unpredictable political landscape and/or may be witnessing the end of the hegemony of liberal democracy, but, more profoundly, that we are conscious of being occupants of a planet which is in a state of accelerated and terminal combustion, a set of circumstances that is mostly the result of our own making.

If we do finally reckon with our grave and increasingly drastic existential situation—and before the owl of Minerva takes wing—we are going to need all the grown-up and humane political intelligence we can summon to work out how best to respond to the ecological mess we have created. If that is not a motivating reason for political theory to get its house in order, I’m not sure what is.

I wish to end by thanking each of the authors for their contribution to this symposium.

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Notes

  1. I shall use the terms political theory, political philosophy and political thought interchangeably in this introduction.

  2. Peter Laslett, Introduction, Philosophy, Politics and Society (Blackwell, Oxford, 1956), p.vii. Robert Dahl penned a similar obituary from the US two years later in ‘Political Theory: Truth and Consequences’, World Politics, vol. 11, no. 1, 1958, p. 89.

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This article was updated to correct Jonathan Floyd's name.

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Lyons, J. Introduction. Soc 59, 97–98 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-022-00701-3

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