Political theory has at least two characteristics. One, it is marked by its in-betweenness—between philosophy and history, humanities and social science, normative pursuits and empirical concerns, etc. Two, it has a civic and pedagogical dimension. Political theorists read, interpret, and critique texts with the purpose of teaching, both in the limited sense of teaching students in the classroom and in the broad sense of engaging the public. Through the pedagogical dimension, political theorists hope to offer new generations of citizens critical, reflexive skills crucial to communal, political life.

The two characteristics converge in Nicholas Tampio’s Teaching Political Theory: A Pluralistic Approach. In this book, Tampio navigates between the timely and the untimely, a contrast that, as he recognizes (pp. 13–14), was heatedly debated in the 1990s. Some, like Jeffrey Isaac (1995), criticized political theory for not addressing timely historical changes such as the democratization of Eastern Europe. Others, like Samuel Chambers (1999), defended untimeliness as a way for theorists to ‘see different or new political ends and other political dimensions’. Tampio wanders between the timely and untimely, embracing a pluralistic approach that not only draws from the Indian, Chinese, American, and European traditions, but also covers interdisciplinary themes and various pedagogical techniques, such as running simulations and taking field trips.

The timely energizes the theory teacher and presents them with a set of problematics. In Teaching Political Theory, Tampio constantly speaks to current issues: the incivility of ‘in-your-face politics’ that harms democracy (p. 168), the rise of China (pp. 160–161), the struggles of Dalit women (p. 109) etc. But it is the untimely that both enables a distance from the present critical for reflexive analysis and presents the theory teacher with a vast intellectual repertoire for grappling with current issues. A self-identified ‘great books teacher’ ‘with caveats’ (p. 24) who believes political theorists’ main responsibility is to ‘keep alive a tradition’ (p. 185), Tampio sees the global history of political thought as an important resource to help both the teacher and students think about current issues in ways that challenge our commonsensical frameworks.

In each chapter, Tampio patiently illustrates how thinkers from different intellectual traditions, especially when placed in staged but meaningful conversations, enrich our understanding of key concepts in contemporary politics. For instance, the comparison of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Marcus Garvey invites students to ponder why, under certain historical circumstances, dubiously scientific concepts like race and caste are politically useful particularly in forging common identities (pp. 79–87). In other cases, thinkers in the global history of political thought help us develop critical faculties of crucial significance to our lives as modern democratic citizens. For instance, the skepticism of Sextus Empiricus and Zhuangzi helps students develop answers to two questions related to civic life: first, do we know our ignorance as democratic citizens (pp. 136–137)? Second, does being a skeptic mean embracing political passivity and apathy (pp. 153–155)? As such, Tampio convincingly demonstrates why wandering between the timely and the untimely benefits the theory teacher.

Pluralism is at the heart of Tampio’s project. Deeply embedded in Tampio’s engagement with thinkers from various intellectual traditions is a conviction that such thinkers can speak to each other when the theory teacher uses proper techniques to make conversations between traditions possible and meaningful. Gandhi and King were addressing struggles against oppression in different historical and cultural contexts, but their political thought is united by the theme of non-violence (pp. 98–108). Machiavelli and Han Feizi were hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart, but their political thought addressed a set of questions integral to political theory: Are human beings essentially selfish? Should politics have a moral foundation? What should the ruler do when surrounded by powerful enemies? Echoing Andrew March’s (2009) observation that the comparative method has always been an integral part of political theory inquiry, Tampio shows that the theory teacher does not have to presuppose the alienness of non-Western thinkers in order to teach them. Non-Western thinkers are taught not because they represent a unique cultural-intellectual tradition but because they offer insights germane to both timely and enduring discussions about politics.

Several possible justifications undergird Tampio’s insistence on a pluralistic approach to teaching political theory. There is, first, a justification based on global historical conditions: we already live in a globalized world, and we should understand, with the help of political theory, important debates in the making process of this world. For instance, ‘as the pace of globalization continues to accelerate, teachers of nineteenth-century American political thought may want to assign more Mexican, Central American, South American, and Caribbean authors’ (p. 24). In this sense, the untimely helps us make sense of the historical trajectory, eventually leading to the timely. There is, then, a justification based on the oppressive power of the status quo. Tampio asks, ‘What perspectives and ways of life are being silenced and oppressed in the current arrangement of forces?’ A pluralistic approach to teaching can ‘create space for eccentrics’ (p. 25), that is, those who have been marginalized by the status quo. In this sense, the untimely helps us challenge power relations in the timely. Drawing on Michael Freeden, Tampio argues that there is also an epistemic justification insofar as ‘political theorists should find wisdom about politics wherever they can find it, and non-Western political thought can often offer a treasure trove of insights’ (p. 141). In this case, the untimely helps us access a repertoire of knowledge and insights rarely tapped in the timely. Moreover, there is a justification drawing directly from the timely. For instance, Tampio teaches ancient Chinese political thought partly because ‘students of global affairs need to pay attention to China’ (p. 141). In this case, the untimely helps us understand the timely better.

This list is perhaps inconclusive, but each justification of pluralism reflects a way of approaching thinkers, texts, and techniques that have not been conventionally considered as part of so-called canonical political theory, and a way to reconcile the (healthy) tension between the timely and the untimely in political theory. But one may wonder if a pluralistic approach to teaching can do even more. For example, can a pluralistic approach to teaching demonstrate the limits of our current understanding of what constitutes the timely? Can the pluralistic theory teacher, by engaging different intellectual traditions, show students how our current discourse about political urgency limits our political thinking? Can pluralism help us better understand, for instance, urgencies that are either not rooted in liberal democratic societies or not directly comparable to crises in liberal democratic societies?

There are traces in Teaching Political Theory where Tampio demonstrates that his pluralistic method of teaching can perhaps help us discover the limits of our perceptions of the timely. For instance, in chapter 7, Tampio, drawing on Jonathan White, shows that the theory teacher can respond to the challenge of sleep deprivation, a problem faced by most modern citizens but rarely considered a pressing issue in political theory. Sleep deprivation can and should be considered a pressing political problem because it ‘creates and exacerbates social and political inequality’ (p. 184). By addressing circadian justice in a political theory classroom, Tampio’s pluralistic approach discovers issues often hidden behind the discourse of urgency and broadens students’ conceptions of the political. Tampio shows how the pluralistic approach can be further developed to incorporate not just answers but also questions, concepts, and visions that are often not considered part of political theory.

Such attempts are valuable because one challenge of teaching political theory in the United States is that, very often, the ‘timely questions’ that the theory teacher must respond to are defined by American political reality—or more precisely, commonsensical interpretations of American political reality. A challenge as such is not always an unqualified problem and not necessarily a mistake, but it does limit both the teacher’s and students’ vision by (sometimes uncritically) presupposing an agenda shaped by the dominant political discourse in society. A pluralistic approach to teaching political theory should enable both teachers and students to be critical of commonly accepted categories such as ‘pressing issues’, ‘urgency’, and ‘crisis’. At its very best, a pluralistic approach to teaching political theory should not only enrich our repertoire of insights but also enable critical discussions about what constitutes the timely, that is, what should be considered priorities and why. Tampio’s book is an inviting project encouraging all political theorists to further develop the pluralistic approach by exploring such possibilities in their classrooms.