Are there any important books in political philosophy any more?

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2006

The other day, a sociologist I know slightly asked me (and another political philosopher) whether there were any important recent books in political philosophy he should read. We were stumped, and eventually suggested that he read Annette Lareau’s _Unequal Childhoods_ … which is a work in sociology (and not that recent any more). I’ve just used the books “power search” feature to look for books in political philosophy published in 2005 and 2005. There are some interesting collections of papers here and there – both on topics and collecting someone’s previously published papers – and there are some goodish introductory books, but there was nothing listed (not a single book) of which it could truly be said that a political philosopher who had not read that book (within a reasonable time) would have neglected to do something that they should have done.

I have a short list of books that nearly made it (none of which I’ve read). The “nearly” books are Matthew Clayton’s _Justice and Legitimacy in Upbringing_ (which I’ve bought but not started), Brian Barry’s _Why Social Justice Matters_, Martha Nussbaum’s _Frontiers of Justice_ and David Schmidtz’s _Elements of Justice_. I’m sure it would be a good thing to read any of those four, but _essential_? I don’t think so. Can commenters make a case for some book published since the beginning of 2005.



SamChevre 09.27.06 at 7:59 am

What about Harry B’s “On Education”?

(With which I disagree quite strongly, but it seems to meet your criteria.)


Chris Bertram 09.27.06 at 8:07 am

samchevre: Harry’s is an interesting book, which I’d encourage people to read, but I don’t think that any political philsopher who doesn’t is thereby neglecting their professional duties!


Daniel 09.27.06 at 8:16 am

the latest Amartya Sen book “Identity and Violence” strikes me as the sort of thing professional political philosophers ought to know about, although I have to say that not having any professional duties, I gave up.


harry b 09.27.06 at 8:21 am

Thanks for the plug samchevre! Of course, I can’t comment. But I wonder if your suggestion make a point — that there’s a kind of diffusion of the field going on, so that some of the most interesting stuff (like Matthew Clayton’s book, for example, which I have read and is great; and my book, which I’ve also read, and is at least interesting) is investigating issues that are important but don’t seem right in the centre of the field, so that they don’t seem obligatory to everyone. I think, eg, of Allen Buchanan’s new book on Secession (don’t have it to hand, so I forget the title), or the older, very interesting book by Buchanan et al on the Human Genome Project (From Chance to Choice). I think, actually, that Matthew’s book probably does fit the bill, and so does Allen’s (despite the very high prices for both); I hope that the book I’m writing with Adam Swift also on the family will, as well, but I know that it won’t seem to, because it will seem like a niche book (as, I suspect, Matthew’s does).


SamChevre 09.27.06 at 8:51 am

I’m (obviously) not a political philosopher, so what’s central to the field, and what’s not (and what’s new, and what’s not) aren’t always obvious to me.

Here’s what I found interesting in the premise of “On Education”; it gives a different answer to “who owns children?” than anything I’ve read. It seems to me that “who may judge the interests of children, and what actions by whom are permissible for furthering them” is a key question in many actual political debates.


ingrid 09.27.06 at 8:55 am

Chris, what are the criteria on which you’ve selected those four (Clayton, Barry, Nussbaum, Schmidtz) ? Fame? Expectations? Or good book reviews?

I’m asking since I’ve edited a special issue on Nussbaum’s (for a Dutch journal, alas), and the papers ranged from rather critical to very negative. if the same book would have been written by Ms. Unknown, I’m not sure Harvard would have published it in the first place, and whether anyone would pay attention (the same can be said for many other books, of course).


Maurice Meilleur 09.27.06 at 8:59 am

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit.
It’s been around for years, but Princeton didn’t publish it until January 2005, so it makes the cutoff on a technicality. It’s as concise and insightful a treatment as one could ask for of a topic relevant to any discussion of democratic deliberation and political communication and rhetoric.


Maurice Meilleur 09.27.06 at 9:01 am

Oh yes, and by “concise” I mean “pretty damned short,” a quality that far too many of the fruits of the academy lack.


Nick L 09.27.06 at 9:05 am

I think Jerry Cohen’s new book, ‘Saving Justice from the Constructivists’ will probably make a bit of a splash when it comes out, if only because he is a big name and the book deals with ‘central’ issues in analytic political philosophy.


Jacob T. Levy 09.27.06 at 9:21 am

I discussed this a bit here (and made some book recommendations from last year to boot).

It’s pre-2005, but I’ll second Allen Buchanan’s _Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination,_ which I think it genuinely important. Also outside the date range: Anthony Appiah _The Ethics of Identity_ and Chandran Kukathas _The Liberal Archipelago_. None of these rise to the Rawls level of “books every person in the social sciences or social theory must have read,” but that’s a pretty demanding standard for work in any field, and I doubt that annual output of it is a reasonable expectation.

David Miller, Principles of Social Justice, and Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement, probably do rise to that level. I have high expectations for Brennan and Pettit, Economy of Esteem, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

I also suspect that the aspiration to write lots of books like that can be unhealthy. Only a few people are going to produce Theory of Justice, ASU, or Spheres of Justice– and when everyone was trying to produce complete theories of justice, some pretty embarrassing books got produced along the way. The same was true for the vogue of producing complete works of democratic theory…


aljfal 09.27.06 at 9:44 am

ingrid — Frontiers of Justice were originally the Tanner Lectures, right? Isn’t it pretty much pro forma that the Tanner Lectures get turned into books? I *think* (although I could certainly be wrong) that I own several books that were originally presented as Tanner Lectures.


Bobcat 09.27.06 at 10:18 am

How about that Susan Hurley book, Justice, Luck, and Knowledge?


Chris Bertram 09.27.06 at 10:25 am

… it came out in 2003.


Rhadamanthus 09.27.06 at 11:16 am

I don’t know why Spheres of Justice is up there with TOJ or ASU.

Further, Schmidtz’s EOJ is rather more serious and theoretical of a work than the Nussbaum or the Barry. The fact of the matter is that EOJ probably represents a new wave of classical liberal philosophy – doing for classical liberalism what Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind did for dualism. The ideas in the book, if taken seriously, would change how analytic political philosophy is done and should cause non classical liberals to be concerned that classical liberalism is a viable alternative to standard varieties of egalitarian liberalism. But what do I know? I’m not a philosopher; I just pretend to be one.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.27.06 at 11:33 am

OK, some of these already mentioned, some are new editions of classics, a few published in 2004, and several on the margins of political philosophy proper, but all I think are worth reading (I’ve left out some excellent edited volumes):

Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Anastaplo, George. Reflections on Constitutional Law. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Barry, Brian. Why Social Justice Matters. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005.

Bobbitt, Philip. Constitutional Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, revised ed., 2006

Buchanan, Allen. Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Fleming, James E. Securing Constitutional Democracy: The Case of Autonomy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Goldford, Dennis J. The American Constitution and the Debate over Originalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Greenawalt, Kent. Religion and the Constitution, Vol. 1: Free Exercise and Fairness. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 2nd ed.

Koskenniemi, Martti. From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005 ed.

Kuper, Andrew. Democracy Beyond Borders: Justice and Representation in Global Institutions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

MacKinnon, Catherine. Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Miéville, China. Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2006.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Sager, Lawrence G. Justice in Plainclothes: A Theory of American Constitutional Practice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Woodruff, Paul. First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Zaibert, Leo. Punishment and Retribution. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.


Chris Henrichsen 09.27.06 at 11:47 am

I am not sure in Barry’s Why Social Justice Matters would be considered a great or important work in political philosophy. I was looking forward to reading it and was quite disappointed. While I agree with Barry’s argument, I found the presentation lacking. I had hoped that I would be a great contribution to applied political philosophy. Instead, it was a bit of a rant (though a needed rant about the political soul of the left in the US and UK).


Chris Henrichsen 09.27.06 at 11:50 am

The previous comment should start “I am not sure if …”


asg 09.27.06 at 12:20 pm

I would agree with #14’s implication that Schmidtz’s “Elements of Justice” is essential. I have not read it in full, but I have read a lot of Schmidtz’s papers and articles which preview themes in EoJ. I am looking forward to the main event.


Jonathan Quong 09.27.06 at 12:34 pm

I agree both with Harry B. and with Jacob Levy. Specialization in political theory/philosophy is increasing thus making the ‘must-read’ book a rarer species (or more accurately, making the genre of books that aspire to this status a rarer species). I also think this is just fine. As Jacob says, very few people should aspire to write such books, and the discipline is probably a healthier place if most of us just concentrate on those smaller topics that really interest us.

Since it hasn’t been mentioned, I’ll just add that I thought Cecile Fabre’s latest book, Whose Body Is It Anyway?, was terrific even if it’s not a ‘must-read’.

A trend in the field that does worry me (as opposed to specialization) is my sense that applied and non-ideal work is increasingly seen as more valuable or more interesting than ideal theory – that you’re not doing anything really exiciting unless it’s applied to some current case or issue in our decidedly non-ideal world. Since I’m quite partial to ideal theory I find this attitude more than a bit depressing, but maybe others don’t see the same trend?


ingrid robeyns 09.27.06 at 12:50 pm

If there is indeed a trend to value non-ideal work higher, I think it’s a good thing, rather than depressing. I guess whether this is a trend or not depends on one’s personal views on this matter. My feeling is that the academic status of ideal theory is still much higher than the status of non-ideal theory, so therefore this trend (if it is real) should be applauded. But frankly, I think most political philosophers/theorists don’t even know what ideal and non-ideal means, or rather, use these terms (without definitions) to cover very different things — so perhaps we’d better figure that out first.


Jonathan Quong 09.27.06 at 1:00 pm


I’ve got to go somewhere, so can’t respond in detail right now, but the distinction I had in mind between ideal and non-ideal was mainly the difference between assuming full compliance with the principles of a theory vs. assuming some degree of non-compliance. I know this might be seen as only one aspect of the distinction between ideal and non-ideal, but I think it is a central aspect and is regarded as such by quite a lot of people in the field (although I absolutely agree with you that there are more than a few people out there who seem to use the distinction pretty wildly).


ingrid robeyns 09.27.06 at 1:04 pm

aljfal (#11): you’re right, though I think that Nussbaum’s Tanner lectures were published in 2003 in the normal Tanner Lectures series, and that FoJ is a revised and expanded version. In fact, I just discovered that the entire “Tanner Lecture series is on-line available for free”:, which is fantastic for scholars with poor libraries.


ingrid robeyns 09.27.06 at 1:10 pm

OK, now my nomination: if we are also allowed to mention books that we haven’t read yet, I’d suggest taking a look at _Analyzing Oppression_ by Ann E. Cudd – I only had a brief look but it looks very interesting. OUP 2006.


djw 09.27.06 at 2:06 pm

I’m inclined to think Schmidtz is the most likely candidate here. I’m impressed by Nussbaum’s book, but it’s not striking or original enough in its theoretical innovations to qualify (which isn’t meant as a criticism). There are a couple of books that I’d like to be very widely read because I think the field would benefit from a wide variety of responses to them–the aforementioned Appiah book on cosmopolitanism and William Talbott’s misleadingly titled Which Rights Should Be Universal? (CUP 2005) which is more about rights and metaethics.


ash23 09.27.06 at 2:11 pm

What are some of the basic criticisms of the Nussbaum approach? Or where might I find the journal?


trane 09.27.06 at 2:37 pm

It is interesting to see what comes to people’s minds, but still it does strike me as a bit odd to look for THAT recent ‘classics’. Perhaps if we extend the period to begin in, say, 2001 we might have some more to come up with. That could also serve as a test of the extent of diffusion in the discipline.

P.S. Ingrid, thanks for the link.


loren 09.27.06 at 3:34 pm

I don’t know how important they are as political philosophy, but I think more of us (here’s some work for ideal theorists) ought to be arguing with Ken Binmore (Game Theory and the Social Contract, Natural Justice) and Brian Skyrms (Evolution of the Social Contract, The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure).

I too am expecting important stuff when I see the final published version of Cohen’s Rescuing, and I think Schmidtz’s Elements is important.

I think Walzer’s Spheres is a wonderful, beautifully textured story, although I also understand why a certain sort of philosopher is unimpressed. In a similar vein, Shklar’s Faces of Injustice always finds its way back to my hands when I’m idly roaming the shelf, although I expect it would frustrate and infuriate some philosophical temperaments.

I share Jacob’s sense that there’s trouble for all of us when everyone is gunning to write the Next Great Book.

Vaguely a propos: I’ve been thinking of a program that would encourage us to move away from producing book upon book, and instead keep books as rare culminations of long lines of thought and argument developed in articles and conversations …

It’s an “adopt a forest” program (AaF) for academics: the next time one feels the urge to write a 1000-page tome on aesthetics, or the Next Great Theory of Justice/Democracy/Truth/Virtue/… , the AaF program invites that scholar to instead summarize her or his points into one or several short articles (preferably with largely online distribution). They are then given the section of forest that would have been devoted to their tome. The only restriction (listening, economists?) is that you cannot collude with neighbouring AaF participants to sell your lumber to a paper mill, or worse yet, start your own mill and publishing company.


Ben 09.27.06 at 3:36 pm

With Jon Quong (#19/21) I thought Fabre’s book was challenging and would be interesting to a wide range of people. I was asked to review it, as a result of a comment on CT actually, and am certainly glad I read it. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘must’ either though.

But then, if there was a ‘must read’ published every year or two (on top of all those old classics, and things that are good in sub-fields but not something everyone has to read, and the less-good things you sometimes have to wade through to sort out what’s good) then I’d never get anything done…


vivian 09.27.06 at 8:31 pm

(loren, as soon as I got to the word “Binmore” I knew it was you!)

Chris: aren’t you being a little too picky? I wouldn’t expect at least one super-important philosophy book each year, especially if you want anyone in the field to feel required to read it. How would you choose when planning to teach? Maybe once every five years for the subfield of political philosophy, once every year for all of philosophy? Or perhaps the annual must-read might sometimes be an article, monograph or collection?

In my subfield, besides the Talbott there are several books from Thomas Pogge in the last two years, his are usually must-reads, even if not must-fully-agrees.


ingrid robeyns 09.28.06 at 2:30 am

ash23 (#25): I’m sorry but I won’t be able to summarise the critques of the three papers, but am happy to give you references to some more widely available critiques on Nussbaum’s capability approach in case you’re interested. The journal is called _Filosofie en Praktijk_ and is published in Dutch. It’s really written for the Dutch-Belgian ‘market’ of philosophers, hence I don’t think it’s available internationally. But if you read Dutch, I’m happy to send you a copy if you e-mail me directly (


Aeon J. Skoble 09.28.06 at 8:41 am

Norms of Liberty, by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Penn State Press 2005, is important in the manner you suggest, and it’s quite compelling as well.


Chris Bertram 09.28.06 at 8:48 am

I think that Jacob (and Jonathan) are under a misconception about what I was asking for. I wasn’t supposing that, to qualify, a book would have to be as comprehensive in its scope as TJ or ASU. Rather, as I said, the criterion was just that the book would be a “must read” for any self-respecting political philosopher. Non-comprehensive examples from past years would, imho, include Sen’s _Inequality Reexamined_ and Waldron’s _The Dignity of Legislation_ . YMMV, of course.

Binmore … I’ve read _Natural Justice_ and, I’m afraid it doesn’t cut it. The review in the current _Ethics_ has it almost exactly right. Once you’ve gutted the book of KB’s cantankerous comments about philosophers of the past, it is somewhat thin (again imho).


loren 09.28.06 at 9:28 am

To be clear, Chris, I wasn’t meaning to nominate Binmore (or anyone else). I simply believe that a lot more of us in political philosophy/theory should be arguing more pointedly with the likes of Skyrms, Binmore, and Foot (Natural Goodness), and that such argument will yield interesting results. With Harry, Jacob, Jonathan, Ben and Vivan (did I miss anyone?) I’m somewhat sceptical of the task you’ve set out for us, for all the reasons they’ve offered: important work doesn’t seem to cluster nicely around the center of the field; it isn’t obvious that there is (ever was?) a substantive center of the field (and that may be a good thing); and even if there are defensible criteria to establish ‘must read’ status for all or most card-carrying political philosophers, the importance of articles and books generally takes a good long while to become clear. That said, I love this genre of CT posts because they let us swap reading recommendations and argue about them, point each other to cool stuff going on in various corners of the field, and generally hammer out who we are and what we do as political theorists and/or philosophers.


djw 09.28.06 at 11:41 am

I thought we were all supposed to read Law and Disagreement, and The Dignity of Legislation was more optional and supplementary, being a more sort of lecturized version of Part I of Law and Disagreement. Am I wrong?


Ben 09.28.06 at 1:50 pm

I’d like to second DJW (#34)

I thought I had to read Dignity of Legislation, until a friend told me he didn’t find it so interesting. (Maybe he meant in relation to our over-lapping thesis areas, rather than generally)

Which Waldron book should we read?


Chris Bertram 09.28.06 at 2:12 pm

Well I think you ought to read both, and that they are complementary rather than one being the baby version of the other. There’s more history of philosophy in DoL whereas LaD is aimed at the lawyers.


Thom Brooks 09.29.06 at 4:53 am

In addition to the Buchanan and Nussbaum suggestions above, I would add one more:

Catharine A. MacKinnon, Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws. Belknap/Harvard UP, 2005. (A terrific read)

I would also think Lacey’s biography of Hart a must read, too.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 09.29.06 at 9:31 am


Re: MacKinnon, I agree: It was in my list above.



Carl 09.30.06 at 2:33 pm

Thom and Patrick mentioned MacKinnon’s “Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws”. MacKinnon also has a newer book out, that is also terrific and is called “Are Women Human?” I strongly recommend it as well.


Carl 09.30.06 at 2:40 pm

I forgot to add that “Are Women Human?” is published by Harvard University Press, 2006.


wmr 09.30.06 at 11:44 pm

What is the full title of ASU?


djw 10.01.06 at 11:17 am

Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Also, it’s not that good. Indeed, there are several other broadly libertarian political theory books in recent decades that are better, but Nozick was temporally and professionally situated to write the big book.


Jacob T. Levy 10.01.06 at 1:23 pm

I think that Jacob (and Jonathan) are under a misconception about what I was asking for. I wasn’t supposing that, to qualify, a book would have to be as comprehensive in its scope as TJ or ASU. Rather, as I said, the criterion was just that the book would be a “must read” for any self-respecting political philosopher.

Ah. Since the story started with a sociologist asking hwat he should read, I thought the idea was “political philosophy books that are must-reads across the human sciences,” not “political philosophy books that are must-reads in political philosophy.” For the latter, I certainly think Schmidtz and Nussbaum both meet the bar, to name two of the 2005-06 book that have been discussed.

(I also think that, while _Law and Disagreement_ and _Dignity of Legislation_ are an important complementary pair and people ought to read them both, those who are only going to read one should read the former.)


Chris Bertram 10.01.06 at 1:52 pm

ASU “not that good”??

Well I take it that you think that there are other books of libertarian political philosophy that are somehow more complete, make fewer mistakes, provide arguments for their main premises etc. All true no doubt. But no-one ever died of boredom reading Nozick, he had a talent for vivid and compelling parables and examples, and a acute sense of the dialectic. Those other books (I’m thinking Lomasky for example) … zzzzzzzzzzzz.


micah schwartzman 10.01.06 at 3:50 pm

Combining (32) and (33), perhaps it would help to expand the timeline? Must-reads for political philosophers (or, alternatively, for those in related fields) over the last ten years might be a more interesting category. It’s probably not as long a list as one might think. This might be good for another post, just to keep the ball rolling.


djw 10.01.06 at 6:13 pm

Chris, I more or less agree, but of course part of the reason ASU isn’t boring is because you’re too busy being driven mad by bad and misused analogies, astonishing gaps in logic, etc etc.

Lomasky’s book is, frankly, better. As is Schmidtz, and Tomasi. And they’re not *that* boring.


Thom Brooks 10.02.06 at 8:43 am

One question we haven’t discussed is whether the last two years or less has produced the next TJ or ASU is the right timeframe. Would the last five years be better….?


harry b 10.02.06 at 8:54 am

Have to agree with djw, almost exactly, about ASU versus Lomasky. Sure, Nozick is great, and I can see why everyone reads him, but I find it incredibly irritating to read stuff that is so clever but so half-baked at the same time. I’m sure Loren Lomasky doesn’t think he’s as good a philosopher as Nozick is, and he’s not, but his book is a much better defence of libertarianism, one that is far more careful, truly engaged with the compelling reasons people have for rejecting libertarianism, etc. Sure, I’m an anti-libertarian, so maybe I don’t count, but, well, its a book that deserves much more attention and a much bigger audience.

Talking of which, Schmidtz’s first book, which came and went like a flash, is super, too.


djw 10.02.06 at 10:57 am

Harry, I think it was you who got me to read Lomansky in the first place, which I should thank you for. I certainly never heard boo about him in my graduate education. Perhaps that’s because his book is squarely on the philosophy side of the philosophy/political science divide in political theory, whereas Nozick is an acknowledged shared text. Which is something that, someday, deserves it’s own thread. What makes for a “shared text” amongst political theorists and political philosophers. Is it a particular set of intellectual qualities, or are other factors determinant?


djw 10.02.06 at 10:58 am

He’s so underappreciated I apparently can’t spell his name correctly…

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