Methods in political theory/philosophy bleg

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 4, 2007

Yesterday evening, at the editorial meeting of the Dutch philosophy journal Filosofie en Praktijk (Philosophy and practice), we had a discussion about what methods are used in political philosophy. One editor mentioned that he is doing quite a bit of refereeing for the National Science Foundation, and that many political philosophy research proposals are quite vague on the methods that they’ll use. There is often some reference to ‘reflective equilibrium’, he said, but is that really all we do? Similarly, I noted that the “ECPR’s”: Summer school on Methods and Techniques this year had no “courses on offer”: on methods in political theory. And I know of several political science departments where the traditional ‘methodologies’ course includes all sorts of fancy quantitative and qualitative methods, but no political theory methods.

So do political theorists and philosophers have no methods? Of course not. But perhaps we are not so explicit about them than the empirical sciences or the theoretical disciplines that use methods such as game theory or formal modeling. I don’t doubt that we do use methods, but perhaps they are more implicit in our work. I have to confess that I’ve found it harder than I liked to answer colleagues who asked me what precisely our methods are (in fact – it’s not just colleagues – Last year when I had a 45 minutes interview with the Dutch National Science Foundation for the VIDI-grant competition, the only question I got was about the methods I would use in my political theory research).

So I’d like to ask two questions: What are the methods of political theorists and philosophers? And is there a good book or set of articles on “methods and techniques in political theory and philosophy” ? Or should we simply apply what is written in a good textbook on analytical philosophy?

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09.05.07 at 12:23 pm



Ryan Lanham 09.04.07 at 8:19 pm

I assume the purpose of method is…reproduction of results? Or is it meant to be rigor? How does method induce rigor? What is the method of a mathematician? A poet?

The legitimacy of some outcomes are found in their consumption…not in their means of performance. Science seeks confirmation. Political theorists need no such mark to be notable or sound.

It seems to me what you want to ask is…how can a political theory be legitimate? Doesn’t that necessarily come with both practical and analytical vetting?


Matt 09.04.07 at 8:27 pm

Do you mean methods other than reading a bunch of stuff and thinking hard? That doesn’t sound very exciting but isn’t it more or less the method of philosophy in general? I suppose saying that won’t help get grants, but it does seem the method of philosophy for the most part. (Some of it, of course, can then be tested against bits of evidence, but often not too easily.)


Tom S. 09.04.07 at 8:31 pm

Ryan – as a die-hard Popperian, I must say scientists seek falsification–at least they should.


jayann 09.04.07 at 8:32 pm

Interesting. There are certainly methods in (approaches to) the history of thought, and Googling vaguely along those lines I found this:

but it’s all that comes to mind. Yet surely the ESRC’s insistence on research training will have produced some formalization of ‘method/s’?


jayann 09.04.07 at 8:34 pm

oh sorry, I mean this — I went to the staff page to see whether any non-historians were teaching it


Juan 09.04.07 at 8:58 pm

I’m with Matt: eat a light lunch, read, talk to smart people who know about the subject–stuff like that. To me, anything else is posturing for the sake of convincing non-philosophers that they should give you money.


Sam C 09.04.07 at 11:22 pm

I’m with Matt and Juan. My method, such as it is: read; talk to interesting people; think; write; think more; rewrite. Philosophy is perhaps primitively close to just ordinary thinking; it hasn’t really got as far as having formal methods. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.


aaron_m 09.04.07 at 11:30 pm

When people ask for a method they are usually asking for a scientific method or something that attempts as far as possible to resemble the scientific method. They are asking for a set of steps one takes to answer a question or resolve a problem in a way the will, if done well, garner wide support for the conclusions among those in the field.

Philosophy is about addressing questions for which there is not any obvious way to go about arriving at an answer that will garner wide support. Philosophy is concerned with questions for which we do not have any obvious criteria for knowing when we have arrived at a theory that ought clearly to be accepted by the field, or even if it makes sense to think that there is a correct answer to the question at hand.

Philosophical questions are questions where is does not appear to use that empirical evidence or logic alone can tell us the core of what we want to know. We can understand something important about doing philosophy is we notice that sometimes the inadequacy of empirical evidence for some question is simply appearance and not fact. It is only a philosophical problem for us because we do not know enough empirically.

I saw an interview with John Searle who noted in this regard that the question of how the inanimate matter that makes up our bodies (i.e. the basic building blocks) can amount to life used to be a central question in philosophy. Now it is not considered a philosophical question because we have enough empirical knowledge to identify a detailed scientific method for answering this question in a way that provides convincing answers that can be confirmed by others simply by applying the method.

Obviously empirical evidence and logic play a large role in what philosophers do, and there are of course ways of doing political philosophy. We begin with a set of pretty basic moral premises and draw out implications within some limited problem area, appealing to logic and empirical evidence to varying degrees as we go about it. But the people that are asking you the question about method will not be impressed by this kind of answer and will wrongly feel that their assumptions about the inferiority of philosophy are confirmed. What they need to hear is the above explanation and to be confronted with some pretty good examples of issues where they think there should be a right and wrong answer but where it is clear to them that empirical evidence could not decide the matter one way or another.

P.S. A lot of philosophy is not very good or careful so arguments can be attacked purely at the level of logical error. This does not mean that philosophy is only about premise/logic.


Josh R. 09.04.07 at 11:36 pm

To mirror Jayan: I suppose it depends on what type of work you’re doing in political phil/theory. If you’re doing history of political thought, then you might be a Straussian (read the great works closely, look for between the line readings, etc etc) or maybe you’re down with Skinner, et al, and are all about diving into the period of the writer/s in question and providing context context context all in order to suss out meaning.

Some sort of normative theory? Hmmm…


harry b 09.05.07 at 12:12 am

There isn’t a good book on methods in political philosophy or ethics (despite there being an exceelent book called “Methods in Ethics”). I do have a brief discussion of methods in my book Justice (which I know you have), but I basically described what I think people do. I do think the rihgt thing to do is to look at general analytical philosophical methods, all of which are in use by political philosophers. But we also use the methods of applied philosophy. Worth looking at what philosophers of science say about their methods (I don’t know, but some read this, so they can say).


vivian 09.05.07 at 12:59 am

We do have methods, as in steps to follow in the course of producing original work. First, we find interesting questions, from the literature, from our own navels, calls for papers, etc. Then we read what others have written on the subject, looking particularly for careful arguments. Then, if relevant, we look at empirical or historical evidence, from social science or biology or engineering or the like. Next, we engage with these works, forming a carefully reasoned argument in reaction to them and the world. We engage with expert anonymous reviewers and snotty grad students trying to make the argument even more compelling in the face of competition for limited attention. Eventually, most of us realize this last is doomed to failure, and aim instead for wit in the comments on other people’s blogs.



notsneaky 09.05.07 at 3:34 am

Hmmm, this “reflective equilibrium”. How do we know it exists? Or that it is unique?
Really, just wondering, not knowing much about this at all.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.05.07 at 6:00 am

Well, this is really intersting (at least, to me). I am probably myself working like Matt is pointing out. So perhaps I’m wrong and there are no methods after all (in the narrow understanding of methods). Nevertheless I keep wondering whether there isn’t much more implicitely than we realise (sorry guys, this may be boring to you, but I am really interested in figuring out).

If there are no methods, then there really is a problem of applying for grants for political theory work in the social sciences, since in those grant applications methods and methodologies are always a very important part of the proposal. This may not be a problem for many PT scholars (since they have tenured jobs etc.) but for young scholars who increasingly have to create their own jobs through grant writing, this may be a problem. Political theory, or applied political philosophy, may then be insufficiently methodologically supported to be legitimate in the eyes of the other social sciences . Now if you see PT and PPh as falling somewhere in between the social sicences and the humanities (as I do), then a solution would be to direct those grant applications to the humanities councils, but somehow I feel this would be sad for many PT proposals who are in terms of topic and aims very relevant to the social sciences.


Glyn Morgan 09.05.07 at 9:10 am

Political theory includes lots of different approaches from the history of political thought to analytical political philosophy. Here’s one view of, what might be termed, applied political theory and the methods it relies upon.

Applied political theory seeks to tease out and examine the values that inform the policies, institutions, and proposals for their change that shape our political world. Debates about many of the key political issues of our day appeal to values—justice, efficiency, national solidarity, welfare, security, democracy, and so forth. An applied political theory tries to assess the coherence of these values and to identify the institutions and policies that such values support. There is nothing necessarily normative (or prescriptive) about an applied political theory. Nonetheless, an applied political theory takes a normative form when the theorist defends the relative importance of particular values or offers an interpretation of how that value ought to be understood.
What methods does applied political theory employ? At least three: (i) the journalistic method of discovering what arguments and values people actually employ when discussing the issue in question; (ii) the philosophical method of conceptual analysis, logic, and classification (the aim here is to identify the coherence of popular arguments, the trade-offs between different values, and—most importantly—the relevance of empirical information in resolving the arguments that people actually employ); and (iii) the social scientific method of gathering facts, identifying statistical correlations, and figuring out causal mechanisms.


Adam Swift 09.05.07 at 9:58 am

Glyn’s right that a lot of different things get called ‘political theory’. When I teach a course on ‘research methods in political theory’ (Ingrid, I’ll email you the reading list) much of it is about the importance of identifying the kind of question(s) one is asking and being clear about the kind of methods one needs to use to answer that (or those) questions. These vary widely. I’d add to Glyn’s three the further one of the interpretive method of working out exactly what a text is saying and (if you’re interested in that kind of thing) why it’s saying it quite the way it does.

Not helpful just yet, but watch out for a collection forthcoming from Oxford University Press called ‘Political Theory: Methods and Approaches’, edited by David Leopold and Marc Stears. In the UK, universities now have to teach research methods to all politics students, including theorists, so the problem of being explicit about what those methods are (and not just saying ‘reading, thinking and writing’) is one for many of us, not just those applying for grants. This collection is hoping to help.


jayann 09.05.07 at 11:00 am

(I think the people here who don’t find this interesting and seem to be trying to tell you how to do your job — in a way I find rather offensive, frankly — misunderstood your question.)

I decided to look at this another way, by doing a targeted search (to see what politics depts in the UK are teaching their political theory/philosophy graduate students about ‘method’). Obviously some teach the HPT approaches (see my and josh’s comments), I also found this

which indicates to me that your initial assumption’s correct (given that the course resorts to discussion of background assumptions and philosophy of science): there are methods but they’re implicit. HPT (see my and josh’s comments) and empirical political theory (aka applied political theory, I see) are the odd ones out here.

What do you say to a ‘social science’ research board? A project like your justice one surely employs conceptual and empirical analysis so, you find some way of throwing that at them in suitable guise…. (‘guise’/jargon)** — the question is, it strikes me, more difficult for you and pertinent to you than for/to a political philosopher who can shrug their shoulders and apply to humanities councils without being concerned about the issues you raise.

But that’s the practical side, the intellectual question remains.

**I know you’ve already submitted the proposal and got the grant — I see you used ‘reflective equilibrium’.


jayann 09.05.07 at 11:01 am

sorry, adam swift’s comment wasn’t there when I posted mine.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.05.07 at 11:34 am

Jayann, thanks for this – yes, Adam’s comments had to go throught moderation queue first.
I did indeed use ‘reflective equilibirum’, but frankly, I have found the methods parts of grant application writing the most difficult part, precisely because I experience the methods we use as rather implicit. And the fact that at the interview of my VIDI-grant application the panel members (all social scientists) only questioned my proposal on the methods, was (yet another) clear sign to me that social scientist do wonder whether political theorists use any methods, and what they are. If you read articles or research proposals by other social science disciplines, the methods parts is often very important, and indeed sometimes even the part where the innovative character of the research can be found.

I would very warmly welcome explicity discussion of the methods that political theorists and philosophers use, and the forthcoming book that Adam mentions seems to be a very useful contribution to that debate.


Ben Alpers 09.05.07 at 1:15 pm

Ingrid’s question interests me for a peculiar reason. I’m an intellectual historian working on a history of Leo Strauss and Straussian political theorists in American academic and political life.

As everyone knows (or perhaps that should be “knows”) one of the distinguishing characteristics of Strauss (and his intellectual followers) is a method of reading texts that flows from Strauss’s theory of esotericism.

I take it that most non-Straussian political theorists find the Straussian method of reading texts in political philosophy to be tendentious. But are there other, similarly articulated methods of reading that are popular among contemporary political theorists? Or is Strauss’s very act of articulating how to read a text in political philosophy itself unusual?

(Apologies in advance for any infelicities that result from my intruding on this conversation as a very interested outsider.)

(OT: I do hope you give us that promised follow-up post on Belgium!)


Ingrid Robeyns 09.05.07 at 2:18 pm

Ben, yes Belgium II wil follow, but it’s likely not going to be before Sunday…


jayann 09.05.07 at 3:00 pm

Ingrid, thanks. I wasn’t complaining about Adam’s post getting there first… I’d delayed mine anyway, pondering the wording (and toning down my annoyance).
There are I suppose two separate questions here (I say cynically) one, whether there are ‘political theory methods’ (I’d love chapter headings for the Leopold/Stears book, I’m inclined to snoop around and try to get them), and what to say in applications to ‘social science’ research boards. (I do think your work should be funded by social science boards.) The first interests me more. I see a gap between ’empirical political theory’ and HPT, within which, ‘methods’ apparently don’t exist…

(There’s also the ‘approaches’/’methods’ problem.

Ben, Straussians, yes (I’d thought of Oakeshottians, more immediate to me). I don’t know the answer to your question. Something’s telling me there are other such approaches/methods, though.


Peter 09.05.07 at 4:12 pm

The issue of having to describe research methods in funding proposals is always annoying to mathematicians. If a pure mathematician knew what method would work to prove a conjecture, he or she would have already used it, thus proving (or disproving) the conjecture, and therefore not needing the research funding. Which situation, of course, leads to good mathematicians making proposals for research they have already done but not yet published . . . .


josh 09.05.07 at 5:01 pm

With regard to the history of political thought, as opposed to … well, everything else: it is perhaps true that there’s less explicit talk about ‘method’ than in other areas of political theory/philosophy; this may be because historians of political thought are generally further removed from the intellectual culture of the social sciences, where, as noted, one is more likely to find a great deal of emphasis on methods. Still, most historians of political thought DO think about what exactly it is we’re doing, and how to go about it. It’s conventional to distinguish between two very broad camps: textualist and contextualist. Among those who adopt a ‘textualist’ approach, the Straussians are indeed the most notable — perhaps because they’re the most forceful and, well, colourfull in their advocacy and practice of a particular method. But there are other textualist approaches, which share the common feature of paying very close attention to the text (‘close reading’). Two very different ones which come immediately to mind are approaches influenced by literary theory, such as deconstruction; and approaches influenced by anayltical philosophy — the sort of analytical reconstruction practiced by figures such as Plamenatz. Among ‘contextualist’ approaches, the most prominent these days is the ‘Cambridge School’ approach of linguistic contextualism (and given how much has been written on ‘method’ in the history of political thought by the Cambridge School’s major figures — most of all Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, of course — I think it’s untenable to say that historians of political thought don’t talk about method or aren’t methodologically self-conscious; just look at the first volume of Skinner’s collected papers, which is called ‘Regarding Method’!) Less fashionable these days is social-economic contextualism, the best known variant of which is Marxism, though there are still some exponents of that.
Of course, there are then many historians of political thought who adopt textualist or contextualist approaches that don’t adhere strictly to any of these schools; as well as those who combine textual and contextual work, either altering their approach depending on the particular project, or trying to synthesize close reading and attention to context in a single work.
(Of course, the labels I’ve used are somewhat deceptive, in that all work on the HPT is ultimately ‘textualist’ in the sense that it relies on texts. And most readings involve setting the text in some sort of context, though not necessarily the immediatehisotircal context within which the work was written. Still, these are the distinctions — or battle-lines — that are, I think, conventionally drawn.)


noaman 09.05.07 at 5:13 pm

Marxist dialectical materialism/historical materialism (e.g., Fredric Jameson, David Harvey), or Spinozan materialism (Deleuze).


C S 09.05.07 at 5:35 pm

I’m interested in this question as well (though I’m a philosopher of science not a political philosopher), since I sometimes get criticisms of my grant applications as having “insufficiently clear methodology”. I try to give the honest answer (what Juan and Matt say above) which in many cases is just to “think hard about the problem”. Not surprisingly, even general (humanities plus social science) granting agencies are often not happy with that answer.

Now, in some cases I can say (because of the nature of the problem) that I’m going to use decision or game theory, or talk about Bayesian epistemology, etc. – In these cases they don’t complain about the methodology. But I feel like this means that I can only apply for grants for certain kinds of work as a result – and it isn’t clear that this is the most important kind of work.

Sometimes I’ve thought of including a note in the methodology section along the lines of what aaron_m says – explaining why there is no simple way to describe the methodology in precise terms – but I figure if I do it might kill the application right there.

History of science is a bit different – it is easier to talk about methodology and there are courses taught in HPS programs (and of course history ones) on how to do archival work, how to think about philosophy of history, etc.

I don’t know if this is relevant, but one lesson from doing history and philosophy of science is that scientists are often not very good at describing their own methods (e.g., they think they’re following Popper when they’re not)- of course, at a finer, less abstract grain they do perfectly well (I’ll use this statistical package, etc.) Similarly, I don’t think philosophers are often very good about understanding their own methods, either. So I’d be interested to see and hear more about how political philosophers discuss methodology.


Sam C 09.05.07 at 6:26 pm

A further thought: is the problem partly that, for political philosophers at least (as opposed to historians of ideas), methods are always part of what’s in question? To pick an example close to my heart, a large part of book 1 of Leviathan is a defence of a particular, naturalistic and analytic way of doing philosophy. Maybe there is no ‘normal philosophy’ in the Kuhnian sense. I’m struck by the similarity to Peter’s description of the frustrations of mathematicians.


jayann 09.05.07 at 6:27 pm

josh, actually, I said that there were different approaches in HPT and also courses were taught on that, whereas in non-HPT (’empirical PT’ excluded) that isn’t so (there aren’t perceived to be different approaches or if there are, courses aren’t taughton them) insofar as I can tell. (And another commenter elaborated, and another talked about Straussians… .) So, well, I don’t quite know where you’re coming from.

noaman I thought of that but wasn’t sure how it related to the issue of methods in political theory (Marxist scholars in political theory don’t necessarily employ a different set of methods, any more than Marxist historians do), though I know much depends on the meaning of ‘method’.


Gidon 09.05.07 at 7:20 pm

I faced precisely the textbook problem when recently updating our undergraduate politics methods course. The best I could find (currently published) is Andrew Vincent (ed) Political Theory: Tradition and diversity. This has essays on methods in both the history of political thought and analytical political theory – and some thoughts on the relationship between them. However, using it as a textbook could be problematic as it is rather unsystematic in its coverage. I have yet to find out what our students will make of it.


ben saunders 09.05.07 at 9:00 pm

On a personal level, I’m quite happy to be relatively unreflective – political theory is just something I do, mostly (as others have said) by reading, thinking and discussing. As I near completion of my PhD, however, I am increasingly concerned by the issue at a more pragmatic level. (Even though part of me says I should just avoid anyone even asking about my methodology…)

Thinking back to the start of grad school, I remember sitting through some rather general ‘methods courses’ that struck most of the students as a token effort to meet government criteria. Us theorists were suitably happy that we didn’t have to do the stats course – we ended up taking a class in analytic moral philosophy, and calling it ‘methods’ – which only served to show a lack of distinction between thinking about the methods and actually doing the philosophy.

In so far as we are/were exposed to different approaches, I’m not sure whether they really qualify as different methods of doing some single thing called ‘political theory’ or are actually totally different pursuits all lumped under that general umbrella. G. A. Cohen, for example, is clearly engaged in conceptual and normative philosophy, while Michael Freeden spends his time engaged with historical sources, contexts, and ideological frameworks. I find it hard to see whether these two approaches are different methodologies or doing totally different things…


Colin Farrelly 09.05.07 at 10:15 pm

Hi Ben (above),

You wrote: “On a personal level, I’m quite happy to be relatively unreflective – political theory is just something I do, mostly (as others have said) by reading, thinking and discussing.”

My own stance is the opposite. On a personal level, I have become very unhappy with being relatively unreflective (which I admit I was for a number of years). Of course much really depends on who we are reading, thinking and discussing these issues with (i.e. only with like-minded theorists who don’t worry about these issues, or those in other disciplines, etc.)

For many years I just went along with the flow and didn’t really invest much thought into the question of what the purpose of normative theory is, or what constitutes success or failure in normative theory. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that “free-floating” like this ran counter to what I (have now come to) think the discipline is suppose to do: namely, help us diagnosis social ills and lead us to sage prescriptions for transforming the status quo into something that is more humane and fair. So I am really dissatisfied with what I see as the overtly idealized, unreflective and insular nature of the discipline.



Jay 09.06.07 at 12:01 am

It seems to me that many of the methods in use in the social sciences are by nature statistical; they attempt to find an answer from polling or from data aggregated from many transactions. These methods work well when studying a large number of roughly-equal actors, such as clothes shoppers or teenagers in Alabama.

There are a relatively small number of nations in the world, and they have great variety across many dimensions [area, population, wealth, neighbors, climate, resources, geography, technology, history, culture (itself many dimensions)]. It isn’t surprising that the sorts of methods favored in other social sciences can’t be well applied to political science.


josh 09.06.07 at 2:09 am

Sorry — I was basing the starting-point of my remarks on your statement “HPT, within which, ‘methods’ apparently don’t exist…”. This seemed strangely out of step with your earlier statements; no doubt I misread it. Anyway, I didn’t mean my comment as a criticism of anything you’d said; merely a somewhat more detailed statement of some of the different approaches to HPT, and the methods associated with each.
On a wholly different note: I should have noted, in my comment, that I was starting with the assumption that historians of political thought are primarilly concerned with providing an account of the intentions, or genesis, behind works of political theory, or the meaning intrinsic in those texts. There are of course other approaches to the history of political thought, which are concerned with different goals — reviving forgotten alternatives to current thinking about political theory, or tracing the origins and development of these contemporary ways of thinking, or drawing out a perspective on politics that draws on historical works of political thought, but goes beyond the intentions of the author or the precise propositions contained in the text. So far as I can tell, scholars who pursue these goals very often use the same contextualist or textualist methods mentioned above, though often more ‘loosely’.


aaron_m 09.06.07 at 7:42 am

33 comments in, still nothing resembling a specific description of normative theory methods, and Colin that seems to think that the implication of not seeing the methods question as central to political theory amounts to a lack of interest or understanding in the field on the “purposes of normative theory.”

Obviously it does not follow that because political theory lacks methods of the character we find in empirical sciences that we also fail to demonstrate a purpose to our field. In fact the methods in empirical science do not tell us anything about their purpose either.

As for the method problem generally, maybe we should be a bit more pragmatic about what we are after here.

1. We want something quick and reassuring for grant committees. I have a hard time believing that “reflective equilibrium” can do the job (especially given that Rawls does not appear to actually use the “method” himself).

How about something written to be method sounding that focuses on how to go about analytic reasoning and/or critical reflection. Of course these skills are needed in any academic effort, but because the philosopher relies on them much more in the absence of systematic methods like those found in empirical sciences its seems appropriate to claim them as our methods.

Some philosopher must have written an uncomplicated yet impressive one/two pager along these lines at some point. No?

2. For teaching the problem seems to me more difficult. The link above to a course in political theory method is telling.

“In the third part, students will be introduced to methodological issues that are specific to moral and political theorizing, such as basic meta-ethics, the nature of values and norms, the controversies between universalism and relativism, the idea of reflective equilibrium, and the role of political theory and its connection to the rest of political science.”

Does not sound like instruction on how to go about doing political theory but rather simply doing political theory. Learning by doing is the only way I have been taught ‘how to do political theory,’ and that works well but I would have benefited from explanatory analysis of the process as well.

I have also been introduced to tools that I then learned to use by trial an error, such as game theory. Hear it seems to me that there should be more in the way of pedagogical work for students spelling out how to use such tools for addressing different kinds of problems political theorists address and the limits of such tools (maybe there are lots of such works out there and I have just not had the benefit of being introduced to them).


chris armstrong 09.06.07 at 9:30 am

The Leopold and Stears collection (Political Theory: Methods and Approaches, edited by David Leopold and Marc Stears) will contain articles by Michael Freeden, David Miller, Adam Swift, Elizabeth Frazer, Mark Philp, Lois McNay, and others. Leopold’s webpage says it’s scheduled for 2007, but neither the OUP website nor Amazon mention it yet, so 2008 seems more likely.


ben saunders 09.06.07 at 11:46 am

It indeed says 2008 on Marc Stears’ page.


Thom Brooks 09.06.07 at 12:06 pm

Is the answer to the question “what methods do political philosophers use?” simply “logic with a touch of intuition and commonsense”?

It is quite right—as Adam Swift notes—that in the UK we must give instruction on methodology to theory students which always makes me deeply uneasy. My approach is to have students read Plato’s Crito and reflect on whether or not they were convinced by Socrates and why (not–as most are not). This at least gets students reflecting more on how to persuade others with a convincing case, surely the end game of what we do.


jayann 09.06.07 at 12:50 pm

I see now, josh; I wrote that badly. “Apparently…’ refers to ‘the gap’, to forms of theory other than HPT/EPT).

aaron_m yes, I think this is in large part a practical question, and arises because of the demands of research granting boards and, in the UK, the boards’ insistence on the teaching of ‘methods’. I do though think there are interesting intellectual questions here too.

such as game theory.

I wouldn’t have called that a ‘method’ but I see what you mean.

Chris thanks for the author list, clearly this is going to be an ‘approaches’ book. So, back to square one… .


jayann 09.06.07 at 12:59 pm

in the UK we must give instruction on methodology to theory students which always makes me deeply uneasy

It stems from the ESRC’s research training thing, of course (I thought it applied only to ESRC recognition, but of course departments want/need that), and a one-approach-fits-all ethos; and it seems to have got worse (the ESRC is now going on about transferable skills).

I do think methods courses and approaches courses and research training are desirable, but I also understand your unease.


noaman 09.06.07 at 2:13 pm

jayann, I think I see what you mean. I think you’re trying to distinguish between a ‘theory’ (game theory, diamat, etc.) and a ‘method’.

But I’m not sure what you mean by method — something that can be replicated and falsified on its own rather than as part of a general theory? For instance, in physical sciences, measuring the mass of an object is a method — it’s something that can be replicated and falsifiable on its own. This, I fear, is grossly simplifying what you’re trying to get across.


jayann 09.06.07 at 6:44 pm

(First, I didn’t mean to slight the book contributors, I just think they’re likely to write about ‘approaches’ rather than ‘methods’.)

noaman I am trying to distinguish between an approach and a method, but with a certain difficulty! — I’m not at all sure I can do it. Game theory I’d call, in this context, the game theoretic/al approach, so I’d prefer a different example.

For instance, in physical sciences, measuring the mass of an object is a method—it’s something that can be replicated and falsifiable on its own.

meauring the mass is a method, yes (but I hadn’t thought of that way of explaining why it’s a method) and a survey is a method (an application of a method), but (I’d say) ‘game theory’ is an approach. I suppose I’m saying a method’s a simple tool of analysis, an approach is more overarching. A theory, I’ve never been good at defining theories, I tend to avoid its formal definition/s.


David Leopold 09.07.07 at 10:01 am

The Leopold/Stears collection should appear mid-2008 (published by OUP). The title is still under discussion!

It will include essays by Daniel McDermott on analytical political philosophy; David Miller on the relation between facts and principles in political theory; Adam Swift and Stuart White on some of the connections between political theory and ‘real politics’; Iwao Hirose on formal theory and political theory; Lois McNay on political theory and critical social theory; David Leopold on dialectical approaches; Mark Philp on the history of political thought and political theory; Sudhir Hazareesingh and Karma Nabulsi on the joys of archival work; Elizabeth Frazer on the boundaries of the political; and Michael Freeden on ideology and thinking politically.

The book is aimed at first year graduates in political theory (assuming readers who are clever but not assuming much previous experience of political theory).


ashok 09.07.07 at 11:53 am

I confess beforehand that all of the discussion above goes over my head, and I apologize if I say something very foolish in the remarks below.

I do think I had better say something, though. Political theory and philosophy is technically the field I study.

I was thinking before this thread that I would only submit grant applications in the humanities. Now I’m not so sure. Harvey Mansfield, who is as Straussian as one can get, has argued that political philosophy was prior to political science and that the latter grew out of attempts to end political philosophy. Instead of people debating about the nature of good and using various metaphors, people could be looked at as more predictable than deliberative and the question of what is good for all could be recast in terms of preferences.

Whether one agrees with the story above or not isn’t crucial to my point. What I think is that the mere possibility that the story could be true means that political science could be entirely defined by method and political theory could be defined as a critique of method. I think someone doing work on voting rights in developing countries or changing notions about gender in Africa could very easily be said to be critiquing method even as they employ particular approaches that also need to be explained and scrutinized.

The suggestion I’m making is this: if you look at yourself, when proposing a task, as critiquing the current state of knowledge, you don’t need to be explicit about your own methods necessarily. More important is to ask how the current state of knowledge was established, explain and analyze that method, and then move into criticisms.

I think the suggestion in #13 that political theory does sit between the humanities and social sciences and should be viewed thus is invaluable. I like to think of my work as purely in the humanities. But I know that’s a lie I’ve made up not to deal with social scientists – the truth is that any question I find myself pondering and working through literature or philosophy to explore always has something to say about the current state of research in another field, and whether that research is directed well or not.

It might be because I’m arrogant that I feel my thought has broad appeal. But if someone who is more thoughtful than I am can pick up this argument and salvage it, I might have actually contributed something here.


pol theory grad student 09.07.07 at 10:13 pm

wait, the conversation has really gone on this long without someone bringing up, oh, I don’t know…Gadamer’s Truth & Method? Am I going to have to be the person/strawman who explicitly argues that the whole idea of “method” is slightly inappropriate to this domain?


josh 09.08.07 at 2:43 am

(My fellow) Pol Theory Grad Student: I think it would be an excellent thing if you argued that the idea of method is inappropriate to this domain. Please do go ahead and do so.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.08.07 at 6:14 am

precisly. Thanks, josh.

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