Social and political philosophers with admirable writing styles

by Harry on January 9, 2022

A student asks: Who are some philosophers doing work in social and political philosophy whose writing style you admire?

I have some preferences — names that came to the top of my head immediately, for different reasons, were: Alex Guerrero, Brian Barry (sometimes), Debra Satz, Seana Schiffrin, Tommie Shelby, and, actually, all the political philosophers here. Personally I only occasionally admire the writing of people whose work I don’t think is very good, and would always flag that I am recommending only for the style not the content. (My student knows that my judgment of whether work is good isn’t much affected by whether I agree with it). But, I’m curious how other people here would answer the question. And why.



LFC 01.09.22 at 6:30 pm

Should open w the caveat that I don’t read a lot of social and political philosophy these days, and I don’t read the relevant academic journals (though I used to occasionally), so others are better placed than I am to answer this. However, I recall reading a long time ago Benjamin Barber’s 1988 collection The Conquest of Politics and thinking it was well written. But if your student’s question is limited to living political philosophers writing currently, then this doesn’t fall in that category. (But you mentioned Brian Barry, who is no longer alive, so the criteria here are somewhat unclear.) G.A. Cohen, also deceased, wrote well, at least on the evidence of If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, though I didn’t necessarily agree with a good deal of what he said. I haven’t read (the late) Charles Mills, but I would like to at some point.

In the category of living people, Walzer is almost always lucid and readable, though I certainly don’t always agree with him (in recent years my ratio of agreement with him has gone down quite a bit). Sandel (though I haven’t read a lot of him) usually writes well (again, I don’t necessarily agree with the substance). I think some of T. Pogge’s work is clear and accessible. Ditto Charles Beitz (e.g., his first book, Political Theory
and International Relations
). Nancy Rosenblum’s Good Neighbors (2018) is well written, though its subject is not something that might appeal to everyone. (I haven’t read her book on political parties, which I think got more attention.)

Then there is political philosophy worth reading even if the style is nothing to write home about, but that would definitely be off-topic.


grymes 01.09.22 at 7:07 pm

AJ Julius and Olufemi O Taiwo pop immediately to mind, though I wouldn’t advise mimicking the former.


Eamonn Callan 01.09.22 at 8:11 pm

In addition to the those already suggested, I would add David Miller, and from an earlier generation, Joel Feinberg and HLA Hart. I think students also need to know that philosophical writing that displays some conspicuous writerly virtues can be poor philosophy. In very different ways, Berlin and Nozick fit that profile.


Chris Bertram 01.09.22 at 8:29 pm

Jeremy Waldron is always a joy to read, I find. Joe Carens is very very clear, and I like Chandran Kukathas’s style very much.


Matt 01.09.22 at 8:36 pm

With the qualification that I’ve only read his work on immigration and refugees, and not his work on Nietzsche or Foucault, I’d mention David Owen (from Southampton – philosophy is rich in David Owens). His writing is clear, logically presented, and pleasant to read. It’s also appropriately forceful w/o becoming overly rhetorical – something that lots of writers fail at. Another who fits much of that same description is Joe Heath. I also almost always enjoy reading Jon Elster’s writing (perhaps especially impressive since English isn’t his native language) but I do sometimes feel like the prose is carrying me along a bit too fast for the argument, something which is perhaps not a virtue in a philosopher.


Bill Edmundson 01.09.22 at 9:37 pm

I enjoy Raymond Geuss’s writing. for its style. Michael Otsuka writes well.


Fergus 01.09.22 at 10:08 pm

Interesting question – I can think of some whose writing style is ‘admirable’ in that it’s extremely clear, doesn’t hide anything, puts the best foot of the argument forward – that is, admirable political philosophy writing. Cecile Fabre and Simon Caney come to mind.

But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading their writing to someone who wasn’t already engaged with academic political philosophy. For that I’d probably only say Joseph Carens and Brian Barry – I regularly recommend The Ethics of Immigration to non-philosophers. Though in some ways that’s not really a question of writing style, as much as the choice of approach – there’s a lot more discussion of real world examples and practical implications, which is not exactly about aesthetic style.


Seekonk 01.09.22 at 10:39 pm

I know he’s in the old-timer’s category, but Karl Marx was a pretty fair wordsmith, e.g.:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”


Alan White 01.09.22 at 11:01 pm

Surely Robert Paul Wolff deserves mention.


alfredlordbleep 01.09.22 at 11:04 pm

Off the top—Ronald Dworkin and Barbara Fried.


Harry 01.10.22 at 12:50 am

grymes (@2). Agreed. AJ’s a wonderful and un-imitable, stylist. Very pleased to say that I wrote something with him when he was 20, which, presumably, is google-able. He hadn’t yet reached his stylistic peak, but I learned a lot about writing from doing it.


J. Bogart 01.10.22 at 8:31 am

S.A. Lloyd
Sabina Lovibond
Edna Ullman-Margalit


Sam 01.10.22 at 2:11 pm

Seconding Robert Paul Wolff at the top of my list.

Also a fan of Justine LaCroix (at least her Tocqueville21 stuff, haven’t read her books).

John Marenbon works more on history of philosophy but his work on medieval philosophers very much fits this, I seek it out mostly because I know it’ll be the most fun thing to read about medieval philosophy.

Moira Weigel, although that one might be more that I agree with the content.


Adam Swift 01.10.22 at 4:45 pm

G.A. Cohen is top for me. Brian Barry when he’s not being too dyspeptic. Robert Nozick. Ronald Dworkin. Marx for sure. Much the same same old DWM pantheon I’m afraid. (No Rawls, though even he has his moments.)

I agree with Matt @5 that some write almost too fluently, so that the prose smooths over the cracks. Sandel, Walzer and, sometimes and much less so, Elizabeth Anderson, can be like that for me on some readings.

As a graduate student I fell under the malign (as I now think) stylistic spells of John Dunn and Stanley Cavell. My supervisor, John Goldthorpe, described my efforts as a variant of ‘PPE flash’. Took me a while to recover (from the spells, not the description), helped by collaboration which continues to exercise its moderating effects, for better or worse.


SusanC 01.10.22 at 5:27 pm

Does the Marquis de Sade count?

(He’s clearly a social and political philospher. Opinions may very on his prose style).


alfredlordbleep 01.10.22 at 9:42 pm


Tiresomely, in common with
I read French
haltingly at best.
You’ll have to opine (if you’re not
wholesomely tongue in cheek)


Tom Hurka 01.11.22 at 2:30 pm

Agree with Adam @14 about too-smooth prose, but re Rawls: wasn’t one of his influences to make writing in political philosophy worse, i.e. more turgid, more vaguely abstract? Of course he may have just been transmitting the virus from Kant.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.11.22 at 7:43 pm

I generally do not admire very technical writing, whatever the epistemic virtues such a piece would have. It also tends to come with a set of methodological commitments that I reject (not reject in general, but rather reject as the type of philosophy I prefer to do myself). So, not surprisingly I suppose, I like the style of writing of philosophers such as Debra Satz, Elizabeth Anderson, Jo Wolff, Henry Shue (who just has a new book out), Philippe Van Parijs, Martha Nussbaum, Joe heath, and Bob Goodin – to mention only some of the better-known names.

Some other names mentioned in this thread are either too technical/dense for my taste (it might perhaps then be easier to read it formalized, as proper maths), or else they are bending over too much to rethorics (but then some are mainly writing public philosopher rather than academic philosophy, and I suppose those genres should be judged by different standards…?)


Jim Harrison 01.11.22 at 8:11 pm

Many sociologists seem to cultivate dullness and turgor as stylistic choices. Talcott Parsons had a monster writing block problem, but Comte, Halbwachs, Bourdieu, and many others don’t have that excuse. Perhaps for them, writing badly was a way of demonstrating they were scientists, not entertainers. I guess that makes reading them an exercise in asceticism.

There was an ancient critic who asserted that the two basic ways of writing well were to say something complicated in a simple way or to say something simple in a complicated way. Maybe in the modern version there are two ways of communicating ideas about society: you can convey something obvious in a sensational way or you can convey something very surprising in a sleep-inducing way. Unfortunately, many social scientists synthesize these alternatives by describing the obvious in the style of a financial accounting textbook.


John Quiggin 01.12.22 at 12:45 am

Ingrid @18 “it might perhaps then be easier to read it formalized, as proper maths”

I find this a lot interacting with philosophers who work on decision theory and epistemology. There are lots of terms like “credences”, which seem as if they are like probabilities, but not quite the same. It’s much easier to understand when the math is laid out explicitly.


SusanC 01.12.22 at 1:28 am

There is an argument made somewhere (I forget where) either by Jacques Lacan or one of his followers, that for some types of material the writing style must be incomprehensible, because you wouldn’t be allowed to say it if everyone could understand what you were saying.

Compare: the common practise in nineteenth century works of writing the dirty bits in untranslated Latin (or Greek).

I’m a bit skeptical of Lacan, myself….


djw 01.13.22 at 10:58 pm

I see Elizabeth Anderson has already been mentioned but I want to amplify that one–she’s the first person I thought of when I saw the question. Another worthy contender so far unmentioned: Don Herzog.

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