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Sunday, December 12, 2010

What is Political Theory

Lecture points prepared by Biju P R, Assistant Professor in Political Science, Govt. Brennen College, Thalassery

Notes on meaning, nature, scope, and importance of political theory


The word, of course, is Greek; and in the Greek language, it belongs to a short vocabulary of five words, which is worth considering:

Thea: something seen, a ‘spectacle’, an occurrence.

Theorein: to look at, to observe what is going on.

Theoros: an intelligent observer; one who looks at what is going on, asks himself questions about it and tries to understand it.

Theoria: the act or procedure of seeking to understand what is going on: ‘theorizing’.

Theorema: what may emerge from ‘theorizing’.

A conclusion reached by a theoros. ‘An understanding’ of what is going on. A ‘theorem’.  Aristotle, at one point in the Politics, recognized or identified a polis as a collectivity of human beings, and he asks the question: What other collectivities is it like or unlike? Is it like the collectivity of a swarm of bees, or a colony of ants, or a ‘tribe’, or a ‘household’? He finds that there is something wrong with each of these comparisons, but by asking this sort of question he has tied himself to a specific identification of a polis, and the only conclusion he can reach is a better appreciation of a polis as a collectivity.

In short, the conclusion to the enquiry is exactly tied to the ‘fact’, the recognition, the identification of polis with which he began. He has, no doubt, learned more about a polis, but only about a polis identified as a collectivity of human beings. However, it is enough, perhaps, to suggest some lines to go upon in thinking about the expression ‘political theory’ or ‘theory of politics’.

So let us move on to understand what is meant by political theory and what role it plays in our every day life…..

Should people be more equal?

Is the state more important than the individual?

Can a socialist society be free?

Is political violence ever justified?

Must we tolerate the intolerant?

Can the majority dictate to the minority?

Is it right that the rich should also be powerful?

Such questions are the concerns of political theory. Although they sound deceptively simple, susceptible to ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, when we try to answer them it becomes evident that each conceals a wealth of disputable assumptions and that the meaning of its key words is also disputable.

Furthermore, the answers inevitably express opinions on what ought to be the case, rather than describing what is the case. Political values and ideals are at stake here, and choices between ideals must be made. The practice of political theory helps us to set about answering such questions logically, and to criticize the answers which others give, by dealing with political matters at a more abstract and general level than does political science.

Plato looked to absolute justice to justify his Guardians as rightful rulers, Christian theologians of the middle ages looked to God’s intentions to sanction the rule of kings, while contract theorists such as Hobbes and Locke saw government as founded on the people’s rational choice. But Plato, Hobbes and Locke were also among the foremost critics of the politics of their own societies and voiced this opposition in their descriptions of government as it should be, ideal government. Naturally, there have also been theoretical apologists for most existing regimes, but propagandists are intrinsically less interesting except to the social historian, and rarely end up on political theory syllabuses.

Political theory is a technique of analysis which can be used to overturn, as well as to uphold.

Departing from fact and detail, it describes and explains politics in abstract and general terms, which allow scope for the critical imagination.

Political theory may therefore be defined as the discipline which aims to explain, justify or criticize the disposition of power in society.  It delineates the balance of power between states, groups and individuals.


The nature of political theory stipulates that not all theory is political. It is observed that the theory, which discusses the wide dispersal of power in society, is the essence of political theory.

Political theory makes critical introspection in to the political life of man and society.

The focus of political theory is that power is manifested in walks of life.So an understanding of power reveals the manifold implication of politics in every day life.


The scope of political theory is that it extends to the aspects of differentiating fact and abstraction or reality and essence in political life. From the time of Plato to the writings of John Rawls, the scope of political theory can be comprehended in the direction of politics as essence and politics as fact.


The importance of political theory is that it can be used to explain the “why” question of political life,why the democracy,why Prime Minister,etc…..

Most important question of political life is that of why in society rather than what.


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