Nature and significance of political theory

As stated above, political theory is the study of the phenomena of the state both from philosophical as well as empirical points of view. In this context, certain similar terms are also used such as political thought, political philosophy, political science. Although all of them are concerned with explaining the political phenomena, yet political theory is distinct from them. The distinction of political theory from other terms is as follows.

1. Nature of political theory

It is generally believed that political thought is the general thought comprising of theories and values of all those persons or a section of the community who think and write on the day-do-day activities, policies and decisions of the state, and which has a bearing on our present living. These persons can be philosophers, writers, journalists, poets, political commentators etc. Political thought has no ‘fixed’ form and can be in the form of treatise, speeches, political commentaries etc. What is important about political thought is that it is ‘time bound’ since the policies and programmes of the governments change from time to time. Thus we have Greek thought or Roman thought of ancient period or the political thought of the medieval ages.7 Political theory, on the other hand, is the systematic speculation of a particular writer who talks specifically about the phenomena of the state. This speculation is based on certain hypothesis which may or may not be valid and may be open to criticism. Theory provides a model of explanation of political reality as is understood by the writer. As such there can be different political  theories  of  the  same  period.  Also, political  theory  is  based  on  certain discipline-be it philosophy, history, economics or sociology. And lastly, since the task of theory is not only to explain the political reality but also to change it (or to resist change), political theory can be conservative, critical or revolutionary. According to Barker, while political thought is the immanent philosophy of a whole age, political theory is the speculation of a particular thinker. While political thought is implicit and immersed in the stream of vital action, political theory is explicit and may be detached from the political reality of a particular period.

Philosophy is called ‘science of wisdom’—wisdom about this world, man or God. This wisdom is all-inclusive and tries to explain everything. When this wisdom is applied to the study of political phenomena or the state, it is called political philosophy. Political philosophy belongs to the category of normative political theory. It is concerned with not only explaining what ‘is’ but also what ‘ought’ to be. Political philosophy is not concerned with contemporary issues but with certain universal issues in the political life of man such as nature and purpose of the political organisation, basis of political authority, nature of rights, liberty, equality, justice etc. The distinction between political philosophy and political theory is explained by the fact that whereas a  political philosopher is a political theorist, but a political theorist may not necessarily be a political philosopher.9 For example, David Easton is an eminent political theorist but is not considered a political philosopher. Though theory deals with the same issues as political philosophy, it can explain them both from philosophical as well as empirical points of view. In other words, while political philosophy is abstract or speculative, political theory can be both normative and empirical. A political theorist is as much interested in explaining the nature and purpose of the state as in describing the realities of political behaviour, the actual relations between state and citizens, and the role of power in the society. As has been pointed out by Arnold Bretch, philosophical explanations are theories too, but they are non- scientific. Political theory is concerned both with political institutions and the ideas and aspirations that form the basis of those institutions. However, we must not forget that though we can analytically distinguish between philosophy and theory, yet if political theory is separated from political philosophy, its meaning will appear distorted and it will prove barren and irrelevant. Theory must be supplemented by philosophy.

As a discipline, political science is much more comprehensive and includes different forms of speculation in politics such as political thought, political theory, political philosophy, political ideology, institutional or structural framework, comparative politics, public administration, international law and organizations etc. With the rise of political science as a separate discipline, political theory was made one of its subfields. However, when used specifically with emphasis on ‘science’ as distinct from ‘theory’, political science refers to the study of politics by the use of scientific methods in contrast to political philosophy which is free to follow intuition. ‘Political theory when opposed to political philosophy is political science’. Political science is concerned with describing and explaining the realities of political behaviour, generalizations about man and political institutions on empirical evidence, and the role of power in the society. Political theory, on the other hand, is not only concerned about the behavioural study of the political phenomena from empirical point of view but also prescribing the goals which states, governments, societies and citizens ought to pursue. Political theory also aims to generalize about the right conduct in the political life and about the legitimate use of power.

Thus political theory is neither pure thought, nor philosophy, nor science. While it draws heavily from all of them, yet it is distinct from them. Contemporary political theory is trying to attempt a synthesis between political philosophy and political science.

2. Issues in political theory

The nature of political theory can also be understood from the kind of issues it has been grappling with during the long span of more than 2300 years. Different political issues have been dominant in different epochs. Classical political theory was primarily concerned with the search for a perfect political order. As such it analysed the basic issues of political theory such as the nature and purpose of the state, basis of political authority, the problem of political obligation and political disobedience. It was more concerned with what the state ought to be i.e. the ideal state. The rise of modern nation-state and the industrial revolution gave birth to a new kind of society, economy and polity. Modern political theory starts from individualism and made liberty of the individual as the basic issue. Hence it was concerned with issues like rights, liberty, equality, property and justice for the individual, how to create a state based upon individual consent, and a right to change the government. At one time, it also became important to explain the interrelation between one concept and the other such as liberty and equality, justice and liberty, equality and property. The empirical political theory, particularly after the second world war, shifted the emphasis from concepts to the political behaviour of man. It invented a number new issues largely borrowed from other social sciences. Some of the important issue of empirical political theory were authority, legitimacy, elite, party, group, political system, political culture etc.

During the last twenty years, quite a number of different issues have come to dominate the scene of political theory. With the resurgence of value-based political theory, there is once again an emphasis on the issues of freedom, equality and justice. Apart from them, some new issues have come to dominate the scene such as feminism, environmentalism, ecology, community, issue concerning development, subalteranism etc. These are the issues which have been engaging the attention of political theorists today. We shall touch upon these issues in the relevant chapters in this book. Moreover traditional picture of studying the issues from a single perspective i.e. either from liberal or Marxist point of view, is also changing. Though the method was not wrong but today it is found inadequate. To give an example, both liberalism and Marxism have viewed justice or freedom in the male dominated sphere of government and economy and ignored the freedom of the traditional female spheres of home and family. An adequate theory of sexual equality will involve considerations that simply are not addressed in the traditional right or left debates. Similarly, communitarians have also exposed the weakness of single perspective approach. Recent political theory is trying to redefine the issues of liberty, equality and justice in the context of ultimate values of common good.

3. Significance of political theory

The significance of political theory can be derived from the purpose it serves or supposed to serve and the task performed by it. Political theory is a form of all embracing system of values which a  society adopts  as  its  ideal  with  a  view  to  understand the  political reality and,  if necessary, to change it. It involves speculation at higher level about the nature of good life, the political institutions appropriate for its realization, to what end the state is directed and how it should be constituted to achieve those ends. The significance of political theory lies in providing the moral criteria that ought to be used to judge the ethical worth of  a  political state and  to  propose alternative political arrangements and practices likely to meet the moral standards. The importance of political theory lies in providing i)  a  description of the political phenomena, ii) a  non-scientific (based upon philosophy or religion) or a scientific (based upon empirical studies) explanation, iii) proposals for the selection of political goals and political action, and iv) moral judgement. Examples of such a political theory can be found in Plato’s Republic, or Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or Nozic’s Anarchy, State and Utopia.

As mentioned earlier, the fundamental question facing human beings has been ‘how to live together’. Politics is an activity engaged with the management of the collective affairs of society. The significance of theory lies in evolving various doctrines and approaches regarding the nature and purpose of the state, the bases of political authority, vision of an ideal state, best form of government, relations between the state and the individual and basic issues such as rights, liberty, equality, property, justice etc. Again what has become important in our times is to explain the inter-relation between one concept and another such as the relationship between liberty and equality, equality and property, justice and property. This is as important as peace, order, harmony-stability and unity in the society. In fact peace and harmony in the society very much depends upon how we interpret and implement the values of liberty, equality and justice etc.

Contemporary states face a number of problems such as poverty, over-population, corruption, racial and ethnic tensions, environment pollution etc., conflicts among individuals, groups as well as nations. The task of political theory is to study and analyse more profoundly than others, the immediate and potential problems of political life of the society and to supply the practical politician with an alternative course of action, the consequences of which have been fully thought of. According to David Held, the task of political theorist is really demanding because in the absence of systematic study, there is a danger that politics will be left to the ignorant and self-seeking people who only want to pursue it as ‘power.

In short, the significance of political theory lies in the fact that it provides systematic thinking about the nature and purpose of state and government. It helps us to establish a correlation between ideals and the socio-political phenomena. It makes the individual aware of his rights and duties in the society. It helps us to understand the nature or’ the socio-economic system and its problems like poverty, violence, corruption, ethnicity etc. Since the task of political theory is not only to understand and explain the social reality but also to change it, political theory helps us to evolve ways and means to change society either through reform or revolution. When political theory performs its function

well, it is one of the most important weapons of struggle for the advancement of humanity. To imbube people with correct theories may make them choose their goals and means correctly so as to avoid the roads that end in disappointment.

One thought on “Nature and significance of political theory

  1. Lizzie Helmbrecht says:

    Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the images on this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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