Political thought, or political philosophy, is the study of questions concerning power, justice, rights, law, and other issues pertaining to governance. Whereas political science assumes that these concepts are what they are, political thought asks how they have come about and to what effect. Just as Socrates’s simple question “How should we be governed?” led to his execution, the question “What makes a government legitimate?” leads to political turmoil when posed at critical times. Political thought asks what form government should take and why; what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any; and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever. Generally speaking, political thought, political philosophy, and political theory are terms often used interchangeably to mean the study of philosophical texts related to politics.
This course examines major texts in the history of political thought. Many of these texts pose difficult questions concerning the political community, social order, and human nature. This course asks how different views on human nature and the uses of history inform the design of government. It also considers the ways in which thinkers like Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau have responded to the political problems of their times, and the ways in which they contribute to a broader conversation about human goods and needs, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state.
One of our central aims in this course will be to gain a critical perspective on our times by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and philosophical approaches. We will also work to better understand those assumptions and basic concepts that define the field of political science. Each of the three units that comprise this course is devoted to a broad theme central to understanding politics. The first unit, centered upon the texts of Plato and Aristotle, will address the polis, or political community. The second unit, featuring the work of John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, will explore the modern state and constitutional government. The third unit, introducing the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, will focus on democracy and the critique of liberal ideology. You will find that these political philosophies have shaped various forms of government, from tyranny to republican democracy and welfare states.
It should be noted that the terms politics, political theory, and political science are used throughout the course, but not interchangeably so. While they all relate to each other, each has a different meaning. Politics is the use of power and the distribution of resources. Political theory, on the other hand, is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from three different perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory – all will be covered in this course. Finally, political science is an academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined political science as “the study of the state.”
If you’re interested in reading philosophy or thinking about life purpose and social organization, this might be a good course for you to take. Additionally, if you like to debate, consider alternative viewpoints, or talk about politics this course will likely interest you. Also, Western political thought has served, in one form or another, as the philosophical and ideological basis for governments around the world for centuries, including the United States. Hopefully, this course will allow you to put yourself within an historical, social, and cultural setting so you may relate to contemporary political society.
Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:
- summarize the passage of political thought through the classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods based on the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Marx;
- compare and contrast the differences between Plato and Aristotle with regard to their understandings of the nature of the person, ethics, society, citizenship, and governance;
- explain the historical and intellectual context in which the political thought that helped to develop the modern state came to be;
- compare and contrast the concepts of justice, freedom, equality, citizenship, and sovereignty in the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau;
- explain the different versions of, and importance of, the state of nature to political thought;
- identify the influences of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on the development of the United States Constitution;
- summarize the thoughts of Alexis de Tocqueville on the American political landscape, particularly with regard to religion and equality, and why this has importance beyond the American context;
- explain Karl Marx’s worldview, with particular regard to his critique of democracy and the modern, politically liberal state; how it came to be; and its fundamental link to capitalism; and
- explain John Stuart Mill’s theory on utilitarianism and how he applies it to society and the state.
More info: http://www.saylor.org/courses/polsc201/