GV100: Introduction to Political Theory

This series of articles, developed with close reference to the LSE’s GV100: Introduction to Political Theory course, aims to offer precursory insights into the discipline of political theory through topical exploration of some of the most influential thinkers within the western political canon, as well as some critical perspectives.

What is political theory?
Political theory, also known as political philosophy, is a branch of study whose “centre of gravity lies at the humanities end of the happily still undisciplined discipline of political science”. Standing at the intersections between political science, philosophy, and history, political theory is a truly interdisciplinary subject. It covers a wide range of topics, ranging from central concepts of power, legitimacy, and justice, to issues of a broader scope such as the political aspects of wealth, race, gender, and more. Despite the immense diversity of traditions and methodological approaches within the field, all political theorists are united by a shared commitment to analysing and questioning the fundamental order, structure, and experiences of politics.

This definition of political theory begets the question – what is politics? The word ‘politics’ is derived from the Greek ‘polis’ (‘city’), and can be understood as the exercise of power over an association of people, with this association arising out of necessity or through the use of force. Political theory strives to develop both positive and normative analyses of politics, by offering descriptions of how politics works (or has worked in the past), as well as by critiquing political systems and offering suggestions as to how politics should ideally work.

Why study political theory?
At its core, political theory endeavours to shed light on how we do – and how we should – think about the nature, organisation, and limitations of political life. Political theorists may ask questions such as:

What does it mean to govern?
Is government necessary, and if so, what form should it take?
What makes government legitimate? What gives government the authority to rule, and do citizens have a duty to obey?
What does ‘just’ government look like, and is this vision of government possible?

Engaging with the questions political theorists pose can help us to understand the concepts that have created and shaped contemporary politics and society. Furthermore, through engagement with these fundamental questions, we can attempt to envisage a better political reality and explore how we can create it. To borrow the words of William Faulkner, “the past is not dead, it is not even past”.

The political theory canon
The intellectual history of political theory stretches back to the ancient world, with ancient traditions of political thought arising in Greece, Rome, China, and India. Consequently, there is a vast quantity of scholarship within the field, and to attempt to create a comprehensive guide to political theory is a colossal task.

Many introductory courses in political theory attempt to tackle this challenge by highlighting some of the key thinkers within the Western political theory ‘canon’, which originates in Ancient Greece with thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. This is not to say that the Western canon is the only or ‘best’ framework for understanding the contemporary political world. Indeed, the western canon is itself unstable, having undergone evolution due to the re-addition of previously ‘marginal’ thinkers (such as Thucydides and Wollstonecraft) back into the canon and the gradual emergence of new giants of political theory (such as Arendt, Rawls, and Foucault). Further, the canon has been subject to many criticisms regarding its complications and limitations, particularly with regards to race and gender. Nevertheless, despite its inherent weaknesses, it is arguably only through understanding the western political canon that we are able to critically analyse and engage with it.

GV262: Contemporary Political Theory
Contemporary Political Theory (GV262) is a challenging introduction to some of the key debates in modern political thought, beginning with Marx and Mill in the mid-19th century and culminating in the ongoing discussion around capitalism in the Information Age, immigration, de-colonisation, and environmental political philosophy. This course draws from both normative political philosophy and Critical Theory, often juxtaposing readings from each tradition together in its reading list, promoting a critical engagement with each topic. GV262 would be ideally suited to any students who have an interest in political thought broadly, and follows quite naturally from GV100. Furthermore, it is a useful prerequisite for many 3rd year modules, such as GV302 Key Themes in the History of Political Thought, GV316 Advanced Issues in Applied Political Theory, GV321 Concepts and Controversies in Political Theory.

Our intention with these articles is to provide a general introduction to some of the main issues, thinkers and texts on the course – providing useful background information and additional explanations. We will publish these articles fortnightly, and they will be loosely structured around particular weeks and themes from the course (e.g. political leadership, conceptions of liberty, global migration). While GV262 is an undoubtedly demanding course, both in terms of its intellectual breadth and depth, we hope that through our introductions we will be able to make it more accessible and relay our enthusiasm for the field.

– Jack Bissett, BSc. Politics and Philosophy ’21
– Florence Liu, BSc. Politics and International Relations ’22

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