Jack Bissett, BSc. Politics and Philosophy ’21

One of the main debates running throughout the entire course is between the two main approaches to political theory; normative and critical. Normative political theory, taken broadly, is the central mode of analytic political thought, and refers to “an argument-based and issue-oriented, rather than thinker-based and exegetical, approach that emphasizes logical rigor, terminological precision, and clear exposition” (List and Valentini, 2016, p. 525). Whereas, Critical Theory is more broadly continental in nature, and aims at coming to a theoretical account of how socio-historical power-relations orient around particular issues – for this reason, from its origins Critical Theory has been explicitly emancipatory in nature. GV262 begins with Mill and Marx, as each one is both enigmatic of their respective theoretical traditions, but also instrumental in shaping its methods and approach.

Mill’s analytic approach to political theory, and the approach of the British empirical tradition more broadly, became a central influence on the development of analytic philosophies throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century. The empiricists argued, in one form or another, that all knowledge is derived from experience (a posteriori), and that therefore our methods of analysis should be rooted in inductive reasoning. This had a profound influence on the early logical atomists and logical positivists, who, in their rejection of idealism developed a philosophical movement which rooted all meaningful knowledge in scientific empiricism. The influence of this empiricism on political philosophy was such that it shifted away from making positive claims on a theoretical basis, and became largely self-critical in nature, up until the publication of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), which returned normative theory to the forefront of analytic political thinking. Normative political theory is normative, in the sense that it contends itself with propositions which broadly claim how things should, or ought, to be. Normative political theory is political theory¸ in the sense that it “addresses conceptual, normative, and evaluative questions, such as what a democracy is, how we ought to organize our political systems, and how to evaluate the desirability of policies” (List and Valentini, 2016, p. 526). Some of the key proponents of normative political theory are, J.S. Mill, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, H. L. A. Hart, and John Rawls. 

On Liberty is an excellent representative of this style of political theory because of its clarity of exposition, logical structure and normative focus on conceptual analyses. “The object of [On Liberty] is to assert one very simple principle”, Mill writes, “that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection” (J.S. Mill, 2003, p. 80). To this principle, Mill provides a number of arguments and considers a number of opposing positions. Mill defends freedom of speech principally in three cases, when the speech is true, when it is false, and when it is partially true. From each premise, Mill argues that it is more progressive to truth to allow the claims to be made than for them to be suppressed. Take, for instance, this passage from On Liberty,

“But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold of it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” (J.S. Mill, 2003, p. 87)

Mill argues that, if speech is silenced that is true, we rob ourselves of the chance to expunge ignorance; and if speech is silenced that is false, we rob ourselves of the chance to develop “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth” that comes from debate. In presenting multiple overlapping arguments in the justification of a particular normative principle, and then systematically considering possible objections, Mill writes in a style which we can very clearly identify with early analytic political theory. We will come across this structure again when we begin to explore the work of thinkers like Hayek and Rawls.

Critical Theory, on the other hand, had markedly different aims and methods to its approach. Critical Theory originated with the Western Marxist school of social theory and philosophy known as the Frankfurt School. The first generation of the Frankfurt School (namely, Adorno and Horkheimer), explicitly designated Critical Theory to refer to philosophy with practical, emancipatory aims. It sought to make clear the historical power-structures which the political subject finds themselves within, and to come to an understanding of the conditions of liberation. Therefore, Critical Theory must be “must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time” – meaning, “it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation” (James Bohman, ‘Critical Theory’, 2019). Since its original conception, many marginalised communities have developed their own rich critical theories which address their own history, experiences and subjugation (this includes some forms of feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, and post-colonialism). Because of critical theory’s focus on understanding the diverse nature of unfreedom, we will find particularly in the work of Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom), Georg Lukács (History and Class Consciousness), Adorno and Horkheimer (The Dialectic of Enlightenment), and Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man), a detailed analysis of some of the more subversive and obfuscated ways in which late industrial capitalism makes us unfree. For example, in the chapter ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the commodity character of art and culture is put under the spotlight, and Adorno and Horkheimer explore the insidious ways in which the hypercommercialisation of the culture industry effects our experiences of our own domination.

The roots of the work of the Frankfurt School thinkers, and much of critical theory, can be found in Marx and Marxism. In The German Ideology, we discover Marx and Engels to have “stood Hegel on his head”;

“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.” (Marx and Engels, p. 154)

Marx and Engels outline here their method of dialectical materialism, the “rational kernel within the mystical shell” of Hegelian Absolute Idealism. They argue that, as opposed to idealism, “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (Marx and Engels, p. 155), and that the material “multitude of productive forces accessible to men determines the nature of society”. Developing out of this, he then goes on to explore some key Marxist concepts derived from this materialist dialectic – namely his concepts of base and superstructure. It is also worth taking a look at the section of Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” on “Estranged Labour” contained in the background readings for Week 1 of GV262, for a detailed discussion of the forms of alienation that Marx identifies in the process of labour. 



Bohman, James, “Critical Theory”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/critical-theory/>.

List, C. and Valentini, L., 2016. The Methodology of Political Theory. In: H. Cappelen, T. Gendler and J. Hawthorne, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Methodology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.525-553.

Mill, J.S., & Elshtain, J.B., 2003, On Liberty, Yale University Press, New Haven. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [11 October 2020].

Tucker, R., Marx, K. and Engels, F., 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. London: W. W. Norton & Company.


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