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Rethinking Political Thinkers

Rethinking Political Thinkers (1st edn)

Manjeet Ramgotra and Simon Choat
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date: 23 July 2024

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  • Simon Choat
  •  and Manjeet Ramgotra

Abstract

This introductory chapter provides an overview of the study of political thought. It examines political thought as a specific way of understanding and analysing politics, highlighting some recent debates and developments, including the development of comparative political thought. In doing so, it also reflects on the meaning of ‘politics’ itself. The chapter then looks at why and how one might study the history of political thought, exploring different approaches and discussing a range of methodological and interpretative issues. It considers who should be studied and, in particular, explores calls to decolonize political thought. Ultimately, the chapter demonstrates that political thought can be understood and studied in a variety of ways and shows why it is important to include voices that have been excluded or silenced.

1.1 Rethinking political thinkers

Textbooks of political thought have until now tended to present a ‘canon’ of great thinkers whom, it is claimed, one must read and understand in order to develop an adequate knowledge of the discipline of Politics. This canon, however, is typically constituted almost exclusively of white European men. Yet while the voices of women and People of Colour—including, of course, women of colour—have hitherto been excluded from the canon, and hence also from books such as this, thinking and writing about politics have never been activities limited only to white men. Rethinking Political Thinkers invites you to reconsider and rethink politics by listening to and engaging with voices that have not usually been heard.

While our textbook will introduce you to a wide range of political thinkers, it differs from other books in three important ways. First, alongside the predominantly white male thinkers of the traditional canon, we also include women and non-white thinkers whose work has often been ignored, excluded, or devalued. In this way, we bring previously marginalized voices into debates about some core political issues. Second, we believe that all political thinkers must be read with an acknowledgement and appreciation that they lived and wrote in a world characterized by certain power relations, specifically those of patriarchy, imperialism, and, in the modern world, capitalism and white supremacy. This means that special attention must be given to the relations and structures of race, gender, and class which different theories have reflected, defended, or challenged. Finally, we contend that the best way to understand and study political ideas, concepts, and debates is to compare them across time and space rather than viewing them as moments in a linear and progressive trajectory. The typical historical approach, which narrates a progression of ideas from the Greek city-state to present-day liberal democracy, is problematic. By viewing the history of political thought as a conversation over time in which participants build on the work of earlier theorists, it has tended to exclude alternative and critical voices from this conversation. As such, our book is organized not purely chronologically but thematically. The next two chapters (Chapters 2 and 3), for example, juxtapose classical thinkers of ancient Greece with nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black feminist theorists, and the nine Parts of the book are organized around themes rather than periods of time. We do this not because we believe all thinkers are addressing the same questions and can therefore be read and understood in isolation from the contexts in which they wrote. To the contrary, we believe that juxtaposing thinkers from different eras will encourage you to consider how the position, identity, and context of each thinker affect their understanding of politics, while simultaneously recognizing that ideas and themes can persist, recur over time, and be subjected to reuse and reinterpretation (Ramgotra, 2015).

The aim of this initial chapter is to introduce you to the study of political thought and to explain and justify the contents, approach, and organization of this book. Section 1.2 examines political thought as a specific way of understanding and analysing politics, highlighting some recent debates and developments, including the development of comparative political thought. In doing so, it also reflects on the meaning of ‘politics’ itself. Section 1.3 looks at why and how we might study p. 2the history of political thought. We will explore different approaches to the study of the history of political thought and reflect on a range of methodological and interpretative issues. Section 1.4 considers who we should be studying and, in particular, explores calls to decolonize political thought. This chapter aims to demonstrate that political thought can be understood and studied in a variety of ways and to show why it is important to include voices that have been excluded or silenced. It concludes, in Section 1.5, by providing a brief overview of the book and explaining its pedagogical features.

1.2 Political thought

Not all of the thinkers included in this book called themselves political theorists or political philosophers. They include sociologists, economists, historians, literary theorists, activists, and politicians. Many of them worked across academic disciplines, or lived in a time when the current disciplinary boundaries had not been shaped and solidified, and many did not work in universities at all. Indeed, one of the claims of this book is that it is anachronistic to think that political thought must always be written in a certain way or even that it must meet certain thresholds or adhere to particular standards. Political thought is developed in a variety of locations and is written in very many styles. Even classic works by well-established thinkers, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx, come in a wide range of forms: letters, manifestos, newspaper articles, novels, plays, fragmentary drafts, and notebooks. Many significant works, from The Federalist (Hamilton et al., 2003) to the Combahee River Collective’s (1977) ‘Statement’, were not originally attributed to specific authors at all.

All of the thinkers in this book can nonetheless be said to have contributed to the discipline of political theory in the sense that they all reflect theoretically on politics. Of course, at some level, all political analysis is ‘theoretical’: rather than simply reporting what happens, the study of politics must use concepts and models to develop theories that explain events and processes. But what further distinguishes political theory from other types of political analysis is that political theory is normative: it seeks to establish, clarify, question, and challenge norms or standards. As Jonathan Floyd (2019) argues, the distinguishing question of political philosophy is: ‘How should we live?’. This question is normative—it asks how we should live rather than how we do live—and it is collective, asking how we should live rather than simply how each of us should act as individuals.

Although the question ‘How should we live?’ may seem abstract and unwieldy, it is of vital importance to all of us: it asks what it is that we value and how we think society should be organized. Moreover, it can and must be broken down into innumerable further questions that address more obviously concrete issues: Should the rich pay more tax? What limits, if any, should be put on freedom of speech? Should animal rights be recognized in law? What role, if any, should the state play in governing our sexual activity? Should reparations be paid to the victims of slavery or colonialism and their descendants? How should we address climate change? These are all normative questions that political theory can help us answer. Many political theorists contend that normative theory is intricately bound to the real world: part of what Marc Stears (2005: 347) calls the ‘drama’ of politics, ‘a drama that [theorists] can understand, shape, and perhaps even rewrite’.

In this book, we do not restrict ‘political’ thought to analysis of the state or relations between states. We contend that ‘the political’ is not simply the arena in which those who rule gather to deliberate on public business. If we confine our definition of politics to the formal politics of government, then those groups who have historically been denied the right to participate in government, including women, People of Colour, and Indigenous peoples, will face a double exclusion: excluded from the activity of politics and simultaneously excluded from our understanding and discussions p. 3of politics. In order, therefore, to include formerly (or currently) excluded groups and individuals in our analyses of politics—as this book tries to do—then we cannot simply add their voices and experiences to our existing conception of politics: inclusion must mean rethinking our political concepts and theories, including the concept of politics itself (Hanchard, 2010). One of the central contributions of women and People of Colour to political thought has precisely been to challenge and expand our understanding of ‘politics’. Think, for example, of the slogan ‘The personal is political’, with which second-wave feminists not only demanded the inclusion of women in formal politics but also sought to undermine the traditional divide between the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ spheres, widening the scope of the political (see Section 34.2.1 of Chapter 34 for further discussion). If, as the radical feminist Kate Millett (2016) claims, ‘the essence of politics is power’, then arguably every area of human (and even non-human) life is amenable to political analysis.

What distinguishes the thinkers in this book, therefore, is not their varied approaches to analysing a common object named ‘politics’—because what they understand by ‘politics’ varies. We can say that politics is about disagreement, in at least two senses. First, if there were no disagreement—in particular about how to order and organize our societies—then there would be no politics. But, second, this disagreement extends to the very definition of politics: the concept of ‘politics’ is itself political, in that there is no agreement about how to define it.

The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe (1943–) uses the term ‘the political’ to refer to the dimension of our world that is necessarily characterized by forms of conflict and antagonism that can never be eliminated. She defines ‘politics’, meanwhile, as ‘the set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political’ (Mouffe, 2005: 9). In making this argument, Mouffe is drawing in part on the work of the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). For Schmitt (2007: 36), what distinguishes the political is the friend/enemy distinction: ‘Every religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy.’ For Schmitt, all political communities are determined by their choice of who is the friend and who is the enemy—or, as Mouffe puts it, all political identities consist of a ‘we’ which is defined against a ‘they’. Unlike Schmitt, however, Mouffe is fully committed to democratic pluralism: the we/they distinction is necessary, but to act democratically is to view our opponents (‘they’) not as enemies to be eradicated but as adversaries with whom we share some common ground.

Political thought is also characterized by disagreement at the methodological level: just as there is no agreement about the meaning of ‘politics’, there is no consensus about how it should be studied. Indeed, not everyone agrees that political theory must be normative (see, e.g., Kelly, 2018). In the English-speaking world, however, an explicit commitment to normative theorizing has certainly been the dominant form of political philosophy over the past half-century. This in part reflects the influence of John Rawls’ 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, which is commonly credited with reviving normative political philosophy (e.g., Kymlicka, 2002: 10) (see Chapter 32 on Rawls). This is perhaps a somewhat narrow claim: even in the English-speaking world, important normative theorizing was taking place between the end of the Second World War and the publication of A Theory of Justice, and, across the world, normative theories continued to be propounded, not least as part of anti-colonial movements and demands for civil rights. Yet, for a long time, many Anglophone political philosophers viewed their discipline through an exclusively Rawlsian or post-Rawlsian lens, to the extent that, in some university departments, studying political philosophy meant studying Rawls and his critics and their varying answers to the question ‘What is justice?’

Even in Anglophone analytic philosophy, however, the dominance of Rawlsian approaches has recently been challenged. For Rawls and many of his critics, political philosophy essentially involves the identification and application of moral ideals concerning justice, rights, freedom, and so forth. p. 4This approach is rejected by so-called political realists, who argue that we have politics at least in part because there exists moral disagreement over our collective aims and values (Williams, 2005; Geuss, 2008). Realists agree that politics requires normative standards—to judge whether a particular political regime is legitimate, for example—but argue that these standards arise from within politics itself and are not found in a pre-political moral realm. In this sense, the political is autonomous of morality—or, at least, political judgements cannot be reduced to or straightforwardly derived from moral norms (Rossi and Sleat, 2014). Political realism encompasses a variety of types, but all agree that political theorists must take facts about the political world more seriously, paying more attention to real-world politics and its history (Galston, 2010).

This emphasis on the facts of concrete politics has led to accusations that political realism is conservative, especially when such facts are invoked to place limits on what is possible. Which facts we identify as salient and how we interpret them are surely just as disputable as our moral values. What counts as ‘realistic’, in other words, is a political question: it cannot be established outside of or beyond the space of political disagreements (Finlayson, 2017). It can be argued, therefore, that there is in the work of (some) recent political realists a ‘displacement of politics’ (Honig, 1993) similar to what we find in the work of the Rawlsians: an attempt to fix in place the social order by the introduction of constraints—whether moral (as with the Rawlsians) or ‘factual’ (as in realism)—that are supposedly beyond the antagonisms and conflicts of politics (see also Mouffe, 1993).

The dominance of Rawls-inspired theory in the final third of the twentieth century may also have contributed to a narrowing of the range of political thought as researched and taught in English-speaking universities, crowding out alternative traditions from the non-Western world in particular (von Vacano, 2015: 477). The twenty-first century has seen the welcome development of comparative political thought, which seeks to engage with varieties of political thought that exist outside of Europe and North America. This growth of comparative political thought responds to the unjust exclusion of non-Western voices and reflects the emergence and need for cultural interaction and dialogue in an increasingly globalized world (Jenco, 2007; Dallmayr, 2010; Godrej, 2011; Tully, 2016). Certain forms of comparative political thought have been criticized for demarcating too strongly between ‘Western’ thought and ‘non-Western’ thought (El Amine, 2016; Idris, 2016). Yet rather than simply studying non-Western traditions, comparative political theorists have sought equally to decentre the West and disrupt the distinction between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’. An understanding of different cultures can be seen as fundamental and necessary to political thought. As Roxanne Euben (2004) shows, the ancient Greek ‘theôria’—from which we take our word ‘theory’—drew connections between travel and wisdom: travel distances a person from their homeland and a particular way of seeing things, introducing other ways of being and understanding the world.

This is not a book of comparative political thought. Many, though by no means all, of its thinkers are European and American. That is partly because the book is produced in Europe (though not all of our chapter authors are European or American). It is also because Europe and the United States have dominated global affairs for the past half-millennium: the ideas produced by European and American thinkers have played a significant role in justifying and maintaining that dominance, and so are worth interrogating. Moreover, rather than comparing ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ thought by placing them side by side, we seek to demonstrate their mutual imbrication—to show how the very idea of ‘the West’ and ‘Western’ political thought was formed through the (often violent and oppressive) encounter with the ‘non-West’. Yet we nevertheless endorse the claims of comparative political theorists that there is a plurality of approaches, traditions, norms, and methods, with no single ‘correct’ way of doing political thought.

This does not, however, mean that we cannot judge political theories or that one thinker or theory is as good as every other. The normativity of political thought can make judgement difficult. A thinker may make erroneous or mistaken factual claims in support of their arguments, for which p. 5they can be justly criticized but, ultimately, normative claims can never be true or false. There are nonetheless a number of different criteria by which we can judge political theories. We can question their coherence and consistency: does a theory hold together or does it contradict itself? We can ask whether a theory fits with our values and judgements: does a theory have contemporary relevance and application? We can challenge the feasibility and desirability of a theory: would it be possible to implement what it proposes, and would doing so produce the kind of society we want? Finally, we can interrogate the assumptions made by a thinker: does a theory assume certain ideals of political agency or action that exclude others?

The answers to these questions will not automatically produce reasons for rejecting a thinker. A thinker might contradict themselves in interesting and even productive ways. Their values might be very different to our own—but that might cause us to rethink our own principles. Feasibility is as contestable as desirability: many things which were once deemed ‘impossible’ have since come to pass. A thinker may be sexist, racist, or ableist—as indeed are many of the thinkers in this book—and yet still have important and useful things to say. We believe that political thinkers must be read critically—but that means evaluating their arguments rather than setting out to denounce or reject them.

1.2 Political thought: Key Points

Definitions of politics and approaches to studying politics are themselves political in the sense that they are subject to disagreement and contestation.

Political thought is typically normative, asking how we should live—in particular, how we should order our societies—but it can and does take a variety of forms and come from a variety of sources.

Comparative political thought has sought to draw attention to ‘non-Western’ thinkers and theories but also to disrupt the distinction between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’.

1.3 The history of political thought

We have so far tried to show why political thought as normative analysis is of vital importance. But what is the point of studying political thinkers from the past? One answer might be that past thinkers can help solve our present problems, because those thinkers faced the same problems that we face. From this perspective, the questions asked by the great thinkers of the past—concerning the purpose of the state, the meaning of justice, or the origins of rights—are also our questions. Different thinkers across the ages have, of course, given very different answers to those questions—but that, it can be argued, is why we need to study the history of political thought, in order to survey and assess their different answers: how, for example, did Aristotle, Hobbes, and Kant answer the question ‘What is justice?’, and who was right?

This kind of approach, in which we study past thinkers in order to benefit from their timeless wisdom, was criticized by the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943). For Collingwood (2013), the study of philosophy must be properly historical. To understand the statements that a thinker made, Collingwood argued, we need to understand the questions to which those statements were answers, and we should not assume that all thinkers through history have been asking the same questions. For Collingwood (ibid.: 58), we must therefore reconstruct the questions asked by a thinker, which involves ‘getting inside other people’s heads, looking at their situation through their eyes’. This historical approach does not mean that for Collingwood the ideas of the past are of no use to us today or that we should study them only for their intrinsic historical interest. While p. 6thinkers ought to be studied in their contexts, and the past is quite different from the present, the present has emerged from the past. As Collingwood says, ‘[T]he past which an historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present’ (ibid.: 97). So although the study of history cannot provide us with any ready-made rules for how to act in the present, it can offer us insight, and it can do this because the past is not dead but alive and active in the present.

Others have argued that the past persists in the present not just in ideas but in the material world around us—in objects, architecture, nature, and the design and structure of institutions and systems. As the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) explains, material objects embody ideas and collective memories, constituting an archive of their own that persists in the present; sometimes they convey silences or stories that have been erased in what historians choose to convey. As such, the study of the past should not be limited to the written record. For instance, the practices and ideologies that justified colonial empires—and the material symbols, such as statues, that celebrate those empires—continue to shape the present and are important for understanding contemporary patterns of racial injustice.

Collingwood was an important influence on the work of the English intellectual historian Quentin Skinner (1940–) (Skinner, 1988: 103). Skinner’s work, which has over the past half-century been enormously influential on readings in political thought, has an affinity with the work of other historians, including John Dunn (1968), J.G.A. Pocock (2009), and James Tully (1988). These authors, who all emphasize the importance of intellectual contexts to understanding past ideas, have often been grouped under the name of the ‘Cambridge School of historians’. Like Collingwood, Skinner rejects the idea that the thinkers of the past have all addressed the same questions. The uses and meanings of concepts change over time: failure to recognize this, Skinner argues, will lead us to anachronistic readings—blaming a thinker for failing to meet standards that we have imposed on them or, conversely, crediting a thinker for saying something that they could never have intended to say. Instead of imposing our preconceptions on the past, we must try to recover thinkers’ points of view. Skinner argues that we cannot understand a thinker simply by reading what they have written. This is not only because meanings change—and so we need to understand what a concept meant for the author who used it—but also because to understand any text we need ‘to grasp not merely what people are saying but also what they are doing in saying it’ (Skinner, 2002: 82). To say something is at the same time to do something (to warn, to promise, to inform, to condemn, etc.) and we need to know what an author was doing in saying something: for example, did they intend their arguments to be taken literally or did they mean them ironically?

Whereas Collingwood wanted to get into other people’s heads, Skinner (ibid.: vii, 120) argues that this is neither possible nor necessary: to recover the intentions of a thinker—‘to see things their way’—we do not need to think their private thoughts, because intentions are public and social. We should view political texts as interventions into pre-existing debates, and in order to understand what an author intended to do in a text, we need to explore the intellectual context within which the author wrote—specifically, the ‘wider linguistic context’ which both constrains what an author can say but also allows them to say something new (ibid.: 87).

Yet if political problems are always historically specific, as Skinner argues, then what is the point of studying past thinkers? Why study Machiavelli, for example, when the context in which he wrote, and hence the questions that he asked and problems he addressed, are so different from our own twenty-first-century context and concerns? Skinner’s answer is that past texts do not provide us with ‘directly applicable “lessons”’ but rather help reveal a more general lesson that all problems and their solutions—including our own—are historically specific (ibid.: 88). Studying past thinkers allows and encourages us to ‘stand back from our own assumptions and systems of belief’, demonstrating their contingency and enlarging our horizons (ibid.: 125). In this sense, the merit of the history of political thought is similar to that of comparative political thought: they both help to deflate our p. 7parochialism, showing us that our ways of seeing and understanding are not unique (Euben, 2004; Blau, 2021). But this analogy between historical and comparative thought, if anything, calls into question the value of the former: if we can learn the same lesson from studying geographically distant authors, why study temporally distant authors? More broadly, Skinner’s justification of his method does not seem to give us a very strong reason for reading specific authors or for reading widely: if both Machiavelli and Aristotle reveal the same general truth—that no social arrangements or beliefs are timeless—then why read them both? Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that we might simply derive some pleasure from doing so, why read any past thinker, given that Skinner’s moral can be understood and accepted without a detour through the past?

Perhaps Skinner (2002: 88) is simply wrong to assert that ‘there are no perennial problems in philosophy’. In making this point, Skinner claims to be drawing on Collingwood—but Collingwood (2013: 67–68) actually states that there are no eternal problems in philosophy, which is quite different (Lamb, 2009). A problem might be ‘perennial’—that is, lasting for a long time—without being eternal and hence somehow timeless; or, as Collingwood argued, problems, questions, and concepts can change over time while nonetheless being linked by a historical process, such that there is both continuity and discontinuity. Even if we were to acknowledge that there are perennial problems or questions, however, this raises the question of what those problems are. Until very recently, imperial conquest, slavery, genocide, and the settler state have not figured among the perennial problems worthy of study within the discipline of political theory, despite being defining features of the modern world. The Jamaican anthropologist David Scott (2004: 4) has framed the recurrence of particular issues over time in terms of what he calls ‘problem-spaces’: ‘an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political stakes) hangs’. The questions that inhabit Scott’s problem-spaces are not those that are typically associated with the conversation had over time by the ‘great men’ of the canon. Using this framework, Scott examines frequently silenced or neglected problems of race, colonialism, and slavery.

Scott’s work engages appreciatively though critically with that of Skinner, but also with Marxism (especially via the writings of C.L.R. James and Stuart Hall). Like Skinner, the Marxist tradition also places great emphasis on the contexts in which texts were written—but it does so in a very different way. Understanding ideas for Marxists means relating them not so much to the discursive contexts in which authors wrote (the debates in which they intervened) but rather to the social, economic, and political contexts within which those ideas were produced, reflecting on the class interests that they might serve. ‘The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’ (Marx and Engels, 1976: 503). To what extent and in what ways, for example, does the celebration by liberal thinkers of the ideals of freedom and equality further the interests of the capitalist class? (See Chapter 13 on Marx.)

The risk for Skinner and others of the Marxist approach is that it seems to eliminate the role of intentionality: if texts are reflective of or even wholly determined by their economic context, then the author’s specific intentions become irrelevant. Whether or not this is a legitimate criticism of the Marxist approach to the history of ideas, there are other approaches that more explicitly dismiss the significance of intentions. The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), for example, shifts the focus of attention away from the author altogether. Rather than trying to establish what people intended to say, Foucault (1970; 1977a) analysed the underlying systems of rules—or discourses—that made it possible for some things to be said rather than others. In his later works, Foucault (1977b; 1980) became interested in how discourses are connected to power relations. But, unlike Marxists, Foucault did not understand this in relation to the power of the ruling class: power for Foucault does not come from a single, central source, like the state or the bourgeoisie; power is everywhere and there are multiple power relations. (See Chapter 33 on Foucault.)

p. 8In developing his own approach to reading texts, Foucault drew upon the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Nietzsche emphasized the perspectival nature of all knowledge—we always see and understand from a certain point of view—or what Heidegger referred to as our ‘thrownness’: we are always-already in the world, such that our understanding of ourselves and the world is always historical and situated. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) also drew upon Nietzsche and Heidegger. In doing so, he developed an approach very different from that of Foucault, though one that similarly downplayed the significance of authorial intentionality. Derrida (1976; 1988) rejected the idea that the meaning of a text can be reduced to either its context or its author’s intentions. Advocating a strategy he named ‘deconstruction’—which sought to reveal the inconsistencies, paradoxes, and tensions in a text—Derrida argued that texts do not have a single, fixed meaning: they are open to multiple competing interpretations and can contain meanings not intended by their authors.

The kind of poststructuralist approach undertaken by Foucault and Derrida does not mean that we can take whatever we like from a text: both Derrida and Foucault demonstrated enormous care and rigour in their readings of texts. But it might mean that there are multiple legitimate interpretations of any thinker. This entails that a selective reading—in which we take certain insights from a thinker but not others—would not only be legitimate but necessary. It might even be that misinterpretations can be productive: misreading a text might make a reader a bad historian but it might simultaneously (though, of course, not necessarily) make that reader an interesting theorist.

This book does not advocate any specific method for reading political thinkers, whether idealist, contextualist, postcolonialist, Marxist, or poststructuralist. Each chapter attempts to analyse critically the ideas of a thinker by presenting them in their historical and intellectual contexts. The authors of our chapters have different approaches to political thought and come from various disciplines. We also believe that it can be fruitful to compare thinkers across time, including by placing side by side thinkers separated by centuries. This is not because we view the history of political thought as following a linear trajectory of progress; to the contrary, it is because we recognize that the history of ideas is punctuated by moments of change, repetition, crisis, and rupture, with thinkers both reviving older ideas and concepts and introducing innovations. This is why we present thinkers thematically rather than chronologically, presenting political ideas, concepts, and debates as recurrent and comparing thinkers across time and space.

1.3 The history of political thought: Key Points

The ideas and texts of past thinkers can be studied using a variety of methods.

Historians of political thought have provided competing justifications for studying past thinkers: some have argued that ideas are timeless, others that the past is living in the present, and still others that the differences of the past help demonstrate the contingency and historical specificity of all beliefs.

There are debates over whether ideas must be related to the contexts of their production in order to be understood and whether we need to understand the original intentions of authors.

1.4 The canon of political thought

If you agree that studying the history of political thought is important, there still remains the question of who we should study. There is a well-established canon of political thought: a list of thinkers typically included in books like this and on the modules and courses that such books serve. Students often begin with Machiavelli or Hobbes, sometimes starting earlier with Plato and Aristotle, and p. 9then go on to study Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, and Marx, perhaps bringing things up to date with Rawls and his critics. The status and nature of this canon have been challenged in recent years, but it is not uncommon for textbooks on political thinkers to feature no female thinkers, and it is the norm for them to feature only white (and usually European) thinkers (Choat, 2021; Ramgotra, 2022).

The white male canon has endured for a number of reasons. Political theory can be a slow-moving discipline, and inertia means that political theorists and philosophers, who themselves are often white men, teach the next generation what they themselves were taught, thus perpetuating a static canon. Women have only relatively recently gained access to higher education, and barriers to academic study and advancement persist, in particular for women of colour (Begum and Saini, 2019). Many women and People of Colour found outlets to make their voices heard elsewhere, in non-governmental organizations, the media, social movements, and other fora (Owens et al., 2022). Yet these voices were frequently marginalized and in effect silenced, often by claims that they do not meet standards of knowledge worthy of study and inclusion on university curricula. Such standards, however, are set by those in power or in high-ranking university positions, with existing structures operating to maintain power and knowledge as the privileged domain of a white male minority (McClain, 2021). Fundamentally, the exclusion of women, Indigenous people, and People of Colour from the canon of political thought reflects their exclusion more generally—from the institutions in which political thought has been written and from participation in formal politics. If the canon of political thought is white and male, this reflects a world which is, in bell hooks’ (2004) felicitous phrase, an ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (see Chapter 3 for more on bell hooks).

One way to address the problems with the existing canon might be simply to abandon the canon altogether. In line with the Cambridge School insistence that all texts are interventions into specific debates (see Section 1.3), we could undertake a history of political thought that focuses much less on great thinkers and their theories and much more on arguments, debates, and discourses—on ‘a plurality of competing, overlapping and interacting political languages’ (Stuurman, 2000: 161). Yet this would be no guarantee that the voices of women and thinkers of colour would be heard. To the contrary, organizing the study of ideas around thinkers can be a useful way of including hitherto marginalized voices. While we acknowledge the importance of historical and discursive contexts, we think that there are pedagogical benefits to studying individual thinkers: foregrounding thinkers can be a useful way of making vivid what are often complex and abstract ideas. It also recognizes the importance of the figures in this book not only as thinkers but also as politicians and activists. Moreover, it allows us to acknowledge the positionality of thinkers. By ‘positionality’ we refer not only to the position in which a thinker stands in relation to their ideas, but also to their situation within society: a thinker’s gender, race, class, sexuality, languages, and so on—their position in the world—can affect how they read and think about the world (Spivak, 1988; Collins, 1989). So, as Hutchings and Owens (2021) argue in relation to the canon of international relations, rather than simply rejecting the canon, we can try to reconstitute it and in so doing recover forgotten or suppressed contributions (which have often criticized and challenged the authority of the canon itself).

As women and non-white people have begun to win political power and influence, so has the white, male, European canon been contested. The challenge to the maleness of the canon was inspired in large part by second-wave feminism. Since the 1970s in particular, feminist political theorists and intellectual historians have sought to criticize the sexism of canonical thinkers, recover the work of women thinkers which has been neglected or marginalized, and create new concepts—such as patriarchy and intersectionality—to serve feminist ends (e.g., Okin, 1979; Pateman, 1988; Shanley and Pateman, 1991; Coole, 1993). This book tries to build on the work of pioneering feminist theorists and historians. As well as including chapters on well-known women thinkers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft (Chapter 21), we have included more neglected figures, such as Mary Astell p. 10(Chapter 8) and Catharine Macaulay (Chapter 17). While some of the women thinkers in this book, such as Shulamith Firestone (Chapter 34), Iris Marion Young (Chapter 22), and Carole Pateman (Chapter 10), are straightforwardly feminist, others are not. Hannah Arendt (Chapter 19) was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century but she showed little interest in feminism or gender. Others, such as Emma Goldman (Chapter 26) and Judith Butler (Chapter 36), have an ambivalent or complicated relationship to feminism. Some, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Chapter 24) and Donna Haraway (Chapter 38), are committed feminists, but are as well known for their work in other fields as for their contributions to feminism.

Opposition to the whiteness of the canon has perhaps taken longer to gain ground than the challenge to its maleness, and has taken a variety of forms. As we saw in Section 1.2, comparative political thought has drawn the attention of European and North American scholars to non-European traditions of political thought. Demands to decolonize the university have also called into question Eurocentric canons (Mbembe, 2016; Bhambra et al., 2018). Calls to decolonize our ways of thinking are not new. The great anti-colonial theorist and activist Frantz Fanon (2004) believed that decolonization must involve the complete overthrow of colonial power structures and the forms of knowledge that held them in place (see Chapter 28 on Fanon). Decolonial critics such as Anibal Quijano (2000) and Walter Mignolo (2007) have argued that colonialism produced power relations that have endured into the postcolonial period, including relations of knowledge production. Of all academic disciplines, political thought is as good a place to start decolonizing as any because, as we have seen, its canon is dominated by white men (Omar, 2016).

While decolonization is a contested concept and it can take many forms, its applicability to political thought begins from the recognition that forms of knowledge, epistemologies, and pedagogies exist that were dismissed and suppressed by colonial domination: ‘legitimate’ knowledge was claimed to be that produced by white, European men. Decolonization, therefore, must involve bringing in non-white, non-European, and women authors, figures, and thinkers. It does not mean jettisoning the work of white men. Thinkers like Locke, Kant, and Mill are highly significant and influential figures, so should continue to be taught. But one of the ways in which they have been influential is by developing and propagating concepts and arguments that have been used to justify and promote colonialism. As such, we should continue to read these thinkers but do so critically, highlighting the colonial contexts within which their concepts, arguments, and theories were developed and advanced. The aim should not be to scapegoat, dismiss, or diminish the so-called ‘dead white men’ who have traditionally constituted the canon: to the contrary, it is only by placing these thinkers in their contexts and interrogating all aspects of their thought—including their often-neglected views on race and gender—that we can do justice to the sophistication and nuances of their arguments.

The feminist strategies identified above for theorizing gender in the works of political thinkers (criticizing sexism, recovering forgotten women thinkers, and creating new concepts) have their parallel when theorizing race: uncovering the racism of white thinkers; rediscovering neglected works of anti-racism; and reconceptualizing politics using new or repurposed terms, such as white supremacy (Mills, 1998: 120–126). As with women thinkers, the works of non-white thinkers included in this book are highly varied, from more scholarly works by postcolonial thinkers like Edward Said (Chapter 16) and Spivak to the slave narratives and speeches of Frederick Douglass (Chapter 30). Some of the thinkers we have included would not necessarily meet commonly held standards about what political theory should look like: the women’s rights and abolitionist activist Sojourner Truth (Chapter 2), for example, is not a political theorist in the sense that she does not provide a systematic, conceptually sophisticated, comprehensive, and rigorous theory. But her words are powerful, influential, and ultimately theoretically significant.

While ‘decolonizing’ involves both diversifying the canon by adding non-white authors and directly addressing the racist defences of colonialism found in the writings of canonical thinkers, it p. 11also entails reconsidering what knowledge is, who produces it, and how it is produced. This does not mean endorsing an ‘anything goes’ relativism but rather creating a space for different voices to speak and be heard. The aim is not to effect a crude levelling, wherein all voices are equally significant, but to deflate the ‘pretended universalism of modern Western philosophy’ (Maldonado-Torres et al., 2018: 76). Robbie Shilliam (2021) has helpfully characterized the work of decolonizing the study of politics in terms of three ‘manoeuvres’. First, we recontextualize, placing thinkers in their imperial and colonial contexts. Second, in the light of those newly emphasized contexts, we reconsider thinkers’ concepts and categories—we reconceptualize their ideas. Third, we reimagine the discipline, challenging the existing canon and bringing in voices from the margins. This is what we attempt to do in this textbook: to recontextualize, reconceptualize, and reimagine the contours of political thought.

Some may acknowledge that the thinkers of the past were often racist and sexist but argue that it is nonetheless anachronistic to judge those thinkers by the standards of our age. It might be claimed that the sexism and racism of Kant, for example, simply reflect the times in which he lived and wrote. But the ideas in any historical period are always varied and contested. While many thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, ignored or justified slavery and imperialism, many others strongly and explicitly opposed those institutions (Losurdo, 2014). Kant did not hold racist and sexist views because those views were universally held during his lifetime: he held them in opposition to those of his contemporaries who resisted and contested such views. It is true, of course, that the legitimacy and conventionality of ideas change over time. Almost no one today would explicitly defend or endorse slavery, and yet that is exactly what some of the canonical thinkers in this book did. Yet if all a thinker did was to reflect or repeat the common beliefs and opinions of their time, then they would not be worth reading. We read the likes of Kant, Locke, and Mill precisely because they challenged and upset the conventions and prejudices of their day and offered novel and even revolutionary arguments that transcend their context. If, therefore, we find sexist or racist assumptions or claims in their work, then it is legitimate to ask, given they were so adept at rising above and challenging the views held by their contemporaries, why could they not also challenge the racial and sexual prejudices of their time? It is because the thinkers in this book managed in some ways to transcend the historical contexts in which they wrote—creating something new—that their ideas remain influential today. That continuing influence is another reason why we should seek to expose and challenge their racism and sexism. As the American political philosopher Susan Moller Okin (1979: 3) puts it: ‘the analysis and criticism of the thoughts of political theorists of the past [are] not an arcane academic pursuit, but an important means of comprehending and laying bare the assumptions behind deeply rooted modes of thought that continue to affect people’s lives in major ways’.

That many great political thinkers held prejudicial and even contemptuous views towards those who were not able-bodied, property-owning, white males is an undeniable fact and we should not hide this fact behind spurious appeals to historical context. But nor should we stop reading a thinker on discovery of such views. An extreme example can be found in two thinkers who do not have chapters in this book but whom we have already encountered (in Section 1.3): Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. Both Schmitt and Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Although Schmitt was the more active and enthusiastic member, until their deaths, in 1985 and 1976 respectively, neither Schmitt nor Heidegger expressed any regret or remorse for their affiliation with the Nazis. Both are thus arguably complicit in the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews that was perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

Yet our view is that Schmitt and Heidegger should still be read today. To read a thinker is not to support their arguments, still less to endorse every single thing they ever wrote, said, or did. The works of any serious thinker are varied and open to competing interpretations. That Schmitt and Heidegger might have had interesting and significant things to say, despite their membership of the p. 12Nazi Party, is demonstrated by the fact that they have been read and used by very many subsequent thinkers from across the political spectrum, from conservatives to feminists, liberals to Marxists, and including Jewish thinkers, such as Arendt and Derrida. This does not mean that we should ignore their connection to Nazism. To the contrary, one reason to continue to read them is to see where they went wrong and consider how we can avoid the same fate. How could men so erudite, thoughtful, and cultured have supported such a despicable ideology? What traces—subtle or overt—of anti-Semitism or fascism can we find in their writings? If we can continue to read literal Nazis, and do so profitably, then, in our view, there is no thinker whose writings should be censored. We can legitimately avoid reading a thinker because they are uninteresting or unoriginal, but should not do so because they express hateful sentiments.

1.4 The canon of political thought: Key Points

The traditional canon of political thought is dominated by white, European men.

Feminist theorists have sought to expose and challenge the maleness of the canon by criticizing the sexism of canonical thinkers, recovering forgotten women thinkers, and creating new concepts, such as patriarchy and intersectionality.

Projects to decolonize political thought have focused on placing canonical thinkers in their colonial contexts, highlighting the contributions of non-white and non-European thinkers, and reflecting on the processes of knowledge production.

1.5 Overview of the book

This book is divided into nine themed Parts. Part I explores the ‘Boundaries of the Political’, reflecting on who and what is included or excluded in the political and why. Our first two chapters read ancient political thinkers—Plato and Socrates (Chapter 2) and Aristotle (Chapter 3)—alongside nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black feminist thinkers—Sojourner Truth (Chapter 2) and bell hooks (Chapter 3)—whose experience of oppression leads them to contest boundaries that limit, exclude, and hierarchize. We then examine the ancient Indian thinker Kautilya (Chapter 4), whose work provides points of comparison and contrast with thinkers from the Western canon. Part II, ‘Social Contract Theory and Its Critics’, looks at the work of classical social contract thinkers, interrogating the often patriarchal, racist, and colonialist underpinnings of their work and examining critics of the social contract—both contemporaries of the classical contract thinkers and present-day critics. Part III, ‘Liberal Modernity and Colonial Domination’, explores the responses of different thinkers to the development of modernity, including liberal and anti-liberal thinkers, revolutionaries and reactionaries. We pay special attention to the ways in which modernity is entwined with colonialism. In Part IV, ‘Freedom and Revolution’, we consider how freedom has been understood in both European and anti-colonial contexts, reflecting on both opponents and defenders of revolution. Part V, ‘Inclusion and Equality’, considers feminist, multiculturalist, and postcolonial thinkers and their analyses of equality and calls for inclusion. All of the thinkers in this book are to some extent theorists of power; in Part VI, ‘Violence, Power, and Resistance’, we look at thinkers who have explicitly reflected on the nature of power and in so doing have defended or condemned the use of violence. In Part VII, ‘The Liberal Self and Black Consciousness’, we problematize the abstract liberal self in the light of Black consciousness, placing two of the most influential white liberals, Immanuel Kant (Chapter 29) and John Rawls (Chapter 32), side by side with two of the most important African-American theorists of racial oppression, Frederick Douglass (Chapter 30) and W.E.B. Du Bois (Chapter 31). In this book we endorse a broad understanding of politics, and this is reflected in Part VIII, p. 13‘Sex and Sexuality’, which examines thinkers who have explored the political dimensions of sex. We end, in Part IX, ‘The Environment, Human, and Non-Human’, by moving beyond the human world to consider the politics of nature and our interactions with non-human life.

Some chapters cover a single thinker while others look at two or more thinkers, allowing us to draw out pertinent comparisons and contrasts. Chapter 39, on ‘Indigenous ecologies’, is not organized around thinkers at all, showing that not all traditions of thought foreground the contributions of individual authors. Every chapter of this book will introduce a thinker or thinkers, providing an overview of their main writings, concepts, and arguments and placing them in their historical and intellectual contexts (with special attention given to the contexts and legacies of male domination and European expansion); will explore any tensions, contradictions, exclusions, or unspoken assumptions in the thinker’s work; and consider the reception and influence of the works of the thinker or thinkers and the different interpretations to which they have been subject. As noted in Section 1.3, we do not endorse any particular methodology for reading texts, and our chapter contributors work in a variety of academic disciplines. Yet, while we have chosen thinkers whom we think can help us explain and understand politics today, we recognize that appreciation of the contexts within which thinkers wrote is important for understanding their arguments. As such, chapters try both to place thinkers in their relevant contexts, and also to explain how thinkers have transcended those contexts, producing novel ideas that remain of interest to us today.

To help you get to grips with some often complex ideas, each of the following chapters includes a number of pedagogical features, including a chapter guide that outlines the aims and contents of the chapter; ‘Key Thinker’ boxes that provide short summaries of significant thinkers who are not the subjects of chapters in the book; ‘Key Concept’ boxes covering both novel concepts introduced by specific thinkers and common concepts that are used by thinkers in particular ways; annotated Further Reading lists, covering primary writings by each thinker and secondary writings that act as commentaries on or critiques of the thinkers; and a list of study questions that encourage you to reflect on and evaluate what you have learned.

While we hope that you find this book useful, our intention is that it should complement and enhance—rather than replace—reading the works of the thinkers themselves. We have provided comprehensive overviews of each thinker, but all interpretations are necessarily partial and a strong understanding of any thinker requires reading their primary writings. Above all, we hope that you come away from this book with an appreciation of the many ways in which political ideas reflect, inform, and change our world. The relationship between political theory and ‘real-world’ politics can be complex and at times even appear tenuous. Debates in political theory can seem arcane or self-referential. This may be because, since the twentieth century, most political theory has been produced within universities, with academics writing for other academics and acting as the gatekeepers of what counts as ‘proper’ theory. As bell hooks (1994: 64) has argued, work which is not written in an ‘academic’ style can find itself delegitimized and designated as inferior in a way that establishes and reinforces hierarchies. But as hooks (ibid.: 69) goes on to argue, simply rejecting theory and dismissing theorists only compounds this problem: anti-intellectualism is merely the flipside of elitism, with both promoting the erroneous idea that ‘there is a split between theory and practice’. For hooks, theory—and its production, circulation, and consumption—is not divorced from practice but is itself a type of practice. hooks wishes to emphasize the necessity of theory to liberation struggles, but we could say the same of conservative or reactionary struggles: all political movements depend on theory in some way. The formulation and articulation of political demands necessarily rely on a conceptual vocabulary—of justice, rights, freedom, equality, etc.—that is fundamentally theoretical. All attempts to change the world and attempts to resist such change are ultimately normative: they rely on claims about what the world should look like. This book provides you with a wide range of theoretical analyses of our world and may even give you some ideas for how you can change it.

Take your learning further by accessing the online resources for a library of web links for each chapter, and detailed biographies for every thinker covered in this book.

p. 14Further reading

  • Arneil, B. and Hirschmann, N.J. (eds) (2016) Disability and Political Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Valuable collection on an important topic of growing interest to political theorists.

  • Browning, G. (2016) A History of Modern Political Thought: The Question of Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Useful volume which in its first part explains some approaches to studying the history of political thought, including those of Collingwood, Skinner, Derrida, and Foucault, and in its second part applies those approaches to some canonical thinkers.

  • Buxton, R. and Whiting, L. (eds) (2020) The Philosopher Queens: The Lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women. London: Unbound.
  • Readable introductory collection of essays on women philosophers.

  • Dallmayr, F. (ed.) (2010) Comparative Political Theory: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Set of essays on Islamic, Indian, and East Asian thought, with a useful introductory chapter by the editor.

  • Dryzek, J.S., Honig, B., and Philips, A. (eds) (2008) The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Comprehensive set of introductory essays on a variety of themes, issues, and concepts by some of the world’s leading political theorists.

  • Edwards, A. and Townshend, J. (eds) (2002) Interpreting Modern Political Philosophy: From Machiavelli to Marx. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Essays focusing on the interpretative debates surrounding thinkers from the white, male canon.

  • Gabrielson, T., Hall, C., Meyer, J.M., and Schlosberg, D. (eds) (2016) The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wide-ranging collection covering a diversity of concepts, approaches, debates, and thinkers.

  • Klosko, G. (ed.) (2011) The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Contains entries on methodological approaches as well as traditions, themes, and concepts.

  • Park, P.K.J. (2013) Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780–1830. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Explores the ways in which Africa and Asia contributed to the development of philosophy and the ways in which they were excluded from the canon of philosophy.

  • Pinder, S.O. (ed.) (2020) Black Political Thought: From David Walker to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Compilation of writings mainly by African-American thinkers and activists.

  • Sandel, M.J. (2010) Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? London: Penguin.
  • Highly accessible introduction to some key debates in Anglo-American political philosophy, focused on the concept of distributive justice.

  • Shanley, M.L. and Pateman, C. (eds) (1991) Feminist Interpretations and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Collection of feminist interpretations of (mainly male) canonical thinkers from Plato to Habermas.

  • p. 15Shilliam, R. (2021) Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Functions as both an illuminating discussion of decolonizing the discipline of politics—including the sub-discipline of political theory—and a fine example of how it can be done.

  • Skinner, Q. (2002) Visions of Politics, vol. I: Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Collection of methodological essays of outstanding quality and significance by arguably the most influential historian of ideas of the last century.

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