Political Theory’s Methodological Turn?

Notes, ‘From Ideal Principles to Real Politics: Methodological Perspectives in Political Theory’ (18-19 June 2012, UCL)

In recent years, political theorists have become growingly interested in the methodological aspects of the discipline, specifically in questioning the role of political theory and the relation between abstract theories and the real world of politics. The two-day workshop brought together speakers from varying theoretical persuasions to debate these central questions.

Two camps in the debate were clearly present. In what one might call the ‘utopian’ camp, Zofia Stemplowska (Then Warwick, now Oxford) analysed the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory in Rawlsian thought, and argued that despite common critiques, the more abstract level of theory is a fundamental part that cannot be dispensed with. David Estlund (Brown) presented a more radical position, arguing that the standards of justice are designed for a utopian world where we assume all moral requirements are complied with, and that a theory of justice should therefore ignore ‘bad facts’.

The ‘realist’ camp, on the other hand, presented a case against the overly abstract. Jonathan Wolff (UCL) challenged what he called ‘the naïve model’, according to which political theory is merely an applied form of abstract philosophy. Wolff argued that we ought to begin our theorising from where we are now, and suggested a model of political theory which is particular and pointing to specific values neglected by public policy, rather than striving for some holistic truth. Kai Spiekerman (LSE) presented a model for a realistic normative theory, and discussed the place of feasibility constraints, which he argued to exist both on the individual and collective level. Robert Jubb (UCL) introduced Bernard Williams’s critique of Rawls, arguing that political theory is categorically distinct from ethics, and should be focused on questions of stability and civil order. Jubb argued, however, that Williams and Rawls (properly understood) are more similar than is commonly thought.

Some speakers chose to apply different methods on the range between utopianism and realism to address specific questions. Mark Stears (Oxford) argued for a realistic yet hopeful account of radical democracy, which places much emphasis on passion, doubt and a sense of togetherness. Laura Valentini (UCL) asked whether it can be said that we have a duty to create just global institutions, given that there isn’t an agent capable to fulfil this duty. Finally, Constanze Binder (Rotterdam) addressed the problem of policy cycles in Amartya Sen’s comparative approach. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the debate was not settled by the time of the closing statements.

[a shorter version of this post appeared in the Tavistock Times]

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