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What is political theory? Epistemological implications

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Political theory: epistemological specificities[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Explain assess?
Axiological neutrality prescriptions, ideology?
Objectivity subjectivity?
True right, good?
Realism metaphysical?

We will review some broad introductory ideas about what political theory is. Traditional political science is largely inspired by political science based on empirical observations and hypothesis testing. The use of theory is not proper to political theory. We can say that in any discipline of political science, theory is mobilized. We are going to put forward a dimension that is not foreseen by analytical theory, which is the normative dimension. When we talk about normative theory, that is to say all the issues that lie behind certain examples, the presence of this normative dimension creates strong tensions with the traditional foundation of the discipline that is objective, neutral or based on a distance between the object and the subject.

In general, there are a number of objections. When classical political science aims to explain normative policy theory, it is rather to evaluate. When it is above all a matter of being neutral from an axiological point of view, namely in relation to values, from the moment when there is an evaluation dimension, normative policy theory has a prescriptive dimension that characterizes it. It is not only a matter of saying how things work, but also how things should work, so making prescriptions even if this is not inherent in any form of political theory at all. The evaluation opens the door to such considerations somewhere.

From the moment we mobilize theories that are supposed to be moral, it is clear that there is a dose of subjectivity in the eyes of the vast majority of social science researchers that we do not have or should obviously not have in more objective, positivist or realistic approaches. Traditional political science, it seems, aims at the real or valid, i.e. the most likely way to know whether a reality is factually corroborated, whereas with the evaluation dimension, one seeks rather to pronounce oneself on the correctness, good or not, of a political or other decision. Finally, it is also possible to say that traditionally, political science is based in a mainstream. In a mainstream on a realistic posture, there are people you can discover. When moral theories are mobilized, many complain of metaphysical accusations against political theory, namely that political theory would mobilize categories, somewhere, that have moral or metaphysical validity, but do not tell us much about how the world works.

This epistemological quarrel, these tension lines are not solved. There is still a lot of epistemological debate on modalities to try to interlock these levels more closely.

From death to the rebirth of political theory?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In political science, there was a time when the arrival of positivist approaches to politics was traced back to the twentieth century when, in the end, political science was mostly done by philosophers. Until Marx, the idea was to think differently about "what's the best political system?" or "how can we best organize a political system so that it is preferable to others? ». Somewhere in this philosophical history, the normative dimension was already inscribed in this philosophical history, was the ultimate basis for reflection. Marx had a very strong scientific basis, but he also wanted to do so on the basis of a rigorous explanation and understanding of reality, trying to propose a model that would have been a better model than others.

The advent of positivism, which is partly part of the work of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle in the 1930s and 1940s in Austria, established, for some, the death of political philosophy as for Peter Laslett, who in 1956 wrote "political philosophy is dead" in Philosophy, Politics and Society. The idea at that time was to highlight the need to cleanse political analysis or analysis of political systems of any metaphysical and philosophical heritage. These categories were considered to be non-decisive, were not considered scientifically arguable categories for the simple reason that they cannot be measured and that they fall within subjective positions. The moral norms of a purely positivist posture become subjective opinions that everyone can have, but for which it is not possible to make a real decision. For example, we do not know exactly if God exists, we do not know what is good, we do not know what is bad, we vaguely know what can be right, we vaguely know what can be legal, but, somewhere, these are questions that are not decisible as an explanation based on the logical falsification of a hypothesis, especially as with Karl Popper.

With the positivist program, there is the idea of gradually removing from political jargon, and therefore from the jargon of political theory, a whole bunch of concepts that could not be operationalized and brought back to a state of the world. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of concepts like freedom, justice, ideals and moral rights that, if removed, lead to a difficulty that revolves around these issues. This is the case, for example, of functionalism and systemalism, where the idea was to have political theories, or a theory of politics at least of the State in this case, which was intended to account for a certain number of phenomena, but without making any pronouncement on the normative validity of these models. Systemism was not about whether a system was right, good, false or bad; it was about trying to explain how it was supposed to work to preserve itself. The same is true of functionalism, where the idea was not to say whether an actor or institution was performing a just or morally desirable function; that actor was performing a function and the question was whether it made sense or not in relation to a holistic whole. Marxism, on the other hand, saw political theory as one more decoy in the bourgeois justification apparatus of class domination, namely political theory as a kind of legitimation discourse that somehow continued to reproduce the existing norms of domination. The Marxist policy of liberal political theory was in this sense going in the direction of a theory somewhere of legitimizing an existing order and not at all of a critical theory.

Whether it be Marxism, positivism or other, it is clear that this political philosophy has been the subject of fairly strong attacks by Lasset and Easton, who have had to announce the death of discipline.

From the 1960s onwards, theoretical reflection is back in vogue[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The 1960s were also and above all characterized by critical approaches in sociology in literary studies and philosophy, which led to an increasingly radical questioning of the positivist as such. With the 1960s, we are talking about the linguistic turn, this idea which dates back to Berger or Luckmann and Foucault, who brought a partial decompartmentalization at the level of social sciences and in any case more in sociology at that time than in political science, which was still based on its rather neo-positivist understanding of approaches with the idea that somehow the epistemological presuppositions of logical positivism n There has been an increasingly radical critique of all ontological presuppositions of social reality with the entry of all that is discourse, the understanding and acceptance of the idea of contingency, the idea of social relativity, and so on. There is like an epistemological innovation that makes it possible to work on the same reality, a priori the same empirical reality, but questioned by different approaches giving different answers.

There is also a critique of the observable, because what is observable and what is not is questioned not only through observation instruments, but also on the very meaning of observation. This period is also characterized by new social phenomena such as decolonization, the peace movement, the civil rights movement in the United States, the exit from the Second World War with everything that goes hand in hand in terms of reconstruction not only of economic societies, but also social construction of societies, everything that goes hand in hand with the understanding of the Shoah, the understanding of the Nazi phenomenon with the Frankfurt school to try to understand how this was possible. There were all kinds of phenomena involved, which obviously demanded and generated a particular attention on the part of philosophers who made it possible to develop alternative approaches to the classical positivist approach, such as feminism and communitarianism, and who have thematicized and tried to provide answers to these new challenges such as peace in the world, North-South imbalance or economic distribution at the global level.

This has, in part, given new meaning to political theory and political philosophy as a discipline that is necessary to try to address these issues, which, whether we watch it or not, have an inherent prescriptive and normative dimension. Today, it is possible to listen to any specialist, realistic in international relations, who is going to give his opinion in the most objective, cold and analytical manner possible, but if he has to answer the question "must we invade Syria", whether he says "yes" or "no" beyond his analytical rigour, he will also say something about what to do. When we say something about what to do, whether we like it or not, we are also saying something that goes beyond the explanatory analysis in the strict sense, but also opens up to considerations of desirable or undesirable nature of what to do. We all agree today that if the UN countries wanted to occupy Syria for supposedly getting rid of the Islamic state, it would take about three hours. 50 million soldiers on one side and 20,000 on the other, a priori, without being a great military strategist, one could imagine that the 1990 Gulf War had a far less favourable balance of power. If these same nations do not wish to go, it may be because there are general considerations, but perhaps because there are obviously geopolitical reasons, but also other considerations of equality, legitimacy and a whole bunch of things that make some things less ethically acceptable to some public opinion than others, and the question, of course, is whether we can talk about this.

The bet of the political theorists presented in this course is that it is possible to have a rational, coherent discourse on issues that fall within the realm of norms and moral and justice decisions.

One of the dominant epistemological oppositions today: modernism and post-modernism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The quarrel that remains now is that the problem with liberal political theory based on the idea is that, according to them, there are values such as freedom or equality that can be approached in a more or less general way if it is not universal. The question of universality is problematic, but it is possible to discuss these values objectively. According to Howarth the modernist project « aimed to ground knowledge, ethical beliefs and judgments on some objective and essential foundation, whether this be ‘ the way the world really is’, our human subjectivity, our knowledge of history, or our uses of language. The post-modern attitude points out the necessary limitations in this project to master completely the nature of reality […] These universal and all-embracing narrative tend to obliterate other narratives, resulting in the triumph of consensus, uniformity and scientific reason over conflict, diversity, and different forms of knowledge ».

Modernism has not only had as its competitor or antagonist positivism for the reasons evoked, but also the whole critical approach that encompasses a whole galaxy of approaches that challenges the epistemological possibility of even being able to have a moral reasoning overlooking the earthly phenomenon. The reason given is that we do not have abstract and universal moral standards or criteria of justice. For the post-structuralists and postmodernists who criticize the project of modernity, a project which was based on the idea of a reason that would gradually unfold teleologically in the world allowing an improvement of the world through our knowledge, the more we knew about the world, the more we could improve it and the more we could have led to a world in which it made a better life than in the previous world, this whole project of progress and progress.

This opens the door to a new conception of our values, of our societies that no longer seeks the ultimate explanations, values, morally founded decisions, but rather aims to explain how conceptions of justice, conceptions of morality and conceptions of power acquire meaning only within the framework of the relations of power that decline and determine them. For post-structuralists, morality is one discourse among others that serves as a legitimization, sometimes it can say the right things. These approaches challenge part of the political theory that it is possible to define general and universalist norms. The term "truth" is completely framed by these perspectives. In the worst case, truth becomes a subjective belief and in the best case a kind of crystallization of a discourse that allows social agents to be given norms by which they can collectively define norms as being true or better than a certain pretended state of the world.

At first, Karl Popper proposed a critique of inductivism saying by a particular mode of syllogism that it is therefore not possible from a logical point of view to corroborate a theory or hypothesis by the accumulation of observations. For Popper, we must find another criterion of truth. For him, what is true is not what is corroborated by the facts, but what is true and in reality is that what I have established is false. We approach truth not by accumulating knowledge about what we believe to be true, but we approach truth by being very clear and clear about what is false. The idea of falsifying the hypothesis thus to show that the hypothesis is false is basically a way of progressing towards our truth knowing progressively that we will have to find better theories to approach this truth, but without knowing exactly what it is all about. Popper was already critical of the idea of truth about the possibility of that truth.

Post-structuralists question it by showing how the call to these values, which are intended to be superior, because they are universalizable, general, characteristic of a certain conception of humanity, for example, in reality operate backwards, i. e. by creating discrimination, marginalization or even establishing binary categories. Post "thematizes how general and abstract norms lead to occultation phenomena, as Foucault said, to render forms of difference abject. They are also concerned about a certain type of political theories that aim by postulates at trying to produce general norms. There is an epistemological quarrel that remains in the discipline.

Political theory: of what?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Somewhere in any operation of knowledge in the social sciences, but especially in the political sciences, there are at least three levels to be distinguished:

  • ontological or descriptive level: which would be that of questioning the characteristics of the phenomena we observe ranging from the definition of concepts, to the question of construction by concepts, the type of empirical phenomenon and abstract concepts on which we work.
  • Analytical level: at a certain point, we need these concepts and constructions that allow us to characterize the essential properties of the phenomenon we want to analyze. It is at least a question of trying to explain the phenomenon that is happening and in order to try to explain we need theories. The types of theories we mobilize are not necessarily the same because the questions are different.
  • Theoretical-normative or evaluation level: what judgment can be made, what type of evaluation can we carry out and what types of justification can be used to establish the legitimacy or otherwise of this phenomenon.

We must keep in mind that the type of theoretical viewpoint we have on these three levels is not necessarily the same. If we want to analyze the characteristics of a phenomenon, we must mobilize a type of theoretical and questioning tools that are not necessarily the same at the three levels.

The ontological level: what is phenomenon A?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

There are several types of possible answers on what human nature is, are we political and virtuous animals like the Aristotle postulate, is man a wolf to man like the Hobbes postulate, are we entities capable of reason and autonomy like the Kant advance or as Kant questions, are we the product of the cultural and linguistic context in which we live, Rousseau thinks.

All these questions claim to go to the ontological basis of this phenomenon called "human nature". Obviously, we are all confronted with this kind of ontological problem and choice in our private, personal, emotional and professional lives. It is likely that during our life experiences, we mobilize different ontologies to designate the same phenomenon. A certain number of a priori and ontological conceptions that we mobilize to a large extent will influence our view not only analytically, but also morally. Philosophers, starting from different premises on whom we are or more fundamental on our ontological essence, deduce subsequently conceptions of morality, the right decision or the decision of the righteous which will be different. So the Warren postulate in the article What Is Political Theory/Philosophy? published in 1989: « Ontological decisions determine not only domains and criteria of explanatory adequacy, but also the way one conceptualize the normative possibilities of politics ».

Ontological questions not only analytically determine what happens, but also what is possible from a normative point of view. Ontological questions not only determine our ability to determine how the world works, but it also gives us an idea of what we can expect from the world from the way we understand it ontologically. For the anarchists in international relations and the realists, without a small war or a balance of forces, there is no peace possible, he does not see it, it is not in their adages. For liberal institutionalists, there are, through procedures, negotiations, constructions and forms of solidarity, ways of avoiding disasters in the behaviour of states. The method of defining the capacities of the state actor in this case will largely influence what we are likely to find at the end and, above all, what we are likely to characterize as defensible, indefensible, fair, unjust, good or bad.

The analytical level: what explains / allows us to understand the A phenomenon?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In the book Petit cours d' autodéfense intellectuelle published in 2005, Normand Baillargeon writes that « if the basic structures of a society are just, citizens do not rebel, the citizens of our society do not rebel, therefore, the basic structures of our society are just. ».

With this quote, we are dealing with an analytical implication, with a state of fact, but based on an ontological theory that is anything but obvious. The problem is that if we don't see that there is a problem in this quote, we come to a conclusion that is morally charged, but perhaps not justifiable in terms of the logical validity of the argument. It is political theory itself to try to clarify these elements. Normand Baillargeon poses a logical validity problem, but it is based on something that we do not know philosophically, but that we know sociologically. If we were talking about a society that we did not know, we could imagine that this is true, but we know it is not true because we have some sociological knowledge that makes us wonder if it is true. It is possible to testify daily about shortcuts, how a whole bunch of conclusions are based on premises that are from a wobbly sociological and logical point of view.

The theoretical-normative or Evaluative level: what judgment can we make about phenomenon A, i.e. how can we justify it?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In Moral philosophy and its anti-pluralist bias published in 1996, Bhikhu Parekh postulates « Politics is concerned with how we should live as a community and has an inescapable prescriptive dimension. However, how we should live depends on who we are, what choices are open to us, what our current predicament is, etc., and cannot be decided without a patient end probing theoretical reflection on our traditions, character, history and social structure. A well considered view of political philosophy therefore needs to emphasize both its contemplative and critical, reflective and prescriptive, dimensions ».

These three levels are related to the prescriptive level that is inherent in political action and the type of questioning that arises and is also dependent on the other levels. We also need to understand the meaning of the words and the categories we use to understand how the logical fit of all these words makes sense.

Warren recalls that « Political science is unique among the social sciences in that its domain is preconstituted by normative questions. Stated otherwise, such questions are instrinsic to the possibility of a political science ». This has a very particular impact in relation to political science because, unlike sociology and contrary to geography, normative questions are the DNA of our questions, politics is a normative approach by definition. As political analysts, we want to disconnect it and reduce it to an object that can be analyzed, measured and apprehended in order to determine the logics that allow us to explain electoral strategies or the advent of phenomena. However, the fact remains that at the grassroots level, political questioning is a normative questioning. Therefore, normative questions are included in the genetic heritage of our objects. It is possible to decide not to treat them, to say that they no longer exist. Moreover, it is generally the type of issues that make people activist, engage, mobilize, challenge, act and revolt. What brings people to the streets is because there is something about the normative dimension inherent in the political science that mobilizes them.

Political theory: to do what?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Political theory can help determine and justify the criteria for living together:

  • Conceptual analysis of the constitutive categories of political reflection such as power, state, community, justice, etc;

analysis of moral theories that allow us to apprehend and evaluate politics such as utilitarianism, the theory of rights, liberalism, communitarianism, etc.

  • Analysis of metaethical categories that allow moral judgements such as universalism, relativism, reason, etc. to be made;
  • Analyzing the relevance of new conceptual categories of apprehension of politics such as globalization, supranationalism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and so on;

¨*moral/theoretical analysis/evaluation of political phenomena such as decisions, public policies, etc.

Political theory attempts to find ways of justifying the "superiority" of some political arrangements and decisions over others. We mobilize theoretical tools in order to try, in this perspective, to have public actions and political decisions in the sense of our political language that is as justified as possible or consistent with a certain number of theories. There are a lot of possibilities. Political theory deals with the conceptual analysis of a whole bunch of categories that fit into our language. To use a concept without defining it means to be only "noise", it doesn't attribute any meaning, and so that it is not a noise but an information, it is necessary to define this concept and to mobilize it. To define it, you have to make choices, you can't define Hobbes and Rousseau at the same time in the same sentence. The term "republic" and "democracy" is not used in the same way.

The problem of course arises with new concepts such as "globalisation","cosmopolitanism" or "global justice" and the concept of "future generations". This implies ontological reflection. At a high level of abstraction, a concept does not mean much. In political theory, concepts are used and it is already necessary to know what we are referring to, how these concepts participate in a certain understanding, what is the nature of this concept, is it just a concept because public debate the institute as a concept, or is it a concept that has been constructed analytically for a whole bunch of reasons.

Political theory deals with conceptual analysis in order to make these concepts more effective in making sense of the world around us and to propose ideas that can be mobilized later. There is also quite a metathorical reflection on what are the great meta moral frameworks that make it possible to give meaning and different theories that we can mobilize to apprehend phenomena. This universe plays with theories and metatheories, with the application of theories to make sense of contemporary phenomena. There is always a back and forth between these levels, namely that focusing on particular cases will lead to analyses that can inspire much more abstract and philosophical debates later on. This back-and-forth is between the more applied level and the more theoretical level, and all this fits into the framework of a political theory, and in the end, what interests us is that of moral evaluation.

For Salvatore Veca in' 'Ethics and Politics published in 1999 « Political philosophy can and must work hard to rationally define criteria for the moral evaluation of institutions, rules and collective choices: in short, politics. After all, institutions, rules and collective choices have important effects on our life chances, rights and well-being. Why should we not bring them before the court for this limited and impoverished practical reason that we have? ». Two important concepts emerge: the concept of "moral evaluation", but also the criterion "rationally". This current of political theory starts from the idea that it is possible to rationally establish defences of theories that are argued defences of theories for reasons of their own superiority to others. This is done in relation to the rational and intersubjective criteria for determining the superiority of a philosophical discourse constructed from one theory to another. These people ask themselves why we could rationally discuss the factors that explain voting, non-vote, peace or war and why we could not have a rational discussion about the moral theories of justice that allow us to position ourselves critically or by supporting them with a certain type of decision.

When we talk about normative policy theory, it is an approach that aims to analyse the justifications that allow us to support or not the legitimacy of certain arrangements. For Daryl Glaser in "Normative theory" published in 1995, « Normative political theory is a way of talking about social institutions, especially those bound up with the exercise of public power, and about the relationship of individuals to those institutions. It scrutinizes the justifications given for existing political arrangements and the justifiability of possible alternative arrangments ». The key word that is important to us here is "justification", and by "justification" we generally mean the logical coherence of the theories that we are going to use. These theories can be coherent and their internal coherence will make them more justified than inconsistent theories.

For Beetham in The Legitimation of Power published in 1991, « Power relationship is not legitimate because people believe in its legitimacy, but because it can be justified in terms of their beliefs ». In analytical philosophy, the aim is not always to arrive at a positive model of what should be done, but showing that the existing models are incoherent already helps to know that this solution cannot be taken as a justified solution.

When asked about legitimacy in political theory, it's not something legitimate because people believe in it, it's the concept of rationality with respect to values that Weber used to explain and understand why people obey the law. Philosophically, the question of whether a power relationship or a law is legitimate does not arise from the fact that people believe in it, but rather from the fact that if by virtue of their beliefs it can be rationally justified, it is the justification that gives legitimacy to the law, the decision or the power relationship and not the discourse or acceptance we have. It is in this logic that the fact that 80% or 85% of Americans are in favour of the death penalty is not an argument to say that the death penalty is legitimate because it is justified because otherwise philosophy would be that a kind of majority decision, what people believe and what is good. There are a lot of currents that think so. We start from the idea that what makes the difference and transforms this famous opinion or argument is what interests us is basically the question of justification.

Political Theory: How?[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In What Is Political Theory/Philosophy? published in 1989, Warren distinguishes between different ways of making political theory, i. e. philosophy of science, the history of political ideas, conceptual analysis, analytical theory such as rational choice or neo-marxism, interpretative and even hermeneutical theories, or critical theory, post-modernism and poststructuralism.

Thus, it brings out three dimensions of political philosophy:

  • ontological analysis: « Ontological decisions determine not only domains and criteria of explanatory adequacy, but also the way one conceptualize the normative possibilities of politics » ;
  • epistemological analysis: « [Such questions] have to do with the authority of theories with respect to the world they purport to explain » ;
  • normative analysis: « [questions] having to do with normative judgment. […] Assuming that the relevant aspects of a political domain are known, how are they to be judged? What are the criteria of judgment, and how are they related to fundamental human values? What modes of political organization would maximize these values? ».

Political Theory: Conclusive Elements[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

In political theory, four assumptions can be distinguished:

  • the normative and evaluation dimension of political theory;
  • the abstract dimension of political theory;
  • political theory is neither an ideological discourse nor the presentation of the actors' discourse, it aims to propose rational, argued and coherent justifications of the existing political arrangements and decisions: very important point political theory perhaps you have any state of the Marxist epistemologist for all the innovative list that thinks so, but in any case as it is envisaged by the authors of which we are going to speak;
  • political theory is marked by conflict, opposition and controversy, it is not a homogeneous discipline and political theorists do not adhere to the same epistemological premises, the same conception of truth or the same criteria of validity. Political theory is not an ideological discourse or a mere philosophical transcription of the actors' discourse, i. e. of the actors' beliefs, but it aims to propose rational, argued and coherent justifications. The basic methodological elements are contained in these three words. There are many different ways of doing political theory and many conflicts and political conflicts.

As Michael Freeden shows in his book Ideology, Political Theory and Political Philosophy, published in 2004, basically, political theory revolves around six approaches:

  1. a meticulous construction of the argument;
  2. prescriptive prescriptions establishing criteria for public action: suggest norms that would be more desirable than others and propose solutions to moral dilemmas;
  3. the production of insightful and new ideas: concepts come from somewhere, concepts have a history and genealogy and sometimes understanding this genealogy is a way of apprehending and questioning why the meaning of these concepts has changed.
  4. genealogical exploration of origins, continuities and changes of theories/concepts: deconstructions in the sense of critical analysis of the relevance of paradigms to try to show the flaws for, a proponent of solutions, to make these paradigms evolve. Then, the concepts must be problematized. The same concept is expressed in different conceptions and forms cases that become traditions, paradigms and theories that inspire analysis;
  5. deconstruction (critical) of paradigms;
  6. analysis of concepts and "clusters" of concepts.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]