An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff

Title: An Introduction to Political Philosophy

Author: Jonathan Wolff

Publisher: Oxford University Press

ISBN: 9780199296095

 This book offers a clear overview of some of the main issues in political philosophy. It is written and structured in such a way that it is accessible without being unintelligent or inaccurate. Teachers might use the book to familiarise themselves with any given topic, or they might find passages for students to read. Many of the sections within each chapter are rather long, but each contains a variety of interesting ideas.

The Introduction to the book (pgs 1-5) offers a nice discussion of what political philosophy is.

Chapter One, entitled ‘The State of Nature’, contains a particularly clear explanation of Hobbes’s ideas (pgs 8-17), as well as a lucid discussion of Rousseau’s views (pgs 24-29). Teachers might present the views of these two theorists together, and ask students to compare and contrast them. Students are likely to find the section on Anarchism (pgs 29-32) engaging, also; Wolff looks at how Anarchism might be defended, but ultimately argues that it would not work in practice.

Chapter Two, entitled ‘Justifying the State’, is especially fertile. Each of its sections is rather long; for this reason, teachers would do well to reformulate the views contained within them, or select passages from them, to present to students. The section entitled ‘The State’ (pgs 36-37) offers an accessible discussion of how we might understand states. The section entitled ‘The Social Contract’ (pgs 39-48) looks at the role that consent can play in justifying the state. It looks at the idea of consent critically, and from a variety of perspectives. This section is valuable in that it treats, in an accessible way, an issue that informs much contemporary political theory.

Chapter Three, entitled ‘Who Should Rule?’, contains an accessible introduction (pgs 62-66) to the debates surrounding democracy. This introduction is helpful in that it acknowledges and explains democracy’s unpopularity with many of the great historical thinkers. The opening sub-section (pgs 66-68) of the section entitled ‘Plato against democracy’ presents an accessible account of Plato’s criticisms of democracy, and an overview of his proposed solutions. Much of the rest of the discussion of Plato’s ideas is, however, lengthy and inaccessible. And the treatment of Rousseau’s ideas, which follows, is pitched at too high a level for (most) secondary students. The sub-section on participatory democracy (pgs 90-93) is both accessible and interesting. It could be presented to students in conjunction with some of the ideas from the section entitled ‘Representative democracy’ (pgs 93-101).

Chapter Four, entitled ‘The Place of Liberty’, offers an exploration of John Stuart Mill’s political views. The chapter is incredibly fertile. Several of the sub-sections are especially accessible, including: ‘One simple principle’ (pgs 104-107), which offers a succinct overview of Mill’s position on liberty; ‘An illustration: freedom of thought’ (pgs 107-111), which is particularly engaging; ‘Individuality and progress’ (pgs 121-124), which is philosophically fertile; and ‘Marxist objections to liberalism’ (pgs 128-129), which looks at Marx’s claim that a focus on liberties undermines genuine community. Teachers might present any of these sub-sections to students, or select ideas from them for re-formulation.

Chapter Five, entitled ‘The Distribution of Property’, gives a detailed treatment of distributive justice. Much of what it contains would be inaccessible to most secondary students. However, it does provide a useful account of Jan Pen’s ‘Grand Parade’ (pgs 135-137), which clearly illustrates the inequalities in modern Western societies. This illustration could be used to set students thinking about distributive justice. The chapter also contains a clear explanation of John Rawls’ theory of domestic justice (pgs 152-176). Rawls’ theory is very important in contemporary political philosophy, and it is not easy for beginners to achieve a full appreciation of its merits. This chapter is useful in that it presents a clear account of his theory, and some of the most significant criticisms that have been directed at it. Teachers might use it to familiarise themselves with Rawls; they might then select for presentation some of his more accessible ideas. The author offers a nice analogy for understanding what Rawls’ original position is requires its decision-makers to do (pg 159); this could be presented to students as it is, in order to prompt discussion.

Chapter Six, entitled ‘Individuality, Justice, Feminism’, includes an interesting section called ‘Rights of Women’ (see esp. pgs 182-186), which teachers might use to locate ideas for discussion in lessons. The subsection ‘Affirmative action’ (pgs 186-189) is both accessible and engaging.

Comment on this article