Political Philosophy

Title: Political Philosophy

Editor: Anthony Quinton

Publisher: Oxford University Press

 This book presents a series of political philosophical essays. Most of the essays are pitched at a high level; they are, therefore, only really suitable for older students.

Quinton’s introduction to the book (pgs 1-8) provides a useful (but heavy-going) overview of what political philosophy is. Teachers might use this to familiarise themselves with the field. It is worth noting that this introduction was written prior to the advent of John Rawls’s major work A Theory of Justice – a book which is widely credited with reviving the practice of political philosophy. The claims that Quinton makes regarding the perceived decline in political philosophy’s relevance are, then, dated.

The essay entitled ‘Politics, Philosophy, Ideology’, by P. H. Partidge, contains a nice discussion of ideology (pg 44, beginning ‘In a sense…’ and ending ‘…upsurge and agitation?’). This passage discusses the role of ideology in effecting positive changes historically, and what we are to make of ideology in light of the positive, but irrational, results that it has wrought. It could be presented to students to read an discuss.

The essay entitled ‘Are There Any Natural Rights?’ by H. L. A. Hart, (pgs 53-66), is probably too stylistically complicated for secondary students. Nonetheless, it contains interesting ideas. Teachers might use it to generate lesson topics. What are rights? What sorts of rights do we claim? What do rights tell us about political community? Are some rights more important than others? Do rights always have to be legal, or are some rights natural, like the right to liberty is, in Hart’s view?

In his article, ‘Authority’, R. S. Peters offers an example of the person who comes forward in the event of an explosion in a street, or a fire in a cinema, and gives instructions which are followed (pg 91). Is this person exercising authority? Peters doesn’t think he necessarily is… but this is a controversial claim. Teachers might present this passage to students, and ask them to discuss it. Peters raises another interesting issue, which is the role of authority in the sphere of science (pg 94), which students could be asked to discuss.

The essay entitled ‘The Public Interest’, by Brian Barry, contains a nice philosophical discussion of ‘interest’ (pgs 113-114, from ‘Miller defines ‘interest’…’ to ‘common or general concern’.’). This could be introduced to older students in an effort to get them engaging with philosophical method. It would be ideal for this, as the concept of interest is easy to grasp; for this reason, the philosophical analysis can be concentrated upon.

The essay entitled ‘Liberty and Equality’, by E. F. Carritt, contains a passage that is particularly fertile (pgs 136-137, beginning ‘The second point…’ and ending ‘slavery or censorship’). The passage treats a number of ideas, relating to liberty, equality, and free speech. Teachers might present this passage to students. They could be asked to locate the various ideas that it contains, and discuss them in groups. They might then be asked to write an essay defending or critiquing one of those ideas.

Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, (pgs 141-152), is well-written, but all but the brightest students would probably have trouble reading it. Teachers might present the two different ways of conceiving of liberty (negative liberty, ‘liberty from’; and positive liberty, ‘liberty to’) to students, and get them to explore their similarities and differences, as well as the extent to which they are compatible.

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