Studying Political Theory

You can study political philosophy, political theory, and history of political ideas both in the Bachelor´s degree program and the Master´s degree program.The links will inform you further on the courses you ought to take. Don’t hesitate to contact the chair´s staff if you have further questions. For general questions concerning your study planning please contact Sophie Günther.

In the  following, you will learn which subject areas are dealt with in political theory. Four areas can be subdivided:

Areas of Political Theory*

Political theory has the longest tradition within political science. It deals with basic political questions and phenomena from a historical and systematic philosophical perspective and focuses on the discipline´s theoretical foundations.

The history of political ideas deals with the emergence, development and impact of the multitude of political ideas that people have developed in the course of history. The history of political ideas is thus at the same time an essential part of the history of Political Science as a whole. In this respect, its results provide all sub-disciplines with a historically grown fund of ideas, arguments, concepts, interpretations and questions. This fund also offers the potential to question, rethink or fruitfully enrich contemporary perspectives.

Political philosophy considers not only how politics is but also how it should be. Generally speaking, two of the main normative, theoretical questions political philosophy seeks to answer are: Which political objectives are – under which conditions – reasonable or appropriate? Which means of achieving these objectives are – under which circumstances – morally justifiable?

Political philosophy also includes the analysis of conceptual questions, which are often inseparable from normative questions e.g.: What is meaningfully meant by the term “democracy” considering it (nowadays) usually is used to refer to the only legitimate type of political system? How could one define “power” meaningfully if the definition should reflect both the widespread idea, that “politics” is primarily about power, and the equally widespread opinion, that power relations require justification in order to be acceptable?

The basis for answering questions in political philosophy is the development and, above all, the justification of evaluation criteria; in this respect, political philosophy is closely related to moral philosophy. Another close relation exists to the philosophy of law, since politics is essentially concerned with creating and enforcing binding social rules, i.e., with shaping legal norms and legal frameworks.

Ultimately, the interest of political philosophers goes beyond purely theoretical reflection: They also want to provide orientation knowledge for politics in practice. In this sense, political philosophy is a practical science. Providing this kind of knowledge is important if one has to deal with e.g. the political design of emerging technologies or questions of justice between generations. A justifiable solution of political problems always requires both empirical knowledge about the status quo and possible ways of changing it, and normative criteria to justify political objectives considering the given possibilities and expected consequences of different courses of political action.

Positive political theory refers to general theoretical foundations for empirical political science, the identification of relevant observation units (individuals, groups, states, institutions, norms, systems?), the design of analytical models and so on. Empirical political theories aim to understand or explain (or possibly even predict) political phenomena. Positive political theory provides the intellectual tools for those purposes and thus forms the foundation for research in the more application-oriented sub-disciplines, such as Comparative Politics or International Relations.

It also seeks to ensure that each sub-discipline of Political Science is (theoretically) based on assumptions, which are compatible with the ones of the other sub-disciplines. Examples are assumptions about fundamental conditions of action or about essential determinants of political phenomena (e.g. actors or structures?).

The philosophy of political science is located on an even more fundamental level. For political science as a whole, questions arise such as: What is political science knowledge in the first place? Which methods are applicable to certain problems? What kinds of arguments can be used to justify statements in political science? Which questions can currently be scientifically investigated at all?

Philosophy of political science deals with these questions. It examines why political science is a science, which of its methods meet scientific standards, etc. Political science itself thus becomes the object of scientific reflection. An important goal then is to distinguish science from speculations and to establish criteria for studies in political science.

Reflective and socially responsible political science also requires dealing with the tense relationship between science and politics (e.g. freedom of science as a prerequisite for good science; ethical-political limits of science; normative expertise in pluralistic democracies; etc.).

This brief sketch should have shown that the areas dealt with in political theory are in many ways intertwined with political science´s other sub-disciplines. Political theory reflects methods, articulates questions, and provides concepts and theories for empirical research. On a normative level, it deals with the question of “good politics” and develops general and application-related justifications and evaluation criteria for political institutions, political action and for various policy options.

[*] This text is based on a text by Ruth Zimmerling (thank you very much for letting us use and further develop it!), which is based on Druwe, Ulrich (1995): Politische Theorie. Neuried, 9-15.