Political Philosophy

Do you ever wonder why democracy is said to be the best possible system of governance? How would you define justice? What are the limits to government control in the name of security? 

If you have asked yourself these questions, congrats! You are a political thinker; perhaps you could even be a philosopher.

Political Philosophy Political Philosophy

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Table of contents

    Political philosophers investigate the reason and legitimacy of the political ideas that form our current socio-historical context. In this explanation, we will define political philosophy and its scope and give both ancient and modern examples of political philosophy.

    An introduction to political philosophy

    Political Philosophy, An introduction to political philosophy, School of Athens, StudySmarterFig. 1 "The School of Athens" by Raffaello is a Renaissance fresco that celebrates Greek Ancient Philosophy's rebirth during the Renaissance. Plato is portrayed in the centre of the fresco wearing a red robe.

    Political Philosophy generates political ideas by analysing current politics and producing theory, thought, and political ideas. Indeed, we can define political philosophy in this manner:

    Political Philosophy, or political theory, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions around governance, investigating the legitimacy and reason behind politics, especially political power. Topics that inform it can be concepts such as justice, freedom, security, or more detailed questions on current political events and their philosophical underpinnings.

    Therefore, political philosophy is crucial in creating political ideas. Political ideas might appear controversial since we often associate politics with personal interests and gains. However, political ideas also inspire political action, ultimately shaping our social and private lives. Just think about the transformation that events such as the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, or the anti-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela brought.

    At the same time, political philosophy must be understood in relation to its socio-historical context to appreciate its manifestations. This is because political practice, socio-historical factors and political views are not separable.

    Scope of political philosophy

    To fully comprehend what we mean by the scope of political philosophy, you must first understand what the scope of philosophy is.

    Philosophy is the study of the knowledge of the basic concepts of the world, such as the meaning of life, death, society, knowledge itself, etc. Therefore, the scope of philosophy is the analysis of the reason behind the existence of such fundamental concepts.

    The scope of political philosophy is indicated by the scope of possible analyses of the meaning of concepts that concern governance and politics. The questions that are addressed vary in history. For this reason, the scope of political philosophy is also determined by its socio-historical context.

    In Greek and Roman political philosophy, which are fundamental for developing Western political thought, thinkers were concerned with questions around concepts such as justice, the state, the scope of governance, and its legitimacy.

    Such concepts (and thus the scope of political philosophy) changed during the Middle Ages. With Saint Augustine, a fundamental Christian philosopher, some ideas of Greek philosophy, such as the role of governance in preaching morality, remained. Still, new concepts such as the division of citizenship to the City of God or the City of Man were created and signal the development of spirituality within Western philosophy.

    Political vs. Private sphere in Political Philosophy

    Is the scope of political philosophy limited to the study of governance? The responses vary and inform our understanding of the scope of political philosophy.

    According to some thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, life is divided into the public realm and the private realm, i.e. the sphere of the household where political life should not penetrate. In modern times, the social domain does not permit free will and action as it translates biological needs (nutrition, health, etc.) into a social question. According to Arendt, this leaves no realm free from the question of biological necessity. For Arendt, there is a clear scope of political philosophy, and this does not regard that which is not political or related to governance1.

    This thinking contradicts feminist political thought, which does not contemplate the possibility of dividing public and private spheres. Indeed, with the motto, “the personal is political2, authors such as Carol Hanisch indicate that politics is not limited to the power relations between governments and people or social contracts. According to these thinkers, political philosophy encompasses the private sphere. This is because when one theorises how patriarchy politically affects us, one cannot ignore how this influences the domestic sphere. Hence the personal and the public become inseparable, and political philosophy’s scope cannot be bound to what is formally understood as politics.

    Political Philosophy, Scope of political philosophy, Feminism, StudySmarterFig. 2 One of the symbols of Feminism i.e. a political philosophy that expanded the scope of political theory to include the private sphere.

    Read our explanation of The Personal is Political to learn more about feminist political philosophy and the politicisation of the private sphere.

    Difference between politics and political philosophy

    With the above example of feminist political philosophy, we started showing how the lines between what is political and what is not can be blurry.

    The same goes for politics and political philosophy or theory. To simplify this, we can go back to the introduction.

    We have said that political philosophy is crucial in creating political ideas. Political ideas are what guide political actions. Therefore, political philosophy is concerned with theorising the tenants of what would make good political praxis or politics.

    An example can be found in postcolonial theory:

    Patrick Wolfe has been a critical academic in postcolonial studies, in particular for having coined the term “settler colonialism”. He developed a political philosophy to explain the reason behind the existence of settler colonialism throughout history.

    If we were to read a report on how European settlers organised their occupation in colonised territories such as Australia or Canada, we would be reading about the politics of settler colonialism. Another example would be a text or political program of a Palestinian political organisation that, to argue for the independence and sovereignty of Palestine over what is today Israel, would see the politics of Israel as settler-colonial politics.

    Examples of political philosophies

    As we have said, Western political philosophy began in Greece.

    Plato can be seen as one of the fathers of Ancient Western philosophy.

    Greece had an organisation based on city-states, which varied their mode of governance. Plato’s work introduced an analysis of the validity, legitimacy, and morality of these different modes of governance. In particular, he divided them into five regimes which develop one after the other:

    1. Aristocracy: Aristocracy is according to Plato the most desirable mode of governance. He theorises a regime governed by a philosopher king, therefore a regime based on values such as reason and wisdom. This is because Plato believed that, first and foremost, the corruption of society results from following instincts and not higher moral values.
    2. Timocracy: Aristocracy falls and opens the way to Timocracy, a form of governance that includes people who are “inferior”, because they are less educated.
    3. Oligarchy: Oligarchy is a mode of governance that to responds to Timocracy. It differentiates between rich and poor, making the rich the governors.
    4. Democracy: In turn, democracy is born. Democracy is based on freedom; however according to Plato freedom can signify slavery since when the lower classes gain more and more power. Everyone, if free, responds to themselves only, creating anarchy.
    5. Tyranny: Democracy turns into tyranny because of the lack of rules that freedom created. Tyranny begins when one tries to seize power again to regive order but it will result in people despising them.

    The importance of political philosophy

    The above is a crucial example to understand one of the first Western articulations of political philosophy and raises important questions on the scope of political philosophy.

    As you can see, Plato did not see democracy as the most virtuous system of governance. Nonetheless, today we believe that democracies are the best system to respect individual rights and freedom. Often we advocate for everyone’s equal rights in decision-making.

    What Plato, and more generally political philosophy, brings us to do is to continue to put in doubt our fundamental political ideas. Political philosophy invites us to ask questions like: Is a society where everyone's voices are worth the same, despite different experiences, a democratic one? Is there such a thing as too much freedom? This is the importance of political philosophy: it drives us to always rethink the reason behind concepts that we see as natural, and shows them as constructed.

    Modern political philosophy

    Political Philosophy, Modern political philosophy, Marx and Engels, StudySmarterFig. 3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are two key thinkers in modern political philosophy and theorised extensively on political economic theory.

    With Western modern political philosophy, we usually indicate the political philosophical tradition that begins with the end of the Middle Ages and the consequent European Renaissance. This historical transformation brought a revival of secular (i.e. non-religious) political thought, which was important since during the Middle Ages most political philosophy centered on Christianity.

    The scope of this political philosophy also varies enormously. In general, we can see concepts such as the state, the relationship between government and citizens, morality, and political economy as the most crucial concepts addressed in Modern political philosophy.

    Here is an overview of the most crucial thinkers in modern political philosophy:

    • Machiavelli: With the Reformation in the 16th century, a new development of political philosophy began again, reopening the scope of political philosophy to questions around sovereignty and nations. One of the most important works of Western Political Philosophy, The Prince by Niccolò Macchiavelli, was born in this period. Its scope explored concepts such as good and evil, interest and the social contract behind governance.
    • Hobbes: Hobbes’ idea of the State of Nature was crucial for developing modern materialistic political philosophy and later Liberalism. The “state of nature” is one of the states of humankind and explains how human conditions without contracts that divide property, dictate law, etc., are informed by conflict.
    • Rousseau: Rousseau's Social Contract Theory expands on Hobbes and centralises social contracts as the crucial component of a society where individual rights are respected. His ideas were fundamental for the French Revolution.
    • Marx: Karl Marx, also known as the father of socialism (along with Friedrich Engels), has been a critical thinker in modern political philosophy. With his critique of the capitalist system and the theorisation of a revolution of the proletariat, he expanded the scope of political philosophy to an analysis of political economy not just in praxis, but as the manifestation of political power, governance, and hierarchy between classes.

    Political Philosophy - Key takeaways

    • Political Philosophy is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions around governance, investigating the legitimacy and reason behind politics, especially political governance
    • The scope of political philosophy is determined by the socio-historical context in which the philosophy is developing. For instance, the extent of what is seen as political varied in history.
    • Politics are the practical articulation of political ideas, which are the product of political philosophy.
    • Plato's philosophy is a crucial development for Western political thought. His investigation of morality, wisdom, and modes of governance still poses questions that are fundamental to today's system.
    • Western modern political philosophy is characterised by a comeback of the state and the power-relations that inform it.


    1. Medium (2018) 'Arendt and the Question of the Private: Is There Anything Outside Public Scope?'.
    2. C. Hanisch (1969) 'The Personal is Political'.
    3. Fig. 1 "The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=plato+&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image).
    4. Fig. 2 Feminist symbol (https://pixabay.com/vectors/feminist-feminism-woman-s-rights-2923720/).
    5. Fig. 3 A montage of pictures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=marx&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Political Philosophy

     What is meant by political philosophy?

    Political Philosophy is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions around governance, investigating the legitimacy and reason behind politics, especially political power. Topics that inform it can be concepts such as justice, freedom, security, or more detailed questions on current political events and their philosophical underpinnings.

    Who is the father of political philosophy?

    Greek philosophy is part of the fundaments of contemporary Western and non, thought. Plato’s ideas around morality, freedom, and power are still very much relevant today and have informed most philosophies in the West.

    What is modern political philosophy?

     Modern political philosophy is the philosophy that started developing around the European Renaissance, in the 16th century and after the end of the Middle Age. During the Renaissance, ideas around the state, civil society, and power that informed Ancient philosophy started circulating again.

    Why is political philosophy important?

    Political philosophy drives us to always rethink the reason behind concepts that we see as natural and shows them as constructed. Without political philosophy, we would not be critical and develop new political ideas which inform politics.

    What are examples of political philosophies?

    Plato’s philosophy on Republican governance and the adequacy and legitimacy of state power is an example of political philosophy, therefore of a critical analysis of the reason behind concepts that inform our everyday political lives.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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