The Future of Political Theory: Revisiting Its Past and Some Thoughts About Its Future

Chris Kennedy Duke University
Abstract: This short essay revisits answers to a similar question about the future of political theory posed 15 years ago and considers the significance of changes that have occurred since then.

Fifty-five years ago, in 1962, Isaiah Berlin asked a question similar to the one we consider today, not about the future of political theory, but about its recent past—asking whether political theory still existed (Berlin 1962). Forty years later, in 2002, the journal Political Theory enlisted a handful of scholars to respond to the question: what is political theory? The nature of the question, it seems, had changed, and the answer to Berlin’s question had by then become apparent. Today, too, the same question is asked in a different way. Whereas Berlin might have formulated his question as, "What happened to political theory?", we are essentially asking, "What will happen to political theory?" Each of these questions asks about the same thing: about what political theory was, is, or will be. Since the way these changing formulations of the question seems to suggest a certain amount of progress in our understanding, it may be worthwhile to briefly revisit some of the responses offered back in 2002.

What will happen to political theory?

Stephen White, who was the editor of Political Theory at the time, reflected on what Berlin had previously described as the lack of "commanding works," or grand political theories, which had the power to "convert paradoxes into platitudes or vice versa" (White 2002). Such works, comparable to those of Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau in earlier centuries, have become more ephemeral, according to White. In the immediate aftermath of the decisive events in the twentieth century—like the defeat of Nazism and Fascism or the collapse of the Soviet Union—the grand platitudes that emerged have been more fleeting than in the past. White suggested that this was because the future of political theory "would be one of an ever deeper confrontation with pluralism and that political theory in such a world would produce paradoxes out of platitudes far more than the reverse." It is this production of paradoxes (rather than platitudes) that characterizes many of the most novel contributions of political theory since the 1960s, including those from feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, critical race theory, and cosmopolitanism.

George Kateb turned his attention to the adequacy of the canon to confront the most prominent phenomena of the twentieth century—like the horrors of both world wars, the use and threatened use of atomic weapons, the gulags and the Holocaust, the inducement of famine, and the American wars in Korea and Vietnam (Kateb 2002). While such human suffering is not unprecedented, the scale of the suffering, according to Kateb, would have been unimaginable at any other point in human history. Kateb is careful to point out that although statistics might comfort us that violence is (proportionately speaking) less widespread today than ever before, that does not help us to explain the mentalities that inspire and sustain individuals to use such potent technologies to inflict terrible suffering on large groups of people, composed of individuals who matter as much as anybody has ever mattered.

Theory and politics are incompatible concepts. Whereas politics is at the same time plural, particular, and contingent, theory is always grasping at something universal, abstract, and stable.

Adriana Cavarero also challenged the adequacy of the canon; but whereas Kateb criticized the canon as inadequate to the most important explanatory task of the present, Cavarero criticized the very revival of political theory out of the canonical traditional at all (Cavarero 2002). Political theory has always been predominantly a theorizing of the political, and Cavarero insists that if this discipline is to be primarily about politics, then we must think about what we are doing in regard to politicizing the theoretical. Theory and politics are incompatible concepts. Whereas politics is at the same time plural, particular, and contingent, theory is always grasping at something universal, abstract, and stable. Cavarero polemically suggests, following Arendt, that the idea of "political theory" as a discipline of study depends upon a formidable metaphysical lie that owes its existence to Plato. From an etymological and conceptual standpoint, the expression "political theory" is an oxymoron—and Cavarero doesn’t pull any punches as she throws "political science" under the bus for the same reasons. To liberate ourselves of this false conceptual apparatus, Cavarero recommends a healthy amount of skepticism toward any theory of politics that is subsumed by the central problem of order, or rather, the problem of keeping men together in an orderly fashion. We need political theories that can register the collapse of order.

Ruth Grant addressed the disciplinary status of political theory within political science (Grant 2002). Grant distinguishes the humanistic from the scientific study of politics by identifying the primary concern of political theorists to be matters of judgment. Part of the reason political theory finds itself in need of defense today is because our discipline—and perhaps our society as well—has lost its bearings with respect to matters of judgment. Grant reminds us that judgment is peculiarly married to uncertainty, for it is the faculty at work in situations when we do not know and where reasonable people might disagree. There are some things that are worth knowing but that cannot be known with certainty, and in those matters the role of political theorists is to make educated judgments of meaning and significance. Good judgment of meaning and significance will involve interpretative and historical methods, as well as an understanding of both material and ideological cause and effect. Despite these differences between political theory and political science, theorists are tempted to acquiesce in two ways. The temptation is to either measure our work by the standard of its ability to contribute to scientific work of our colleagues and to adopt the subject matter and formal methods of contemporary policy debates; or the temptation is to recoil from the friction of engaging humanistic study with scientific research. Grant recommends resisting these temptations, while also understanding that we need not worry about being perfect by never succumbing to these temptations. The friction between political theory and political science is proper, and we should not want that friction to either overwhelm us or disappear altogether.

The friction between political theory and political science is proper, and we should not want that friction to either overwhelm us or disappear altogether.

Having revisited the ways in which these theorists previously considered the subject matter and professional practices of political theory, what can I say about where this leaves us today? On the one hand, 15 years is not a long amount of time, and we should not expect much to be different. On the other hand, I might point to some significant developments in those 15 years which are relevant to any forecast I might make of the future. Concerning myself, much has changed! Back in 2002, I was just entering high school and was quite certain that I would become an astronaut someday. That is just to say that I am skeptical that my own limited experience provides enough perspective (yet) to see beyond the horizon, here.

But if I were pressed to do so, then I would point to the changes that have occurred in our use of media and communication technology. The communications revolution, which had begun not long before 2002, has started to take shape. In the history of such shifts in the predominant modes of communication, it is often difficult to see the direction of the tide from the passage of the waves. One modest observation about the significance of past communications revolutions—like that of the printing press and the use of the alphabet (Eisenstein 1979; Havelock 1976)—is that they have ushered in greater access and participation in political and cultural life. Political theory, in both its subject matter and its professional practices, will need to take account of this transformation in the way people communicate.



Berlin, Isaiah. 1962. "Does Political Theory Still Exist?" In Philosophy, Politics and Society, edited by Peter Laslett and W.G. Runciman, 1–33. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Cavarero, Adriana. 2002. "Politicizing Theory." Political Theory 30 (4): 506–532.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. 1979. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, Ruth W. 2002. "Political Theory, Political Science, and Politics." Political Theory 30 (4): 577–95.

Havelock, Eric A. 1976. Origins of Western Literacy: Four Lectures Delivered at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, March 25, 26, 27, 28, 1974. Ontario: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Kateb, George. 2002. "The Adequacy of the Canon." Political Theory 30 (4): 482–505.

White, Stephen. 2002. "Pluralism, Platitudes, and Paradoxes: Fifty Years of Western Political Thought." Political Theory 30 (4): 472–81.

See also the brief essays on the future of political theory by Nora Hanagan, Michael Gillespie, Alexandra Oprea, and Sam Bagg, which come out of the same event and are intended to be in conversation with this paper.

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