Introduction, Purposes and Approaches
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Social and political philosophers are concerned with defining and interpreting concepts like justice, freedom, authority and democracy in a modern context as well as in the past. These two branches of philosophy overlap so much they are usually treated as one area of philosophy. If there is an actual difference it is that Political philosophers are interested in the ideal society while Social philosophers are interested in the effect on the people of various social and political organizations.
Socio-political Philosophers tend to overlap their studies with many other fields including ethics, history, anthropology, economics and particularly law.
Socio-political philosophers ask questions like: what are the just limits of state authority? Do people have the right to equal treatment in society? Should citizens have the right to choose whatever they wish to do? What makes a good leader? What is justice?
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What Philosophers Have Said
- Western political thought originated with Plato and Aristotle. Both were interested in the origins and organization of political societies
- Plato expressed his ideas in The Republic. His ideas were highly imaginative and speculative
- Aristotle’s ideas were written in Politics. These were more practical and down to earth.
- Both works have had a profound influence on social and political thought
- In medieval Europe a main focus was on the connection of Church and State. Whether the Pope (the leader of the Roman Catholic Church) should have the ultimate authority over people’s lives or if it should be a secular authority.
- The Renaissance sparked changes that affected Europe and the rest of the World as it moved into the modern era.
- Thomas More – Utopia (1516) – an imaginary ideal society of equality. It established a tradition of utopianism – setting out to people’s vision of the ideal state. Many philosophers have since followed this tradition to envision the ideal state.
- Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince (1513) – More concerned with the political realities of the here-and-now of 16th C. Florence. He set out unscrupulous strategies that rulers should use to achieve and hold onto power. He rejected the notion of the religious, good ruler and stated that the ends justify the means. His writings gave rise to the term Machiavellian – a schemer who uses unscrupulous means to achieve his/her ends.
- Since Machiavelli, political realists have adopted his approach of analyzing governments on what is rather than what should be.
- More is seen as a prescriptive philosopher focusing on what the world could be while Machiavelli is seen as the founder of the school of political realism, focusing on what the world is, rather on what it could be.
- Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Century – Many philosophers were interested in the idea of a Social Contract – an unwritten contract that sets out the relationship between rulers and those who are ruled. Although these thinkers differed on what they felt was covered in this contract, the ideals of the Enlightenment Philosophers laid the groundwork for modern social and political thought.
- 19th C. and the Industrial Revolution – workers demanded more social, economic and political rights. Governments were forced to address social issues.
- Many ideologies – beliefs about important economic, social political issues – emerged during this period and continue to influence thinkers today.
- These ideologies shaped the beliefs about politics, equality, power of the state, and mass political movements in the 20th C. Many underrepresented groups such as women, workers and non-Europeans began to demand a greater voice.
- Campaigns for equal treatment, revolutions upsetting traditional regimes in many countries, new ideologies such as Communism and Fascism have led many to call the 20th C. as the age of political ideology.
- Much of the political thought of the latter half of the 20th C. was influenced by the Cold War.
- The collapse of Communism in the 1990’s in many parts of the world led to the creation of the U.S. as the only super power in the world. This sparked American political thinker Francis Fukuyama (a supporter of the democratic capitalist system) to call this period “the end of history” with the defeat of all alternatives to this dominant ideology.
- Reassertion of Nationalism and Religious Fundamentalism – in recent times rival ethnic groups have struggled for power, sometimes violently.