Help me plan an Introduction to Political Philosophy

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on political philosphy to a mixture of first year students taking courses in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. This is the rubric I’ve inherited:

This module introduces themes, theoretical perspectives and concepts in the study of politics and political philosophy and aims to develop an understanding of how political institutions operate and of how they are underpinned by adherence to a variety of political philosophies, or ideologies that act, globally, to order the global environment. The concepts and institutions studies are from a western perspective in order to, first, ground students in a knowledge of these themes per se but, second, to provide a framework for comparative study of non-western polities analysed in greater depth in Levels 5 and 6, such as those in the Middle East and China, in order to gauge the extent that western concepts of politics have been adapted, accepted or rejected in different environments. This is achieved by a pattern of lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops.

Set texts look at key political thinkers from classical times through the Enlightenment to the present day (for instance Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Burke, Marx & Engels, Gramsci, Marcuse, Hayek and Habermas) in order to examine such issues as power, justice, order, war, legitimacy, accountability, sovereignty and other issues of concern to the practice of politics and government at country specific, regional and local levels.

It’s essentially an introduction to modern Western political philosophy, then, and I’m grappling with the question of how to “teach the canon” whilst also trying to remake or decolonise it. I have eleven weeks, and this is the sketch I’ve got so far: I’d really appreciate any critiques, suggestions about how I could organise it better or differently, and recommendations of good primary or secondary reading either for myself or my students:

1 Introduction: what is political philosophy (with some selections from Nancy Fraser or Michael Freedon)
2 Hobbes
3 Locke
4 Rousseau and Louverture
5 Marx (with some space in the lecture for talking about Adam Smith and Marxisms-after-Marx)
6 J S Mill (perhaps paired with Wollstonecraft?)
7 Hannah Arendt
8 Foucault on disciplinary societies
9 Judith Butler on grievable lives, Agamben on homo sacer
10 Neoliberalism (Hayek)
11 Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion

8 thoughts on “Help me plan an Introduction to Political Philosophy

  1. I would recommend including something by Rawls on the syllabus, perhaps a few sections from his final work, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001). It begins with a neat section called ‘Four Roles of Political Philosophy’ which could be useful for the first week. There’s also a section called ‘Limits to Our Inquiry’ that introduces the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory, which could provide a nice entry-point for a discussion on method, together with Laura Valentini’s fantastic article on that distinction.

    For Hobbes and Locke, the final three chapters in Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death (2013) by Mary Nyquist would make for excellent supplementary reading.

  2. Is there time to touch on the legacy of that (now dying? dead?) neoconservatism which had such an important role in the late-twentieth century? Maybe a nod to Leo Strauss and his disciples?

  3. I had to design a similar introductory course a couple years back, and I found a good way to introduce a decolonial angle was to include works that are Western but written by non-white authors. In my case I included Malcolm X’s The Ballot or the Bullet and selections from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.

    I would say some Tocqueville would be good on unpacking America’s social psychology. In week 1, I would include Leo Strauss’ essay, “What is Political Philosophy?” And finally, why no Plato?

    I know it’s always tricky designing these kinds of courses. Lots of ground to cover in very limited time.

  4. I would include Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” with the section on Foucault. I’m also curious why you are starting so late? I’d probably spend a week on Plato (Republic) /Aristotle (Politics) before jumping into Hobbes/Locke/Rousseau. I’d also include some sections of Machiavelli’s the prince with that group.

    It really depends on the class structure, but I would do something of the following:

    1. Introduction / Plato (Republic) / Aristotle (Politics)
    2. Machiavelli (Prince) / Hobbes (Leviathan)
    3. Locke / Rousseau
    4. Marx, with perhaps some Kropotkin and Adam Smith
    5. Bentham / Mill / Wollstonecraft
    6. Arendt / You could possibly do some Frankfurt here as well if time permits, “Dialectic of Enlightenment” might fit well.
    7. Foucault / Deleuze
    8. Malcolm X / Franz Fanon
    9. Butler / Agamben
    10. Neoliberalism
    11. Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion

  5. I’d add to the emerging thought that you don’t need all three of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau… I like Hobbes because I think he’s the most interesting of the three (he is also really interesting to read after Plato and/or Machiavelli). Locke makes a good contrast because you can talk about property and revolution, as well as natural law. So my impulse would be to skip Rousseau. I think Machiavelli’s Prince is a great book to teach, though I’ve admittedly only taught it at a higher level. Plato’s Republic is good – I don’t know how you’d get all the relevant parts in, but I think the part about banishing the (Homeric) poets teaches well (can tie it to censorship of TV etc.) and the part about regime types and tyrants is… um… apt. I’d vote against Aristotle b/c he’s so hard to read at an intro level.

    For Marx, the 1844 MS sections that set out alienation are good (who hasn’t worked a crappy job where you put your soul in and get nothing back; it really helps if you’ve given them a half day of Hegel’s theory of personhood, even w/o (preferably w/o?) reading. I’ve got a great essay by John Tehranian that shows how Hegelian personhood would give you use rights in a copyright setting – might be good teaching examples – if you’d like it) and of course the 1843 “opiate of the masses” line in the “Introduction to Hegel’s Philospohy of Right” (to emphasize the difference between atheism (true, but boring for Marx) and what a society’s religious beliefs tell us (poor people go to heaven says rich people are in charge)). I might avoid later Marx entirely in an intro class – it’s very hard to know where to cut, and the theory is soo complicated. Plus, the earlier writings could connect you to somebody like Berardi on alienation v. estrangement (hence to cognitive capital). The little Virno Multitudes piece on “Fragment on Machines” is good for cognitive capital too, and lets you skip the nearly-unreadable “Fragment” itself.

    Oh, I second the Deleuze essay if you do Foucault on panopticism. If you don’t know it, have a look at Haggerty and Ericsson’s “Surveillant Assemblage.” It makes Deleuze’s argument, but is in an easier idiom (it is longer, though).

  6. Thanks so much for all these super helpful comments! I’m basically starting with early liberalism because that seemed like an arbitrary but helpful way to limit the range of ideas we covered. And Gordon, if you could point me to the John Tehranian essay that’d be super helpful: I think I’ll probably give Hegel a miss on this course but will likely be teaching a course next year on Hegel and his readers and that sounds like it could be really helpful.

  7. Two snippets of classical Marxism I’d definitely recommend for a week-long survey unit are Wage-Labour and Capital by Marx, which would make a good bridge from Adam Smith, and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Engels, which bridges the philosophical gap from Jacobin-style liberalism and even touches on Hegel and dialectics without being overwhelming. Both of these were consciously published as introductory pamphlets and they complement each other well.

    My recommendation as far as 20th-century radical anticolonialist/antiracist literature would be to set the table with selections from Lenin’s Imperialism and move on from there to Fanon and Malcolm X. If decolonizing the canon means even the canon of the radical left, IMO this means exposing students to the idea of global imperialism as the authentic terrain of radical struggle in the 20th and 21st centuries, firmly contrasting this reformist demands within one’s own racialized national borders for heartier table scraps from the feast of empire. After such an exposure they can certainly decide to be fascists if they want to, but at least maybe they’ll have the self-awareness not to try to have their socialism cake and eat their nationalism/chauvinism cake too.

    (Shot in the dark, but if you want something short and topical that might spark interesting conversations and even ties somewhat into issues of theology, Samir Amin on “Political Islam” could be a good piece to throw in maybe as an optional reading.)

Comments are closed.