Why study History of Political Thought?

As has been mentioned above political thought concerns the state and its policies and decisions and activities. the various terms political science, political theory, political thought and political philosophy have not been used consistently in the same sense by scholars at all times. They have even been used as synonyms popularly. Political thought is the most general term of all these, which can be easily used to refer to the whole discipline easily and if we do that then political science and political philosophy become specific sub-categories. Also political thought also accommodates ethics and moral philosophy, theology, role of politics in human development and the dignity of political activity.

On the question which is the best way of studying political thought, Gould and Thursby have opined that there are two ways to study political thought.

The first is to list the all the political thought considered to be classic such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s Two,Treatises on Government, Hegel’s Philosophy of Rights, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Rawl’s A Theory of Justice and to make a note of the constant questions and approaches in them like: What is the meaning of freedom and equality? , Why men should obey the government at all? , What are the ideals and goals of a state and what is the meaning of democracy? etc. The problem in this method one can’ t not easily decide what should be classified as a classic.

The second method is of general philosophical methodology and applying it to political matters which means picking the central concepts problems, methods, questions etc from the classics and adding to that list important omissions if any. The items selected should then be arranged in an order from general principles to specific ones on the basis of importance. That way a coherent and comprehensive general account of political thought can be built.

The study of any social science is impossible without an understanding of the historical evolution of the subject. The political institutions and systems of political behaviour which we observe today are a result of evolution of centuries. A political theorist needs to study history to understand this evolution. He does not need to study the dates and colorful historical details of kings and princes and the battles they fought and the lives they led but rather the growth and changes in the economic structures, in technological capabilities and the impact that had and in political institutions and ways of governing. Social classes, political power and economic processes do not emerge overnight and cannot be understood by examining them in isolation in their contemporary settings. One needs to study the history of political thought to understand the evolving relationships between man, society and political authority and indeed the popular perceptions of those relationships through history. The study of the views and theories of past political thinkers enables one to go beyond the dominant contemporary political orthodoxies and draw intellectual resources from the past. A reflection on the thoughts of past thinkers provides a guideline to actual theorising. Political theories thus emerge not from nowhere but is constructed by building, expanding and developing the vocabularies of the past author’s texts. This also enables easy comparison and judgement between past and contemporary works.

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