Why Study the History of Political Thought? — A Post by Dick Howard

Dick Howard, Primacy of the PoliticalThe following is a guest post by Dick Howard, author of The Primacy of the Political: A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the French and American Revolutions. Read an excerpt from the book.

This book is the result of decades of teaching many hundreds of undergraduates, and also of learning from them, especially from their questions, doubts and demands to explain what is really important.

Why Study the History of Political Thought? Three concrete reasons can be named, each reinforcing the other. All are relevant to students of political history, both those in University courses and to the person who wants to understand contemporary political movements such as the American tea party.

1) The first is the fall of the Berlin Wall. The decade leading up to the end of the Cold War was marked by a remarkable period of activity by “civil society” that helped to undermine the totalitarian state. Many observers expected that this momentous event would signal the birth of new forms of democracy arising from the anti-totalitarian opposition. Personally, I expressed my optimism in books and articles (culminating in The Specter of Democracy, 2002) that these movements of civil society would also affect western perceptions of politics. But rather than a new conception of democratic politics, a new form of antipolitics has replaced the old Cold War with an irenic vision of a globalized economic capitalism.

2) Although the first hope was deceived, many still hoped that perhaps the decision to overthrow Saddam might carry the possibility of a renewal of political life in the Middle East. Those were the “liberal hawks.” It was of course clear that George Bush was using the rhetoric of democratization as an excuse to pursue national goals. But one could still hope that the overthrow of Saddam might bring unintended democratic consequences, creating a new vision of the political in a region from which it had been excluded by dictatorship, nationalism and religious demagogy. This is a second reason to reflect in a more historical manner about what “the political” means. Instead of political renewal we’ve seen another antipolitics, this one built on demonizing a new enemy to legitimate the established order at home.

3) This book was nearly completed at the time of the 2008 Obama campaign. In my frequent op-eds in the French daily, Ouest-France, I expressed the hope (starting already in December 2006) that Obama was proposing more than retail politics; my claim was that he was redefining the political. In retrospect, as his presidency has stagnated, I wonder whether, and why, my optimism was misplaced. One way to answer this question is to set contemporary issues within an historical framework.

I should stress one more point about this book. Although political theory has become increasingly popular since John Rawls’ pathbreaking Theory of Justice, political philosophy has also become increasingly abstract, technical and normative. As my subtitle suggests, I am concerned with political thought as it confronts practical reality, not with political theories that are concerned only with what ought to be. That too is a reason to return to two millennia of diverse manners in which people have sought to live together justly. That is why the book is also a history of political thought, offering an interpretation of history as well as of what theorists have tried, often in vain, to think.

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