Political Philosophy – Part 1:

From Plato to Paine and the French Revolution



Return to Political Philosophy Part 1 Introduction   


Tutor: Ian Pirie.

e-mail: ian_michael_pirie@btinternet.com

website: www.imagining-other.net


Week 1 Summary:

1. Introduction to the course:

- teaching approach, prior knowledge, handouts, reading, learning plans,

2. Introduction to philosophy:

(a) What is philosophy? Love of knowledge (or of wisdom?) – philos + sophos.

(b) What does philosophy do?

Asks ‘deep’, fundamental questions à grounded knowledge (epistemology: how do we know?). (Deepest questions: metaphysics = beyond the physical). NOT = opinion...

Clarifies the meanings of words, classifies concepts (analytical approach).

Provides convincing answers: consistent, justified, rigorous etc arguments (logic).

(c) Other kinds of knowledge: Science (evidence-based). Faith?

(d) Branches of philosophy:

Logic, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology. Philosophy of: science/history... politics.


3. What is political philosophy? The application of philosophical methods to the theory and practice of politics. Key concepts:

- authority, power, legitimacy

- justice, fairness

- law, rules, obedience and disobedience

- the political community (collective) – the polis, its nature and purpose

- the citizen (individual) – duties, rights

- democracy, and other types of political system

- freedom, equality and other values

- ‘human nature’ (if it exists!)


4. The history of political ideas:

- changing beliefs and different beliefs/practices at different times and in different societies (contexts) à the question: which systems or beliefs are best? i.e. a normative approach (to do with values and value-judgements).


5. Background: Politics in Ancient Greece.

City-states, wars between Athens and Sparta, democrats vs. oligarchs.

Limited, though “direct” democracy. Knowing how to rule and be ruled.

The Agora.

The Sophists: experts in rhetoric (skill of persuasion) - available for hire...


6. Socrates (470 -399 BC) [whom we know about only through Plato...]

Know thyself. Knowledge and opinion.

Dialectical method (questioning, and questioning the answer!)

Accepted the death penalty (for “corrupting the youth of Athens”).