A couple recent e-mails from prospective graduate students put me in mind to repost this old piece. I mean to update and revise it at some point, but in the meantime, hope it's helpful as is.
NOTE: The following is assembled from three blog posts from April 2003; it was not written as a single essay, and parts respond to some out-of-date blog conversations. Some links might be broken. I post it here nonetheless, because undergraduate and MA students often ask how to decide between political theory/ political science doctoral programs and political philosophy/ philosophy doctoral programs.
POLITICAL THEORY AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: This will be a little meandering, inductive rather than deductive, and impressionistic rather than precise. But that, as we shall see, is part of the point!
(One qualifier before I begin: In order to compare Granny Smiths with Golden Deliciouses, I'm going to emphasize Anglo-American political theory and political philosophy. Adding the Anglo-American/ Continental distinction to the mix makes matters more confused still. I think political theorists are typically more open to Continental approaches than are political philosophers, sharpening the institutuional differentiation; but among Continental practitioners, the theory-philosophy distinction is less sharp than it is among Anglo-American types. If that didn't make any sense to you, ignore it and move on.)
Political theory and political philosophy... at the conferences I attend, the tendency for discussion to come around to this dictinction eventually so strong as to rival Godwin's Law. What is it that differentiates John Rawls, Christine Korsgaard, Thomas Scanlon, Brian Barry, Thomas Nagel, G.A. Cohen, and Joseph Raz, and their students and admirers, from Michael Walzer, Judith Shklar, George Kateb, Sheldon Wolin, and their students and admirers? (These lists are only meant to be illustrative.) Why do the former often look at the latter and say, "Where's the argument?" Why do the latter often look at the former and say, "What's the point?" Where does some one or another figure (Isaiah Berlin, Will Kymlicka) "fit in"? And so on.
In the U.S., we start with the obvious difference. Political theorists ordinarily receive their PhDs from, and ordinarily teach in, political science departments. Political philosophers from, and in, philosophy departments. The two groups study much the same questions, read and write for much the same journals, and attend many (not all) of the same conferences. They are intellectual next-door neighbors; to mix metaphors, the wall between the humanities and the social sciences distinction is very thin at this point. But they have different institutional homes. There are some exceptions. Some philosophy PhD s are hired directly into political science departments, though the reverse is almost never true. Some philosophers' interests gradually migrate toward more empirical or historical work (about which more below), and they switch over. And those who receive degrees from outside the U.S. are sometimes difficult to pigeonhole and are able to move back and forth across the division. (Some of them are difficult to pigeonhole and therefore fall between the cracks, satisfying neither set of hiring committees.)
Given the structure of American doctoral programs, this means that a political theorist and a political philosopher-- even if they have complete overlap in their core interests-- will be differently trained. The philosopher will almost certainly study formal logic, very likely study ethics and moral philosophy broadly rather than political philosophy narrowly (and, often, legal philosohy as well), and study at least some topics from philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaethics. The theorist may well take statistics and/or formal theory (i.e. rational choice and game theoretic mathematical models). The theorist will certainly study one or more of American politics, comparative politics, and international relations in some depth, and may also study American or comparative constitutional law.
All of this means that theorists and philosophers, even when thinking or writing about the same questions, have different intellectual backup resources. To put it crudely: a political philosopher is much more likely to appeal to a higher level of abstraction (to general ethical theory, then to metaethics, then to epistemology...) while a political theorist is much more likely to appeal to a lower level of abstraction (empirical findings, history).
Relatedly—though this is probably the weakest tendency I’ll mention—theorists tend to be more interested in institutions, in normative analyses of political systems as a whole, and more willing to think that politics is importantly distinct from other realms of ethics. Sometimes “political philosophers” are simply ethicists and moral philosophers who apply their familiar tools to new situations. What a policymaker should do is treated as a special case of what the person standing at the trolley switch should do. This is not true of Rawls, and indeed isn’t true of many of the most prominent political philosophers. (Interestingly, it is sort of true of Nozick.) Moreover, some theorists tend this way themselves. But (as Matt Yglesias notes), for this sort of reason theorists have a loose tendency to find the turn to “political liberalism” in late Rawls both more comprehensible and more justifiable than do philosophers.
Matt Yglesias said (in a post I can no longer find to link to, due to his MT troubles) that the Andy Sabl piece on Micah Schwartzman's blog, like many arguments by those who dirty their hands with empirical claims, left him not quite able to sort out the level of abstraction at which the argument was supposed to operate. That's a fair comment about a lot of political theory. The bad news is that that can allow a certain slipperiness of argument and a mishmash of approaches. Turning a normative question into an empirical one can happen at lots of different points in the argument. (It's usually more transparent, and done for more narrowly-defined reasons, when one moves from a normative question to a metaethical one.) The good news is that it allows theorists to be very open to the messiness of the world. Throwing around excessively stylized or stipulated or hypothetical facts gets you into trouble when you're surrounded by social scientists (other than economists and economist wanna-bes). There are many empirical questions that are relevant to many normative ones-- questions about the short- and medium-term stability of the political coalition that would support the normatively-preferred policies, about the kinds of institutions that could bring them about, about the moral psychology or social psychology being assumed by the policies, about macrohistorical changes like industrialization and globalization that might render the policies obsolete or counterproductive, and so on.Knowing which facts about the world to accept as given and which to treat as subject to deliberate reform in a normatively desirable direction-- this is tricky, complicated, and not prone to satisfactory resolution. As a theorist, I think that that means messiness is likely to characterize the best normative arguments. But I also recognize that it deprives those arguments of a great deal of their rigor.
One way I have described the philosophy-theory distinction is as one between rigor and richness. Compare Rawls' Theory of Justice to Walzer's Spheres of Justice. (Ah, to have been at Harvard in the 1970s, able to hear Rawls and Nozick and Sen, Walzer and Shklar, all at the same institution!) In the original position, rational agents understand the Humean conditions of justice, and know nothing else about the society they are entering (not even the stage of history it occupies). Rawls aspires to the construction of a very determinate theory from quite minimal premisses, and proceeds with great rigor and sophistication. Walzer moves back and forth across space and time, telling lots of fascinating stories from lots of places and moments. He constructs a list of "blocked exchanges" that one prominent commentator referred to as an unparalleled exemplar of the idea of "category mistakes," throwing together goods that can't in their nature be sold, goods that Walzer thinks oughtn't be sold, goods that can be given away but not sold, and things that aren't really goods at all. It's extremely hard to get a grip on any real arguments. But there's a richness and nuance that is missing in Rawls, an engagement with moral psychology and with the interaction of different bits and pieces of a society.
A rigorous argument has the capacity to be definitive and right. It also has the capacity to rest on an unexamined, unmentioned premise that is false, or to commit a fallacious leap-- and then to be simply wrong. A rich argument is unlikely to be convincingly, compellingly, finally right. Many readers of Theory of Justice have felt "Eureka" moments, or felt compelled to change their minds. If you don't already share Michael Walzer's intuitions about a lot of things, Spheres of Justice is pretty unlikely to move you toward them. But a rich argument is also unlikely to be simply refuted or shown to be flatly wrong. (This disqualifies it from being Popperian science-- but Popper never claimed that ethical questions were relevantly like science.) And many readers of Spheres of Justice learn something important from it, and bring away significant lessons or changes in their understanding of things, even without being moved to adopt Walzer's normative conclusions.
Nozick had a funny but thoughtful recurring riff about "coercive" and "non-coercive" argumentation, the difference between making arguments that seem, if they succeed, to require assent in the listener and making those that are suggestive or inviting or provoking rather than compelling. We ordinarily mean it as a compliment about an argument if we describe it as a "compelling" one. Nozick asked us to think about that a bit more, most memorably with his image of the perfect philosophers' argument, on the "coercive" model, being the one that was so definitively correct that it would set up sympathetic vibrations in the listener's brain and physically force agreement. This has been the object of some derision and much puzzlement. (For a very sympathetic and thoughtful account, see David Schmidtz's introduction to his new edited volume, Robert Nozick.) Insofar as the model for a philosophical argument is a mathematical proof, it seems bizarre to talk about one's freedom to continue to disagree with a successful argument-- one might have both the physical capacity and the legal liberty to disagree, but one is simply wrong. Among political theorists, the aspiration to mathematical proof-level certainty is much less in evidence; the hope for finality much diminished.
One political consequence of all this: philosophers are much more willing to be radical in some important ways. Theorists are much more likely to insist on remaining tethered to some core intuition or some (relatively unexamined) political or moral virtue. A philosophers' argument seems to have the potential to accomplish more. It can show that all persons have the right to an unconditional basic income provided by the state, regardless of fitness to work and availability of jobs. It can show that those with no eyeballs have a right to have one, even if this requires coerced organ donation from those who have two eyeballs. It can show that there's no such thing as deserving. It can show that masturbation is morally intolerable (to tie this post back to recent discussions on the Conspiracy), that the wealthy in the west are guilty of murder for not transferring all of their available wealth to the starving and ill in the developing world, and that adult rats have higher moral standing than human newborns. Theorists are more likely to stick with a core moral notion—revulsion at cruelty for Shklar, individuality for Kateb, something like individuality in Sabls’ response to Cohen—and to build a theory around it. Perhaps the most interesting case here is Walzer, who tries to extract normative principles demanding radical change from thick understandings of what he takes American’s shared moral convictions to already be—not to compel agreement by argument, but to show, like prophets used to show, that his audience at some level already agrees with him.
To be more precise: philosophers (at least since Rawls introduced reflective equilibrium) typically own up to relying on one or more intuitions. But they aim to have those intuitions be parsimonious, a la axioms in mathematics, physics, and (ostensibly) economics. The aim is to be able to go a long way starting from fairly little. Theorists remain more closely tethered to intuitions for longer.
There are debates within ethics that look like this. Kantians and radical utilitarians have always said to intuitionists and sentimentalists that our gut-level views about the wrongness of the conclusions reached by Kantian or utilitarian theory don’t constitute any argument against them. There’s no reason to think that our intuitions and conditioned prereflective responses really reflect the demands of morality; the point of moral argument is to be able to unsettle our unreflective responses and practices. There are, of course, both intuitionists and moral-sentimentalists among philosophers. But the major Anglo-American political philosophers have mostly been either Kantians or utilitarians—the two schools of ethics that are most universalistic and promise to be able to do the most by way of argument. There are good reasons for this. For someone concerned with the quality of arguments, there’s bound to be something unsatisfying about final reliance on either intuitions or sentiments. Kantian and utilitarian universalist arguments look, well, more like real arguments. Theorists are—as a very loose and general rule—less eager to follow either of these rigorous (in both senses of the word) paths, and more willing to hold tight to familiar political virtues.
Political theorists are notoriously more interested in the history of political thought than are political philosophers. This has on occasion led to mutual mocking: a political theorist doesn't know what he or she thinks unless he or she can first tell you what Hobbes or Rousseau thought; a political philosopher with a clever thought won't notice that it's a 2,500 year old thought, unless that fact has been mentioned in a recent issue of the Journal of Philosophy or Ethics. (Related: jokes about reading Rawls' "Justice as Fairness" article counting as historical work; after all, it came out before 1971.) There are some very distinguished historians of moral and political philosophy in philosophy departments-- Jerome Schneewind, Knud Haakonssen, etc, many of them recently assembled for this conference on the history of philosophy-- but they are rarely the avowed political philosophers. When political philosophers turn to the history of political thought, it is typically to extract an argument, not to study a particular person or group of persons or set of influences. Theorists, sometimes sloppily and sometimes enrichingly and sometimes both, move back and forth between historical and contemporary or normative arguments. This gives us, I think, a rich vein to mine, a constant infusion of new-old ideas into current debates. When contemporary debates show signs of becoming too formalistic and procedural in their analyses of democracy and democratic institutions, there is a reawakening of interest in Tocqueville, or in Madison's writings beyond Federalist 10, or in Rousseau beyond the Social Contract. When arguments about multiculturalism get stuck in a rut ("individual vs. group rights," for example) there's an opportunity for someone to bring Montesquieu or Herder or Constant to bear and to reframe the argunments. This is all partly because of the fact that there can be relevant empirical claims at all sorts of levels of abstraction or genera ity. So what we extract from Tocqueville isn't a syllogism in ethical theory, but a very complex web of causal arguments about social and polticial change, about what changes go together and what trends-- perhaps independently normatively desirable-- don't. Of course, like the back-and-forth between normative and empirical claims, this also encourages a certain slipperiness and sloppiness, an unwillingness to let claims be tested according to either historical or philosophical rules.
Relatedly, political theorists and political philosophers have somewhat different historical canons, and pay attention to different works within them. Montesquieu and Tocqueville figure much more prominently for theorists than for philosophers, Kant the reverse. Sidgwick remains almost unwritten about among theorists, Sidney among philosophers. Mill's On Liberty is shared by the two groups, but his Utilitarianism has priority for one group, Representative Government for the other. And so on. Theorists are more likely to take an interest in political pamphleteers or activists or statesmen than are philosophers, and more likely to take an interest in the apparently-minor-and-of-the-moment writings by a canonical thinker (Rousseau's Government of Poland). Philosophers care about the best-developed version of a philosopher's core arguments; that means that they look at the central works very closely. Theorists often care about a thinker's political engagement and position, about context that can be provided by minor works and correspondence and works by contemporaries. Some theorists follow this path all the way to Cambridge school contextualism; most do not.
Not all theorists (or all philosophers!) have the same canon, of course. Students of Leo Strauss put an emphasis onto Francis Bacon and Maimonides that is pretty alien to the rest of the discipline; I'm unaware of any significant Straussian treatment of Constant. (NB: Those influenced by Strauss are somewhat anomalous in other ways. They place great weight on a practice they identify as "philosophy," but mostly they study others who have engaged in that practice rather than engaging in it themselves. They are strongly pro-philosophy (as they understand it) and at least sometimes serious critics of social science. Yet almost without fail they are located in political science rather than philosophy departments, and few do work that contemporary philosophers identify as philosophy.) But the general trend is that theorists cast a wider net in the history of ideas, while overlooking some figures in the history of ethics who are treated as central by those philosophers who care about the history of moral philosophy. And, of course, there is a tradeoff between breadth and depth. As Kieran Healey has noted, philosophers reading a major historical (or contemporary!) text in a seminar will proceed argument by argument, paragraph by paragraph, trying to sort out exactly what's going on. A theory graduate seminar is much more likely to race through a major work or two, several minor works or letters, and some secondary literature, trying to get a sense of the theorist's major claims, what they were arrayed against, and why they were thought to matter politically. (Again, Straussians are an exception here.)
The intellectual genealogy of analytic political philosophy travels throguh Rawls' argument about the autonomy of moral theory back to conceptual analyses of concepts such as liberty (think the first few sections of Berlin's "Two Concepts;" Berlin was later to abandon analytic work, and his later writings are more like the final sections of that essay). This in turn brings the geneaology back to the Oxford analytic school of philosophy, whence also grew analytic jurisprudence-- note that H.L.A. Hart's seminal book is called The Concept of Law. The sub-discipline of analytic political philosophy is relatively of a piece with the other sub-disciplines that grew out of the Oxford analytic turn in philosophy-- which, in many departments in the English-speaking world, are considered the whole of philosophy excepting only the history of philosophy. (This doesn't mean that other philosophers necessarily wholly accept them. In many departments, ethical, normative, and political philosophy are considered decidedly poor cousins to philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and epistemology. Harvard and the University of Arizona are two of the departments where that has not traditionally been true.
Political theorists are situated in and trained by political science departments without ever being so completely of them. The study of normative political thought and the history of political thought is not an outgrowth of the same social-scientific turn as the other sub-disciplines in the field. The relationship is often uneasy, and a political theorist is much, much less likely to self-identify as a political scientist than a political philosopher is as a philosopher. I do; but I give my former advisor George Kateb hives by doing so, and for reasons I understand. The two groups do share some common intellectual ancestry: Montesquieu and Tocqueville are shared with the comparativists, Hobbes with IR, Madison with the Americanists. There are many people who combine political theoretic and political scientific approaches, and some do it very well. But the rule, I think, is that political theory sits much farther from the center of gravity in political science than political philsophy does in philosophy. The relationship works nonetheless, partly because the theorists have been in "government" and "politics" departments since before serious statistics were even developed, and so they were always there even during the height of the behavioral revolution, and partly because political science has an especially subfields-based structure in general, both at the departmental level and at the overall professional level. Still, at the many conferences that have political theorists and political philosophers, and not philosophers of mind or statistical voting behavior scholars, there's an air of "ah, now here are people who understand each other." And, mostly, usually, we do...
Matt Yglesias follows up:
To use myself as an example, I go to Harvard which is considered to be a quite historically-oriented [philosophy-- JTL] department by American standards. Nevertheless, the list of authors I've never been assigned in a philosophy class include not only the post-Kantian German idealists and the continental postmodernists, but such seminal figures as Aristotle, Kant, Hume, J.S. Mill, Descartes, and William James. I've also never been assigned anything at all from the long period between Plato and Hobbes or the shorter, but still big, period between Adam Smith and Frege. At the same time, the only authors I've ever been asked to read in translation are Plato, Frege, and one page of Wittgenstein. Of course I've read many of these authors, but when they've been assigned it's always been for non-philosophy courses.
What's especially odd about this is that I could tell you all about many of these people since they're often commented by the authors I am assigned and because it's very common to label such-and-such a position as "Humean, "Kantian," "Platonic," "Cartesian," "Aristotelian," or "Millian." 'Round the Harvard way "Kantian" more-or-less means "correct" whereas "Humean" means "clever argument but he's wrong" "Aristotelian" means "go ask Michael Sandel in the Government Department, we don't talk about that sort of thing here" and everything else just means "wrong."
I had thought about including a comment in my post that said philosophers were more likely to be interested in proper adjectives-- the Kantian position, which translates as the best (i.e. Korsgaard's) reconstruction of an argument that Kant seems to have made, the Humean argument, etc-- while political theorists were much more likely to write about proper nouns, talking about an historical person's range of arguments in a way that makes it difficult to extract an adjective from them. I couldn't figure out whether that was fair or not, so I left it out. I was trying hard to write a comparison of two closely-related and friendly but non-identical fields of inquiry, not to write an apology for theory or a critique of philosophy. It's reading Rawls and Nozick that got me started in this game, after all. But what Matt says seems to me broadly representative (with important exceptions).
Maybe I subconsciously chose theory because my name ends in a pronounced vowel and so is ineligible for conversion to an adjective ("Levyian"-- shudder). My first name ends in a consonant, but "Jacobin" and "Jacobite" are both already taken, and neither is something I want to be remembered as...
Update November 2006: Apropos of that last concern, the irrepressible Phoebe Maltz suggests that the correct solution is "Levyathan." Oy...