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Political philosophy vs. history of political thought

LI SHI | 2018-12-13
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Political philosophy and the history of political thought are two subjects that can be easily confused. This article makes tentative attempts to clarify the essential differences and the relationship between the two.

The common ground between the study of political philosophy and the study of the history of political thought is that they share similar research objects. What they both study are the famous expositions of politics-related problems in history, specifically, the works of notable political thinkers. For example, scholars who study the history of Chinese political thought should carefully read and study the works of philosophers in the pre-Qin period (before 221 BCE), and the works of Dong Zhongshu, Wang Yangming, Zhu Xi and Huang Zongxi. Scholars who study the history of Western political thought should study the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls.

For scholars of political philosophy, these works and pertinent second-hand literatures are also a must. Therefore, in terms of the objects of reading, thinking and criticizing, there is no difference between the study of the history of political thought and the study of political philosophy. It is for this reason that researchers of political philosophy can also teach the history of political thought. The study of political philosophy doesn’t come from nowhere. It requires researchers to be familiar with the important “texts” in the history of political thought, and it is these classical “texts” that constitute the cornerstone of the study.

However, the objectives of the two subjects are different. The target of the study of the history of political thought is threefold: to clarify the ideological system of political thinkers in history; to explore the relationship between social context and political thought; and to examine the history of ideas. The first target is often described as textual interpretation, in other words the literal interpretation of the classics by digesting their words and sentences. In fact, this research approach is the chosen approach of the traditional Chinese study of Confucian classics. The neo-conservative school of philosophy in Western academia that Leo Strauss created also adopts this approach. The second target is to correlate a particular philosophical idea and the historical context in which it was born to explain the interaction between the two. Alexis de Tocqueville’s work The Old Regime and The Revolution, which explores the connection between revolutionary thought and historical process, is one such example. The third target is to compare works of different political thinkers and even classify them into different groups to explain their similarities and differences.

Differently, the objective of political philosophy is to construct a new political theoretical system. By reading, analyzing and criticizing the classical texts about political thought, political philosophy aims to build its own rooms using “stones from other hills.” Weighing the classical modes of argumentation proposed by political thinkers in history, the study either removes the irrationality from or adds new considerations about political reality into the argumentations. Political philosophy aims to seek applicable ideas through reason and to establish principles and values for political society. Its ultimate goal is to put forward a political ideal for human society. The purpose of political philosophy is neither to restore the original form of old political thought nor to repair the unknown relations between political theory and historical reality, but to propose new ideas and thoughts on the basis of old ideas and structures of argumentation.

These differences in research targets also determine differences in research methods. The main research method of the history of political thought is conducting literature reviews, which includes both classical works and historical records related to past social contexts, even various unofficial histories and novels.

Political philosophy also needs to sort out and undergo literature reviews of classic texts, but it will not conduct them in as detailed a manner as in the study of the history of political thought, and furthermore it has its own focus. In addition to literature review, political philosophy’s essential methods include rational thinking, reasoning and argumentation. Political philosophy is the study of political values and principles, which cannot be obtained through interviews, surveys or statistics in social science research, but can only be clarified through the rational thinking of researchers. While providing ideals and principles for political reality, political philosophy must also take into account political reality; otherwise, its ideals would be too fanciful to grasp.

 All in all, political philosophy and the history of political thought are two branches of a discipline that are interconnected but independent. They take classical works in the history of political thought as their common research objects, but they differ from each other regarding research targets and methods. The history of political thought is dedicated to reconstructing old forms of political thought while political philosophy establishes new political theory through absorbing the richness of the old thought.


Li Shi is from the School of International Relations at Renmin University of China.

(edited by BAI LE)