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pax et caritas

Political theory vs. political philosophy?

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I’m a recent graduate who doubled in philosophy & political science, and I’m going to be applying to grad school this fall. I know “political theory” and “political philosophy” are sometimes used interchangeably, but it looks like they’re considered separate programs at some universities. I’m trying to figure out which one I would be better suited for. 

As far as I understand it, political theorists tend deal with more empirical data and political philosophers have a more generalized and normative approach and often, as the name suggests, do more philosophy. But is that the extent of the differences?

 

Is there anything else I should know when making my decision, like differences in the job market or competitiveness of admissions?

 

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Hello, 

I feel (reasonably) capable of answering this question. I'm advancing to candidacy in a Ph.D. Political Theory program, studied philosophy as an undergrad, and have many friends in political philosophy. 

The first difference, obviously, is that political theorists are trained in political science departments (usually, though occasionally in literature, law, history, etc.) and political philosophers are trained in philosophy departments. Typically speaking, political philosophers will occasionally be hired for political theory jobs, while the inverse is rarely true. Don't take this to mean that the philosophy job market is better than political theory--my understanding is that while both are bad, political theorists have a decent leg-up in the sheer number and accessibility of jobs. It seems too, that political theorists benefit from being housed in the social sciences when it comes to graduate stipends, which often outstrip philosophy department funding. 

The bigger difference lies in the rest of the training you will recieve. Political theorists may expect to take quantitative methods, philosophy of law/jurisprudence/con law, and in most departments, some quantity of other political science courses (American Politics, etc.). Methodological training may include formal theory, hermeneutics, and language. Political philosophers, on the other hand, will take courses in metaphysics and epistemology, philosophy of mind, ethics, etc. Their methodological training will focus on formal/symbolic logic, etc. These differences will dictate, to an extent, the way your research and teaching develops. As a political theorist, it would not be unusual as a grad student (period) or a professor (at a non-R1 school) to be asked to teach courses in method, pre-law, AP, or whatever your secondary field is. As a political philosopher, you might find yourself teaching formal logic, ethics, or epistemology. 

Now as for the difference in research/form: clearly, political philosophers and theorists do read each other. However, they will often publish in different journals (Political Theory, History of Political Thought, Review of Politics for PT and Ethics, Philosophy & Public Affairs for PP). Some questions will tend to be approached by the different fields from different angles: in the realm of philosophy and religion, more of the work on principled pluralism and multiculturalism has come from political theorists, while philosophers have dominated the 'Public Reason' debate.

Another way to get at the difference might be to think about the difference between political philosophers like John Rawls, Joseph Raz, T.M. Scanlon, and Thomas Nagel, and political theorists like Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Sheldon Wolin, Bill Galston, and Judith Shklar. While many in both disciplines read and engage with scholars from both camps, the methodological approaches of each group differ widely. Political philosophers tend to use the tools of analytic philosophy, and prize narrow, well-formed arguments above all. Political theorists are often more sensitive to the empirical realities of practical politics, and aim to bring a variety of tools and methods to bear on examining issues. J.T. Levy has painted it as a difference between prioritizing 'rigor' and 'richness.'

There are a few other differences: political theorists tend to be much more open to critical theory and 'continental' philosophy. Intellectual history of history of political thought, too, is almost solely the purview of political theory. 

Only you can determine which discipline better fits your skills, aspirations, and interests. I hope this helps a little bit, though. 

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This was extremely helpful, thank you. It’s a little frustrating, because I think I’d be more interested in receiving the more philosophical training, but I also want my research to focus on practical applications of contemporary political theories to, say, what I take to be some of liberalism’s failure. 

With that in mind, do you think I’d be better suited for one or the other?

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On 8/9/2019 at 5:09 PM, pax et caritas said:

This was extremely helpful, thank you. It’s a little frustrating, because I think I’d be more interested in receiving the more philosophical training, but I also want my research to focus on practical applications of contemporary political theories to, say, what I take to be some of liberalism’s failure. 

With that in mind, do you think I’d be better suited for one or the other?

You probably shouldn't already have an answer to your research questions before you've started researching, or have even been accepted into a program. So my first word of advice would be to go into the PhD with an open mind. It's likely that your interests will change over the years anyway, so it's a good idea to go into a program that excels in your 'broad' interests. That being said, to answer your question more specifically, it could be a good idea to read some actual Political Philosophy and Political Theory, see which authors interest you most, and then see whether they did Philosophy or Political Science. In general, I'd guess that Philosophy is better for undergraduate training, since the methodological training (in logic, epistemology, etc.) is better, but Political Science is better for the PhD because the latter is slightly better for job prospects. Ultimately, it may depend on the particular program, since some Political Science programs (e.g. Princeton, Oxford, LSE, Brown) are highly oriented towards Analytic Philosophy, and others are more traditionally Political Theory. You won't be able to distinguish these small but important differences unless you spend some time snooping on program websites and asking your professors for advice.

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Thanks for your response—I’ve been having to remind myself that’s it’s okay, even beneficial to a degree, to find potential supervisors whose work doesn’t affirm some of my beliefs. I’ll certainly be keeping your advice in mind.

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