What is Politics?



Summary of Lecture I:


1) the ancient greek root of the word Politics: The modern word ‘political’ derives from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis’. (The Greek term polis will be translated here as ‘city-state’. It is also translated as ‘city’ or ‘polis’, or simply anglicized as ‘polis’. City-states were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined.


For Aristotle, political science studies the tasks of the politician or statesman (politikos), in much the way that medical science concerns the work of the physician (see Politics IV.1). It is, in fact, the body of knowledge that such practitioners, if truly expert, will also wield in pursuing their tasks. The most important task for the politician is, in the role of lawgiver (nomothetęs), to frame the appropriate constitution for the city-state. This involves enduring laws, customs, and institutions (including a system of moral education) for the citizens. Once the constitution is in place, the politician needs to take the appropriate measures to maintain it, to introduce reforms when he finds them necessary, and to prevent developments which might subvert the political system.


Key work: Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics


But it through practice - practical wisdom (phronesis) and virtue (arete - pronounced: aree-tee) that citizens and legislators come to grasp what is just - what is appropriate (well-fitting) to the situation and thus link actions as well as laws and constitutions to the nature of humans and their contexts. This is surely the way of the good politician rather than the ideological politician? A citizens to participate in decision-making in the polis is expected to be educated in rhetoric - the skill (techne - pronounced: tek-nay) of persuasion and good argument (aisthesis - a kind of aesthetic of 'beautiful speech). The idea is that speaking well, logically, reason-ably, presenting clear arguments, and debating fully, will lead to good decision-making which then benefits the whole of the city state and each individual comprising that state. Remember the idea of reciprocity...so long as we intend - we have a will - to do our best to our community; it will make for a community that provides a happy nurturing environment for me (the individual citizen)


Example of this in terms of the economy: the potter who brings his skills of making good strong pots that also look good - good design will satisfy the market - a beautiful pot that breaks easily is not a 'good' pot and neither is the potter good as he does not serve the best interests of the citizens wish to have reliable storage vessels.


Politics is 'Ethics' (= Ethos - the good way of doing government) BUT overall the ethos is that of promoting happiness.



Virtue - the key concept in the classical greek lexicon refers to 'Excellence' but informed by wisdom and skill.


The excellence of bravery in arms is that of fighting well/ably, fiercely for your state. A person who gives all their money away is not 'virtuous' but a fool - he is profligate; a person who gives none away is mean...and neither will earn the respect of fellow citizens. The person who balances charity with being financially sensible is a virtuous man and respected for his virtue. 


And if we accept the view of the 1960s and 70s french intellectual, Michel Foucault, he suggests that we see the classical tradition in terms of the 'art of the self' - of self-fashioning via ones virtue. That is: our good judgment and behaviour shapes (fashions) how we are (and how we show ourselves to others).


We have dispositions by the kind of beings (our natural selves) we are - we can run, laugh, think, feel pain BUT we have to cultivate by habituation - by regular practice - our virtues. We lean how to live (with our fellow citizens) ...by practice!


Some virtues we say are intellectual, such as wisdom, judgement and

practical wisdom, while others are virtues of character, such as generosity

and temperance....


Intellectual virtue owes its origin and development mainly to teaching,

for which reason its attainment requires experience and time; virtue of

character (ethos) is a result of habituation (ethos)....


Virtues, however, we acquire by first exercising them. The same is true

with skills, since what we need to learn before doing, we learn by doing;

for example, we become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing

the lyre. So too we become just by doing just actions, temperate by

temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions. What

happens in cities bears this out as well, because legislators make the

citizens good by habituating them, and this is what every legislator intends.

Those who do not do it well miss their target; and it is in this respect that

a good political system differs from a bad  one. (Aristotle, Ethics, Book 2)






2) Distinguish between  a) Politics as an academic discipline and b) Politics as a set of activities, processes and systems that the academic discipline of politics studies.


3) Introduced a few important 'concepts' that we use to talk about things e.g. 'empirical' (stuff that can be known about  by being seen/experienced, observed); discourse = talking about; theory = to generalise about the empirical world



4) Considered what are the limits of 'politics' and we discussed whether very ordinary things and events can be 'political'...perhaps because many ordinary social processes involve some measure of power (a classic definition being: getting 'getting people to do what they would not otherwise do)..so if I deliberately intend  to.. AND get an enemy to smile at me because I smiled at them (given norms of politeness)...even when the don't want to ..Is that 'political' in some sense.  And is an essential sense of what is political, captured by 'any attempt or successful act of power?



5) We reflected on how theory might relate to practice for instance,


how theories


ideas/ideologies - systems of values by which to organise political life e.g. liberalism, socialism, anarchism...(or even just the implementation (practice) of an idea of justice (theory) politicians learned from philosophers)...


relate to practice


BUT...Is political activity essentially led by a kind of theory - say a vision of a better world (we try to fashion the world in accordance with an ideology) This might be seen as the 'Utopia-led' character of 'Politics'


6) We talked about whether politics should require reason rather than feeling and whether feeling and attitude had a valid place in political life



7) We talked about a 20th century political thinker Michael Oakeshott took a different idea of what is politics


We may see that he argued that politics was about activity and practice and was SCEPTICAL (doubting of) politics as the pursuit of utopia.


As such he was anti-utopian in his conception of politics.


Utopia is often  taken to mean 'the perfect system'  there can be no better...so time and change ends - no more history! Politics is finite - TELEOLOGICAL POLITICS (ends/goal directed politics= 'TELOS' (end/purpose)

But people like Oakeshott see politics as infinitely varying and rather unpredictable...and the best the good politician can do, is try to stabilise  the ship of state- of politics. Balance things out a bit and make politics not rational (e.g. by imposing an ideological bluprint) but reasonable.


and this probably requires political people to be of good character - kind, fair, having sense of justice and equal freedoms of all...not loonies!



8) We concluded by the suggestion that there are two divergent conceptions of what is politics...


a) the utopian 'rationalist' view: political activity in pursuit of  an ideological (theory - abstract reason-derived) programme




b) the non-utopian 'being reasonable' view: an activity of governing - of keeping a difficult tumult in balance by good careful decision-making (policy - police/polis) and being adaptive to changing circumstance rather than simply pursuing the 'vision' come what may.





Politics as a study area


'Politics' as an academic and theoretical discipline (a 'scientia' = organised knowledge) that studies and generalises - theorises (BTW: what is 'THEORY'?)  about aspects of political life: DISCOURSES that reflect on what is politics (looked at from some angle or another):



a)  explaining behaviour (voting, participating in social movements; protesting; membership of 'momentum' etc, UKIP);

b) understanding institutions - systems of Government - UK system as against USA or France's, role of the President versus role of PM and so forth;

c) evaluating impact of ideas = ideologies - Liberalism, Conservatism, socialism, marxism, anarchism, populism...


studying ideas as systems of thought independent of their impact = what are the key ideas that identify named ideologies as 'that' ideology - e.g. what makes 'anarchism', anarchism?

d) determining the best ANALYTICAL accounts (definitions) of political systems/concepts = political theory/political philosophy:  e.g. what is (the meaning of) 'justice'; 'power'; 'legitimacy'; liberty (freedom)


NORMATIVE accounts of political concepts: i.e. what OUGHT justice (or freedom, or rights, or the 'right' or the 'the just' state) to look life = an account of the best form of X.


There is also History of Political Thought: This often traces how political ideas and concepts have persisted or changed across the centuries and across nations, continents etc. I gave the example of how the idea of property in Locke's 2nd Treatise on Government (1680s) changed across the next 300 years.


Concept analysis is one arm of Political Theory -  and is largely not a matter of observation/experience (empirical research) but of analysis - of pure in-the-head reflection on meanings of terms such as freedom, justice etc. cannot look at the world and see/grasp the meaning of 'freedom' because I have to know - have an account/theory (in my head, as it were) of what freedom is in the first place to 'see' it outside.


Comparative politics as an area of political science is done by empirical approaches - that is to say, by one analysing the real world behaviours of states, politicians, various institutions

Political Sociology a near neighbour of Comparative Politics will explore the impact of such 'sociological' features as class, poverty, family structure upon political behaviours, voting, political values etc.


Of course I can have a theory about say, a real world of behaviour - a theory - a general account of what motivates voting behaviour.

I test my theory by looking at the world - by empirical research - by getting the facts - interviews about people's experiences, views - what they say etc.

Testing a theory by the facts - by say, observation is usually called 'Positivism'.  


Positivism is one way (method) of knowing - of finding out - about things; and this is a form of 'Epistemology' (how we know/what constitutes valid knowledge)


Theory: All people do 'X';

OK, lets test it. ...

Excuse do you 'X'....


Ah...that falsifies my theory!



Aristotle's word for ‘politics’ is politikę, which is short for politikę epistęmę or ‘political science’. It belongs to one of the three main branches of science, which Aristotle distinguishes by their ends or objects. Contemplative science is concerned with truth or knowledge for its own sake; practical science with good action; and productive science with making useful or beautiful objects. Politics is a practical science, since it is concerned with the noble action or happiness of the citizens (although it resembles a productive science in that it seeks to create, preserve, and reform political systems). Aristotle thus understands politics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry.



So the above various forms of reflection ABOUT politics,  typically is what 'politics' in Politics (political science) Departments in Univs tend to ask about...


How we explain politics also entertains various approaches and I mentioned that there are:


ESSENTIALIST explanations  (these may be seen to be equivalent to 'Foundationalism' or 'structuralism') - there are some core elements to the meaning of a term/concept/phenomenon/activity

WITHOUT WHICH ....it would not be that thing, term, concept ....




ANTI-ESSENTIALIST explanations (also know as: anti-foundationalism/POST-structuralism)...

there are no specifiable CORE TERMS (essences) -  CONDITIONS  - 'THIS' THING, IDEA, BEHAVIOUR must have to BE 'THIS THING...


Historical change is seen to challenge anachronistic (an = without/chronos = time) approaches: what the 16th C meant by 'freedom' may be very different from that of the 21st Century,

But to suggest that we should, say,  judge freedom in the 16th C. by 21st century criteria/standards is claimed by many historians of political thought (e.g. Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, Richard Ashcraft)  to be anachronistic nonsense.


If we accept this sort of argument, then 'essentialism' does not seem to quite work - because historical time brings about change and all sorts of new (unpredicted/unpredictable) factors are now in play compared with previously. In some (empirical) sense 'class' was once seen as 'essential' to explaining voting in Britain, but at least since the late 1980 it does not feature large. We have a dynamic play of new (real world) factors by which to explain voting. There seems to be no set 'structure' - an essential core of related factors which are necessarily there to makes sense of voting behaviour.


At one time the idea of doing harm to someone - stopping the doing of a chosen action (un-freedom) was a matter of physical interference; today it includes matters of psychological harm -

this largely because people in say the 19th C did not understand enabling/disabling action in psychological terms e.g. confidence/undermining confidence ...to do X




POLITICS AS A REAL WORLD ACTIVTY - how do we best characterise it?


Is Politics an activity? a connected series of doings of a certain sort that...


respond in some way to another set of doings of a similar sort? e.g. a struggle for power, control, resources, dominance, authority...


Q) And if this right then, where does politics end and everyday life begin?


That is...what sort of things count as political?.... as opposed to say, the social, or the cultural or the economic?






Theory into practice and vice-versa:


to what extent does reflecting (theorising)  on the nature and doings of the political shape the practical world of politics?


If  I have theorised normatively (or have accepted a theory) about the best form of justice and have theorised its principles - a theory I believe will make people happy; then should I not try to get it implemented?


Q: Should and does Theory (a coherent set of principles for action) precede practice?




Let us take a look at what Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) says in his essay On Political Education' in the collection  'Rationalism in Politics':

In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea: there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel: the sea is both friend and enemy: and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

For Oakeshott, clearly habit, tradition, routine and stability of conduct will tame the wilder shores of others's political activities - that is to say, either people who engage in occasional and unreasonable acts (post-Brexit attacks on strangers who happen to be East Europeans) in politics and society, or equally who try to impose ideologies and programmes irrespective of situations or consequence (e.g. Stalinism)

But is then the good politician the one who gently mediates amongst interests to maintain societal balance and the existing order of power but also through practice has a sense of what is conducive and perhaps, works - GOVERNMENT

...for why would we wish for freedom...or democracy etc unless we had already as a matter of practice, tried it?

And though Oakeshott was on the 20th century's greatest political thinkers, we can trace his ideas of attending to and shepherding political arrangements back to Aristotle in the 5thC. BC.


and should this be how politics is done?


...And thus that (against Machiavelli) claim that  politics is not the art of being cunning in maintaining power and the love of your people...but is about doing the right and the good?


But should political virtue be about the right and the good - the maintaining of principle or the fitting of principles to the circumstances and abandoning them if they don't fit even if they are 'the right thing to do'


Machiavelli cited in his celebrated short book The Prince' the example of the Prince who won the love of a conquered people...by having their conqueror, (the Prince's favourite General) brutally killed in from the those people.



Q: Have 'real' politics got time for theory? for morality? for principle?