What is Political Theory? by Andrew Hacker — A Summary

Title: What is Political Theory?
Author: Andrew Hacker
Publication: Andrew Hacker (1961) Political Theory — Philosophy, Ideology, Science

Science, Philosophy, Ideology

In order to say anything on a subject, one has to be either an “expositor” or a “censor”. The former explains what is and the latter tells us what ought to be. This Benthamite observation, though his remarks were confined to the study of law, brings out the distinction between the two branches of political theory: political science and political philosophy. The theorist engaging in political science describes and explains political reality. Meanwhile, the theorist engaged in political philosophy prescribes the goals that should be pursued in the political reality.

However, every respectable political theorist fills both roles and divides his efforts between both pursuits, although which role gets more attention will vary. The important point is that without both ingredients, a lasting contribution to knowledge cannot be made. Because there is no “pure” or “objective” political science. The grounds for selecting the aspects of reality to be studied must eventually be philosophical. Equally, political philosophy is always informed by an understanding of political reality. As such, there is no “pure” or “objective” political philosophy. It is up to the student of political theory to determine where the scientific part stops and where the philosophical part begins.

There is a third variety of theory in which the theorist may prescribe a course of action, or means, if a certain result is to be achieved. This sort of prescription that specifies the means and leaves the ends to the reader may be called “policy science”. Such if-then statements are prescriptions only in a technical sense.

Theorists tend to be Utopians or ideologues. While the former build castles in the air, the latter are stuck in the soil. As beings of emotion and interest, all theorists are inevitably ideologues.

A theory, in ideal terms, is dispassionate and disinterested. As science describe political reality without trying to pass judgment on what is being depicted wither implicitly or explicitly. As philosophy, it will prescribe rules of conduct which will secure the good life for all of society and not simply for certain individuals or classes.

As such, we have distortions and rationalisations instead of disinterested description and prescription.


But despite the inevitability of rationalisations and distortions, there emerges theorists who are able to transcend the ideological limitation and achieve a broader perspective and provide generalisations that stand the test of time. Those who achieve this may legitimately be called theorists.

The Search for Significance

The theorists of yesterday, as opposed to the theorists of today, are not much concerned with methodological rigor. When Rousseau declares that we must put the facts aside because they do not affect the issue and Machiavelli pushes only the unpalatable qualities of men, it is not because Rousseau fails to realise the value of facts or because Machiavelli is unaware of the complexity of human nature. It is because they are willing to stress dominant tendencies and speculate on major trends. The problem with too much rigor and too much information is that they make any significant contribution to political theory impossible.

A theory which says that men have equal proportions of good and evil in them is, in the final analysis, no theory at all. Generalisations are always risky, but to be meaningful they must come down on one side or another.

If theorists claim that their theories, their words should be viewed with suspicion and not taken seriously.

The problem with facts concerns their role in theory. Should they be used as evidence, as contemporary theorists do, or should they be used simply as illustrations, as many historical writers[1] did? The argument for the former is that facts lead to convincing and conclusive substantiations that supports the generalisations. The argument for the latter is reality is so subtle and complex to be factually verified.

But if the pursuit of significance requires the loosening of methodological standards, what is to stop the theorist from abandoning caution altogether? What is to stop him from creating fantastical edifices where all problems are solved or where everything is explained? There are a few of those in political theory. “Nevertheless, it must be remembered that if important issues are to receive discussion, then standards of logic and even veracity must be relaxed.”

Also, even if the full system propounded by a theorist may be untenable, it should not devalue the importance of “middle range” theories — theories that are a part of the general framework of a theorist. Examples are Aristotle’s theory of class, St. Thomas’ theory of law, Locke’s theory of property, Mill’s theory of representation. It is impossible to find a satisfactory all-embracing theory by a single theorist in this day. So, in the meantime, students of political theory must be willing to collect whatever they can from any source they find. Only, they must be sufficiently sceptical in temperament.

The History of Politics and
the History of Ideas

A knowledge of history understood in its broad conception as a growth and evolution of social classes, productive forces, and political institutions is essential for the political theorist. Without such historical knowledge, there can be no perspective for analysis or standard for judgement no matter how complete his knowledge of the present might be.

An illustration of this is the idea and fact of political liberty. Liberty as freedom from state and social restraint took birth in the context of a particular social structure and at a certain stage of economic development. The theorists who propounded this idea were situated in a certain point in time. The student of political theory cannot ignore these facts any more than he can deny that the social structure and the level of economic development has drastically changed today.

History in political theory is also pervaded by ideology. The ‘historical’ constructions of Rousseau, or Marx and Engels, or even Burke and Tocqueville, are filled with ideological overtones and are often distorted to make their arguments clear. These misdirections notwithstanding, the theories so created need not become valueless.

There is another form of history crucial to political theory, that of the history of ideas which concerns the political ideas set down in writing by men of ideas. The active relation between the history of ideas and the history of political action is stressed by most students. This gives rise to the common refrain that men of ideas must always be put in their proper historical context. But that amounts to wrongly denying that what they had to say has value and application that transcend their peculiar contexts.

The works of historical writers (see footnote), regardless of when and where they were written, can increase our understanding of the world. And their theories can and should be studied independent of the role they might have played in the ‘histories of ideas’. To defend this claim, seven points may be raised in the form of a rebuke against the ‘histories of ideas’:

1. “Capital” and Carbuncles

Biographical approaches tend to concentrate on how a particular work came to be written. Marx’s carbuncles are said to have make his attack on the bourgeoise more vehement. Rousseau’s constricted bladder is said to have affected his writing in the Social Contract. It is not advisable to completely divorce the man from his work but to concentrate solely on the man and not what he wrote, as these biographical approaches do, is to do a great disservice to political theory.

2. Lost Laundry Lists

There is a tendency to look at everything that an author wrote — even laundry lists! — as important to the work of the author. An obscure Hegelian essay on the English constitution is thus criticised for not bringing anything original to the discussion. These are the lengths historians of ideas will go to. Obviously, if one wants to learn about the English constitution, Hegel is not whom he should be reading. In any case, those who look at laundry lists or incidental essays have ceased their study of politics.

3. The Pursuit of Pedigrees

Similarities in phrasing and emphasis in the writing of two or more writers are taken to imply the direct influence of the ones who came before on the ones who came after other. Hobbes is thus positioned as the precursor to the Utilitarians when there is no evidence to prove that this is actually so. Such positioning is highly speculative. It is not to say that ideas emerge in a vacuum but it is at the same time naïve to think that an intelligent theorist cannot come up with conclusions on his own.

4. Nothing New Under the Sun

A commentator pointed out that there is nothing new in the Communist Manifesto. It might be true. But the point is that Marx took the thought of the others and put them together in ways that had never been done before, much as Shakespeare used existing English words in ways that had never been used before. That Plato or Aristotle has already said a few generalised remarks about most, if not all, aspects of political theory need not discourage the theorist from exploring further and digging deeper.

5. Meaningful Misinterpretations

One historian of ideas bemoans the fact that Bodin’s legacy has been built upon a false reading of his theory of sovereignty. So what? What a work gains in truth by a thorough scholarly reading, it loses in significance. The significance of theory lies in the eyes of the reader. Historical texts are more useful if they are read as texts alone. The obsession with hidden intentions and hidden meanings contributes very little to the study of politics.

6. Representative Reflections

Historians of ideas try to understand through the works of historical writers what was going on in people’s minds. But political texts are rarely representative of the thinking of their times. Often, they are unorthodox, even radical, positions adopted by only a small minority. The great books of political theory do not tell us what happened. They show us how some people chose to view what they imagined had happened.

7. Influential Intellectuals

Historians of ideas are quick to suggest that works of theory have a direct influence upon political action. This contention is a serious one and it is true that men of action read in political texts — Jefferson had read Locke’s Second Treatise, and Lenin was highly influenced by Marx. But we must also realise that many significant events in the world were not inspired by any theory — Genghis Khan overran Asia without a theory to guide him.

The point is that instead of the theorist directing the practitioner, it is usually the practitioner who (ab)uses the words of the theorist to suit his purposes. Theory, in other words, gets diluted into ideology in order for the practitioner to use it to stir people into action. A serious student ought to recognise this fact and learn to negotiate the difficult terrain of ideology without becoming an ideologue.

The historical texts have their greatest allure in that the theories they offer transcend the times and the personalities which produced them. In this sense they are timeless and, in an important respect, anonymous.

Politics and Conscience

Political theory requires a political conscience — deep concern for the world in which we live. A student must be ready to be driven by emotion and to work conscientiously. The important matters are not historical erudition nor methodological precision. Too great a concern with the history of ideas will only limit him. Politics has timeless problems. Only a sustained and intense discussion of theory will help resolve those problems.


[1] By ‘historical writers’, Hacker means the writers of classic works on political theory who were not too concerned about methodological questions. He specifically mentions Burke and Tocqueville. He is not referring to historians.

For a differing view on the history of ideas, look at Quentin Skinner’s “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas


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