On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts By Christine Swanton — A Summary

Christine Swanton, “On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts,” Ethics 95, no. 4 (1985): 811–27.

Are the central concepts of political theory like justice, democracy, rights, freedom, and power “essentially contested”?


The “essential contestedness” of political concepts rests on the distinction between a concept x of which there may be many rival and incompatible conceptions or “interpretations” or “uses”.

There appears to be three current views on how that distinction can be made.

The first is to provide a “canonical form” for a concept x. Consider Gerald MacCallum’s schematic characterisation of the concept of liberty as a “triadic” relation: ‘x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z.’[1] The rival conceptions of liberty that arise concern the proper range of the variables x, y and z.

The second is to specify the “common content” of a concept x. John Rawls contends that all conceptions of justice concern with “determining rules for assigning basic rights and duties, and the proper nonarbitrary balancing of competing claims to the advantages of social life”. Rival conceptions of justice will arise, according to this view, based on disagreements about the principles to be accepted in determining those rules.

The third is to say that ‘[t]he concept of x is “derived” from an “exemplar” of x to which the concept of x paradigmatically applies.’ Consider W. B. Gallie’s champion bowling team which serves as an exemplar to all other teams playing the game.[2]

Whichever view one accepts, it is clear that essentially contested concepts do share a common core whose interpretations and specifications are essentially contested. The core is the concept proper and its interpretations are the conceptions.

In what way then is a concept x essentially contested?

“There are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.”[3]

There are two theses here. The first, that of “contestedness”, says that there are concepts which are recognised by their users as contestable and actually contested. The second, that of “essential contestedness”, says that the contests are “inevitable” and “endless” — that is why they are “essentially” contested.

The first thesis, C, can be expressed in the following manner: “There is at least one concept, central to political theory, which is such that (a) that concept admits of a variety of “interpretations” or “uses,” and (b) is such that its proper use is disputable, and conceptions are deployable both “aggressively and defensively” against rival conceptions.”

The second thesis has two variants: the relativist and the sceptical. The relativist version, PR, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of “interpretations” (namely, conceptions of x), and which is such that no interpretation of C is the best conception of x.”

The sceptical version, PE, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of interpretations (namely, conceptions of x) and which is such that for any interpretation, C’i, of C, there is no warrant for the belief that C’i is the best conception of x.”

The relativist version denies the existence of one best conception of x whereas the sceptical version dismisses the possibility of knowing the best conception of x even if there is one.


Essential contestedness views thus described — i.e., the conjunction of C and PR, and the conjunction of C and PE — have been accused of incoherence and lack of justification.

A version of the first charge points out that if there is no best interpretation or no way of knowing the best interpretation, there is no point in contestation. Brian Barry[4] for example accuses Steven Lukes[5] of arguing that debates about the proper use of power involve irresolvable value conflict and then suggesting the existence of criteria for settling them.

A defence against this charge would be to argue that the impossibility of knowing or non-existence of the best interpretation does not preclude knowledge about better interpretations. There is then a point and the point lies not in determining the best wheat, but in separating the wheat from the chaff.

A more serious charge attacks the distinction between concept and conception, or more precisely the belief in an uncontested “common core”. The question is: is the concept itself essentially contested? To reply no to this question is to admit that both PR and PE do not hold for the concept. In other words, the absolute truth value of the concept exists and can be determined. If this is the case, why is it not the same with the conceptions? To reply yes, on the other hand, would be to deny the very validity of the existence of a concept and this would force theorists to either abandon the idea of an uncontested concept or the idea of essential contestedness itself.

If the first of the replies is correct, it might be argued that the problem is no so serious. However, in the cases of freedom, justice, and rights, there is “no uncontested conceptual core”. Let us use the example of distributive justice.

Consider the following sample concepts of distributive justice.

C1: Whatever distribution of a social advantage arises from a just situation by just means is itself just.

C2: A proper nonarbitrary balance between competing claims for a social advantage is determined.

C3: There is a rendering unto each his/her due share or amount of social advantage.

There are multiple interpretations of “just situation” of historical entitlement theory expressed in C1, or the “proper nonarbitrary balance” of Rawlsian justice expressed in C2, or the “due share” of patterned theory expressed in C3. This then makes C1, C2, and C3 concepts of justice rather than full-blown conceptions. However, there is no agreement on which of the three should be adopted as the concept of distributive justice.

The first stresses procedure over outcome, the second presupposes competing interests as necessary for justice, while the last tries to match benefits and burdens with due consideration to relevant natural properties of individuals. The concept of distributive justice turns out then to be highly theory laden.

The implication is that the assumption of a concept which is common to all conceptions must be dropped if the charges of incoherence are to be adequately addressed. But how can theorists contest without knowing what they are contesting? In other words, if there is no concept of justice, how can theorists argue justice? The short answer is that the lack of a common meaning does not mean the lack of a common referent. In the case of freedom, one could refer to sufficiently many sample instances containing the word “free” and its cognates as constituting a common conception.

This resolution of the second charge of incoherence presupposes that it is sensible to talk about contested conceptions without there being a core concept as such and further that no such conception is the best. These presuppositions however have the effect of dissolving the difference between concepts and conceptions.


So modified, essential contestedness can now be understood as the conjunction of C’ and P’R, and the conjunction of C’ and P’E.

C’:  There is at least one political ideal x, of which there are several conceptions, and these conceptions of x are deployable both aggressively and defensively against rival conceptions of x.

P’R:  There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and no conception of x is the best conception of x.

P’E:  There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and there is no warrant for a belief that any of those conceptions of x is the best conception of x.

Justifications of this modified view of essential contestedness come in three distinct flavours:

Q:  The criteria of many political concepts are multiple and evaluative, and stand in no settled relation of priority with one another.

R:  Conceptions of political ideals “arise within,” “operate within,” and “express” particular moral or political theories or “perspectives.”

S:  There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any moral and political perspective, from the standpoint of which we can judge any conception of a political ideal to be the best.

Consider Q. This thesis is visible in Gallie who explicates the essential contestedness of the concept of a champion team at bowling in terms of the “many valued features in the exemplar’s play, which stand in no settled relation of priority”. These “features” would be weighed differently by different appraisers.

To illustrate this thesis using justice, consider two kids A and B who agree to each clean half of person’s windows for ten dollars each. A does a barely satisfactory job in an hour and B does an excellent job in two. A’s family is poor while B’s is wealthy. On a criterion of entitlement by right, each should receive ten dollars each; on a criterion of desert, B should receive more; on a criterion of need, A should receive more.

If Q applies to this situation, given the conflict, any one criteria could override the others. This means that Q is compatible with an intuitionist conception of justice which allows multiple first principles for determining what is just but disallows methods for prioritising those principles, yet asserts the intuitive knowability of what the just thing to do is. The implication is that Q cannot then be compatible with P’R and P’E.


To turn to R, the argument appears to be, according to Lukes, that the rival uses of a concept express differing and incommensurable — in the Kuhnian sense — moral and political perspectives. This leads to their essential contestedness. Conceptions of justice embedded in different concepts of justice and given the incommensurability of the concepts, there can be no best conception of justice. Hence, R supports P’R via a thesis of incommensurability.

This incommensurability may be due to differing meanings of the terms used in the theories. If the referents too are assumed to be different — afterall, sense determines reference — then the theories cannot even be about the same thing. Incommensurability may also be merely because of the absence of any method of showing that the terms mean the same.

However, Lukes cannot use the thesis of incommensurability to consistently to derive P’R from R. If conceptions are embedded in concepts which are incommensurable, rival conceptions cannot have a common core — a necessity for Lukes’ thesis of essential contestedness. Even if the assumption of a common core is dropped, it remains to be seen if incommensurable concepts can be contested concepts. The consensus is that they cannot be.[6] Perhaps, then, sense doesn’t determine reference and incommensurable theories are in fact talking about the same referent. But this assumes that statements of different theories are intertranslatable. Something that the incommensurability thesis denies.

In short, the thesis of incommensurability undermines C’. If incommensurability can be used to derive P’R from R, then idea that the concepts are essentially contested has to be dropped.


What about S? Lukes, quoting FH Bradley, criticises John Rawls for attempting to “theoretical[ly] … isolate what cannot be isolated” when he speculates about the Original Position as an Archimedean point or judging the basic structure of society. The individuals of the Original Position are, for Lukes, “literally inconceivable”.

S, the thesis that rejects the existence of any Archimedean point, seems to lead to P’E through the following line of argument.

i. Conceptions of political ideals are embedded in moral or political theories or perspectives (thesis R).
ii.  Such perspectives always involve commitment to value systems.
iii.  There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any particular value system, from the standpoint of which we can judge any moral or political perspective to be true. Therefore:
iv.  There is no warrant for believing that any conception of an ideal embedded in such a perspective, is the best conception of that ideal.

But the conclusion iv does not follow from i, ii, and iii alone. It requires the following to be true.

v. There is no theory which both provides a warrant for a claim that a conception C is the best conception of x, and fails to constitute an “Archimedean point” for justification of such a claim.

In other words, to say that lack of an Archimedean point from which to judge differing moral perspectives to which people are committed does not warrant the abandonment of the belief in any one perspective as the best conception. For this to hold, it must further be (shown to be) true that any theory that provides warrant for a claim that a conception is the best also constitutes an Archimedean point for justifying that claim.

It will be argued that this critical final requirement is in certain cases not fulfilled. Consider a coherence epistemology that requires a coherence among “background theory, judgments, and conceptions;[7] and in a way that does justice to the endoxa — the beliefs of the many or the wise.” However, it cannot, without losing its coherence, provide for an Archimedean point upon which to “lever” one theory above the rest as the best.

A coherentist may, in claiming a theory as the best conception, only point to (a) a theory grounded in an “ideally rational perspective” or (b) a theory that comes closest to the former. A coherence epistemology can seek to justify claims that a certain conception is the best based on either of the two senses without appealing to the need of an Archimedean point. The principles for justification could be the “degree of coherence achieved, the number and significance of the endoxa considered as initial “data points,” and the degree to which the theoretical apparatus enables the point of the various endoxa considered to be preserved.”

To sum up, there are certain types of theory, like coherence theories for example, which do not constitute Archimedean points for justification and evaluation. This being true, S cannot lead to P’E.

“I conclude that neither Q, R, nor S establish the (modified) essential contestedness views. These three theses are, to my knowledge, the only grounds which have been advocated in defense of the essential contestedness of concepts. Attractive though the essential contestedness hypothesis is as a solution to the problem of intractable dispute in political and moral theory, the hypothesis has not yet been adequately defended.

End Notes

[1]MacCallum, Gerald C. 1967. “Negative and Positive Freedom.” The Philosophical Review 76(3): 312–34.

[2] Gallie, W B. 1955. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56: 167–98.

[3] Ibid., p. 169.

[4] Barry, Brian. 1975. “The Obscurities of Power.” Government and Opposition 10(2): 250–54.

[5] Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View (London: Macmillan, 1974)

[6] “Now it is generally thought that it is a confusion to believe that incommensurable theories are competing theories.”

[7] “(a) relevant judgments acceptable to the “many or the wise” and which at least presumptively reveal something of the nature of the ideal under investigation; (b) rival conceptions of the ideal under investigation; and (c) “background” theories whose purpose is to uncover the needs and interests served by the classification of items in terms of the ideal under investigation and to thereby discover the point of and strengths of the various judgments and conceptions.”

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.

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.

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. 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 limitations 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 are scientific, 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 made his attack on the bourgeoisie 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