“Introduction to Political Theory”- why this class isn’t.
The field of Political Theory or Political Philosophy is, as one might guess, intimidatingly large. From ancient philosophers like Confucius (China, circa 550 BC), Chānakya (India, circa 350 BC) and Socrates (Greece, circa 469 BC) through the development of medieval philosophy in Europe, China, the Middle East and India (among other places), to the impact of modern theorists like Marx and Hegel, the history and geographic breadth of the creation of political theory mirrors the evolution of human civilization at every level. As a result, it’s not surprising that an introductory class must make tough decisions about which areas of the field to focus on, both chronologically and spatially. What’s startling about the curriculum, however, is that despite covering an extremely long period of time- more than two thousand years of political history- every single author on the reading list is European. Despite the vibrant philosophical traditions of dozens of other cultures around the world- in some cases, as with Theravada Buddhism, traditions which significantly predate Western philosophy- the course is so myopically focused on Europe that it overlooks many of the most significant developments in political history. It’s as if a class entitled “History of the World” taught nothing but the history of Laos, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia up to 1600 AD. While the syllabus attempts a brief justification- it turns out this is an “Introduction to Western Political Theory”, not as one might think political theory as a whole- as we shall see momentarily this remains an insufficient explanation for the failure to include non-European writers in the course.
Even if we accept for the moment that a class entitled Political Science 101- Political Theory can credibly choose to focus solely on European philosophy, as if pretending that equivalent introductory classes exist to teach Arabic, Chinese, or Indian political thought (which, to be clear, they do not), it remains remarkable that non-European scholars who have nevertheless had huge impacts on European philosophy are entirely excluded from the curriculum. During the Middle Ages, for example, Islamic and Central Asian philosophers provided the primary means by which Hellenistic philosophy- Socrates, Plato, Aristotle- reached Europe. The ascendant Islamic Caliphate poured immense resources into preserving and translating Greek philosophy, and it was to the Islamic world that Western philosophers traveled to reclaim their lost intellectual heritage. Devoutly Christian monks studied under Muslim disciples of the Greek philosophers; one teacher in particular, Al-Farabi, was so important to the development of European philosophy that he became known in Europe as “the second master,” the first being Aristotle. As John Esposito of Georgetown University highlights in his comprehensive history of the Islamic empires The Straight Path, intellectual giants like al-Farabi, ibn Sina and ibn Rush were so important to the formation and formulation of western philosophy that “even the greatest medieval Christian philosophers- St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Abelard- openly acknowledged their intellectual debt to their Muslim colleagues (pgs. 60-61).”
While this may seem largely academic in a discussion of modern political theory- after all, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all came centuries after the process of philosophical re-translation from Arabic to European languages was completed- many of the foundational ideas of European political theory originated with, or were at least developed in parallel by, those Muslim scholars. Concepts as fundamental as social contract theory, the nature of mutual obligation, and even the idea of human rights found their way into Arabic texts as early as the 8th century AD, though often such philosophers were the target of harassment or accused of blasphemy by the Islamic state (as occasionally occurred with their Christian counterparts). In particular, the work of Suffi mystics like Abū Ḥāmid ibn Ghazālī in critiquing Hellenistic political theory- again largely based on the writing of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle- provided early European political philosophers like Aquinas with the arguments they used to adopt, adapt, and occasionally refute such theories, in particular moving towards a heavier emphasis on the state as a moral/religious example. In fact, the writings of Aquinas, which would shape much of European political thought until the Renaissance and introduced the concept of the right to overthrow an unjust government, were largely based off the work of Arab scholar Aḥmad bin Rušd, better known in Europe as Averroes or ibn Rush.
The point of all this is that a class which purports to give a comprehensive introduction to Political Theory owes it to its students to provide an array of materials representing the diverse, complex, and multilateral process by which modern political theory was developed. Though the syllabus acknowledges the Western focus of the course, even European philosophy has been so heavily shaped by external forces that the failure to include even a single Arabic, Chinese, or otherwise non-white non-continental author represents not only a glaring omission in the intellectual fabric of the class but a further step towards the perpetuation of the widespread and utterly fallacious belief that modern philosophy is primarily a Western invention.