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“Introduction to Political Theory”- why this class isn’t.

January 31, 2011
Ancient Chinese Buddha, circa 220 AD

Ancient Chinese Buddha, circa 220 AD

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).”

Aḥmad bin Rušd

Aḥmad bin Rušd

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.

14 Comments
  1. John D'Adamo permalink
    January 31, 2011 2:52 PM

    Michael,
    Yes, it does “turn out” that this course uses Western political thinkers. It’s on the first line of not just the syllabus, but the LSA Course Description for Political Science 101 that everyone is supposed to use before picking a course: “This course explores the fundamental questions of politics from the perspective of Western political theory. This way, the course serves as a chronological introduction to the theoretical study of politics.” Therefore, if you were not up for a class using Western political theory to tackle political issues, you should have taken a different class! Your assertion that it “turns out” this class utilizes Western political thought is not valid.

    While I agree with your main normative assertion that the course should tackle non-European authors (MLK and Malcolm X excluded, of course, as they are non-European authors offered in this course) you cannot deny the incredible influence Western political thinkers had on current worldwide political thought, which is probably the reason Professor Lavaque-Manty chose to focus on it. I also question some of the backing evidence you used to reach your statement.

    You said “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 Aquinas, Bacon, and Abelard are no doubt some incredibly influential people- you’re comparing apples to oranges by using this as your key expert evidence, because you’re saying Eastern political thought should be put right up in there with Western and this is your key rationale.

    So now, with all that above said, let’s use this blog post as a jumping off point to propose either a new class in the 100-level that introduces non-European political theory, or the insertion of some Asian and Middle Eastern theorists in this class. While I disagree with a lot of your logic and evidence, I have to agree fundamentally that only focusing on Europe is not the best way to go when introducing political theory.

    • michaelambler permalink
      January 31, 2011 3:31 PM

      There are all kinds of issues I have with your blog post, so I’m going to focus on the biggest one; your entirely misleading assertion that the reason for my post is that I believed this class would offer a more global look at philosophy, and am petulantly disappointed. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

      First of all, as I mentioned, the University of Michigan offers no comparable introduction to Eastern or Middle-Eastern political theory, so your claim that ‘I should have taken a different class’ doesn’t hold up. In effect, by offering only an introduction to Western political philosophy, the Political Science department is making a judgement about which scholars and ideas were historically significant and which were not.

      Second of all, and this is by far the more important point, when you read my post I’m sure you noticed that I take issue not only with the exclusion of non-European authors- which, as I pointed out, is at least partially justified by the syllabus and course description- but with the picture of Western philosophical history as a product of exclusively European minds. Since in particular the Islamic empires and philosophers contributed immeasurably to the development of political thought in Europe, the utter exclusion of any mention of those achievements is a gaping hole in the curriculum.

      Third, and finally, you claim that using Aquinas’ acknowledgement of an intellectual debt to Muslim scholars as evidence such a debt existed is somehow comparing ‘apples to oranges.’ I remain unclear as to what this could mean- perhaps you could clarify? You mention multiple times in my post that you question my ‘backing evidence.’ Specifically, what pieces of evidence do you believe are inaccurate, and why?

      • John D'Adamo permalink
        January 31, 2011 3:45 PM

        1. You made it seem from the post that you came to a recent realization that this class offered political thought from the Western perspective from your language. Therefore I pointed out that the course guide made this very clear.

        2. “In effect, by offering only an introduction to Western political philosophy, the Political Science department is making a judgment about which scholars and ideas were historically significant and which were not.” This is a much better fleshing out of your opinion. Therein lies my call to reform Political Science 101 or offer a complimentary course allowing other scholars from across the world.

        3. I’m not sure there will be a complete lack of a mention of thought other than European scholars in the course. In fact, perhaps this back-and-forth will motivate the professor to take some time to explain other theories? Still, I remain in agreement that there should be another entry-level course that tackles other beliefs.

        4. Because you are conflating this one piece of evidence to enforce your entire point that European philosophy should be combined with other philosophers in other countries. It’s more a semantic point than anything.

        In conclusion, I hope the professor reads this and considers a lesson on non-European political thought at the very least, and perhaps even puts forward the idea of creating another course.

        John

  2. michaelambler permalink
    January 31, 2011 4:00 PM

    I’m still curious which piece of evidence it is, specifically, that you believe it faulty or untrue (since you made that claim twice). I remain unclear as to what you mean when you argue that Aquinas explicitly recognizing his intellectual debt to ibn Rush is not good evidence that such a debt existed. Finally, I don’t really think I’m relying on one piece of evidence to ‘enforce’ my point; I mentioned at least two scholarly works, as well as numerous other sources of evidence, for the transmission of philosophical knowledge northwards from the Islamic Caliphate (and later Sultanate).

    If you remain in doubt, I’m happy to recommend some further reading. I’d start with the Summa Theologica, particularly the notes Aquinas compiled while writing it- it’s a dense work, but interesting. I’d also recommend Tahafut al-Tahafut, or “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” ibn-Rush’s famous refutation to attacks on Greek Philosophy, and compare the two works. For a more modern perspective on the cross-pollination of Islamic and European philosophy, I recommend The Straight Path (mentioned in the original post) as well as A History Of Islamic Philosophy (Corbin, Yale University Press, 1996).

  3. John D'Adamo permalink
    January 31, 2011 4:48 PM

    Thanks for the suggestions, but my intention was simply to point out that Aquinas owing debt to ibn Rush may not be a great way to augment your argument that the course needs more non-European thinkers.

    Let’s conclude the debate positively by launching it into a framework for potentially improving Political Science 101 and including non-European thinkers or starting a new 100-level class that would serve the same purpose.

  4. January 31, 2011 9:26 PM

    This is a fabulous post, and the ensuing debate exemplary, too, although I wish more people would weigh in.

    The challenge goes to the heart of the way the disciplines and sub-disciplines of contemporary western academia are configured. This has implications on how people are trained — not just current undergrads, but their instructors — and how those traditions perpetuate themselves.

    So I very much encourage this discussion and encourage others to join in.

    I have a lot more to say about this, but I’ll wait until others have had a chance to contribute.

  5. justinwilliamsgsi permalink*
    January 31, 2011 9:46 PM

    This is a really interesting post, and I’m glad you bring this up. A few things to think about:

    – Political Science 101 is an introductory course, not an exhaustive course. While that doesn’t mitigate the claims you make about “what gets to count” in political theory, it does mean that instructors have to pick and choose what counts as introductory material. For better and for worse, there’s something of a canon – a primary body of texts – that guides political theory as a field. So to the extent Political Science 101 is an introduction to the field of political theory, there’s a reasonable argument for teaching the primary texts that guide the field. Not coincidentally, those texts are written by old dead Europeans (and a couple African Americans). And keep in mind that plenty of Europeans don’t make this cut, either: Spinoza, Filmer, Augustine, Aquinas, Montesquieu, and Weber – all giants in their own ways – come to mind. So an introduction to “the field” has to pick and choose what texts are introductory, and Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau is one reasonable way to make that choice.

    – But that merely brings us to the question of “what gets to count as the canon.” My take is that the canon is, in part, determined by what gets taught. So if enough Aldo Leopold gets taught in introductory political theory courses, he might become part of the canon. Some political theorists push back on this point. The canon, they say, is made of those texts that are really important in some way: they capture a certain argument particularly well, people have been talking about them for a long time, they continue a long tradition in political theory. Some texts, they say, are important intellectual history, road apples on the way to the greatest hits. So teaching the canon, they say, is important because it’s the bedrock on which so much else gets built. So the canon, as we understand it, captures some of the most important points in political philosophy (not just the field, but the body of inquiry, Western or not).

    – But that merely dodges the question of how a text becomes solidified in the canon. I’m no believer in mystical transformation: no alchemy, wherein text became canon, transpired at the moment when Hobbes penned the final word of Leviathan or when Locke wrote his Second Treatise. Instead, those texts were made into canon by the practice of political theory, by people who study and write political theory. Again, there’s good reason to think that some of those texts deserve to be studied over generations. But we ought to be curious, as you are, about why some texts get left out. Once I drop the appeal to alchemy – that greatness fell from Hobbes’ hand-, I’m left to conclude that it’s a normative, political process that decides what the important questions – and therefore important texts – are and are not. We ought especially to raise an eyebrow at the fact that non-European texts almost uniformly are left out of the canon. And what geographic sleight-of-hand decided that the Greek Empire is in, while the Islamic Empire gets left out? Good questions worth answering, although not questions I can answer.

  6. lernerm permalink
    January 31, 2011 10:35 PM

    I agree with many of the above comments and would like to make a short point:

    The question at hand in this discussion is what constitutes an “Introduction” and what is not. An introduction should be composed of two parts: a historical view and an overview of current thought.

    The historical look at political theory ought to emphasize the major works that are viewed as “turning points” and caused a radical change to the process of political thought. While the content of these pieces are important and should not be neglected, it is the changes to the methods of constructing a sound political argument (one that satisfies readers at the time) that are crucial to understanding political theory today.

    What I see missing most often from introductory courses in the humanities is a survey of currently accepted theories and arguments. After a survey course on western philosophic thought last year, I had the chance to talk with a professor of philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was surprised that I could discuss the nuances of Nietzsche and not know the most influential philosophers of today. It is all well and good to know how we got here, but that is worthless if I don’t know what is happening today (I understand that this is not quite on topic, but it is something else that I would enjoy learning about in PS 101).

    In regards to michaelambler, I agree that it does not seem right to have an course called “Introduction to Political Theory” composed entirely of western thought. I would suggest that Prof. Manty acknowledge the elements of today’s standards of political thought that are due to the contributions of important non-western theorists and include them. The historical canon of political theory should be composed of the most influential writers, regardless of their origins.

  7. chrisshu permalink
    January 31, 2011 10:40 PM

    John, you stated that “Therefore, if you were not up for a class using Western political theory to tackle political issues, you should have taken a different class!” However, I disagree with both you and Michael’s assertion that this class only teaches Western political thought. My grievance with your claim is that this class is even more specific that just Western political thought. I would go as far to say that this class concentrates solely on Western European thought, mainly, England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. The class whole-heartedly, whether by accident, or on purpose, not only Eastern thought, or Middle Eastern or African, but Eastern European thought as well. Poland, for example, had a prolific “Renaissance” period as well as a rich culture in the arts during the Middle Ages. Russia, specifically Moscow, prized the “third Rome” by some scholars, churned out literature on Political philosophy comparable to many Western European scholars, yet those texts have also been ignored in this class. If we examine closely the syllabus, each and every writer is either from an Anglo-Saxon country, a Prussian or German country, or America. So yes, although I agree that the philosophy of politics and political thought of other countries should be taught, we should, most importantly, first not mislead ourselves into believing we are learning about the broad topics in European thought. How can we when we only focus on Western European thought? The LSA course guide should change the introductory blurb from “This course explores the fundamental questions of politics from the perspective of Western political theory.” to This course explores the fundamental questions of politics from the perspective of WESTERN European political theory, since after all, even the social climate of Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe differed let alone compared to the rest of the world.

    Secondly, I agree with Justin that there is a specific “canon” that is taught in many courses. For one, in my Great Books class, the canon was Ancient Greek literature. However, what I will disagree on is “Political Science 101 is an introductory course, not an exhaustive course.” If by stating that Political Science 101 is an introductory course and not an exhaustive one, we should encompass all thoughts and -isms into the course, but instead we have already been “forced” to read specific words that will shape our ideas more narrowly than if we were able to explore the myriad of political ideas. For example, going back to my Great Books class, the course guide states it’s an introduction to Ancient Greek literature and in that sense admits it’s a very specific class. However, Political Science 101 in a sense “lies” to us because it only covers a small chunk of the ideas of Western thought, more specifically as I stated in my first argument, Western European thought. If this were truly an introductory course, it should have encompassed many more ideas that Western philosophers had. Going back to the “canon” however, I’d say that argument falls into a kind of circular reasoning of why Western European literature is taught. It’s saying Western European literature is taught because “Europeans” who studied political thought read those pieces of literature because they were taught to learn that and the whole cycle continues. I feel that in order to create a canon that truly comprises the best of political thought, we need a completely objective outlook which, sadly, is impossible.

    • michaelambler permalink
      February 1, 2011 1:51 AM

      You make excellent points, Chris, particularly about the sort of vicious circle that goes on with the teaching of philosophy, where certain authors are taught, and then the fact that those authors have been taught before becomes evidence of their importance and an excuse to continue teaching on them.

      Also, I definitely appreciate your argument that my original post should have specified not just European, but Western European. You are entirely correct that the Eastern European nations have a rich and in many ways uniquely constructed history of political thought, and I overlooked this in my post.

    • justinwilliamsgsi permalink*
      February 1, 2011 10:03 AM

      Just to clarify, I think we agree. The problem that I try to point to above is the arguably (though not definitively) circular logic of the canon: it gets taught, so it continues to get taught. And introductory courses are prone to get caught in this kind of logic, because they offer an introduction to (not exhausitve survey of) the field, which quite reasonably can mean (though not necessarily must mean) teaching a limited range of the same old folks. The point I want to make – and I think John makes above and below – about the introductory course is that an instructor must make choices about what to cut: there’s no way to cover everything in political theory over 15 weeks (nor even a lifetime). So the question shifts away from “how do we include everything in 15 weeks?” and toward “what gets cut, what stays in?” One of many reasonable answers to the latter question is to teach the greatest hits. I’m only defending that approach insofar as I think it’s reasonable, though not a foregone conclusion. I’m offering one explanation for some of its causes, and like Chris and Mike, calling that explanation into question.

  8. John D'Adamo permalink
    January 31, 2011 11:00 PM

    I thought that lerner’s post about the conversation he had with his professor that he could cite specific aspects of Nietzsche’s beliefs yet didn’t know many influential other thinkers was a pretty striking one. There also is the point that has been brought up about the “canon” of a course. Both of these statements synthesize the idea brought up in the debate Michael and I had earlier that while we disagreed on semantics it’s pretty clear something needs to be done to enhance the spectrum of learning in the introductory political science course at the University. Chris, I’ll give you that the scholars posted are primarily from Western Europe, and having taken European History a few years back I do recall the fundamental differences between that region and other areas of Europe in schools of thought and mindset (to name just a few.) It just reinforces the idea that more injection of culture should occur in 101.

    So the discussion might then become- which philosophers would we add to the syllabus and which ones would we retract, given that we have about a three and a half month window between Day One and final exams? Michael’s original examples of Confucius and ibn Rush are definitely potential choices, but who else might be considered?

    • michaelambler permalink
      February 6, 2011 3:19 AM

      Some suggestions:

      Confucius
      Sun Tzu
      Abū l-Walīd bin Rušd (Ibn Rush/Averroes)
      Mencius
      Han Feizi
      Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (Al-Farabi)
      ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn Sīnā Balkhi (Avicenna)
      Chanyaka

      Chris made some goods points above about Eastern European political theory, as well; I’m less well educated in that area, so perhaps he’d be better qualified to make suggestions in that area. The one’s that come to mind for me, at least, are Petrycy and Goslicki (early advocates of popular sovereignty).

  9. John D'Adamo permalink
    February 7, 2011 1:18 PM

    Great suggestions. I would especially be excited at discussing Chinese philosophy through Confucius and other philosophers, because after the reading, the in-class lecture could be about the ideas of Tao, De, Li, and Qi, the way, virtue, principle, and overall force in the world. Discussion could then be held about the differences between these philosophies and those of Machiavelli. One could do the same with the principles expressed in ibn Rush and al-Farabi’s works. I understand the argument that there is an established “canon” of Western European philosophers that was presented here and in lecture, but maybe the University of Michigan, a school known for being leaders, could start to expand upon that just a bit to enhance Intro to Political Theory.

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