Intro to Political Theory

Last offered Spring '23

This course explores two key terms in the study of politics: power and justice. What is power, and how does it shape political life? Is power always visible? If not, how can we offer an account of it? We will begin by trying to identify the spaces in which power operates, focusing on (but not limiting our discussion to) different forms of the political community and the possibility of justice within them. What distinguishes a just community from one that is unjust? Is it possible—as we shall attempt to do with power—to identify spheres of justice or spaces in which all claims that are seen as just must be honored? On what basis are such claims adjudicated? Who is recognized within the bounds of justice, who is left out, and who gets to decide?

In considering how ancient and modern political thinkers have responded to these questions, you will broaden your understanding of the two key terms and gain important insights into the nature of politics. You will also acquire the analytical tools you need to evaluate competing conceptions of the political using clearly defined criteria.Course readings will be drawn from philosophical and theoretical texts, both classic and contemporary. One of the main goals of the course is to introduce you to ideas and thinkers who have profoundly influenced the study and practice of politics. Many of the theories put forward in the readings were highly controversial in the historical periods in which they were first articulated, and they continue to be subject to a great deal of debate. A second goal of the course, therefore, is to equip you to assess contending viewpoints on power and justice and to formulate your own carefully considered approach by engaging the ideas of key thinkers in the field.

Key texts:

Aristotle, The Politics; Hobbes, Leviathan; Sophocles, Philoctetes; Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader


Ancient Political Thought

Last offered Fall '22

The core activity of this course is the careful reading and sustained discussion of selected works by Plato and Aristotle, but we will also look at their influence on later thinkers such as St. Augustine and the Roman statesman Cicero. In our reading and discussion, we will pay attention to the resonance between the texts, but also investigate the discontinuities, shifting concerns, and philosophical innovations of each thinker. Among the questions that we will address are: What is justice? How can it be known and pursued? How is political power generated and exercised? What are the social and ethical prerequisites--and consequences--of democracy? Must the freedom or fulfillment of some people require the subordination of others? Does freedom require leading (or avoiding) a political life? What distinguishes that kind of life from others? How does one choose a way of life, and how does the city in which one is located shape that choice? What does it mean to be "philosophical" or to think "theoretically" about politics? Although we will attempt to engage the readings on their own terms, we will also ask how the vast differences between the ancient world and our own undercut or enhance the texts' ability to illuminate the dilemmas of political life for us.

Key texts:

Aristotle, Politics; Augustine, City of God ; Cicero, On the Commonwealth; Plato, Republic , Apology, Crito.


Critical Theory

Last offered Spring '23

This course takes a critical look at the nexus of money and political power in the United States and world politics, using the concept of “racket society” to guide our inquiry. The theory of “rackets” was first put forward by Frankfurt School theorists in the 1940s as a way of analyzing linkages among organized crime, cartels, monopolies, corporate interests, and political institutions. Their project, which we will recreate in this course, was to trace the effects of the adaptation of the legal system (and other state institutions) to the conglomeration of capital and the concentration of wealth in a few hands. The flow of money offers insights into these deeper trends. Course readings begin with the work of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Franz Neumann, Friedrich Pollock, and Herbert Marcuse, paying special attention to their discussion of the anti-democratic effects of money on political institutions. We will also look carefully at their critique of legal frameworks that protect the wealthy while criminalizing the poor. Although these concerns were not exclusive to the Frankfurt School, the approach they took had some unique features. Having fled Nazi Germany and re-established their research institute in exile the United States, Horkheimer and his colleagues brought an outsider-insider perspective to the problem. Among our questions are the following: How did the intellectual heritage of the Frankfurt School and their experiences in Germany shape their analysis of racket society in 1940s America? Does the theory of rackets still have analytical power today? Given the massive expansion of the U.S. economy and the role of transnational capital in driving economic globalization in recent decades, what insights might the early Frankfurt School offer critics of anti-democratic tendencies in world politics today?


Theorizing Global Justice

Last offered Spring '22

While economic exchanges, cultural convergence, and technological innovations have brought people in different parts of the world closer together than ever before, globalization has also amplified differences in material wealth and social inequalities. Ill health, inadequate sanitation, and lack of access to safe drinking water are increasingly common. Yet, more than ever before, the means exist in affluent regions of the world to alleviate the worst forms of suffering and enhance the well-being of the poorest people. How are we to understand this contradiction as a matter of justice? What is the relationship between justice and equality, and what do we owe one another in a deeply divided world? Course readings will engage your thinking on the central debates in moral philosophy, normative approaches to international political economy, and grassroots efforts to secure justice for women and other severely disadvantaged groups. Key theorists include Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, Thomas Pogge, Nancy Fraser, Paul Farmer, Vandana Shiva, Majid Rahnema, and Enrique Dussel.


The Body as Property

Last offered Spring '21

From an ethical standpoint, human bodies are fundamentally different from objects that can be owned, acquired, and exchanged. Yet history furnishes us with countless examples of laws, administrative rules, and social conventions that treat the human body as a form of property. The institution of slavery is a particularly egregious example. But there are other examples of treating the body as property that seem more ambiguous, or even benign: the employment contract in which bodily services are offered in exchange for payment; the feminist slogan “my body, my choice”; or even the every-day transfer of bodily properties into creative projects that then become part of the things people own — chairs, tables, houses, music, art, and intellectual property. If it is not itself a form of property, how can we explain the use of the human body to acquire possessions, create wealth, and mediate the exchange of other kinds of property? These and other tensions between the concept of property and that of humanity will be the focus of this course. How is property defined, and how far should law go to erode or reinforce distinctions between property and humanity? Course readings focus on Locke, Hegel, Marx, and critical perspectives from feminist theory, critical theory, and critical legal studies (Cheryl Harris, Alexander Kluge, Oskar Negt, Carole Pateman, Rosalind Petchesky, and Dorothy Roberts, among others).


Origins of the State

Last offered Fall '22

When and how did the state come into existence as a form of political organization? This course explores theories of the origins of the state, asking how myths and other speculative accounts in the Western tradition draw boundaries between past and present, as well as between self and other. Paying attention to common oppositions such as nature/civilization, primitive/advanced, anarchy/social order, feminine/masculine, ruler/ruled and stasis/progress, we will investigate how these antagonisms work together to create the conception of the state that still dominates politics today. Course readings touch briefly on social contract theories (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant) before turning to the core material for our exploration: alternative accounts of the origins of the state based on ancient Greek and Roman mythology and the ethnological writings of nineteenth-century socialists (Marx, Engels, Bebel, and others). More recent perspectives and critical interpretations will be drawn from feminist theory (Spivak, Pateman, MacKinnon, Folbre) and critical anthropology (Cassirer, Fabian, Graeber & Wengrow). Among our questions: Is it really possible to pinpoint a moment in time when the state came into existence? And if the aim is not to provide a historically accurate account, what exactly is at stake in constructing or demythologizing theories of the origins of the state?