The Concept of the Political in Contemporary Western and Non-Western Political Thought

  • Noël K. O’Sullivan (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


In 1959, Reinhardt Koselleck published Critique and Crisis, in which he argued that the dominant tendency of political theory since the Enlightenment has been to subsume the political under the moral. Since then, other thinkers have echoed Koselleck’s contention, and have described recent liberal political theory in particular as a ‘flight from the political’ (Freeden, 2005, 2008). In this situation, one of the main challenges confronting contemporary Western political theory is to end the flight from the political by clarifying what the concept of the political involves. But how is this to be done? The first step is to see what guidance can be got from five of the most notable recent responses to this situation, each of which would be defended with varying degrees of success as offering a genuinely political theory. One has been made by neo-Kantian liberal thinkers whose concept of the political is best represented by the work of Rawls. The second has been made by defenders of a very different form of neo-Kantianism generally called discourse theory and best represented by Jürgen Habermas. The third may be described as the agonal theory of the political, represented here by the work of Chantal Mouffe. The fourth response is the postmodern concept of the political, of which I shall take the late Richard Rorty as the main representative. Finally, there is the pragmatic, or modus vivendi, concept of the political represented by the thought of John Gray. After examining how these five influential schools of thought have attempted to theorize the political, I will turn to a small group of contemporary political theorists – notably, Michael Freeden at Oxford, Raymond Geuss and John Dunn at Cambridge, and Margaret Canovan, formerly of Keele University - whom I will suggest have been more successful than the representatives of the five schools just mentioned in pointing out the manner in which the future study of the political should proceed. In the final part of the paper I will consider, albeit briefly, how the concept of the political has been theorized in non-Western thought.


Western, Non-Western, Political Thought, Koselleck