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Studying Political Theory


Political theory (also commonly called political philosophy) is one of the four major subfields of political science, and it is different from the other subfields in important respects.

Political theory asks the “big questions” of political life, such as:

  • What is justice?
  • What is democracy?
  • What justifies democracy?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • What is the relation between religion and politics?
  • What is the relation between power and justice? 
  • Is war a permanent part of political life? 

Political theory seeks to answer such questions rigorously and carefully while remaining sensitive to their profoundly controversial character.

To raise such questions is to enter into a series of debates and disagreements among some of the greatest minds in history and to confront questions that remain debated by scholars today.

Famous Works

Many of the most famous works on politics in history are works of political philosophy, such as Plato’s Republic, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Political theory is thus an essential part of your liberal arts education.

Think Differently

Political theory is also an essential part of your political science education and is required for the POLS major and minor. Political theory will help you think in different ways about questions in your other political science classes. 

It will help you think both more deeply about those questions and place them in a broader historical context of ideas. It will help you think more rigorously about the theories that empirical political scientists seek to test.

From its origins in Socrates, political philosophy is also about respectful dialogue and conversation. Political theory courses are thus typically rich environments for discussion. You will find questions you didn’t know you had and see current events with new eyes.