Course ➤ Intro to Political Theory

On October 30, 2016 by Josh Vandiver

Plato's Cave


Course ➤ Intro to Political Theory

Williams College

Department of Political Science

Spring 2017


Course Overview

Is politics war by other means?  Is it merely a practical way to meet our needs?  Or is it, rather, the activity through which citizens pursue justice and the good life?  And what is justice?  How can it be established and secured?  What are the powers and obligations of citizenship?  Who should rule?  Who decides?  On what basis?  Political theory addresses questions such as these as it investigates the fundamental problems of how we can, do, and ought to live together.  The questions have sparked controversy since the origins of political thinking; the answers remain controversial now.  This course addresses the controversies, focusing on major works of ancient, modern, and contemporary theory by such authors as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Arendt, Rawls, and Foucault.  Themes may include authority, obligation, power, war, violence, freedom, justice, equality, democracy, liberalism, capitalism, community, and pluralism, though the emphasis will vary from semester to semester.

Nota bene: The above overview is the same across all versions of this course at Williams College, regardless of instructor. Our course focuses on the specific set of readings and questions below.  The focus of our course is as follows.

Ultimately, the Spring 2017 version of Intro to Political Theory drives home one point.  Theory can help us penetrate walls faced when we undertake to act politically—and attempting political action can help us penetrate walls in our thinking.  Theory and action must be closely linked.  We’ll explore a core set of canonical Western texts with a laser-like focus on key issues like leadership, war, domestic crisis, and challenges to global order (including technology).  Tackling such issues, we’ll learn how to use political theory—including ethics and philosophy—to enhance our capacity for and mastery of political action.


Required Texts

Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (Basic Books)

Xenophon and Plutarch, On Sparta, revised, ed. Talbert (Penguin, 2005)

Niccolò MachiavelliThe Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (Chicago)

Niccolò MachiavelliThe Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago)

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge)

Alexander Hamilton et al., The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, ed. David Wooton (Hackett)

Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, trans. G. L. Ulmen (Telos)

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Hackett)

Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (Harper)

Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (Pantheon)

Paul Virilio, The Virilio Reader, ed. James Der Derian (Wiley-Blackwell)


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Dr. Josh Vandiver, a graduate of Harvard College and Princeton University, is an American political scientist and intellectual historian specializing in masculinity and grand strategy.  Based in Manhattan, he was the Lord Harlech Fellow at New College, Oxford, and has taught at the University of Chicago and Williams College.