I'd like to know the major changes that happened that lead to the change in thought, and what veered modern political philosophy away from the concept of city and man to the concept of natural science and history.

  • 1
    I would never say "away from man", but anthropologic premises had to be built on or linked to scientific knowledge simply because of its success. I will look if I have time to fully answer on this one as it is quite an interesting development indeed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 27, 2016 at 23:40
  • Can you specify one or two thinkers that focus on science and history? Heidegger comes to mind, but one of his students - Arendt focused on the polis. Mar 29, 2016 at 3:00

2 Answers 2


One important aspect is the definition of man. Ancients like Plato and Aristotle saw man as a social animal, and thus his relation to the polis is primary. In their thought man is constitutive of the polis and is understood by reference to it (i.e. the polis is understood almost like a superorganism like the bee hive).

Modern philosophers like Descartes, Kant, Locke, and Hobbes defined the human being in a much more individualistic way. The basis of political theory became essentially a means of mediation between autonomous individuals.

Why did this happen? It's hard to say. Religious and political pluralism in Europe surely played a large role. The skepticism that Descartes introduced into mainstream philosophy and the scientific advances that helped fuel it probably led to more restricted definitions of the human being. The Protestant emphasis on the individual and Voluntaristic tendencies in philosophy and theology probably contributed as well.

(Sorry for the relative lack of sources. I don't have time to dig and this question is too old not to take a stab at)

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE! This is a pretty good answer. I think what you say about the polis being primary is a bit simplistic though. For example, Stoicism is very focused on the individual; for many in the ancient world, ethics was about individual virtue. On the other hand, there are lots of modern philosophers that wrote about political philosophy in a less individualist way (eg obviously Marx and Engels). Mar 29, 2016 at 20:06

To the best of my knowledge there is no veering in modern political philosophy to the concepts of natural science. Natural sciences are physics, chemistry, biology, etc. These sciences deal with physical objects or the biology of humans and other animals.

At most, mathematical models enter into the discussion of political theories. A first step has been the prisoner dilemma as a model of rational decision under uncertainty.

Key players of contemporary political philosophy are e.g., David Gauthier, Robert Nozick or John Rawls. All of them advocate a liberal position. Rawls' seminal work is A Theory of Justice (1971) and its addition Justice as Fairness. A Restatement (2001). These works build on the classical contract theories as initiated by Hobbes.

  • To throw other names into the ring (away from the analytic tradition): Habermas and Honneth. And I refuse the term "classical contract theory" as the theories (e.g. Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke and Kant) differ quite a lot in so many aspects. To be clear: Not every consense is a contract or even thought this way, it is only a quite poorly describing label.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 27, 2016 at 23:47
  • @Philip I made a slight edit in the last sentence.
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 27, 2016 at 23:54

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