I had a look on Wikipedia but I'm not clear about how the two differ.

  • Political philosophy: "Political philosophy is considered by some to be a sub-discipline of political science; however, the name generally attributed to this form of political enquiry is political theory, a discipline which has a closer methodology to the theoretical fields in the social sciences (like economic theory) than to philosophical argumentation".

  • Political theorist: "A political theorist is someone who engages in constructing or evaluating political theory, including political philosophy. Theorists may be academics or independent scholars".

  • The meaning of and (inter-)dependence between terms relevant in political discourse vs. modelling empirical phenomena?! – Philip Klöcking Jul 14 '16 at 20:27
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    @JamesPoulson (1) did you read the two paragraphs above the one you quote for political philosophy? (2) I think this is potentially a question to be closed as about definitions but my 2 cents is that some political theorists do political philosophy within political science contexts -- when discussing the ideal form of government or the concerns to which the structure of government should respond. This stands in contrast to aspects of political science outside of political philosophy like figuring out how to win elections or working out how Brexit will work. – virmaior Jul 14 '16 at 20:46
  • @virmaior I did but it's still not clear for me. One thing that appears to distinguish the two is that political philosophy uses philosophical argumentation whereas political theory uses some kind of methodology. – James P. Jul 14 '16 at 20:59
  • @virmaior According to what you say, political theory would be applied political philosophy with practical goals within the context of political science. – James P. Jul 14 '16 at 21:00
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    I think political theory is a slightly ambiguous term between uses that are in within political philosophy, uses that are about accomplishing things in the political sphere, and ways of conceptualizing political actors within a state (or between states?). In contrast, political philosophy (at least as used in philosophy) is about how the state arises (not in terms of history), its justification (not that of a particular state), its function, its relation to group responsibility and agency, etc. – virmaior Jul 14 '16 at 21:33

According to the introductory chapter in this lecture series, there is no difference between political theory and political philosophy. Within political science departments, those who engage with theoretical and abstract questions are doing political philosophy.

Within modern academia, it is mostly a question of their affiliation and academic interests: if they are part of a political science department, they are political theorists, if they are part of a philosophy department, then they are political philosophers. Moreover, wether they are considered political philosophers or political theorists seems to hinge on whether they have published works in other branches of philosophy or not. This can be seen from the names in the wikipedia link you provided in your question: Jurgen Habermas or John Dewey published in other areas of philosophy, so they are thought of as a political philosophers, while Lenin (activist and politician) and Tariq Ali (Journalist) are thought of as political theorists or thinkers instead of philosophers.


The two are colloquially interchangeable. But one could view the terms in various contexts and differentiate them accordingly. One potential way to categorize them, listed above, is by university department. I tend to believe that political philosophy more commonly refers to the underlying moral and ethical grounding behind political theory, whereas political theory comprises of both political philosophy and contemporary application where one has to take into account pragmatics.

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