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, 2016 at 20:27
  • 2
    @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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 21:00
  • 1
    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, 2016 at 21:33

3 Answers 3


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.


Often I think its merely a disciplinary distinction. Political philosophers are in philosophy departments. Political theorists are in political science departments. You are probably thinking of normative political theory. Positive political theory (by any name) is not typically practiced in philosophy departments whereas positive and normative political theory are both done in political science departments though not necessarily in the same deparments.

One difference may be that political philosophy is typically a bit more theoretical and connected to the rest of philosophy than normative political theory.


Generically and historically, there there has been the fachs of political philosophy (a branch of philosophy) and of political science (a branch of the social sciences). Political scientists are those who have traditionally been thought to study politics using the scientific method (acknowledging that many post positivists/modernists have concluded that there is no such thing as a scientific "method.")

The terms "Theory," and "Theorist," however, have come in the past half century or so, to have a narrow sense, to be specialized terms referring to "Critical Theory," which "designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School."

According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms....While Critical Theory is often thought of narrowly as referring to the Frankfurt School that begins with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretches to Marcuse and Habermas, any philosophical approach with similar practical [and normative] aims could be called a “critical theory,” including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism. (See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/. To understand the distinctions I make here, you must have a basic understanding of Frankfurt School "Critical Theory," pretty much as described in this SEP article.)

These Marxist political theorists are to be distinguished from political scientists, in that they have a practical, normative, goal oriented "consciousness raising" project in mind when they "theorize," born of their fundamental dissatisfaction with the fact that "the correctness of any [scientific, impartial] explanation is independent of its desirable or undesirable political effects on a specific audience." (Id.)

That is, they do not seek to gather data with the aim of attaining "knowledge" about the world, or to articulate a rational basis for their theorizing, as most traditional social scientists would describe their project. Their constructivist aim, is edification, to change the world, to make it, by their "enlightened" lights, more "equitable. In short, to instantiate Marx's 11th thesis on Freubach, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

And this, in a nutshell, is what distinguishes a political theorist, from a political philosopher on the one hand, and a political scientist on the other. The Theorist, in the contemporary post positivist sense, is a reformer/reformist, while the traditional philosopher and positivist scientist are [or, according to the theorist, naively believe themselves to be -- given exuberant interpretations of the "myth of the given" and the "theory ladeness" of observation, etc.] merely curious inquirers seeking to explain, make sense of [political] phenomena/states of affairs.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .