What legitimizes political theories?

That it "works" (there can be many definitions for this)?
That some people (e.g. authorities) agree on it?
That a majority agrees on it?

I personally think that one needs to rely at least on "what works", because humans must be able to coexist in some some structured manner. I.e. having humans attacking each other constantly wouldn't be beneficial for the group. Thus the physical and biological circumstances decide what rules will be applied. Thus political legitimizing could come from experimenting in "the nature". However, I speculate that this is not how all political beliefs behave, because some of them contain very abstract ideas about the state of things, not necessarily empirical, nor do they necessarily apply on very large groups. This poses some problems for "state-wide" political philosophies, because how could they know what everyone wants? Still there are some things that are rational in a very wide, even global manner. Such as the prohibition from causing physical harm or killing.

  • 1
    "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." -- Chairman Mao. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user4894
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:54
  • @user4894 Interesting, but might work as an example of "authoritative" legitimizing. I see nothing in Mao's text that couldn't be in any other way, thus what Mao says relies on certain beliefs, but those are not the only beliefs.
    – mavavilj
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 18:19
  • This is a very interesting question, but it requires some editing. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 18:22
  • A potentially interesting question might be "what legitimizes any theory?" Or perhaps "what does it mean for a theory to be legitimate?" Legitimacy is an important word in political theory, but its also one of those words that has the most squirliness to it. There's a very good reason why family ties were used to legitimatize rules for hundreds of years -- it's pretty simple.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 20:58

2 Answers 2


This is a reasonable question. Off the top of my head, I can think of 2 main components, much like that used in natural science:

  • Does it square with historical observations?
  • Does it enhance or otherwise guide towards demonstrably better social behaviors?

I suppose the latter point it the most difficult because you can't test the theory until it either totally fails or doesn't in which case you don't know if you've reached the end of your test. But in practice, there are other resources which allow us to evaluate. We often, for example, simulate theories in our head. The meaningfulness of this simulation will be a factor of the sophistication of the theorizer, but this is overcome with this simple truism: that a society can't generate a theory that is more sophisticated than society itself.


There is a basic distintiction we must consider: political theory could be either descriptive -- one's look at the world and tries to explain it -- or normative -- one's look at the world, often problems or dilemmas, and try to construct a theory about how it should be better and why. Justification in phylosophical terms is essential for a theory to be considered.

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