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As I'm beginning to read the classical texts on political theory - Platos Republic & Rousseaus Social Contract I'm beginning to be aware of just how shaky my knowledge of European History is.

On the grounds that one should have at least some facts at hand to mark & measure these philosophies against is it advisable to have a good understanding of European History; except that itself is a very broad discipline itself.

But then again, in Platos time; it is more the Hellenic History that one should be acquainted with. And that covers a different geographical ground...

Can one read Political Philosophy in a vacuum given that one is to some extent acquainted with some european history having been born & brought up in one?

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    I'm not certain enough to give an answer, but if you want political philosophy conveniently mixed with history, you should read Machiavelli's the Prince. Machiavelli takes such a strong stand on empirical philosophy that for everything he says, he gives a historical example (his repertoire of examples ranging from ancient Rome to Renaissance Italy). – commando Dec 5 '12 at 22:09
  • @commando: thanks for the suggestion, in fact I have read it a long time ago, but remember nothing about it, which kind of leads me to suspect I wasn't paying much attention to what I was reading:). – Mozibur Ullah Dec 5 '12 at 22:18
  • I caution you not to restrict yourself to a purely "Western" outlook. i.e. I'm guessing most American politicians have read The Prince, but not the Three Kingdoms, which is also, in part, a manual for good governance based on historical precedent that has been subsequently parabolized. I'd also recommend looking into Game Theory, but that's because I take an economic view of history and believe ethics to be rooted in mathematics, and equilibria in particular. – DukeZhou Jun 16 '17 at 21:22
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You do not need extensive knowledge of history to study political philosophy. Political philosophy in essence is a field of applied ethics: that is, it applies morality to a political entity. So what is needed is the basic, normative theories of ethics (e.g., utilitarianism and duty ethics). Some popular topics of political philosophy presently are these:

  • The nature of political power: is it good, bad, or value-neutral?
  • The source of the govt authority: is it through social contract, brute force or great consequences?
  • Political obligation: Is there a duty to obey all laws or some laws or no such a duty at all?
  • Democracy: If democracy is legitimate, on what moral grounds does the legitimacy stand?
  • The goal of governing: is it for the sake of the good life of the people, or is it for the embodiment of justice without judging or enforcing a conception of the good life?

Authors of political philosophy use historical events to motivate readers. Rawls, e.g., used the war of religion (the 16th century inquisition) to illustrate why a liberal society which encourages individuals to form and experiment their own conceptions of good life can be inherently unstable. Rawls believes that sooner or later people will try to impose their own conceptions of the good life onto others. John Stuart Mill used the British Corn Laws of 19th century to explain when the right to free speech can be fully exercised and when it can be abridged. So historical knowledge helps to understand authors' point, but you can easily google historical events. So history is not a prerequisite, unlike the knowledge of ethics.

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On the grounds that one should have at least some facts at hand to mark & measure these philosophies against is it advisable to have a good understanding of European History; except that itself is a very broad discipline itself.

I'd argue this way, although I think a basic European History textbook or two will go a long way. (I'm in the same predicament in reverse; my studies of Buddhist philosophy have been hampered by my lack of knowledge of Asian history. Thomas McEvilley's book The Shape of Ancient Thought covers the connections between the Ancient Greek and Indian worlds quite nicely, I've found.)

  • I've just finished reading Rousseaus Social Contract and he does furnish examples; it has stirred up my curiosity about the history of the Roman Empire, as many of his examples are drawn from that era. I mean to read McEvilleys book someday. – Mozibur Ullah Dec 6 '12 at 10:09

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