Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.


The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.


In order to apply you need a MyECPR account ( This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me ( or Keith Dowding ( if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.



Details of this panel:
Details of other panels:
The conference itself:


A. The Role of Intuitions
A critical reflection on different methods of political philosophy, including thought experiments, intuition pumps, reflective equilibrium.
Chair: Keith Dowding

B. Conceptual Analysis
The role of conceptual analysis in political theory, including analysing the desiderata of concepts, the possibility of specifying necessary and sufficient conditions; essential contestability; value pluralism, ‘family resemblance’ and what these mean for conceptual analysis; and what conceptual analysis can contribute to normative theory.
Chair: William Bosworth

C. Grand Theory
Consideration of methods in grand theorizing: the role of contractualism and contractarianism, and their assumptions in grand theory; impartial spectator; uses of the veil of ignorance. Is grand theory as a staple of political philosophy over?
Chair: TBC

D. ‘Continental’ Methods of Political Theorizing
Analytic philosophy is concerned with the linguistic analysis of concepts, and developing arguments in a specific manner. But normative theory can be developed within a critical framework where the challenge is more to provide a critical analysis of current society. What is critical theory? What is the role of language itself in political philosophy? How can we develop discourse analysis in a systematic manner?
Chair: Adrian Little

E. Historical Approaches to Political Theory

Many are critical of approaches to political theorizing that are ahistorical. Do we have to understand the history of terms or traditions in order to understand the role that concepts and ideas play in current philosophical thought? Is historical research valuable in itself or as a means to normative theory? Are genealogical methods successfully contributing to contemporary normative arguments? Does the history of political thought suggest that analytical political philosophers are doing their work in the wrong way?
Chair: Adrian Blau

F. Ideal, Non-Ideal and Realist Political Theory
Various ideal/non-ideal distinctions have been advanced, focusing on different ways of dealing with non-compliance, feasibility constraints, abstraction, and so on. Are some types of ideal theory more suited to some kinds of normative research while others are more suited to other kinds? Has realist political theory now moved from critique to offering methodologically and substantively different answers to non-realist political theory?
Chair: TBC

G. The Role for Empirical Science in Political Theory
How and to what extent should normative theorists engage with discoveries in the social sciences? Should we move away from a priori political analysis? Should theorists working in some fields (e.g. political theorists) engage, but not others (e.g. moral theorists)? Does experimental philosophy have normative implications?
Chair: William Bosworth



There is a great deal written about methods in political science, but relatively little about methods in political philosophy. To some extent that is changing with the methods revolution extending its reach into normative political theory. We propose to open up that debate with Panels on methods of normative analysis. There are a number of questions to be posed. What are the criteria for good normative analysis in political theory? What precisely is the distinction between moral and political philosophy? What counts as evidence in normative theorizing? Do the methods of normative theory determine the sorts of answers we get?

A principle method of political theory is conceptual analysis. Defining political terms and then subjecting rival definitions to critical appraisal is a staple of analytic political theory. But is the process of providing necessary and sufficient conditions for determining the extension of these terms sufficient to clarify political argument? Are normative terms instead necessarily fuzzy or subject only to ‘family resemblances’? What do we make of results from formal theory that some terms (such as ‘freedom of choice’) have contradictory normative desiderata? Does game theory help us clarify our normative intuitions? Another traditional method of theorizing is the use of thought experiments and intuition pumps. Here, in Rawls’s terms, moral intuitions, or moral judgements are used to reflect upon theory, and theory to reflect upon intuitions, each being changed or shaped until they are brought into ‘reflective equilibrium’. But what is the character of moral intuitions as evidence? If moral theory is supposed to guide moral thought, how can moral intuitions be used to ‘test’ theory. And why should we think that the process of reflective equilibrium will bring about one equilibrium? There might be multiple equilibriums. Do we have any ideas about equilibrium selection strategies? In grand theory different methods are used to constrain personal interests – different ‘veils of ignorance’ in contract theory; impartial spectator methods; ‘reasonable rejection’ and ‘public reason’. Are the answers method-driven with different methods leading to different conclusions; or can we derive the same conclusions from different methods, meaning our arguments are conclusion-driven? Is normative theory simply a game whereby we provide post hoc reasons for conclusions already intuited?

Exegesis of historic texts in political philosophy, either in the historical context of their authors or as a timeless conversation, is typically construed to be helpful for philosophers. Can we construe analysis of such texts to be a method of political philosophy? Is it a valuable exercise for theorists concerned with contemporary affairs? Does historical analysis show that modern theorizing is based on the interest rhetoric of the past or can we throw off historical shackles?

The ideal/non-ideal debate revolves around the logical coherence of two different ways of thinking about political philosophy. While the debate centres on the distinction between the choices that should ideally be available to us and the choices that are actually available to us, the constraint of empirical patterns (e.g. the unravelling of idyllic visions of centralized economies into myopic dictatorships) on the specification of the ideals at the heart of the dispute hasn’t yet been made clear. Can we learn about the stability, unintended consequences, and metaphysical possibility of social ideals by way of empirical investigation? To what extent are the methods of empirical scientists also the methods of political theorists? Might the revolution in empirical methods provide the bridge for a revolution in methods of political philosophy?

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  1. CFP: Methods in Political Theory – Political Theory Talk

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