Most Underrated Works of Political Philosophy?

This semester I will be teaching a political philosophy course for the first time since graduate school, and have just finalized my syllabus. For all the ethicists and political philosophers out there – what do you consider to be the most underrated works of political philosophy for each period (ancient, modern, contemporary)? To elaborate, I’m essentially asking what you consider to be the best political philosophy in terms of originality and persuasiveness of argument, which one would not expect to find in standard readers.

Not really being a political philosopher, I haven’t read all that widely in the field, but, off the top of my head, here are a few works that I believe are underrated:

Early Modern

  • Immanuel Kant, Philosophy of Right (often overlooked part of Kant’s oeuvre, and admittedly maddeningly poorly argued at times, such as when Kant argues that no matter how terrible the state, it can never do wrong or be justly resisted, but the first few chapters are a succinct deduction of formal principles of liberty from Kant’s general ethical system. You can’t argue with this: “Freedom is Independence of the compulsory Will of another; and in so far as it can co-exist with the Freedom of all according to a universal Law, it is the one sole original, inborn Right belonging to every man in virtue of his Humanity.”)

19th Cent.

Early 20th Cent.

  • Franz Oppenheimer, The State (perhaps more anthropology than political philosophy, but relevant all the same)


UPDATE: I should note that most of these are not in my syllabus for this class, mostly b/c it’s an intro class, and I want students to be acquainted with the well-known classics first. However, I do recommend them to readers who are already familiar with the “big names.”


19 thoughts on “Most Underrated Works of Political Philosophy?

  1. Jason, I like your choices. The Kant stuff is tough, in my experience, unless the students have a background in Kantian ethics. You might think instead about his essay, “On the common saying: this may be true in theory but it does not apply in practice.” More manageable, but it does lack that striking and profound notion of “innate right,” which is wonderful once the stuff on public right is lopped off.

    You might also (I do) think about trying some Hayek on emergent legal orders, from the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Those ideas are game-changers for many students, in my experience.

    Finally, if you’re doing anything on egalitarianism, there’s a wonderful critical essay by Harry Frankfurt, “The Moral Irrelevance of Equality,” that is pretty provocative as well.

  2. Mark – Good suggestion re Kant… Of the works on this list, only a small selection of Spencer and a few chapters of the Kant work were on my syllabus. But given your recommendation, I’ll look into the other Kant piece. I’ve read it, but it’s been many years, & I’d forgotten that it had a political theory component. The Hayek sounds as if it might be appropriate for an intro syllabus, have to see if I can squeeze that in somewhere. I’ll look up the Frankfurt essay for my own edification first, haven’t read it before.

  3. If you are feeling a little underqualified to do this, just compare yourself to me, and you will feel brilliant (I do a theory of public policy course that is about 1/3 political philosophy–this if fun, but I’m completely unqualified of course).

    I’m assuming this class is for students who haven’t had much philosophy. If so, I would recommend a mix of original texts and commentaries on texts by people who write clearly [I know you are polishing your syllabus, not starting it]. To this end, I have found the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be a great resource for students and, especially, for me! (and it doesn’t cost for the student to use it).

    I really think that Charles Taylor is an effective and persuasive writer. Try “Atomism” and “What’s wrong with Negative Liberty.” Sen’s Development as Freedom is important and a good read, as well.

    I also think that Sandel’s new book Justice is terrific for undergraduates. He is able to use a lot of contemporary cases that students find interesting to illustrate the key ideas (without doing too much damage to philosophical purity, I think, though probably I don’t know enough to be offended). His reader (also called Justice) is a good anthology for undergraduates, I think. I’m sure you are familiar with it.

    You obviously have to cover Kantian ideas, but I wouldn’t have non-philosophy majors read much Kant, unless you want to teach them to hate philosophy.

    Notice I haven’t mentioned any classical liberals, I assume you have them covered! I find Adam Smith very readable. And being a libertarian/utilitarian/communitarian hybrid, my favorite is Mill.

    I hope, for selfish reasons, that you get some good comments on this thread.

    Good luck!

  4. Oh, you’re just as qualified as I am, Sven! I like Taylor too – I already have “Atomism” on the syllabus, and will look into the provocatively titled, “What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty.” Maybe pair it with Berlin on the two concepts of freedom? (But Berlin’s notion of “positive freedom” is idiosyncratic.) I’ve never read any Sandel, so thanks for the recommendations. I will give Justice a try. Part of the course will be applied political philosophy, with point-counterpoint readings on particular issues, drawn from the reader Political Problems. Sen is another good recommendation, although I’m embarrassed to say I actually haven’t read Development as Freedom, just some of his articles on the same theme. Not sure how to cover Kantian ideas w/o having them read Kant – I will try to offer it to them in small doses, with lots of hand-holding.

    I’ve learned from experience that putting lots of reading on a syllabus actually seems to make it less likely that students will do any of it, so once you include a decent survey of ancient & early modern sources it’s hard to find room for the interesting contemporary stuff.

    1. Taylor’s piece on negative freedom caused a genuine crisis of faith in my classical liberalism, I have to say. (I recovered!) On my syllabus, I pair him with Berlin as well.

      Just curious, are you doing any positive political theory (Downs, etc.) or just normative stuff.

      1. This one (“Introduction to Political Philosophy”) is purely normative. I also teach a class (called, bizarrely enough, “Politics and Society” – I didn’t choose the title) that gives a basic introduction to positive political theory (Downs, Arrow, Olson, Schumpeter, Riker, Weingast, & Fearon are some authors we cover).

  5. Jason – I don’t think standard syllabuses or readers \cover Joseph de Maistre, particularly his Essay on the Generative Principles of Political Constitutions. Valuable for several reasons:
    – It’s a more analytically forceful presentation of conservative ideas than Burke’s reflections (discussion of which often degenerates into warring platitudes, such as over the proper pace of change and so forth);
    – Like Spooner, whom you mention, Maistre demolishes the idea that a constitutiona can ever be consented to — but then goes further than Spooner in order to analyze how a constitution can nonetheless be legitimate;
    – It raises paradoxical and probing questions into what the fundamental law or constitution really is;
    – Maistre’s style might just be preeminent among political philosophers.

    1. Austin – A very useful suggestion! Political philosophy readers give short shrift to classical conservatism. Yes, there’s Burke’s speech to the electors, which is very weak sauce (“the rights of man are in a kind of middle” – yes, let’s man the barricades for that one). De Maistre would fit the bill nicely. I also thought about including a selection from Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics, but that didn’t fit too well with other themes from the course. (More provocatively, I could toss in “The Idea of a University” & stir up the sparks, but it’s not really political philosophy. Every undergraduate could benefit from reading it at some point, though, and hardly any of them will unless I make them.)

  6. If we define “underrated” as some inverse proportion to how terrific the work is and how widely overlooked it is, then it’s surely _Norms of Liberty_ by Rasmussen and Den Uyl.

  7. Do you think that your respective employers would like to see you mentioning in public that you are underqualified to teach in the subjects in which you are currently teaching? Then again, you might have tenure, in which case it wouldn’t matter.

    (That was supposed to be an attempt at humor.)

  8. Aeon – Thanks for bringing that one to my attention. I’ve read some of their other work, but with your recommendation I’ll add that to my reading list.

    Mark – I’m surprised they’re letting anyone teach any kind of political philosophy course! This will be the first time it has been offered at my university in many years.

  9. Are you assuming an understanding of basic economics on the students’ part? It’s hard to understand the cogent arguments for freedom if you have a fantastical understanding of economics.

    I’ve found the Robert LeFerve Commentaries to be a decent ‘liberty download’ (ala “Whoa, I know Kung Fu”) to get the whole package in one set. Perhaps too futuristic a medium and not academic enough in construction, but this depends on the goals (and time allowances). Reading the foundational works may be more rewarding through the lens of a cohesive and modern understanding, but that’s not usually how schools work.

  10. I would argue for a smattering (since it’s just an intro course) of Proudhon (“Property is theft.”) so they can then get a foundation for Marx and all those who followed. Proudhon would allow your young idealists to think big about such a state Mutualism would bestowe, and the ultimate quest for true liberty, which often is at loggerheads in Proudhon’s anarchic philosophy in his seminal writing, from which Marx lifted. Locke would be good, too, but for those unfamiliar with modern English, Locke’s English might be a little bewildering. However basic any of us think Locke’s Civil Liberty is, most college grads have little idea how radical this was and how central to the tenets of Western thought it became.

  11. Many premises of his thinking come from the Marxist tradition, but his analysis of the public sphere and criticism of the state strike me as profound. He argues that the only legitimate governments are those that listen to the public sphere and democratic institutions can only exist with informed and active debate.

  12. Bill – Oh, I’m not going to assume anything. I think you’re right that economics plays a significant role in how moral theories are applied to practical political questions, particularly but not only for utilitarians. Students always get a good dose of econ in my other courses, but I’m afraid that in this class I can only give them a taste. And I think that will be done mostly through the lectures rather than the readings.

    Reed – Proudhon’s a good recommendation. I’ll certainly talk about him even if I can’t fit him into the readings.

    Kelton – Habermas is interesting, to be sure, but if anything I might be tempted to say that he is overrated. That’s my view only, and it doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t be exposed to him, of course. I just think his conception of the way politics actually works is a bit naive – perhaps a future topic of discussion for the blog.

  13. Xun Zi (China) and Chānakya (India): Most political philosophy courses seem to be dominated by a very Western canon. With the growing influence of both China and India (both in terms of economics AND the inevitable export of culture) I think Eastern political philosophy deserves a closer inspection by those studying political philosophy.

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