The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Political Theory

Karl-Marx-Monument in Chemnitz

POLITICAL THEORY studies and contributes to an old and ever-evolving dialogue about the ultimate normative principles that should guide political life on the basis of what humans can understand of the ultimate realities that shape the human condition. Animated by the Socratic spirit, this dialogue has been carried on by both secular and religious thinkers, non-Western as well as Western. The participants in this conversation include poets and historians and active civic leaders as well as philosophers and theorists of many sorts, some academic, some not. Central to political theory is a sustained inquiry into the nature of justice, and into the fundamental needs, both spiritual and material, of humanity in general and of particular groups as well as individuals. Political theory seeks to evaluate the contrasting conceptions of justice and of the good life that have been advanced by different thinkers and societies, critically examining the most important rival regimes or constitutional structures that have been promoted as best fulfilling humanity's truest political needs and goals. At the same time, political theory wrestles with urgent issues confronting contemporary society. Political theory draws on, contributes to, interrogates, and sometimes criticizes the research agendas of social scientists employing contemporary empirical research methods.

Particular topics of importance to political theory include: the ends, proper extent of, and necessary restrictions on governmental power; the meaning and the evidence for natural right or rights and natural law; the character, reasons for, and limitations of the rule of law; the formation of sound political judgment and the development of good leadership; the moral demands of adequate representation; the meaning of full citizenship and civic virtue and the requisites of fair and effective civic participation; the proper role of religion in civil society; the relation of theory to practice, including theory's role in informing public policy; the relative merits of the active and contemplative lives; the epistemologies of the social sciences; the pros and cons of liberal republicanism; adjudicating the competing moral demands of individual liberty, community, and equality—including gender equality and its implications for the family; issues of justice raised by contemporary struggles for racial equality; political identity and the problem of identity politics; the problematic of justice in contemporary post-colonial societies; and the principles of justice that should govern relations among nations, in times of both war and peace.



Students choosing political theory as their principal field should take at least six graduate seminars in political theory, a Masters Report in the second or third year, and a writing course preparing the dissertation proposal.

The Preliminary Field Exam

An eight-hour, one-day, sit-down, closed-book exam will require answering three questions, chosen from a longer list of two or three questions in each of three sections, all on works in the Core Reading List. However, at the student's option, one of the three questions may be chosen from two or three questions based on a satellite list that has been constructed by the student in consultation with, and approved by, advisors and the field chair.

The Core Reading List

  1. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War
  2. Plato, Apology of Socrates; Republic; Gorgias
  3. Aristotle, Politics; Nicomachean Ethics
  4. Xenophon: Education of Cyrus
  5. Augustine, City of God, selections (Book II, Chapters 2, 21; V, 12-21; XII, 1-8; XIV, 1-9, 28; XIX, 1-7, 12-17, 21, 24-28)
  6. Thomas Aquinas, selections from Summa Theologiae etc. (all of volume edited by Dino Bigongiari, Hafner publ.)
  7. Machiavelli, Prince; Discourses
  8. Hobbes, Leviathan
  9. Locke, Second Treatise of Government; Letter on Toleration
  10. Rousseau, First Discourse, Second Discourse; Social Contract
  11. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Parts 1 & 2; Political Writings (in H. Reiss, ed., Cambridge U. P.)
  12. Hegel, Philosophy of Right
  13. J. S. Mill, On Liberty
  14. Marx (and Engels), Students are responsible for the following edited versions from The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. R. Tucker, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844; “Theses on Feuerbach”; The German Ideology, Part I; Capital, Volume One: all of Part I (Commodities and Money); Part II, Chapter VI only (The Buying and Selling of Labor Power)
  15. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil
  16. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Part One; Part Two, Ch. 4; Political Liberalism, Introduction; Lectures 1, 3, and 4.

  •   Map
  • Department of Government

    The University of Texas at Austin
    158 W 21st ST STOP A1800
    Batts Hall 2.116
    Austin, TX 78712-1704