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Introduction to Western Political Thought

by The Saylor Foundation

This course material is only available in the iTunes U app on iPhone or iPad.

Course Description

This course is one of nearly 100 college-level, online courses created by Saylor Academy and available through your web browser on any device. Every Saylor Academy course offers a free certificate of completion and many courses connect to flexible and affordable college credit. Discover Saylor Academy’s full catalog here.

Purpose of Course
Political thought, or political philosophy, is the study of questions concerning power, justice, rights, law, and other issues pertaining to governance.  Whereas political science assumes that these concepts are what they are, political thought asks how they have come about and to what effect.  Just as Socrates’ simple question “How should we be governed?” led to his execution, the question “What makes a government legitimate?” leads to political turmoil when posed at critical times.  Political thought asks what form government should take and why; what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any; and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.  Generally speaking, political thought, political philosophy, and political theory are terms often used interchangeably to mean the study of philosophical texts related to politics.

This course examines major texts in the history of political thought.  Many of these texts pose difficult questions concerning the political community, social order, and human nature.  This course also asks how different views on human nature and the uses of history inform the design of government.  It also considers the ways in which thinkers like Plato, Machiavelli, and Rousseau have responded to the political problems of their times, and the ways in which they contribute to a broader conversation about human goods and needs, justice, democracy, and the ever-changing relationship between the citizen and the state.  

One of our central aims in this course will be to gain a critical perspective on our times by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and philosophical approaches.  We will also work to better understand those assumptions and basic concepts that define the field of political science.  Each of the three units that comprise this course is devoted to a broad theme central to understanding politics.  The first unit, centered upon the texts of Plato and Aristotle, will address the polis, or political community.  The second unit, featuring the work of John Locke, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes, will explore the modern state and constitutional government.  The third unit, introducing the texts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, will focus on democracy and the critique of liberal ideology.  You will find that these political philosophies have shaped various forms of government, from tyranny to republican democracy and welfare states.

It should be noted that the terms politics, political theory, and political science are used throughout the course, but not interchangeably so. While they all relate to each other, each has a different meaning. Politics is the use of power and the distribution of resources. Political theory, on the other hand, is the study of the concepts and principles that people use to describe, explain, and evaluate political events and institutions. Traditionally, the discipline of political theory has approached this study from three different perspectives: classic, modern, and contemporary political theory – all will be covered in this course. Finally, political science is an academic discipline concerned with the study of the state, government, and politics. Aristotle defined political science as “the study of the state.”

If you’re interested in reading philosophy or thinking about life purpose and social organization, this might be a good course for you to take. Additionally, if you like to debate, consider alternative viewpoints, or talk about politics this course will likely interest you. Also, Western political thought has served, in one form or another, as the philosophical and ideological basis for governments around the world for centuries, including the United States. Hopefully, this course will allow you to put yourself within an historical, social, and cultural setting so you may relate to contemporary political society.

This course provides students the opportunity to earn actual college credit. It has been reviewed and recommended for 3 credit hours by The National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS).  While credit is not guaranteed at all schools, we have partnered with a number of schools who have expressed their willingness to accept transfer of credits earned through Saylor. You can read more about our NCCRS program here.
Introduction to Western Political Thought
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