A sociology of citizenship and human rights: Does social theory still exist?
In 1962 Isaiah Berlin, who was then the Chichele Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of Oxford, published an article with the title ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’ in the famous second series of Philosophy Politics and Society (Laslett and Runciman 1962). This article, which had originally appeared in the Revue Francaise de Science Politique in 1961, did much to reverse the declining fortunes of political philosophy in Britain, set out a programme of what political theory was about, and distinguished political philosophy from political science. The article outlined his objections to determinism and historical inevitability in the social sciences, which included both American political science and more importantly Marxist historical materialism. Berlin’s argument was not something that had occurred to him in the 1960s. In the first edition of his biography of Karl Marx (Berlin 1939), he had explored conflicting interpretations of Marx’s political theory between the Hegelian dialectic and an almost Darwinian view of causality. According to Berlin, crass materialism produced a deterministic picture of human history in which political rights played little part in social change. Berlin, who clashed with socialist and Marxist historians such as E. H. Carr, complained that Marxist historians in emphasising social and economic conditions left no space for the role of ideas, beliefs and intentions. The search for what he called ‘amoral objectivity’ failed to grasp the force of the moral evaluation (Ignatieff 1998: 236). However, the broader intellectual background to Berlin’s essay was the impact of linguistic philosophy on the idea of ‘political principles’ which had led Peter Laslett in the first series of Philosophy Politics and Society to declare that ‘For the moment, anyway, political philosophy is dead’ (1956: vii). The perception that political theory was in decline was the spur behind Berlin’s defence of the need for political analysis.