Political Theory and Political Institutions. Political theory as the “disciplined investigation of political problems” has in the main been the province of philosophical writers, most of them distinguished in philosophy and literature considered more generally. Thus, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx are great names in Western intellectual tradition and its political aspect.
One of the most important things we must grasp early in our study of the history of political theory is that our primary object of study is a collection of writings and not, even if this were possible in more than a loose sense, of actual political institutions, practices, and customs, This means that considerations of literary and logical analysis will inevitably be important, but it does not mean that any political writing can be considered apart from the political practices to which it is related.
Both political institutions and political theories are part of the culture; they are extensions of man, the physical entity. Groups of humans create institutions and practices, whether political philosophy is there to philosophize or not. Still, when Plato or Locke has, in fact, written his reflections down, those reflections can and have become a part of the way societies create institutions and practices.
Political institutions and political theories merge into one another in a sense and to the degree that both aim to relate people, objects, and happenings under some notion of the common good or common interest. An important political theory function is to show what a political practice is and show what it means. In showing what practice means, or what it ought to mean, political theory can alter its meaning.
We are accustomed to thinking about a wholly “objective” relationship between the theorist and the aspect of nature he is theorizing about. Thus, the physicist or the chemist is ideally conceived as making completely accurate statements about-or giving a completely accurate picture of-elements or atoms or molecules from which he is completely detached. Galileo, so this account goes, merely observed the ball rolling down the inclined plane; his presence did not affect the ball, the rolling, or the plane.
A good many philosophers of science and scientists themselves are inclined to doubt this purely objective, “detached observer description of the relationship between theorist and nature. They suggest that no man can get at nature except through human terms, tools, and concepts and thus, that no man ever merely observes. However this may be, it seems safe to say that political theory is always elaborately and subtly intertwined with “political nature,” if for no other reason than that ‘political’ nature is itself largely human-made.
If this seems confusing, it can perhaps be clarified by answering the question, How does something become a part of political nature?” The institutions in a society that we would be likely to designate political represent an arrangement of power and authority. Certain institutions in society are regarded as legitimate exercisers of the authority to make decisions for the community as a whole. (If such institutions are not present in a given area or among a given group of people, it would be difficult to say that a genuine society or political community exists there.)
The attention of groups and individuals whose interests and purposes will be affected by these inStitutions is naturally attracted by decisions taken in or by these institutions. When the interested groups or individuals take actions directed toward the political institutions, such acts become part of society’s political aspect or part of political nature-this would be true whether the acts were primarily physical or primarily verbal or some combination of the two. What happens here is that men, by acting toward the political institutions, connect themselves and the interests to political nature and thus, in some measure at least, become a part of it.
This political “connecting” may and often does originate with the men who operate the political institutions. For example, some public decisions, one regulating automobile exhaust emission, have turned this previously mostly chemical phenomenon into a political one.
Countless similar examples could be presented, but the main point lies in the relating or connecting character of political institutions. In this sense, the political nature about which the political theorist will theorize is a sort of human-made fabric or web that relates or connects men, objects, and events involved with common or public interests in society.
The example we have used stresses connections made in space, but we must also recognize that the connections can be made over time as, for example, when em. Player-employee Social Security contributions are collected by the government and dispersed decades later as retirement benefits.
Given this view of political nature, it is easy enough to see that the political actor is the “connecter” or the “relator.” It is he who weaves the political fabric in the immediate sense. The political theorist observes him and what he does and recommends what he might do and what he should not do.
When the true political theorist observes and comments on some connection “out there” in political nature, he will usually say more than simply, it is there. He will also seek to show what the connection means. This may involve seeking answers to why it was originally made, what its effects have been, and what its effects are likely to be. In so pointing up a connection and seeking to illuminate its meaning, the theorist can also act in political nature by refocusing his reader’s political circumstances.
In this respect, the political theorist is a kind of super politician who thinks through and presents persuasively the nature and desirability of certain connections that the work-a-day political leader may not have time to understand or analyze. The French theorist Montesquieu, for example, discussed the British government of his time in terms of a separation of powers or functions.
His text became an important influence on the American constitution’s writers, instructing them in the meaning and desirability of separation of powers arrangement, even though, as many commentators have argued, Montesquieu misunderstood the nature of the British institutions. Nonetheless, Montesquieu, acting as a political theorist, was surely a more important political actor in American history than Cornwallis and perhaps even Washington.