Teaching Philosophy of the Political Theory Project

The pedagogical mission of the Political Theory Project is to enliven and enrich political debate by fostering responsible ideology. Responsible ideology means putting in the hard work to be justified in holding one’s political views.
This requires a synthesis of humanistic and social scientific methods---normative, historical, and positive approaches to political knowledge.

Political philosophy contributes to our understanding of what is just and what kinds of things have fundamental value. History teaches us where we have come from and what has been tried. The social sciences contribute to our understanding of how the world works and what is feasible.

To know what political regimes we should advocate all things considered, we need insights from all these areas. We need to know whether our values are the right ones to realize through politics. We also need to know how social institutions work in practice to discover what best realizes our values.

Philosopher John Stuart Mill suggested that one is not in a good position to hold one’s views until one understands what it would be like to hold contrary views. We want to help students take those differing perspectives. Responsible ideology means confronting contrary views with an open and active mind.

Numerous studies suggest that people tend to converge on political beliefs they find pleasing rather than on those for which they have strong evidence. We help Brown students avoid this danger. We create intellectual discomfort. Our master method is Socratic: to question everything. We do this not to inspire skepticism but to invigorate political thought. We search for problems with our favored views and for fresh ways to challenge our presuppositions. We ask ourselves the hard questions. Better yet, we find ways to turn easy questions into hard questions. Responsible ideology means embracing the possibility that the things that seem most obvious are not obvious at all. 

We encourage respectful confrontation. That means holding up each idea for inspection as if it were new. We promote intellectual freedom by empowering students to break the chains of their own dogmatism.

In announcing these principles, of course, the Project is in no way criticizing existing courses at Brown. We are aware that many courses on political topics at Brown strive to create an open learning environment like that which we hold up as their ideal. Further, we recognize that it is sometimes appropriate for a course not to be examine multiple perspectives, as PTP courses do, but instead provide students with a chance to encounter one author, one ideology, or one set of principles in a sustained way (e.g. semester-long courses on Karl Marx or Adam Smith). However, we do assert the ideals below as appropriate for any and all courses that are sponsored by the Political Theory Project. Thus, the principles enunciated below are intended define the Project’s own curricular niche.

Political Theory Project-sponsored courses have the following features:

1. They cover topics of fundamental and enduring significance.

2. They challenge students to think rigorously about their own deepest assumptions, typically by examining the topics from diverse ideological perspectives.

3. They tend to cover both classic and contemporary texts on the topic.

4. They are writing and discussion intensive.

5. They are interdisciplinary or at last open to being interdisciplinary, focusing not merely on normative political philosophy but also using the tools of historians and, where appropriate, of the social sciences.

6. They are conducted in a "open learning environment", that is, an environment of mutual respect in which students feel not only comfortable, but excited, about sharing their ideas, regardless of how unpopular their ideas are.