A short definition is that political theory is an attempt to give a comprehensive and impartial account of the nature of political life – its character, purpose, and value.
A more elaborate answer might start as follows: A political theory is an argument about the nature of political life that is theoretical in scope, or character, or intention.
We can can go quite far with this definition. Plato in the Republic, Augustine in The City of God, Hobbes in Leviathan, Rousseau in The Social Contract, Hegel in the Philosophy of Right, Rawls in A Theory of Justice, and Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia all offer political theories in the sense stipulated: they offer theoretical arguments about the nature of politics or public life, or their foundations.
The definition is unsatisfying, however, because all it does is reformulate the terms of the question. One who hears that a political theory is an argument about the nature of political life that is theoretical in scope or character is still left wondering what might be meant by “political life,” and what makes an argument about political life “theoretical.” To fill out the definition, more must be said about “political life” and “theory.”
We can begin to do so by drawing out the meanings of the two key words in the definition, “political” and “theory.” Both words derive from ancient Greek: “political” comes from the ancient Greek polis (πόλις), “theory” from the ancient Greek theoria (θεωρία).
Polis originally meant “city” or “community” or “state.” The word “political,” then, refers to matters that pertain to the polis. Put differently, the term “political” refers to matters that are public in character: the very large range of issues, concerns, or controversies that members of a community recognize as common concerns because they call for deliberation oriented towards a decision to be taken or a policy to be adopted for the sake of the community as a whole.
In ancient Greek, the word polis also suggests an association dedicated to protecting a singular and distinctive way of life against threats (for example, the threat of being defeated and enslaved by an invading army). (Linguists trace the Greek polis to the Indo-European root pele-, meaning a fortified high place or citadel capable of being defended against attack.) Polis, then, does not pertain to just any kind of society or social grouping, but rather to an association dedicated to preserving and defending a distinctive way of life, distinguishable from other ways of life. Preserving and defending a distinctive way of life demands judgment, deliberation, and decision from those who have a stake in it. Continue reading