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What Does “Political” Mean?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Political is a ubiquitous and seemingly indispensable term in the discussion of human affairs. We use it to speak of quite different kinds of things — institutions, actions, conflicts, expenditures, a type of discourse, a branch of science, and such. We apply it to the life and thought of modern nations, ancient cities, and primitive tribes. Even the internal affairs of businesses, unions, schools and churches are sometimes called “political.” In all these cases, we assume that the term has, or at least can have, some definite meaning. Yet it is difficult to say what, if anything, “political” signifies in its various applications and how it signifies what it does.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1980

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1 A recent examination of the meaning of the word politics that takes notice of this problem is Frohock, Fred M., “The Structure of ‘Politics,’American Political Science Review, 72 (09, 1978), 859–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. As Frohock observes, “the range of things describable by the word ‘politics’ is vast and uneven” (p. 865). Frohock rightly concludes that a strict “taxonomic” definition of politics, in terms of an essential or class property that extends “through all events describable as political,” is not possible (p. 867). Such a definition would be necessary to give “politics” or “political” what I shall speak of as univocal meaning. Moreover, Frohock rejects, as I do, the accounts, growing out of Wittgenstein's principle of meaning as use, that tend to make the meaning of “politics” or “political” a matter of convention. There is a considerable difference in the way that Frohock resolves this problem of meaning and my own approach. Frohock looks for certain “core terms” or “fixed structures” that are necessary, but not sufficient conditions of any concept of “politics.” These core terms, like taxonomic definitions, “state an invariant feature of ‘politics’ constant across references of the term” (p. 867), but they are not “essences” in the strong sense. My approach, which interprets “political” as an equivocal term, avoids conventionalism without positing invariant properties or structures common to all instances of the political.

2 Thompson, Manley H. Jr, “On the Distinction Between Thing and Property,” in The Return to Reason, ed. Wild, John (Chicago, 1953), p. 140Google Scholar.

3 I have dealt with these issues in detail in Positivism, Historicism, and Political Inquiry,” American Political Science Review, 66 (09, 1972), 796817CrossRefGoogle Scholar; The Primary Questions of Political Inquiry,” Review of Politics, 39 (07, 1977), 298331CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Metaphor and Political Knowledge,” American Political Science Review, 73 (03, 1979), 155–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Categories 1a 1–12. The equivocity of the example that Aristotle uses here, zōon, is not fully apparent in translation, for in Greek, the term means both “animal” and “painting.”

5 On Aristotle's use of pollachōs legomena, see Owens, Joseph, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 2nd ed., rev. (Toronto, 1963), pp. 107115Google Scholar.

6 Wolfson, Harry Austryn, “The Amphibolous Terms in Aristotle, Arabic Philosophy and Maimonides,” Harvard Theological Review, 31 (1938), 151–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Nicomachean Ethics 1096b 26–30 (trans. Owens, Joseph, The Doctrine of Being, pp. 116–17Google Scholar).

8 Metaphysics 1003a 34 – b 5 (trans. Owens, p. 119); cf. Metaphysics 1060b 36 – 1061a 7.

9 Owens, , Doctrine of Being, p. 119Google Scholar.

10 Larkin, Miriam Therese, Language in the Philosophy of Aristotle (The Hague, 1971), p. 69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Owen, G. E. L., “Logic and Metaphysics in Some Earlier Works of Aristotle,” in Aristotle and Plato in the Mid-Fourth Century, eds. Owen, and Düring, (Göteborg, 1960), p. 189Google Scholar.

12 See Barker's, Ernest Introduetion to his translation of The Politics of Aristotle (New York, 1962), pp. lxiiilxviiGoogle Scholar.

13 Rhetoric 1359a 30 – 1360b 3.

14 Metaphysics 1003b 1315 (Oxford trans, by Ross, W. D.)Google Scholar.

15 Metaphysics 1003b 1719 (Oxford trans, by Ross, W. D.)Google Scholar.

16 Politics 1252a 1–6.

17 Jaffa, Harry V., “Aristotle, in History of Political Philosophy, eds. Strauss, Leo and Cropsey, Joseph (Chicago, 1963), p. 65Google Scholar.

18 Cf. Politics 1276a 25–34, 1326a 5 – 1326b 26; Strauss, Leo, The City and Man (Chicago, 1964), p. 30Google Scholar.

19 Cf. The Social Contract, bk. II, chap. 9.

20 Cf. Federalist No. 10.

21 Jaffa, , “Aristotle,” p. 66Google Scholar; cf. Strauss, , City and Man, pp. 3035Google Scholar.

22 de Coulanges, Fustel, The Ancient City (Garden City, N.Y.), p. 11Google Scholar.

23 Metaphysics 1016b 31 – 1017a 3 (trans. Owens, , p. 124)Google Scholar.

24 Cf. Poetics 1457b 16–18.

25 Topics 108a 7–12.

26 Cf. Metaphysics 1075b 8–10; Owens, , Doctrine of Being, pp. 451–53Google Scholar.

27 Strauss, Leo writes that “every political situation contains elements which are essential to all political situations: how else could one intelligibly call all these different political situations ‘political situations’?” (What Is Political Philosophy? [Glencoe, Ill., 1959], p. 64)Google Scholar. I have departed from this more or less “Platonic” solution to the question of what “political” means and proposed instead a solution based on Aristotle's doctrine of equivocal naming. Nevertheless, I believe that this substitution makes even more compelling Strauss's argument (reproduced below) that we must return to the classics in order to recover the prephilosophic understanding of political things out of which political science emerges. A return to the classics is necessary not only because our thinking about the political has been affected by a tradition of political philosophy, but also because the primary entity which embodies the essence of the political and by reference to which political things are named – the polis – is no longer available to our direct experience.

28 Husserl, E., The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans, and introduction by Carr, David (Evanston, Illinois, 1970), p. 3Google Scholar.

29 Ibid. pp. 122–35.

30 This essay is reprinted as Appendix VI to the English translation of The Crisis of European Sciences, pp. 353–78. For a helpful discussion of this essay, see Klein, Jacob, “Phenomenology and the History of Science,” Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl, ed. Farber, Marvin (New York, 1968), pp. 143–63Google Scholar.

31 Strauss, , What Is Political Philosophy?, p. 77Google Scholar.

32 Ibid., p. 74.

33 Ibid., p. 76; compare Husserl's notion of “sedimentation.”

34 Strauss, , What Is Political Philosophy?, p.77Google Scholar; compare Husserl's notion of “reactivation.”

35 See Strauss, , City and Man, pp. 912Google Scholar.

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