Distinction between Political Theory and Political Thought

By Pravesh Aggarwal, RGNUL

Editor’s Note:  This paper ventures to comment upon the differences which arise in the study of political theory and political thought. In addition, it would contain a detailed analysis of the reasons which govern the same and explore discerning avenues covered by political theory and political thought in the field of political science. The paper would commence with how different political writers have often used the aforementioned terms interchangeably in discussing about the same subject matter, i.e. state. Part II of the paper would deal with the discipline or the approach used for discerning political theory from political thought, wherein it would reiterate different approaches used for describing various theories, as distinguished from political thought which shows similarity in the usage of approaches, subject to the condition that they were evolved during a similar time period and place. Part III of the paper would highlight how the scope of a political thought differs greatly, in terms of magnitude, with that of political theory. Part IV of the paper would explicate how the exigencies of time result in the evolution of different political thoughts on the same subject matter, in contrast with political theories which are expounded without much regard to the time at which it is done. Finally, the paper would conclude with the intersection of the political theory and political thought and elucidate the need to distinguish the same for the sake of brevity and apparent clarity.


The historical evidence gathered from various political data show that political theory and political theory have often been amalgamated for explaining politics by a gamut of political philosophers. G.H. Sabine, in his book, A History of Political Theory, has in fact included a detailed analysis of various political philosophers who proclaim their respective political thoughts, despite the fact that the title of book relates to ‘Political theory’. Apart from placing political theory and political thought on similar grounds, they have also interlinked them with political philosophy and political ideology.[i] Sabine envisaged no distinction between political thought and political philosophy as could be reflected in the introductory part of the book which defines and explains political philosophy in consonance with political thought. Further, Roger Scruton in his book A Dictionary of Political Thought elucidates that, “political thought includes the theories through which people attempt to explain each other’s political behaviour, the values by which they judge it, and the mechanisms (such as laws) whereby they attempt to control it”.[ii]

However, such approach in using and explaining the aforementioned terms may, at times, be misleading to a political philosopher, who may instead use them interchangeably in understanding and evolving further research studies, and thus make the subject of understanding the politics in depth even more difficult and complex. Thus, it becomes imperative to distinguish the terms from each other, study them separately and analysis the matter which they encompass. This will help in removing further ambiguities in the field of political science and ameliorate the understanding of the subject in depth. Hence, this topic would cover detailed analysis of the matter used to distinguish political theory and political thought through the use of various tools and techniques; and would contain some similar facets connecting them for better understanding of the topic.

Part II of the paper would deal with the discipline or the approach used for discerning political theory from political thought, wherein it would reiterate different approaches used for describing various theories, as distinguished from political thought which shows similarity in the usage of approaches, subject to the condition that they were evolved during a similar time period and place. Part III of the paper would highlight how the scope of a political thought differs greatly, in terms of magnitude, with that of political thought. Part IV of the paper would explicate how the exigencies of time result in the evolution of different political thoughts on the same subject matter, in contrast with political theories which are expounded without much regard to the time at which it is done. Finally, the paper would conclude with the intersection of the political theory and political thought and elucidate the need to distinguish the same for the sake of brevity and apparent clarity.


It is pertinent to evince the approach or the discipline which is adopted to explain the political thought and political theory by various political thinkers. Political theory has been related to multiple disciplines like historical, economic, psychological, philosophical, sociological, anthropological, theological, and the like.[iii] It is a continuous dialogue which has proliferated over time. Broadly speaking, although there is more or less a continuity regarding the subject matter of political theory, yet the approaches to its study have been changing during the past 2000 years.[iv] This is a major concern in the sense that it creates a problem of approaches in the field of political theory. For instance, while St. Thomas expresses his view on political themes from a theological angle of vision,[v] William McDougall does it from a psychological standpoint.[vi] This variety of approach leads to a variety of explanation.[vii]

Approach used for Political Theory: Illustrations and Examples

The purpose behind political theory is to dispense the explanation of politics as understood by a political theorist. Therefore, this gives rise to a number of political theories of the same period. The theories on the ‘Origin of the State’ have been explained using disparate approaches by respective political thinkers who have propounded them. The Divine Theory has kept itself confined to the theological standpoint,[viii] regarding the ultimate power of the divine god in ruling the masses, whereas the Genetic Theory has given importance to the sociological approach in defining the origin of the state, in which Aristotle viewed that “many families are called villages… many villages so entirely join themselves together as in every respect to form but one society, that the society is state, and contain in itself… the end and perfection of the government.”[ix] These theories are in complete contrasts to the force theory which advocated the used the concept of “might is right”[x] or “justice is the interest of the stronger”[xi]. Evolutionary theory traces importance to the historical approach in defining the state. These theories reveal the fact the same concept of the origin of the state has been given different direction in explaining the true essence of the State, which creates ambiguity on whose theory to rely upon and even raises question about the most empirical research to be followed in understanding the origin of state.

Approach used for Political Thought: Illustrations and Examples

In contrast, the approaches used for evolving a political thoughts shows great similarity, subject to the condition that they were evolved during a similar time period and place, which greatly determine the circumstances pervading around the respective political thinkers in evincing such theories. Political Thinkers like Plato and Aristotle have evolved the solutions to the political problems that were prevailing in Greek using the same Classical approach, which involves much of the philosophical content, notwithstanding the fact that Aristotle deviated a bit by building his philosophy on scientific foundations while Plato based it on speculative method. Both saw the instability of the State as the major problem of the Greek city-states and held moral anarchy responsible for this state of affairs.[xii]

The need to emphasis on proper education for citizens and give the handling of the manual work to slaves was duly regarded by both. The theories, given by Hegel and T.H. Green, about the state has its origin in the ideological approach[xiii], which gave prime importance to “Idea”, “Spirit” or “Consciousness”[xiv]; and that the prevailing idea at a particular historical point of time manifests the physical existence of all types of political as well as social institutions. These ideas had origin from the writings of Plato and Aristotle, ancient Greek philosophers, and were developed by Immanuel Kant and Hegel. This shows the interconnectivity between the different political thoughts in terms of the approaches used for evolving their respective theories, which could not be easily found in various political theories.


A great deal of importance is imparted to the scope which various theories and thoughts have been able to encompass to influence various people. It has been generally viewed that political theory stands for the ideas of an individual or a school of political thinking, whereas political thought is the study of political speculation of a whole community, over a certain period. The whole community may refer to “the articulate sections of the community. It may articulate its responses to the day-to-day events, i.e., the policies and the decisions of the government and international events which may have a bearing upon the present life. This community is a small minority of the whole population and includes professional politicians whether in power or out of power, the publicist, governmental officials and even students who express their reactions to governmental decisions violently or otherwise.[xv] This is in contrast to political theory which is the speculation of a particular thinker or writer who expresses his views in its three fundamental themes-state, government and power.[xvi]

Political Thought’s Scope: Wide and Extensive

The abovementioned facts mean that the political thought, despite the fact that they are evolved by a single political thinker, but are widely accepted and agreed upon by the community which consists of political practitioners, government officials, etc. These thoughts have so much bearing in the present day life that the future generations even tend to follow them, with or without cognizance or realization of the same. It has already been stated how the political ideology represented by Plato and Aristotle have shaped the thought of Green. The duty of state about practicing Dharma, which includes protection of rights and duties for the welfare of its citizens, is a main bone of contention for the present generation to the extent that State is looked as a guardian of basic fundamental rights and duties, along with an epitome for securing the sovereignty of the nation from outside attack, both physically as well as mentally.

Political theory’s Scope: Narrow

Political theories are looked mainly as individualistic, in which each political theorist shapes his theory based on his or her speculations which may differ by varied amount. Such variations lessen the attraction to such theories, thereby reducing its scope. Their scope is further lowered because of the fact that they elucidate the present situation on the basis of some speculation. The subject matter of the origin of state is shrouded in a mystery; we do not know exactly the source and time of origin. As stated by R.N. Gilchrist in Principle of Political Science, “Of the circumstances surrounding the dawn of political consciousness, we know little or almost nothing.”[xvii] Since, neither of the political theorists actually knew about the origin of state, people started making different speculation on it, and since it was based on individualistic view as per the different circumstances which they observed, their theories had fundamental differences. Political theorists like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau gave the same Social Contract Theory but their approaches based on speculation were different. While Hobbes regarded the nature of man as brutal, brutish, selfish, lazy, etc. right from birth, Locke regarded the man as a friendly creature initially. However, Rousseau draws a soft picture of state of nature in which man is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral, ‘a noble savage’ leading a life of ‘idyllic happiness and primitive sympathy’.[xviii] This shows a vast difference in which a same theory is perceived by different political philosopher.


Political thought generally deals with the problems of politics, particularly about the nature and purposes of state and government and lays a gamut of measures for the achievement of those purposes. According to A Dictionary of Political Analysis, Robert observes that, “Political thought is often taken as an equivalent term to political philosophy… or to political theory, though it has little interest in the development of empirical or analytic theories.”[xix] In the introduction to The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (2000), Christopher Rowe and Malcolm Schofield draw an important distinction between political theory and political thought.[xx] While the former is systematic and intentional, the latter is much broader, covering not only formal reflection on things political but also ideas about political action and institutions that appear in varied types of literature.[xxi] A distinction between Political theory and Political thought has been greatly emphasized by Ernest Barker by elucidating that, “There is such a thing as political thought which is distinct from and greater than political theory. Political theory is a speculation of particular thinkers, which may be remote from the actual facts of the time. Political thought is the immanent philosophy of a whole age which determines its action and shapes its life. The one is explicit, self-conscious and (it may be) detached: the other one is implicit, unconscious and immersed in the stream of vital action.”[xxii] This statement reflects the practical aspect of political thought to such an extent we tend to practice such thoughts from within (implicit and unconscious) whereas political theory goes much into theoretical aspect of politics and places less relevance on practicality.


Political thought: Time Specific

One of the major attribute that is associated with political thought, which is absent in political theory, is that it is ‘time bound’[xxiii], since policies and programmes and plans of the government in any country like the government itself changes from time to time, the contents of the articulate response ipso facto would be different.[xxiv] This could be reflected in the sense that since political thought is a reflection on the existence of Human Predicaments and presents a scheme of reconditioning the power structure with a view to realizing the new vision,[xxv] once that vision is complete, there arises a new vision for which a new political thought is to be arrived at. To draw an analogy, it can be stated that Hegel’s theory of dialectal materialism elucidate how the human mind invariably moves from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, employing each synthesis as the thesis for a new opposition to be transcended by yet a higher level, continuing in a perpetual waltz of intellectual achievement.[xxvi] This shows how changed circumstances give path to a new idea, dissolving the evils of antediluvian idea.

Plato’s thought vis-à-vis Machiavelli’s thought in light of ‘time bound’ nature

Plato’s political thought evolved as a consequence of brutal conditions that were prevailing in Athens. Pernicious conditions of the women and children as well as their declining status were the main bone of contention which influenced his thought. In addition, he saw democracy in Athens turn corrupt and devastating, witnessing the trial of his mentor Socrates, and saw a better alternative in the Spartan system.[xxvii] The situation in Sparta aroused the need to safeguard the social as well as political status of the women, which further paved the way to his theory on ‘Communism of Wife’. His thought of inevitably enforcing upon the children to pursue military training was a consequence of strong and healthy military situation existing in Sparta.

He further advocated the need to impart the state-owned education for the benefit of mankind. In contrast to Plato who never mentioned much about religion, Machiavelli, in his political thought, mentioned about the evilness of religion in making the people ignorant, irrational and foolish. Machiavelli held the need to separate ethics from politics and thereby restrict the role of religion in policy making. This highlights how the political thought varied extensively with time, as per the policies and political situation arousing the same.

Political Theory: Time neutral

Political theory is independent of ‘time bound’ nature and remains generally neutral to changing circumstances. Since the word ‘theory’ itself deduces the idea of non-existence of practicality in terms of its dealings, the various theories enumerate particular aspects related to a scenario which have been arrived on theoretical ground by looking at the past scenario or drawing speculation. The various theories on the concept of democracy also highlight the fact that these theories have not been created at a particular point of time, unlike political thought which is created during a particular time and the prevailing circumstances therein. Furthermore, there are many theories on the origin of the state which have expounded without any regard to time, since no one was aware of the time of its origin and the circumstances pervading therein. Hence, different theories evolved as a matter of beliefs and were based on certain speculations, which had no bearing on the time at which the same was done.


The comparative analysis of the political theory with political thought reveals that there exist many differences the two and they cannot be placed on the same plane while assessing various elements in the study of state and politics. However, it is rarely welcomed by many political writers in the contemporary scenario. Such approach may induce or engender unanticipated complexities in study of political science in depth while conducting in-depth research on the same. It is thereby pertinent to draw a distinction between the two and highlight the differences which exist in terms of discipline or approach, scope and ‘time bound’ nature. Notwithstanding the fact that these aspects are interlinked to each other in terms of explanation and understanding, they offer different information and knowledge in the study of political theory and political thought respectively.

For instance, the variety of discipline or the approach used in the field of political theory has immense coherence with its time bound nature, since certain speculations are drawn while propounding various political theorists by respective writers which hold bearing to their respective understanding of the subject matter of state and politics, Naturally, variety of speculations give birth to variety of theories, and since such speculation are dependent on one’s understanding rather than the time on which the same was executed, it gives rise to their ‘time-bound nature’. Also, such speculations are open to criticisms, since they may be remote from the actual facts of the time, and hence it lowers the scope of political theory in encompassing the views of the masses.

In contrast to political theory, political thought show immense similarity in the discipline or approach used to propound the same, subject to the condition that the same was done under similar political surroundings and circumstances. In addition, the scope of the political thought in terms of its supporters and the influence or bearing upon the minds of the people stands high in magnitude as compared to political theory. Political thought reveal the views of articulate sections of the community which write regularly about the changing policies of the government and its effect on the state. This feature imparts it with lack of ‘time bound’ nature, but regards it as the supreme manifestation of the will of the people at large.

These aforementioned facts clearly state that there lies a distinction between political theory and political thought and it becomes necessary to study these differences in order to have an in depth knowledge of the subject. Despite these arguments and the fact that such distinction is significant, it has not always been observed, and many political writers still use the same term interchangeably.

Edited by Hariharan Kumar

[i]      See George Holland Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 4th edition, Oxford and IBH Publishing, New Delhi, 1973.

[ii]     Robert Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought, HarperTrade, New York, 1983, at p.25.

[iii]     RI Gupta, Political Theory New Concepts New Perspectives, Sultan Chand & Sons, Delhi, 2003, at p. 15.

[iv]     R.C. Vermani, An Introduction to Political Theory, Gitanjali Publishing House, New Delhi, 2011, at p.10.

[v]     J. C. Johari, Contemporary Political Theory, Sterling, New Delhi, 1979, at p.51.

[vi]     Ibid.

[vii]    Though the phenomena which the political theorists seek to explain remains the same, i.e. the state, it is instituted and worked upon by people comprising of economists, theologians, historians, philosophers, or a sociologists. This gives rise to numerous theories, each on discerning disciplines.

[viii]   See J. C. Johari, Principles of Modern Political Science, 2nd Edition, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Limited, New Delhi, 2013.

[ix]     Aristotle and Carnes Lord, The Politics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984.

[x]     See Fred Miller, ‘Aristotle’s Political Theory’ (2011), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/ (last accessed 18 January 2014).

[xi]     See Alexander Moseley, ‘Political Realism’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/polreal/ (last accessed 20 January 2014).

[xii]    O.P. Gauge, Western Political Thought, Sarai Publication, Delhi, 2012, at p.57; Also see E. Barker, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle, Dover, New York, 1959.

[xiii]   Idealism developed as a full-fledged political philosophy in modern times, despite its traces in the ancient times. Political philosophers like Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, T.H. Green, German philosophers, and many English philosophers were the supporters of such school of thought. Idealist thought was initially evolved around the theme of the nature and validity of knowledge. It focused on the precise relationship between ‘subject’ (the knower) and ‘object’ (the known). Its basic issue may be expressed as follows: When a human agent claims to know the world (whether it is naturally physical world or the world of social and political institutions), how does the knowing mind relate to itself?, O.P. Gauge, Western Political Thought, Sarai Publication, Delhi, 2012, at p.233.

[xiv]   Thom Brooks, Hegel’s Political Philosophy: A Systematic Reading of the Philosophy of Right, Edinburgh University Press, United Kingdom, 2008.

[xv]    Supra note 5, at 18. Also see G. Sadanandan, ‘Modern Political Thought’, University Of Calicut, available at http://www.universityofcalicut.info/SDE/VI%20Sem-BA%20Pol%20Sc-Core%20Course-MODERN%20POLITICAL%20THOUGHT.pdf (last accessed 25 January 2014).

[xvi]   Supra note 3, at 15.

[xvii]   R. N. Gilchrist, Principles of Political Science, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1921; also available at California Digital Library, at https://archive.org/details/principlesofpoli00gilc (last accessed on 28 January 2014).

[xviii] Eddy Asirvatham and K.K. Misra, Political Theory, S. Chand & Company Ltd., New Delhi, 2012.

[xix]   Robert Edwon Riggs, Jack C. Plano, and Helenan S. Robin, The Dictionary of Political Analysis, ABC-Clio, California, 1982.

[xx]    Christopher Rowe, Malcolm Schofield, Simon Harrison, and Melissa Lane, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2005.

[xxi]   Philip P. Wiener, Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Scribner, New York, 1973.

[xxii]   Earnest Barker, The Social and Political Ideas of Some Great Mediaeval Thinker, F.J.C. Hearnshaw, London, 1923, p. 10-11.

[xxiii] It is due to this that political thought “has no fixed form. In other words, it expresses itself in various ways, to include speeches of the statesmen, the political commentaries of the publicists, the scholarly articles written by academicians, a poem composed by a poet who may catch the anguish of the people at any one particular moment of time and the letters of protest or affirmation written by whoever reacts to all the government decisions and policies”, Frank Thakurdas, Recent English Political Theory (and the India of Liberty), Minerva Associates, Calcutta, 1972, at p.4; Also see J.A. Gould and V.V. Thuraby, Contemporary Political Thought: Issues in Scope, Value and Direction, Holt, Rinenart and Winston, New York, 1969, at pp. 1-6.

[xxiv] Supra note 3.

[xxv]   J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, Methuen, London, 1960.

[xxvi] Garth Kemerling, ‘The Development of Absolute Idealism’, Philosophy Pages, available at http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/5k.htm (last accessed 29 January 2014).

[xxvii] Jeraun, ‘The Historians of Sparta’, Quizlet, available at http://quizlet.com/10375104/the-historians-of-sparta-flash-cards/ (last accessed 29 January 2014).

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