This page contains a list of the best introductory books on political philosophy. Just to be clear, there is no single best book on political philosophy. The best book for you will depend on your preferred learning style and the amount of time that you want to spend reading about political philosophy. An 800-page scholarly overview is unlikely to be best for someone looking for a short beginner-friendly introduction, for example. This list aims to take this ambiguity into account by featuring books that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.
Secondly, this is not a list of personal recommendations. It was created by compiling recommendations from a variety of online sources including bibliographies, course syllabi, and community recommendations. You can find out more about this process here. Links to the sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a wider range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best introductory books on political philosophy in no particular order.
An Introduction to Political Philosophy – Jonathan Wolff
An ideal introduction for students with no background in the subject, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Third Edition, combines clarity and a conversational style with a thought-provoking account of the central questions in political philosophy.
Author Jonathan Wolff explores the subject through a series of enduring and timeless questions, jumping centuries and millennia to explore the most influential answers and demonstrate how political philosophy is relevant to contemporary issues.
Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction – Will Kimlicka
This new edition of Will Kymlicka’s best selling critical introduction to contemporary political theory has been fully revised to include many of the most significant developments in Anglo-American political philosophy in the last 11 years, particularly the new debates over issues of democratic citizenship and cultural pluralism. The book now includes two new chapters on citizenship theory and multiculturalism, in addition to updated chapters on utilitarianism, liberal egalitarianism, libertarianism, socialism, communitarianism, and feminism. The many thinkers discussed include G. A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, William Galston, Carol Gilligan, R. M. Hare, Chandran Kukathas, Catherine Mackinnon, David Miller, Philippe Van Parijs, Susan Okin, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, John Roemer, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Iris Young. Extended guides to further reading have been added at the end of each chapter, listing the most important books and articles on each school of thought, as well as relevant journals and websites. Covering some of the most advanced contemporary thinking, Will Kymlicka writes in an engaging, accessible, and non-technical way to ensure the book is suitable for students approaching these difficult concepts for the first time. This second edition promises to build on the original edition’s success as a key text in the teaching of modern political theory.
Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts – Steven M. Cahn
Now greatly expanded in its third edition, Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts is ideal for survey courses in political philosophy. Offering unprecedented coverage from antiquity to the present, this historically organized collection presents the most significant works from nearly 2,500 years of political philosophy. The readings are substantial or complete texts, not fragments. An especially valuable feature of this volume is that the works of each author are introduced with an engaging essay by a leading contemporary authority.
Political Philosophy moves from classical thought (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero) through the medieval period (Augustine, Aquinas) to modern perspectives (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant, Hamilton and Madison, Burke, Bentham, Tocqueville). The book includes work from major nineteenth-century thinkers (Hegel, Marx and Engels, Mill, Nietzsche) and twentieth-century theorists (Arendt, Hayek, Berlin, Taylor, Rawls, Sandel, Nozick, Foucault, Habermas, Held, Nussbaum, Young, Appiah) and also presents a variety of notable documents and addresses, including The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and speeches by Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to the new selections noted above in bold, the third edition also includes the complete text of Mill’s On Liberty, an excerpt from Rawls’s Political Liberalism, and expanded selections from Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and The Federalist Papers.
The Republic – Plato
The revised edition of Grube’s classic translation follows and furthers Grube’s noted success in combining fidelity to Plato’s text with natural readability, while reflecting the fruits of new scholarship and insights into Plato’s thought since publication of the first edition in 1974. A new introduction, index, and bibliography by Professor Reeve are included in this new rendering.
Politics – Aristotle
No other English-language translation comes close to the standard of accuracy and readability set here by Reeve. This volume provides the reader with more of the resources needed to understand Aristotle’s argument than any other edition. An introductory essay by Reeve situates Politics in Aristotle’s overall thought and offers an engaging critical introduction to its central argument. A detailed glossary, footnotes, bibliography, and indexes provide historical background, analytical assistance with particular passages, and a guide both to Aristotle’s philosophy and to scholarship on it.
The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli
To investigate the imaginative leaps of so agile and incisive a mind as Machiavelli’s one needs as much commentary about history, political theory, sources, and language as possible. I have gradually come to realize that readers who remain unaware of these topics frequently finish reading The Prince, put down their copies, and wonder what the shouting was all about. Thus commented eminent Machiavelli scholar James B. Atkinson thirty years ago in justifying what remains today the most informative English-language edition of Machiavelli’s masterpiece available.
Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
The Second Treatise is one of the most important political treatises ever written and one of the most far-reaching in its influence.
In his provocative 15-page introduction to this edition, the late eminent political theorist C. B. Macpherson examines Locke’s arguments for limited, conditional government, private property, and right of revolution and suggests reasons for the appeal of these arguments in Locke’s time and since.
Early Writings – Karl Marx
Written in 1833-4, when Marx was barely twenty-five, this astonishingly rich body of works formed the cornerstone for his later political philosophy. In the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, he dissects Hegel’s thought and develops his own views on civil society, while his Letters reveal a furious intellect struggling to develop the egalitarian theory of state. Equally challenging are his controversial essay On the Jewish Question and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, where Marx first made clear his views on alienation, the state, democracy and human nature. Brilliantly insightful, Marx’s Early Writings reveal a mind on the brink of one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – the theory of Communism. This translation fully conveys the vigour of the original works. The introduction, by Lucio Colletti, considers the beliefs of the young Marx and explores these writings in the light of the later development of Marxism.
On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
Discussed and debated from time immemorial, the concept of personal liberty went without codification until the 1859 publication of On Liberty. John Stuart Mill’s complete and resolute dedication to the cause of freedom inspired this treatise, an enduring work through which the concept remains well known and studied.
The British economist, philosopher, and ethical theorist’s argument does not focus on “the so-called Liberty of the Will…but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” Mill asks and answers provocative questions relating to the boundaries of social authority and individual sovereignty. In powerful and persuasive prose, he declares that there is “one very simple principle” regarding the use of coercion in society — one may only coerce others either to defend oneself or to defend others from harm.
The new edition offers students of political science and philosophy, in an inexpensive volume, one of the most influential studies on the nature of individual liberty and its role in a democratic society.
A Theory of Justice – John Rawls
Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book.
Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition–justice as fairness–and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons. “Each person,” writes Rawls, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Advancing the ideas of Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Lincoln, Rawls’s theory is as powerful today as it was when first published.
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