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New edition on political philosophy by ASU law professor published

May 30, 2012

The second edition of "Political Philosophy: A Historical Introduction" by Michael J. White, a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and philosophy professor at Arizona State University, recently was published by Oxford University Press.

The book’s first edition, published in 2003 by a different press, traced the development of political theory beginning in Greece in the fifth century B.C. through the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx. Rousseau’s political philosophy influenced the French revolution as well as modern liberal political theory. Marx’s ideas played a significant role in the development of 20th century socialism and communism. The first edition concluded with consideration of the political theory of John Rawls, a 20th century Harvard philosophy professor who achieved eminence as an exponent of contemporary Western liberal political theory.

Alistair Hannay, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, called the first edition “a masterpiece of clear thinking."

“This well-written text will challenge many to reflect more closely on matters often too quickly decided. The result is more than one might ever have expected of an introductory text of this size; indeed a better introduction to the subject is hard to imagine,” according to Hannay.

White’s new book expands the roadmap to include a chapter on Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, who lived during the first century B.C., on Marsilius of Padua, a 14th century proponent of an entirely secular conception of politics. White also wrote a new chapter on John Stuart Mill, a 19th century social reformer and defender of individual liberty.

“Cicero represented the Stoic tradition in his political thought, and I concluded that he is a very important figure in the transition between the political theory of Greek and Roman antiquity and the emerging Christian political theory,” White said of his decision to include Cicero in the book.

White said the addition of Mill was necessary because of his role as an expositor of a dominant contemporary political problem:  that of the proper relation between the autonomous, self-defining individual and the state conceived as a coercive instrument for promoting the common good. 

A major theme in the book is both controversial and important, White said. “Political theory ultimately is dependent on our conception of what human life, more generally, is about,” he said. “In other words, political theory relies on what I call a ‘normative anthropology,’ – a conception of what human life is and ought to be all about.”

White claims in his new book that one can’t really understand political philosophy or political theory without consideration of the ethical, metaphysical and theological dimensions of human life.

White was encouraged to write the second edition by Jeffrie Murphy, a longtime colleague at the College of Law and ASU Regents’ Professor of Law, Philosophy & Religious Studies. The book is “a major contribution to the field,” said Murphy.

“There are many analytic philosophical books on political philosophy and many historically oriented books on political philosophy. What is uniquely valuable about White’s book is its brilliant combination of both of these approaches,” Murphy said. “White is an extremely talented philosopher in the analytic tradition but, unlike most people in that tradition, he also possesses strong scholarly expertise in the history of philosophy. Because of this, I cannot think of a better introduction to political philosophy than his new book. It would be a mistake, however, to regard White’s book as simply a textbook, since it is much more than that. Although written in a highly accessible way, it is sophisticated to a degree that will make it a valuable resource even for those who are scholarly specialists in the subject.”

Much of White’s new book is drawn from the teaching and research he has done in the field over the past three decades. The book bridges several historical and philosophical disciplines including some areas of political science, history, sociology and ethics.

“What political theory is really concerned about is the analysis of basic concepts that arise in relation to political institutions, such as justice, rights, duties, the nature of state, and the proper limitations on political authority,” White said. “But human beings are not just citizens of some polity although, indeed, all of us do live in some polity. The question is how the political dimension of our lives fits with other aspects of our lives.”

The book should appeal both to devotees of politics and political theory and to those who don’t care much about everyday politics. “Political theory can show us the limitations of politics,” White said. “Today, especially, we denizens of first-world countries perhaps expect too much from politics. A study like the one I attempt can help us to realize that there are some good reasons why our political aspirations should be more modest.”

The book is available at Oxford University Press  and at and other booksellers.

About the author

Michael J. White’s work lies principally in the areas of history of philosophy, science and mathematics, especially during Greek and Roman antiquity, of formal logic, and of political philosophy and related areas of moral theory and jurisprudence. His recent interests include the history and theory of natural law and the interaction of this tradition with theology and with other jurisprudential traditions such as legal positivism. At the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law he teaches contemporary jurisprudence, Great Traditions in Jurisprudence (historical jurisprudence), and seminars on the natural law tradition, legal positivism, and other topics in jurisprudence.

White was formerly affiliated with the ASU Department of Philosophy, now housed in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, and joined the College of Law faculty in 2004. He currently is affiliated with the history and philosophy of science program in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. He is the author of five books and the co-editor of a volume of philosophy essays, and has published more than 60 articles and chapters in scholarly publications.

In addition to his appointment at ASU, White has been a visiting faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Arizona, a fellow of the National Humanities Center, and the recipient of a research grant from the National Science Foundation.