Political theory comprises four subdisciplines:

  • History of ideas
  • Political philosophy
  • Positive political theory
  • Epistemology of poltical theory and political science

History of ideas

Systematic political thinking goes back to ancient philosophy. Since antiquity, scholars have reflected on political ideas, institutions and actors. These writings constitute the history of Political Science. The history of political ideas is, of course, basically a historical field. Nevertheless, in Germany it is commonly taught, and researched, in the context of Political Theory. It provides an invaluable treasure of problems, concepts, methods, models and theories, inspiring and enriching research in the entire discipline.

Political philosophy

Political Philosophy is concerned with how the world ought to be rather than with how the world is. In other words, normative rather than empirical questions define this area of study.
What political goals is it reasonable and just to pursue? And what means may be legitimately employed to pursue such reasonable and just goals? These are, in general terms, the central questions Political Philosophy attempts to answer. They have been discussed by political philosophers from antiquity to modern times, which is why a sound knowledge of the history of political thought is indispensable for political theorists.
However, Political Philosophy is not limited to the development and justification of fundamental value standards and principles. It also includes the analysis of central concepts, such as liberty, equality and justice, or politics, the state, power, democracy and the like.
As a practical discipline it is also concerned with the exploration of the consequences of applying its central principles to specific issues, such as: How must institutions - e. g., rules of taxation, or the national health system - be designed in order to be just? What are the normative implications of technological progress, for instance in the field of organ transplantation? What are the conditions of a just war? At the same time, feasibility issues and, therefore, empirical considerations play a major role in modern Political Philosophy: How can institutions be made just and stable at the same time? Under what circumstances can citizens be expected to obey just laws? Thus, modern Political Philosophy is closely intertwined with empirical Political Science and other empirical sciences in general. Political Philosophy thus understood is a prerequisite for normatively and  empirically informed political consulting.

Positive political theory

The task of Positive Political Theory (sometimes alternatively labeled "Modern Political Theory") is to supply general theoretical tools for empirical political science. Therefore, it is dedicated above all to the development and critical assessment of general approaches to theory-building (such as the "rational choice" approach which currently dominates empirical political science) and analytical models (such as David Easton's model of a "political system", or the actor models known as "Homo sociologicus" and "Homo oeconomicus").
The aim of empirical political theories is to explain, understand or predict political phenomena. Thus, the overall goal of positive political theory is to provide theoretical foundations for the empirically-oriented branches of Political Science, such as International Relations or Comparative Politics.

Epistemology of political theory and political science

Epistemology constitutes the metatheoretical basis of all sciences. It is concerned with central questions as to what we can know, how we can find out and how we can –if at all– prove that what we allegedly know is true. Thus, the Philosophy of Science is concerned with the scope and limits of knowledge and the methods of producing and testing assumed knowledge. Sincere reseach in Political Science presupposes basic knowledge of the central tenets and problems of the Philosophy of Science.

Thus, the areas of study covered by Political Theory are interwoven with the other branches of Political Science. Political Theory discusses methods, supplies concepts and theories and thereby provides the theoretical foundations of the entire discipline.


This text is partially based on: Druwe, Ulrich: Politische Theorie, 2nd ed. Neuried 1995, pp. 9-15.