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Political realism

Jubb, R. ORCID: (2022) Political realism. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.2002


Realism in political philosophy is usually understood as a position in debates about how political philosophy should be conducted. Alison McQueen suggests in her Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times that realists are united by four commitments: to the distinctiveness of politics as a form of activity, to politics’ agonistic or conflictual character, to the fragility of order and to rejecting political philosophy which does not take seriously the constraints on political action these other commitments imply. Realism in this sense is then particularly focused on political order as a way of channelling and managing disagreement. This gives it its distinctive approach to political philosophy, which relies on interpretations of how particular political values or judgments operate in particular situations. Following Edward Hall, we can think of the centrality of understanding what role a particular value or judgment plays in a particular context as imposing what in 2017 he called a ‘realism constraint’. Realism in this sense comes in three rough types, foundationalist realism, radical realism and sober realism. For all three though, it is crucial that they are able to articulate and defend an account of how they meet the realism constraint. Foundationalist realists avoid moral commitments, relying instead on authentically political sources of normativity to give their political judgments force. This creates an additional burden for them compared to radical and sober realists. They must show that the values on which they depend are both not moral and appropriately political, which may be difficult given the way morality is entangled with many of our other judgments and commitments. Both radical and sober realists are distinguished by the content and not the source of normativity for their judgments. Radical realists reject the status quo as in one way or another unacceptable, just as sober realists focus on the significance of the goods made possible by political order and so the importance of preserving it. The power of any form of realism depends on the plausibility of its interpretation of the political situation it theorises, and how well its judgments respond to that interpretation. Giving plausible interpretations of political situations will mean engaging with a range of material, from intellectual history to various kinds of contemporary social scientific enquiry. If realists do this though, there is every reason to think that they can provide significant political insight.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Politics, Economics and International Relations > Politics and International Relations
ID Code:106875
Publisher:Oxford University Press

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