Concepts in Political Theory


Discourse (Michael Foucault)

According to Foucault, discourse is a culturally constructed representation of reality, not an exact copy. Discourse constructs knowledge and thus governs, through the production of categories of knowledge and assemblages of texts, what is possible to talk about and what is not. As such, it re/produces both power and knowledge simultaneously. Discourse defines subjects framing and positioning who it is possible to be and what it is possible to do. Power circulates throughout society and, while hierarchised, is not simply a top-down phenomenon. It is possible to examine regimes of power through the historicised deconstruction of systems or regimes of meaning-making constructed in and as discourse, that is to see how and why some categories of thinking and lines of argument have come to be generally taken as truths while other ways of thinking/being/doing are marginalized.

Notable works of Michael Foucault


Hitchens’ Razor (Christopher Hitchens)

This refers to the argument that it is the responsibility of people who make claims to prove its truth. In other words, the burden of proof to prove a claim lies entirely with the person who puts it forward in the first place. So, critics can simply dismiss any unsubstantiated claim without having to put in the effort required to disprove its supposed validity. It is named after the famous British writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, who elaborated on the argument in God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Other notable works by Christopher Hitchens

Hume’s Guillotine (David Hume)

Also known as Hume’s law or the is-ought problem, this refers to the observation that many thinkers derive prescriptive moral statements (about how things should be) on the basis of descriptive statements (about how things are in reality). It is named after Scottish philosopher David Hume who elaborated on the concept in his 1738 book, A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume criticized the moral philosophers of his time for deriving normative conclusions from positive statements.

Other notable works by David Hume


Paradigm Shift (Thomas Kuhn)

This refers to any revolutionary change in the fundamental intellectual framework that has traditionally been adopted by practitioners of a subject. The idea was proposed by American philosopher Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn believed that the central ideas of a discipline generally do not change within a short span of time or because the current practitioners readily change their minds when they are introduced to new and better ideas. Instead, he argued, paradigm shifts happen when people of the older generation die and are replaced younger people who are more receptive to newer ideas.

Primary Goods (John Rawls)

The notion of primary goods, proposed by John Rawls, spells out the basic entitlements a citizen would be guaranteed in a well ordered society. It includes basic rights and liberties, freedom of movement and free choice among the fullest range of occupations, the powers of office and positions of responsibility, income and wealth, and finally, the social bases of self-respect. Primary goods are evidently identical to the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitutions of liberal democracies. The purpose behind their enumeration in a political philosophical treatise is to underscore their inviolability for any well-governed society. Conversely, to spell them out sheds light on regimes that are democracies in all but name.

Notable works of John Rawls

The Concepts in Political Theory reproduced here are compilations of key concepts in political theory and political philosophy from various sources. The creation of this page was hugely inspired by the ‘Conceptual’ section of The Hindu and many of the concepts from that section are reproduced here for the benefit of readers.

Last updated 6 January, 2018.

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