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How to do Political Philosophy: Methods and Methodology

Course Dates and Times

Monday 6 – Friday 10 February 2023
Minimum 2 hours of live teaching per day
14:00 – 16:00 CET

Jonathan Floyd

University of Bristol

This seminar-type course provides a highly interactive online teaching and learning environment, using state-of-the-art online pedagogical tools. It is designed for a demanding audience (researchers, professional analysts, advanced students) and capped at a maximum of 12 participants so that the Instructor can cater to the specific needs of each individual.

Purpose of the course

This course will teach you about method and methodology in contemporary political philosophy. It will instruct you on

  1. the range of tools, techniques, and approaches you can use when making your arguments (the methods)
  2. how to critically argue about, and choose among, those things (the methodology).

By the end of the course, you will be able to make sophisticated arguments, analyse in new ways the arguments of others, and even contemplate making your own contributions to the growing ‘methodological’ literature in the future.

ECTS Credits

3 credits Engage fully with class activities 

Instructor Bio

Jonathan Floyd is Associate Professor (Reader) in Political Theory at the University of Bristol, and Chair of the ECPR Standing Group on Methods in Normative Political Theory. For more than ten years, he has shaped debates about the nature, methods, and purposes of political theory and philosophy. He is the author of three major book projects:

Jonathan's research supports a unique and methods-focused approach to teaching political philosophy, aimed at getting students to argue for themselves. This has led to a number of prizes, including: 
2016 'Best of Bristol' prize, awarded for winning the most votes in a competition to find the University's 'best' lecturers
2017 'Outstanding Teaching' prize in Social Sciences and Humanities, given at the University of Bristol Teaching Awards
2021 'Jennie Lee Prize', given by the Political Studies Association (PSA) for career contribution to the teaching of political theory/philosophy in higher education

Away from teaching, Jonathan's research has also been recognised with several grants and prizes, including a 'Rising Star' award from the British Academy in 2018.

Recent and ongoing work includes an open access article on Political Philosophy's Methodological Moment as well as a 'keystone' book on methods/methodology in political theory/philosophy (under contract with Oxford University Press for 2023). In late 2022 he will be taking up a two-year Leadership Fellowship, awarded by the AHRC, to work on (methods of) 'Public Political Philosophy'. Read more about Jonathan here.


Key topics covered

Over five days we will cover the following topics, each via a two-hour live teaching session.

1. Arguing among ourselves 

What is political philosophy? How do we define it? And how does it differ from moral philosophy or political science? Is it best thought of, perhaps, in terms of institutions – meaning a focus on how government should work, or what an ideal state would be? Or in terms of concepts – meaning we try to work out what justice is, or what legitimacy requires?

At the end of this session, you will be able to critically compare rival accounts of our subject, and understand the difference these accounts make for more ‘substantive’ arguments further down the line.

2. Arguing about ideas

This is the first of three sessions focussing on a core ‘task’ of political philosophy – analysis. Here we look at how what is typically called ‘conceptual analysis’ plays a key role in working out the nuts and bolts of our subject – the basic ideas out of which our grander arguments and visions are made.

At the end of this session, you will understand both the nature of conceptual analysis and its place within the wider subject, as a tool or method to be employed in pursuit of various ends.

3. Arguing against opponents

The second of three sessions focussing on a core ‘task’ of political philosophy – critique.

Here we look at the ways in which we criticise the arguments of others, why this might be important, why the choice of opponent matters, and how this kind of argument ‘against’ begins to function as a kind of argument ‘for’. We also consider the fact that this form of argument is often combined with our previous task – ‘analysis’ – when putting together ‘literature reviews’, and also when laying the groundwork at the start of books and articles, where it is used to clear the space for the new ideas that follow.

At the end of this session, you will understand the different ways in which we criticise the positions of others in political philosophy, using leading examples from classic and contemporary debates, and also how to judge just what type of criticism, and how much criticism, is required in different settings, ranging from PhD chapters to long monographs.

4. Arguing for principles

In this penultimate session, focussing on a core ‘task’ of political philosophy – ordering, you will learn to build on the work already done, via analysis and critique. You will put together your own normative cases, with a key focus on how to choose among, and then refine, particular principles. In this case, understood as general rules that tell us either what should or should not be the case in the world, or what we should or should not do within it.

These might be principles of justice, legitimacy, democracy, or something else altogether, but either way, they are the things we use to organise our own thinking and to guide our political preferences when it comes to concrete institutions and policies. The term ordering here thus has several meanings:

  • working out how to choose among rival principles
  • working out how to prioritise among different but compatible principles
  • working out how those two things provide the basic shape of a possible political ‘order’.

At the end of this session, you will understand the importance of principles in political philosophy, the ways in which they can be developed and defended, and the ways in which they depend upon the earlier two tasks of analysis and critique.

5. Arguing with others

This final session focuses on bringing theory to practice, and guiding you on how to think about what might be called ‘public political philosophy’.

We think about the extent to which political philosophers can and should guide political practice, while reflecting carefully on various contemporary debates feeding into this issue, including: moralism / realism (Williams, Rossi & Sleat); ideal / nonideal theory (Simmons, Valentini), ‘political political’ theory (Waldron), comparative / transcendental theory (Sen), and more besides.

These debates facilitate difficult thinking about the extent to which we should be objective or impartial, and also about the extent to which we should offer detailed policy ‘blueprints’, as opposed to ‘abstract’ principles for others to interpret as they see fit. In addition, we reflect upon some of the wider ways in which philosophers can affect practice, from teaching, to advising, to public speaking, and so on.

At the end of this session, you will understand, not just the full range of tasks and techniques available to you as a scholar, but also the ways in which they might or might not be connected to the ‘real world’.

How the course will work online

A two-hour live teaching session in Zoom will run each day from Monday to Friday. Each session will start with a 10–30 minute introduction from the Instructor, after which we move back and forth between group discussion and a range of individual and group activities, all of which focus on how you can construct your own argument.

You will need some familiarity with key debates in political theory, at least from introductory undergraduate / postgraduate courses, including those concerning, say, freedom, equality, justice, democracy, and so on.

You will also need to have read, and will need copies of: Is Political Philosophy Impossible? (Floyd, 2017) and What’s the Point of Political Philosophy? (Floyd, 2019).

Each course includes pre-course assignments, including readings and pre-recorded videos, as well as daily live lectures totalling at least three hours. The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

Please check your course format before registering.

Online courses

Live classes will be held daily for three hours on a video meeting platform, allowing you to interact with both the instructor and other participants in real-time. To avoid online fatigue, the course employs a pedagogy that includes small-group work, short and focused tasks, as well as troubleshooting exercises that utilise a variety of online applications to facilitate collaboration and engagement with the course content.

In-person courses

In-person courses will consist of daily three-hour classroom sessions, featuring a range of interactive in-class activities including short lectures, peer feedback, group exercises, and presentations.


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc.). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.