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Thought-experiments in political theory



Thought-experiments and their value (or otherwise) for philosophy have been widely discussed with regard to metaphysics, epistemology and some areas of moral philosophy but there has been much less discussion of their place in political theory. This lack of discussion is doubly significant – in the first place since the debate around thought-experiments has been vigorous and important in other fields and in the second place since thought-experiments appear to have been central to major stages in the development of political thought.On the second count, one of the most obvious examples is Plato’s use of Gyges’s ring in setting up a complex thought-experiment inquiring into the nature of just and unjust states in the Republic. Another is John Rawls’s construction of the original position in which people are to place themselves behind the veil of ignorance and consider what principles of justice they would choose from there. Rawls expressly describes the exercise as a thought-experiment, but this aspect of it has received little attention despite the burgeoning literature on philosophical thought-experiments. These are two major moments in political thought but there are also many minor yet important ones in which thought-experiments play a role. A prime example would be Michael Walzer’s introduction of the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ into the discussion of the problem of dirty hands. A workshop focusing on thought-experiments and political theory is thus a timely event.

The following questions (among others) are ones which arise in the context.

  • Are political thought-experiments different in some way from other thought experiments?
  • Do political thought-experiments have a distinctive form or forms?
  • Are political thought- experiments open to the same objections that have been aimed at thought-experiments in other fields?
  • Is thought-experimenting in general a problematic (or a useful) methodology?
  • Is it relevant to political theory?
  • Do political thought-experiments have problems of their own?
  • Does a particular thought-experiment in the literature of political theory or philosophy stand to be especially insightful or face particular problems?

Abstracts are invited on any of these or related issues.