How do you start studying political philosophy without school or teachers? During the pandemic, when I wasn’t playing Skyrim or freelance writing, I was trying to figure that out.
I took several online courses, read some of the classics of the field — paying special attention to Rousseau and the political thinkers of the US revolution — and I had long, amateur-hour phone calls with my friend Ted who was also trying to self-learn the basics of the subject.
The thing is, I did it haphazardly, without much structure, and that led to some headaches that I’d like to help you avoid.
This guide is my attempt at a systematic approach — the best way to learn political philosophy outside of school through online courses and books.
The eight-step roadmap is designed to take you from an absolute beginner in political philosophy to someone with a level of knowledge that would allow you to have productive conversations with graduate students in the field.
Through this process, you’ll also become better at political debate and cultivate a nuanced understanding of ideas like democracy, justice, liberty, and power.
It’s meant to be followed sequentially, as each step builds on the prior. That said, you can still feel free to jump around as needed, letting your curiosity off the leash from time to time.
1. Start With “An Introduction to Political Philosophy”
I wish that, before plunging into the classics or taking Yale’s online course, I’d read Jonathan Wolff’s “An Introduction to Political Philosophy”. It’s a fantastic gateway into the subject, and often required reading for political philosophy 101 students around the globe.
In this book, Wolff introduces you to some of the major debates of political philosophy:
- What is the state of nature (a world w/o government) like?
- What makes a state legitimate? Is it consent from the populace? Effectiveness?
- If the state is justified, who should rule it? Philosophers? Normal citizens?
Along the way you’ll encounter summaries of arguments from some of the greatest political thinkers in history — Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Plato, Rawls, etc.,
Reading the book early in your self-education will enable you to place the classic texts you read later into the right context of this great ongoing conversation.
2. Learn How to Read & Think Like a Philosopher
Reading philosophy is a lot different from reading histories, novels, or even works of sociology or economics. Philosophy texts are collections of finely tuned and often complex arguments. In other words, they’re freaking dense.
Therefore, to get the most out of a philosophy text, you’re going to have to slow down, read actively, jot down notes, and challenge yourself to think intensely.
In a 45 minute reading session, you might finish only seven pages. That was about my pace for The Communist Manifesto.
And that’s okay. We aren’t aiming for speed when we read philosophy. We’re aiming for comprehension and reflection.
To learn some reading best practices, check out this step-by-step guide on how to read philosophy.
I mention “first read” because many philosophical texts reward rereading. You gain clearer understanding and insight. Some scholars will also re-read texts analytically to form a more critical opinion of the book and its arguments.
If you really want to take your reading to the next level and learn about arguments and how to analyze them for soundness, you might want to grab a copy of A Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods.
This’ll arm you with the intellectual tools to think about ideas, debate questions, and read books like a philosopher would.
3. Take Yale’s Introduction to Political Philosophy
Through Open Yale Courses, Yale offers a free online course called Introduction to Political Philosophy. It includes 24 lectures and tells you which readings are assigned for each lecture.
This course was my introduction to political philosophy, and I learned so much. The lectures are video recordings of live class sessions so it feels sort of like you’re actually in the classroom. And the professor is enlightening and well-spoken.
At first, I was sort of annoyed that he didn’t prescribe the entirety of each book to the class, but now, having read a fair amount of political philosophy (it’s dense), I see how that would’ve been cruel punishment to students who are also managing four other classes that semester.
Anyways, this course is designed to introduce you to some of the main points of each text. Later on, you can go back and read in whole your favorite books if you want (step 7).
If at this point you just want to listen to the lectures, you’ll get a lot out of those too. I love to listen to lectures during an afternoon walk.
Additional Beginner Course: Consider also taking Moral Foundations of Politics (another free Yale course). It’ll teach you about Marxism, Utilitarianism, and other major political theories.
4. Read The Big Two & Work to Understand Them
Other philosophers you read will reference them often. Their ideas will be attacked or upheld or developed upon. So work hard to understand them as best you can.
If you already read parts of them in the Yale online course, now it’s time to actually read them from start to finish, slowly, making sure that you use outside resources to help you along.
There are various online courses and YouTube videos that’ll help you understand these texts and their contributions to the field they helped create.
For example, The Great Courses offers the online lecture series Plato’s Republic, taught by a Professor at Boston University. These 24 university-level lectures should help you form a solid understanding of the text and its major ideas.
I’m a big fan of Dr. Gregory Sandler’s channel. He’s a professor at Marist College who puts out a ton of helpful content for people trying to self-study philosophy.
Here’s one of several videos about Plato’s Republic:
In his videos, he does a great job of pointing out the most important parts of the text and helping you understand what the philosopher is saying, as well as the argument’s implications.
Here’s one on Aristotle’s Politics:
Another helpful resource for understanding these books as well as others you read along the way is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has articles on thousands of philosophers, concepts, and books:
Here’s a snapshot of what comes up in its table of contents when I searched Aristotle:
Reading the page on political theory would prove beneficial to your understanding of Aristotle’s classic treatise on politics.
Don’t worry about memorizing everything in these books. Just develop a basic understanding of them. Many scholars need to re-read these works multiple times, along with secondary sources written about the works, to feel like they truly own them.
5. Learn the History of Political Thought
I’m a junkie for any history of ideas. I love learning about how widely accepted ideas like liberty or democracy were at one time heretical.
And I like seeing how these ideas took shape over hundreds or thousands of years in the fires of heated intellectual debate.
Further, this type of book helps me sample whatever field I’m studying. It briefly introduces me to the key thinkers, works, concepts, questions, and movements of any academic discipline’s history, so that I can then better identify which ones I’d like to have for a full-course meal.
For a history of political philosophy, there’s no better resource than Political Philospher Alan Ryan’s magisterial work, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present.
It takes you through 3,000 years of political thought and covers such remarkable thinkers as Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel, Bentham, and Karl Marx. He also gives incredible analyses of their works and places them in historical context.
Although reading it in full from start to finish is a great strategy, there are other ways to use a book like this to enhance your self-directed learning in political philosophy.
Another use-case is to read the book as needed, dipping into it when you want background, clarification, or commentary on a classic work you’re currently reading or recently finished.
For example, after finishing The Republic you could go read what Alan Ryan has to say about the work and its influence on the field. This’ll help you develop a scholarly view of each major work, and help you identify and fill some knowledge gaps or misunderstandings.
6. Read Classic Texts of Political Philosophy
At this point, you should be equipped with enough background knowledge to start reading the most influential works of political philosophy.
There are two main ways to go about reading these great books: chronologically and thematically.
Below I’ll explain both approaches, share their advantages and flaws, and give you some ideas about how to form a reading plan for each one.
A good reading strategy could also be a combination of both approaches. For example, you could read 10 of the most influential books chronologically and then start reading thematically. Just some food for thought.
Reading political philosophy classics chronologically by when they were published allows you to see how ideas developed over time.
Also, political philosophers are often responding to or building on the arguments of thinkers who came before them.
For example, when Rousseau wrote The Social Contract, for instance, he had definitely read Hobbes’ Leviathan and Locke’s treatises on government.
Now, what do we mean by classic texts? I usually default to a prestigious university’s reading list to help me answer such questions and form my reading lists.
For example, check out the core reading list that Columbia University assigns its graduate students in political theory.
Here’s the first page of three:
A good reading plan would be to follow this reading list from start to finish. Note that for many books Columbia assigns only selected pages, not the entire book.
This is because these sections are what the political philosophy department considers to be the most important for a graduate student in this field to be familiar with.
Also, in some works, like Summa Theologica, these sections might be the parts where the author tackles political questions. The other parts might not be about politics at all.
If you want to do this approach, you could follow Columbia or some other university’s reading list. That would surely keep you occupied for some time.
If you’re going to do something like this, I recommend creating a reading plan where you select a weekly page count and plan out which works you’ll read each week.
I did this below for a political philosophy learning project I hope to tackle someday soon:
Usually, the people who do best with a chronological approach are those who thrive in structure and find that having a long-term plan is motivating. If you do choose this approach, give yourself some leeway to follow your interests.
For example, if you read The Communist Manifesto and want to learn about the society Marx and Engels are so obsessed with tearing down, you could go read Hard Times by Charles Dickens to get a depiction of working-class life during the industrialization of Europe.
A thematic reading approach is when you pick a theme (aka question) and read the political philosophy books that address it. A theme could be democracy, the state, totalitarianism, wealth distribution, race, power, or something else that interests you.
You’d then go read about what political thinkers have to say about the issue. You’ll read plenty of competing arguments, allowing you to form an original, 360-degree perspective.
For example, if you were curious about the arguments about the state of nature, and what life would be like without government, you might read the following four classic works:
- Hobbes’ Leviathan
- Locke’s Treatises on Government
- Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality (enlightening, one of my favorites)
This method of reading the classics in political philosophy gives you a bit more flexibility and leads to shorter reading plans than the chronological approach. It also enables you to become a relative expert on a topic in the field.
A great way to find key themes and the corresponding books is to google comprehensive exam reading lists for political theory departments.
For example, here’s a snapshot of Columbia University’s reading list for graduate students focused on Democracy and its Alternatives:
This is a reading approach that I’ve started to experiment with and so far I’ve liked the results. It’s a great way to quickly form an informed opinion on a topic. It also leverages my rabbit hole curiosity, so I end up reading a lot each day.
7. Mix in Political Philosophy Online Courses
Reading philosophy is hard on the brain. Every now and then it’s probably a good idea to spend some time taking online courses or just listening to great lectures on political philosophy. This will also serve to support some of the edifices of knowledge you’re building during your reading.
I like doing this most when I’m walking. I’ll often pause after the most interesting parts and try to restate what the teacher just said.
Muttering to myself, I might look like someone who recently escaped an asylum, but I’m remembering what I learned! Anyway, Adam Smith used to do this all the time, and just look what he accomplished.
Here are two political philosophy online courses worth checking out:
- Justice (free): In one of Harvard’s most popular courses, you’ll learn about social and criminal justice and the philosophy that underlies some of today’s most relevant political issues — affirmative action, same-sex marriage, etc.,
- Democracy and its Alternatives: Learn more about democratic government and how it handles mob rule, inefficiency, dictators, polarization, and other issues. This course is full of case studies that make it hyper-relevant and fascinating.
If you’re a fan of academically-focused lecture series given by engaging professors, then you might want to consider getting a Wondrium Great Courses membership ($20 per month/free trial available)
You’ll gain access to a vast array of courses across numerous academic fields, including courses on political philosophy — e.g.Democracy and its Alternatives, The Modern Political Tradition, and Law School for Everyone.
Many of these Great Course series on their own cost between $100 and $300, so this subscription is a good way to save money if you plan to listen to lectures regularly.
8. Start Reading Contemporary Political Philosophy
If you want to learn more about post-WW2 political philosophy then grab a copy of the anthology Contemporary Political Philosophy by Robert Goodin and Philip Pettit.
It includes key articles and essays by many of recent history’s most prominent political philosophers.
Interdisciplinary in nature, the anthology touches on topics in law, national sovereignty, economics, and other relevant areas of knowledge.
Here’s what Professor Christopher Morris has to say about the book:
“An excellent reader, offering a wide selection from the work of the most important or influential contemporary political philosophers. The quality of the selections is high and the range of topics broad. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology will serve well in a variety of university courses in political philosophy.” — Christopher Morris, University of Maryland
Bottom Line: Teaching Yourself Political Philosophy
Through self-directed study in political philosophy, you’ll form an understanding of such key political ideas as democracy, freedom, authoritarianism, and justice.
And in doing so, you’ll be better equipped to engage in political debate, participate in your country’s political system, understand other peoples’ perspectives, and form persuasive arguments.
After following the above roadmap, consider learning about a related field to develop some range and put that theoretical knowledge to use on practical issues.