The a-theoretical core of political realism


  • Zoltán Gábor Szűcs Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences



This paper aims to advocate a Williamsian approach to political realism and contends that contemporary realist political theory is built on an ‘a-theoretical core’ that the paper will call ‘political realism’ in the broader sense (for a very different approach to Williams, see Hall, 2013). The central tenet of this thesis is that contemporary realist political theory fundamentally differs from mainstream political theory not only in its political outlook, but also in its views about the tasks and prospects of theorizing. In other words, ‘political realism’ imposes severe constraints on theorizing in a realist key and makes contemporary realist political theory especially vulnerable to criticisms coming from mainstream political theory. This paper contends, however, that the inherent limitedness of contemporary realist political theory is a fair price that is worth paying for a more realistic understanding of politics.

The argument of the paper is built on the Williamsian assumption that mainstream political theory is ultimately a sort of ‘applied morality’ and that the fundamental problem with mainstream political theory as ‘applied morality’ is not so much its strong commitment to pre-political moral principles as its being fundamentally shaped by an ethical theory.

Author Biography

Zoltán Gábor Szűcs, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Research fellow at Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academcy of Sciences


Cross, B. (2017): ‘Normativity in Chantal Mouffe's Political Theory’ Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory. Vol 24, Issue 2, pp.180–191

Dunn, J. (2000): The Cunning of Unreason. Making Sense of Politics. London: Basic Books.

Erman, E. & Möller, N. (2013): ‘Political Legitimacy in the Real Normative World: The Priority of Morality and the Autonomy of the Political’. British Journal of Political Science

FirstView Article (June 2013): 1-19. DOI: 10.1017/S0007123413000148, URL: http://journals.

Estlund, D. (2017): ‘Methodological moralism in political philosophy’. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Vol 20, Issue 3, pp. 385-402

Galston, W. A. (2010): ‘Realism in political theory’. European Journal of Political Theory 9(4)


Geuss, R. (2008): Philosophy and Real Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Hall, E. (2013): ‘The limits of Bernard William’s critique of political moralism’. Ethical Perspectives, 20 (2). pp. 217-243

Hall, E. & Sleat, M. (2017): ‘Ethics, morality and the case for realist political theory’. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Vol 20, Issue 3, pp. 278-295

Leader-Maynard, J. & Worsnip, A. (2018): ‘Is There a Distinctively Political Normativity?’Ethics, 128 (4). pp. 756-787

List, C. & Valentini, L. (2016): ‘The Methodology of Political Theory’. In: Cappelen, Herman - Gendler, Tamar Szabó - Hawthorne, John (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of

Philosophical Methodology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 525-553

Machiavelli, N. (1998): The Prince. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Morgenthau, H. (1947): Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. London: Latimer House

Mouffe, C. (2013): Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso

Nardin, T. (2017): ‘The new realism and the old’. Critical Review of International Social and

Political Philosophy. Vol 20, Issue 3, pp. 314-330

Newey, G. (2001): After Politics: The Rejection of Politics in Contemporary Liberal Philosophy. Houndsmill: Palgrave McMillan

Philp, M. (2007): Political Conduct. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

Sabl, A. (2002): Ruling passions: Political offices and democratic ethics. Princeton - Oxford:Princeton University Press

Sleat, M. (2013): Liberal Realism: A realist theory of liberal politics. Manchester - New York:

Manchester University Press

Thomas, A. (2015): ‘Rawls and political realism: Realistic utopianism or judgement in bad faith?’

European Journal of Political Theory. Vol 16, Issue 3, pp. 304 - 324

Thucydides (2009): The Peloponnesian War. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Valentini, L. (2012): ‘Ideal vs. Non-ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map’. Philosophy Compass 7 (9). pp.

–664, 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2012.00500.x

Weber, M. (2004): The Vocation Lectures. Trans. by Rodney Livingstone. Indianopolis:


Williams, B. (2005): In the Beginning was the Deed. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Williams, B. (2006): Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Routledge




How to Cite

Szűcs, Z. G. (2019) “The a-theoretical core of political realism”, Studies in Social and Political Thought, 280. doi: 10.20919/sspt.28.2018.91.