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Realism and Idealism in Political Philosophy


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Ethics and Politics

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Law

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Political Science


How to understand the relationship between moral ideals and political reality, abstract theories and complex social practices, lofty utopian visions and the messy business of everday politics are perennial concerns of political philosophy. Debates about these issues have, however, become increasingly prominent and urgent over the past two decades, leading some commentators to identify a ‘methodological turn’ in political theory. A key focus of attention has been on rethinking the legacy of John Rawls’ approach to political philosophy, which is principally concerned with constructing principles of justice for basic social institutions within ideal theory. Rawls’s work has been criticized on two fronts, regarded by realists as excessively idealized, or even ideological, and by idealists as making unjustified concessions to the status quo. This course engages with this series of interconnected methodological debates, posing fundamental questions about the nature and value of political philosophy. Philosophers to be discussed will likely include G.A. Cohen, Eva Erman, David Estlund, Raymond Geuss, Charles Mills, John Rawls, Andrea Sangiovanni, Amartya Sen, and Bernard Williams.

Course objectives

This course aims to provide students with a thorough understanding of major methodological debates in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy and develop their capacities to reflect upon and construct arguments about the nature and value of political philosophy.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • Different understandings of the relationship between ideal and non-ideal theory;

  • The political realist critique of political moralism;

  • Debates about whether and how the justification and application of principles of justice are dependent upon existing social practices.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • Knowledgeably discuss issues regarding the relationship between moral ideals and political reality;

  • Think independently and critically about the nature and value of political philosophy and formulate and defend their own views about the relationship between theory and practice.


The timetable is available on the folowing websites:

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Course load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours:

  • Attending seminars: (13 x 3 hours): 39 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 130 hours

  • Preparation seminars: 13 hours

  • Writing papers: 98 hours

Assessment method


  • Midterm paper (40%);

  • Final paper (60%);

  • Participation and weekly discussion notes (pass/not pass) - a ‘pass’ is required to complete the course.

Class attendance is required – without sufficient attendance students will be excluded from submitting a final paper.


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of two subtests.


The resit covers the entire exam (100%) and consists of of paper.
Attendance and active participation in class is required for admission to the resit.
Students who have obtained a satisfactory overall grade for the first examination cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Course information

  • Announcements

  • Reading list

  • Discussion

  • Submitting essays and obtaining feedback

Reading list

For introductory overviews of the range of issues to be covered in the course, see:

  • Valentini, Laura (2012). Ideal vs. Non‐ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map. Philosophy Compass 7 (9): 654-664.

  • Rossi, Enzo and Matt Sleat (2014). Realism in Normative Political Theory. Philosophy Compass 9 (10): 689-701.

  • Erman, Eva and Niklas Möller (2015). Practices and Principles: On the Methodological Turn in Political Theory. Philosophy Compass 10 (8): 533-546.

The full reading list will be posted on Blackboard prior to the start of the course.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number, which can be found in the timetables for courses and exams.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. J.S. Gledhill