Short, readable, crystal clear. Politics books are often a hard climb or at least a tedious trudge. This is a smooth glide by comparison.
Miller states at the start that he wants to avoid jargon and academic mumbo-jumbo and he does just that, taking us on a concise but enjoyable tour of political philosophy. He begins at first principles and gradually builds his arguments, with deftly chosen examples adding depth and colour to the text. The logical progression means that the focus is firmly on democracy (since that is the political system that makes most sense to most people nowadays). Although he presents (and knocks down) arguments for alternative systems, don't expect great forays into the pros and cons of ideologies like Communism or Fascism. Among the concepts he tackles are justice, social justice, freedom, multiculturalism, feminism and globalisation.
The thoughts of political philosophers such as Plato, Rousseau, Locke, Mill and Rawls are woven beautifully into the flow, compact nuggets that reinforce rather than halt the narrative. Anyone who has tried to trawl through Rawls in the original will whisper a quiet thankyou when they arrive at the digested wisdom of Miller's version.
Miller makes a promise at the outset and he sticks to it: to be scrupulously fair and present all sides of each argument, even if the reader doesn't share his own leanings (which I sensed were slightly leftward).
In sum, it would be hard to do better than this for a well-reasoned introduction to (or refresher course in) political philosophy.
on 15 May 2015
In reviewing books, one likes to have some foreknowledge of the subject at hand, even if one does consider oneself omniscient on the subject. We read non-fiction not to be entertained, but to be informed. The idea of political philosophy is more fundamental than the level at which I usually ponder. As such, it seemed an appropriate topic on which to read a very short introduction. The individual notions will be familiar to us all. What makes this an interesting work is the particular combination of topics, along with their interplay.
Miller writes under the headings of political authority, democracy, ‘freedom and the limits of democracy’, justice, ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ and finally, ‘nations, sates and global justice’.
In the discussion of political authority, the figure of Thomas Hobbes looms large. In many ways, this is quite a sad outlook, particularly as I look at it from a christian perspective, as much of Miller’s argument is to do with a carrot-and-stick approach, whereby adherence to political authority is done so out of the threat of some form of physical violence. The root of this seems to be the notion of human selfishness and greed, but this seems to be accepted as a fact to live with rather than a problem to be addressed.
In democracy, attention switches from Hobbes to Rousseau. The discussion pulls on a few threads that will likely occur to anyone who has considered democracy, such as how to protect the rights of the minority and how democracy differs from mob rule, but there’s nothing earth-shattering here.
In discussing freedom, our central figure is John Stuart Mill. Miller doesn’t so much give answers and just ask the reader a series of questions to consider. This is a theme throughout, so even if you disagree with the particular slant that Miller presents, he does at least give the reader room to come up with their own answers.
What seems to be the heart of the book is the notion of justice, where Miller takes as his key guide John Rawls. The focus here is not about justice of outcomes but of justice of machinery. i.e. let’s not look at the outcomes, but at whether the systems in place are fair. The concept of social discussed though he does bring in the counter point of Friedrich Hayek, an ideologue who I have little time for.
As he looks at the nation states, he continues to ask us questions, while sketching out the answers that others have given. At times it felt less like a book about politics and more about ethical dilemmas. One thought that flashed through my mind was about the curbs to liberty; specifically to the idea that one cannot be free to as one wishes, as that may include the ability to curb the freedom of others, hence not everyone can be free to do as they wish.
One thing that soured it was Miller’s pessimism in human nature. There was a theme running through the book about the need for either coercion or the threat of it. My personal reaction to this is that, as a species, we can do better this. It may require education, even a more enlightened worldview, but that it is possible for people to work together for a common good without the need for violence.
At this point he seems to run out of steam and so the chapter on ‘feminism and multiculturalism’ feels quite different. Here, Miller tries to ask the same questions as he has before, only through alternative lenses, as some factors fade into the background and others get highlighted. The treatment given to these subjects are so brief, though, as to be rather unsatisfying. I doubt many of the feminists I know would consider Miller to have captured the nuances of their views.
In any discussion of politics, one cannot write from a neutral perspective, just as one cannot really read such a book from a neutral point of view. Miller attempts to give a fair weighting to different viewpoints, though his choice of representatives may be questioned by some. The other thing that I picked up on, which other readers may do so, is that is quite UK-centric.
As far as meeting the brief, Miller does as good as job as one can hope. From my point of view, I acknowledge that my formal learning in political philosophy is somewhat lacking. Though I know my own mind, I probably ought to learn the minds of some of those others who have gone before me. So I have added some works of Mill, Rousseau, Hobbes and Derrida to my reading list.
on 17 July 2007
This little book is a quick yet thoughtful work-through of some major areas of political philosophy. Whats great is that you can finish it in a single evening and know loads more than before. David Miller is a very good writer and his narrative style sweeps the reader along as he investigates political issues. Miller has refrained from cluttering his text with unnesscary jargon. Throughly enjoyable and refreshingly different to other introductions, this is simply a very good book. I loved the way in which Miller used a 14th century painting ('Allergory of Good and Bad Government' by Lorenzetti) to act as a discussion point for opening up political philosophy becuase it really added flavour to proceedings.
It should be warned, however, that this book is far from comprehensive even in an 'introduction' sense of the word. Instead of being written with a quick synopsis of all the major discussion, Miller instead opts for a continuous narrative that works through *some* of the major topics of the discipline. Interestingly, Miller's book is not so much an illustration of the debates as it is an argument for his personal conclusions through illustrating these debates. This is not neccessarily a bad thing, though, as it still serves to introudce the reader to the fundamentals and still allows the reader to come to their own opinons. In many ways, it is actually quite nice to see conclusions made for once rather than questions left unanswered as coming to conclusions is also a part of the philosophical discipline.
I have given this book five stars becuase its great, but it should be realised that other, more comprehensive introductions could prove better due to more depth. However, it undoubtedly introduces political philosophy in an excellent manner, especially considering its length (130 or so very small pages). It is, afterall, meant to be a very short introduction and it scores five stars when taken as such.
on 28 February 2008
This was a mildly interesting introduction to an interesting subject. I felt it rambled a little, and was disappointed that it did not introduce any key theorists and missed out some key concepts (sovereignty, for example). The book only really succeeds in raising some key questions, but does not introduce one to the multifarious attempts to answer these questions. Furthermore, Miller's own opinions (given heavy weighting in the final chapters) are not particularly interesting or radical, and given the nature of the medium (a 'very short introduction') would be better presented elsewhere.
If you want a very short introduction to the subject of political philosophy, a good alternative is the 'Politics: A Very Short Introduction', which I have found to be a much better read and much more thorough.
on 18 June 2012
This is a Very Short Introduction, and so I suppose it can be forgiven for being somewhat more superficial than a similar book by Jonathan Wolff which is styled an `Introduction'
Nevetheless, Miller makes some observations which I think are interesting to a general reader such as myself.
On democracy, he develops certain themes which can be overlooked. Firstly, the importance of protecting minorities from majorities. Secondly, the case for more participatory forms of democracy as populations become more educated and more electronically accessible.
By placing current debates about the rights of women and of cultural minorities into a political philosophical context, he helps one to understand that there are no right answers to some of these questions. Instead, the issues live somewhere on various equilibria between, say, justice and liberty, or between individual and general/social justice.
While praising the nation-state as an enduringly stable vehicle for the expression of political philosophy, he reminds of some of its imperfections: xenophobia; the tendency to mythologise the past, especially in its military aspects.
Wolff's book is no harder to read, and overall I preferred it; I particularly enjoyed his ability to lure one into a plausible argument, and then surprise you by revealing its counter-argument. So unless you are VSI collector, you could always skip this one.