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Peter Winch and Political Authority

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This article explores a neglected aspect of Peter Winch's work: his writings on political authority. It seeks to show that this neglect is undeserved. Three themes are interweaved in the discussion. First, the major developments in Winch's thinking between his first published article on political authority (in a symposium with Richard Peters) and his later writings on the subject are identified and assessed. Criticism is focused mainly on his tendency to be insufficiently attentive to the distinction between being in authority and being an authority, and the implications this has for the distinctiveness of political authority. Secondly, particular attention is given to some of the key strands in Winch's analysis. These include his distinction between the nature and the grounds of political authority, how the role of consent is to be understood in the light of this distinction, how an adequate understanding political authority does not undermine our ideas of autonomy, and what it might mean to reject the whole idea of political authority. Finally, the article concludes by briefly defending the value of Winch's approach to political philosophy. Earlier it is shown that Winch's analysis does not foreclose on a range of political responses to authority, and this point is generalised to argue for a philosophical approach (like Winch’s) that aims at understanding, rather than at advancing any particular set of moral or political principles.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2005-07-01

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