Academic Philosophy

The Five Major Types of Dissertations in Political Philosophy and Political Theory

Some humor:

Thanks to having served on a large number of search committees for post-docs and junior candidates, I have now have a pretty good sense of what the five most common types of dissertations are in political philosophy. Here they are, categorized, with abstracts included:

1. The Disciple. “Hey, did you know my advisor hasn’t written about topic X? My dissertation explores what I think my advisor would say about X, except that I’m less talented or polished than she is, so this is more like a crappy version of what she might have come up with. Enjoy!”

2. Oh, Good, Another Piece on Rawls. “Footnote 458 of A Theory of Justice has not been sufficiently explored. Buckle up for 300 pages of exploration!”

3. Splitting the Difference. “Famous philosopher A argues X. Famous philosopher B argues not-X. In this dissertation, I argue the truth is somewhere in-between.”

4. Incomprehensible Kantian Nonsense. “I’m going to argue that some policy P is justified on Kantian grounds. This argument will take 75 steps, and will read as if it’s been translated, or, rather, partially translated, from 19th century German. It will also be completely implausible, and so, to non-Kantians, will simply read like a reductio of Kant rather than a defense of P.”

5. Consequentialism without Social Science. “I’m going to argue that policy P is justified on consequentialist grounds. It didn’t occur to me to examine what political scientists or economists have to say about how P would actually work. I sure hope there won’t be one in the room if you interview me, because they’ll be able to tear my dissertation apart in five seconds. Heck, an astute undergrad majoring in either subject could do that. I’m counting on you hiring committee members to know nothing about institutions and instead to rely on your unexamined biases.”

Political theory:

The five major types of dissertations in political theory include both 1 and 3 above, but also the following three new types:

6. Incomprehensible Postmodernist Garbage: “This dissertation examines the ontic-ontological ontology of late capitalist crises through the agonistic hyperrealist lens of soda dispensers and Fall Out Boy lyrics.”

7. I Ran Out of Actual Political Theorists to Study and So Decided to Write About This Instead. “I want to do intellectual history, but pretty much every major political thinker in the West has been studied to death. But, hey, I realized no one’s written a dissertation on the political theory of Chaucer, so here ya go. What, you say, Chaucer doesn’t actually have a political theory? He’s just a poet? Well, you must be a philistine with an overly narrow conception of political theory.”

8. Straussian Esotericism: “Here are three hundred pages written about the first two pages of Locke’s third letter to his second foot doctor. My dissertation does not defend any recognizable thesis, nor is it a piece of exegesis. Non-Straussians will have no clue what I’m doing. However, other Straussians will recognize it as deep.”

UPDATE: Someone asked me which kind of dissertation I had. I’d say #1.

  • zacharywoodman

    The Struassian one also proves how Locke’s discussion of foot fungus with his doctor proves that progressives are a bunch of relativist nihilists (at least if they’re west-coasters).

    • pollachoslegomena

      You have completely misunderstood Straussians, I’m afraid. Some of their opponents are relativists; some of them are nihilists. The two come to the same thing, but that does not mean that they are to be identified without further comment — rather, the more commentary the better. Plainly you have not carefully read the commentary by Bartlett and Bruell on the correspondence between Jaffa, Pangle, and Rosen on the correspondence between Strauss and Kojève, with Benardete’s notes. Your understanding is therefore predictably puerile.

  • martinbrock

    Your dissertation?

    • pollachoslegomena

      The major thesis of Brennan’s own dissertation is the groundbreaking, breathtakingly ambitious claim that “all good theories illuminate some truths about morality, but are also misleading at times.” As this is a sentence that any ordinary Joe might have written after being persuaded by David Schmidtz’s ouvre, I think we can fit Brennan’s dissertation squarely into category 1. The main innovation that Brennan has introduced into Schmidtz’s work is that Brennan is openly condescending to others, while Schmidtz is usually excessively generous to his opponents. One would never get the impression from Schmidtz’s work that he thinks himself a generally superior sort of human being to anyone who neither makes a million dollars nor works at Geico; one can hardly read Brennan without getting that impression.

      The main effect of this post is to make me want to offer a pay-per-view death match between Brennan and Brian Leiter, the two most irritating, excessively arrogant dicks in contemporary philosophy that I can think of who also disagree about almost everything (aside from their agreement that most of their colleagues are worthless losers). Even people who don’t care at all about philosophy would pay money to watch these two blowhards insult each other’s intelligence for several hours without untendentiously addressing anything of substance that their serious intellectual opponents have offered up, let alone anything that the other offers up. The result would be world historically epoch-making: the masses would conclude once and for all that academic philosophers have nothing to contribute to our collective political lives, and the only thing that would save either of them from sudden death is that neither have them has sufficiently bad taste to teach at a public university. Whether this would be a victory for the proletariat or the final undoing of the regulatory state remains to be seen. The only way to know is to WATCH THE PAY-PER-VIEW. Depending on how things go, there might be a surprise appearance by Donald Trump — whether he teams up with Brennan against Leiter, with Leiter against Brennan, or becomes the common enemy that unites them in their intolerance of anyone more chest-thumpingly dismissive of their peers is something you can only discover by WATCHING THE PAY-PER-VIEW.

      Not available in Chicago, D.C., or anywhere that Trump happens to be. Fees may vary.

      • Jason Brennan

        I assure you, everyone in philosophy thinks they’re better than the average madjunct, and no one considers that bragging or arrogance other than the madjuncts themselves, because being better than a madjunct is like being stronger than a five-year-old.

        • pollachoslegomena

          I have performed meticulous empirical research (via six and a half minutes spent on Twitter) that strongly suggests that self-identified adjuncts also tend to regard themselves as superior to their tenure-stream colleagues, especially to those either identical to or resembling Jason Brennan. This seems to suggest that systematic bias in self-assessment is a regular product of PhD training, though I have not yet been able to exclude the possibility that the admissions process selects for people who already have this trait (an alternative hypothesis suggested by one of the participants is that philosophers have nothing better to do with their time than to soothe their fragile self-esteem by ridiculing others, but I have eliminated this possibility on the grounds that the phenomenon is not remotely unique to philosophy and seems to be endemic at least to humanities PhDs quite generally). I plan to spend three and a half more minutes on Twitter examining the control group (people whose posts regularly include misspellings of ‘Kardashian’) before publishing my findings in The European Journal for the Study of Self-Knowledge. You will be duly acknowledged as my inspiration.

          I take it you aren’t interested in the Brennan v. Leiter Pay-Per-View Showdown, then? That’s a real shame. America will need a new distraction from this election once the Olympics are over, and nothing could come so close to the sheer competitive spectacle of the Olympic games as a no-holds-barred political philosophical throwdown between the Internet’s two biggest philosophical assholes.

          • Jason Brennan

            Fight Leiter? Brian and I are buddies. We routinely drink single-malt scotches together while laughing at other people’s fragile egos and complete lack of self-awareness.

            I do regret the way I’ve treat madjuncts. I’ve been overly charitable and kind to them; they deserve worse.

    • Jason Brennan

      Probably #1.

      • pollachoslegomena

        Do you know how many dissertation abstracts I have to read? It’s not my fault if you can’t make yourself clear enough for me to figure out exactly what your bold and innovative rehashing of your supervisor’s ideas is supposed to be in the two minutes I have to pass judgment on your character and value as a human being. Sheesh, I’d have thought you of all people would understand this, given that you have, as you boast, served on such a large number of search committees. Write a better abstract next time.


    Mr. Dr. Brennan,

    I am thinking of going into a terminal philosophy masters program with a focus in political philosophy. Are there any terminal M.A. programs you can think of that will help me develop the skills necessary to avoid these types of dissertation topics and to create better ones? Obviously, a lot depends on my own history, abilities, and wants.

    I’ve heard GSU is good for political philosophy. Any others?

    Also, I know it’s not a good idea to go into philosophy professionally for most of us (So, probably me too).

    • Jason Brennan

      Tufts has the best terminal MA program. That said, whether you avoid this problem is more up to you than the program. (Though there are a few professors out there that really do try to develop disciples.)

      • JEH

        I would also say that GSU is wonderfully pluralistic unlike Tufts.

  • David Markus Rutsche

    On a more serious note though, if I may – do you consider this, to the extent that its true, as more of A Bad Thing, or rather as a standard of appropriateness?