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In recent years, publishers have clearly decided that there is money to be made in producing authoritative surveys of different patches of the scholarly universe. Companions, handbooks, histories and encyclopedias have proliferated, seemingly without end. (I am complicit in this phenomenon, having contributed to both an Oxford Handbook and a Cambridge History). While many of these volumes are redundant, simply replicating what is already in print, the books under review here are valuable examples of the genre. Both are skilfully edited, contain numerous excellent chapters and deserve a wide readership.

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy edited by George Klosko is a compendious survey of two and a half thousand years of (largely Western) political thinking. The 50 chapters are divided into four sections of varying size. Part I, ‘Approaches’, consists of five chapters. Three interrogate different methodological orientations: contextualism (Mark Bevir), Straussianism (Catherine Zuckert) and postmodernism (Joshua Dienstag). The remaining two address the development of the history of political thought as an academic sub-field (John Gunnell) and the value of studying history (Terence Ball). Although brief, the chapters are all useful. But the absences are significant too: important approaches that are ignored include Marxism, post-colonialism and (the new kid on the block) global intellectual history/comparative political thought.

Part II consists of 23 chapters on diverse ‘Chronological Periods’ of Western history, ranging from ‘The Origins of Political Philosophy’ (Danielle Allen) to ‘Political Philosophy in a Globalizing World’ (Terry Nardin). The chapters are thematic, rather than focused on individual thinkers, and although they are too short to probe deeply, the section provides a valuable conspectus of arguments and traditions over a huge time span. Part III comprises nineteen chapters on ‘Themes’, including most of the traditional concerns of political theory (sovereignty, rights, freedom, equality, citizenship, democracy, etc.). Again, the overall standard of the chapters is high and they can serve as handy overviews for advanced students and non-specialists.

The final section, ‘Non-Western Perspectives’, warrants just three chapters, covering Confucian, Muslim and Hindu political thought. This section appears tokenistic: it would be better to dedicate a separate volume to the rich variety of non-Western political thinking, allowing it to be explored in the same amount of depth as the Western tradition. While the authors make a valiant effort to discuss complex traditions in a few thousand words, there is a mismatch between the detail that they can include and that of the other chapters in the volume. Moreover, huge swathes of the world are left uncovered – what of African or Latin American political thought, for example? Despite this shortcoming, the Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy is a useful reference work.

The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, by contrast, is a shorter, tighter volume. Its coherence comes at a cost – it is less a survey of contemporary political philosophy than of a particular (albeit very prominent) mode of it, namely Anglo-American normative philosophy. To give a sense of its scope, none of the following merits entries in the index: Adorno, Agamben, Arendt, Badiou, Bourdieu, Butler, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Gadamer, Laclau, Mouffe, Oakeshott, Rancière, Rorty, Schmitt, Shklar, Spivak, Virilo, Wolin or Žižek. Habermas is the lone critical theorist considered worthy of mention. With the exception of a chapter on Marxism, the work falls squarely within the horizon of recent Anglo-American liberalism. The editor, David Estlund, justifies the limited scope by distinguishing between ‘political philosophy’ and ‘political theory’, the former practised largely in philosophy departments and the latter in political science departments. While there is something to this sociological observation, it hardly exhausts the issue (after all, several of his own contributors are based in politics departments, while many of the above list of absentees were or are card-carrying philosophers), and is ultimately arbitrary. Despite its admirable quality, the volume does not come close to offering a survey or a ‘snapshot’ (in Estlund's words) of contemporary political philosophy. It would perhaps be more accurately named ‘The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Anglophone Liberal Philosophy’.

Within its own terms, though, this is an excellent book. Estlund has assembled a stellar group of theorists, many of them leaders in the sub-field (including A. John Simmons, Philip Pettit, Gerald Gaus, Elizabeth Anderson, Samuel Freeman, Jeremy Waldron, Allen Buchanan and Jeff McMahan). The volume is divided into six sections and 22 chapters. Part I, ‘Classic Questions’, encompasses five chapters on equality, authority, freedom, justice and property. Part II dedicates just four chapters to ‘Approaches’, three of which are explicitly liberal: classical liberalism, the social contract, left-libertarianism and (as a single chapter) socialism and Marxism. Part III spans variations on the theme of democracy (four chapters), while Part IV consists of three chapters – on war, human rights and global justice – addressed to ‘The Globe’. Part V covers various kinds of (in)justice – historical, racial and gendered – and the lively ideal/non-ideal theory debate. The final section, ‘In Retrospect’, illustrates the scope of the volume by devoting two chapters to the writings of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, the figures whose intellectual legacies tower over, and help shape the parameters of, contemporary liberal political philosophy.

To get a sense of conflicting views of the subject, it is instructive to read Estlund's volume alongside the much more pluralistic Oxford Handbook of Political Theory (edited by John Dryzek, Bonnie Honig and Anne Phillips). In doing so, we can see the internal conflicts between different approaches to the nature and scope of political thought manifested within the same Oxford University Press format.