Political Philosophy


Political Philosophy is the philosophical investigation of politics. Traditionally, it asks us to reconsider the concepts taken for granted in political discussions and practices: What is democracy? Must we obey the state? What is justice? What is the good society? Under what conditions can we be said to be free or equal? More broadly, though, political philosophy is interested in the moral, metaphysical, and epistemological commitments involved in social movements, civic and political action, and state-making. It therefore considers questions such as: What does the current generation owe to future generations, and how should we share global resources? How can we solve collective action problems in the absence of a powerful coordinating entity? When is it legitimate to engage in civil disobedience, or even overthrow the current political regime? How should we punish the criminally guilty? Under what circumstances can a country justly go to war with another? And what do rich countries owe to poor countries?

At Sheffield, political philosophy has long been a strength. Our academics working in this field have well established links with other centers of excellence, including the Stanford Center for Ethics and Society, the Ash Center and the Safra Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, and the Philosophy Department at MIT. We also regularly welcome visiting political philosophers in the department (most recently, Robert Talisse, Vanderbilt University, and Mara-Daria Cojocaru, Munich Institute of Philosophy). We have been successful in attracting research grants in this area, for example: Jenny Saul, Jules Holroyd, Robin Scaife, and Tom Stafford (Psychology) received funding for a two-year project working with the Cabinet Office to investigate workplace climate and improve diversity and inclusion in the government security workforce; Joshua Forstenzer and Vachararutai Boontinand (University of Mahidol) won a two-year Newton Fund Fellowship to study how effective pedagogies associated with philosophical enquiry can be in teaching critical thinking and democratic citizenship in Thai Higher Education. Our expertise in implicit bias training has resulted in a consultancy with the UK Civil Service  and our expertise in theories of political education and social change led to a consultancy with a Member of European Parliament. 

The Center for Engaged Philosophy houses regular activities on related topics: from a running seminar series in the philosophy of education, to regular workshops on environmental justice, implicit bias, philosophy of race, and nationalism. Furthermore, our Masters in Political Theory (run in collaboration with the Politics department) and the continual presence of a significant number of PhD students undertaking research in this field ensures a vibrant community which runs regular reading groups. As a result of this culture, our former PhD students often go on to research and teach in strong philosophy departments (for example, Carl Fox, Leeds; Jessica Begon, Durham; Katharine Jenkins, Glasgow; Tom O’Shea, Roehampton; Natasha McKeever, Leeds; Joseph Kisolo-Ssonko, Nottingham; Katherine Puddifoot, Durham; Angie Pepper, Birmingham; Jonathan Parry, LSE).

We have particular strengths in the following areas of political philosophy, as well as in social philosophy

Global Justice and Environmental Justice

Megan Blomfield’s research concerns global justice and the environment, focusing on the normative dimensions of climate change. Her 2019 book on this topic, Global Justice, Natural Resources, and Climate Change, asks what the world would look like if natural resources were shared fairly and then explains how this can help us to better understand the kind of problem that climate change presents and what a just response to it would look like. In related work, she investigates the connections between climate change and injustices such as colonialism.

  • Blomfield M. (2015). “Geoengineering in a climate of uncertainty”. In J. Moss (ed), Climate Change and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Blomfield, M. (2016). “Historical use of the climate sink”. Res Publica.
  • Blomfield, M. (2019). Global Justice, Natural Resources, and Climate Change. Oxford University Press.

Philosophy of Law

Chris Bennett has worked on numerous areas of criminal law and criminal justice, in particular on the nature and justification of punishment, the nature of criminal responsibility, the authority of criminal law; the role of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials; and the role of emotion in excuses in the criminal law. Furthermore, he researches and teaches across both Philosophy and Law departments at Sheffield in recognition of his inter-disciplinary expertise. Jules Holroyd has worked on how we should interpret the reasonable person standard in the context of claims of self-defence, and is currently working on the notion of integrity in evidence law

  • Bennett, C. (2008). The Apology Ritual: A Philosophical Theory of Punishment. Cambridge University Press.
  • Bennett, C. (2014). “What is the core normative argument for greater democracy in criminal justice?” The Good Society.
  • Bennett C. (2017). “Invisible punishment is wrong – but why? The normative basis of criticism of collateral consequences of criminal conviction”. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice..
  • Bennett, C. (2019). “The authority of moral oversight: On the legitimacy of criminal law”. Legal Theory.
  • Holroyd, J, & Picinali, F. (forthcoming) Implicit Bias, Self-Defence, and the Reasonable Person, in The Criminal Law’s Person, edited by Claes Lernestedt and Matt Matravers, Hart Publishing
  • Holroyd, J. & Picinali, F. (in progress) What role for Integrity?

Theories of Social Change

Joshua Forstenzer works on theories of democracy, especially on democratic innovation and democratic socialism. He also works on epistemic dimensions of deliberation and methodological debates in political philosophy. His 2019 book, Deweyan Experimentalism and the Problem of Method in Political Philosophy, proposes a middle route between ideal theory and realist political philosophy by drawing on John Dewey’s conceptions of philosophy and democracy. Bob Stern has worked widely on Hegel, and also on his relation to Marx and the Marxist tradition, focusing on ideas such as recognition, alienation, and perfectionism.

Representative publications:

  • Forstenzer, J. (2017). “Deweyan democracy, Robert Talisse, and the fact of reasonable pluralism: A Rawlsian response”. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.
  • Forstenzer J. (2018). “‘Something has cracked’: Post-truth politics and Richard Rorty’s postmodernist bourgeois liberalism”. Ash Center Occasional Papers: Harvard Kennedy School.
  • Forstenzer, J. (2019). Deweyan Experimentalism and the Problem of Method in Political Philosophy. Routledge.
  • Stern, R. (1994). “MacIntyre and Historicism”. In J. Horton J. & S. Mendus (eds), After MacIntyre. Polity. 
  • Stern, R. (2014). “On Bernard Bosanquet’s ‘The Reality of the General Will’”. Ethics.

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.