Social sciences : The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought (3rd edition)

The Reviewers

Terry O'Brien, Deputy Librarian, Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland



Review Subject:

The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought (3rd edition)

Roger Scruton

Publisher Name:

Palgrave Macmillan

Place of Publication:

Basingstoke and New York, NY

Publication Year:



978 1 4039 8951 2 (hbk); 978 1 4039 8952 9 (pbk)


£47/$69.95 (hbk); £9.99/$14.95 (pbk)

Article type:



xiii + 744 pp.


Dictionaries, Political theory

Emerald Journal:

Reference Reviews









Copyright: ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited



The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought was originally conceived as a “dictionary of concepts” and as an attempt in the words of its author, to “provide not just definitions, but, where possible, clarify the language of actual political discourse”. In the 25 years that have passed since the first edition (and a subsequent second edition in 1995) there have been “momentous events” such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of communism and in more recent years globalization, the rising influence of Islam, neo-conservatism in America and the growth of capitalist China. These changes have not just been political but affected the “language of politics” as well. The new and third edition of the dictionary remains very much a conceptual work, which, in keeping with the original preface in 1982, de-emphasizes the factual, addresses “disparate but related disciplines” and “provide(s) definitions, but also sketches of arguments”. Roger Scruton makes no apologies for this approach, and although some entries have been deleted, many others have been updated and reviewed. Scruton argues that because the dictionary is a “dictionary of thought not of action”, concepts perceived as being of little current value or relevance such as Marxism (“Marxism is unbelievable and socialism more or less dead”), must be retained because “thoughts may be interesting and influential even in times when they have lost their immediate use”.

The new work has evolved and reflects many of the social and political developments that have occurred in the last quarter century. It is much more than a dictionary, and is in fact more akin to an encyclopedia in terms of content, comprising just fewer than 1,800 entries from countless fields, including 250 new entries, summaries of existing political and philosophical theories, definitions, histories of political institutions and newly expanded pieces on influential political thinkers. It has a traditional dictionary format, with cross-references indicated by asterisk “only when a major intellectual connection is in issue”. The dictionary's value or “utility” as Scruton might call it, lays in the author's exceptional ability to synthesize and illustrate complex and sophisticated concepts in a practical and easy to understand way. The entries vary in detail and in length but are concise in the main and the writing is high quality, incisive and clear. The dictionary is a compelling reference item for anyone with an interest in the liberal arts, intellectual history, in ideas or the history of ideas and more specifically undergraduates and scholars studying any branch of politics or philosophy.

One of the most interesting elements of this volume is of course, the author. Roger Vernon Scruton, pre-eminent right-wing philosopher, conservative thinker, art critic, architecture critic, wine-buff, conservationist, consultant, businessman, countryside and hunting activist, farmer, music composer, Euro-skeptic, social commentator, polemicist and probably much, much more, has been a hugely controversial figure in British and American academic circles. Whatever one's opinion of Scruton and his sometime notorious viewpoints, one cannot but agree that he is an exceptional polymath and writes extremely convincingly. This brings me to my point; can we extricate Scruton and his writing or “causes” from the content of the dictionary? Here is not the place to question Scruton's credentials as a philosopher. But it is legitimate to ask does the dictionary give us the impartiality and credibility that such as publication surely warrants? Scruton himself attempts to address this issue in the notes. On the question of impartiality, he writes that the book is necessarily incomplete but also one-sided, that he is attempting to illustrate rather than persuade. In the second edition (1995) preface, he endeavors to be “impartial without being bland”, and seeks to outline “concepts and arguments in the place of obfuscation and dogma”. Significantly, in the third edition preface, Scruton states that he has tried to “suppress my prejudices … and maintain … the attitude of impartial curiosity that has been the principal motive of this work”. The author does achieve this, but this is not a work written coldly and blandly without opinion. Of course, Scruton's beliefs and philosophy colour parts of the collection. It would be impossible to remain completely detached and separate. In any event this would make the book a lot less readable and less interesting. To quote Scruton again, “every attempt has been made to be impartial … But impartiality is itself a kind of partiality”. As a traditionalist and right-wing conservative, Scruton does not seek to impose his views on the reader, even if he cannot, for example, conceal his devotion to Edmund Burke, the founding father of modern intellectual conservatism. “Conservatives”, he writes, “value his writings for their eloquent elevation of the given, the concrete, the known and the familiar, over the abstract, the unknown and the merely projected (meaning anti-conservative? or liberal?, my parenthesis)”. If conservatism is an appeal to tradition and authority, one wonders what Scruton makes of Wikipedia! His entry on animals, a topic on which he has written and campaigned widely is fascinating. You do get a sense though, that when he writes that proposals to “abolish hunting and shooting have met with favour in several European countries, including Belgium, Holland, the United Kingdom and notably Germany (under the Nazis)”, he does so with some mischief. Scruton is also a rabid Euro-skeptic and his hatred of bureaucracy is evident, but he does concede that the European Union “has been the greatest stimulus to political thinking since the cold war”. His entry on conservatism, “usually defended as a genuine and undeceived kind of democracy, the form of government that respects human nature, and answers to the real human need for order, hierarchy, freedom and the Permanent Things”, is instructive. For someone who longs for a traditional England, Scruton has rather ironically embraced all things American and is firmly in the pro-war, neo-Con camp.

One wonders is Scruton perturbed by the rise of many neo-Cons to high office in America in view of his own early career political failure, about which he has famously said, “I ceased to be an intellectual Conservative, and became a conservative intellectual instead”. I found his entry on Chomsky to be a little simplistic and somewhat hostile and the inclusion of the American legal conservative scholar Robert Bork unwarranted. That said, the contents of this dictionary whilst not particularly provocative, are extremely stimulating, and give further confirmation, if such was needed of Scruton's towering intellectual gifts. Scruton is “on the money” and captures the zeitgeist of much modern politics when he asserts that “political thought is being rapidly driven from public life, to be replaced by ‘business thought’ … [politicians are] not concerned with government but management, not interested in truth but only in spin, concepts come from … business schools and managements gurus rather than from the great works of political and sociological thought which inspired the original edition of this dictionary”.

The only question that remains (and it does not really matter) is whether this is the Scruton dictionary of political thought, or the Palgrave Macmillan dictionary of political thought. To quote Scruton one last time, “‘political thought’ denotes something that all human beings engage in whether of not knowingly”. Either way, this is an essential reference work that should be available in all government, public and academic libraries.