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Unhinged Frames: Assessing Thought Experiments in Normative Political Theory


This article develops a framework for assessing thought experiments in normative political theory. It argues that we should distinguish between relevant and irrelevant hypotheticals according to a criterion of modality. Relevant hypotheticals, while far-fetched, construct imaginary cases that are possible for us, here and now. Irrelevant hypotheticals conjure up imaginary cases that are barely conceivable at all. To establish this claim, the article interrogates, via a discussion of Susan Sontag and Judith Butler’s accounts of representations of violence, the frames through which hypotheticals construct possible worlds, and concludes that some frames are better than others at sustaining a link with the world as we know it. Frames that disrupt this link can be charged with failing to offer action-guidance.

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Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh (email: Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Political Theory Research Group meeting in Edinburgh (2015), the PSA General Conference in Sheffield (2015) and the APSA General Conference in San Francisco (2015). The author is grateful to the audiences of all these events for their excellent questions. Special thanks are due to Philip Cook, Liz Frazer, Dustin Howes, Kim Hutchings, Moya Lloyd, Mihaela Mihai, Kieran Oberman and Alan Wilson, who have read various/different versions of this article and proposed highly perceptive and helpful feedback. A debt of gratitude is also due to this Journal’s three referees for suggesting many improvements to the original manuscript. Finally, the author thanks the Editor, Rob Johns, for expertly navigating the article through the review process and for generously offering guidance throughout. The usual disclaimers apply. The research for this article has benefited from a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (JUDGEPOL).

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British Journal of Political Science
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