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WPOL100 The Birth of Politics: Origins of Western Political Thought

Unit rationale, description and aim

Scholars interested in understanding the philosophical underpinnings of western liberal democracy must first explore the shift in political and social thought that occurred roughly in the 17th and 18th centuries and which was oriented around new understandings of authority, freedom, and equality. In order to develop this understanding, it is necessary to consider the ways in which the Reformation's emphasis on conscience along with the Enlightenment's focus on rationality and reason, allowed philosophers in that period to articulate an alternative vision of society grounded in human freedom and equality, not divine right, power, or lineage.

This unit introduces students to the ideas of Hobbes, who famously founded government on consent, and then traces the development of liberal thought through Locke and Rousseau up to the work of Rawls and Nozick, exploring how liberal thought has shaped western democracies. Along the way, students will analyse the tension between liberty and equality, examine critics of philosophical liberalism, including Marx, Taylor and Sandel who reject the liberal focus on the individual, as well as study internal debates between classical liberals, libertarians, and liberal egalitarians.

Learning outcomes

To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.

Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.

Explore the graduate capabilities.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Describe key ideas related to liberalism in the great works of the western political canon (GA5)

LO2 - Discuss social and political ideas in texts drawn from, and related to, the western intellectual tradition (GA1, GA8)

LO3 - Formulate intellectually-grounded judgments and communicate clear and nuanced evidence-based arguments (GA4)

LO4 - Apply disciplinary knowledge and skills to understand complex, real-world issues, informed by western and other traditions (GA3, GA6).

Graduate attributes

GA1 - demonstrate respect for the dignity of each individual and for human diversity 

GA3 - apply ethical perspectives in informed decision making

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA6 - solve problems in a variety of settings taking local and international perspectives into account

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 


Topics will include: 

  • the nature and development of political society;
  • theories of governmental legitimacy and the authority of law;
  • models of political organisation;
  • debates concerning justice and the notion of equality;
  • conceptions of political and social liberty, including analysis of issues involving the role of government and coercion
  • theories of property and ownership
  • debates regarding a just distribution of social resources
  • understandings of the self in relation to community
  • analysis of the nature of rights and their impact on community.

Learning and teaching strategy and rationale

The unit has been designed as a blend of direct instruction, discussion and collaborative learning. The direct instruction ensures that students develop a strong understanding of important philosophical concepts and theories and how they relate to the political philosophy questions under investigation. The collaborative and discussion-based learning provides students with the opportunity to critically reflect on the issues at hand, to investigate how the theories may be applied, and to determine to what extent they have influenced social and political dialogue. The discussion-based learning will specifically employ the Socratic method in which a series of interrelated questions are posed to students in order to stimulate critical thought and reflection. This form of dialogue will enable students to actively evaluate their understanding of important concepts and theories, as well as increase their confidence in debating. All together, these forms of classroom instruction and engagement are designed to support students’ attainment of the learning outcomes by providing opportunities for developing disciplinary knowledge and skills. Typical classroom activities will involve class discussions and debates, written critiques of significant theories, and presentations of reasoned opinion on distinct philosophical positions.

This is a 10-credit point unit and has been designed to ensure that the time needed to complete the required volume of learning to the requisite standard is approximately 150 hours in total across the semester. To achieve a passing standard in this unit, students will find it helpful to engage in the full range of learning activities and assessments utilised in this unit. The learning and teaching and assessment strategies include a range of approaches to support learning such as reading, reflection, discussion, webinars, podcasts, video etc.

Assessment strategy and rationale

The assessment strategy for this unit has been designed to examine students’ understanding of the philosophical issues and theories under consideration and deepen their ability to analyse and critically reflect on those issues and theories. It does so through a mix of cooperative/discussion-based and individual projects. The written analysis task examines understanding of key issues, concepts and debates. The oral presentation task examines critical thinking skills applied to this field, as well as skills in both oral and written communication/ engagement. The research essay examines higher level critical analysis and written argumentation skills in the field of political philosophy.

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Written analysis task 

Requires students to demonstrate understanding of key concepts and debates.


LO1, LO2, LO3

GA1, GA5, GA8

Oral presentation with written component  

Requires students to demonstrate critical thinking skills in dialogue with others.


LO1, LO2, LO3, LO4

GA3, GA4, GA5, GA6, GA8

Research Essay 

Requires students to critically analyse an important debate in the field and to develop a coherent position.


LO1, LO2, LO3, LO4

GA1, GA3, GA4, GA5, GA6 GA8

Representative texts and references

Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: Electronic Books, 2001.

Locke, J. Two Treatise of Government. P. Laslett (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Karl, M. Capital, Vol I. B. Fowkes (trans.). New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Mill, J. S. J. S. Mill: 'On Liberty' and Other Writings. New York: Classic Books, 2010.

Nozick, R. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rousseau, J-J. On the Social Contract. G.D.H. Cole (trans). New York: Dover, 2003.

Smith, A. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 1981.

Sandel, M. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Taylor, C. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Wolff, J. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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