Sunday, November 15, 2009

Political Science versus Political Philosophy

Today is rather commonplace that Government professors refer to their disciplines as political science. The belief is that politics (and economics for that matter) should be modeled after the natural sciences. In order to achieve this, the study of human affairs will be reduced only to the quantifiable. Students should study charts and graphs which are black and white and thus non-debatable. If a fact cannot be assigned a numerical value, then it is not a fact or at least not matter for the political scientist to consider.

This method replaced the older view which studied the words and deeds of statesmen and the works of political philosophers i.e. the study of arguments. Arguments cannot be quantified, yet they are the lifeblood of politics. What sustains the interest of students (and citizens) is not polling data, but the give and take of debate. The more thought provoking question is not whether health care reform will pass this year, but whether it should pass.

Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield has argued for a return to the more traditional model. In an essay titled “How to Understand Politics”, he argues that the Humanities gives us a more complete picture of human nature.

One theory that political scientists adhere to is ‘rational choice’ which reduces human beings to calculators. Mansfield points to characters like Achilles in Homer’s Iliad as a counterexample to this assumption. Achilles does not calculate every move. Instead, he disregards his material self-interest in favor of glory and honor. The Humanities reveals the complex motivation of human beings which the more scientific theories fail to account for.

Elsewhere, Mansfield discusses that this scientific reduction of human motivation is part of a larger project of modern political thought to implement ‘rational control.’ One consequence of this view is the ability to predict future events, say elections. Yet the inability of political scientists to accurately predict such things calls into question the possibility of such control.

While unable to guarantee any of its answers, a humanistic approach towards the study of politics might yield a truer account of public affairs.


  1. It seems to me that whether health care reform *should* pass is a policy question, not a political philosophy question.

  2. But the "should" question cannot be resolved without an appeal to a moral principle, which is the province of political philosophy.

  3. Using only one or the other is flawed though. If we appeal only to philosophy, then we are blind to the harms and benefits of the policy. If we appeal only to policy, then we are utilitarians.

    To come back to the broader question, political scientists and political philosophers should not necessarily be at odds with each other. To take a simple example, the US Constitution was written with certain philosophical principles in mind. That's the philosophy side. The political science side is to examine how our democracy functions and try to ascertain whether it conforms in operation to the ideals Madison and other founders intended.