political science

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The study of the state, government, and politics. The idea that the study of politics should be ‘scientific’ has excited controversy for centuries. What is at stake is the nature of our political knowledge, but the content of the argument has varied enormously. For example, in 1741 when Hume published his essay, ‘That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science’, his concerns were very different from those of people who have sought to reduce politics to a science in the twentieth century. Although concerned to some degree to imitate the paradigm of Newtonian physics, Hume's main objective was to show that some constitutions necessarily worked better than others and that politics was not just a question of personalities. Thus one of his main targets was the famous couplet in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: ‘For forms of government let fools contest, | Whate'er is best administer'd is best.’

The twentieth‐century debate about political science has been part of a broad dispute about methodology in social studies. Those who have sought to make the study of politics scientific have been concerned to establish a discipline which can meet two conditions: it must be objective or value‐free (wertfrei), and it must seek comprehensive and systematic explanations of events. The principal candidate for the role of core methodology of political science has been behaviourism, drawing its stimulus‐response model from behavioural psychology and thus being much concerned to establish ‘correlations’ between input phenomena, whether ‘political’ or not, and political outcomes. The chief rival, growing in stature as behaviourism waned after 1970, has been rational choice theory, following economics in assuming as axioms universal human properties of rationality and self‐interest.

Critics of the idea of political science have normally rested their case on the uniqueness of natural science. In the philosophical terminology of Kant, real science is the product of the synthetic a priori proposition that ‘every event has a cause’. The idea that the universe is regular, systematic, and law‐governed follows from neither logic nor observation; it is what Sir Peter Strawson has called, more recently, a ‘precondition of discourse’. In order for people to study physics rationally, they must assume that the universe is governed by laws.

It follows from this Kantian conception of the basis of science that there can only be one science, which is physics. This science applies just as much to people, who are physical beings, as it does to asteroids: like the theistic God, Kantian physics is unique or it is not itself. Biology, chemistry, engineering et al. are forms of physics, related and reducible to the fundamental constituents of the universe. The social studies are not, according to critics of political science, and become merely narrow and sterile if they attempt to ape the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences. The understanding we seek of human beings must appreciate their individual uniqueness and freedom of will; understanding people is based on our ability to see events from their point of view, the kind of insight that Weber called verstehen. In short, the distinction between science and non‐science, in its most significant sense, is a distinction between the natural sciences and the humanities; the two are fundamentally different and politics is a human discipline.


Subjects: Politics.

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