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Political Science


Hegel's idealism, while quite popular during much of the nineteenth century, was nevertheless displaced (in the United States and the United Kingdom, at least) by empiricism. (Positivism and logical positivism are contained within the empiricist approach.) Empiricists define knowledge in terms of a separated subject or agent accessing the truth, or accurately representing the facts, of the objective world. This presupposes Descartes's separation of mind from matter, taking as given the existence of both and their necessary division. In this view, the external objective world of matter simply is separate from the internal subjective world of the mind. The problem for humans, and indeed for empiricist epistemology, then becomes how minds gain knowledge, understood in the universal terms of certainty, of the material world. The modern empiricist view of knowledge, then, proceeds from a profoundly skeptical viewpoint, which is what Kant called, in his Critique of Pure Reason, the "scandal of philosophy."

Indeed, Kant endeavored to answer the skepticism of Descartes. Kant's fundamental concern was to determine if inner experience (that is, ideas, perceptions, and representations) provides humans with any true knowledge about outer experience (that is, the objects that humans believe exist in the external world). But Kant, of course, was much more concerned with developing a scientific metaphysics. Modern empirical scientists had different goals. In the modern scientific view, the object world has a logic all its own. This means that anything that is actually separate from a subject or that is understood to be separate from a subject can be known (i.e., accurately represented) by a subject who has an inclination to represent it. One might even go so far as to say that any such separate thing can be understood by a subject so inclined to understand it. This allows individuals to give understandable and accurate representations of the things they study, and it helps them explain how humans might behave given those representations. But any deeper, more metaphysical understandings and explanations of human actions drop from view. Some, such as Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Paul Feyerabend, have differed strongly from the empiricist approach, but they have not succeeded in dulling the effects of the empiricist approach on political science.

And so, whereas in the early history of modern political science one can still find many of the lingering foci of earlier political studies (for example, attempts to provide political solutions to the timeless questions of antiquity regarding the good life), by the twentieth century many of these foci had disappeared. Increasingly, political scientists oriented their inquiries into politics around analysis of the concepts raised by the classical questions. Political scientists, in other words, began to shy away from metaphysical questions and systemic solutions, preferring instead to suggest pragmatic and prudential political action in accord with the rules established by the current political system. They took this approach because they appeared to find the political questions and "answers" put forth by metaphysicians to be philosophically irresponsible (because they cannot be logically justified given deductive logic), and this philosophical irresponsibility would then give rise to social, political, and moral irresponsibility. The metaphysical commitments of the philosophical idealists must be authoritarian because they can only be contingent and perspectival rather than necessary and absolute. Therefore, the "responsible" thing to do was to, as Daniel Bell put it in The End of Ideology, give up "the dream of organizing society by complete blueprint." The prudent action is to focus, "within a framework of liberal values, on problem solving as a means of remedying social ills and inadequacies" (Bell, p. 419). Political science, then, must echo President John F. Kennedy's statements in his commencement address at Yale University in 1962. It must "research for sophisticated solutions to [the] complex and obstinate issues" associated with the practical management of modern society. Searches for meaning and morality in social action, then, must fall by the wayside. No matter what, then, the human value of political action ceases to be a viable consideration when politics is studied scientifically.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPolitical Science - The Importance Of Knowledge, The Universal And The Particular, Empiricism, The Discipline Of Political Science