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Political Science

The Importance Of Knowledge, The Universal And The Particular, Empiricism, The Discipline Of Political Science

Political science, as currently conceived, is a relatively new concept that dates to the nineteenth-century United States. Prior to this time, the study of politics in the West remained a part of natural philosophy, and it tended to focus on philosophical, historical, and institutional approaches. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is often named as the first "political scientist," but his approach differs markedly from what is currently understood to be "political science." Aristotle primarily occupied himself with addressing what sort of political system would best enable the highest human life of eudaimonia (happiness). In the Politics, Aristotle surveys an array of constitutions, separating them into six categories based on how many rule the system and whether or not they rule well. This may be considered an empirical study of sorts and perhaps the first "typology," but his method of study falls well short of what is currently considered to be scientific.

The ancient Indian approach exemplified in the treatise Arthashastra (written by Kautilya around 300 B.C.E.) similarly differs from the modern approach to studying politics. Kautilya, often compared to Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, and Niccolò Machiavelli, discusses the importance of law, kingly conduct, foreign policy, and administrative practices in an attempt to explain that governments have the responsibility of tending to the well-being (broadly understood) of their people. While these ancient approaches to studying politics differ in important ways from the contemporary approach of political science, their emphasis on the pragmatics of political rule connect rather well with contemporary political practice in the West. The Islamic approach to political practice, however, contains some important differences. Notably, Islamic political practice is firmly grounded in religion in so far as it sees the purpose of the state to be the satisfaction of Allah's wishes, namely, the eradication of evil. Thus, whereas political practice in the industrialized West has been able to evolve as ethical and moral codes have been altered or evaporated (for example, the Christian prohibition on usury no longer carries much weight in a capitalist framework), Islamic political practice has much more difficulty with such changes because Allah is considered the One who dictates moral and ethical codes.

Political scientists of the early twenty-first century are motivated far more by an interest in attaining political "knowledge" than Aristotle or Kautilya were. Aristotle sought less to be sure of what he knew than to assess the role of politics in the good life. Indeed, this was the motivating force behind almost all studies of politics (with the notable exceptions, perhaps, of Augustine of Hippo and Machiavelli) until the nineteenth century. In many areas of the world, such as Continental Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the importance of studying politics for more metaphysical reasons, rather than for simply epistemological ones, continues into the twenty-first century. In these places, society still generally tends to take precedence over the individual as the focus of political study. In the United States and the United Kingdom, by contrast, the study of politics has adopted a strongly scientific stance, a stance that has embedded itself in empiricist epistemology and individualism.

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