Friday, December 31, 2010

Politics and Theology

In my previous post I discussed Strauss' argument that political things are inherently subject to evaluation and judgment, approval or disapproval, praise or blame, etc. It seems to me that theological and religious things are of a very similar nature, especially since they often make contradictory and mutually exclusive claims about reality. (Even syncretic religions such as some forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism implicitly deny the exclusivistic elements of non-syncretic religions.) As before, not taking religious and theological claims seriously prevents us from understanding them as what they are. Even if we eventually reject those claims as false, we must first attempt to understand those claims as those who advanced them understood them, if we are interested in the pursuit of truth.

Another statement of Strauss' may also be relevant to theology, in the context of distinguishing political thought from political philosophy: "Political thought may not be more, and may not intend to be more, than the expounding or the defense of a firmly held conviction or of an invigorating myth; but it is essential to political philosophy to be set in motion, and be kept in motion, by the disquieting awareness of the fundamental difference between conviction, or belief, and knowledge." (p.12) If this can also be seen as a distinction between thought and philosophy in general, then if theology or religion is in any way to be concerned with truth it must be a philosophic theology -- a theology constantly aware that the sincerity of a conviction or belief says nothing about its truth.

The way in which Strauss' discussion of political things could also be applied to theological things struck me as a possible clue, that perhaps the problems of politics and the problems of theology are somehow linked or related. It also gave more meaning and explanation to the title of Spinoza's work: Theologico-Political Treatise. Perhaps the political problem is really and inextricably a theologico-political problem.


Spinoza, Benedict. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies

Friday, December 24, 2010

Should Political Science Be Scientific?

One of the preliminary chapters of my political science methodology textbook, entitled "Studying Politics Scientifically," states: "Knowledge that is evaluative, value laden, and concerned with prescribing what ought to be is known as normative knowledge. Knowledge that is concerned not with evaluation or prescription but with factual or objective determinations is known as nonnormative knowledge. Most scientists would agree that science is (or should attempt to be) a nonnormative enterprise." (Johnson and Reynolds, p.31) Aside from the irony of the textbook's statement that science should be nonnormative (which itself is a normative statement "prescribing what ought to be"), I'd like to contrast that quote with some of Strauss' arguments from What Is Political Philosophy? In the first part of the essay ("The Problem of Political Philosophy"), Strauss states, "'Political science'... designates such investigations of political things as guided by the model of natural science..." However, Strauss also makes some interesting observations about the nature of political things: "Political things are by their nature subject to approval and disapproval, to choice and rejection, to praise and blame. It is of their essence not to be neutral but to raise a claim to men's obedience, allegiance, decision or judgment. One does not understand them as what they are, as political things, if one does not take seriously their explicit or implicit claim to be judged in terms of goodness or badness, of justice or injustice, i.e., if one does not measure them by some standard of goodness or justice." (p.12)

Of course, if true, Strauss' description of political things poses a problem for modern political science. If Strauss' analysis is accurate, and if political science is the application of the methodology and assumptions of natural science to political phenomena (see p.1 of Johnson and Reynolds), then there's the very real possibility of what philosophers call a "category mistake" or "categorical error". For instance, when people argue about abortion, do they debate whether abortion is true or false? No, the argument is about whether abortion is right or wrong. To discuss abortion in terms of truth and falsity is to commit a categorical error -- to confuse two different categories: the logical and the moral. If political things or (in more academic language) political phenomena are as Strauss describes them, then it would seem wholly inappropriate to study them as you would the subject matter of natural science or to study them using the framework of natural science. Does the law of gravity demand praise or blame? Does photosynthesis demand allegiance? Does mitosis require choice or rejection? Does one approve or disapprove of the quadratic equation? Rhetoric aside, this observation at least might cause us to hesitate before accepting the premises of modern political science as laid out by my textbook.

One of the more interesting implications of this problem is that if political phenomena do make claims on us as humans and demand evaluation, then attempting to study them in a "nonnormative" way actual would lead us to a less realistic understanding of them. If political phenomena inherently present themselves in terms of goodness or justice, then attempting to be "nonnormative" endangers objectivity and gives us a distorted, filtered, and sterilized view of political phenomena. If the purpose of empirical science is to understand things as they are, then a nonnormative, value-free approach to political things actually prevents us from understanding them as they are; empirical science turns out to be self-defeating when applied to political things. Only an evaluating or evaluative political science can be truly scientific.

There are some (perhaps obvious) parallels that can be drawn to theology and theological things. I plan to cover a few of those in subsequent posts. Until then, do you think Strauss' analysis of political things is accurate? If so, does that really pose problems for the way political science is currently conducted? If it does, is there anything that we can or should do about it?


Johnson, Janet Buttolph and H.T. Reynolds. Political Science Research Methods
Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies