Tag Archives: inquiry

Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part III

In two earlier essays I’ve speculated on divisions in the study of politics. First the division within social studies between topics that are political and those that are not. I labeled the latter topics apolitical for easier reference. Secondly the division within political studies between scientific and theoretical methods. In this final essay I will discuss philosophy, but this time I will only examine the differences between political theory and political philosophy. A comparison between political philosophy and “apolitical philosophy” would not be meaningful. There is no branch of philosophy dedicated specifically to apolitical phenomena, although many such phenomena are of course occasionally touched upon in philosophy.

In this essay I will discuss Raymond Geuss’ short book Philosophy and Real Politics, where he seeks to define political philosophy as something other than applied ethics. I agree with the basic premise. As useful as theories of justice may be in guiding political debates about right and wrong, there are other philosophical questions in politics which are not ethical. I will not discuss “ethics-first” political philosophy at all in this essay because it lies so far away from political science and political theory. Political philosophy as applied ethics is not of any use when the workings of political systems are to be understood.

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Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part II

In the first part of this series I distinguished between political and apolitical domains of social inquiry, separated by whether or not power is taken into consideration. I then discussed the contrast between political science and apolitical science, followed by the relationship between political science and political theory. I indicated that the task of political theory is to formulate concepts and hypothetical relationships that political science can test empirically. In this second part I will discuss the difference between political and apolitical theory. Following the introduction to the previous essay, “apolitical theory” can be read as “social theory which disregards power”.

In the book A Measure for Measures Ray Pawson stipulates five rules for empirically verifiable social theory (Pawson 1989 p.324-325). They are

  1. sociological theory takes the form of comparison of the probabilities of certain types of action in certain social groupings
  2. empirical hypotheses must pay attention to regularities, mechanisms and contexts
  3. empirical testing is most powerful in those disciplines employing formal networks of co-ordinated explanation
  4. empirical evidence is adjudicatory rather than verificatory
  5. data construction is irretrievably social

These rules indicate the rationale of meaningful social science. Although exact measurements are impossible, relative comparisons can be performed. Good theoretical hypotheses explain why one state of affairs is more probable than another. Continue reading


Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part I

People aiming to study and understand some aspect of society from an objective perspective have to consider whether their subject is influenced by political power or not. The difference between political and non-political subjects is fundamental because political power usually has a strong influence which must be explicitly accounted for. For the purposes of this essay and the following ones I will think of social studies (social science, theory and philosophy) as being divided into two subcategories: a political and a non-political (or apolitical) one.

Starting from this twofold division, I intend to examine two things. The first is the basic categorization of political studies into political science, political theory and political philosophy. What separates and links these three fields from and to each other? The second is how they compare with a similar division in apolitical studies: apolitical science, apolitical theory and apolitical philosophy.

The word “apolitical” may seem awkward, but I will use it simply to avoid the misleading use of “social science” and “social theory” as parallel alternatives to “political science” and “political theory”. In my usage the word “social” designates the general category and “political” and apolitical” are its two subcategories.

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Other things not being equal

In my previous essay Proven politics I explained how political science (at least one version of it) takes the path of least resistance in working out supposedly scientific information on political systems. The assumption that political systems can be considered so independent of society that they are amenable to mathematical analysis is so egregious, and the quantified variables so artificial, that no conclusions reached by these methods can be convincing. The philosophical justification for this form of political science is very weak and its aspirations for exactness and objectivity reveal a seriously misguided view of social phenomena.

However, we can’t entirely discount the possibility that ceteris paribus (all other things being equal) assumptions could be formulated for political science with a greater measure of philosophical cogency and plausibility. After all, it’s a question of degrees. A very strong assumption, like the one I discussed in Proven politics, legitimates even quantitative analysis in principle. But the results of that analysis are only as plausible as the assumption itself is.

Weaker assumptions which recognize that each political system is to some extent idiosyncratic do not legitimate any quantitative analysis but may be fruitful for qualitative comparisons. The analysis is more plausible although its conclusions have to be more modest. In this essay I will discuss how weaker but philosophically justifiable all-other-things-equal assumptions can yield tentative conclusions about the nature of political systems.

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Proven politics

My favorite dictionary defines science as “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena”. This seems like an excellent summary to me, especially because it makes no reference to “the” scientific method. An inquiry which incorporates all five of those elements is undoubtedly a science, but many forms of precise inquiry lack some of them. They key factor is experimentation. If there’s no experiment to rely on, then observations, identifications, descriptions and explanations must be built on a much weaker base.

Concepts like “knowledge” and  ”truth”  become very fuzzy when controlled experimentation is impossible, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it would be impossible to distinguish between good and bad methods of investigation. It just requires a broader critical perspective on ceteris paribus (“all other things being equal”) conditions, the key element of controlled investigation. In order to observe and describe a limited part of reality precisely, all other things must be held equal.

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