The Marginalization of Political Philosophy and Its Effects on the Rest of the Discipline

Article excerpt

Abstract

Political philosophy has a unique role to play in political science. It focuses attention on the big ontological, epistemological, and normative questions that constitute the foundation of the scholarly enterprise. Due to the reification of subfield boundaries, the assault from hard science, the inward-looking perspective of many political philosophers, and political wrangles within political philosophy, it has ceased to play its distinctive role very well in recent years. As illustrated by the recent debate over methodology, the result is that the rest of the discipline has lost political philosophy's vital contribution to our common intellectual life.

Keywords

graduate education, philosophy of science, professionalization, methodology, positivism, academic politics

As a scholar of comparative politics, I am flattered by Timothy Kaufman-Osborn's invitation to participate in this symposium. The fate of political philosophy as a subfield does not affect my career directly, nor can I comment on the ways in which the subfield's evolving identity may have shaped or distorted the research of its members. I contemplate its waning importance in political science as a concerned neighbor, however, and I am troubled by the impact of the subfield's decline on the rest of the discipline.

Without giving the matter the attention it deserves, I will state my own understanding of political philosophy (old-fashioned, no doubt, compared to the understandings of the other contributors) so as to render what follows comprehensible. Political philosophy is an enterprise characterized by the questions it asks, which are the big questions concerning the nature of politics, knowledge, and morality. What is the character of the human being and human society? What is politics and what should be the proper scope and objectives of political research? What sort of knowledge about politics is possible? What is science? What is a good society? Most adherents of the many schools of thought that Kaufman-Osborn (this issue) lists in his essay are asking these big questions in one form or another. I read or reread works of political philosophy most often when I sense that my research has become focused on minutiae and requires refocusing on issues that truly matter.

Political philosophy should not be equated with a canon of great works, since that would identify it with a finite set of answers rather than a set of questions. But the scholars exploring the big questions did not become an identifiable or self-conscious group only in response to the onslaught of modern science. They may have acquired a novel institutional identity in recent decades, but for over two thousand years scholars of political philosophy have recognized each other as being engaged in the same endeavor and have reacted to each other's arguments, much as Kaufman-Osborn's own research has reacted to Dewey, Marx, and other political philosophers that predate him.

The basic ontological, epistemological, and normative questions of political philosophy constitute the foundation of scholarly research. The answers to them will always remain contested, but it would be a mediocre scholar who never grappled with them. Political philosophy should be the starting point of every political scholar's education, engaging researchers across the entire spectrum of political studies. Some thirty-five to forty years ago, it did that, but today it is largely irrelevant to those who are not specialists in the study of political philosophy itself. The evidence of political philosophy's fall from prominence is unmistakable.

When I attended graduate school in the mid-late 1970s, political philosophy was a requirement in the curriculum. This is not true in most major graduate programs today. Harvard is an exception. In Harvard's Department of Government, political philosophy is a mandatory part of every PhD student's general examinations. When this requirement became a topic of debate, Harvard's graduate students voted to keep it. …