Beyond Nihilism: Classical Realism and the Perils of Scientific Naturalism

By Davis, Reed | Modern Age, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond Nihilism: Classical Realism and the Perils of Scientific Naturalism


Davis, Reed, Modern Age


In an age when the interminable effort to deconstruct everything human frequently ends in existential emptiness or just plain silliness, the urge to find something, anything, true and significant about human behavior is certainly understandable. This longing for objectivity and certainty may explain, at least in part, the recent surge of interest in Darwinian biology among political scientists. These thinkers argue that Darwinian biology, with its roots in hard, scientific data, can provide us with a measure of reliable insight into political behavior and, in so doing, establish itself as an antidote to the airy abstractions of constructivism and continental postmodernism. Moreover, they insist, Darwinian biology should be readily embraced by a stolid philosophy like political realism, because realism, after all, like Darwinianism, takes pride in its stoic ability to accept the difficult and often unpalatable facts of human existence. Before traipsing off to embrace yet another new science of politics, however, we would do well to remember that an earlier generation of political realists vigorously resisted efforts to establish naturalism as a foundation for political science. These thinkers anticipated many of the foundational principles of a neo-Darwinian political science and flatly rejected them, favoring those theories that were grounded in more philosophically attuned first principles instead.

The case against a Darwinian approach to political science advanced by three of political realism's chief intellectual architects--Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Raymond Aron--still resonates. All three thinkers believed that the various manifestations of scientific naturalism are an affront to human liberty and individual freedom. This was not simply a moral issue for them: they believed that by working with a truncated, overly determined understanding of human behavior, naturalism restricts the options that statesmen have at their disposal in attempting to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation. We will see that a purely scientific explanation of a cardinal political reality--conflict and struggle--makes it impossible to practice what was for all three realists a cardinal political virtue, namely, prudence.

Although Morgenthau and Niebuhr devoted a good deal of intellectual energy to the challenge of scientific naturalism, Aron was the only one of the three who had significant training in the natural sciences (he spent a year at the Sorbonne doing graduate work in biology). Consequently, we will devote the bulk of our analysis to Raymond Aron.

One of the most interesting exercises in Darwinian political science has been Bradley Thayer's recent effort to construct a Darwinian theory of international relations. Thayer attempted to put political realism, especially the "offensive realism" of John Mearsheimer, "on a scientific foundation for the first time." (1) From Thayer's perspective, this represents an advance over the more "noumenal" theories of Morgenthau and Niebuhr because Darwinian naturalism can explain why egoism and the urge to dominate emerged as human qualities without resorting to suspect theological or philosophical categories such as "evil" or "the will to power." Darwinian naturalism also serves as a surer foundation for theorizing than even the postulate of an anarchical system of states, Thayer argues, because it can explain a broader range of phenomena than simply the behavior of states and is for that reason a more powerful theory.

Thayer, then, begins from a premise that is widely accepted by neo-Darwinians, namely, that there is a clear difference between "science" and "non-science," a difference that implicitly consigns nonscientific forms of knowing to the outer darkness of subjective speculation. The distinguishing mark of scientific knowing, Thayer explains, is that science stands or falls on the principle of verification as articulated by Karl Popper. …

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