Professing Political Theory

By Gunnell, John G. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Professing Political Theory

Gunnell, John G., Political Research Quarterly


Political theorists cannot reasonably maintain an institutional attachment to the discipline of political science and claim a place in the curriculum of the field while professing intellectual autonomy. Political theory is the progeny of American political science, as well as a subfield of the discipline, and it is important to dispel mythologies of political theory as a separate world-historical endeavor. Political theorists, like all social scientists, must realistically come to grips with their cognitive and practical relationship to their subject matter and resist the forms of dislocated rhetoric that sustain their often anomalous condition.


political theory, political science, profession, politics, moralism, scientism

My view of both the history and contemporary condition of academic political theory in the United States coincides very closely with that presented by Timothy Kaufman-Osborn in "Political Theory as Profession and as Subfield," and in several respects, my comments are intended as an annotation of his article. This is not to suggest, however, that the implications that I draw from his analysis necessarily coincide with his assessment of the proper role for political theory. While many political scientists and political theorists are quite content with the growing distance between political theory and political science, my argument is unequivocally for integration or at least greater complementarity (Gunnell 2006). Although this might seem to ally me with the spirit of the Foundations of Political Theory letter to the Department of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University, I have serious reservations about both the content and purpose of that letter.

Timothy's account of the dilemma of political theory indicates that part of the difficulty in addressing issues revolving around the "profession" of political theory arises from a paradox. While political theory is a highly pluralistic field and tends to lack even the limited sense of identity that adheres to other subfields of political science, it often seeks to claim a distinct intellectual character as a basis for establishing its independence from the discipline of political science to which it remains institutionally attached. This has led, as Timothy suggests, to the evolution of an imagined community of political theory. To understand this situation, there is a need to recognize and reconcile two quite different senses of "profession"1 that have been entangled in this discourse. The genealogy of political theory as an occupation and form of professional academic employment has, from the beginning, been surrounded with a mythology of political theory as a world-historical calling devoted to the public profession of faith, belief, and opinion.

Although during the past half century the mythology of political theory has often been designed to vouchsafe its autonomy as an interdisciplinary, humanistically oriented practice, which can be distinguished from the scientific pretensions of mainstream political science, its various contemporary varieties are the progeny of political science. This subfield originated in the mid-nineteenth century, within the emerging discipline of political science, as an elaborate historico-philosophical narrative of the development of Western political thought. This narrative served to provide an ancestry and provenance both for American democratic political institutions and for the discipline of political science and its Teutonic theory of the state. In this story, it was not only political theory that took on a transcendental status but politics itself, which was conceived as substantially more universal, profound, and noble than its putative manifestations in conventional political practices. This narrative functioned, within the academy, to distinguish political science from other fields of social science, but it also was intended to validate the cognitive authority of the discipline with respect to its right and capacity to profess about matters of civic education and public policy. …

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