In Defense of Political Philosophy

Harvard undergraduates, by and large, are interested in the study of politics. This is, in part, because many want to pursue careers in some aspect of politics; indeed many have already worked on political campaigns or on behave of political causes. But for many others it is simply a subject that stirs deep passion and engages their interests. They get the sense that politics matters. But whatever the reason may be, students flock to the subject. The Institute of Politics is one of the largest student organizations on campus, and Government, Harvard’s version of the political science major, always attracts the largest, or nearly the largest, number of undergraduate concentrators.

There is nothing amiss about this fact, for politics is certainly a subject worthy of study. But students passionate about the study of politics would be well served by reflecting on the nature of their inquiry into the subject of politics, and what it should entail. For many students, the study of politics has truly become the pursuit of the science of politics, complete with regression modeling and vast amounts of data analysis. The study of politics has become something that one can do simply in excel or Stata, and without having ever opened more then a handful of classic texts. But I would argue that if we think of political inquiry in this way, we lose sight of the fact that political philosophy lies at the heart of the enterprise. The turn towards a largely scientific study of politics runs the risk of obscuring the fundamental questions of politics, and the reasons that politics deeply matters to so many people. The study of politics must always come back to fundamental normative questions, the questions pursued by political philosophy.

But the centrality of philosophy to the study of politics remains largely brushed over. There seem to be two main reasons for this, which are connected. The first is the tendency to deny that the study of politics is first and foremost concerned with actual governance. Political science did not originate as a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but as a way of debating and arriving at actual political decisions. And this requires a stance on normative questions. The kinds of questions that must be answered to make political decisions expose the second mistake that political science often makes, the idea that the study of politics progresses as it becomes more like physics or biology—scientific. But thinking about the study of politics in this manner misses the core of political inquiry, normative philosophy. If we think of the relationship between Democritus and modern physics to be analogous to that of Plato and modern political science, and likewise see political philosophy as no more then a vestigial subject left over in political science departments from the days of the broad moral science tracks in universities, then we will have made a grave mistake. Democritus has been banished to history of science or humanities departments because he asks questions that no longer seem relevant to the study of modern physics. But the same cannot be said of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Hobbes, or Machiavelli. The questions they ask are still fundamental to the study of politics.

Which is not to say that mathematical modeling or data analysis cannot aide us in answering these questions, or even help us clarify what the appropriate questions and inquiry of political science should entail. But a scientific study of politics cannot answer the fundamental questions of political inquiry, and that is why Plato remains relevant to political science today in a way that Democritus does not to the study of physics. A scientific study of politics cannot answer the questions posed by Cicero regarding the duties citizens have to each other, which may differ from the duties citizens have to inhabitants of far off lands. Nor can statistical analysis answer Plato’s eternal questions about who is fit to rule.

Students, therefore, who have a passion for studying politics, would do well to consider furthering their study of political philosophy in this coming semester. Far from being a neglected stepchild of the Government department, the study of political philosophy should hold a central and formative position in the education of any student of politics. Not only does it provide us with the basis for deciding which kinds of questions must be answered by political inquiry, but it also tells us why answering these questions matters at all. It is only by examining the fundamental normative questions of politics that all other avenues of political inquiry gain relevance and deserve our attention


Benjamin T. Hand ’12, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Currier House.


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