The Necessity of a Non-Reductionist Science of Politics
Writing in The Journal of Politics last year, Jon R. Bond reaffirmed the long-standing hope of many political scientists that someone in their discipline would come along “to do for political science what Newton did for physics.”1Political science “is truly a ‘hard’ science,” according to Bond, though that is “not the only way to study and learn about politics.” Nevertheless, he writes, “I believe that while there is an art to politics, there are basic laws that explain political behavior and these laws can be discovered through the scientific method.”2While a behavioral science approach to the study of politics emerged in the nineteenth century, it did not really take off until the 1930s and 1940s. The basis for that “take-off” was the belief that the methods developed by the natural sciences and mathematics would truly be able to provide a thorough cause-and-effect explanation of political behavior. The primary assumptions of the scientific method, according to Bond, include the belief that “the beginning of scientific inquiry is the fact/value dichotomy,” and that the “core goal of the scientific method is hypothesis testing and theory building” of the kind that will yield quantifiable results.3
What political science needs today, however, says Bond, is not only an advance in the methods of quantifiable measurement; it needs a revolution in theory. At present, economic theory, with its “rational choice” assumptions, is the dominant theoretical perspective in political science, according to Bond. Progress has also been made in the study of politics by those who take a biological, genetic, ecological, sociological, psychological, or functional approach.4However, none of these, and not even all of them together, has yet done for political science what Newton did for physics. What kind of theory is it, therefore, that will finally allow political scientists to give a truly hard scientific explanation of political behavior, and what is it that distinguishes political behavior from all other kinds of behavior? Bond does not answer these questions.
One of the most remarkable things about Bond’s essay is its complete lack of critical reflection on his presuppositions about what should constitute a science of politics. The problem is not simply with his hope that political science might one day find its Newton, but with the jumble of competing approaches he seems to accept as legitimate even though they have not yet arrived at a hard scientific explanation of political behavior. Bond simply confesses his faith in the fact/value dichotomy and in the scientific method as the solid ground on which to stand in order to pursue such a science.
Quite in contrast to Bond, my approach in this paper will be to argue that the study of politics cannot advance on the basis of what are essentially reductionist assumptions held by Bond and most political scientists. The fact/value dichotomy is not a self-evident starting point but a presumption held on faith—a faith with roots reaching back through Max Weber to Immanuel Kant. Furthermore, the methods developed by the natural sciences should not be assumed to be adequate for the study of all of human life and society, unless, of course, human behavior is fully determined by natural laws and that the study of human behavior can yield exhaustive mathematical, physical, chemical, and/or biotic measurement.
My thesis, which is indebted to the work of Herman Dooyeweerd,5is threefold. First, the “political” is not one among many modes of human functioning, such as the numerical, biotic, psychic, social, linguistic, economic, juridical, or ethical. Second, political life cannot be accurately understood by means of a reductionist science of one or all of the modes of human functioning. And third, the proper object of study for political science is the institutional political community of government and citizens. This community or institution is a complex entity that functions simultaneously in all the modes of human existence, such as the numerical, spatial, physical, chemical, biotic, sensory, logical, historical, linguistic, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical, and fiduciary. Consequently, a proper study of politics requires a non-reductionist approach to its subject matter that is fully self-conscience of its philosophical assumptions and that recognizes the limits of all its concepts and judgments.
Distinguishing the Analyzable
Let’s begin with what is perhaps the most basic requirement of any science, namely, distinguishing the object of study. If the point of a careful analytical study is to understand something, then that “something” must be properly identified and distinguished from every other “something.” In one sense, this is what has happened in the course of the differentiation of the wide range of disciplines with which we are familiar in our colleges and universities: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, linguistics, sociology, and more. If the methods that have been used to distinguish these fields of study are used to study political life, what will they disclose as the precise object of study? At best, such methods will help us understand one or more of the ways the political community functions. This is because every modal or aspectual science, including sociology, psychology, economics, and ethics, is the study of a particular aspect or mode of human functioning, not the study of a complete entity such as a person, human relationship, or institution that functions in all modes at the same time. Aspectual or modal sciences try to answer the question of how things function, not the question of what functions in this or that way. There is no entity that can be identified as a “social,” or a “psyche,” or an “economic,” or an “ethic.” Those are modalities in terms of which humans function and, like the natural scientific disciplines, they focus on one or another mode of human experience that encompasses all human experience. Humans function socially, psychically, economically, and ethically (as well as linguistically, aesthetically, and so forth) all at the same time, and they do so in every relationship, organization, and institution in which they play a part. That is why sociology, a modal or aspectual science, has so many subfields such as sociology of the family, political sociology, sociology of religion, and more, because every kind of human relationship and institution as a social function.
Now, if there were a modal function or aspect of human existence that could be identified as the “political,” what would it be? Some have argued that power is what defines the political. But what kind of power is political power, or is every kind of power political? Parents have power over their children; teachers have power over their students; a craftsman has power over the materials he is crafting; a surgeon has power over the patient on whom she is operating; religious leaders have power over adherents of the religion that unites them; and we could go on to describe other kinds of power. Should we conclude, then, that each of these instances of power discloses the political aspect of each of these relationships or institutions? If we do, then there can be no distinctive political community, because all communities, institutions, and organizations are political insofar as they exert power. That would mean there is no way, really, to distinguish between state and family, between business and state, or between church and state. All are political in the sense that they exhibit the use of power.
Yet most people know that the word “political” refers not to some universal mode or function of all human relationships but to the public-legal community—the state or nation—of which they are a part as citizens or as resident aliens. That entity exercises a distinctive kind of power, namely, the use of (or threat to use) lethal force, and even claims a right to monopolize lethal force. As Dooyeweerd puts it, the distinctive power of the state is its “internal monopolistic organization of the power of the sword over a particular cultural area within territorial boundaries.”6
Other political scientists and legal theorists have argued that what is distinctively political is the juridical or legal ordering of human experience. After all, the long history of warfare and slaughter has been moderated by civilized people through the establishment of legal controls over the use of force. Any person might decide to use lethal force, but what is distinctively political is the institutional means of limiting the use of force (and other negative human behaviors) by the rule of law over all people in a particular territory. Here, as with the focus on power, we can’t help but notice that not every legal or juridical function identifies something as political? Churches and many other organizations have constitutions or by-laws. Leaders in most organizations are not free to act arbitrarily and without legal accountability. And parents establish rules in their homes. But does this mean that every human relationship, organization, and institution is political insofar as it displays some kind of legal function? To the contrary, most people and most political scientists recognize that the legal or juridical function of the state is precisely that—a function, which is different in a political community that monopolizes force under law than it is in a family or church or business enterprise.
Neither power (might) nor legality (right), therefore, identifies a universal political modality. Instead, the political community functions in a distinctive way both in terms of the power it exerts and in terms of the kind of law it upholds. Clearly, then, the adjective “political” refers to, and derives all its related meanings, from an institutional entity that is variously referred to as the political community, state, or nation, which is constituted by a government and citizens and includes the international relations among states. If we want to distinguish the “political” from what is not political, therefore, we will have to distinguish the institution constituted by government and citizens from non-political institutions and organizations such as family, church, business enterprise, university, and others. And we will have to account for the distinctive kind of power and legal authority that characterizes the political community in contrast to the kind of power and lawfulness that characterize the internal life of families, business enterprises, schools, and churches. We must remember, says Dooyeweerd, that “every body politic organizes a people within a territory into a typical, legally qualified, public community. The State’s people is indeed the typical totality of all the citizens irrespective of their family-relations, their Church-membership or their philosophical convictions, their trades or professions, class-distinctions, or their social standing. The State constitutes a typical integrating political unity in spite of any differences or divisions which its people display in other societal relationships.”7
In sum, the “political” is not a universal function of all human affairs, the study of which can yield a reductionist, cause-and-effect explanation of human behavior. Rather, the “political’ is that which pertains to the life and operations of the state or political community. Despite confusion on this matter in the field of political science, most political scientists actually orient their studies to the life of government and citizens, spending their time examining the decisions and behavior of government officials, the making of laws, and the actions of voters, interest groups, and those active in public-policy think tanks. Those calling themselves political scientists may also study the influence of other organizations and decision makers on government and the governing process, and that is because the particular institution of the political community is influenced and shaped in part by all the organizations that operate in the society governed by the political community.
If one does not begin with the recognition that the proper object of political science is the political community in its complex, multi-functional, multi-aspectual particularity, one may end up talking almost meaninglessly about what political scientists do, regardless of whether their work is based on any clear identification of the object of study and regardless of whether their work is productive in any scientific sense at all. That is what the president of the American Political Science Association (APSA) did in his 2007 presidential address to the APSA annual meeting.8Robert Axelrod spoke of how political scientists have imported many of their concepts and methods from psychology, history, sociology, and economics. But his main purpose was to show that political science has something to export to other disciplines. If this is true, then we would expect that Axelrod would be able to show what is unique to the science of politics in contrast to what belongs to psychology, history, sociology, and economics. Yet the examples he cites of political-science exports tell us nothing of the kind and lead nowhere.
His first example cites the appearance of a serious threat to public health and the consequent need for the public to place its trust in the government’s decision to deal with that threat. Political scientists, he says, know a lot about “understanding trust in government” and therefore have something to export into the public-health field.9But this example has nothing to do with a political-science export. A public health decision made by government that requires popular trust is precisely a political matter because it has to do with what is necessary for citizens and government to do.
Axelrod’s second example is about a concern to reduce behavior among teenagers that puts their health at risk. This challenge has to do with the strength of “social norms.” But when he says that political scientists have something to export in this connection, he refers to what they and sociologists know “about how and when social norms can change over time.”10Yet this example moves in the opposite direction from the first one. It demonstrates nothing peculiarly political. Social norms are evident in the life of families, in the media, in schools and neighborhoods and friendships, as well as in the actions of governments and citizens. Axelrod’s statement that sociologists and political scientists know something about changing social norms makes my point: there is nothing in this example that distinguishes a political-science export from a sociological export.
The third example concerns a challenge of vaccinating people who face a potential epidemic. The challenge facing those in the location where the danger first arises is how to convince foreign countries not to hoard their stockpiles of vaccine that are needed beyond their borders in the place where the potential epidemic has arisen. Political scientists, says Axelrod, “know a lot about how domestic politics affects foreign policy, and how effective international regimes can be built.”11But here, as in the first example, Axelrod is referring to something entirely internal to the political realm. There is no export at all, unless he is implying that political science is entirely focused on domestic politics and that international relations and regimes are the object of another discipline’s study. But that is not the case. A proper study of political science has to include the study of relations between states and the international organizations they create.
The fourth example Axelrod cites is a study of more than 100,000 nurses who underwent estrogen replacement therapy. The study showed that the therapy protected against heart attacks. Later, however, it was learned that those who conducted the study did not control for the socioeconomic status of the participating nurses and the results proved to be inaccurate. Political scientists could have helped here, says the author, because they know that such an experiment should have controlled for things like socioeconomic status in order to avoid reaching the conclusion that “correlation implies causation.”12However, like Axelrod’s second example, this one reveals nothing unique about political science. Any sociologist or psychologist could have given this advice. If political scientists do have this kind of advice to offer, it is most likely because they imported a method that is used in many functional or aspectual sciences. The example tells us nothing about how to distinguish the peculiar object of political science or about what is distinctive about a political-science export.
Axelrod’s next three examples all have to do with what he believes political scientists can export to the field of cognitive and neuropsychology. But the three examples are worse than the first four. Neuropsychologists, he says, in the first instance, “are beginning to understand that the perception of fairness can operate at the neural level” and political science has a lot to say about the perception of fairness and justice.13But, of course, there is nothing peculiar to political science in this regard. Ethicists, family sociologists, and students of education also have something to say about people’s perceptions of fairness and justice. The next example has to do with individual altruism versus selfishness, and according to Axelrod political scientists know a lot about “what it takes for cooperation between people to flourish.”14But this kind of knowledge tells us nothing about what is unique to political science. Finally, and quite ridiculously, the author suggests that when political scientists conduct surveys that discover voter disgust with their voting choices, they are uncovering something that can be exported to neuropsychology, because neuropsychologists are discovering that “when someone is disgusted with the behavior of another person, the same part of the brain is active as when they are disgusted by an unpleasant odor.”15
What have we learned from the president of the American Political Science Association about the distinctive object of political study? Nothing whatever! Nothing that is, unless we are willing, with Axelrod, to say that the proper object of a science of politics is whatever someone who is called a political scientist chooses to study. But to say that would merely confirm my point that the so-called discipline of political science today has no clear object in focus for its study. Members of this discipline may survey opinion; measure voting behavior; investigate psychological dispositions; argue about the impact of religious opinions on behavior patterns; examine economic decisions and outcomes; study genetic influences; or do a thousand other things. But none of this tells us what the “political” is. The fact that most of what political scientists do with their historical, sociological, economic, psychological, and other methods is to study the behavior of public officials, voters, policy makers, and so forth, reeals their pre-scientific awareness that their study really must focus on the political institutions and behaviors that constitute the sphere of government in relation to citizens in political communities. Yet this pre-scientific awareness is not elucidated or deepened analytically in a coherent way.
Now, none of what I have said above should be taken to mean that the diverse range of modal or aspectual sciences can contribute nothing to the study of politics. To the contrary, as I will try to argue in the next section, precisely because the institutional entity of the political community functions in all modes of human existence, it is incumbent upon political scientists to study the political community from every modal viewpoint. But this demands that they start with a clear idea of the object of their study and that they refuse to try to give a scientific account of the political community by means of a reductionist modal science.
What Should Constitute a Non-Reductionist Science of Politics?
I have thus far set the stage for an argument that a science of politics must be an entity science, not a modal or aspectual science. It must be a study of what the political community is and not of how all persons, institutions, and communities function in a single modality. At the same time, however, we have to recognize that a political community of government and citizens does function in all the modalities of human experience. Thus, part of what it will take to develop a thorough science of the political community and of interstate and transnational relations will be an examination of how the political community functions numerically, spatially, psychically, socially, economically, and in all other modes of its existence.16While it is a mistake to imagine that political life can be reduced to an explanation from a single modal vantage point. This is why we should not be surprised that political scientists have learned and borrowed from sociologists, economists, psychologists, ethicists, and even physicists, mathematicians, and biologists. The learning and borrowing are not because, as some imagine, that political behavior can eventually be explained by a reductionist mathematical, physical, or biotic approach, but because the political order functions in all modalities and every modal science that wants to account for reality will have to take the political community into account, just as it needs to take the family, friendships, business enterprises, schools, and all other human relationships and organizations into account.
The first challenge to a science of politics, then, in trying to “distinguish the analyzable,” is to properly identify the political community in contrast to everything that is not the political community. If one mistakenly imagines that the study of politics is the study of power, then, as we have said, one will have to study everything that exhibits any kind of power. If one mistakenly imagines that the study of politics should be the study of law and justice, then one will have to study everything that exhibits any legal or juridical function. But if we recognize that the proper object of study for a science of politics is the political community, then we will indeed need to try to understand the particular kind of justice it should exhibit and the kind of power it properly exercises. And we will pursue such a study with the aim of distinguishing how a political community’s responsibility for justice and its use of power are different from the kind of power and justice appropriate in a family, or a school, or a business enterprise.
The proper “object” of study for political science must include everything that pertains to the responsibility of governments and citizens in their political communities, including the relations among states and the international organizations states establish. Today, the most stable and legitimate states are grounded in a basic law or constitution that sets the juridical parameters of their authority and responsibilities. A political community’s authority to use force, whether police or military force, is typically tied to standards of justice articulated in the constitution and statute laws. In fact, we might argue, as Dooyeweerd does, that part of what allows us to distinguish the political community from a family or business enterprise is that the former is grounded in a monopoly of force, on the one hand, and qualified by juridical norms of public justice, on the other.
If we contrast the political community with the family, for example, we can see that the latter is grounded in a biotic bond and qualified by an ethical obligation of familial love. Families do function both historically and juridically, for after all, there is the historical moment when a couple pledges troth and enters into marriage and there is the responsibility for spouses to treat one another and their children justly. But the family does not realize a community of public justice, nor is its basis a historical contract authorizing a particular use of power. Likewise, a political community exhibits biotic functions by the fact that its citizens function biotically and many of its laws deal with public health and natural environmental regulations. A political community also depends on the trust and patriotism of its citizens and thus functions ethically. But a state or political community does not realize an ethically qualified community of blood relatives.
Having said only this much about distinguishing the object of a science of politics we are already confronted with the reason why such a science cannot be modeled on the so-called “hard” natural sciences and mathematics. A human community or institution is not a “kingdom” of bees, or a herd of animals, or a forest of trees. The bond of a human political community is characterized by human decisions, judgments, arguments, allegiances, compliance or noncompliance with public laws, and ongoing development over the generations. While there is certainly evidence of evolution in animals, the habits and behaviors of dogs or elephants is not much different today than it was as far back as we can see and those bonds lack the exercise of normative responsibilities characteristic of any human community. By contrast, the public-legal bonds among humans that aim to define the just use of force for the sake of political community’s security and internal order have changed radically over the centuries and continue to change today. From the smaller kingdoms in ancient times to the feudal system, from the imperial orders of ancient Rome and the Chinese Middle Kingdom to modern states, we are confronted with ongoing development of human political communities that exhibit “norm responsiveness” and not merely “natural determinism.” Normative arguments and the creative positivization of norms in public laws and in governing institutions show that the future of political communities remains open to new judgments, to the consequences of war, to the outcomes of trade agreements, and to the successes and failures of international organizations.
Consequently, the study of politics must include a full, empirical taking-into-account of the norm-responsive character of human actions. A truly empirical scientist is not free to ignore this reality and to decide, prejudicially, that even though humans are norm-responsive creatures the scientist should treat them as naturally determined animals whose DNA or psychic reactions are the key to a full explanation of political behavior. Nor will it be possible finally to explain human behaviors in terms of mathematically reducible measurement. The failure of reductionist scientific endeavors in the political realm is evident from what such endeavors must presuppose without explanation.
Assume for the sake of argument that we take a biologically (or economically) reductionist approach to explaining political behavior. The political scientist who takes that approach must presuppose the existence of something “political” that can be accounted for biologically or economically. But a reductionist approach is aiming to explain away the very object that it is going to study. Moreover, such an approach must also take for granted the social, aesthetic, ethical, linguistic, juridical and other functions that it intends to explain away biologically or economically. However, if everything really is ultimately reducible to biological or economic explanation, then nothing else really exists. Or to put it another way, if everything human can be explained in terms of genetics, then how does one explain the genetic meaning of Mozart’s musical creativity, or the inner logic of a law-court argument, or love between spouses? In order to attempt a reductionist account of all of these, one must have already distinguished music, law, and spousal love, none of which is biotic and thus cannot be explained away. The same kind of criticism can be leveled against every other effort to explain all human functions and institutions sociologically, or economically, or linguistically.
An authentic science of politics can only be one that gives an account of the full meaning of political life, beginning with a proper identification of the object of study—the political community (distinguished from all other human institutions, organizations, and relationships)—and then doing justice to all the modal functions of that entity, including the norm-responsive functions that require an assessment of norms of justice, love, and so forth. Such a science must inevitably depend on a number of prior assumptions and presuppositions of a philosophical and religiously deep nature, as Clouser, following, Dooyeweerd, demonstrates.17One cannot distinguish the object of political study without presupposing a relationship between that object and everything else that is not going to be the object of study. Consequently, the prejudgments and presuppositions on the part of a political scientist must arise from pre-scientific conditions. Will one presume, for example, as Plato and Aristotle did, that the political community (the polis) is the largest human “whole” of which everything else is a “part”? Or will one begin with a modern liberal assumption that the political order is just one of many organizations created by contracts among naturally autonomous individuals? Or will one begin, as Dooyeweerd does, with the assumption that the political community is one among a variety of institutions and organizations that reveal our creaturely character—made in the image of God—and that arise from our continued dependence on, and accountability to, God? None of these necessarily pre-scientific starting points can be the outcome of scientific thought. To the contrary, no science can even begin without such a foundation.
Nor can scientists avoid presuppositions about the limits of their science when it purports to study an institution in which they are fully immersed. One of the long-standing assumptions of theoretical thought has been that rational analysis proceeds from reason’s transcendence of its object, or at least that rational analysis can proceed because of the scientific method’s “objective” capability. Whether it was Aristotle’s belief that reason is ultimately divine or modern science’s assumption that properly disciplined analysis can grasp the laws that determine the behavior of everything subject to those laws, philosophy and science throughout history have generally proceeded from what Dooyeweerd contends is a mistaken belief in the autonomy of theoretical thought. Yet more than one critical philosopher has exposed such belief as a mistake.18
For the most part, however, political science today takes as its starting point a faith in the scientific method as the best and most exact means of showing, in a hard scientific (cause/effect, determinist, mathematically measurable) fashion, what it is that causes people to behave politically the way they do. Political scientists, whether closer to Marxism or to libertarianism, assume that the object of their study can be fully or sufficiently “objectified” to avoid subjective bias and that in studying the “factual” world (in contrast to the “values” world) religious and philosophical prejudices can be ignored or avoided. Yet, on the basis of those very assumptions and presuppositions, the so-called discipline of political science has not been able to achieve its program or even reach a consensus about what constitutes political behavior. Nor has the importation of multiple modal-scientific approaches (sociological, psychological, economic, historical, juridical, and more) into the field led to clearer delimitation of the identity and norms of the state or political community, which is the very presupposition of anything that can be recognized as political behavior.
The aim of this paper has been to show that the reason for the failures and inadequacies of modern political science is that it has not adequately identified and distinguished the proper object of its study and that it has started with religiously deep assumptions about human nature and the nature of science that are inadequate or fundamentally mistaken. A different starting point with different assumptions about human nature and science are needed. And I believe that Dooyeweerd’s illumination of the mistaken assumption of the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought, his assessment of the irreducible, multi-modal character of reality, and his insight into the identity of diverse entities (including human institutions such as the political community), which function in all the modal aspects of reality, provides the most fruitful point of departure for developing an accurate and comprehensive science of politics.
4 Bond, “Scientification,” 903-05. For more on the historical development of the “scientification” of political study along different and competing lines, see the volume published by the American Political Science Association and edited by Ada W. Finifter, Political Science: The State of the Discipline (Washington, D.C.: APSA, 1983). My assessment of some of these developments in the discipline can be found in James W. Skillen, “Toward a Comprehensive Science of Politics,” Philosophia Reformata, vol. 53, no. 1 (1988), 33-58. I have drawn on that essay for some of the content of this paper.
5 My indebtedness to Dooyeweerd should be evident here and is apparent in the following publications in particular: James W. Skillen, “Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea: Herman Dooyeweerd’s Political and Legal Thought,” The Political Science Reviewer, vol. 32 (2003), 318-80; Skillen, “The Development of Calvinistic Political Theory in The Netherlands, With Special Reference to the Thought of Herman Dooyeweerd” (doctoral dissertation at Duke University, 1974, available from University of Microfilms—no. 74-25,413—Ann Arbor, Michigan); and the essay cited above, Skillen, “Toward a Comprehensive Science of Politics.” This paper is also indebted to the one presented by Roy Clouser at this conference that expounds Dooyeweerd’s philosophy: “A Blue Print for a Non-Reductionist Theory of Reality.” Dooyeweerd’s most elaborate discussion of the state as institutional political community is in the third volume of his A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, trans. David H. Freeman and H. de Jongste, series A, vol. 3 of The Collected Works of Herman Dooyeweerd (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Press, 1997, 1957), 379-508. (Cited henceforth as New Critique, III.)
17 See Clouser’s paper for this conference, “A Blueprint for a Non-Rreductionist Theory of Reality,” and his The Myth of Religious Neutrality, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 2005).
18 See Herman Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought, series B, vol. 4 of The Collected Works of Herman Dooyeweerd, gen. ed., D.F.M. Strauss (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Press, 1999, 1960), chaps. I and II. See also Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), and Eric Voegelin, Order and History, vol. 5: In Search of Order (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987).