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Man Is by Nature a Political Animal: Evolution, Biology, and Politics. Edited by Peter K. Hatemi and Rose McDermott. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. 352p. $80.00 cloth, $27.50 paper.
Peter K. Hatemi and Rose McDermott's Man Is by Nature a Political Animal brings together some of the most important social scientists working at the intersection of political science, psychology, biology, and cognitive neuroscience. Given recent advances in cognitive neuroscience and given the proliferation of work in political science that draws on these advances, we have decided to invite a range of political scientists to comment on the promise and the limits of this line of inquiry. What can scientific developments in psychology, biology, and neuroscience tell us about “human nature”? Can these discourses reckon with the variation in time and space that has traditionally been at the heart of political science, perhaps even going back to the classic text from which Hatemi and McDermott derive their title, Aristotle's Politics?—Jeffrey C. Isaac, Editor
The turn to the philosophy of scientific realism as a meta-theory for the study of International Relations manifests a reluctance to confront the basic problem of the relationship between philosophy and social scientific inquiry. Despite the realists' rejection of traditional empiricism, and particularly the instrumentalist account of scientific theory, the enthusiasm for realism neglects many of the same problems that, more than a generation earlier, were involved in the social scientific embrace of positivism. One of these problems was a lack of understanding regarding the character and history of the philosophy of natural science and its relationship and applicability to the study of social phenomena. Proponents of realism have also neither adequately articulated and defended realism as a philosophical position, and distinguished it from other perspectives, nor confronted the fundamental challenge to realism and other foundationalist philosophies which has been mounted by the contemporary critique of traditional representational philosophy.
Despite the impact of Leo Strauss on American political science and political theory, where, exactly, Strauss was “coming from,” in both senses of that phrase, has been far from clear. Carl Friedrich, reviewing the, at that point, unknown author's book on Hobbes, noted that Strauss might have been more forthcoming about his own position, but he believed that it was safe to conclude that he was a “historical relativist.” Friedrich may have been closer to the mark than many subsequent commentators realized, but in order to understand Strauss's work, it is necessary to return to the universe he inhabited before “coming to America.” Since Strauss's death, his enterprise has been subject to careful scrutiny, but his early life and work have remained opaque.
In the evolution of the social sciences, disciplines (forms of research, training, and instruction) preceded professions (distinct occupational identities). Although professionalism has often been viewed as a conservative force, what was arguably the most prominent transformation in the history of political science was the result of a professional challenge to the discipline. The founding of the American Political Science Association represented not only an ideological break with some of the principal voices in the discipline but a reformulation of the reigning vision of the relationship between political science and politics. Despite the markedly different circumstances, the dissenting claims emanating from the subfield of political theory during the behavioral era reflected, in many respects, a similar form of confrontation.
In his introduction to the 1991 edition of Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America, journalist Tom Wicker noted its relevance for understanding the ambivalent appeal of values that had led both to the downfall of communism and to the “demonization” of Saddam Hussein. Wicker also noted that Hartz's synoptic use of “liberal” as encompassing what is commonly referred to in American political discourse as “liberal” and “conservative” ideologies might “add to some Americans' confusion” about the already “confused and abused” use of the term. As we reach the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Hartz's book, it is important to reassess the work, especially in light of what might seem an obvious parallel between his concerns in the context of the Cold War and contemporary worries about the relationship between American foreign policy and domestic politics that has evolved since 2001. Whether the valence has been negative or positive, Hartz's image of a liberal consensus in the United States has created a picture that has held the academic mind captive and shaped its approach to both scholarship and political analysis.
As Thomas Kuhn noted, it is almost inevitable that scientific practitioners read the history of their field backward and perceive earlier stages as, at best, prototypical of the present. This is the manner in which political scientists, and even historians, have imaged the relationship between the debates about science and democracy that took place during the 1920s and 1950s. Despite the importance of Charles Merriam's role in the history of American political science, his work was not the discursive axis of the paradigmatic disciplinary shift that took place in the first quarter of the 20th century. It was the arguments of G. E. G. Catlin and W. Y. Elliott that most distinctly represented the transformation in both the theory of democracy and the image of science, and that, for the next two generations, set the terms of the debate about these issues as well as about the relationship between the mainstream discipline and the subfield of political theory. And, despite the theoretical and ideological differences between Catlin and Elliott, their exchange points to the intensely practical concerns that originally informed the controversy about the scientific study of politics.
A generation ago, Sheldon Wolin evoked an image of the vocation of political theory as an alternative to the behavioral program of theory and scientific inquiry that had come to dominate political science. His call also summoned those who believed that, in the midst of the political turmoil of the 1960s, the mainstream of the discipline had become politically quiescent and, at least by its inaction, even implicated in the political crises of the time. Intellectual and ideological choices were, indeed, involved, but Wolin was implicitly also giving voice to a professional identity for a large segment of the academic subfield of political theory that had been evolving for at least three decades. His articulation of the vocation was, however, as mythical as the method of science to which much of political science had subscribed, and these hegemonic legitimating myths ultimately could neither withstand critical scrutiny nor suppress the latent differences within each.
The contemporary estrangement of political theory from political science is in large measure the product of a quarrel that originated in the challenge to the values of U.S. political science initiated by émigré scholars during the 1940s. The behavioral revolution was in an important respect a conservative rebellion in defense of the values of liberalism and related notions of science, relativism, and historical progress that had traditionally informed the discipline. This controversy in the context of political science fundamentally structured the discourse of academic political theory and the contemporary constitution of the field both as a division of political science and as a wider interdisciplinary enterprise.
Recent challenges to traditional approaches and purposes for studying the history of political theory have raised questions about its constitution as both a subject matter and subfield of political science. Methodological arguments advocating what is characterized as a more truly historical mode of inquiry for understanding political ideas and recovering textual meaning have become increasingly popular. The relationship of these hermeneutical claims about historicity, such as that advanced by Quentin Skinner, to the actual practice of interpretation is problematical. Such claims are more a defense of a certain norm of historical investigation than a method of interpretation, and the implications of this norm for the reconstitution of the history of political theory require careful consideration.