Is Political Theory dead?

— Written By Amisha Dubey,
BA.LLB, 1st year.


In the middle of the twentieth century, many observers readily wrote an obituary of political theory. Some spoke of its decline. Others proclaimed its death. One referred to political theory as being in the doghouse. This dismal view is because the classical tradition in political theory is, by and large, loaded with value judgements beyond the control of empirical testing. The criticism of normative theory came from logical positivists in the 1930s and from behaviouralism, subsequently. Easton contends that since political theory is concerned with some kind of historical form, it had lost its constructive role. He blames William Dunning, Charles H. Mcllwain, and George M. Sabine for historicism in political theory. This kind of political theory has dissuaded students from a serious study of value theory. 

In the past, theory was a vehicle whereby articulate and intelligent individuals conveyed their thoughts on actual direction of affairs and offered for serious consideration, some ideas about the desirable course of events. In this way, they revealed to us the full meaning of their moral frame of reference. Today, however, the kind of historical interpretation with which we are familiar in the study of political theory has driven from the latter its only unique function; that of constructively approaching a valuational frame of reference. In the past, theory was approached as an intellectual activity whereby the student could learn how he was to go about exploring the knowable consequences and, through them, the ultimate premises of his own moral outlook. Scrutiny of the works by American political theorists reveals that their authors have been motivated less by an interest in communicating such knowledge than in retailing information about the meaning, internal consistency and historical development of past political values.

Dunning in his three volumes entitled A History of Political Theories(1902) set the tone for research in political theory. This training as a historian enables him to approach political theory primarily as offering problems of historical change and to unfold the role of political ideas in this process. As a result political theory, for Dunning, becomes a historical account of the conditions and consequences of political ideas. He seeks to uncover the cultural and political conceptions of an age and to isolate the influences of these ideas, in turn, on the social conditions. 

Easton describes Dunning as a historicist, for he deflects political theory from moral considerations and consciously avoids dealing with moral issues in a purely historical context. Dunning perceives political theory as essentially historical research into issues that arise from observation of political facts and practices. He confines his study to the legal rather than the ethical dimensions of political life, though subsequently his students broadened it to encompass theories of political activity. He considers moral views as a product of caprice, dogmas without justification and hence, not worthy of analysis or interpretation. He neglects the meaning and logical consistency of ideas.

Mcllwain’s The Growth of Political Thought in the West (1932) uses historical research, for he regards political ideas as an ‘effect rather than an influential interacting part of social activity’. Being virtual ciphers in the changing patterns of actual life, ideas can have meaning only as a

part of a history of theories in which ideas may condition, subsequent ideas, but in which they leave no impact upon action. Political theory is construed here as a branch of the sociology of knowledge, which deals primarily with the circumstances shaping knowledge as it has varied over time. The task of the political theorist is to show the way in which a social milieu moulds and shapes political thought. It is concerned with the exclusively empirical task of uncovering the determinants of ideology.

Sabine’s A History of Political Theory (1939) has singularly influenced studies in political theory more than any other book written during the thirties. Like Dunning and Mcllwain, Sabine considers the historical study of theory as an appropriate approach to the subject matter. The impression that one gets from the book and from a description of his method is ‘that a historical study of theory provides its own self-evident justification’. Sabine combines the approach of both Dunning and Mcllwain. Like Dunning, he believes that political thought is a part of the political process which interacts and influences social action. He shares Mcllwain’s belief that it is necessary to describe and analyse moral judgement in each theory as these are the determining factors in history and not mere rationalisations of an activity. Moral judgements are not inferior to factual propositions as Dunning contends. Though Sabine reiterates Dunning’s interpretation of the relation between ideas and action, he differs in his conception of the nature of history of political theory by his emphasis on the role of ethical judgement.

For Sabine, every political theory can be scrutinised from two points of view: as a social philosophy and as an ideology. As an ideology, theories are psychological phenomena precluding truth or falsity. Theories are beliefs, ‘events in people’s minds and factors in their conduct irrespective of their validity or verifiability’. Theories play an influential role in history and therefore, the task of a historian is to ascertain the extent to which these theories help in shaping the course of history. A theory has to be examined for its meaning rather than for its impact on human actions. Viewed in this perspective, a theory comprises of two kinds of propositions : factual and moral. Sabine focuses on factual rather than moral statements for the latter precludes descriptions of truth or falsity. He regards values as reflecting human preferences to ‘some social and physical fact’. They are not deducible from facts, nor can they be reduced to facts or nationally discovered as being expressions of emotions. Since political theory advances some statements of preference, value judgements form the case of theory and explain the reason for its existence. The moral element characterises political theory, which is why it is primarily a moral enterprise. In spite of factual propositions within a theory, a political theory on the whole can hardly be true in depicting a particular episode or period.

Easton examined the reasons for the decline of political theory in general and its decline into historicism in particular. First, and foremost, is the tendency among political scientists to conform to the moral propositions of their age leading to a loss of the constructive approach. The emphasis is to uncover and reveal one’s values which imply that there is no longer the need to enquire into the merit of these moral values, but merely understand their ‘origins, development and social impact’. History is used to endorse existing values. Secondly, moral relativism is responsible for the attention a theory received with history.

Theory is not just any opining about human existence in society, it rather is an attempt at formulating the meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definitive class of experiences. Its argument is not arbitrary, but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.

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