Mike Munger has it exactly right

about the role of political theorists in political science.

I think our comparative advantage as a subdiscipline over both other political scientists and philosophers is that we have an understanding of the material of both fields. A political theorist who doesn’t understand Arrow is just a bad philosopher, and a political theorist who doesn’t understand Rawls is just a bad social scientist.

(h/t Jacob Levy)

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6 Responses to “Mike Munger has it exactly right”

  1. Matt Says:

    Is there some suggestion that political philosophers don’t understand Arrow? I don’t think that’s true- he’s a regular subject of discussion, at least, among all the people you’d expect. So, I don’t much see the advantage for the political theorist here. (The perspective that philosophers often get of political theorists is that they regularly have a very hard time being clear about whether they are talking about normative or descriptive questions. It’s not just the political philosophers who think this. When a famous theorist from the Harvard government department gave a talk at Penn a few years ago, for example, the response from almost all of the philosophers, whatever their specialization, was “he seems to be blurring normative and descriptive questions in a confused and jumbled way.” Obviously the two aspects are connected, but a failure to be clear here leads to a lot of garbage. And of course not all political theorists have this problem, but it’s a common one, and one that doesn’t keep you from rising to the heights of the field in a political science department.)

  2. Matt Says:

    Note also that this same problem is even more a problem with many, many legal scholars.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hah, I’ll grant the problem for legal scholars. But I’m not convinced that philosophers are really standing on neutral ground here — a frequent critique one hears of political philosophers from political scientists is the flip side — that insufficient attention is paid to descriptive questions. So, you know, many ways up the mountain and all that.

  4. Ed Says:

    Great point about philosophers Paul. So much philosophical work in IR is just flat out ignorant of any of the empirical work that has been done. Philosophers like Pogge often make absolutely ridiculous claims about what can or can’t be done to alleviate poverty or address problems of civil war. I don’t think this is a problem of all philosophers, take JC for example, but I do think that a large chunk of normative philosophers rarely know much about the topical areas that they treat (an exception to this may be bioethics).

    It is true, though, that large chunks of political theory are just irrelevant to what political scientists do. “Empire”. Really? You study “Empire”? I think that political theorists should have to learn empirics or game theory like other social scientists and should also do such work.

  5. Daniel Goldberg Says:

    I tend to share Matt’s opinion that the naturalistic fallacy is a regular bugaboo of both political scientists (not sure about theorists) and especially economists, which is one of the reasons I harp on it so much on MH Blog (b/c, when discussing health policy, it is of vital importance to be clear when we asserting normative or descriptive propositions).

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    This is all just a consequence of the division of labor, you know. The phenomena (including normative phenomena) with which the people from all these disciplines are concerned are simply too big and the consequent applicable methodologies too diverse to permit the people from one discipline to be fully charitable to the other, or to fully understand the other. To take the extremes here, namely philosophers and economists, I think it’s just necesarily going to be very hard for economists to fully understand why it’s important to separate normative and descriptive propositions and it’s likewise going to be very hard for philosophers to get the hell out of ideal theory and fully get that their arguments are full of dubious descriptive premises. So it goes. As someone who sees himself as basically omnidisciplinary, I feel the pain of everyone.

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