Skip to main content Accessibility help

Political Theory as a Vocation*

  • Sheldon S. Wolin (a1)

The purpose of this paper is to sketch some of the implications, prospective and retrospective, of the primacy of method in the present study of politics and to do it by way of a contrast, which is deliberately heightened, but hopefully not caricatured, between the vocation of the “methodist” and the vocation of the theorist. My discussion will be centered around the kinds of activity involved in the two vocations. During the course of the discussion various questions will be raised, primarily the following: What is the idea which underlies method and how does it compare with the older understanding of theory? What is involved in choosing one rather than the other as the way to political knowledge? What are the human or educational consequences of the choice, that is, what is demanded of the person who commits himself to one or the other? What is the typical stance towards the political world of the methodist and how does it compare to the theorist's?

The discussion which follows will seek, first, to locate the idea of method in the context of the “behavioral revolution,” and, second, to examine the idea itself in terms of some historical and analytical considerations. Then, proceeding on the assumption that the idea of method, like all important intellectual choices, carries a price, the discussion will concentrate on some of the personal, educational, vocational, and political consequences of this particular choice. Finally, I shall attempt to relate the idea of the vocation of political theory to these same matters.

Hide All

This is a revised version of a paper delivered September, 1968, before the Conference for the Study of Political Thought.

Hide All

1Methodist. One who is skilled in, or attaches great importance to, method; one who follows a (specified) method.” Oxford Universal Dictionary.

Although most social scientists would contend that actual research rarely conforms to a step-bystep procedure, it remains the case that such procedure stands as a model for what they aim at. Thus, in a section of a text-book on research methods entitled “Major Steps in Research,” the authors insert the qualification above but acknowledge that “published research strongly suggests the existence of a prescribed sequence of procedures, each step presupposing the completion of the preceding one.” Selltiz, Claireet al., Research Methods in Social Relations, rev. ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963), pp. 89.

2 I have discussed Kuhn's interpretation and its relevance to political science in Paradigms and Political Theories,” Politics and Experience. Essays Presented to Michael Oakeshott, ed. King, P. and Parekh, B. C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 125152.

3 Almond, G. A. and Verba, S., The Civic Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 43.

4 Ibid., p. 43.

5 Selltiz, et al., op. cit., pp. 6–7.

6 Easton, D., A Framework for Political Analysis (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 7.

7 As a recent work on political socialization (which is described as “a universal feature of political life …”) admits: “ … the reader is forewarned that the treatment is heavily biased in favor of a model appropriate to western democracies, particularly in the United States.”

8 See. for example, H. Eulau's language in Pool, I. de Sola (ed.), Contemporary Political Science (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), pp. 5859; and the more cautious remarks in Somit, A. and Tanenhaus, J., The Development of American Political Science (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1967), pp. 174ff.

9 This may appear contentious, but, in reality, it is only a restatement of what appears in Almond, G. A., “Political Theory and Political Science,” American Political Science Review, LX (1966), 873875.

10 Campbell, A., “Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change,” in Campbell, al., Elections and the Political Order (New York: Wiley, 1966), p. 45.

11 I., de Sola Pool, “The Public and the Polity,” in Pool (ed.), op. cit., p. 26 (emphasis added).

12 Easton, , Framework, p. 50.

13 Ibid., p. 48.

14 Easton, D., A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965), p. 475.

15 Works, ed. Bowring, J., 11 vols. (Edinburgh, 1843), Vol. II, p. 493.

16 Heraclitus, frags. 203, 235; Parmenides, frags. 342, 344–7. Kirk, G. S. and Raven, J. E., The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957). The idea reappears in Machiavelli, Discorsi, Bk. I, Preface; Tocqueville, , Oeuvres complètes, ed. Mayer, J.-P. (Paris: Gallimard, 1961–), Vol. I, p. 293.

17 Discourse on Method, tr. Veitch, J., The Method, Meditations, and Philosophy of Descartes (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., n.d.), Pt. I, p. 149.

18 See Ong, W., Ramus. Method and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 53ff.; Gilbert, N. W., Renaissance Concepts of Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 3ff.

19 All quotations are from Howell, W. S., Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500–1700 (New York: Russell and Russell, 1961), pp. 21, 2324. The Ramist influence upon the American Puritans has been discussed by Miller, Perry, The New England Mind, The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1939, 1961), p. 154ff. and Appendix A.

20 Howell, op. cit., p. 152.

21 Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1885),

22 Discourse on Method (Veitch trans.), Pt. VI, p. 192.

23 Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Ellis, R. L., Spedding, J. and Heath, D. D., 7 vols. (London: 18871892), Vol. VI, pp. 268269.

24 Ibid., p. 289. “We know that the founders [of New England] studied Francis Bacon.” Miller, op. cit., p. 12.

25 Meditations, II in Descartes. Philosophical Writings, tr. Smith, N. K. (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 189

26 Rules X–XI (tr. N. K. Smith), pp. 43–44, 47.

27 Cited in Rossi, P., Francis Bacon. From Magic to Science, tr. Rabinovitch, S. (London: Routledge, 1968), p. 141.

28 “Preface to the Principles of Philosophy” (tr. Veitch), p. 288.

29 Francis Bacon. Selected Writings, ed. Dick, H. G. (New York: Random House, 1955), pp. 435, 533. See also Descartes, , Discourse on Method in Smith, N. K. (ed.), Descartes. Philosophical Writings, Pt. IV, p. 118.

30 Philosophical Writings (ed. Smith, ), Discourse on Method, III, p. 111.

31 Ibid., II, pp. 103–104, 112.

32 Ibid., Pt. II, p. 103.

33 Easton, , A Framework, p. 30.

34 Discourse on Method, tr. Smith, , Pt. III, pp. 111113.

36 “It is the very essence of the theoretical enterprise that, if and when it seems appropriate, it should feel free to sever itself from the bonds of traditional ways of looking at political life.” Easton, , A Fraviework, p. viii.

There is no doubt that breaking with the past has been a feature of all great theoretical innovations, including those in the history of political theory. Yet the matter is not that simple, as witness Plato's respect for tradition, Aristotle's deference to his predecessors, Augustine's retrieval of major aspects of classicism, and Machiavelli's insistence on restoring certain forms of classical political knowledge. Hobbes was probably the first writer to advocate a break in the modern sense. Some aspects of his attempt will be discussed in my forthcoming essay, Hobbes: Political Theory as Epic (University of California Press).

36 Discourse on Method, Veitch, tr., Pt. II, p. 158.

37 Banfield, Edward C., “In Defense of the American Party System,” Voting, Interest Groups, and Parties, ed. Seasholes, B. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1966), p. 130.

38 Braybrooke, D. and Lindblom, E., A Strategy of Decision (New York: Free Press, 1963), p. 73.

39 Democracy in America (ed. Bradley, P.), 2 vols. New York: Knopf, 1945), Vol. II, pp. 42, 99.

40 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 3.

41 Riker, W., The Theory of Political Coalitions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1902), p. viii, emphasis in the original.

42 Polanyi, M., Personal Knowledge (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), passim.

43 Pool, op. cit., pp. 23–24 (emphasis added).

44 Backstron, C. H. and Hursh, G. D., Survey Research (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1963), ed. Robinson, J., pp. xi-xv, 4, 13.

45 Kuhn, T., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 165.

46 Taton, R., Reason and Chance in Scientific Discovery, tr. Pomerans, A. J. (New York: Science Editions, 1962), p. 64ff.

47 Downs, A., An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. 21.

48 Hanson, N. R., Patterns of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 5ff.

49 The remarks from Tocqueville are to be found in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. I, pp. 12, 14, 222.

50 Dahl, R., Modem Political Analysis (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 8

51 Hanson, op. cit., p. 36.

52 Ibid., p. 30.

53 E.g., Popper, K., The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York: Science Editions, 1961), pp. 19, 38.

54 An exception would be Huntington, S., “Political Development and Political Decay,” World Politics, Vol. 17 (04, 1965), 386430. As an illustration of a contemporary way of dealing with the problems the reader is referred to Rogow, A. A. and Lasswell, H. D., Power, Corruption, and Rectitude (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963). This work criticizes Acton's epigram, points out how a like animus against power led to the separation of powers doctrine, how the latter frustrates the majority, and how the problem can be handled by organizational and bureaucratic sanctions.

55 Lasswell, H. D. and Kaplan, A., Power and Society. A Framework for Political Inquiry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 145.

56 Representative Government, Ch. II (Everyman edition, p. 193). My point would not be affected if political socialization were defined in some other contemporary mode, e.g., learning “roles,” or as “a readiness to tolerate outputs that are perceived to run contrary to one's wants and demands. …“: Easton, , A Systems Analysis of Political Science, p. 272.

57 Political Science. Newsletter of the American Political Science Association, Vol. I, No. 1 (Winter, 1968), p. 25 (col. 1).

58 De Cive, Pref. ad finem.

59 Apter, D., The Politics of Modernization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. x.

60 The Nerves of Government (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1963), pp. 94, 98.

61 Ibid., pp. 91–92.

62 Politicus, 262 b-c.

63 Op. cit., pp. 162–108.

64 Berelson, B. and Steiner, G., Human Behavior (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), p. 13.

65 Eulau, op. cit., p. 7. See also Almond, G. and Powell, B., Comparative Politics: A Developmental Approach (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966), p. 214; Alker, H., Mathematics and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 68.

66 Here it is only necessary to recall Plato's long discussion of cognition or Hobbes's effort to place political philosophy upon a new and more scientific basis.

67 Letter to Vettori, April 16, 1527.

68 Utopia, Bk. I, tr. Surtz, E. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), p. 49.

69 De Cive, Preface to the Reader, ed. Lamprecht, S. P. (New York: Appleton, 1949), p. 18.

70 Selltiz, op. cit., p. 31.

71 Dahl, , Political Analysis, p. viii.

72 Eulau, in Pool, (ed.), Contemporary Political Science, p. 55.

73 If the Seventh Letter is to be believed, Plato also condemned the government of the Thirty, which included some of his kinsmen, for their threats against Socrates (324 d-e).

74 Republic 473 (Conford tr.)

75 Gerth, H. and Mills, C. W., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 128.

78 Pool, (ed.), Contemporary Political Science, p. vii. The essays by Eckstine and Dahl are excepted.

77 Personal Knowledge, p. 138.

78 Cited by Wilkausky, A., The Politics of the Budgetary Process (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), p. 178.

79 Civic Culture, p. 475.

* This is a revised version of a paper delivered September, 1968, before the Conference for the Study of Political Thought.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed