What is the utility of classical political theory and modern writing about it for current-day positive (that is, explanatory) political science? By “classical,” I mean works from Plato through at least Weber.
In modern American political science, the conventional answer to this question has been that classical theory offers normative illumination. It helps out with certain “should” questions—that is, recommendations about how political systems should be constructed or how individuals acting as political beings should behave. Important as this line of thinking may be in its own terms, I believe that it has worked to marginalize or trivialize classical theory for many writers and teachers in the positive sectors. It has allowed the kind of dismissal that Ayer (1948), writing at the high tide of logical positivism, gave to normative concerns. Classical theory scholars made a tactical mistake a few generations back, if they had any choice in the matter, to let themselves become labeled “normative.”
It is much better to see classical theory as a source of ontological illumination—that is, as a window to the nature of political reality. What is the nature of the political reality that political scientists should be studying? If we members of the profession possessed a clear, singular answer to this question, we might not feel the need to keep classical theory alive. But we do not possess a clear, singular answer, or at least we do not agree on any.