Political science

James Farr*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

17 Scopus citations


The idea that politics is, or can be, the subject of science is an ancient one that reaches back to Aristotle. Early modern expressions of the idea can be found in Machiavelli and Hobbes, as well as in Enlightenment thinkers from Hume to the American Founders. “Science” was understood as the systematic knowledge of first principles, whether prudential or philosophical, and “politics” as the public life of a city-state, kingdom, or republic. This old science of politics became remote in time and worldview during the nineteenth century with the flourishing of the democratic state and the empirical natural sciences. In 1835, Tocqueville foresaw the consequences in Democracy in America.: “A new political science is needed for a world itself quite new.” The democratization of politics and the scientization of knowledge are two forces of modernity that explain the formation and transformation of the social sciences in general. But these forces are particularly crucial for understanding a “new” political science, given their conscious problematization by those who have styled themselves “political scientists.” Political scientists were unique among the emergent social disciplines in using “science” in their chosen name, and they made the politics of a democratic age their principal inquiry and fundamental problem. Like Tocqueville, they displayed considerable ambivalence about democracy and what they should do about its shape and progress. Democracy needed to be explained and understood. But it also needed to be educated, because citizens wanted improvement, administrators needed training, and officials required statecraft. To satisfy democracy’s needs and their own competing goals, political scientists looked to natural science as a model — either to emulate or against which to pattern their own methodologies and cultural authority.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Science
Subtitle of host publicationThe Modern Social Sciences
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781139053556
ISBN (Print)0521594421, 9780521594424
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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