The term normative theory gained currency in American political science in the post–World War II (1939–1945) period as a consequence of the behavioral revolution and the rise of positivist-empiricist political science. Behaviorists sought to draw a distinction between scientifically oriented political inquiry and evaluative forms of political inquiry that they claimed focused on questions of what the political system ought to look like. Hence, they claimed to distinguish between those forms of political inquiry that only describe the world in a value-neutral fashion, that is, empirical theory, from those that offered normative implications or recommendations about political life, including recommendations of which types of political systems were best, what the nature of justice is, and so forth. The impulse to enforce this distinction in political inquiry derived from the assumption that science was value neutral and that one sign of the scientific maturity of a discipline is the extent to which it has purged itself of normative influences. Scientists do not approve or disapprove of the nature of the objects under investigation; they seek only to describe them and how they operate, function, or behave.
Normative Versus Empirical Theory
The dichotomy between empirical and normative theories was itself rooted in a philosophy of language borrowed from the philosophical movement called logical positivism. Logical positivists, drawing on the philosophies of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, held that statements could be of two types, meaningful and meaningless. Meaningful statements are also of two types, analytic and synthetic. Analytic statements are those that are true by definition (e.g., all bachelors are unmarried). Synthetic statements are those that make testable, empirical claims about the independent, objective world and may be either true or false. Statements that fit into neither of the above categories are deemed meaningless. These meaningful meaningless, analytic-synthetic dichotomies were the foundation of another dichotomy, that between facts and values. Factual statements were deemed to be synthetic and therefore meaningful. Value statements are those that merely reflect the speaker’s opinion or emotive preferences, but are otherwise meaningless. The assumption was that scientific inquiry must consist only of meaningful statements and exclude normative or value-laden statements (Ayer 1952). In the end, normative statements were deemed to be not rationally grounded, that is, they could be neither empirically verified nor demonstrated to be true through reason.
However, no sooner had this view of language become incorporated into the self-understanding of positivist-empiricism political science than it was shown to be unsustainable. Influenced by the later work of Wittgenstein, philosophers such as W.V. O. Quine (1953) and Wilfred Sellars (1956) challenged the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, the fact-value distinction, and what Sellars called “the myth of the given,” that is, the idea that the world we can know exists independently of our theories about it. In doing so, they undermined the very foundations of empiricism. Subsequently, Thomas Kuhn’s work challenged the view of science rooted in the positivist and empiricist account of epistemology and philosophy of science. Unfortunately, these developments were either largely ignored or, in the case of Kuhn, largely misunderstood by the discipline of political science. Hence, the logical positivist account of facts versus values and empirical versus normative theory remains central to positivist accounts of political science (e.g., see Johnson and Reynolds 2008, 27–59).
Needless to say, the dichotomy between empirical and normative theory did not go unchallenged. Despite significant differences among them, a number of theoretical perspectives emerged to emphasize that there are inherent normative dimensions to all political explanation that can be traced to four factors. First, much of the language of explanation of politics itself is formed from a normative—that is, ethical, moral, or political—point of view, and it actually describes from a normative, moral, or political point of view. In other words, the point behind such terms is not only to render an evaluation of social and political practices but also to render a richer description that takes into account the moral dimensions to some forms of political phenomena. Hence, attempts to purge such vocabularies of their normative denotations are bound to fail or seriously disfigure the meaning of political-normative terms. The result can be a misunderstanding of politics and often issues in tacit moral commitments that are ignored.
Second, the terms of political discourse are often internally complex, connoting or denoting a family of meanings that overlap. In such cases, the terms in question are not reducible to any one of the common or intersubjective meanings associated with them. The attempt to reduce the meaning of such concepts to one operationalized meaning can be not only misleading but often is accompanied by a tacit normative commitment. For example, behavioralists tended to define political power in terms of overt, observable conflicts and events within the public realm. Such a definition ignores cases where those in a position of political subordination are so intimidated that they do not even venture to challenge those in political power, a situation common in the race relations in the United States after Reconstruction and through to the civil rights movement. Not surprisingly, behavioralists tended to see American democracy in Panglossian terms (“the best of all possible worlds”) and often adopted a critical perspective on social and political dissent such as the civil rights movement. In addition, because of the internal complexity of the terms of political discourse and the normative implications of accepting one definition of a concept rather than another, many theorists argued that the language of political discourse was essentially contestable in ways that further undermine the dichotomy between empirical and normative political theory.
Third, the goal of political science is not simply the description of political phenomena but the explanation of them as well. The explanation of phenomena requires not only that one give an account of why some states of affairs pertain but also why others do not. Such an account is an interpretation of why some states of affairs or political arrangements are natural, rational, reasonable, or normal, while others are less sustainable. Because any such explanation distributes the range of political possibilities one way rather than another, explanation by its very nature distributes the normative burden in favor of some states of affairs while denying others. For example, empiricists tended to interpret American pluralism as the most reasonable possibility for representative democracy, more inclusive forms of democracy being deemed irrational or unstable (Taylor 1985).
Finally, insofar as political explanation necessarily deploys a vocabulary that distinguishes between rational and irrational behavior, it is necessarily normative. For to say that a practice, institution, or mode of behavior is rational is to make a prima facie case for saying that it is desirable, and to say that it is irrational is to suggest that it should be changed or ceased.
Philosophical Challenges To A Value-Free Inquiry
Among the first to challenge the dichotomy between value free and value-laden political science was Leo Strauss (1959). Drawing on the classical tradition and Plato in particular, Strauss argued that the explanation of political life requires a proper understanding of the nature of political knowledge. Acquiring such knowledge is the task of political philosophy, and it is by its very nature a normative enterprise. Specifically, political philosophy is “the attempt to replace opinion about the nature of political things by the knowledge of the nature of political things. Political things are by their nature subject to approval and disapproval, to choice and rejection, to praise and blame” (1959, 7–8). The political nature of things is not properly reducible to merely subjective evaluations. Rather, political knowledge of things, even if it is never perfectly attainable, can nonetheless be grounded in rational deliberation. From this perspective, the claim of positivist political science to have separated the description of political things from the evaluation of political things is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because such attempts must of necessity make choices about the nature of the political that in fact have evaluative elements to them. It is dangerous because in the end it denies that there is a natural, normative dimension to political society that is discoverable by reason, understood in the classical sense. This can lead to moral relativism that can be used by the most unethical forms of political life.
A second challenge to the dichotomy between descriptive and normative theory emerged in the work of Sheldon Wolin. Wolin (2004) argues that there is a distinctive tradition of political theory and philosophy that has among its primary tasks the definition of the political. Such an enterprise is not only normative but is also descriptive and explicative from a political point of view. Specifically, in advancing an account of the political and related concepts such as authority, power, freedom, consent, and so forth, the political theorist, and the study of politics generally, renders some political facts of more significance than others: “The concepts and categories that make up our political understanding help us to draw connections between political phenomena . . . they create an area of determinate political awareness and thus help us to separate the relevant from the irrelevant.” (2004, 7) Such an activity can never be politically or morally neutral. This leads Wolin to make a distinction between vita methodica, or methodism, and bios theoretica, or political theory (1969). The former is deflationary of theory and mistakenly presupposes that the choice of methods is value neutral. In point of fact, much of what passes for scientific accounts of politics is steeped in normative assumptions and implications that underwrite the political status quo. Political inquiry informed by the tradition of political theory, on the other hand, fully addresses the normative dimension of its explanations. It recognizes that “because facts are richer than theories, it is the task of the theoretical imagination to restate new possibilities” (1969, 1082).
Yet a third approach to political theory that challenged the distinction between description and normative theory emerged in the work of John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls offers an account of the conclusions concerning political life that free and rational individuals would arrive at if they were placed behind a veil of ignorance, that is, placed in a situation in which they evaluated the alternatives for political life from a disinterested situation. Hence, the conclusions he draws about justice are not simply subjective preferences but rather are rationally grounded decisions that anyone in a similar situation would come to. Moreover, primacy of justice is not a question of mere opinion or subjective preference. Rather, it is the point behind social institutions in much the same way that the pursuit of truth is the point behind the pursuit of knowledge. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions, no matter how efficient and well-arranged, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust” (1971, 3). In effect, Rawls argued that in a well-ordered society, there would be widespread agreement on moral beliefs and in particular on the primacy of justice over other political values, such as notions of the good. In subsequent work (1993) Rawls revised the theory of justice, arguing that liberal political societies committed to some form of representative democracy and characterized by reasonable pluralism would be united by a political conception of justice rather than a moral one. In this later work, Rawls attempts to answer the question, “How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm a political conception of a constitutional regime?” (1993). If Rawls’s analysis is correct, the conclusion is not simply a matter of subjective choice or personal preference, it is a matter of the conclusions that rational individuals would come to in a pluralistic, liberal society.
Postmetaphysical Political Accounts
In more recent years, a number of approaches to the explanation of political life have embraced the term postmetaphysical to describe their account of political explanation and evaluation.
Postmetaphysical refers to the claim that although all theories make ontological assumptions about the nature of human existence and political life, there is no one theoretical perspective that can deliver on the claim to represent what is essential or exclusively fundamental about social and political life. This means that no single perspective can offer the privileged or exclusive foundations of social and political inquiry. Thus, no single account can claim objectivity in the strong sense; each account is a prescription of how political life ought to be studied, what is most significant in the study of political life, and how that account of the political influences political practice. Among the most important perspectives that fall into this category are Habermasian discourse ethics, interpretive hermeneutic political theory articulated by thinkers such as Charles Taylor, and genealogical perspectives exemplified by the work of William Connolly.
In his theory of communicative action and discourse ethics, Jurgen Habermas argues that although there is no single objective account of politics, any attempt at communication, that is, any speech act, necessarily presupposes three normative validity claims. In engaging in the act of communication, the speaker draws upon claims to sincerity or truthfulness, truth, and appropriateness. When normative prescriptions that meet these criteria are agreed upon by social agents, the decisions or behaviors that result can be deemed to be rational in a strong, noninstrumental sense of the term. Moreover, Habermas argues that these validity claims are universal, that is, they are pragmatically implicit in every act of communication. If Habermas is correct that there are universally valid criteria for judging the rationality of normative claims and actions, claims about statements meeting these criteria can be deemed to be true, though subject to revision.
Interpretive or hermeneutic approaches take a somewhat different approach to normative theory. Thinkers such as Charles Taylor argue that human beings are by nature self-interpreting beings. Much of the language of self-interpretation is conducted of necessity in moral and ethical terms. In addition, that self-interpretation often takes the form of what Taylor describes as strong evaluation. Strong evaluation is that which poses the choice between two alternatives in morally contradictory or competitive terms. This element of human being, that is, moral self-interpretation, is no less true of the practice of social science than it is of everyday political life. Insofar as social and political theory are attempts to make sense of our political world, to clarify the inchoate or imperfectly understood, they will sustain some established activities and undermine others. Hence, to offer an interpretation of social and political action is to endorse one set of political alternatives and to deny others.
The last perspective, sometimes unfortunately labeled postmodernism, is best described as genealogical social theory. Indebted to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and William James, among others, thinkers such as William Connolly adopt genealogical approaches that embrace the idea of the “death of God” in the sense that no single theory can claim to offer an account of political life that is exclusive and exhaustive without remainder. All theories involve gaps and blind spots and illuminate some aspects of our lives while denying others. Moreover, since social and political life is always in the process of development, even though subtle and slow at times, vocabularies that have explanatory purchase at one point do not have explanatory purchase at another. The result is that each theoretical perspective is sustained not only by evidence and argument but by an act of existential faith that one’s account is correct. One ethical implication is that the proponent of any particular theory must of necessity look to engage other perspectives and cultivate an ethos of agonistic respect toward new perspectives and new ideas from alternative accounts of social and political life. Moreover, all must be attuned to the ways in which their own theories sustain some forms of political practice, morality, and behavior and undermine others.
Normative Accounts Of Political Phenomena
If the proponents of explanatory-normative theory are correct, then several implications would seem to follow. First, a good deal of what passes for science in political science masks an implicit normative and in some cases explicit normative account of political phenomena. Second, claims to have achieved a science of politics that is devoid of value positions must be taken with a dose of skepticism. Such positions are grounded in epistemologies and philosophies of language that were refuted long ago. Finally, in light of the normative implications of all theoretical perspectives, the cultivation of greater theoretical pluralism and not just methodological pluralism is warranted. In particular, it is incumbent upon political scientists to seek out critical, agonistic, respectful engagement with other theoretical perspectives. Such an approach enhances the possibility of becoming attuned to one’s own normative commitments and of challenging contestable boundaries of the ethical and political, and the prospect emerges of forms of knowledge that enhance a deeper and broader understanding of politics.
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