While Peter has invited a discussion of “archaic conservatism” and “libertarian populism”—labels so nuanced or recondite as to befuddle the mind—we here in Charlottesville are still observing Tocqueville’s birthday, which warrants a one-week celebration. And if the reader will return to the string of comments on that post from July 28, entitled “Happy Birthday Alexis de Tocqueville,” he or she will remark on the most recent entry by Ivan the K, pronouncing himself steadfastly in the camp of those who favor “noetic heterogeneity.”
I want to unequivocally align myself with this position, at least as far as the treatment of matters of common observation are concerned. (Whether there is a possibility of noetic homogeneity at the highest level, beyond the study of ordinary phenomena, is a matter that can be left to the metaphysicians and cosmologists.) We noetic heterogeneists—the few, the proud, and, alas, the forgotten—insist on a political science that takes its bearings, and tries to construct a science, from the political phenomena, refusing to follow the path of so many others of reducing our science to some other science, like economics, or biology, or physics, or a branch of mathematics. The world is so constituted for us that it has different domains or parts; hence the science that holds or works for one part may need a different approach and may need to follow a different logic than the science that works for another part. That is the meaning here of “heterogeneity.”
This has always been a tough nut for political scientists to swallow, which is why so many of them have abandoned their posts and surrendered to other sciences and disciplines. The reason is that “good” political science will inevitably be a far less precise science than many others. Suffering from precision envy, political scientists want to castrate their discipline. As Hamilton says in Federalist #31, “in the sciences of morals and politics, men are found far less tractable.” Tocqueville says more or less the same thing. As Harvey Mansfield pointed out in his last little book on Tocqueville, Tocqueville claimed to be a new kind of liberal, meaning a liberal who intended to break with the mechanistic political science founded by Hobbes. That is his “new political science for a world quite new,” which re-opens political science to such concerns as greatness and man’s restlessness. To be sure, something is given up in this move, as one loses the precision of the earlier liberal political science and its ability to control. But anyhow, at least with Hobbes and Locke, the mechanistic aspects were understood to be part of a larger political concern, so that these attempts were almost—or arguably even were—a form of political science. They certainly sprang from thinkers who were cognizant of the fact of noetic heterogeneity and who deviated from it, deliberately, for the sake of trying to solve the political problem.
Quite different are those who do not even recognize this problem or issue at all, and who assume that some foreign science can be imported into the realm of the political and proclaimed the sovereign. This is the fatal temptation. Let’s start with a notable example of ceding to this temptation, which is recounted by Aristotle in the person of Hippodamus of Miletus. Hippodamus was one of the first policy scientists, and as such he was a cocky fellow who seemed motivated by winning something like a Nobel Prize for his cleverness. He was, I suspect a Pythagorean of some kind; armed with this science, he imported its principles to politics and was very certain that the number three should be the basis or foundation of all political reasoning. If three was good for mathematics, it must be good for politics. So in his urban plans, he rationally reconstructed things to conform to the ideal of three. In the same way in his plan for government. He reasoned from an esprit de geometrie rather than from an esprit de finesse. (He may have been on to something, however. Out founders ended by devising a system with three branches of the government, and everything began to go haywire when people deviated from this model and began to recognize the media as the fourth estate.)
Hippodamus’s problem, Aristotle seems to indicate, was that he reasoned in politics as a kind of mathematician or rationalist, rather than as a political scientist. And just this issue was connected with the so-called Socratic turn. What evidently troubled Socrates was that pre-Socratic thought failed to understand the political phenomena on their own terms. The ppre-Socratics applied concepts of Physics, like the One and the Few, to politics, rather than creating a science of politics deriving from an investigation of the material or phenomena of politics. Political science came into being, as Ivan the K suggests, with the theoretical recognition of noetic heterogeneity.
I sometimes read for pleasure the inaugural addresses of past presidents of the American Political Science Association. An example of the fatal temptation can be found in the address of William Munro of Harvard, delivered in 1928, entitled “Physics and Politics.” Munro’s thesis, in a word, is that political science will go nowhere unless and until it models itself on the science of physics. We are treated to such profundities as this: “it is time for political science to step up into line with the new physics by turning some of its attention to the sub-atomic possibilities…And we should discard our allegiance to the absolute, for nothing would seem to be more truly self-evident than the proposition that all civic rights and duties, all forms and methods of government, are relative to one another….” One wonders what he would have done with string theory.
The efforts to reduce political science to some other science or some other mode of thought (historicism, aesthetics, or what have you), are often fascinating, but they all end in error—and sometimes disaster as well. Biology is a case in point. Hamilton addresses one instances of that error in Federalist 11, when he takes up cutting edge biology of the day that held that all creatures born in this continent were inferior to those found in Europe, “that even dogs cease to bark after having breather awhile in our atmosphere.” And we have seen many fine discussions in this blog of the limits of Darwinian models when applied to politics.
So please, spend a few minutes this evening joining with Ivan the K contemplating the beauty of “noetic heterogeneity.”