How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science

"How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science," 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2007.


You may think I have some nerve coming from a university to Washington to tell you how to understand politics. Well, I mean how to understand, not how to practice. In any event the understanding I propose comes from practice, not really from a university, and it has something to do with nerve—which is not often found at universities. Still less is it understood.

A person with “nerve” thinks himself more important than he is. But how do we back up the reproof: How important is he, how important are we? This is the central question in politics. Politics is about who deserves to be more important: which leader from which party with which ideas. Politics assumes that the contest for importance is important; in a grander sense it assumes that human beings are important.

Political science today avoids this question. It is inspired by the famous title of a book by Harold D. Lasswell, published in 1935, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How? The focus is on the benefits you get—what, when, and how. It ought to be on the who—on who you think you are and why you are so important as to deserve what you get. Poets (speaking broadly of all literature) and philosophers have the answer or at least address the question; science does not. The ambition of political science to be scientific in the manner of natural science is the reason why it ignores the question of importance. Scientific truth is objective and is no respecter of persons; it regards the concern for importance as a source of bias, the enemy of truth. Individuals in science can claim prizes, nations can take pride in them, but this sort of recognition is outside science, which is in principle and fact a collective, anonymous enterprise. Political science, which by studying politics ought to be sensitive to importance, to the importance of importance, aims to abstract from individual data with names in order to arrive at universal propositions. Survey research is an example.

Yet human beings and their associations always have names; this is how they maintain their individuality. Names mark off the differences between individuals and societies or other groups, and they do so because the differences are important to us. You can think your way to an abstract individual or society without a name, but you cannot be one or live in one. Science is indifferent to proper names, and confines itself to common nouns, but all human life takes place in an atmosphere of proper nouns. “To make a name for yourself,” as we say, is to become important. “To lose your good name,” to suffer a stain on your reputation, is to live thinking less well of yourself, or among others who think less well of you. Does this matter? It appears that human beings like to think they are important. Perhaps they have to think so if they are to live responsibly, for how can you do your duties if they are not ascribed to your name?