David Hume and contemporary realism in political theory

Below is the abstract and list of references of my MA thesis in political science. The full article can be downloaded here.


Proponents of the recent movement of realism in political theory have expressed dissatisfaction with the typically Kantian and ideal theoretical assumptions that guide much political and normative theorizing. In this paper it is proposed that these realist theorists could find support for their critique of the Kantian legacy, as well as building blocks for a realist alternative, by drawing on the moral and political thought of David Hume. The paper constitutes a reading of Hume’s writings with the contemporary realist critique in mind. The result highlights four themes in Hume’s thought: (1) The empirically informed approach to normative reasoning. (2) An emphasis on that political theorizing must be conducted on the basis of a realistic political psychology. (3) The critique of social contract doctrines, a critique that is directed at idealistic and rationalistic versions of liberalism. (4) Hume’s account of human sociality and the origins of political authority. Lastly, it is suggested that the fact that Hume combines realism with liberalism makes him of additional interest to the many realists who are seeking to correct rather than reject liberal political theory and who are thus wary of finding themselves too close to Machiavelli and Hobbes, the usual realist predecessors.

Key words: realism, moralism, ideal theory, legitimacy, normativity

Length: 19 200 words


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Political theory as a subfield of political science

This essay was written in january as part of an exam in a course titled ”Social Studies of Science”.

My field of study would probably best be described as political theory, and more broadly, political science. The label of ‘political theory’, however, cover a very broad range of intellectual interests and pursuits, and one may even doubt that there exist enough commonality as to warrant one to speak of a “field” in any determinate manner. This vagueness of my field of study, and its rather insecure institutional place within academia, is actually part of what I would like to discuss in this paper.

Political theory is not science and the claims its practitioners make are rarely seen as claims to knowledge or truth. This puts me in difficulties with regard to the present exam question: much of the course material, concerned as it has been with science proper, will not be straightforwardly applicable to the field of political theory. But in this paper I will attempt an analysis of political theory as a field. By this I mean that I will not concern myself with describing prevalent theories and traditions in political theory and trying to explain them with reference to the social context. Rather, I will analyze political theory as a discipline — that is, its identity and place amongst other disciplines in academia.

This is not because I find the first set of questions unimportant. Indeed, in my view such reflections ought to be conducted by theorists themselves, so as to make the field in some sense more self-reflective. This would be the demand for what Bernard Williams calls ”reflective social understanding”:

[T]he education of political philosophers should include such epistemological materials as will help them to get some measure of the varying claims of the sociology of knowledge. As it has been said that metaphysicians and philosophers of language should not be verificationists, but should have a verificationist conscience, so political philosophers should have a readiness to be embarrassed by the possibility of reflexion on the formation and direction of their views (Williams 2006: 160).

Yet I will not pursue such reflections in the present paper. Partly because I find it difficult that to do to in as brief a space as this. Partly because very little of the course material seem relevant to such a task. Choosing instead to analyze political theory more broadly as a discipline it will be possible to keep this paper more in line with the themes, if not the specific theories, addressed in the course material.

As I said before, political theory is not a science. Yet it is currently a subfield of political science. This fact causes some tension within the discipline. It is not surprising, therefore, that calls are sometimes made for the separation of political theory from political science. I will now point to one such case of late, and make a suggestion of what kind of institutional or economic logic may account for such calls for separation.

In 2007 the political science department at Pennsylvania State University decided to no longer offer political theory as a main field of study for graduate and Phd students. The debate that this decision sparked recently reached the scholarly journals (Brown 2010; Gunnell 2010; Kasza 2010; Kaufman-Osborn 2010; Rehfeld 2010). I will draw on some of the arguments in this debate, but first I would like to pick up on some themes of the course that I think may help to explain the temptation to exclude political theory from the discipline of political science.

(1) There is within science always a struggle for economic resources, and this struggle determines what kind of research gets done. Thus there is a vital need to position and frame one’s research and discipline as highly important and useful.

(2) The prestige and status of science is unique in contemporary society.

Both these themes have often been subject for discussion in the lectures of this course, and is also discussed in the course literature (primarily Bucchi 2004; Ravetz 2006). They are of course the basic starting points that make the social study of science important and interesting. I will now try to build on these two ideas and analyse political theory’s position as a subfield of political science.

If (1) covers not only the practise of the natural sciences, but also every other kind of intellectual and academic activity, then, if we combine it with the fact (2) that science is highly esteemed, we get the formula: (3) There is an incentive for all academic disciplines to present themselves as constituting “science”.

Well then, what distinguishes political theory as a subfield in political science? Wendy Brown supplies an answer: “[P]olitical theory is the sole outpost of nonscience in an ever more scientized field” (Brown 2010: 681). While political theory cannot plausible dress itself in the robes of science, as Brown puts it, the other subfields of political science potentially can. Then, to the extent that political theory asks ‘the big questions’ about the study of politics, of its methodology and of social ontology, political theory makes itself an annoyance to its subfield neighbours. Not simply because it, through its existence, take up a proportion of the existing resources allotted to the discipline — and therefore annoys those who simply deem it a worthless practise — but because political theory may then be regarded as undermining a key factor determining the size of those resources, namely the possibility to present the discipline — to policy makers as well as the public — as a hard science. (This reaction is quite understandable, since, after all is said and done, who would wish to suffer the fate of the humanities?)

This partly explains, I think, the existence within social science of quite naïve and outdated ideas about science. If we combine the formula (3) with the fact that in the society at large “science” is still generally understood in a rather narrow positivistic fashion, then we need not be surprised that the very same conception of science is still entertained and propagated by scientists. After all, they themselves will benefit from presenting their discipline as in accordance with these conceptions of science. And hence, what Gregory Kasza describes as “the marginalization of political philosophy”, ought not to surprise us.

Make no mistake: political philosophy presents a threat to today’s mainstream political science. Contemporary research in the philosophy of science offers little justification for the neo-positivist template that still dominates empirical research in political science. To ask graduate students to probe the basic ontological, episte- mological, and normative questions of philosophy and apply what they learn to contemporary research in political science is to give away the store. The only way to stop philosophical inquiry from undermining the status quo is to exorcise it from graduate education. That is why philosophy requirements have disappeared from the curriculum. (Kasza 2010: 699)

Naturally, they are opposed to including in their discipline any intellectual enterprise asking the kind of questions Kasza sees as characteristic of political philosophy (he prefers the term ‘philosophy’ over ‘theory’ but treat them as interchangable):

What is the character of the human being and human society? What is politics and what should be the proper scope and objectives of political research? What sort of knowledge about politics is possible? What is science? What is a good society? (Kasza 2010: 697)

On the contrary, these scientists are rather happy in a state of affairs in which ”most graduate students are no longer taking courses that would problematize the correspondence between the social and natural sciences” (Kasza 2010: 699).

I will now expand on this issue of the distinctiveness of the social sciences. Kasza speaks of the ‘neo-positivists’. But let us return to the earlier proponents — or rather, to one of their critics. Isaiah Berlin was moving in the circles of British positivist philosophers, but became a staunch critic. In ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’ he discussed the scientistic ambitions of an even earlier age, the ambitions of those who, in the wake of Newton, had believed that the “monstrous muddle” of social and political doctrines could be cleared away “by the strong new broom of scientific method” (Berlin 1999: 162). Here is Berlin’s estimation of that project:

Nevertheless, attempts made by the philosophes of the eighteenth century to turn philosophy, and particularly moral and political philosophy, into an empirical science, into individual and social psychology, did not succeed. They failed over politics because our political notions are part of our conception of what is to be human, and this is not solely a question of fact, as facts are conceived by the natural sciences; nor the product of conscious reflection upon the specific discoveries of anthropology or sociology or psychology, although all these are relevant and indeed indispensable to an adequate notion of the nature of man in general, or of particular groups of men in particular circumstances. Our conscious idea of man – of how men differ from other entities, of what is human and what is not human or inhuman – involves the use of some among the basic categories in terms of which we perceive and order and interpret data. To analyze the concept of man is to recognize these categories for what they are. To do this is to realize that they are categories, that is, that they are not themselves subjects for scientific hypothesis about the data which they order. (Berlin 1999: 162-63)

The first part of this paragraph may simply express the thought that there are inevitably normative questions that can never be ‘solved’ by greater scientific knowledge in social and political matters. The second part, however, have more far-reaching consequences. For these concepts and categories, these models and presupposition of which Berlin speaks, are not simply something that we use to make sense of our experience, they form that experience. As Bernard Williams says, the understanding of historically and culturally different concepts and categories, and “the self-understanding of our own”, is then a prime task of philosophy (Williams 1999: xv). And since these models determine the actions and beliefs of individuals, there is a case to be made that an understanding of the social world depend on understanding such models and modes of thinking. “No amount of careful empirical observation and bold and fruitful hypothesis will explain to us what those men see who see the state as a divine institution” (Berlin 1999: 167-68). Political theory does exist, Berlin says, and its task is to bring, “by an effort of imaginative insight”, understanding of the concepts and categories that have dominated societies; insights without which these societies “will remain opaque to us” (1999: 168).

Still, it might be argued that this would be a humanistic enterprise, and that though it may supplement political science it has no place in that science. In reply to this argument, we may highlight the question of “the self-understanding of our own” concepts and categories. Then it will be seen that political theory, “the reflective dimension of political science” as Gunnell calls it (2010: 678), is integral to the discipline. For if there is no reflection on the categories and concepts “in terms of which we perceive and order and interpret data”, then we would not be able to make conscious choices about crucial methodological questions, and we would pursue our work unconscious of the presuppositions and social ontology that by necessity direct it. One does not simply by an empirical study discover what kinds of entities exist in the social world. On the contrary, a social ontology is conceptually prior to the study of that world — though the result of empirical work may then influence us to change our model and basic concepts of society. My point is: Either you try to be explicit about this ontology and try to understand the historical and sociological causes of these preconceptions, so as to make informed choices. Or you don’t.

What I am saying here could perhaps be understood as the claim that one task of political theorists is actually to conduct sociology of knowledge in relation to the field of political science. And, secondly, that the nature of political science is such that the discipline would fare less well as a science did it not make room for intellectual work of that kind. But I don’t mean to say that each and every political scientist must spend a whole lot of energy on these issues. As Bernard Williams told the philosophers: while there ought to be a sensitivity to these issues, this sensitivity may sometimes rightly take the form of simply looking the difficulty in the face “and getting on with something one actually believes in” (Williams 2006: 160). However, at the level of the whole discipline and the departments (such as Penn State), such an attitude is a different matter completely.

I have in this paper suggested that a certain amount of political theory and sociology of knowledge would make political science better off. Better off epistemologically speaking, I must stress again. For as I have also suggested, there seem to exist a kind of institutional and economical logic that threaten to make the discipline worse off in terms of resources, if it were to acknowledge precisely that view. This social analysis explains why my field of study seem to have an uncertain disciplinary home.[1] As long as the ‘distinctiveness’ of social science of which I have spoken is not broadly understood in the rest of society, then this state of affairs is likely to remain. For the existence of a profession of political science depend on the willingness of the rest of society to financially support it. And the extent of this willingness is crucially dependent on whether the profession is regarded as “science”. So, whether due to an adaption process, or to a selection effect, it is no surprise that there is tendency in the profession to propagate the same conception of science as that which is held by its financiers. This perhaps explains the prevalence of philosophically disreputed ‘neo-positivist’ views of science, and why a department of the discipline decided to give an entire subfield the boot.


[1] The situation of course varies between different regions. Kasza complains of “America’s overspecialized academic structure”, and the “ill influence” it has had in the United Kingdom and Germany (Kasza 2010: 698). My view regarding Sweden is that Kasza would have less cause for concern in this case.


  • Berlin, Isaiah (1999), Concepts and Categories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Brown, Wendy (2010), ‘Political Theory Is Not a Luxury: A Response to Timothy Kaufman-Osborn’s ‘Political Theory as a Profession”, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 680-85.
  • Bucchi, Massimiano (2004), Science in Society (London & New York: Routledge).
  • Gunnell, John G. (2010), ‘Professing Political Theory’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 674-79.
  • Kasza, Gregory J. (2010), ‘The Marginalization of Political Philosophy and Its Effects on the Rest of the Discipline’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 697-701.
  • Kaufman-Osborn, Timothy V. (2010), ‘Political Theory as Profession and as Subfield?’, Political Research Quarterly, 63 (3), 655-73.
  • Ravetz, Jerome (2006), The No-Nonsense Guide to Science (Oxford: New Internationalist).
  • Rehfeld, Andrew (2010), ‘Offensive Political Theory’, Perspectives on Politics, 8 (02), 465-86.
  • Williams, Bernard (1999), ‘Introduction’, in Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Williams, Bernard (2006), Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

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Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education

Below is the introduction to my paper ‘Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education’ (unpublished).

* * * *

Liberal-democratic societies are often faced with a dilemma regarding educational policy. While inclined to proclaim individual autonomy and critical thinking to be vital educational aims in its public schools, and as necessary conditions for running private schools, liberal democracies often incorporate cultural or religious minorities that will feel threatened by such aims. These groups might claim that such an education threaten the values, perhaps even survival, of their community. Hence they might demand that, in the name of tolerance and diversity, exemptions must by made for their children from certain parts of the curriculum: the teaching of evolution theory, for instance, or of education in sexual matters. Some groups might demand separate schooling of the children of their community: a withdrawal from the wider society, the mixing with which they see as at odds with their fundamental values or deep religious convictions.

How should liberals respond to groups or parents making demands such as these? The basic liberal commitment is to let people live their lives as they themselves see fit. Hence, the explicit will of some group of individuals to live in a certain way cannot easily be dismissed. Yet, the same commitment make liberals favour an education that give children the capacity for critical thinking, an ability to deliberate on normative issues and on one’s own identity and life plan; in short, an education that aim at individual autonomy and self-direction. But these very ambitions and ideals, the dissenting group now claim, constrain a legitimate way of life: the non-autonomous life of deep moral convictions and group belonging.

The present paper will approach this liberal dilemma of education by investigating the political thought of Isaiah Berlin. Being one of the foremost liberal thinkers of the twentieth century, one may hope to find in his writings some valuable insight pertaining to the dilemma at hand. Not least since Berlin was a liberal unusually alive to the tension between individual liberty and the human need for belonging, and his political thought in general is permeated by the insight of the necessity of clashes and conflict between genuine human goods and ways of life.

Since William Galston’s influential paper ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’ (1995) debates on this kind of issues are often framed in terms of a tension between two branches of liberalism; branches that stem, as it were, from different historical roots. On the one hand, we have a type of liberalism that finds its roots in the Reformation, the religious wars, and consequently focus on toleration and peaceful co-existence of dissenting groups and religious communities. This toleration-liberalism,[1] which has John Locke as its most prominent figure, is always on alert against the power of the state, rejecting the claims for state intervention however benevolent its ambitions may be. On the other hand we have the kind of liberalism that stems from the Enlightenment concern for the autonomy of the individual, in the face of not only the state but also of oppressive cultural practices, ignorance and clerical authority. This autonomy-liberalism finds it inspiration in John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

When it comes to schooling these variants inevitably clash. Galston’s paper was in fact prompted by considerations on educational policy, namely on the famous case of Wisconsin v. Yoder. Galston supported the verdict in favour of the Amish family Yoder to withdraw their children from public education, thus agreeing with the court’s ruling that the mandatory school attendance law constituted a violation of the Yoder parents’ religious freedom. According to Galston, a liberal state must, in order to protect diversity, allow “wide parental rights” and have a “non-autonomy-based system of public education, supplemented by private education” (Galston 1995: 529). From the view of Reformation liberalism, to give the final authority over education to the state is certainly illiberal, a measure doomed to disrupt the civil peace. As the family, on this Lockean view, “function as the last, best obstacle to the complete politicization of life,” parental control over education must be extensive (Ruderman and Godwin 2000: 527). And hence, communal or religious groups have the right to educate its young members according to the values they cherish, without being subjected to restrictions and conditions of state-sponsored liberal virtues.

But is it not — the Enlightenment liberal might reply — the obligation of society to intervene on behalf of the weak as against the strong? And if so, what if the weak are weak simply because they are not yet adults? Should then not the process of them becoming so be guaranteed against the strong, against the-already-adults, as it were, in whose interest it may be to inculcate them into obedience, to believing certain religious dogmas about the sinfulness of this or that, or into unduly deference to authoritarian community leaders, into a narrow identity of clan or tribe, or acceptance of confined and oppressive gender roles? This line of thought can be said to have prevailed in the almost equally famous case of Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education. Here the court ruled in favour of the authorities, against the parents’ complaint and demand for exemption for their children from a set of textbooks used in their children’s school. The Mozert parents claimed that the books were offensive to their religious beliefs and community by depicting girls and boys in gender roles at odds with their traditional values, by teaching the theory of evolution, and by implying the notion that salvation was possible for believers of different faiths.

Even though the rulings of Mozert and Yoder go in opposite directions, liberals have applauded both. This is revealing, notes Kevin McDonough and Walter Feinberg, editors of the book Citizenship Education in Liberal-Democratic Societies, of the continued battle between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: “Public education in virtually every Western country is in the cross hairs of this internal conflict within liberalism” (McDonough and Feinberg 2003: 8). There are difficult cases where the two kinds of liberalism clash, and the “distinctions, exceptions, and priorities that are needed to anticipate and resolve these cases are in the process of being created” (2003: 8).

This paper constitute a reading of Berlin’s writings on liberty[2] with this conflict in mind. Is it possible to find in Berlin a case for a certain set of “priorities”? I will attempt to answer this question by discussing the Yoder case. This is a well-discussed and contested case, and so could constitute a good background for a consideration of Berlin’s thoughts on education. In explaining the liberal dilemma in the Yoder case I will present William Galston’s arguments for his stance. And Galston will continue to be relevant throughout the essay, as presenting a view that I will contrast and compare Berlin to. My presentation of Galston is primarily based on his (1995) article, which discussed Yoder as the background for explaining his version of liberalism. But since then he has come to support his version of liberalism by invoking Isaiah Berlin’s notion value pluralism (2002, 2005). Though these later books will mostly be outside the scope of my paper, this fact of course makes Galston of additional interest as theorist to compare Berlin with.

There are two major passages of Berlin that my discussion will focus on. The first is expressing a very marked emphasis on the children and their future as free individuals. The second passage is in the same vein, though it also contains an interesting viewpoint on education in general, emphasizing that to educate mean by necessity to force and to ‘mould’ the young. On what basis can such a phenomenon be justified at all? Here I will make the suggestion that autonomy, viewed as a species of positive liberty, must be a legitimate condition for education. I will argue against Neil Burtonwood, a theorist who has written plenty on Berlin and education, who suggests that Berlin is bound to a position much closer to that of Galston. The point I wish to make here is that schools are institutions of a special character, with implications for how we adjudicate between autonomy and other values. Taken together, the picture that emerges from these passages is that Berlin is committed to educational ideals of making children capable of free choice and self-direction.

The structure of the essay is the following. Section 2 introduces the dilemma posed by the Yoder case, as well as the theoretical reasoning used by Galston to support the verdict. Section 3 briefly covers the key concepts in Berlin’s thought as they are expressed in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Section 4 then turn to Berlin’s explicit views on education, and here I will venture to draw out the implications of these. The concluding section 5 will briefly summarize the main points of the preceding arguments, and indicate where Berlin stand in relation to the divide between Reformation and Enlightenment ideals in these educational issues.

* * * *

[1] Galston calls it ’diversity liberalism’, but toleration-liberalism has become the more established term.

[2] The volume Liberty (2002) comprise the original four essays on liberty together with two other longer essays and a number of shorter texts.


  • Barry, Brian (2001), Culture and Equality (Cambridge: Polity Press).
  • Berlin, Isaiah (2001), The Power of Ideas (London: Pimlico).
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  • Berlin, Isaiah (2004), ’Democracy, Communism and the Individual’, (The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library).
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