Voegelin’s “The New Science of Politics”: Intro

I’ve begun reading Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, published in 1952 and based on a series of lectures he delivered the previous year at the University of Chicago.

If the first 26 pages are any indication, Voegelin’s writing style (and speaking style?) is dense and somewhat indirect. I found myself having to focus on an almost word-for-word basis to decipher what he was saying. I do think over time I’ll adapt to his style and the meaning will come easier. Even so, I am going to do a quick post as I read each chapter to work out my understanding of Voegelin’s arguments.

In this post I am going to attempt a quick articulation of the introduction.

So, let’s jump into it.

In essence, Voegelin seems to be saying that positivism has been responsible for the destruction of political science, but that it is possible to restore the work of political science by rejecting the flawed ideas contained in positivism and by revisiting, reinterpreting, and reapplying the work done by the ancients and those in the Middle Ages, especially the work that wrestles with the metaphysical.

So, what is the flaw of positivism that has ruined political science? The main issues seems to be 1) an exultation of method over relevance, 2) a resulting overflow of irrelevant facts which obscure truth, 3) a strictly materialist worldview that underlies all positivist inquiry, and 4) the belief in valueless, objective scientific inquiry while at the same time being value rich, but blindly so.

Voegelin uses the work of Max Weber as an example, arguing that Webber represents both what is wrong with positivism and a possible transition point away from it.

Webber’s work is remarkable for its broad sweep. He does much to try to objectively present the social sciences, meaning to understand and represent them free of value judgements. In this way, Webber does not make pronouncements on the value of Marxism or Capitalism or Christianity. Are these things good, bad, right, wrong? Webber has no comment. But, he does recognize that the practitioners of religion and politics do have their own values and ideals as they relate to their given -ism and to these values Webber assigns the label of “demonic” because they cannot be traced to rational sources of order. Thus, these values are part of the demonic world of disorder and are considered irrational and hence not worthy of actual scientific inquiry. It’s as if Webber only wants to deconstruct the objects of his attention to understand what makes them work, but at the same time he is either incapable or unwilling to determine if these things are good or not, or to what degree they are congruent to the truth, if at all.

At the same time that Webber is consigning values to the demonic and is trying to create a values-free grasp of politics and religion, and this is why I think Voegelin recognizes him as transitional, he is saddened by the desacralization and demystification of the world by positivism’s methodological and objectivist science. Even so, Webber seems to believe there is nothing for it but to mourn what must be lost.

Voegelin points out that for as sweeping and inclusive as Webber’s work is thought to be, Webber seemed to studiously avoid any thinking done by the ancient Greeks, the great minds of the Orthodox church, or by those of the Middle Ages. Webber strives to present a valueless social science and for him the medieval Christian scholars, as well as the ancient Greeks, were steeped in values, making them and their work flawed. Webber has to criticize them for their value-rich work, but he never delves deep into their work; the criticisms made from a distance. Veogelin says that to truly critique them Webber would have had to study them and what he would have found was a science elaborated as work of reason. If Webber, or anyone, studied metaphysics enough to level a proper criticism, they would have become a metaphysician themselves. Webber’s effort to be rational delivers an irrational result; one which is flawed in its exclusion of relevant and important theory. And, tellingly, one that strictly excludes the metaphysical.

Voegelin closes his introduction arguing that the way forward, meaning the way to restore political science, is to reject positivism, reintroduce values to scientific inquiry, and include classical and Christian metaphysics as relevant.

Note: To anyone reading this, I am neither a political scientist or a philosopher. I’m just a layperson reading a book, which I should think is rather obvious if you’ve read this far. If anything I’ve said here falls short of Veogelin’s work or is just plain wrong, and I am certain there must be something, please forgive me. I’m just using this space to work out my understanding of Voegelin’s work.