The Problem of Political Science: Political Relevance and Scientific Rigor in Aristotle’s “Philosophy of Human Affairs”

The forthcoming article “The Problem of Political Science: Political Relevance and Scientific Rigor in Aristotle’s “Philosophy of Human Affairs“” by Dustin Sebell is summarized by the author here:

Discussions of Aristotle’s moral-political science have largely disregarded the statements on method that he delivers as he embarks on his “philosophy of human affairs” in book I of the Nicomachean Ethics. This is surprising. For with these statements Aristotle reveals how and why he composed the Ethics and its sequel, the Politics; and what he reveals along these lines is bound to give us pause. According to his methodological statements, I argue, Aristotle sought to give the sharpest possible expression to ordinary, common sense moral-political opinion. By representing moral-political opinion as sharply as possible, however, Aristotle’s “philosophy of human affairs” actually circumscribes its cognitive or intellectual limits. In other words, moral-political opinion is one thing—in the end, a problematic thing—Aristotle’s own understanding of justice is another.

To be sure, the methodological statements are perhaps the first entries in the old quarrel between the politically relevant, which is inevitably controversial, and the scientifically rigorous, which is ideally not. I argue, however, that we today can still learn something of importance from them about the complex relation between “politics” and “science.” For, through the statements on method, Aristotle draws our attention to the cause of the vagueness or divisiveness that continues to define moral-political opinion as such. That is, besides asserting that moral-political opinion lacks full intelligibility, the methodological statements also make fully intelligible the reason for this lack. And in this way Aristotle can teach us how to walk a fine line between “politics,” on one hand, and “science,” on the other, without losing sight of the tension between them.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.