Cover image for Imagining the American Polity: Political Science and the Discourse of Democracy By John G. Gunnell

Imagining the American Polity

Political Science and the Discourse of Democracy

John G. Gunnell


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02353-3

304 pages
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Imagining the American Polity

Political Science and the Discourse of Democracy

John G. Gunnell

Americans have long prided themselves on living in a country that serves as a beacon of democracy to the world, but from the time of the founding they have also engaged in debates over what the criteria for democracy are as they seek to validate their faith in the United States as a democratic regime. In this book John Gunnell shows how the academic discipline of political science has contributed in a major way to this ongoing dialogue, thereby playing a significant role in political education and the formulation of popular conceptions of American democracy.


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Americans have long prided themselves on living in a country that serves as a beacon of democracy to the world, but from the time of the founding they have also engaged in debates over what the criteria for democracy are as they seek to validate their faith in the United States as a democratic regime. In this book John Gunnell shows how the academic discipline of political science has contributed in a major way to this ongoing dialogue, thereby playing a significant role in political education and the formulation of popular conceptions of American democracy.

Using the distinctive “internalist” approach he has developed for writing intellectual history, Gunnell traces the dynamics of conceptual change and continuity as American political science evolved from a focus in the nineteenth century on the idea of the state, through the emergence of a pluralist theory of democracy in the 1920s and its transfiguration into liberalism in the mid-1930s, up to the rearticulation of pluralist theory in the 1950s and its resurgence, yet again, in the 1990s.

Along the way he explores how political scientists have grappled with a fundamental question about popular sovereignty: Does democracy require a people and a national democratic community, or can the requisites of democracy be achieved through fortuitous social configurations coupled with the design of certain institutional mechanisms?

John G. Gunnell is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at SUNY–Albany and the author of six other books, including The Descent of Political Theory: The Genealogy of an American Vocation (1993).




1. The Democratic Concept

2. The State of Democracy

3. The Discovery of American Pluralism

4. The Theory of Democratic Pluralism

5. From Pluralism to Liberalism

6. Pluralism Redux

Appendix: Telling the Story of Political Science



They constantly try to escape

From the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect

That no one will need to be good.

—T. S. Eliot

Although today it is commonly assumed that the American political system is the epitome of a democratic regime, Americans from the late eighteenth century to the present have had difficulty determining exactly what kind of political society they had created and what form of government they possessed—or by which they were possessed. This situation has inspired many attempts both to give an account of the nature of popular government, self-rule, or democracy and to judge the extent to which the United States conforms to such an account. John Adams mounted a Defense of the Constitutions of America before the creation of the United States Constitution, and from the time of the debates about the ratification of the Constitution to the present, Americans have continued to imagine their nation’s polity. American political science, from its conception and inception, has been a central and unique part of this dialogue, and this book traces, in detail, central dimensions of the evolution of the discourse of democracy in this academic practice. However we may judge that discourse and its vision of democracy, the discipline has consistently defined itself as a science devoted to the understanding and propagation of democracy, and it has played a large role in valorizing that concept and equating it with the American political system.

The study of the history of political science, and particularly American political science, has evolved to a point where it would be hubristic to attempt to write a history of the field as a whole or even to describe fully its participation in constructing the American democratic vision. Consequently, this volume represents a selection. This study is organized around three closely related and historically overlapping indigenous concepts that, I argue, have been pivotal in demarcating paradigmatic transformations in the meaning of the word “democracy” and the conversations in which it has been featured: state, pluralism, and liberalism. My principal concern is with the manner in which each of these concepts has represented and entailed a theory of democracy. Since much of the focus is on the decline of the nineteenth-century theory of state and the evolution of pluralist theory, this study could be construed as a history of the latter, but while this transition in the field may be the only one to which Thomas Kuhn’s criteria for designating a scientific revolution could be applied, my concerns are more broadly with democratic theory in the context of American political science.

One correlate of this endeavor is to rethink what we mean by American political thought. The study of American political ideas has come under the spell of its own “myth of the tradition.” Just as the “great tradition” of political theory, from Plato to Marx, was less an actual historical tradition than an analytical and retrospective construction created by political scientists, political theorists, and other commentators, many of the dominant images of the history of American political theory, as well as of subsidiary traditions, such as that of liberalism, are canonical fictions that have been reified and presented as if they were genealogies that in some way explained contemporary configurations of political thought and action. A pantheon of authors and texts, representing diverse genres and realms of discourse from the Puritans onward, has been selected by various criteria adduced in the present, the components of which have been arranged chronologically and presented as if they were participants in a conversation over time about matters such as democracy. While there may be many reasons and justifications for constructing traditions of this sort, problems are created by the failure to distinguish between such constructions and reconstructions of preconstituted traditions. It is, in this light, indeed appropriate and necessary to reconsider what we mean when we speak of the history of American political thought, and part of that reconsideration must involve recovering the identity and contours of actual traditions, both first-order (in political life) and second-order (such as those in social science), considering the relationship between them, and assessing their explanatory and normative significance for the present. One such preconstituted tradition is that of democratic theory in American political science.

Although this literature may not be considered as philosophically and literarily complex and intriguing as the texts of the classic canon of political philosophy or as romantic as some of the textual icons characteristically designated as exemplars of American political thought, it has often been neglected and prematurely depreciated. It is less that this literature has been demonstrated to be theoretically deficient than that it has fallen out of style. But the visions of democracy conjured up by American political science, whether judged to be banal or profound, have, on the whole, exercised a far greater and more direct influence on contemporary political perceptions and forms of life than, for example, the work of either John Locke or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet, even within the discipline of political science, the history of this literature has received insufficient and less than careful attention.

Describing, explaining, and evaluating the United States as a democratic society has, in many respects, been the defining mission of political science, yet contemporary political scientists seldom step back to reflect, in any thorough and objective manner, on past accounts of American politics and government. Even less often do they scrutinize the received images of their history. Both mainstream political scientists and those who seek separate personae as political theorists have been prone, for a variety of reasons, to forget, suppress, or falsify their past—and to deny or fail to recognize that it is a past that they share. Consequently, they understand adequately neither their contemporary intellectual identity nor the manner and the extent to which the structure and content of the conversations in which they are now immersed are a legacy from that past. This suppression of the past also leads to a neglect of the relevance of the dreams and insights about American politics that were produced by earlier generations. Some of the persistent wariness about examining the history of the field can be attributed to a fear on the part of certain mainstream practitioners that such studies might undermine the belief in scientific progress that they wish to foster and sustain, but many political theorists and disciplinary dissidents also often tend to trivialize that history and disassociate themselves from it. There are many reasons why we should peer into the past of political science, but one specific and salient reason that extends beyond disciplinary issues is that the history of the field has significance both for thinking about contemporary democratic theory and for understanding the pedigree of the issues that today animate discussion.

Although contemporary empirical political science remains concerned about democracy, the principal focus, at least in recent years, has been primarily on what are taken to be various democratic processes and indicators, rather than on the theory of democracy and on the general character of the United States as a democratic polity. Since the early 1970s, or the beginning of what is commonly referred to as the postbehavioral era, democratic theory has largely been the domain of the subfield of political theory, which, although professionally attached to political science, has become intellectually estranged and discursively separate from the discipline as a whole. The interdisciplinary enclave of political theory has forged a quite distinct intellectual identity and even constructed a separate history for itself. Although both mainstream political science and political theory are prone to seek their roots, and validate themselves, in terms of springing from Aristotle, the story of political theory as presented by someone such as Sheldon Wolin is very different from the narrative of scientific achievement told by someone such as Gabriel Almond. One consequence of this alienation has been that democratic theory has tended to become a somewhat abstract, decontextualized philosophical endeavor, while the empirical study of democracy has attenuated theoretical grounding and import. Much of contemporary democratic theory speaks only obliquely to issues in American politics, and many of the traditional democratic concerns of political science have become latent.

Despite recent advances in the historiography of social science, “telling the story” of American political science often continues to be a rhetorically motivated endeavor. The critical and legitimating functions that historical narratives may serve need not, however, nullify their scholarly integrity, and, in fact, we have reached a point at which convincing criticism and historical credibility can no longer be easily disjoined. Engaging in the serious study of disciplinary history, however, inevitably raises a number of complex methodological problems, as well as the issue of the relationship between the study of the history of political science and contemporary disciplinary practice. This book, most generically construed, is an exercise in the history of social science, but since such research is still a less than clearly defined scholarly genre, I will specify and emphasize the particular historiographical assumptions that inform this work.

As Bernard Crick and other scholars have stressed, political science has been a distinctly and uniquely American social science. Notwithstanding its universal scientific aspirations, emigration, and export to other countries, especially subsequent to World War II, and the waves of foreign influence that have contributed to shaping it, political science bears a unique relationship to American political life and ideology. And its concerns have been practical as well as scholarly. While political science has sought to give a descriptive and explanatory account of the nature of the American democratic polity, affecting democratic thought and behavior was, from the beginning, a principal goal of the discipline. It was committed to creating a truly scientific study of politics, but despite changing images of science, there has been a persistent search for a discipline that would have an end in action and that would contribute to realizing and enhancing democratic values and institutions. There has been, nevertheless, considerable ambivalence about the discipline’s actual and proper relationship to politics, and it has often been suggested that the simultaneous commitments to science and democracy have not always been in harmony with one another.

This tension between theory and practice has in part involved the problem of reconciling scientific and political criteria of judgment, but it has also been the consequence of a longstanding assumption that only by remaining aloof from politics could the discipline gain the scientific authority that would, in the end, give it political purchase. Consequently, although the American science of politics emerged from, and has remained tied to, American political culture, it has in various ways sought to distance itself, both conceptually and institutionally. The social sciences in general have tended to conceive of their subject matter in an abstract manner, and political science has been no exception. Anthropology chose, and we might even say invented, culture; sociology studied the vague entity, society; and economists turned away from economic issues to examine an analytical image called the economy. Although politics was a more concrete and prefigured phenomenon and less subject to such theoretical displacement, political scientists, through concepts such as the state, have sublimated their object of inquiry and created intellectual and practical distance. Such detachment was viewed as necessary in part because, as many in the nineteenth century who attempted to speak in a partisan manner from the podium discovered, politics in its actual manifestations was a dangerous object of inquiry—much as in the case of anthropologists studying cannibals. And the real task was often conceived to be one of purifying or “converting” it into something such as administration. But a degree of remoteness was also pursued, because science seemed to hold the key to practical authority, and science demanded objectivity and distance. Thus while it is often assumed that American political science can be understood as a reflection of American society and that it has, in turn, reinforced and legitimated the values of that society, it has also often been suggested that the discipline is quite alienated from the particularities of public life.

Self-consciousness and concern about its relationship to politics has significantly informed political science’s successive crises of identity, and the issue of this relationship has, from the beginning, been an important theme in the discourse of the field as well as in historical accounts of the discipline. But despite diverse, and sometimes contradictory, claims about the extent to which the images of politics and government produced by political science influence political ideas and behavior, about how these images have been a product of their political context, and about the discipline’s apolitical character and lack of political relevance, we possess little in the way of detailed knowledge about the actual character of this relationship. Yet notwithstanding the paucity of distinct evidentiary support, it is undeniable that the imaginings produced by the discipline have, in various ways such as through diverse levels and vehicles of pedagogy and their influence on a variety of media, been sedimented in the perceptions and practices of citizens and political actors as well as in the vision of other denizens of the academy. The discourse of democracy in the discipline represents the most persistent, articulate, focused, and self-conscious tradition of democratic thought in American life. Although American political science has never fulfilled the dreams of practical effect that have extended from its nineteenth-century founders to modern policy analysts, the discipline has, both formally and informally, played a significant role in shaping political education and in forging popular conceptions of American democracy. But what is involved is a complicated relationship between two orders of practice and their accompanying modes of discourse.

Political participants and citizens embrace and disseminate representations and idealizations of politics and government, however inchoate and inconsistent, or in some cases simplified and simplistic. Embedded in or entwined with these constructions are a variety of validating and embellishing historical and normative metapolitical claims, which are articulated with varying degrees of explicitness and reflectiveness. In the United States, the image of democracy and the story of its origin and development constitute such a metanarrative and have been a significant element of American political identity and the language of politics. From the time of the American founding, however, there have been parallel accounts of political identity along with complementary metanarratives that have been more critically informed and relatively autonomous. These re-constructions, such as those located in the scholarly practices of history and social science, despite their eventual home in the academy, often sprung from practical concerns, but even if they have sometimes repenetrated everyday political life, they constitute a different realm of discourse. Various and complex attitudes and perspectives have informed these formal metapractices, but the supervenient accounts and ideal typifications produced by such institutionalized forms of inquiry represent a language about politics, which, despite similarities, overlap, and relationships with political discourse, is distinct from the language of politics.

The existence of such discourses about politics, whatever their intention and purpose, not only raises questions about the verisimilitude of their claims but, at least implicitly, presents a challenge to the form and content of political life and entails the issue of the relationship between politics and political science. The claims of political science not only often constitute a rival description and evaluation of the polity but also may reflect a different theory of social reality than that embedded in the activity of politics itself. While, for example, the practices of science and religion may compete with each other with respect to rendering an account of nature, nature is not, literally, a party to the dialogue. Different renditions within and between the social sciences may also compete with one another, but, in an important sense, they also often compete with their subject matter. Sometimes these metapractical accounts represent an attempt to make explicit what is merely tacit in the activity and self-image of their subject matter, and sometimes they serve to justify those self-images. At other times, however, they contain pointed contradictions of received wisdom and constitute theoretical, factual, and ethical challenges to the social construction of political reality, challenges that often seem rather hollow if disjoined from political reform. Both attitudes have been part of the story of democratic theory in political science.

While I engage certain dimensions of the relationship between the language of politics and the language of political science, my purpose is not primarily to trace empirically the interaction between these realms of discourse. My focus is essentially on the internal constitution and development of political science’s vision of the American polity and on its attending beliefs, hopes, and fears regarding its relationship to that polity. I assume, however, that this reveals something about the character both of American politics and American political science themselves as well as the connections between them, and I also assume that understanding the history of political science is a necessary prolegomenon to any informed investigation and evaluation of this relationship. It is impossible to study the history of the field without recognizing the degree to which the discourse has been propelled by a concern about the discipline’s practical relationship to its subject matter. Although I have adopted an approach that I label “internal history,” which stresses the dynamics of conceptual change within the discourse of political science, this approach does not imply a depreciation of the political setting in which political science evolved. It does, however, assume that it is the political scientists’ perceptions of that setting and of the discipline’s relationship to it that is crucial. Although this book is limited to the discipline of political science, the study is pursued against the background of the more general issues of the relationship between social science and American public life, the nature of American democracy, and democratic theory in general.

To speak, as this volume does, about the past of American political science and the images of the American polity that it has evoked is to enter a third realm of discourse that is neither that of the first-order universe of politics nor the second-order practice of political science. Such third-order studies involve not only exploring the discursive constitution of the social sciences and their relationship to their subject matter, but also confronting what might be considered fourth-order issues regarding the nature of this enterprise, how it has been conducted, and its relationship to the fields that constitute its subject matter. The study of the history of social science raises a number of epistemological issues that are structurally parallel to those involved in the relationship between social science and its subject matter and that cannot be disjoined from substantive claims about the past of the discipline. My concern in distinguishing these various orders of discourse and practice is not to suggest that they are insulated from one another but, on the contrary, to demonstrate that while they are not the same, there are significant relationships between them that must be grasped and confronted. Accounts of the history of political science, whether informal or the product of a distinct research domain and whether authored by political scientists or professional historians, have become part of the self-images of the discipline and its search for identity. It is necessary, however, to raise the question of whether what has often largely been part of what might be called a rhetoric of inquiry can become a practice of knowledge, that is, to what extent claims about the history of a discipline can be judged by criteria of historicity. The major portion of this volume represents, so to speak, an effort to practice methodologically what I have, over a number of years, professed about the conduct of intellectual history, textual interpretation, and the study of concepts and conceptual change. Although I do not want to “frontload” and overload this study with complex methodological arguments and critiques, it is necessary to clarify the presuppositions informing its research and writing.

The internalist approach represented in The Descent of Political Theory has consistently and consciously informed this volume. By referring to my project as internal history, I first of all signal my wish to move beyond the kind of externalism characteristic of rhetorical or “presentist” histories, whether of the Whiggish or polemical variety, which have tended to dominate accounts of the history of the discipline and that have told the story of political science in terms of some a priori image of progress or decline. Second, much of the history of the political science, and intellectual history in general, has rendered its subject in terms of analytical concepts and constructed traditions that have, in many instances, effectively obscured important aspects of the character of indigenous conversations and transformations within these conversations. Third, I want to alter somewhat the distribution of emphasis characteristic of much of recent historical scholarship which has employed a variety of contextualist approaches, and to avoid some of the problems involved in such approaches. Although I do not want to suggest that I am modeling this study on Thomas Kuhn’s account of the history of scientific revolutions, there is a similarity in that the emphasis in both cases is on the internal dynamics of scientific discussions rather than on explaining the content and evolution of such discussions in terms of some broad account of their social and political ambience. One might reasonably argue that in the case of political science ambience is more salient, but my assumption and claim is that the discipline itself and its university setting, as in the case of natural science, is the most relevant context. My focus, for both pragmatic and epistemological reasons, is on the internal structure and content of the discourse that is investigated rather than what might be characterized as the wider social and political context in which it arose and evolved. A third major concern is to give more careful attention to what might be called the longitudinal dimension of historical analysis, to the archaeology and genealogy of conversations, and to the principal concepts and conceptual changes that have defined those conversations.

The approach in this work, then, focuses on understanding concepts and conceptual change in the context of the evolution of conversations in academic discourses and practices. Most of the discussion in historical studies and social science, and in the philosophies of history and social science, about understanding and explaining social and historical phenomena has been conducted in terms of competing but theoretically unanchored epistemologies and methodologies. These claims about the nature of social and historical knowledge and the manner of its acquisition have not been redeemed by a fully explicated theory of the phenomena in question. Although in this setting I can neither elaborate fully such a theory and the tenets of interpretation and the theory of concepts predicated upon it, nor describe in detail my framework of analysis based on the “orders of discourse” and the cognitive and practical relationships between them, my concern is to make the basic elements of such a theory and the entailed approach clear and explicit.

In the following chapters, the basic object of analysis is neither particular books, journal articles, and other discursive artifacts nor their authors, but the conversations in which they were involved and the concepts and arguments that were the nuclei of those conversations. Although the term “conversation” is frequently, and often loosely, employed, my usage is neither metaphorical nor analytical, that is, it does not refer simply to a selection of certain things that, from some perspective and in terms of some criteria adduced by the interpreter, possess a family resemblance. Although the participants in a conversation may not always have recognized or articulated what I specify as its identity and parameters, my specification is a corrigible claim about the existence and character of a certain configuration of discourse. I am not suggesting that participants were lacking consciousness of their situation but only that, while in process, a conversation may not have been easily circumscribed and acknowledged. Such a conversation is admittedly a kind of phenomenon that is more readily perceivable within the relatively determinate confines of an academic discipline than in more general and amorphous dimensions of human activity, but the concept is not necessarily confined to the former venue. My assumption is that the principal explanation for transformations in the concepts that define a conversation must be internal to that conversation no matter how important some broader context might be as far as limiting, allowing, and instigating certain conceptual formations and modes of discourse. Just as in the case of evolutionary biology, it is the genetic capacities of organic forms that largely govern development rather than the random role of environment. There is neither any a priori means of determining how forms will respond nor a definitive explanation of why they responded in the manner that they did. But we can describe the character of the transformation. The chapter divisions in this volume represent what I take to be natural or indigenous stages in the conversation about democracy in political science, and, in order to capture the integrity and flow of the conversation, I have not imposed analytical subdivisions within the chapters. While much of intellectual history categorizes, characterizes, and describes arguments and ideas, and supports those descriptions with a few apposite quotations, I seek to render more fully the structure and content of the arguments that constitute this conversation. This approach admittedly makes the narrative somewhat dense at times, particularly since the original arguments may have been less than perfectly articulated, but my goal is to render the arguments as they emerged rather than to rationalize them in terms of some contemporary framework. In order to factor out my interpretation from other historical claims and to maintain a separation between the interpretation and the subject matter, I have, except where immediately related to a specific claim, largely eliminated references to secondary literature in the body of work, and have instead included an Appendix devoted to the subject of “telling the story of political science.”

While my brand of internalism involves theoretical claims regarding the nature of social or conventional phenomena and the cognitive and practical relationship between the practice of interpretation and its object, there are also, in the case of the history of political science, some more circumstantial reasons for adopting an internalist approach.

No matter what quarrels I may have with past attempts to recount the history of political science, most commentaries, as I have already noted, have focused on the manner in which the problem of the relationship between academic and public discourse has structured the development of the field. Many commentators have also stressed the extent to which professionalism, the commitment to science, and the habitat of the university have served to create a gulf between the field and public life—even while the goal of social science has consistently been to affect public life. As a consequence, the discipline and profession of political science have developed, as has much of the American academy, quite independent of what might be viewed as the general social and political context. This is not to say that there have not, at various junctures, been important connections and relationships, both perceived and real; however, the situation in the United States has not, for example, been like that of Germany and other European countries where there have been much more complex and intimate interactions between the university and the structure of political power. Despite the common tendency to attempt to explain what has taken place in the history of political science by referring to its general sociopolitical setting, there is reason to emphasis explanatory factors that are internal to disciplinary practice. This in no way implies that the discourse of political science has not been driven by its concerns about the political world and about its relationship to that world, but only that in the end it has been that discourse’s understanding of that world and of its relationship to it that has been most decisive, and that the understanding has been through the lens of disciplinary constructions.

This volume is, to repeat, for the most part a third-order interpretive study of a second-order practice and its discourse, that is, a discourse about the first-order world of politics. The conversations revolving around the word “democracy” and the concepts to which the word has referred constitute the basic subject matter. I stress this difference between words and concepts because while historians often claim to be writing the history of a concept, such as the state, they are actually writing histories of words that, in the course of their use, have referred to quite different concepts. The continuity of a word often does not represent the continuity of a concept, as I will demonstrate with regard to the “state”; likewise, a concept may persist with different words assigned to it, as I will argue in the case of “liberalism” and “pluralism.” Although much of contemporary intellectual history reflects the impact of the late-twentieth-century “linguistic turn” in its approach to conceiving and interpreting social phenomena, much of it is still bound to the assumption that what it is uncovering are the thoughts, beliefs, and other mentalistic entities expressed in words and actions. I often persist in using the term “idea,” but that use is simply a convenience of speech. I am not referring to anything that lies behind language. The conversations I identify are reconstructions, one might say even hypothetical claims, drawn from an examination of books, articles, and various other primary documents. These conversations are presented as the primary, or “natural,” context for understanding these concepts. A secondary context is the evolving disciplinary matrix of political science, and its place in the university can be understood as a tertiary context. The types of putative contexts about which I am wary are abstractions such as “modernity” or “crisis of authority,” but also more detailed constructions of the historian that are often derived from diverse bodies of secondary literature and often more juxtaposed as independent variables than concretely connected to the concepts that are the object of interpretation. I do not dismiss authors as historically situated agents, but since the principal objects of analysis are conversations and concepts, I treat them primarily as participants in a conversation. While I attempt to identify adequately often now forgotten or obscure individuals, I do not offer an extended account of their biography. Although I am valorizing conversations over the “ideas” of individuals, this reflects less some philosophical claim about the primacy of language vis-à-vis authors than my particular distribution of emphasis. Although there may be something to be said for the idea of authorial authority in terms of the identity and meaning of particular texts, the claim is less convincing with respect to conversations.

Finally, on a related note, something more must be said about the perennially vexing question of historical objectivity, particularly in the case of disciplinary history that has characteristically been so rhetorically motivated. If one should mean by “objective” some perspective that is theoretically neutral regarding the nature of social phenomena, then the concept of objectivity would be an empty abstraction. If one refers to a position that is devoid of political or ethical focus, concern, or motivation, or that is not embedded in a social setting or is in some manner translinguistic, it would be nearly as sterile. Objectivity, like other modal concepts, has a universal force, but its ultimate meaning requires context-dependent criteria of application whether in matters of historical interpretation or refereeing football. There are no substantive criteria of objectivity rooted in either the “facts” or the manner of their apprehension. So what can we mean when we ask, for example, whether a study of the history of political science could be objective? It does little good to suggest that it can never be entirely neutral when there are no criteria for, or even an image of, something such as complete neutrality. In the case of metapractices such as history, as with any practice of knowledge, objectivity entails basically the establishment of standards in a scholarly community, but there are attributes peculiar to metapractical endeavors.

While there is no position that is not informed by various theoretical premises, critical concerns, choices of subject matter, distributions of emphasis, and problem orientations, the discursive identity of what is interpreted, as I have already stressed, is not in the first instance a function of interpretation and interpretive communities. This claim should not be construed as a suggestion that there is some authoritative epistemological standard to which we can repair in order to settle differences between competing historical reconstructions; but a text, or any interpretive object, does have a physical and conventional constitution distinct from its interpretive reconstruction. An interpretation is another text, and the very concept of interpretation carries with it the assumption of a distinction between an interpretation and what is interpreted. To achieve objectivity in the case of the human sciences requires the recognition of a prior discursive entity upon which the reconstruction or interpretation presented by a metapractice is predicated. What is involved is not the postulation of some given realm of facticity but rather the existence of a conventional datum about which corrigible claims are made. What actually distinguishes natural science from social science is not the “givenness” of natural phenomena but the “givenness” of social phenomena. Although one might subscribe to some form of metaphysical realism regarding the existence of natural phenomena, they are accessible only in the language of natural science or some other first-order discourse, while social phenomena are conventionally constructed prior to second-order reconstructions or interpretations. It is precisely the kind of claims about the past that are in principle and practice incorrigible that we should label subjective and designate as lacking objectivity. When, for example, Leo Strauss claimed that Machiavelli was the founder of modern political thought, he made an observation that we can regard as meaningful at various levels, both philosophically and rhetorically, but we cannot seriously debate it as a potentially refutable historical proposition. Similarly, when Louis Hartz talked about the liberal tradition in America, he was, despite the subsequent reification of the concept of liberalism, talking about the persistence of certain attributes that he perceived as similar rather than about an actual and preconstituted tradition. In the following chapters, I have attempted to provide evidence for the claims that I have made about the existence and character of the conversations and concepts in question, but that very evidence leaves space for alternative renderings. My practical concerns are diverse. In part, I wish to provide a genealogy of some important strands of contemporary democratic theory, but my purpose is also to put to rest a great deal of mythology about the history of political science and political theory that continues to inhibit critical reflection.

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