Bertrand de Jouvenel
ON THE NATURE OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
American Political Science Review, 55 (4)
Dec., 1961, 773-779.
VI - Conclusions
HHC: titles added
Political activity is dangerous. Arising inevitably out of men’s ability to influence each other, conferring upon them the benefits of joint endeavour, an indispensable source of social boons, it is also capable of doing great harm. Men can be moved to injure others or to ruin themselves. The very process of moving implies a risk of debasement for the moved and for the mover.  Even the fairest vision of a good to be sought offers no moral guarantee, since it may poison hearts with hatred against those who are deemed an obstacle to its achievement. 
No apology is required for stressing a subjective dread of political activity: the chemist is not disqualified as a scientist because he is aware that explosives are dangerous: indeed that chemist is dangerous who lacks such awareness.
This feeling of danger is widespread in human society  and has ever haunted all but the more superficial authors. Although, to be sure, few have, like Hobbes, brought it out into the open, it has hovered in the background, exerting an invisible but effective influence upon their treatment of the subject; it may be, to a significant degree, responsible for the strange and unique texture of political science.
There are no objects to which our attention is so naturally drawn as to our own fellows. It takes a conscious purpose to watch birds or ants, but we can not fail to watch other men, with whom we are inevitably associated, whose behaviour is so important to us that we need to foresee it, and who are sufficiently like us to facilitate our understanding of their actions. Being a man, which involves living with men, therefore involves observing men. And the knowledge of men could be called the most fairly distributed of all kinds of knowledge since each one of us may acquire it according to his willingness and capacity.
As politics consists of nothing other than human behaviour it seems that, over time, the study of it should have made great progress through accumulation, comparison and systematisation of observations. If politics is understood restrictively as the conduct of men in offices of authority and the consequent march of public affairs, then all those who have over time found themselves in office have found out something about political behaviour. I hold the view that we should regard as “political” every systematic effort performed at any place in the social field to move other men in pursuit of some design cherished by the mover. According to this view, we all have the required material: anyone of us has acted with others, been moved by others and has sought to move others.
It is clear of course that mere “facts” can never compose a knowledge unless they be marshalled, and their marshalling always calls for a “theory” which seizes upon certain similar appearances, assigns to them common names and supposes processes which bring them about. The processes we assume constitute a sort of model in the mind of what occurs in observable reality; a necessary attempt to reduce phenomenal diversity to intellectual simplicity. Such “theory” has a “representative” purpose; it guides us in the collection of facts. These in turn call for amendments to our theory insofar as it can not account for them. We move from initial simplicity to increasing complexity of our theory until a possibly quite different one is offered which achieves the representative function with greater elegance and accuracy.
Theory of this kind progresses over time, accounting for an ever-increasing store of observations. All this is trite: but it then comes as a surprise that political science should offer so little of such “theory”: what is commonly
1. “Tel se croit le maitre des autres qui ne laisse pas d’être plus esciave qu’eux,” says Rousseau in the first lines of the Social Contract. He elucidates in Emile: “Domination itself is servile when beholden to opinion: for you depend upon the prejudices of those you govern by means of their prejudices.”
2. It is a sobering exercize to count the expressions of anger (as against those of good will) which occur in the speeches or writings of political champions of this or that moral cause.
3. Different voices denounce the encroaching State, overbearing Lords, an established Church, or tentacular unions, or the dominant party: yet such voices, however discordant, all express distrust of some form of established power. In the same manner, emergent power is deemed frightening by some when an agitator musters a mob, by others in the case of a rising dictator - though one may turn into the other. The same feeling crystallizes on different stems.
called “political theory”  is an altogether different thing. In the theory of astronomy there is no place for Ptolemaeus, in the theory of chemistry no place for Paracelsus: not so in political theory. The theory of any science is an integrated whole from which past theories have been discarded. Political theory is a collection of individual theories which stand side by side, each one more or less impervious to the impact of new observations and to the advent of new theories. This can be the case only because political theories are normative (i.e., are doctrines), and are not meant to perform the representative function which the word “theory” evokes in the case of factual sciences.
Why is political science rich in normative theories, deficient in “representative” theory? Only a fool would opine that the masters of the past were incapable of establishing the latter: they must have been unwilling. And why? The reason may lie in the sense of danger which I noted at the beginning.
Libido sciendi is a noble passion: it is inherently incapable of debasing the man it possesses, and the delights it affords do not wait upon the possession of the object pursued but attend its very pursuit. This libido is indispensable to the making of a scientist,  and it seems also sufficient. Yet if one studies the personalities of the great scientists, one finds that their libido was habitually associated with one or both of the motives expressed in Bacon’s timeless sentence: “for the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate.”
The word “understanding” denotes the grasping of a pattern which underlies the waywardness of phenomena: the scientist finds beauty in such a pattern and loves it the more the higher its aesthetic quality. The word “discovery” signifies the unveiling of what was both present and hidden. Such terms reveal that ancient inquirers into “the secrets of Nature” (another telling expression) assumed the existence of an “order”: and what better warrant for it than the belief in Creation? If everything that is comes from the divine, planning of a Supreme Intelligence – “Dieu est géomètre” - then the design which stands at the source guarantees that far lesser intelligences, partaking of the same Reason, can grasp some parts of the design.
Such was the language of scientists in the Deist age of the 17th and 18th centuries, who felt that the displaying of some lineaments of the universal order was a new publication of God’s wisdom. Few scientists would today speak in this manner:  they now state that their patterns are “made up” and disclaim that they “make out” the “true” structure of things. Deep down, however, they hardly doubt that their “made up” patterns are in some way representative of a true structure. Nor do they hesitate to choose between two equally “serviceable” models that which is the more beautiful; and, though careful to explain that this is a mere preference, in fact they act no differently from their predecessors who would have said that the more elegant model was the truer, as the worthier of God’s sapience; indeed every day scientists resort to metaphysical convictions such as the Malebranche-Maupertuis principle of least action.
Turning to the second member of Bacon’s sentence, it is true that scientists have ever taken pride in the practical results afforded to their fellows by their findings. Just as there has been a high tide of the first Baconian theme (Newton), more recently there has been a high tide of the second, arising from the very advance of technology. Science and technology have not always been wedded. For a long time practical advances were achieved more often by practical men  than by scientists whose minds moved on a different plane. But the social impact of technology affected science which rapidly became what it is today, the great source of material innovations.  Even when scientists are furthest from any specific concern for practical applications, they can not be unaware that the high esteem in which they are presently held is derived from the general opinion that the increase of knowledge promises an increase of power:  so much so that the sciences which hold out no promise of practical applications are put on a starvation diet.
4. Discussed in Arnold Brecht, Political Theory
5. Cf. Michael
Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (
6. Nor was this language so natural to a more theological age: it sits specially well with Deism.
7. Cf. Singer, Holmyard and Hall, A History of Technology (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1954 et seq.).
8. Science now “changes the world”: not so in Chinese
civilization. Cf. Needham,
Science and Civilisation in
9. Hobbes’ view: “The end of knowledge is power ... the scope of all speculation is the performing of some action, or thing to be done.” Opening of De Corpore.
The sole purpose of the foregoing rough notes for an argument is to stress that two powerful motives in general reinforce the zeal of the scientist for systematization of observable facts: these same motives, however, assume negative values for the student of political phenomena. He has no occasion to delight in the discovery of a seemly pattern, and every reason to distrust practical applications of his findings.
While the student of nature can rejoice in the fundamental harmony he discovers beneath disorderly appearances, such aesthetic enjoyment is denied to the student of politics. Never was there any such thoroughgoing apologetic of universal order as that of Leibniz: and never was a sharper blow dealt it than Voltaire’s Candide. Trust this prince of controversialists to seek the weak point of the system he attacks: and where does he find it? Voltaire carries the discussion away from the harmonies of nature to the distempers of human affairs. There is nothing here to evoke a reverend appreciation of the course of things, there is no pattern to be found (“a tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing”). And whenever our mind can rest in the recognition and acknowledgment of “sufficient reason,” this is but an uneasy repose: what is explained is not justified. Causa efficiens is neither justa causa nor visibly at the service of a plausible causa finalis.
We are inevitably more exacting when investigating human affairs than in the case of natural phenomena. Regarding the latter we may be content to find an order, whatever it may be; in human society however we are not content to find some pattern, we want it to fit our idea of justice.
The Deist Apologetic of Universal Order has exerted upon the social sciences a most powerful influence, displayed to the full in economics: each man’s striving for his own advantage results in a social optimum. This has been taken as axiomatic, and whatever went wrong was attributed to “artificial” obstacles. Restraints upon trade and competition were first named; much later, “property” itself came to be questioned as an artificial restraint. 
However questionable the philosophic foundations of economic science  they had one great empirical virtue: economists could accept unquestioningly the motives of economic actors, since a good outcome was expected from the vigour of desires. Economists may take exception to my statement, but I feel that the “ethical neutrality” which has served them well has been made possible by a teleological optimism.  It is thanks to this promise of a good outcome that intellectual doctors could move to the business of understanding economic activity and away from a centuries-old attitude of upbraiding acquisitiveness.
Such a descent from a moral pulpit has occurred only quite recently in political science,  arousing ardent controversy.  There are strong intellectual reasons to applaud this descent and call it belated; there are strong prudential reasons to deplore it and call it treason. Light can be cast on the matter only if we reject the fiction that the scientist can and should be soulless. It is not because the economist is an ethical eunuch that he can envisage phenomena with ethical indifference. Rather it is because he expects a desirable ethical outcome regardless of the ethical concern and enlightenment of the actors; his short-term or atomistic ethical indifference is warranted by his long-range or overall optimism. The proof thereof lies in the revival of moral passion regarding economic behavior in the most schol
10. This choice of ground is the more remarkable in that
Voltaire, who originally subscribed to Leibnizian optimism, was shaken out of
it, so the scholars tell us, by a natural event, the disaster of
11. This theme appears in John Stuart Mill and in our day has been fully developed by Maurice Allais.
12. These have been less discussed than one would wish. See, however, W. Stark, The Ideal Foundations of Economic Thought (London, 1943); G. Myrdal, The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory (English ed., London, 1953); Lindely M. Frazer, Economic Thought and Language (London, 1947); and J. A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (London, 1954); but above all, Vilfredo Pareto, Manuel d’Economie Politique (Paris, 1909).
13. Openly stated by Adam Smith, and underlying Pareto’s great work.
14. This is most clearly recounted in Robert A. Dahl, “The Behavioral Approach in Political Science,” in this issue of this REVIEW, above, pp. 763-772.
15. The most authoritative attack is that of Leo Strauss:
“What Is Political Philosophy?” Journal of Politics (Aug. 1957); see also
Irving Kristol, “The Profanation of Politics” in The Logic of Personal
Knowledge, Essays presented to Michael Polanyi
arly economists as soon as they find reason or occasion to question the assumption of overall maximization. Now in politics such an assumption seems untenable.
The postulate that economic activity is not to be feared and that the more of it the better is allegorized in Dupont de Nemours’ picture of a giant in chains, with the caption: “Otez-lui ses chaines et le laissez aller.”  But in those countries where political freedom has been most prized and practiced, see what attention has been devoted to the formalization of political activity, and to imbuing political actors with a public philosophy.  We may hold the view that economic activities tend to combine harmoniously: we can not hold it in the case of political activities. Indeed Hobbes devised a model displaying the chaotic outcome of political activities running wild. Rousseau subscribed to the Hobbesian picture in his very refutation, since he found it necessary to base his opposite picture upon the supposition of a tiny, closed and static society.
The barbarians are coming, big men with a cruel laughter, who use the conquered as playthings, dishonoured and tossed about. Our knees shake at the very thought of them. Our bishop, however, goes out in state and, bearing the Cross, he stands in the path of the fierce captain. Our town then shall be spared. The strange chief with the awesome mane shall indeed become our sovereign; but, guided by the man of God, he shall be a just master, and his son will, at an early age, learn from the bishop the finest examples of wise kingship.
The bishop, in my apologue, is political philosophy: its function is to civilize power, to impress the brute, improve its manners, and harness it to salutary tasks. In dealing with our wild chieftain the bishop will often say bluntly: “You can not do this.” That is not a factual statement; the very motive for the utterance is that the power-bearer can in fact do this thing. What lies in the bishop’s mind, behind the simple statement, is far more complex: “He wants to do this and has the means thereof; I can not convince him - nor am I certain – that from this bad action some harm shall come to him that he can recognize as a harm. He must be prevented from doing this, the moral prohibition therefore has to be made in his imagination a hard, concrete obstacle. Hence: ‘You can not. ...’ ” This manner of speech is required for preceptive efficiency.
Similarly, when teaching the ruler’s turbulent child, the bishop accumulates examples of princely virtue: “That”, says he, “is what is done.” He means, of course: “… what is to be done.” Not all that has been done by past rulers is relevant to his purpose but only those praiseworthy attitudes and actions which can contribute to the forming of a noble image, which, being firmly implanted in the youth, will exert its pull upon the conduct of the grown man. Deplorable instances are adduced only if they can be joined with a tale of ensuing disaster. Not until the love of virtue has been firmly established shall the pupil be faced with the hard saying: “... there be just rulers to whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again there be wicked rulers, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous.”  It is the test of virtue that this bleak truth be accepted by the mind, yet serenely spurned by the soul.
The political learning which I sought to describe by means of an apologue turns upon two sentences: “You can not … “ (ideal of law) and “This is what is done” (right example). Such lessons are designed to edify: strange indeed that this word should have fallen into disrepute, since it means “to build up”; and surely it is important to build up the virtue of the men who rule, whether it be one, few, or many.
And here we come to the difficulty attending a factual science of politics: by its very nature it pulls down what the preceptive science has endeavoured to build up. Where the preceptive science stressed “You can not,” factual science is bound to observe that “You can”; and what the preceptive science indicated as “What is done” is denied by the findings of factual science: actual doings are very different. A factual science in this realm is therefore dangerous medicine for weak moral constitutions.
Imagination, properly cultivated and addressed, imparts a magic prestige, the loss of which may be a public disaster.  Madame de
16. I allude to the frontispiece of Dupont de Nemours’ pamphlet of 1788: Réponse aux Observations de la Chambre de Commerce de Normandie.
17. It takes an observer foreign to
18. Ecclesiastes, 8, 14.
19. This seems to be the main lesson which Necker has drawn from the great events he was so well placed to witness. It impregnates the two main works he wrote in his years of retreat: Du Pouvoir Exécutif dans les Grands Etats, 2 vols. [(1792, no place of publication); and De la Revolution Francaise, 4 vols. (1797). Strangely enough, in view of the very important political role their author played, these works enjoy a very limited reputation. But a preoccupation which imbues the whole work of Necker is sharply brought into view in these two vivid paragraphs written by his famous daughter, which are here quoted.] HHC: [bracketed] displayed on p. 777 of original.
Staël helps us here with two pictures:
The Constituent Assembly ever believed, erroneously,
that there was some magic in its decrees, and that all would stop in every way
at the line it traced. But its
pronouncements can be compared to the ribbon which had been drawn through the
garden of the Tuileries to keep the people at some distance from the palace;
while opinion remained favourable to those who had drawn the ribbon, no one
dreamed of trespassing; but as soon as the people wanted no more of this
barrier, it became meaningless. [20 ]
The grenadiers marched into the hall where the
representatives were assembled, and hustled them forward by simply advancing in
solid formation from one end of the room to the other. The representatives found themselves
pressed against the wall and had to flee through the window into the gardens of
Indeed, the law is a mere ribbon, but traditional political science has been at great pains to make it seem an impenetrable wall; indeed, the body of representatives is incapable of standing its ground against a battalion, but traditional political science has been at great pains to so raise its prestige that battalions may never challenge it but ever obey it. The danger of the factual approach is that it should deflate these salutary prestiges.
The dangers of the factual approach are not yet fully manifest because studies of this kind have mostly been addressed to “weak” political behavior, such as voting. I speak of weak political behavior since it is precisely a finding of such studies that voters do not care very much. Strong political behaviors are those inspired by strong passions,  and into which men throw themselves whole-heartedly. The picture of politics which is apt to emerge from the factual analysis of strong political behaviors may be nefariously suggestive.
However little the scientist thinks of practical applications, whenever it comes to his mind it is with a favourable connotation: the gain in efficiency to be expected from the increase in knowledge is a good thing. No such optimism is allowed in the case of the “technology” which may be derived from increased factual understanding of politics: political efficiency may be a bad thing. Knowing how men are won over and induced to lend their energies is a knowledge that can be used for good or evil. Indeed, it is more apt to be used for evil. A good man is humble and therefore advances his views with some diffidence; he respects his fellows and therefore is not apt to be an aggressive salesman. The presumptuous, overbearing man is most prone to exploit the technology of moving men for his purpose.
This thought is very disquieting. And it might suffice to turn the scholar away from a search for knowledge which may be ill-used, if the technology of polities waited upon his discoveries. But such is not the case: the technology has been mightily developed outside political science during the last half-century, and developed by the very men to whom the prudent scientist would like to deny it. Naturally enough those who are least sensitive to the aesthetic and ethical appeal of traditional theory have broken away from its restraints and guidance; while those with finer feelings are victims of processes which they can not grasp. In such a situation all the harm which a factual science of politics can do is already loose, and it can come as a useful warning.
It has been suggested here that recognition of the dangers inherent in political activity may have held up the progress of scientific inquiry in politics; but however important this factor, it can hardly serve as a full explanation. A useful complement is suggested by a comparison with medical science, a comparison
20. Baronne de Staël: Considerations sur les Principaux
Evénements de la Revolution Francaise, 3 vols.
21. Op. cit., II, 240-41.
22. E.g., Militantism in its moderate and extreme forms (conspiracy and terrorism).
current since the days of Plato. 
What is the purpose of medicine? The health of the body. What therefore is the knowledge required in a doctor? The knowledge of health. This seems a reasonable approach to medicine: it leads first to the primacy of hygiene,  but second, to envisaging any disease as a derangement of a natural harmony.  Hence for instance Themison’s classification of diseases: they arise from an undue constriction (strictum) or from an undue relaxation (laxum) or from a combination of both (mixtum).  In a case of strictum, antispasmodic, sedative medication is indicated; in a case of laxum, tonic, roborative remedies. This is very attractive, so much so that economic policies of our own day are “Themisonian”: if there are inflationary areas in the economy, relieve the pressure of demand by the sedatives of deflation (including if necessary saignare, the removal of excess buying power); and if there is laxity in the market, administer stimulants.
However reasonable it seems to take the satisfactory
state of affairs as the axial concept, it has not paid off well in medicine: the
concept of health led neither to a close study of diseases attuned to their
specificity, nor to a far-reaching physiology.  It is amazing that the emphasis laid upon the proper
functioning of the body should have sparked so little curiosity about this very
functioning. Physiology can hardly
be said to have started before
When resorting to analogy, one should always stop to note contrasts between the systems compared. There is a most striking contrast between the object studied by medical science, the body of man, and the object of political science, the body politic. In the former case, only the integrated whole has value in our eyes, while the component cells are expendable: not so in the case of the body politic, where the whole is justified by its components, real persons. But the contrast goes further. Human bodies are built on the same model; not so political bodies. The health of the human body is therefore a clearer and more distinct notion than a state of health in a body politic. The anatomy of the human body is a datum, while political anatomy changes. Therefore, if anatomy is already inadequate knowledge in the former case,  how much more inadequate it must be in the latter.
The “healthy body politic” is an attractive starting point but one that leads to little progress of knowledge. If the body politic wherein we find ourselves is accepted as presently healthy  we are inadequately provoked to look into the minute day-to-day processes which keep it so. If we regard it as presently distempered, we are apt to go back to some past moment of “health” with a strong chance of substituting our fancy for the true past, and only a slight chance of understanding what has changed, where, how and why. Even worse is
23. The two sciences are of equal antiquity. Hippocrates was born in 460 B.C., between Socrates (469) and Plato (427).
24. “For the worshippers of Hygeia, health is the natural
order of things, a positive attribute to which men are entitled if they govern
their lives wisely. According to
them, the most important function of medicine is to discover and teach the
natural laws which will ensure a man a healthy mind in a healthy body.” René
Dubos, Mirage of Health (
25. Galen said that the duty of the doctor is to conserve the
natural condition, to reestablish it when perturbed, and to restore what is
lacking as far as feasible. From F.
J. V. Broussais, Histoire des Doctrines Médicales et des Systèmes de
Nosologie, 4 vols. (
26. Ibid., I, 107 ff.
27. Dubos stresses that the broad point of view of orthobiosis leads to “the danger of substituting meaningless generalities and weak philosophy for the concreteness of exact knowledge.” Op. cit. ,p.137.
28. The word “microbe,” now a popular term abandoned by scientists, was introduced by them as late as 1878.
29. Claude Bernard wrote: “Descriptive anatomy is to
physiology what geography is to history, and as it is not enough to know a
country’s topography for the understanding of its history, it is not enough to
know the anatomy of organs for the understanding of their functions. An old surgeon, Mery, compared anatomists
to those messengers who are to be found in great cities, and who know the layout
of the streets, and the numbering of buildings but do not know what goes on
inside. Indeed, in tissues, in
organs, vital physicochemical phenomena occur which mere anatomy can not
reveal.” Lecons sur les
Phénomènes de la Vie Commune aux Animaux et aux Végétaux, 2 vols.
30. This complacency is a most uncommon attitude.
our picking upon some body politic distant in time and
using it as our model of health. This leads, for instance, to the
ludicrous mistake of the French Jacobins who wanted to build a
The notion of a healthy political body leads to
pseudo-restorations of which the Germanic “
31. Again, when one takes Athens as a model, one forgets that in its age of extreme democracy (which did not exclude slavery) the notion that “aliens” could not become part of the body politic was so fundamentally embedded that Pericles himself was the author of a law which struck from the registers a large fraction of the citizenry who could not prove that they were descended from both an Athenian father and an Athenian mother.
32. Though why the
33. For instance, the transposition of the