According to Paul Janet, Political Science “is that part of social science which treats the foundations of the State and the principles of government.” The foundations of the State and principles of government have their roots in the past and their branches swing towards the future.
It is a systematic study which goes deep into the political problems of yesterday for the benefit of today and utilises the wisdom gained there from for the aspirations of better tomorrow.
With the interaction of the new forces during recent times necessitating new approaches to the study of Political Science, it has been suggested that Political Science should no longer be defined in terms of objects such as the State.
It should be defined only in terms of activity and, accordingly, Catlin defines Political Science as the study of “the act of human and social control” or the “study of control relationship of wills”. There are others who would hardly make it distinguishable from the subject matter of Sociology.
German writers regard it as the study concerning “the problem of power and social control”. Whatever are the merits of such definitions, they have not so far taken any tangible shape and the well-accepted ideas about Political Science continue to hold good.
Contemporary political scientists discard the over-rationalistic account of institutions and clothe the old tools used in the governance of man with new terms and concepts derived from sociological and anthropological theories wholesome.
So far we have treated the subject of our study as a science. Aristotle regarded ‘Politics’ as the master or supreme science. Distinguished scholars, like Bodin, Hobbes, Sidgwick, and Bryce, had held the same view.
But some earlier writers denied this claim of Political Science. They maintained that there could be no such thing as a scientific study of the phenomena of the State and government. They agreed with Burke that there was no science of politics any more than there was a science of aesthetics, “for the lines of politics are not like the lines of mathematics.
They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. No lines can be laid down for civil or political wisdom. They are a matter incapable of exact definition.”
Even Maitland said, “When I see a good set of examination questions headed by the word ‘Political Science’, I regret not the questions but the title.” Sir Frederick Pollock, on the other hand, asserted that “there is a science of politics in the same sense, and to the same, or about the same extent, as there is a science of morals”.
But whether Political Science is really a science or not depends upon what we regard as the test of a science. Does a science involve merely systematic reasoning, or must the reasoning be exact and the conclusions clearly defined and subject to no exceptions as in the case of natural or physical sciences? Moreover, does the claim of Political Science to be a science involve the power to predict the political future?
Political Science is neither an exact science nor can it claim to predict the future with certainty. The results in physical sciences, like Physics and Chemistry, are definite and remain true under given conditions for all men and in different climes. If there is any variation, it can be tested and explained.
But it is not possible to place men in a laboratory as if they were guinea pigs, nor is it possible to impose precise laboratory conditions on the political sphere in real life. Political Science deals with men and it is a living subject matter which can be explained in terms of living human activity.
It cannot be expressed in fixed or static formulae. Man is dynamic and so must his institutions be. They must adjust themselves with the changing demands of man and his manifold needs.
No institution is today what it was yesterday and what it will be tomorrow, anymore than I am myself the same on two consecutive days. It is the human element or the livingness of the subject which makes Political Science inexact and indefinite.
Then, in the subject-matter of Political Science is involved the problem of values, though contemporary political scientists have attempted to make the subject value free.
All political issues can best be explained in terms of moral and ethical standards, or, to put it more precisely, they should be based on justice. From the times of Plato and Aristotle men’s ideas of what is just do not agree and the riddle of social justice remains unresolved.
The endeavour in search of justice will continue in future too and, yet, without any definite agreement thereon. Consequently, it is impossible for Political Science to attain the same degree of exactness and universal application of its laws as in the physical or even biological sciences.
“There are two words in medicine,” a Professor of Medicine said to his pupils, “that you never use. They are ‘Always’ and ‘Never’ “— and the same applies to Political Science.
Nevil Johnson suggests five distinct aspects in which Political Science appears to differ from the physical and the natural sciences. Firstly, in physical and natural sciences the evidence is objective, usually measured and expressed quantitatively whereas in Political Science we assess the significance of evidence and personal judgments are involved. Secondly, experiments can be repeated in the physical and the natural sciences, but in politics the problems are unique.
Then, in politics there are too many uncertainties in the materials and evidence for prediction; we aim rather at “informed and critical estimates.” Fourthly, in politics, also, our revised conclusions do not always rest upon fresh evidence but sometimes upon reinterpretations, new points of view and insight; ‘old’ works are not necessarily worthless
Finally, when we ask political questions we at the same time begin to shape the answers we shall give; such answers spring from imagination and insight. In general, our methods of enquiry have much in common with those in the natural sciences: the manner in which we work out causal explanations and test them owe much to their example. But we cannot produce a blueprint for action or make statements with the same degree of accuracy as the natural sciences.
If by ‘science’ is meant a systematised body of knowledge the facts of which have been accurately and impartially collected, arranged and classified, through the use of various scientific methods of observation, comparison and analysis, with cautious statements of findings, then, Political Science can claim to be a science.
It is true that we cannot experiment with man and political phenomena lack continuity of development. It is also true that students of Political Science differ materially on their methods, principles and conclusions. And when political problems in the last analysis depend upon our conceptions of right and wrong, there has always been and presumably always will be fundamental disagreement over its first principles.
But “we can become,” as Herman Finer remarks, “the prophets of the probable if not the seers of the certain.” Prediction and absolute certainty are not the goal of Social Sciences. Even Physical Sciences cannot claim to achieve to that extent.
The sweeping changes which have taken place in Physics and Chemistry during the past century show how tentative are formulations even in natural sciences. It might, on the other hand, be argued that some of the political theories expounded by Aristotle, or John Stuart Mill, or the authors of The Federalist Papers “have stood the test of time better than contemporary doctrines of chemistry, for example.”
Let it, however, be conceded that hypotheses concerning political behaviour can never be fully verified because of the complex, shifting and ever changing nature of the political universe.
Yet, the political scientist endeavours to read the present in the light of the past in order to become wiser for the future. He tries to systematise his facts, analyses clearly cause and effect, and tries to unfold principles and detect general tendencies.
The mass of historical facts and the contemporary data of the actual working of political institutions and the behaviour of the operators of these institutions are sufficient to enable him to observe, collect and classify general facts. “If the situations are not identical, they are not completely different: there are recognisable similarities.”
The phenomena of the State, thus, exhibit a certain order, regularity and connection in their sequences. They are the result of the operation of certain fixed laws universal in application.
The aim of science is the discovery of universal laws and the laws of science are based on experience and they are verifiable in experience. J.A. Thomson has cogently said that “the aim of science is to describe the impersonal facts of experience in verifiable tens as exactly as possible, as completely as possible.”
Science tries to understand clearly and completely “what commonsense understands only dimly and partially.” In fact, all serious study must be ‘scientific’ in the sense that “all conclusions must be based on ascertainable facts, and research carried out with the minimum prejudice and emotion and with the maximum of rational enquiry.” The scientist must have a passion for facts, and his mind must not be coloured by personal bias, that is, he conducts his enquiry in a spirit of scientific detachment.
If this is the aim of science, it is sufficient to justify the claim of Political Science to be ranked as a science, though it is the most inexact of all the sciences belonging to the family of social sciences. James Bryce compared it to an inexact natural science, like Meteorology, as Alfred Marshall compared Economics with the science of tides.
The aim of Political Science, however, is not only to formulate scientific laws of the political governance of man, but also to establish a way of life which, according to Aristotle, is the way that leads to good life.
A good life is the art of living together in a spirit of togetherness; a rational conduct of human life, first, as the citizens of the State to which men belong and, then, as members of the common humanity. Peoples of all the States have yet to learn the art of good life in all its aspects and once this art is mastered, there will really be a happier and just life. And art is not antithesis to science. It can be based on science.