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I do not for these defects despair of our republic.
R. W. Emerson, Politics
David Easton has long been a slight source of guilt to my intellectual conscience. He was required reading in graduate school. In the 1960s, "required reading" meant pretty much what one was going to reject. And so I did. I remember, however, a touch of guilt in doing so, as if I were not allowing him his due. Thus Henrik Bang's essay afforded me the occasion to reread Easton and to take this opportunity to set myself straight. Bang reads Easton as a European (with the doubleness intended) and as, at least at the beginning, a precursor to (inter alia) Foucault, Lyotard, and Connolly. I want below to complement this by placing Easton in the context of American thought and by investigating the normal science that Easton proposes in relation to his demand for moral clarification. I hope that this in turn sets off a context for Bang's claims about Easton's (premature?) postmodernism.
In 1953, David Easton, then a young professor of thirty-five at the University of Chicago, published The Political System: An Inquiry in the State of Political Science.(1) The point of the book was that the two parts of his tide were related to one another: the health of the Republic had something to do with that of political science. Setting political science to health, or at least on the path to health, would be to assist the cause of justice. Explicitly, Easton set out to find a practical and central place for political theory ("moral and causal") in the study of political society. Such a return of political theory to the political world would constitute its "rejuvenation" (p. 314; chap. 4 throughout). The book is written in deceptively simple prose, without ruffles and flourishes, the equivalent in social science, one might say, of the American plain style. It gives the sense of being all so obvious that no one might find anything to gainsay in what was there.
Indeed, with what could one disagree in this vision of the responsible intellectual, morally engaged and self-conscious, one aware of the realities of power? The role in which Easton casts himself appears not dissimilar to that which, say, Jurgen Habermas has claimed over the last two decades. Consider: Habermas writes that the role of the philosopher is to be the "guardian of rationality."(2) "What moral theory can do and should be trusted to do," he writes, "is to clarify the universal core of our moral intuitions and thereby refute value skepticism."(3) The philosopher is not privileged to know answers; he (or she) has only a responsibility to maintain the understanding that answers must have the quality of rationality and that rationality be available. Rationality--"humane values"--is in this vision something that humans need to have kept for them. How can one object to this? I think one might.
I belong to a fragment of a generation for whom Easton's book was, if not the enemy, at least the standard of that against which we defined ourselves. From the present, this judgment looks not so much unfair as incomplete. It is unawares of the place of Easton's project in the context of American thought, and it fails to acknowledge the ways in which Easton continues the American Emersonian project of focusing on action and movement, looking (albeit unconsciously) only at the ways in which he departs from it. So I want to look now at what Easton was trying to do when he wrote The Political System. I recognize the presumption in that statement: it means only that I want to try and set out what the book actually does.
It is clear that The Political System sought to be a self-consciously contemporary American book. Each of its twelve chapters carried an epigraph from an American political scientist. Only one of them, a kind of Pascalian wager on preferring hope to despair from Jefferson, was from the great figures of the American past. The rest were from political scientists, American ones. The book explicitly wants not to recover past political theory but to do political theory like past greats did it as "complete social scientists." We are not to worship at the altar of past wisdom; we are to do our own deeds and will possibly surpass the ancients in heroic wisdom.
Not only were the epigraphs sourced in America, but, as things developed later on, they were well chosen for the purposes of the book. Six of the eleven (Bentley is cited twice) were or went on to become presidents of the American Political Science Association, and, indeed, if one leaves out Jefferson and the philosophers (Dewey and Cohen and Bentley), Catlin--whom Easton laments as underappreciated--is the only political scientist not to be so recognized. The footnotes are furthermore focused in their sense of who would become important in the profession in the 1950s and 1960s: V. O. Key, Merle Fainsod, E. E. Schattschneider, Pendleton Herring, and Philip Selznick are but a few of those who appear here, their early reputation already established and soon to be confirmed by the work of their early maturity. Most of the sources in Easton's book become the establishment of American political science in the 1950s and 1960s. His sense of what would count as first-rate work was unerring.
But the motivation for the book was far more grandiose than the simple establishment of professional credentials and the promotion of an extraordinary group of young scholars. The general epigraph to the book placed the author himself under a compulsion, one given to him by Charles Beard.
No one can deny [Easton selects large bold type] that the idea is
fascinating--the idea of subduing the phenomenon of politics to the laws
of causation, of penetrating to the …