Notes on Philosophical and Empirical Approach to the Study of Politics

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An approach to a study implies a method, that is, how to inquire as well as the focus, that is, what to inquire. There are disagreements among political scientists on the approach to the study of politics. However, we shall confine our discussion to the philosophical and empirical approaches only.

The Philosophical Approach:

Politics was originally seen as a part of philosophy and its main purpose was to uncover the principles upon which human society should be based. This approach involves a preoccupation with ethical, prescriptive or normative questions. It is concerned with what ‘should’, ‘ought’, or ‘must’ be brought about rather than what ‘is’. This approach dates back to ancient Greece.

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Plato and Aristotle are considered to be founders of this approach. The main theme of Plato’s work was to describe the nature of an ideal society. The philosophical approach seeks to determine and prescribe values.

Traditional study of politics was dominated by the philosophical approach. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the philosophical search for universal values has gradually weakened by the rise of an attempt to turn politics into a scientific discipline.

The Empirical Approach:

Though Philosophical approach dominated the classical study of politics, the empirical or descriptive approach can also be discovered in ancient political thought Aristotle’s attempt to classify constitutions is a fine example of the empirical approach. Later on Machiavelli’s realistic account of statecraft and Montesquieu’s sociological theory of government and law were rich in empirical content.

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In opposition to the emphasis on values in the philosophical approach, the empirical approach seeks to discover and describe facts as they exist. It is concerned with ‘is’ rather than ‘ought to be’ or ‘should be’. This approach is called descriptive because it seeks to analyse and explain, whereas the philosophical approach is prescriptive because it makes judgments and offers recommendations.

The doctrine of empiricism which became popular from the seventeenth century onwards strengthened such descriptive political analysis. Empiricism is the assertion that experience is the only basis of knowledge. It emphasises on observation of facts.

Later on it developed into an intellectual movement called positivism and insisted that the social sciences must strictly adhere to the methods of the natural sciences because it considered science to be the only reliable means of perceiving the truth. In more recent times the empirical approach has come to be associated with scientific approach. There has been a strong argument that there can be a science of politics, only if the scientific method is adopted in the study of political phenomena.

Both the approaches are extremely useful in our understanding of politics though a distinction is made at times between political philosophy and political science, representing broadly the philosophical and empirical approaches.

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