Harold Lasswell and the Possibility of Political Science

Stream: Panel 42 - Political Theory: Alternatives to Representative Democracy 
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 2.00 pm – 3.30 pm


Not only was Harold Lasswell a lead figure in the founding of contemporary political science, he sought to return this science to its pre-eminence. For, as he saw it, political science had become fragmented and specialised, following its disconnection from political experience as a whole. In his recognition of what is necessary for us to claim that we’ve attained a science of politics, and in attempting to realise this claim, Lasswell’s thought is ripe for interrogation. As herein we might discern the possibility of a political science aware of its own foundations – a genuine political science, in other words. Without this possibility, political science would be either indistinguishable from common opinion or distinguished only by its administrative efficiency. And so it may remain. For, as I argue, this possibility is justified with a particular understanding of politics and truth: political thought is distinguished from the non-political in the same way that truth is distinct from convention. And this, I argue, culminates in absurdity. In resolving this, by reconciling politics and science in a unifying abstraction – in the symbolic realm for example, as attempted by Lasswell – we merely exacerbate the problem. This suggests that political science is, by its own terms, impossible. However, to give up on science (and thereby the whole of experience) is to reduce political wisdom to the never-ending chatter of partial politics or the fantasies of public administration.


Stuart Weierter (Presenter), UNSW
I am a PhD student in politics at the University of NSW.