Cary J. Nederman

Texas A&M University, USA 


Machiavelli, the “Sciences” of Politics, and the Politics of Science




The legacy of the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli for the contemporary scientific study of politics is ambiguous. On the one hand, Machiavelli has been hailed as a progentitor of hard-nosed political realism and empiricism. On the other hand, his commitment to a pragmatic and engaged conception of political analysis stands at considerable remove from the self-conception of political science as value-free and neutral. The present essay interrogates Machiavelli’s conception of political inquiry (in particular, his correlated ideas of Fortuna and virtú) in order to evaluate recent philosophies of science that have been found relevant by political scientists to their field of study. In particular, I argue that Machiavelli would find wanting the application of the Kuhnian approach to political science that has been widely advocated, on the grounds that they demand adherence to a rule-based system of scientific thought at variance with his conception of intellectual flexibility. As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the rigorous nature of “science” comports poorly with the Machiavellian conception of politics. More congenial to Machiavelli’s teaching, in my view, is the so-called “methodological anarchism” endorsed by Paul Feyerabend, on account of its acknowledgement of the contingency of scientific knowledge and of rhetorical flexibility in the pursuit of a scientific agenda. Indeed, I claim that Feyerabend perhaps deserves the label of “methodological Machiavellian” more than “methodological anarchist.”