For as long as humans have formed communities, people have debated and
analyzed politics, or the way groups of people, particularly
governments, reach agreements and make decisions that will affect the entire
The Ancient and Medieval Worlds
The word politics comes from the Greek word
polis, which means “city-state.” Probably the first person
to use the term political science was Aristotle, a Greek
philosopher who argued in favor of living a virtuous life.
Political science in the ancient and medieval worlds was closely linked to
philosophy and theology. It often consisted of advice for rulers on how to
govern justly. Numerous thinkers and scholars advanced the study of politics and
- Plato (c. 427–c. 347 bce): One of the greatest western
philosophers, Plato wrote several dialogues about political matters,
including The Republic (c. 360 bce).
- Aristotle (384–322 bce): A student of Plato’s, Aristotle
applied empirical methods to the study of politics.
- St. Augustine (ce 354–430): Augustine’s City of
God (419) argued for the centrality of salvation to life, even
with regard to politics.
- St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274): Aquinas helped
reintroduce Aristotle to Europe and melded Aristotelian thought with
In the fifteenth century, Europe began to change dramatically as the
modern world slowly emerged. In art, science, economics, religion, and politics,
Europeans started to break away from tradition and forge new ways of
understanding the world. Among the key thinkers of this time were political
philosophers, who attempted to establish a systematic understanding of politics.
These thinkers include:
- Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527): Machiavelli’s book
The Prince (written c. 1513; published in 1532)
portrayed politics as a struggle for power, and in it he urged rulers to
lie, cheat, and kill to get ahead.
- Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679): Hobbes attempted to use the
methods of geometry to arrive at an irrefutable science of politics. Hobbes
argued for absolute monarchy.
- John Locke (1632–1704): Locke argued for a democratic
government that respected individual and property rights. His writings
greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson, as reflected in the Declaration of
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778): Rousseau’s
iconoclastic attack on tradition contributed to the French Revolution. His
book The Social Contract (1762) states, “Man is born free,
and he is everywhere in chains,” an important sentiment during the American
and French revolutions.
Industrialization and Empire
As the Industrial Revolution overtook Europe and the United States in the
nineteenth century, socials theorists began to change their approach to
political science. They began relying on statistical data and empirical
observation to understand politics; in this way, these thinkers began to
emphasize the science part of political science. Universities also began
creating political science departments, which cemented the status of political
science as an academic discipline. Some significant philosophers and thinkers
from this period include:
- Karl Marx (1818–1883): A philosopher and social scientist
who saw the economy as the key institution in society. He argued that
employers in a capitalist society exploit their workers and that the
capitalist classes pass laws to benefit themselves. His books The
Communist Manifesto and Capital spurred the
Russian Revolution of 1917.
- John William Burgess (1844–1931): A professor who created
a political science department at Columbia University that sought to train
students for a life of public service. This was the first such department in
the United States, and it helped institutionalize and legitimize political
science as an academic discipline.
- Herbert Baxter Adams (1850–1901): A professor who
introduced seminar-style learning into colleges in the United States.
According to legend, Adams was the first westerner to use the term
political science (Aristotle was the first person to
use the term itself).
- Max Weber (1864–1920): An economist and sociologist who
argued that religion, not economics, is the central force in social change.
According to Weber, Protestants seeking an outward affirmation of their
godliness brought about the birth of capitalism.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond
In the 1950s, a new approach to political science called
behavioralism emerged. Behavioralists argued that political
scientists should focus on behavior, not institutions or motives. Although
behavioralism has been heavily debated, it remains the predominant paradigm in
political science today. Some of the most influential contemporary political
- Gabriel Almond (1910–2002): A professor who not only
developed the concept of political culture but also revolutionized the
subfield of comparative politics. The Politics of the Developing
Areas (1960), which he co-authored, opened the doors for
American political scientists to begin studying the political processes at
work in non-Western countries.
- David Easton (1917– ): The professor who developed the
behavioral model of political science in the 1950s. The Political
System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (1953)
is probably his most famous work.
- John Rawls (1921–2002): A professor who was widely
considered to be the most important political philosopher of the twentieth
century. His book A Theory of Justice (1971) argued that we
should strive to develop a society based on equality.
- Robert O. Keohane (1941– ): A professor who helped
develop the neoliberal theory of international relations. A 2005 poll in the
journal Foreign Policy named him the most influential
scholar of international relations.