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 society.

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 government, including:

  • 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 Christianity.

Modern Europe

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 Independence.
  • 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 scientists include:

  • 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.