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What Is Political Science?

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Political science studies governments in all their forms and aspects, both theoretical and practical. Once a branch of philosophy, political science nowadays is typically considered a social science. Most accredited universities indeed have separate schools, departments, and research centers devoted to the study of the central themes within political science. The history of the discipline is virtually as long as that of humanity. Its roots in the Western tradition are typically individuated in the works of Plato and Aristotle, most importantly in the Republic and the Politics respectively.

Branches of Political Science
Political science has a wide array of branches. Some are highly theoretical, including Political Philosophy, Political Economy, or the History of Government; others have a mixed character, such as Human Rights, Comparative Politics, Public Administration, Political Communication, and Conflict Processes; finally, some branches actively engage with the practice of political science, such as Community Based Learning, Urban Policy, and Presidents and Executive Politics. Any degree in political science will typically require a balance of courses related to those subjects; but the success that political science has enjoyed in recent history of higher learning is also due to its interdisciplinary character.

Political Philosophy
What is the most fitting political arrangement for a given society? Is there a best form of government towards which every human society should tend and, if there is, what is it? What principles should inspire a political leader? These and related questions have been at the hearth of the reflection on political philosophy. According to the Ancient Greek perspective, the quest for the most appropriate structure of the State is the ultimate philosophical goal.

For both Plato and Aristotle, it is only within a politically well-organized society that the individual can find true blessedness. For Plato, the functioning of a State parallels the one of a human soul. The soul has three parts: rational, spiritual, and appetitive; so the State has three parts: the ruling class, corresponding to the rational part of the soul; the auxiliaries, corresponding to the spiritual part; and the productive class, corresponding to the appetitive part. Plato’s Republic discusses the ways in which a State can be most appropriately run, and by so doing Plato purports to teach a lesson also about the most appropriate human to run her life. Aristotle emphasized even more than Plato the dependence between the individual and the State: it is in our biological constitution to engage in social living and only within a well-run society we can fully realize ourselves as human. Humans are a "political animals."

Most Western philosophers and political leaders took Plato and Aristotle’s writings as models for the formulation their views and policies. Among the most famous examples are the British empiricist Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and the Florentine humanist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). The list of contemporary politicians who claimed to have drawn inspiration from Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, or Hobbes is virtually endless.

Politics, Economics, and the Law
Politics has always been inextricably linked to economics: when new governments and policies are instituted, new economic arrangements are directly involved or ensue shortly after. The study of political science, hence, requires an understanding of the basic principles of economics. Analogous considerations can be made with respect to the relationship between politics and the law. If we add that we live in a globalized world, it becomes evident that political science necessarily requires a global perspective and the capacity to compare political, economical, and legal systems around the world. Perhaps the most influential principle according to which modern democracies are arranged is the principle of the division of powers: legislative, executive, and judiciary. This organization follows the development of political theorizing during the age of Enlightenment, most famously the theory of State power developed by French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755).

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