As some of you may know, the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has died. The Monkey Cage is promising to post personal reflections from a former student next week, but in the meantime they have a roundup of the various obituaries. The Times obituary was quite good. I found this passage especially arresting.
Professor Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”
When I first read that, I thought to myself, “Wow, Dahl was more of a Nietzschean than I realized.” I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books, but I hadn’t ever stumbled across that particular statement or sentiment in any of them. I posted it on Facebook with the header, “Bob Dahl, Nietzschean.”
But then I googled it and couldn’t find Dahl saying it anywhere, save in the Times. And then I got suspicious. Wrongly attributed statements, as readers here may remember, are a bit of an obsession of mine. So I asked around on Facebook, and thanks to the efforts of Harrison Fluss, who’s a philosophy grad student at Stonybrook, and Rafael Khachaturian, who’s a poli sci grad student at Indiana University, I was able to piece together the following letter to the writer of the Times obit. I hope they manage to make a correction. If they don’t, they might be unwittingly inaugurating decades of misconception.
If I’ve gotten any of it wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments. As I say, I’ve only read a few of Dahl’s books; I’m by no means an expert.
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Dear Douglas Martin:
Many thanks for your wonderful obituary of Bob Dahl, who I knew distantly when I was a grad student in political science at Yale. I believe, however, that there may be an error in the obituary. You write:
That definition of politics is commonly understood to be David Easton’s, not Dahl’s. In his 1953 book The Political System Easton said that political science ought to be the study of “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” Dahl reviewed Easton’s book in 1955 in the journal World Politics. In that review, Dahl characterized Easton’s view as follows: “Political science is (or, at any rate, ought to be) focused on the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” It is important to note that this is not Dahl’s view; he is merely characterizing Easton’s view. And indeed, he goes onto criticize that view (and the general desire to find a definition of politics or political science) as “curiously metaphysical” in the succeeding paragraphs of his review.