Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)

8 Feb

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.

• • • • •

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:

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.”

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.

As for the specific phrase that you cite in your obituary—”the process that determines the authoritative allocation of values”—I believe that’s a quote from Karl Deutsch’s textbook Politics and Government, which came out in 1970. You can find the passage here, where he is summarizing a common view of politics. But again I don’t think it’s Dahl’s view.
Best,
Corey Robin
Update (February 12)
From today’s New York Times (h/t my mom):
An obituary on Saturday about the political scientist Robert A. Dahl…mistakenly credited a concept to Professor Dahl. The political scientist David Easton — not Professor Dahl — wrote that politics involves “the authoritative allocation of values.”

4 Responses to “Did Bob Dahl Really Say That? (Updated)”

  1. David Kaib February 9, 2014 at 10:19 am #

    I agree. Not only is this Easton, not Dahl’s definition, it’s famously so (within these circles). In orthodox poli sci there are a handful of definitions of politics, of which this one is the most quoted. (It’s also in my opinion a fairly useless one. It’s quoted often but almost no one seems to appreciate what Easton was driving at. What’s more, it leaves out conflicts over who has authority to do what, which is pretty central to politics).

  2. Roquentin February 9, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    Have you ever read Borges’ story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote?” It deals with the topic of authorship and quotes. The gist of it is that Menard decides he’s going to copy every word of Don Quixote verbatim, and it ends with imaging that other great works were written by completely different people and the effect this would have on the reading.

  3. Cogito February 11, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is, they’re often wrong.” — Abe Lincoln

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Monday Linkage » Duck of Minerva - February 10, 2014

    […] Robin asks whether Bob Dahl really did define politics as “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.” (Answer: […]

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