The Federalist in today’s academy

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal included this article by Peter Berkowitz asking why it is that college and even graduate students today don’t study The Federalist Papers. I’m not sure what the situation is in America’s “leading” institutions of higher education, but it’s certainly true that most students in most of the nation’s average schools will, at best, read one or two of the Federalist Papers. That’s a shame, because although at times the language can be antiquated, the arguments that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay presented remain critical today. No, they aren’t the definitive meaning of the Constitution, and don’t purport to be. But nobody can hope to understand the document without being familiar with the Federalist.

Berkowitz writes that “scientism, or enthrallment to method,” is responsible for ignoring the founders’ writings. “Political science has corrupted a laudable commitment to the systematic study of politics by transforming it into a crusading devotion to the refinement of method for method’s sake.  In the misguided quest to mold political science to the shape of the natural sciences, many scholars disdainfully dismiss The Federalist—indeed, all works of ideas—as mere journalism or literary studies which, lacking scientific rigor, can’t yield genuine knowledge.”

There’s no doubt that the leaders of political science and legal studies see propositions about justice and individual rights as mere matters of personal taste, without any actual value to them. Something is right simply because we choose to call it right—and a person has a right to thing only if society gives him that right. But this view is shared by the right as well as the left. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Judge Robert Bork, among others, have argued that the founders’ notions about natural rights are baseless superstitions, or purely subjective personal commitments, rather than actual facts about human nature. Only by rediscovering the validity of the founders’ ideas about natural justice can we hope to perceive the real significance of The Federalist.

I would quibble with Berkowitz’s use of the term “scientism.” The problem here isn’t that modernists take their model from science, but that they take it from the wrong science. Today’s intellectual leaders take their inspiration from physics, and think that to be “scientific” means to eschew such terms as good and bad or right and wrong. But political science and ethics is a lot more like the life sciences than like physics: they deal with living beings, not with inanimate, indestructible matter and forces. In physics, concepts like “good” and “bad” are inappropriate, but in the more general and abstract studies like biology or medicine they make sense. Enlightenment era thinking about natural rights and justice is much more like the latter sciences than it is like physics. This may seem ironic, since so many historians have claimed that Enlightenment thinkers were guided by an analogy to Newton’s mechanics. However that may be, it’s no less true of David Hume, who rejected the idea of natural rights, and from whom moderns have inherited the idea that “is” and “ought” should be rigidly separated. The problem with today’s thinking isn’t that it’s “scientific” but that it’s unscientific, or perversely scientific. It uses habits of thought inappropriate to the questions at issue.