The Pursuit of Truth in Political Science

Transitioning from the Stanford “brand” of political science to the University of Chicago brand of political science was unexpectedly difficult.  I had an opportunity to stay at Stanford, but one professor advised me to go to Chicago instead to broaden by horizons and demonstrate that I could work outside of the unique Stanford brand of political science. I did not quite understand what she meant at the time, but I quickly learned in fall quarter.  I took a class on the treatment of religion in political science – I had taken other classes on religion in political science at Stanford, and assumed it would be similar.  It was not.  I was so completely unprepared for the anti-positivist school of analysis that it took me several weeks to figure out what on earth was going on.  It made no sense!  Moreover, it was frustrating.  Class discussion seemed so high in the sky that the details on the ground ceased to exist.  What was the point of discussing religion if it mattered so little?  A very thought provoking class, arguably one of the most life-changing I took as a Master’s student, but also a subject matter and school of analysis that I strove to avoid for the rest of my time at the University of Chicago.

One of the ways this class (and its consequential exposure to anti-positivism) was so life-changing was that it fundamentally shaped the way I see academia today.  Leaving Stanford, I said that I wanted to pursue academia because of its pursuit of uncovering truths about the world and the way it functions; somewhere the truth was out there, and with rigorous enough study it could be found.  Perhaps that is why Stanford political science emphasizes quantitative analysis so much more than UoC – the concrete foundation in so much data and so many numbers must somehow yield a path to exposing the truth.  Leaving the UoC, and reflecting back on it, I still say that I want to pursue academia, but for a different reason.  If there is a truth about the world, it is rather doubtful to me that we will find it.  Partly because the very definition of truth is contingent on the lens through which one views the world.  Moreover, certain lenses seem to describe certain phenomena better, but no lens perfectly encompasses every situation, let alone the world.  Even describing the world is relative, since a description relies on a subjective experience.  Perhaps as time goes on, we may asymptotically approach respective truths, though that in itself would be subjective.  A rather anti-positive perspective of academia, I think.  But it also means that, as a discipline, there will always be ideas to debate, propose, or debunk.  Instead of seeking an absolute truth, there could be infinite options, with infinite ways each option is wrong or right.  Sometimes, so many possibilities is paralyzing, but other times it can be freeing.  With the need for a constant conversation on how the world functions, it can grow and adapt to meet the world’s future challenges.  This is not to say that one is better than the other.  It is only a realization that anti-positivism could serve academia by challenging basic assumptions, and forcing us to realize how a conviction could be wrong.  Such a realization could, ultimately and ironically, be more helpful than a iron clad persistence on a single truth.

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