The Liberal Republic of Science, part 1: the concept of “political regime”

sometimes refer to the Liberal Republic of Science, and a thoughtful person has asked me to explain just what it is I’m talking about.  So I will.

But I want to preface my account—which actually will unfold over the course of several posts—with a brief discussion of the sort of explanation I will give.

One of the useful analytical devices one can find in classical political philosophy  is the concept of “political regimes.” “Political regimes” as used there doesn’t refer to identifiable ruling groups within particular nations (“the Ceausescu regime,” etc.)—the contemporary connotation of this phrase—but rather to distinctive forms of government.

Moreover, unlike classification schemes used in contemporary political science, the classical notion of  “political regimes” doesn’t simply map such forms of government onto signature institutions (“democracy = majority rule”; “communism = state ownership of property,” etc.). Instead, it explicates such forms with respect to foundational ideas and commitments, which are understood to animate social and political life—determining, certainly, how sovereign power is allocated across institutions, but also deeply pervading all manner of political and even social and private life.

If one uses this classification strategy, then, one doesn’t try to define forms of government with reference to some set of necessary and sufficient characteristics. Rather one interprets them by elaborating how their most conspicuous features manifest their animating principle, and also how their animating principle makes sense of seemingly peripheral and disparate, or maybe in fact very salient and connected but otherwise puzzling, elements of them.

In addition, while one can classify political regimes in seemingly general, ahistorical terms—as, say, Aristotle did in discussing the moderate vs. the immoderate species of “democracy,” “aristocracy” vs. “oligarchy,” and “monarchy” vs. “tyranny”—the concept can be used too to explicate the way of political life distinctive of a particular historical or contemporary society. Tocqueville, I’d say, furnished these sorts of accounts of the American political regime in Democracy in America and the French one prior to the French Revolution in L’ancien Régime, although he admittedly saw both as instances of general types (“democracy,” in the former case, “aristocracy” in the latter).

For another, complementary account of the “American political regime,” I’d highly recommend Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959). Jaffa was joining issue with other historians, who at the time were converging on a view of Lincoln as a zealot for opposing the pragmatic Stephen Douglas, who these historians believed could have steered the U.S. clear of the Civil War.  Jaffa depicts Lincoln as motivated to preserve the Union as a political regime defined by an imperfectly realized principle of equality. Because Lincoln saw any extension of slavery into the Northwest Territories as incompatible with the American political regime’s animating principle, he viewed Douglas’s compromise of  “popular sovereignty” as itself destructive of the Union.

So what is the Liberal Republic of Science?  It’s a political regime, the animating principle of which is the mutually supportive relationship of  political liberalism and scientific inquiry, or of the Open Society and the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Elaboration of that idea will be the focus of part 2 of this series.

The distinctive challenge that the Liberal Republic of Science faces—one that stems from a paradox intrinsic to its animating principle—will be the subject of part 3.

And the necessary role that the science of science communication plays in negotiating that challenge will be the theme of part 4.

So long!


Aristotle (1958). The politics of Aristotle (E. Barker, Trans.). New York,: Oxford University Press.

Cantor, P. A. (1995). Literature and Politics: Understanding the Regime. PS: Political Science and Politics, 28(2), 192-195.

Jaffa, H. V. (1959). Crisis of the house divided; an interpretation of the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates (1st ed.). Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.

Tocqueville, A. de (1969). Democracy in America (G. Lawrence, Trans.; J.P. Mayer, ed.). Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.

Tocqueville, A. de (2011). Tocqueville : The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution (J. Elster & A. Goldhammer, Trans.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Nos. TwoThree & Four in this series.

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