Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Essay Notes: "Charles E. Merriam and the ‘Chicago School’ of political science" by Herbert A. Simon

Professor Charles E. Merriam. Photo via University of Chicago website.

Simon, H. A. (1987). Charles E. Merriam and the ‘Chicago School’ of political science. The Edmund Janes James Lecture, delivered by Herbert A. Simon, 10 October 1985. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Political Science.


In my experience, it is not unusual for a metaphysical thread to appear across my various undertakings, often seemingly at random, yet so consistently observable that to deny the empirical evidence goes against my very core. I will expand on such a moment that occurred this morning when reading Herbert Simon's speech about Merriam, which follows my series of déjà vu experiences in the last week. Simon (p. 5) suggests that Merriam, although the political scientist most often credited with bringing about the behavioural revolution in the discipline, was at times "unmodern" in the quality of his evidence. In my other reading this morning, Mark Twain, in Mental Telegraphy, stated that he had been on the receiving end of similar charges. This thread runs everywhere - while it is all rather bizarre, I must write it down before the thought escapes me.

On 2nd January this year, I journalled about the concept of "stamina". Stamina has been one of my strengths, both physically and mentally, but it can be, and I have, on numerous occasions, pushed too far. Nowhere does talk of stamina mention the natural progression of "rest, repeat". It is much like a movie, where people never eat, go to the bathroom, or lock the doors of their cars. It is unseen. Simon refers to his last meeting with Merriam (p. 8):
Human lives, too, have brief Golden Ages. But good ideas can achieve a longevity much beyond a single human life.
Now, how does this all fit together so far? Well, writing a research philosophy while learning to practice Stoicism deliberately, and reflecting and writing each day, provides a thread between thought and action, and a history that would otherwise escape one's memory. For example, at times I can feel the extent of my scholarly or spiritual progress, only to look back at my journal and discover that this other person, the less-advanced version of me, is not a distant cousin but was me sometimes less than two months beforehand. So here is the thread, but what of stamina?

The word "stamina" is derived from the Greek word "stamen", which refers to the "thread" spun by the "three very old women who spin the threads of human destiny". Stamina, then, refers to how long one's "thread" is, of course in individual moments such as running a race, rather than in the sense of one's lifespan. Yet there is a connection between Simon's discussion of Merriam's "followers", as opposed to his "disciples", and the subsequent dissolution of the "Chicago School" after Merriam's retirement. Harold Lasswell, for example (another famous political scientist), had also left the University of Chicago around that time. Of course, when we live our own lives, we do not only see our Golden Age, but we have to live with ourselves before and after the good years that others (hopefully) will recall. Learning to love the process rather than the outcome is essential, I believe. The end, after all, is dying, so better to enjoy the trip - the goal is inevitable no matter how well or poorly we live!

So I go off to check my information on Harold Lasswell, and the collapse of the Chicago School, and I stumble across the work of another great political scientist, Gabriel Almond. This sends me off on a tangent. Years ago, I read Naomi Atkinson's book, Cloud Cuckoo Land (which is set in Ancient Greece), because of the title. It related to Gabriel Almond and Stephen Genko's journal article, Clouds, Clocks, and the Study of PoliticsSo this will be the next article I review. But I even have Almond talking about threads in his book, From Ventures in Political Science: Narratives and Reflections (p. 1):
I had a long apprenticeship. I wasn't really on my way, so to speak, until 1946, after World War II, when I was in my mid-thirties. It was then that my European and German experience combined with my University of Chicago training to give me access to research opportunities in comparative politics and international relations. How this came about is told in Chapter 5, "A Voice from the Chicago School," where I place my beginnings in the setting of the University of Chicago in the great days of Charles Merriam and Harold Lasswell. The University of Chicago thread takes me from Midway in the 1930s to Yale in the 1940s [underline mine].
Which brings me to Mark Twain. First, it is about telegraphy, which is part of my field. Second, it is about coincidence versus empirical evidence, which is the space I find myself in now. So there is a thread linking all of these different readings and activities. But what does all of this mean for my research?

Given that I have been writing about developing a research philosophy, and given all of the other "coincidences", I would like to think that I am in the right place at the right time, which fits nicely into my theme of politics in time and space. But there are many lessons to be learnt from Merriam's career, provided by his student, Herbert Simon, the Nobel Laureate who brought us the concept of "bounded rationality".

In terms of having a purpose to the process of living, rather than the achievement of death, that final of finals, Simon points out that Merriam's lasting influence on the discipline of political science meant that he had lost the battle but won the war (p. 10):
If Charles Merriam lost the local battle - probably a poor way to describe the impermanence of the Chicago department that he shaped - he gained total victory in the war across the land.
But what seems to matter is that Merriam hoped we would now be "using our new-found knowledge of political behavior to improve the human lot". His purpose was to develop an understanding of human behaviour, as it related to politics, so we could then use that knowledge. Simon points to Merriam's characteristics, and suggests that if Merriam were to have a second lifetime, then he would use the knowledge he had helped to create:
There he would find his new cause, which would occupy all of his optimism about  the potential of intelligence, all of his courage, patience, and humor in the face of persistent difficulty, all of his intellectual and entrepreneurial skills, for another lifetime at least.
For me, this means that the difficulties are a good thing - maybe "the obstacle is the way". It also means that the series of coincidences that have occurred around Merriam - incidentally, I found my original notes dating my first reading of the Merriam quote to 15th March 2006 (the first time I left Australia) - and were brought to light by my other "non-work-related" reading (Mark Twain). Now the challenge is to articulate the purpose that my research might serve. It also means that the process, amid the endless performance reviews that are certain to mean nothing after I am gone, but present "persistent difficulties", is more important.

So better to do what I enjoy doing, rather than do what I am "told" by rules that are changed at whim. Funnily enough, "change fatigue" is a major reason one loses once's stamina. Better to play the long game, doing the things that I enjoy, so when that final of finals comes along the daily process meant something to me. After all, any personal Golden Age is but a snapshot of the outside, like someone's Facebook profile where for a fleeting moment it looks as though you are living the high life, while the reality of the other 99% of the time, which is the daily grind, is agony and torment for your soul. It doesn't have to be so.  As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, 6.31:
Clear your mind and get a hold of yourself and, as when waking from sleep and realizing it was only a bad dream upsetting you, wake up and see that what's there is just like those dreams.
But to conclude, another coincidence. Today is my birthday, and on reading and journalling this morning, based on my Daily Stoic ritual, Raymond Chandler appears: "I never looked back, although I had many uneasy periods looking forward". I finished my first Raymond Chandler novel last week. Is this a mere coincidence? So something else for the research philosophy: What is knowledge, and how do we know?!

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio