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  • Universals, Knowledge Claims, and Methods
  • Joe Oppenheimer (bio)

Claims of universality in the empirical and normative questions of politics have been made over the millennia, but never without contention. So how can we establish their status and distinguish the wheat from the chaff? How does one establish or falsify a claim of universality? And what are the relationships between the methods of such inquiry, and both the survival and quality of the resultant claims? Lest one consider this an idle concern, this is being written when the fruits of science have cured diseases, wired every home, recorded all entertainment, and made remote control warfare a thing of joysticks forever. This is also a time when the idiocy of the American populace has revealed itself in wholesale attempts to reject evolution in order to embrace intelligent design. Such attacks make the task of reasserting and following justified methods to insure the quality of rendered judgments of universality a matter that is related to the actual survival of civilization as we know it.1

Let us start with the obvious: With but passing deference to Descartes, given the diversity of claims within the well reasoned philosophical traditions, we can conclude that reason alone is clearly insufficient grounds for narrowing the disputes regarding claims of universal (other than mathematical and logical) truth. Reason alone, is insufficient for establishment of claims, and except in demonstrating logical error, disestablishment. Of course, for quite some eons philosophers felt that they could use reason to understand and identify the truth of both normative and empirical [End Page 249] claims. So Aristotle was sure that women had fewer teeth than men, and he and others argued that it could be shown that slavery was just. Universal claims have been made in these ways, and are still studied by weary students trying to master material for their final exams. But the disutility and lack of viability of such claims usually insure that they are museum pieces: not useful bits of knowledge. Empirical methods, in conjunction with reason, have, on the other hand, helped us understand such principles as those of motion, energy, mass, and the like.

To begin, we must ask what, indeed, is meant by universal political principles? Are they principles of politics, much as in the principles of physics, or biology; or are we to consider principles as in ethics? The empirical methods of science, alluded to above, have also been useful in understanding concepts such as altruism, other-regardingness, trust, justice, moral points of view, and the like.2

As such, I will argue, empirical methods help us understand claims of universality for candidates for both the positive and the normative principles of politics. But this may lead you the reader to wonder, "Does it make any difference if we consider our subject to be normative principles (such as what constitutes distributive justice or when war is justified) or the universal characteristics of political behavior? Is there a difference between the utility of the methods regarding normative and positive (factual) claims in this regard, and if so how and why? Are there candidates for principles in both categories, and why? And finally, how is one to deal with the claims of such candidates?"


Universality is in itself often misunderstood by many social scientists and political theorists. This is certainly helped by two distinct meanings of universal. The first meaning is as a social observation such as in "done by all people in the world" or even "affecting all in a particular group." The second is about knowledge claims as in "applicable to all cases." Logically it is via this second meaning, which can subsume the first, that often ties the structure of universal claims to scientific progress. For when one says something is applicable to all cases, then the criteria for the falsification of the claim is clearly set out: the claim is false if there is a case where it is not applicable. For example, all crows are black is falsified by the existence [End Page 250] of a non-black crow.3 Simple characterizations of what science is about are often tied to the establishment of 'universal laws.'4 Their ease of correction...


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pp. 249-280
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