Remembering political scientist Robert Dahl

Robert A. Dahl, who was widely considered the foremost political theorist of his generation, died this month at 98. IU Bloomington professor Jeff Isaac, who studied with Dahl, wrote a detailed and loving remembrance for The Monkey Cage, the political science blog hosted by the Washington Post.

Robert Dahl

Robert Dahl (Yale University)

Isaac says he arrived at Yale as an “energetic, fast-talking, left-wing kid from Queens, a first generation college student drawn to ‘radical democracy’ and ‘radical political economics’ and ‘radical sociology’ and radical politics.” He was eager to challenge Dahl and his ideas about democratic pluralism.

But he felt welcomed by Dahl and learned a lot from his seminars. Then he decided to write a dissertation that critiqued Dahl’s theories and put forward a Marxist alternative.

A number of my Yale professors were puzzled and indeed skeptical about such a project. Only one was enthusiastic: Bob Dahl. And so Bob Dahl supervised my dissertation, “Power and Marxist Theory” … And so Bob Dahl invested countless hours in reading all kinds of material that was far from his comfort zone … so that he could talk with me about what I was interested in. And so Bob Dahl spent countless hours in his office talking with me about my principal theoretical antagonist — him! We would discuss this guy “Dahl” in the third person, considering the limits of his arguments, speculating about how he might respond to my arguments. This really happened.

Isaac takes issue with a line in the New York Times obituary, which says Dahl taught generations of students how to think about politics and power, and his conceptions became “standard.”

It is true that Bob taught many generations of students. It is also true that he had conceptions, and that he shared them with his students. But these conceptions were never treated as standard. There was no “Dahlean political science” to be learned from Dahl, except this: think hard; work hard; engage the range of arguments; care as much about what is actually happening in the world as about any concept, method or theory; and think for yourself and do your own work.

To this day, people are sometimes surprised to learn that I was Bob’s student and that “Power and Marxist Theory” was written under his supervision. But this is only because they never really knew Bob. For if they had known Bob, they would know that he really was an egalitarian, and a true intellectual, and he took delight in helping his students do their own things, and then in watching them do their own things on their own.

Reading about Dahl made me think of IU’s Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, who both died in 2012. Like Vincent, he was shaped by growing up in the American Northwest; both produced original and influential work about democratic governance. Dahl was the first recipient, in 1995, of the Johan Skytte Prize, given by Uppsala University in Sweden to the world scholar who has made the most important contributions to political science. Elinor Ostrom was the fifth.

Isaac writes that three memories stand out from a 2003 visit Dahl and his wife, Ann, made to Bloomington to deliver the political science department’s prestigious Charles Hyneman Lecture. The first was Dahl’s kindness to Isaac’s family; the third was his generosity to IU graduate students.

The second was an interval, during one of the dinners, when he and Ann went off to the side for around a half an hour to talk with Lin Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom. They talked about self-governance, and Bob’s experiences growing up in Alaska and Vincent’s experiences as a consultant for constitutional reform in Alaska. These people were not old friends. They were old colleagues. They did not know each other well. But they knew that they shared some deep commitments; that they had made major contributions to political science; and that their time was passing. It was an extraordinary, moving moment.