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I’ve been haunted by the ghost of this topic for quite some time now. Having put up with the exigencies of my professors, I finally raise my hand to say what I think of political science. The paper below was written for a class which is no longer being taught (perhaps because it really seemed out of sync with the dogmas of the political science department), and although it adheres to a rather excessive diplomatic effort on my part – which I would have, perhaps, reconsidered under different circumstances – it nevertheless delivers the general idea.

Political Science Scientism

The transformation of the study of politics: a reflection on mainstream epistemology in the social sciences and some of its implications on political science

“… it seems to me that you over-simplify a question which lies outside the bounds of physiology. Physiology has courageously performed its task, dividing man into an infinity of acts and reactions and reducing him to a point of intersection, to a whirl of reflexes. Let it make room now for the sociologist to re-establish man’s wholeness. Sociology will snatch man from the anatomical amphitheater and return him to history.”

 

Alexander Herzen, letter to his son Alexander.

July, 1868.

 

 

In place of a Prologue

 

Although the study of politics is nothing new, and one can certainly find a continuous, substantial interest in state and political affairs throughout virtually all of human history, I cannot help but feel that the modern discipline of political science – the way it exists and is being taught in the present day – has something inevitably “different” to it, something, which makes it hard for me to understand it as part of that same continuity of thought, which I find flowing from Plato and Aristotle to Voltaire and Rousseau. And indeed, the first part of the last century were times of growing discontent with the traditional understanding and approach to political inquiry. Critics attacked its strong bonds with what they saw as abstract theory, history and philosophy, condemning it for being preoccupied mainly with problems of qualitative and normative nature (Ball 2007). With evident disapproval, David Easton wrote that the study of politics appeared to be “interested primarily in the history of ideas” (Easton 1953, 236 as cited in Ball 2007, 3). Needless to say, the scientific status of a practice which dealt predominately with ideas of the past, rather than studying the present by way of rigorous application of the fundamental principles of science, ought to be seriously questioned.

By the 1950s the protest against traditional political science[1] took the shape of clearly articulated movement known as the behavioralist revolution. The message it carried in the post-World War II period was loud and clear: Europe lay in ruins, tens of millions of lives had perished, the world was devastated; those were no times to read “old books” and study “the classics”, those times required immediate action. In the eyes of the behavioralists, the old methods and approaches had suffered a fiasco of tremendous proportions. They did not prevent, nor could explain, what had happened to the world in the first part of the 20th century (Dahl 1961,764). Moreover, some even believed that it was those “classics”, their authors and their ideas that were directly responsible for the horrors of the last centennial.[2] Thus, change could no longer be delayed: time had come for political science to break with its romantic past and become truly scientific “after the methodological assumptions of the natural sciences” (Easton 1965b, 8).[3] Ambitious and energetic, behaviouralists laid the building blocks for modern political science. Embracing the language of empiricism and positivism they established a discipline that aimed at discovering universal laws of human behavior (Ball 2007). In the words of one of the movement’s pioneers, David Easton, among behaviouralism’s primary concerns were the “discoverable uniformities of political behavior, quantification, and value-freedom” (1965a, 17). Thus, political science, once at large condemned as a broad, qualitative and normative study of a political grand-narrative, now emerged as a brand-new discipline under the custody of Science. Conceived after the model of the natural sciences, it demonstrated strict adherence to method and empirical research in conducting its inquiries.[4]

Although behaviouralists clearly sought to discredit traditional, theoretical political science, it would nevertheless be unfair to accuse them in total disregard of the latter. According to Terence Ball (2007, 7), the revolutionaries made an attempt to incorporate traditional political theory in their newly formed discipline, attributing to it “the task of clarifying and defining the terms of political analysis”.[5] Yet they felt no mercy against traditionalists’ preoccupation with the history of political thought as a whole: if political science was to be truly scientific after the model of the natural sciences, this concern with ideas and history must cease once and for all (ibid). For the behaviouralists, studying the classics may be interesting for its own sake, but to contemporary research and theorizing it was not only seen as a useless activity (Smith 1994, 84), but as an obstacle and an unnecessary distraction altogether (Ball 2007, 4).

Needless to say, the consolation prize reserved for the traditionalists was turned down. Thus the schism of the discipline became inevitable. On the one hand, there were the political scientists. Endorsing the principles of empiricist and positivist epistemology, soberly-minded they saw themselves addressing the important issues of the day. On the other hand, there were the traditionalists. In defense of the “great classics” and their teachings, they declared themselves against the scientism and “methodism” of the former (Wolin 1969). The disagreement eventually grew into an unbridgeable gulf. If for conventional political theorists the study of politics appeared as a vocation, as Sheldon Wolin (ibid) pointed out, then political scientists openly sought the professionalization of the discipline.[6]

Towards the end of the last century behaviouralist momentum slowed down and its positivist epistemology softened. In a way, what followed can be seen as behaviouralism’s response to itself: Robert Dahl, once at the frontline of the revolution, was now the key figure behind what became known as “neo-behaviouralism”. Neo-behaviouralism seemed to have confronted its predecessor in that it rejected value neutrality and opposed latter’s obsession with observable and qualitative phenomena, which had let political science become less relevant in studying the reality of the political world (Shafritz 2004, 20). Seemingly, behaviouralism had defeated itself. As it turned out, Charles Taylor (1985) was right in pointing out that all statements were bound with their own “value slope”. Furthermore, there were no laws of political behavior that could possibly be discovered. James Farr arrived at the conclusion that even the much celebrated Michel’s and Duverger’s laws could not be found under the microscope of positivism, regardless of how sophisticated that latter might be (Farr 1987 as cited in Ball 2007, 10). Hence, by the end of the 1970s positivist epistemology in political science appeared to have lost a substantial part of its credibility. The seeming overthrow of behaviouralism, however, represented merely a remonstration of the given form of inquiry and not the overall direction taken by the discipline. Contested was not the premise that man, his nature and environment, ought to be studied empirically, but merely the way in which one goes about doing just that. Criticism of the behaviouralist tradition and its epistemological assumptions derived from other, yet nevertheless “empirically-minded” schools of thought. Consequently, the above was still a debate within the empirical, or “methodist” (Wolin 1969) framework of the post-war period.[7]

I

The main effect that the behaviouralist revolution had on political science, consisted in that the latter, as its main technique of inquiry adopted the so called scientific method: if the study of politics claimed the name of political science, that naturally implied the application of the appropriate method. What did that entail? According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2004), the word “science” has its origin in the Latin scientia and means “having knowledge”. John R. Bond defined the modern meaning of the word as a “method of learning based on systematic observation” (2007, 897). Consequently, the above definition indispensably characterizes the process of acquiring knowledge as empirical in its very nature, by attributing it to the principles of immediate experience derived from one, or some combination of our senses, expressed here as “systematic observation”. Furthermore, Bond (2007, 899) goes on to identify the key elements of the scientific method and sort them in the following order: the fact/value dichotomy, systematic observation of empirical facts, quantification (i.e. systematically recording observation), and finally the “core goal of the scientific method – hypothesis testing and theory building”.[8] Hence, when applied to a social science, the above-described method advances a position in which all knowledge of social phenomena is tentative and can be determined to be true only through sense experience – after empirically examining the social world (Crovelli 2006). In other words, prior to drawing any conclusions about the political world, one ought to first observe empirical phenomena of some sort or other. Evidently, social sciences then must advance in a “manner exactly analogous” to the one found in the natural sciences (ibid).[9] Under this interpretation, attaining knowledge in political science must depend upon the indefinite process of hypothesis building and hypothesis testing: all assumptions are to be examined against constantly cumulative empirical data, that is to say – “evidence” – and only then either accepted as “true” or rejected altogether.

Following this line of thought, we arrive at the main purpose of the above-described technique. As argued by Bond (2007, 899), the “core goal” of the scientific method is essentially explanatory-predictive: “If we can explain how and why something varies, then we should be able to predict what will happen under certain conditions.” Similarly, Milton Friedman (1953, 8) judges the value and validity of hypotheses by their “predictive power”. He writes that “a hypothesis is important if it “explains” much by little, […] and permits valid predictions” (Friedman 1953, 14). At the same time, both Friedman (1953) and Bond (2007, 900), share the conviction that the theories must be “generalizable”, namely, their explanatory power must extend beyond the setting of a particular case. Hence we see that in adopting the scientific method, at the core of modern political science epistemology lies the principle of uniformity in nature. The latter, as explained by Clark et al. (2009, 43), not in a book on physics or botanical sciences, but in their Principles of Comparative Politics, holds that if X causes Y today, then it will also cause Y tomorrow. Therefore, at this point, it should perhaps not come as a surprise to us, that the well-known – to political science students in particular – Easton’s model, explained in his A Systems Analysis of Political Life, is nothing more than a variant of the German biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory, which he conceived, although as an interdisciplinary approach, yet nevertheless to be applied predominately in the fields of biology (Miller 1971).

II

In the previous section political science appeared before us as a form of inquiry of strictly empirical nature. We were told that the discipline must advance and discover certain truths in its field analogically to the natural sciences, by applying the scientific method, at the core of which lay the principle of systematic observation (Bond 2007). Hence, the main premise of modern political science is that everything which enters its sphere of inquiry must be available for direct observation. For now, we shall limit ourselves by simply stating such conviction as a fact, and continue, in order to address some of the implications it has on the discipline.

Charles Lindbloom (as cited in Ollman 2000, 554) precisely identified that modern political science was almost entirely absorbed by the issue of method and “How to study?” while the logically precedent question “What to study?” remained “terribly neglected”. The continuous, exclusive preoccupation with the improvement of different approaches and techniques has led the discipline become less and less relevant, drawing it farther away from the real problems of politics (Smith 2010, 236). I have to agree with Sheldon Wolin (1969, 1063) here, who points out that this phenomenon is an inherent consequence of the behaviouralist revolution. A glimpse at Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba’s much celebrated work, The Civic Culture, would suffice to discover how far this tendency has gone: “One of the most significant recent developments in the social sciences is the revolution in data gathering and data evaluation. This revolution depends upon the developments in techniques by which data can be collected and analyzed.” (Almond and Verba 1963, 43 as cited in Wolin 1969, 1063). Indeed, that is such a “significant development”, that it would eventually lead to the destruction of science as such, for as it turns out “[m]ost important, perhaps, the criteria by which one accepts or rejects statements about social life are of special nature. The ultimate criterion is the method by which they are gathered.” (ibid).[10] Is it a coincidence, that having read those lines I am inevitably reminded of some sort of Kuhnian relativism? Ironically, the state in which we find political science after its behaviouralist transformation is perhaps less scientific than it has ever been, for it is “this pseudo-scientific methodology […] dictating the subject matter that is to be investigated rather than the subject matter dictating the approach.” (Poirier 2011, 217). Eventually, what we are left with is a discipline that has the tendency to narrow down the selection of topics it studies (and that is not to say that the success of these studies is not highly debatable) only to those that fit into one of its arbitrarily constructed methods, while those that do not are usually ignored (ibid). In essence, the study of politics is replaced by the study of method in the study of politics. Here, I recall a well-known suggestion – perhaps a quasi-Kantian one – but one, which I nevertheless find impossible and even outright nonsensical: “before thinking it is necessary to examine the instruments of thinking by some external analysis.” (Herzen 1956, 25).

This is a direct result of the contemporary understanding of political inquiry within the epistemological limits of empiricism. The etymological origins of the term empirical and empiricism are found in the Greek word ἐμπειρία which literally translates to “experience” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2013). Consequently, at the core of empiricist philosophy lies the assumption that “all knowledge is derived from sense experience” and that the latter must necessarily be the principle of all sciences (ibid). Adopting this way of thinking, political science then proceeds to reveal certain truths in its domain basing itself exclusively on gathering, documenting and analyzing different forms of sense-data as experience. An immediate consequence of the above perception is that it limits science to studying only that which is sensory-given at the expense of scientific interest in all things that are not objects of experience. Hence, as we have already seen, political science is preoccupied with the question “How to study?” the constantly growing pile of data and evidence. Yet, the question “What to study?” receives less or no attention at all, for it is not possible to deal with it through observation or experience. It would be hardly an exaggeration to say that this process of improving the methods of political inquiry has gone almost in complete abstraction from the question what really constitutes its object of investigation. To understand this and other challenges that the discipline faces today, we must address the question how is knowledge attainable in political science.

III

Behaviouralists have declared political science to be an empirical science. As such, at its core we find the principle of empirical philosophy which claims that true is only that which is found in actuality and is available for observation. If we accept such premise, then we must also agree that truly exists only that, which is perceivable by our senses, and “if experience alone can pronounce a final decision in every case, nothing but what is actually perceived can be accepted as real object” (Fischer 1857, 411). In accordance to such view, the existence of universal and generic ideas must then be rejected, for they are not objects available for our immediate observation. Furthermore, if we deny the existence of such ideas, if we cannot think by means of thought alone, then “nothing is left for us but to think by the means of the senses” (ibid) and thus we must agree with the empiricists that all knowledge is possible only via sensory experience. Yet, the very practice of what is believed to be empirical political science contradicts such understanding. To find out why, let us consider the following example.

One of the more famous theories in comparative politics is Seymor Lipset’s modernization theory. Simplified, it may be summarized in the following way: because of an apparent strong correlation between income levels and levels of democratic practices (which Lipset was able to confirm via empirical evidence), he came to the conclusion that strong economic development is a necessary precondition for the occurrence of democracy (Gilman 2003, 63). In other words, improving socio-economic conditions also improves state’s chances for democracy and its sustainability. What is of interest to us here is that the style of the research appears to be in conformity with all principles of empirical inquiry. To cite Wucherpfenning and Deutsch (2009) “Lipset (1959, 1960) was able to confirm a suspected correlation between democracy [i.e. the dependent variable] and development [i.e. the independent variable] on empirical grounds in one of the earliest empirical comparative studies”. It is not of our primal concern here to analyze the theory’s plausibility. In fact, we must admit that the correlation between the two variables appears convincing and we have no intention to deny that levels of economic development must have some effect on democracy. Yet, can we agree that the above judgment was conceived entirely on empirical grounds? Let us delve into this issue for it is of key importance to us here.

As a philosophy, empiricism asserts that knowledge is only possible through experience.[11] Therefore, it rejects metaphysics and anything that has to do with it, as empirically unverifiable and thus non-existent. As A.J. Ayer (1960, 12) writes “Metaphysical assertions, […] are meaningless because they bear no relation to fact.” Yet, even though empiricism believes it has been emancipated of metaphysics, it inevitably employs the metaphysical notions of “one”, “many”, “infinite” and so forth, and guided by these categories, using and applying the forms of ratiocination it proceeds to draw conclusions about the phenomena it observes. But empiricism does so without realizing that it thereby contains metaphysics in itself, that it inevitably engages in it, and implements its categories uncritically. And so is in our case, as we shall discover in a moment. Perhaps nowhere else, is the empiricist desire to extract the human element from the knowing process, more unsuccessful, than in contemporary political science: nearly all of modern political science research deals, at some level or another, with democracy, economics, equality, etc., all of which essentially derive from the idea that man must be free and thus strives for and deserves freedom. In concentrating on the issue of disseminating democracy, Lipset (1959) departs not from the abstract desire to demonstrate a correlation between two, randomly selected variables, but from the concrete, metaphysical conviction that democracy is a good and necessary form of government which brings man closer to freedom. He writes:

“A basic premise of this book is that democracy is not only or even primarily a means through which different groups can attain their ends or seek the good society; it is the good society itself in operation. Only the give-and-take of a free society’s internal struggles offers some guarantee that the products of the society will not accumulate in the hands of a few power-holders, and that men may develop and bring up their children without fear of persecution.” (Lipset 1960, 403).

Denying the existence of such reasoning, asserting that research can or should be entirely “value-free” would mean attributing it to the arbitrariness of chance, and unrestrained science would be free to wonder aimlessly in the endless expanses of its own abstractions.[12]

Thus, while we can certainly say that experience and empirical phenomena enrich political science, we are now less likely to agree that the latter represent its main object of study. If in the above example Lipset (1959) establishes a casual relationship between democracy and economic development on the basis of observation, the study as a whole rests on metaphysical grounds that man must be free and thus seeks a free form of government. Not only, that the latter idea cannot be known to be true via any sensory experience, i.e. a posteriori, but essentially the notions of all operational terms employed in the study, originate in the form of transcendental concepts which are not attainable through immediate observation. Hence it is rather questionable if empiricism satisfies all aspirations to knowledge in political science.

We had already mentioned that the denial of metaphysics and the existence of generic and intellectual ideas is a natural consequence of empiricism. Consequently, modern social sciences, in their attempt to become “truly scientific” have endorsed empiricist philosophy and share a commitment to an ideology which rests on the presumption that there is no transcendental content, “no given meaning, no order, and no reality in the universe for man to interpret” to discover and to relate to (Poirier 2010, 212). Hence the scientific mind preoccupies itself with examining the “real world”, manifested in the infinite variety of its objects and empirically observable phenomena. And indeed, if our world carries no deeper content than the one we find on its surface, there would be nothing else to examine than what is observable by the senses…

In place of an Epilogue

The purpose of this paper is not to discredit empirical political science. Instead, my goal was to illustrate that while preoccupied with studying and analyzing only that which is observable, empirical political science nonetheless rests on philosophical grounds and is thus dependant on philosophy. It is indisputably true, that, in addressing the issue of gender equality, for instance, we will eventually have to turn to observation, data collection and analysis of some sort or another. Yet it is false to assert that our study begins, or relies solely on that observation. Instead, its origins are found in the a priori idea that people should be given equal opportunities regardless of their gender. But neither the truth of this statement, nor the notions of “gender” or “equality” can be known through experience. And although modern political scientists will probably agree with our objections, it is highly probable that with our questions on necessity and universality in mind, we might find ourselves in the departments of political philosophy or theory, viewed as entirely separate fields of the discipline as a whole (Ball 2007). This, however, would be a mistake, for such distinction does not exist. Empirical science too has no other goal. No empirical inquiry ceases its activity at the mere observation and description of its phenomena. Instead, it organizes them according to some criteria and proceeds to find in them the universal and necessary laws and causes for their existence. Categories, universality and necessity, however, do not have their origin in observation, but are rather a priori creations of the mind. If we consider a piece of chalk, for example, we might notice that it is white, hard, cylindrically shaped etc. We say that all these properties are united in this one object – the piece of chalk, yet this unity is not given in mere sensation: we cannot see, touch or smell this principle of unity, but can only arrive to know it via reflection upon what has been observed. Yet by doing so, we have inevitably gone far beyond mere observation and sense experience. Naturally, same applies to the causal relationship between two variables. The idea that economic growth is linked to democracy is not found in the immediate observation of socio-economic phenomena and democratic practices, but is rather a product of our mind. Hence experience alone has no value to us, and so is in political science, where observation, study and analysis of events are conducted not for their own sake, but only with their relation to an idea. Namely, the idea of democracy, the idea of fascism, the idea of equality, the idea of capitalism, and so forth. But how do we know which one is the true, the good, the necessary and universal idea worth our time in conducting all those studies, observations and analyses? The answer to this is philosophy, but philosophy not in its faceless, dull sense in which it exists today, but in a sense which resembles lot more to what we know as speculative philosophy. Depriving political science of the latter is then much like studying the mast, the deck, the rudder and the other, countless parts of a floating ship, while showing no interest in what a ship is, what winds are blowing in its sails and what its course is.

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——. 1965b. “The Mode of Analysis.” In A Systems Analysis of Political Life, 3-17. New York: Wiley.

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[1] Here, by “traditional political science” I mean the study of politics prior to its behaviouralist transformation. It is perhaps worth noting here, that only in the English language – as far as I am aware – is the word “science” employed in a sense which is somehow necessarily associated with positive science: it is far less unusual, for example, to speak of theology as theological sciences in French and German, than it is in English. On this note, I was once told by a college professor that philosophy is not a science at all.

[2] Most notably, the relationship between philosophical thought and the rise of 20th century ideologies was expressed by Karl Popper in his famous “The Open Society and Its Enemies”. This two volume work pointed to Plato, Marx and Hegel as the main culprits for the rise of totalitarianism in the last century.

[3] As simplistic as this might sound, witnessing the rapid expansion of the natural sciences throughout the 19th century, behaviouralists developed a belief that it would suffice to simply extract the method from the natural sciences and apply it to their discipline, so the study of politics can finally flourish in a similar way. On this note, I should perhaps clarify, that here by “method” we speak of that, which they – the behaviouralists – themselves not being natural scientists of any kind, came to identify as the “methodological assumptions of the natural sciences” (ibid). This point is well addressed by Eric Voegelin in his “The New Science of Politics” (1987).

[4] The behaviouralist revolution in political science is an extensive topic which without a doubt deserves a study of its own. The few sentences on behaviouralism here seek to only compliment the reader’s understanding of (and perhaps highlight) some of the origins of modern political inquiry.

[5] For now, I purposefully restrain myself from discussing the implications of the latter nomination – which reminds me rather closely of a certain quasi-etymology – and will limit myself by simply pointing out how representative the latter is of the behaviouralists’ narrow understanding of what political theory is or what it ought to be.

[6] Gabriel Almond sharply criticized then unprofessional nature of “the humanists” and declared their methods and approaches obsolete: “the humanists […] suffer from feelings of inadequacy in a word dominated by statistics and technology; and the radical and “critical” political theorists, like the ancient prophets, lay about them with anathemas against the behaviouralists and positivists, and the very notion of a political science professionalism that would separate knowledge from action. But their anti-professionalism must leave them in doubt as to whether they are scholars” (1988, 828-829).

[7] One can find multiple examples of the ongoing obsession over method in the discipline. For instance, Martin J. Smith pointed out in his preface to the Political Studies Journal’s special issue on Dialogue and Innovation in Contemporary Political Science (please take note of the theme), that “there is undoubtedly a need to refine and improve our methods” (Smith 2010, 236).

[8] Italics in the original.

[9] The bond between the two is also addressed by Ido Oren (2006, 76), who writes that “the commitment of contemporary political science to the unity of science doctrine is evident in explicit analogies that prominent scholars draw between natural scientists and their own research”.

[10] My emphasis.

[11] This dogma we find at the core of empirical philosophy. “Dogma”, if not even an outright self-refutation, for such claim cannot possibly be proven through experience. “By what experience is the principle of experience guaranteed?” Kuno Fischer (1857, 410) asks. Analyzing David Hume’s philosophical empiricism, for example, an inquisitive mind might raise the question of how is the principle of experience explained in the latter’s philosophy. Fischer (1857, 494) argued that in explaining experience as a pivotal point to all knowledge, Hume departed from the idea of causality, which he believed was a result of our connection of impressions. Consequently, causality he explained by oft repeated experience. Thus, in explaining experience by experience, Hume essentially “presupposes what he has to explain; he therefore thinks dogmatically, and commits the very fault which the skeptics of antiquity had remarked in the dogmatic philosophers;” (ibid).

[12] The genius of Leo Tolstoy formulated this idea in his preface to Edward Carpenter’s article “Modern Science”. “But the present men of science – wrote Tolstoy – recognizing no religion, and so having no grounds on which to pick out, according to their degree of importance, the subjects of study, and to separate them from less important subjects, and finally from that infinite number of subjects which, on account of the limitations of the human mind and the infinitude of these subjects, will always remain unstudied, have formulated for themselves a theory – ‘science for its own sake’ – according to which science does not study what men need, but everything” (Tolstoy 1905, 110).

Early afternoon, on the 16th of April, I found myself standing on top of a little hill overlooking the open field west of the Oder. The view before me was what thousands of German soldiers saw right before they shut their eyes for good, on this same day the 16th of April, 67 years ago. It was here, at the Seelow Heights that the 9th army of the Whermacht fiercely defended the last major defensive line outside of Berlin. It took the Red Army three days of bitter fighting and the lives of some 30 000 men to break open the “Gates of Berlin”.

Karte-Neu weapon_76mmzis3_3

Standing there, gazing into the empty distance, I took a deep breath and my heart began to beat faster. The initial feeling of excitement – of being there, at this historical site – slowly started to grow into anxiety; I felt uneasy, as if I had a heavy stone pressing against my chest; like if I was embracing one of the many gravestones around me, some of which read the names of their 20-year-old heroes, while others were simply engraved “Unknown”. Indeed… unknown remained their names, unknown remains to the world the cause they died for, and the Motherland in the name of which they fought for has at last sunk into oblivion.

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I spent the rest of the day wondering around the area, occasionally driving into some village, a field, or a forest. There wasn’t much to see and quite frankly I do not know what precisely I was looking for; yet I couldn’t, nor did I want to leave. Somewhere north of Platkow, I reached a village of no more than 20 houses. I turned right off the main street onto a black road and drove into a forest. I found myself next to a small cemetery. Amongst the few scattered, obviously forgotten graves, hidden in the forest there was a newly erected wooden cross and a gravestone commemorating the fallen German soldiers in 1939-45. I walked past the cemetery and into the woods. The road had ended a few hundred meters behind me and I was now walking in a mixture of mud, grass and various plants. Drawn by the silhouette of what seemed to me to be the ruins of a small building or a house, I was staring at the ground, hoping to find something, an object, an immediate witness of the events that had destroyed whatever once stood there.

The day elapsed in a similar, hypnotized-like state and a few other stops of the above kind. I came across an airport, first built by the Germans right before the invasion of Poland, and later used by the Soviets for the bombardment of Berlin. Many of the villages I drove through seemed deserted, empty. I remember I stopped in Platkow to take a look at a rather grotesque monument of a soviet soldier. Right across from it was the municipal museum, in which I thought I’d get some information on what are some of the other battle sites in the area that I could visit. I walked through the wide open doors and climbed the stairs. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t find anyone – the building seemed to be completely empty. After a quick tour searching for a bathroom I was out and on my way.

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The civil war in Syria seems to occupy the headlines today, again. This made me recall the euphoric enthusiasm with which the world embraced the “Arab Spring” not so long ago, one which seems to have gone round Syria. I was once asked by a professor in Freiburg to share my opinion on the issue. Given that I am outright clueless when it comes to Middle Eastern politics, that’s what I had to say.

In Italy, in the years of the Italian campaign of 1796-1797, young Napoleon Bonaparte was received as the missionary of the French Revolution, a liberator of the people and an enemy of the tyrants. Regarding himself as a liberator, Napoleon launched the Egyptian campaign. Yet the man who came to restore the rights of the oppressed and punish the tyrants (Denon and El-Gabarti 1998) soon discovered how little his words meant to the Egyptians. Napoleon counted on the support of the local population but he was struck by the political backwardness and the low level of social development he found in Egypt, a miscalculation which eventually ended up costing him the campaign.[1] Today, more than two centuries later, the question seems more current than ever: is Middle Eastern soil finally ready to sow and grow the seed of Freedom?

The expression “Arab Spring” refers to a wave of demonstrations and protests which has been storming across the Arab world since late 2010. Although with significant reservations, the international community welcomed the upheaval as the long awaited awakening of the Middle East in a pursue of democracy. Today, however, these feelings of optimism seem to have given way to an emerging skepticism. In the year and a half since the first outbreak of the protests, some long standing rulers, namely those of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have been forced to step down from power. But what changed? Is it safe to conclude that we are witnessing a democratic transition in the Middle East?

Let us recall the event that ignited the wave of protests throughout the Arab world. It was on the 17th of December, 2010, when the young Tunisian graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, selling fruits and vegetables for a living, set fire to himself in protest against what seemed to be everything (Blight et al. 2012). His example was followed by Senouci Touat, Mohsen Bouterfif, Aouichia Mohamed, and according to the BBC in Tunisia alone, during the first six months of the “revolution”, more than 107 people set fire to themselves in protest (Goodman 2012). On the one hand, one cannot remain unsympathetic to this sacrifice. On the other hand, however, on the surface inevitably appears the question whether such form of protests can lead to democracy. These self-immolations are a vivid representation of the fatalist spirit of the Arab world, its emotionality, spontaneity and unpredictability all of which are rather a challenge to the emergence of a stable, free and democratic form of government.

A great thinker once said that human history is a progress in awareness of freedom. And so we too must evaluate the events in the Middle East according to their approach to freedom. Although it is too early to come up with an adequate prognosis of the political situation in the Arab world, it is nevertheless possible to briefly sketch a general overview of recent and current events and their meaning. Indeed much has changed in the course the last year and a half, but can we say that this change is fundamental with regards to freedom? It seemed that Libya had to dirty its hands with the blood of Muammar Gaddafi so freedom can finally come, yet what we see today in the country is Islamists and tribal leaders in a race for power (Byman 2011). Egypt, once celebrating and harvesting the fruits of the Arab Spring, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, is now in the hands of the military, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the background working its way towards power (ibid; Bradley 2011). The upheaval in Bahrain last November was put down with the help of Saudi troops’ “excessive force” (DeYoung 2011) while Yemen was straight on waging a civil war (Byman 2011). But none of these examples is as explicit as the current events in Syria. According to Agence France Presse (2012) for the past 13 months the country’s unrest took the lives of more than 11, 100 people.

The extent of violence in the Middle East and the enthusiasm with which ordinary citizens take part in the violent clashes with authorities represent their determination, but also raises questions about their ability to coexist and tolerate the pluralism of a democratic environment. Furthermore, an even greater threat is seen in the rise of the Muslim fundamentalism (Bradley 2011). Being officially recognized, the Muslim Brotherhood is slowly but surely making its way to power (ibid.). There is no question that the compatibility of Sharia law and liberal democracy is impossible. All this makes us approach the so called “Arab Spring” with serious reservations. Whether the Arab World has gotten any closer to freedom is yet to be seen in the upcoming years and decades. Meanwhile, one must not save his support and willingness to assist the Middle East in reaching this noble goal – Freedom.

Bibliography:

Agence France Presse. 2012. “More than 11,100 killed in Syria in 13 months: NGO”. Accessed May 6, 2012. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hV12mi9lkDgV9J4-R-k5C4TkWgzw?docId=CNG.b3a51da26e7e858e1c7f73c604cd63e3.6d1.
Blight, Garry, Sheila Pulham and Paul Torpey. 2012. “Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests”. The Guardian. Accessed May 4, 2012.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline.
Bradley, John. 2011. “Arab Spring? This is turning into the winter of Islamic jihad”. Daily Mail, November 22, 2011. Accessed May 5, 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2064503/Arab-Spring-This-turning-winter-Islamic-jihad.html.
Denon, Vivant and Abdel Rahman El-Gabarti. 1998. Sur l’expédition de Bonaparte en Égypte: témoignages croisés et commentés par Mahmoud Hussein. Paris: Babel.
DeYoung, Karen. 2011. “Bahrain admits to ‘excessive force’ against protesters”. The Washington Post, November 21, 2011. Accessed May 5, 2012.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/bahrain-admits-to-excessive-force-against-protesters/2011/11/21/gIQANEqAjN_story.html.
Goodman, David. 2012. “Spate of Self-Immolations Reported in Tunisia”. New York Times, January 12. Accessed May 4, 2012. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/spate-of-self-immolations-reported-in-tunisia/.
Gourgaud, Gaspard. 1823. “Letter from General Bonaparte to the Executive Directory” In Memoirs of the History of France during the Reign of Napoleon, 345-352. London: S. and R. Bentley.

[1] See Napoleon’s letter to the Executive Directory, July 24, 1798 published in Gourgaud (1823) for his account on the political culture of the population.

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino
Third and final part

Two weeks later, a friend of mine from Vienna came over for a visit. Needless to say, Baden-Baden was on our list. Now, my friend, I., is really not the gambling type, so it took me quite a while to persuade him of the historical significance of that casino. We had dinner at the Lowenbrau, threw our blazers on and headed to the casino. It was the weekend, the weather was good, the city was packed: there was some sort of open-air concert and an exhibition. Confident from my last visit to the casino, this time with an audience by my side, I stepped inside the building with anxiety. This time, I wasn’t going to play with small 2 Euro bets, so I bought chips for 200 Euros, “for starters” I told my friend. Unlike the last time, the casino was full, there were probably between 15 and 20 people per table. I told I. about my strategy and placed my first bet on red. Minus 20 Euros. “Now I’ll simply double my bet” I told him and placed 40 Euros on the same color. I lost again. A little less confident, yet still loyal to my own strategy, I told him, “It’s alright, it’s all under control” and an awkward smile ran through my face. I put 80 Euros on red again. It was a black number for the 7th time. Three spins and I had lost 140 Euros. Ideally, I should have bet 160, but I only had 60 left. So I bet 60 on red and finally won. I collected my chips and left that table. After this not so successful gambling raid, we decided to grab a drink and relax on one of the red couches with golden armrests.

“You still haven’t made a single bet?” I asked.
“ Nope. And I don’t think I will. In fact, I think I’ll head back to the hotel, I am a little tired” I. replied.

I convinced him to hang around for a little longer and to even try his luck. I suggested we separate so we don’t distract each other. So we did. I picked a new wheel and began analyzing the last 10 numbers, like if that was going to make any difference. Because the table was too crowded, I stood a few meters behind, when I noticed on my left, at one of the bar tables, an attractive woman counting her colorful chips. She looked like she was somewhere in her mid thirties. She was tall, with long brown hair, quite attractive really. She was sitting on that bar table alone, concentrated on counting and sorting out the chips, occasionally sipping on a glass of white wine. I was convinced she was Russian, yet I wanted to hear her place a bet, or say something, so I could be sure. And here came the waiter to ask her if she needed anything and she replied in German, with that accent only Russian women have, aware of itself, calm and confident. I was standing there with my drink, somewhere midway between her and the wheel I was about to bet on, thinking less and less about my bet, more and more about this woman, already building a sentence in Russian in my head. A man approached her table and covered my view with his back. She smiled and he quickly walked away. “The husband” I thought.

I looked back at the screen – 2 more numbers had fallen out creating a series of 3 consecutive black numbers. “Entschuldigung… Sorry… Pardon” I made my way through the crowd to occupy a spot right in front of the table. I almost came as a rescue to the man on my left, who seemed to be waging a war against gravity, leaning on my shoulder. His eyes were half shut as he was reaching into his hip bag, filled with 250 Euro chips, throwing them at different numbers around the table. As the croupier yelled “Nichts geht mehr, rien ne va plus!” he kept pouring his chips all over the place, some even falling outside of the numbered area. The few indignant exclamations quickly ceased as he turned around to say “Wha-a-a-t?” with an evident discontent. I still remember the number from that spin – 36. His bet was four 250 Euro chips on 36, which made 35000 Euros. Everyone seemed to be impressed but him. The croupier was still not done paying him out, when the lucky winner grabbed a handful of chips and threw them almost directly at his face “That’s for you” he said, obviously tipping him in a generous yet not very polite manner. He kept on playing, and just in 2 or three spins the same thing happened again. I, on the other hand, had gone from 120 Euros to 90. The man was stuffing his hip bag with the chips he had won, leaving a few 250 Euro ones behind, when an honest German lady collected them and with great concern gave them to their owner. I went looking for I. to tell him about this guy and at the same time hoping that he was still in the mood to go back to our hotel, so I could have a decent excuse to leave before I make another losing bet. I found him in one of the other rooms, just looking at some people playing.

“Did you win anything?” he asked.
“Nah. Lost 30 Euros. You?”
“I bet 2 Euros and lost. This is so stupid.”
“Let’s get out of here” I said.

Although we both agreed to leave, we weren’t moving but just standing in front of the table. The ball was already spinning in the wheel, when I quickly looked at the last 3 numbers (which were black), reached into my pocket and threw all the chips I had on the red rhombus. “Nichts geht mehr!” yelled out the croupier. I. just looked at me without saying anything. He saw me betting, but I don’t think he knew I had bet everything I had. The ball bounced around a few numbers and finally fell into a black pocket.

“That’s it” said-I with a smile from which you couldn’t really tell was I upset or amused “I lost everything”
“Everything?” I. asked me.
“Yes. So should we go?” and I headed to the door, suppressing my thoughts and those desires that were pushing me to tell I. that I’d meet him back at the hotel, while I stay and buy more chips, to keep on playing until I recuperate my pathetic losses.

As we were walking down the hall I noticed the same woman I saw earlier. She was talking to that same guy who had won, or lost whichever way you want to put it, all those chips. From their brief, but familiar exchange, I thought they were somehow related. I. was either asking me or telling me something, which I wasn’t listening, my eyes were fixed on that woman. As she walked by, she smiled and looked down. I smiled back.

Two weeks ago I had walked out the same casino feeling happy. This time, I can’t say I was sad; in fact, I was almost amused. I had deliberately broken every single principle I had set out to myself on my way back home from my last visit. How true, that we’re free only insofar as we draw our own limits, our own principles… otherwise we leave ourselves to the decision of a tiny ball, jumping up and down the spinning wheel.

 A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino: Part I

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino: Part II

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino
Part II

I walked around all rooms; there aren’t so many tables,  which is good; it creates a more casual atmosphere where you can hang out, relax, talk to someone, or even watch the football game at the bar (mind you, it was during the Euro and Italy was playing the Netherlands that night). Finally, I decided to try my luck. I picked a table, not too crowded, yet not too empty either and threw a 2 Euro chip on red as the last three numbers were black. Here is the thing about European roulette: unlike the States and Canada, European roulette only has one zero, which significantly decreases the risk when playing on colors. An even better alternative is to play the sitting tables, where even if zero comes out, your bet is only “frozen” for the next spin, and if your color comes out, you recuperate all of your money instead of paying half your bet. And that was my strategy – play simply black or red… and occasionally cover the zero. Simple? Naïve? Oh, it gets even better! The mathematician I am, I figured that I’d wait for the same color to fall out 3 or 4 times and I would bet on the opposite one. Whenever I would lose, I would simply double my previous bet and so until I eventually win. When my bet was getting too high, I’d also cover the zero, just in case.

Enough theory. First spin – a black number falls out. I lose. I put 4 Euros on red again. Second spin – I win and get my 6 Euros bet and 2 back. I did this for a little while, playing the minimum bet on colors only, trying different tables. After approximately an hour, I had won about 20 Euros on top of the 50 Euros I came in with, which was nice, yet quite frankly I was getting a little bored. And so I decided to spice it up a little. This time I started covering numbers – 6 numbers, 4 numbers and 2. Now I am not going to bore you in further details, so let’s just skip to 45 minutes later. I am left with 10 Euros out of the 50 I came-in with. The already familiar thought of never stepping in a casino again, gains more and more clarity in my head. But I kept on playing. I took all the chips I had left, total worth 10 Euros and bet on black on a table where the last 4 colors were red. Black came out. I now had 20 Euors. I looked around, and noticed that with the exception of the table I was playing on, zero had come out on every other table. And so I waited a few more spins, so the same color would accumulate; zero had not yet fallen out. I then placed a 2 Euro chip on zero and the remaining 18 Euros on a color. Zero came out. That meant 36 times 2. 72 Euros, not bad. The next spin was my color, so I recuperated half of my bet. I now could afford to place higher bets on colors – 4, 8, 10 Euros. So I did. The more I played, the higher the bets, my adrenaline was rising with every spin of the ball. It was already 12am.

You know that unexplainable feeling, when you’re doing things against your will? Aware of all laws of reason and logic, of sane judgment, yet you act against them. Almost as if you’re just an observer, looking through someone else’s eyes, powerless to exercise control what ought to be your own actions. I approached the table. “Last spin” I told myself. I reached into my pocket and got out two 20 Euro chips. I placed them on red. The ball was spinning fast against the wheel. I heard the voice of the croupier “Nichts geht mehr! Rien ne va plus!” (No more bets!) The ball kept spinning. I turned around and walked away. I looked at the bar – Italy was still playing the Netherlands “What a long game” I thought in an effort to distract myself. My heart was racing, my palms were sweaty. I felt uncomfortable, I was losing control. My clear thought was giving in to adrenaline and emotions, I was tired. The period between the moment I walked away from the table and when the ball finally chose a pocket to fall into seemed to me as an eternity. I heard the croupier say “Vierundzwanzig, Rot” (24 Red). Five minutes later I was waiting in line to cash in on all of my chips, worth 260 Euros. I got out. Rain was falling down. It was nice and refreshing. It was past midnight on a Monday, and despite all the construction on the A5 Autobahn, there were hardly any cars. On my way home I was thinking that if I was ever to play again, I should establish some principles: always play alone; never play emotionally, only rationally; play during the week, not on weekends – otherwise it’s too crowded; don’t get distracted, follow the game. After less than an hour I was in Freiburg. As I was entering my room, the phone rang. It was my dad. I told him about the adventures that night. “260 Euros? Good. Now don’t go back there or you’ll lose everything” he said. “Yeah, yeah” I replied.

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino: Part I

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino
Part I

On Monday July the 4th, I woke up in a cozy hotel a few hundred meters away from Lago di Como. Brian (a friend I travelled with) and I had been on the road for about 8 days now and today we had to head back to Freiburg. Around noon, after breakfast and a quick walk along the lake and the historic villas, we left Como. Heading south a week earlier, we crossed the Alps via the St. Gotthard Pass. This time however, it seemed that the weather was bad, we couldn’t see the peaks and it looked like it was snowing up there, so we decided to take the less exciting way – the tunnel (there was partly that and partly the fact that I missed the St. Gotthard exit and drove straight into the tunnel). With a few short stops we reached Freiburg around 5pm. Brian, who slept through most of the ride seemed to be pretty excited to be back. I wasn’t too tired from the road and because the car was only due back the next day, I decided to pay a visit to the Baden-Baden Casino. After a refreshing shower, late lunch/dinner, around 7.30pm I was on my way.

A few things have to be said about Baden-Baden. You may track its history down to ancient Roman times when emperors were coming here to ease their pain and aches. Indeed, to this day the town is known for its baths, springs and spas. But I find it owes its true fame to something else. It was here, in the Baden-Baden casino that Dostoevsky developed a gambling addiction, the result of which, a constant lack of money, made him hire Anna Snitkina, his future wife, in order to write “The Gambler”, completed in just 21 days. In February 1867, he spent over 4 weeks playing roulette and lost everything, including his wife’s wedding ring and even her dresses. Broke, yet convinced that luck is around the corner, Dostoevsky borrowed money from a fellow compatriot and writer – Ivan Turgenev.

Turgenev moved to Baden-Baden in 1863 and spent there over 7 years of his life. Unlike Dostoevsky, it was not the casino that consumed his attention. After hearing Pauline Viardot’s rendition of “The Barber of Seville” in St. Petersburg, the novelist fell passionately in love with the 21 year old French mezzo-soprano. Although she was married he adored her until his last breath. When in 1863 she retired from the scene, her family left France and moved to Baden-Baden. Turgenev followed her, bought a piece of land and built a villa right next to Viardot’s family residence. The relationship between the two households was more than familiar: Turgenev loved and treated Pauline’s children like his own and often spent time at their house. Louis Viardot, Pauline’s husband, and him were close friends who often went hunting together. Turgenev even sold his villa to Louis, who in turn let him live there indefinitely. Today, Turgenev’s villa is a private property and is not open for visitors. In Baden-Baden the uneasy spirit of the Russian novelist for the first time experienced the joys of a family life, yet one, which was not his own. In 1870, with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, the family Viardot, together with Turgenev, left Baden-Baden to settle first in London and later in Paris.

In June 1857, Leo Tolstoy paid tribute to the Baden-Baden casino and his long-standing passion for the roulette. He wrote in his diary “I play roulette all day long. At first I lost everything, but later that night I recuperated my losses.” The next day he wrote “Played roulette until 6 at night. Lost everything.” In a few days he writes again “Lost everything! How stupid, how disgusting!”, to finally declare “I am surrounded by scoundrels! And the greatest scoundrel of all is me!” Just like Dostoevsky will do in 10 years, Tolstoy borrowed money from Turgenev, and after losing everything he finally left Baden-Baden.

The list of Russian visitors to the town goes on and on. If you’re ever sitting in the famous Lowenbrau brewery on Gernsbacher Straße, the yellow building on your left, today the town hall, used to be hotel “Darmstadt Hoff”, where Nikolay Gogol stayed during his multiple visits to the city from 1836 to 1846. Among these titans of world literature, Baden-Baden was particularly appreciated among senior military officers in Tzarist Russia. Michael Barclay de Tolly, Mikhail Miloradovich, Peter von Pahlen and their families visited the town at several occasions. By the mid 19th century, and perhaps to this very day, Russian visitors formed the largest foreign community in Baden-Baden. So welcome were they and their families that the local press wrote of them “No nation can compete with them on courtesy, good taste, elegance and liberal views…” A statement which I can hardly attribute to the contemporary Russian landlords, who in loyalty to this 19th century tradition keep contributing to the German GDP.

And so, I left Freiburg around 7.30pm. By the time I got to Baden-Baden and found parking it was already around 9pm. Before I go any further, let me tell you that I am not a gambler. In fact this was only my thirds visit to a casino, ever. It was not the game that I was drawn to, but the sensation, the excitement of playing in the same rooms, the same games that were once played by some of the greatest minds of history. The décor of the casino is outstanding; except the playing tables, the bar and the restaurant, it almost hasn’t changed since it first opened its doors some 250 years ago. This makes it the oldest casino in Germany and the third oldest in the world. There were 5 large rooms with baroque style furniture, golden chandeliers, marble columns, bright red curtains and carpets. I felt that it was quite similar to, although not that Schick of course, to the interiors of some of the royal residences, like Versailles or Sans-Souci for example.

   

Prior to this visit, I had attempted playing blackjack at the Grand Hotel Pupp Casino in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic. For less than five minutes I lost over 80 Euros. I was so furious that I told myself I would never step in a casino again… apparently by ‘never’ I meant not in the next two months. So this time I decided to buy chips only for 50 Euros and take it slow, enjoy the atmosphere, not so much the game. The great thing about the Baden-Baden casino is that despite the very schick and classy atmosphere, the minimum bet at most tables is only 2 Euros. So you can play a lot longer, without falling too deep into the hole. And so, with the rattling sound of the 25 2-Euro chips in my pocket, I began to slowly walk around, taking in the atmosphere and looking at the various types of visitors that night. There was the old lady playing her pension away, the addicted gamblers, leaning directly over the roulette wheel, the drunken Russian millionaire (of whom I will speak later), his cheating wife, the group of young guys, standing there, all dressed up in their prom suits, the old German and French aristocratic couples, gambling the inherited money of their dynasty. And there I stood among all those people, half Russian, half Bulgarian, born and raised in Sofia, immigrated to Montreal, living in Freiburg, standing there to commemorate, to pay tribute to my Russian roots.

A Visit to the Baden-Baden Casino: Part II