Arthur F. Bentley

An early behavioral scientist in America, Arthur F. Bentley (1870-1957) was one of the intellectual fathers of contemporary political science. He was a positivist, nonrationalist "group theorist."

Arthur Bentley was born in Freeport, Ill., the son of an immigrant banker. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Johns Hopkins University. After spending a year in the universities at Berlin and Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, he completed his doctorate at Johns Hopkins in 1895.

Bentley was not at home in the formal academic world, serving only a year as a teacher in sociology at the University of Chicago and a brief time 45 years later as visiting professor of philosophy at Columbia University. Instead, he engaged in an unusual series of enterprises, avocations, and scholarly endeavors. He spent 14 years in newspaper work, during which time he published The Process of Government (1908). He lent his financial and administrative skills to the American Red Cross during World War I. In 1924 he led the Progressive party in Indiana, and through the years he promoted various agricultural causes.

Bentley retired at the age of 40 and became a fruit grower in Indiana. Being financially independent, he had the leisure to engage in private intellectual pursuits: sociology, politics, philosophy, mathematics, psychology, linguistics, and epistemology.

Bentley scorned traditional political science. His interest was in "action" or "behavior," not in "mind-stuff." To him, a group was a way of action in which many men participated; law was activity; government was also activity. He made no distinction between the state and government or between law and government. He thought that the notion of a metaphysical state as an omnipresence behind government bordered on the ridiculous. Sovereignty was at best a legal or theoretical rationalization of behavior—past or proposed. He denied that social behavior was ever inspired by inner voices, faculties, or mind or that there was any such thing as public spiritedness. His strategy for political inquiry was empirical and inductive—his data, external behavior, especially group behavior.

Bentley's work was developmental. Each successive treatise was more technical, building upon the last and drawing from the work of others. Inevitably, he came to grips with fundamental problems, including the theory of knowledge itself. A tool for research, he saw, must be based upon an epistemology.

John Dewey and Bentley coauthored numerous articles and a book, Knowing and the Known (1960). Bentley's concept of trans-action as a medium of explanation (first acquired in Germany) was brought to maturation in his work with Dewey. In trans-action, systems of description and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action. They held that trans-action was the key to the science of behavior.


Further Reading on Arthur F. Bentley

One of the most useful books for gaining insights into Bentley's thought is Sidney Ratner's edited collection of Bentley essays, Inquiry into Inquiries (1954). It includes an excellent introduction by the editor and a complete bibliography of Bentley's works with the exception of Makers, Users, and Masters, written in 1918-1920 but published posthumously in 1969. Bentley's The Process of Government edited by Peter H. Odegard (1967), contains a useful introduction by the editor. See also Richard W. Taylor, ed., Life, Language, Law: Essays in Honor of Arthur F. Bentley (1957), and Sidney Ratner, ed., John Dewey and Arthur Bentley: A Philosophical Correspondence, 1832-1951 (1964). William T. Bluhm, Theories of the Political System: Classics of Political Thought and Modern Political Analysis (1965), gives a detailed analysis of Bentley's work in its intellectual framework.