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Bentley, Arthur F.

Bentley, Arthur F.



Arthur F. Bentley (1870–1957) was certainly one of the most controversial political scientists the United States has produced. However, he never taught a class in politics, and although The Process of Government was first published in 1908, his essays have only recently come under wide consideration by the general practitioners of the study of politics. The influence he had on the extensive literature on pressure groups is being debated, but Bentley himself disclaimed any primary interest in pressure groups. He wrote in 1950 that The Process of Government was “an inquiry much wider in scope than any study of pressure groups” (1950, p. 780), suggesting that the debate about the extent of his influence in this particular area does not touch his own principal preoccupation.

Bentley was, in fact, committed to the search for a framework for the study of social change. His work suggests a recognition of the important effects of agricultural discontent and rapid urbanization. His search for a systematic method to describe these processes explains his interest in history, economics, sociology, and political science. His technique was that of the caustic critic who sought to provide a scheme for the study of social change by improving the use of language as a tool for description and thought.

The details of Bentley’s life provide a few clues to the understanding of his work. Born in Freeport, Illinois, he moved with his parents and brother and sister to Grand Island, Nebraska, where his father achieved prominence as a banker. His father was an English immigrant and his mother was of devout Pennsylvania Dutch stock; Bentley’s relations with parents and siblings were generally close.

After brief periods at York College and the University of Denver, he was drawn to Johns Hopkins, in 1890, by the writings of Richard Ely, whose studies of socialism had gained some notoriety. However, within a year after Bentley’s arrival, Ely moved to Wisconsin; and out of his education at Johns Hopkins, Bentley later valued only the occasional lectures of such campus visitors as S. N. Patten and J. B. Clark and his own reading of Carl Menger. He received an a.b. after two years, in 1892. In the academic year of 1893–1894 he studied in Germany, at Freiburg and at Berlin, under such notables as Georg Simmel, Adolf Wagner, Gustav Schmoller, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Herman Grimm. He secured his ph.d. from Johns Hopkins in 1895.

Bentley’s studies in Germany are reflected in his first theoretical essay, “The Units of Investigation in the Social Sciences” (1895), in which his actionist or behavioral orientation is already noticeable. After receiving his ph.d. he went for a year as docent in sociology to the University of Chicago, but he profited principally from attending a seminar by John Dewey, with whom he was to collaborate some fifty years later. This seminar freed him from his mentalistic bias. It also concluded his academic career, and he began a career in the newspaper world.

News reporting and editorial work for the Times-Herald and the Record-Herald in Chicago gave him an opportunity to investigate his surroundings and left him with considerable time for thought and intellectual exploration. The John Crerar Library near his office contained useful scientific publications, and his friend Michael A. Lane offered him much critical counsel as he worked on The Process of Government. Bentley’s intellectual debts for this book are indicated by the inscription to his 1906 outline and by the dedication of the published book; the inscription reads, “John Dewey, Georg Simmel, Ludwig Gumplowicz, Walt Whitman, and the many other joint makers of this book.” The dedication is simply “To my father.”

Bentley left newspapers and Chicago in 1910 for Paoli, Indiana, where he operated an orchard; he also built the house in which he was to live during the rest of his long life. His social concerns were expressed in his organizational and financial efforts for the American Red Cross in Indiana during World War I and his leadership of the 1924 Progressive campaign in the same state. His interest in the effective organization of agricultural discontent resulted in an unpublished manuscript, “Makers, Users, and Masters in America.”

Bentley’s main concern during these years was with linguistic clarity and consistency of thought and description, and this concern is clearly expressed in all his subsequent writings. His contributions to linguistics,epistemology, and logic resulted in an invitation in 1941 to Columbia University, where Bentley shared the responsibility, with Irwin Edman, Ernest Nagel, and J. H. Randall, for a seminar on language, which elicited praise from the participants. Testimony to his broad impact may be found in Life, Language, Law: Essays in Honor of Arthur F. Bentley (Taylor 1957) and John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley’s Philosophical Correspondence (1932–1951).

General methodology . In each of Bentley’s major writings he declared that his intention was methodological; indeed, he said in The Process of Government, “This book is an attempt to fashion a tool” (1908, p. vii). The volume begins with a methodological criticism of other social scientists; many of his later works begin with similar critical sections, in each instance followed by proposed constructive solutions.

Bentley’s approach was remarkably consistent throughout his life. As early as 1908 he took exception to the prevailing use of feelings, faculties, and ideas as independent causes for social action. And when, toward the end of his life, he and John Dewey developed a systematic classification of current methods of social explanation, they considered “self-actional” and “inter-actional” presentations as inadequate and suggested their replacement by “trans-actional” descriptions. These three types of analysis are categorized as follows:

Self-action: where things are viewed as acting under their own powers. Inter-action: where thing is balanced against thing in causal interconnection. Trans-action: where systems of description and naming are employed to deal with aspects and phases of action, without final attribution to “elements” or other presumptively detachable or independent “entities,” “essences,” or “realities,” and without isolation of presumptively detachable “relations” from such detachable “elements.” (1949, p. 108)

Self-action analyses are prescientific explanations in terms of independent souls, minds, powers, or forces that operate as activating events; they are similar to other ineffective animistic rationalizations.

Inter-actional accounts correspond to the scientific procedure that was dominant until the end of the nineteenth century. The mechanistic systems following Newton in physics fit into this frame, and conventional pressure group studies in politics, like those done in the 1930s by Pendleton Herring and Peter Odegard also have a mechanical model. The common separation of organism from environment can be considered inter-actional, and this separation was frequently attacked by Bentley.

Although Dewey and Bentley approved the provisional examination of phenomena in inter-actional forms, both of them asked that such an examination allow for an awareness that results of the inquiry need to be reinterpreted in wider systems of description. The transactional view is the wider system that they proposed, and it requires the observation of the functioning of organisms within the environment under free postulation. In social and psychological research the postulated descriptive system is the following:

(1) The Cosmos: as system or field of factual inquiry; (2) Organisms: as cosmic components; (3) Men: as organisms; (4) Behavings of men: as organic–environmental events; (5) Knowings (including the knowings of the cosmos and its postulation): as such organic–environmental behavings. (Ratner 1954, p. xiv)

The knowing process, then, is as much subject to inquiry as are conventional subject matters.

The transactional approach does not presume a reductionism. In his work Bentley made explicit the separation of biological from physical research and of behavioral from biological research with an illustration from the area of communication. A portion of a conversation may be described in purely physical terms and again in biological terms, but neither description goes very far in helping us to understand the “speaking-heard” event; this requires behavioral tools as well, social and psychological descriptions of what makes communication possible (1935, pp. 224–225). Basic to this conception of transactional analysis is the postulate that knowledge is a social phenomenon, and Bentley saw as one of his major tasks the investigation of the social characteristics of knowledge.

Bentley’s general approach, explicit only at the end of his career, was implicit in most of what he wrote in The Process of Government. At that time he was principally concerned with the methodology of political research. He devoted himself subsequently to similar methodological problems in other disciplines: in sociology (1926), in mathematics (1932), in psychology (1935), and in logic and epistemology (Dewey & Bentley 1949). At no time did he attempt a social theory, and it is as a methodologist that he should be judged.

A strategy for political inquiry. The Process of Government urges political inquiry to focus on overt behavior. The raw material of the political process is the activity of human beings. What people do is what requires explanation: how they talk and organize in order to achieve their goals. This raw material includes crude as well as subtle intellectual arguments; it includes instances of cooperation as well as of conflict; it includes a continuum of behavior from the unorganized to the highly organized and mobilized.

The starting point for inquiry should be the observation of activity. When possible this activity should be subjected to quantitative measurement, for Bentley believed that there “is no political process that is not a balancing of quantity against quantity.” He explained:

If we can get our social life stated in terms of activity, and of nothing else, we have not indeed succeeded in measuring it, but we have at least reached a foundation upon which a coherent system of measurements can be built up. Our technique may be very poor at the start, and the amount of labor we must employ to get scanty results will be huge. But we shall cease to be blocked by the intervention of unmeasurable elements, which claim to be themselves the real causes of all that is happening, and which by their spook-like arbitrariness make impossible any progress toward dependable knowledge. (1908, p. 202)

Three queries are appropriate: (1) How are the rich data to be arranged? (2) Is it possible that the “unmeasurable elements” are the crucial factors in some political processes? (3) To what extent has Bentley’s proposed strategy been utilized by political scientists?

(1) The arrangement of data. In his early writings Bentley asserted that the most heuristic and systematic way of arranging political data is in terms of groups, interests, and pressures. The same activity may be considered as the activity of a group, as the expression of an interest, and as the exertion of pressure. To the annoyance of many critics, Bentley never precisely defined the three crucial terms, because he did not wish a premature definition to inhibit investigation.

In any particular struggle, two groups can be provisionally established, consisting of those who favor and those who oppose a given course of action. These groups are “cross sections” of activity, men looked at in terms of their position for or against something. Interest is nothing other than the same conflict looked at from a different angle, namely that of the respective goals of the groups. Pressure is the third aspect of group activity and refers to its strength and energy. According to Bentley, these three aspects of the group–interest–pressure postulation must be empirically verified and explained in terms of the ongoing behavior.

Bentley never intended to formulate a comprehensive group theory, and his work has never produced such a theory. Moreover, Bentley was not so firmly wedded to the group—interest—pressure approach that he did not in later works admit that for many purposes the study of political activity can just as successfully begin with the examination of the individual. He suggested that it might be useful to change the focus and look at individuals and the extent to which they are involved in political processes. The activity of these individuals may be explained either as the consequence of complex motivations or by introducing Simmel’s carefully developed concept of complex and occasionally conflicting group associations. These group associations Bentley conceived of as a large number of planes passing through the individual’s life space [seeInterest Groups].

For Bentley, the purpose of group explanation is clearly to make possible the incorporation of group activities in coherent descriptions of behavior without assuming a causal relationship between group membership and behavior. Thus Marx’s and Gumplowicz’ studies of classes may be combined with Simmel’s concept of groups; and although the group theories of Durkheim and Schmoller depend on a theory of division of labor, they may also be used. However, no single basic determinant of group activity need be postulated.

Throughout The Process of Government the author is at great pains to warn that he has not made the kind of study he recommends, that he is writing without detailed verification, and that the reader should not use his illustrations as a base on which to erect prematurely a theory to replace the systems of explanation that Bentley criticized. In spite of these warnings, some casual readers have accused Bentley of not providing a complete theory of groups. Others have charged him with developing a naive behavioristic theory of groups balanced more or less decorously in an equilibrium. The first set of critics complains that he did not do what the second set accuses him of doing. All Bentley was, in effect, trying to do was to offer a provisional method for empirical research.

(2) “Unmeasurable elements.” Students of the political process are concerned with the manner of political decision making, the patterns of authoritative allocation of values. It has been suggested that by concentrating, as Bentley recommended, on overt behavior, more particularly, on overt and measurable behavior, the political scientist can overlook the possibility that some group may be able to confine decision making to relatively non-controversial issues by excluding the more controversial ones from the scope of legitimate political action. Is it possible that by emphasizing the measurement of voter attitudes and behavior, or of legislative attitudes and roll calls, research may neglect more significant conditions of which votes and roll calls are only superficial manifestations? Are such conditions the spook-like elements that Bentley wished to exorcise?These questions strike hard at Bentley’s strategy and method, and there is merit in the implied criticisms.

Bentley argued that ideally social inquiry should begin with measurable behavior, although in his later writings he conceded that in The Process of Government he had overstressed the “thing-like” aspect of behavior. Insofar as he regarded the relations between observed activities as “spook-like” he may indeed have led the profession into a scientific blind alley, for no science is possible except as it verifies relations between recognizable entities. It must be remembered, however, that his main concern was not theoretical but methodological: his method of starting from manifest activity challenged the Marxist assumption that the superstructure is less stable than the foundation on which it depends. He sought to outlaw such assumed, unverified relations from systematic description. And far from precluding a deeper understanding of human affairs, the study of political behavior was particularly suited to that purpose by its visibility: Bentley believed that social conflict had reached a condition that could easily be observed in political activity and that the study of conflict was a profitable avenue to the understanding of underlying structure.

Bentley believed not that his emphasis on overt activity prevented an understanding of latent conflict but rather that the study of palpable conflict could lead to such an understanding. He exemplified this conviction in his incomplete study of the Chicago streetcar conflict between 1902 and 1907 (1908, pp. 487–492). His concern with conflict extended to the uncovering of patterns of conflict resolution. His classification of activities in terms of groups was designed, in part, to prevent the premature conclusion that the government or agencies of the government are the only means of conflict adjustment. Rather, he felt that the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the election, the party, and the organized pressure association were differentially involved. He went on to argue that it is an empirical question how much of the conflict is carried on through discussion, formal organization, or public institutions and how much through unorganized, informal activity. His extensive examination of informal activity suggests his sensitivity to the necessity of using data other than votes, roll calls, and the like.

(3) Bentley’s influence. “Bentley’s maxim seems to have been this: meaning cannot be posited; it must be earned” (Jacobson 1964, p. 22). However, Arnold Brecht’s complaint that “concentration on the trans-actional as distinct from inter-actional (causal) aspects of events in social life is as yet a vague program rather than an achievement” has merit (1959, p. 513). Although he influenced such contemporaries as Charles A. Beard, Arthur Holcomb, and Karl Llewellyn, it is only since World War II that Bentley’s work has received wider recognition and his influence has been more intensely felt. This can be seen especially in the work in political science of Truman (1951) and Gross (1953) and in many of the research projects carried out by scholars associated with Charles B. Hagan and the University of Illinois political science department. Bentley’s vitality is certainly expressed in many of the studies of group pressure.

His incorporation of recent European scholarly inventions should also be emphasized. He undoubtedly was one of the earliest to apply Georg Simmers work successfully. Three leading ideas from this work that find expression through Bentley deserve summary: (1) that society can be divided into groups that cut across each other in many directions and hence nullify any sweeping classification of society into rigidly fixed and sharply divided “basic” classes or groups; (2) that there is no conflict except when partisans also have common ground to stand on (both culturally and physically); and (3) that in the Geisteswissenschaften, what scholars call the foundation, is almost always weaker than the superstructure. Truman uses the first of these ideas to great advantage in the The Governmental Process (1951); the second is often ignored; and the third is obviously a criticism of Marxist thought.

Outside political science, Bentley’s ideas found resonance in Beard’s historical work, in Llewellyn’s studies of law ways, in George Lundberg’s sociological theories, in John Dewey’s logic, and in Ames’s and Cantril’s work in perception psychology. In each of these, Bentley’s ideas assisted a new and fruitful turn of the discipline involved. In each instance he contributed to greater linguistic precision and methodological sophistication. Bentley’s influence may continue to prevent scholars from advancing premature theories that foreclose fruitful inquiry and may encourage them, instead, to examine closely a complex world.

Richard W. Taylor

[Directly related are the entriesPluralism; Political behavior; Political group analysis. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofBeard; Dewey; Gumplowicz; Llewellyn; Simmel.]


1893 The Condition of the Western Farmer as Illustrated by the Economic History of a Nebraska Township. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

1895 The Units of Investigation in the Social Sciences. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 5:915–941.

(1908) 1949 The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures. Introduction by H. T. Davis. Bloomington, Ind.: Principia Press. → The introduction to the 1949 edition provides the best brief summary of Bentley’s general position.

1926 Relativity in Man and Society. New York: Putnam.

1932 Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics. Bloomington, Ind.: Principia Press.

(1932–1951) 1964 Dewey, John; and Bentley, Arthur F. A Philosophical Correspondence: 1932–1951. Selected and edited by Sidney Ratner and Jules Altman. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

1935 Behavior, Knowledge, Fact. Bloomington, Ind.: Principia Press.

1949 Dewey, John; and Bentley, Arthur F. Knowing and the Known. Boston: Beacon. → A paperback edition was published in 1960.

1950 Kennetic Inquiry. Science 112:775–783.

1954 Inquiry Into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory. Edited with an introduction by Sidney Ratner. Boston: Beacon. → The introduction provides a useful view of the transactional approach.

1957 The Word “Transaction.” Humanist 17:17–21.


Brecht, Arnold 1959 Political Theory: The Foundations of Twentieth-century Political Thought. Princeton Univ. Press.

Dowling, R. E. 1960 Pressure Group Theory: Its Methodological Range. American Political Science Review 54:944–954. → Group theory is viewed as a translation of Newtonian physics into politics.

Golembiewski, Robert T. 1960 The Group Basis of Politics: Notes on Analysis and Development. American Politicial Science Review 54:962–971. → This is the best short summary of Bentley and explains that he did not intend a group theory.

Gross, Bertram M. 1953 The Legislative Struggle: A Study in Social Combat. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hale, Myron Q. 1960 The Cosmology of Arthur F. Bentley. American Political Science Review 54:955–961. → Bentley’s cosmology and his functionalism are said to support conservative political practice.

Jacobson, Norman 1964 Causality and Time in Political Process: A Speculation. American Political Science Review 58:15–22.

Loveday, Peter; and Campbell, Ian 1962 Groups in Theory and Practice. University of Sydney Studies in Politics, No. 1. Melbourne: Cheshire.

MacKenzie, William J. M. 1955 Pressure Groups: The Conceptual Framework. Political Studies 3:247–255. → Emphasizes the narrow scope of Bentley’s method.

Ratner, Sidney 1954 Introduction. In Arthur F. Bentley, Inquiry Into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory. Boston: Beacon.

Taylor, Richard W. 1952 Arthur F. Bentley’s Political Science. Western Political Quarterly 5:214–230.

Taylor, Richard W. (editor) 1957 Life, Language, Law: Essays in Honor of Arthur F. Bentley. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch. → Deals directly with Bentley’s early critics.

Truman, David B. (1951) 1962 The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion. New York: Knopf.

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Arthur F. Bentley

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

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. □

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