Brecht, Arnold

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Brecht, Arnold



Arnold Brecht has had two distinguished careers: as a professional civil servant in Germany he rose to the level of ministerial director; and after he left Germany in 1933, he became a creative and influential political scientist in the United States. Over a span of sixty years, Brecht, as a philosopher-administrator, has published some 150 books, monographs, and articles; in 1959, his magisterial Political Theory appeared, and a year later he was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association for his work.

Brecht was born into a professional family in Lübeck in 1884. His paternal grandfather, the son of a saddler, was a Protestant minister in a small town. His father, a lawyer, entered public service and became an administrator of railroads in the Ministry of Trade. His maternal grandfather was the first engineer to achieve directorial status in a Prussian ministry; he was ministerial director of railroads. Brecht grew up in an atmosphere that was liberal and where public service was considered a family tradition.

His formal education began in 1891 at the renowned Lübeck Gymnasium, the 400-year-old Catherineum, which Thomas Mann also attended and later described. As a student, Brecht enjoyed mathematics and writing, but the rest of the curriculum failed to inspire him. His later interest in political questions was singularly absent at this time. He read little in philosophy, politics, or history, and paid scant attention to current political problems. In his last year he developed a profound interest in the theater, frequently attending twice a day. Brecht has remarked that a major goal of his years at the Catherineum seems to have been avoiding and circumventing the authority of the faculty.

From 1902 to 1905, Brecht studied law at the universities of Bonn, Berlin, Göttingen, and Leipzig, where, in 1906, he received his law degree. He became fascinated by the consequences of the replacement of the multiplicity of local legal systems in Germany by a new civil code: the different sets of legal rules bred confusion and conflict, and the problem that Brecht posed to himself was the justification of legal rules in general. His approach to the problem began to take form in his doctoral dissertation, which dealt with “promises to deliver goods owned by other persons”; he subtitled it “a contribution to the theory of impossibility” (1906). He conceived of a legal system as a network of rules derived from a basic set of axioms and demonstrated that conflict and confusion resulted from contradictions in the axiomatic foundation of the law. A few years later, at 23, he wrote his “System of Contractual Liability” (1908) in which he reduced the rules of contractual obligation to a logic of great simplicity. This study was published in Jherings Jahrbücher für die Dogmatik des bürgerlichen Rechts, one of the most eminent journals of Continental jurisprudence. These early works by Brecht contain the first formulation of the theory of impossibility, which he employed so effectively in his later inquiry into the concept of justice.

Public service. In 1910, after four years of in-service training, Brecht became a judge in Lü-beck, but he served only a short while before being called to the Ministry of Justice to begin an administrative career.

Until he entered government service, Brecht had read little outside of the areas of law, economics, and administration. But as his official duties took him closer to the center of policy decisions, his intellectual interests also turned to politics. When he was still a law student, Brecht had become interested in the meaning of “justice,” filling a folder with notes and observations. Now, actively engaged in the preparation of war legislation, Brecht began to study such subjects as the relation between politics and justice, the respective demands of justice and of international obligation, the concept of a just peace, and the axiomatic base upon which the warring parties rested their aims.

During the Weimar Republic, Brecht’s most important position was that of ministerial director of the Ministry of the Interior. His primary concerns were constitutional problems, administrative management, and the civil service. As an outspoken opponent of the Nazis, he was arrested in April 1933, but was freed because of the intervention of non-Nazi ministers. In November of that year he left Germany and, at the age of 50, started a new career in the United States. In 1946 he became an American citizen.

Brecht as a political scientist. At the invitation of Alvin Johnson, Brecht joined the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York City and remained a member of that faculty until his retirement in 1954. He has also served as visiting professor of political science at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and other universities.

For Brecht, the study of politics, as distinct from the practical art, is a scientific discipline: in principle, there is nothing that precludes the application of scientific method to political phenomena. Accordingly, the task of the political scientist is to provide theoretical bases for further scientific development that will also yield solid blocks of knowledge that may be applied in the realm of the practical art of politics. The bulk of Brecht’s academic life has been devoted to this quest.

In Political Theory, his most notable contribution, the full range and purpose of Brecht’s scholarship is evident. He demonstrates the differences between scientific and nonscientific theory: they are validated by different rules of procedure. Scientific propositions can be warranted only in conformance with the rules of scientific procedure, and to practice science, therefore, requires understanding of, and rigorous adherence to, those rules. A good part of Political Theory is devoted to the clarification of the rules.

While Brecht insists that the rules of scientific procedure be rigorously followed, he allows for the use of intuition and speculation in the initial formulation of potentially relevant concepts. His distinction between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification” is somewhat similar to that of Hans Reichenbach (The Rise of Scientific Philosophy 1951): it is only in the latter context that the rules of scientific warrant hold, and Brecht therefore deplores efforts to disparage “nonscientific impulses” in the initial stages of inquiry. In the preparatory stages of investigation, attempts to keep science on a physical or behaviorist basis unnecessarily close off hunches, which can be creative. After the starting point of an inquiry, hunches may enter the domain of science, however, only after they have been properly formulated and processed.

Scientific value relativism. Brecht uses the concept of scientific warrant to clarify the doctrine of scientific value relativism (SVR). The essence of SVR is that ultimate values cannot be validated scientifically. It is impossible to establish scientifically what goals or purposes are valuable without regard either to the value they have in the pursuit of other goals or purposes or to given ideas about ultimate goals or purposes. Conversely, the question whether something is valuable can be answered scientifically only in relation either to some goal or purpose for the pursuit of which it is, or is not, useful, or to given ideas about what is, or is not, valuable.

Brecht’s elaborate treatment of SVR has several major purposes. His first purpose is to demonstrate that the derivation of “ought” statements from “is” statements, so characteristic of natural law theorists, is logically fallacious. His second purpose is to refute the notion that scientists are necessarily philosophical relativists, who hold that nothing is intrinsically valuable. Although value judgments cannot be scientifically validated according to SVR, it does not follow that SVR leads to the type of general relativism such as that implicit in social Darwinism, Marxism, and legal positivism. Brecht’s third purpose is to show that the defeatism that took hold with the rise of Hitler was not justified. To deplore the failure of science to warrant ultimate values is to misunderstand the proper scope of science: it extends only to the relationship between a decision and a set of ends, since this constitutes a factual (or scientific) problem. Logicoempirical analysis, therefore, can do no more than clarify values and goals, indicate risks and consequences, and specify effective courses of action. It can also, from a set of alternatives, differentiate those probabilities and possibilities that are attainable from those that are improbable or impossible.

Justice. In his sixty years of intensive study of the problem of justice, only the most fugitive materials have escaped Brecht. His approach to justice is illustrative of his application of the concept of SVR, and of the theory of impossibility that underlies that concept. While it is impossible scientifically to validate any ultimate value as just, it may be possible to identify certain universally or transculturally held elements in the human sense of justice. Once such universal elements are identified, derivative values and goals may be dealt with scientifically, since they constitute decisions whose correctness is determinable as a matter of fact. (The same conception of the nature of decisions is crucial to modern decision-making theory.)

Brecht’s effort to determine whether there are some common basic values in the variety of concepts of justice that have either been held operationally or formally idealized has led him to formulate a prima vista concept of justice that does appear to characterize human behavior. This concept has five essential postulates: (1) accordance with objective truth or veracity, that is, all relevant statements as to facts and relations must be true; (2) equal treatment of what is equal under the same system; (3) generality of the value system applied, that is, the same standards must be applied to all cases; (4) no restriction of freedom beyond the requirements of the accepted system; (5) respect for the necessities of nature, that is, no sanctions for nonfulfillment may be applied if fulfillment is impossible.

These five postulates are, in Brecht’s phrase, “a minimum definition of justice,” and he considers them to be hypothetically descriptive of human behavior. Accordingly, they must be investigated empirically, and subjected to extensive field research that must include phenomenological descriptions of subjective behavior. Brecht is confident that his hypothetical description not only permits and directs empirical research, but that it will stand empirical test. His willingness to subject such a proposition as this to the severe test of scientific warrant is most impressive.

Since justice is defined as an empirical problem, Brecht recognizes that science can get no closer to it than to determine whether certain values are, or are not, universally held. If science does establish their universality, this does not make them absolute; but they can be certified as “universally human.” Thus, Brecht, the scientific value relativist, becomes the leader in the fight against relativist defeatism, since a common, cross-culturally held set of values can provide a universal standard.

The study of government. Brecht has invariably brought his vast European political experience to the study of problems of constitutionalism, federalism, and public administration. For the last 25 years, the political and constitutional problems posed by the rise of totalitarianism have been the major theme of his study of political institutions. This theme dominates his analysis of the fall of the Weimar Republic, which he attributes to certain structural weaknesses (1944). The intricate questions of federalism and administrative decentralization are examined with much rigor in his analysis (1945) of the complex organization of Germany from 1815 to 1945. It is interesting that in an essay on “Limited-purpose Federations” (1943) Brecht anticipated the principles on which the European Coal and Steel Community and the Common Market were to be founded. In the area of American public administration, he has made novel proposals for the organization and coordination of departments and bureaus. These have the purpose of strengthening policy direction without overcentralizing the bureaucracy.

For Arnold Brecht, the destruction of democracy in Germany provided a lesson that can be ignored only at great peril. To his profession, he has assigned the duty “to see, sooner than others, and to analyze, more profoundly than others, the immediate and the potential problems of the political life of society” (1946).

Martin Landau

[For the historical context of Brecht’s work, seePolitical theory.]


1906 Vom Verkauf einer fremden Sache: Ein Beitrag zur Unmöglichkeitslehre. Borna-Leipzig (Germany): Noske.

1908 System der Vertragshaftung. Jherings Jahrbücher für die Dogmatik des bürgerlichen Rechts 53:213–302.

1918 Geheim–diplomatie, by Arnold B. Hanson [pseud]. Bern (Switzerland): Wyss. → Translated into French, Dutch, and Danish.

(1939–1954) 1954 The Political Philosophy of Arnold Brecht: Essays. Edited by Morris D. Forkosch. New York: Exposition Press. → This volume was presented to Brecht by former students. It contains six of his major articles on political and legal philosophy, and it carries an almost complete bibliography of Brecht’s writings from 1906 to 1954.

1940 Brecht, Arnold; and Glaser, Comstock. The Art and Technique of Administration in German Ministries. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1942 European Federation: The Democratic Alternative. Harvard Law Review 55:561–594.

1943 Limited-purpose Federations. Social Research 10: 135–151.

1944 Prelude to Silence: The End of the German Republic. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

1945 Federalism and Regionalism in Germany: The Division of Prussia. Institute of World Affairs, Monograph Series, No. 1. Oxford Univ. Press.

1946 Democracy: Challenge to Theory. Social Research 13:195–224.

1959 Political Theory: The Foundations of Twentiethcentury Political Thought. Princeton Univ. Press.


Reichenbach, Hans 1951 The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. Berkeley. Univ. of California Press.

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