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The Enlightenment and Public Administration

Identifying the Influence of Enlightenment Philosophy on Public Administration

“One should never miss an opportunity to celebrate the enlightenment or to mock priestcraft and the worship of mediocre princes and tycoons” – Christopher Hitchens


The debate as to whether the study of public administration is a science or an art is an ongoing question in the field. Because it has been left largely unanswered or open to interpretation, the field of public administration has not been able to accurately define itself. In fact, the “identity crisis in public administration… reflects an expression of doubts about its nature and status in academe” and has be left to define itself through the work of its major players (Raadschelders, 917). Research in the field has also run into the same problem as to what is the field of public administration. Scholars in the field have “struggled for years with defining boundaries for the field and establishing its place as a subdiscipline of public administration” (Fitzpatrick et al., 828). In fact the “scientific thrust within the study of public administration is stymied by a lack of consensus about what constitutes its sciences and what the nature of the study is” (Raadschelders, 916). This research will answer this questions by showing direct links to scientific and philosophical thought which effectively makes the study of public administration a science. Like all sciences, public administration has a clear evolution of thought with strong connections to elements in Enlightenment era philosophy.

Seeing as most public managers are forward thinking, they are often unconcerned with the past. Beyond graduate courses in college, managers or executives may not be interested in the historical context of public administration, but these foundational ideas of the field “have a powerful effect on our thinking and discourse” and “no matter how neutral we try to be, whenever we think about human action in a governmental setting, our thinking is likely to reflect some sort of past vision of politics, ethics, and humanity” (Spicer, 354). It was Leonard White who first advised “the student of administration [to]…concern himself with the history of his subject [to] gain a real appreciation of existing conditions and problems only as he becomes familiar with their background” (Lynn, 144) – this would include the study of the foundations of the field of public administration.

The study of public administration as a whole is a field of inquiry that strongly bases its principles on past philosophy and understanding this philosophy can help students of this field better understand and study the foundations of public administration.  Science, in general, is defined with an “emphasis on ontology and epistemology: what is the nature of the reality we are studying? How are knowledge claims justified?” (Raadschelders, 918). Ontology being the study of the nature of reality and epistemology being the knowledge we can gain, public administrators, just like any particular science-based discipline, utilize the Enlightenment principles and logical positivism to study the public sector and apply theory to create solutions to vary real problems (Honderich, 634 & 242) (Raadschelders, 918).

In this research, the notable public administration writers will be examined and correlated to  past philosophical principles. Their works and underlying ideas will be deconstructed and examined in order to understand what historical and philosophical items have influenced them. There has been some inquiry into this from public administration journals but the link to a certain philosophy or group of ideas has yet to be identified.

What is the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment was a philosophical revolution that grew out of Europe in the 16th century and spread to the Americas in the 17th and 18th century (Szalay, 2016). This movement, also referred to as the Age of Reason is often contrasted against the irrational and superstitious Middle Ages and focuses on rationality, skepticism of customs and authority, freedom of thought, natural rights, and individual liberty (Shermer, 117). The ideals that emerged from this period are credited with spurring the American and French Revolutions and influencing their founding members and constitutions (Szalay, 2016). The most influential thinkers from the Enlightenment are those of Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, David Hume, Rousseau, and Descartes to name a few. In the United States, the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and George Washington along with most of the Founding Fathers “were educated men of the international Enlightenment” (Allen, xv). In fact, contrary to popular beliefs, the Founding Fathers and the framers of the constitution were influenced more by the works of John Locke and Adam Smith than they did of any religious doctrine making the understanding of the Enlightenment that much more important to those who study American Government (Holmes, 2006) (Allen, xv). Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers relied on empirical evidence and were staunch skeptics – it was not an uncommon quality among them. For example, John Adams once said in a letter to Thomas Jefferson that “we can never be so certain of any prophecy or the fulfillment of any prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle” – this sort of skepticism is but a symptom of those influenced by the Enlightenment (Jacoby, 2004, 13). The ideas from the Enlightenment were spurred by an earlier scientific revolution “in the wake of the Newtonian intellectual revolution” which held that “the universe was comprehensible place governed by laws which could be understood through scientific inquiry” (Allen, 163). This took the power of knowledge out of the hands of kings and theologians and into the hands of the common man who began, utilizing the scientific method of inquiry, deciding his own fate.

One of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant provides a great description of the enlightenment as the

“emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is Sapere aude! [Dear to know] Have the courage to use one’s own reason!” (Honderich, 236).

This infancy is the reliance on authority, customs, other people and superstition to make decisions – this is contrasted by the principles of the Enlightenment “demands that an individual should subject all his beliefs to criticism and accept nothing on authority” (Honderich, 237). In short, the general ideals of this Age of Reason values not “what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it” (Russell, 486). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) lists eight general principles attributed to the Enlightenment:

  1. Reason is man’s central capacity
  2. Man is by nature rational and good
  3. Both an individual and humanity as a whole can progress to perfection.
  4. All men are equal in respect of their rationality and should be granted equality before the law and in individual liberty
  5. Tolerance of other creeds, religions, and ways of life – an extension of individual liberty.
  6. Beliefs are to be accepted only on the basis of reason, not on the authority of priests, sacred texts, or tradition.
  7. Devaluement of local prejudices and customs
  8. In general, the recognition and down play of the non-rational aspects of human nature.

The separation of facts and values along with the idea that “all men are at all times and in all places fundamentally the same in nature” were huge factors in the liberation of people’s reliance on churches and kings and allowed the people to decide their own fate – These indispensable principles of the Enlightenment “established the ideals of popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and liberalism” in the Western World and most definitely in the American Government (Jacoby, 2008, 30) (Shermer, 3).

Perhaps one of the most widely used instrument forged in the Enlightenment is the use of logical positivism. This epitome of scientific inquiry and reason holds that a “thing, idea, or concept is only meaningful if it can be seen or measured”- and although some philosophers, like David Hume, are skeptical of man’s ability to draw causal relations through direct observation, all were united in the belief that “knowledge can only be gained through direct observation and experimentation, not through metaphysics or theology” (McNabb, 10-11). Hume (2007) gives a perfect example of logical positivism in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding when he asserts that “if we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Although it’s origins lay within the Age of Reason, the positivist approach did not emerge as a solid form of research until the early nineteen hundreds among a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle from Vienna, Austria of all places. The Vienna Circle began meeting to discuss the large amount of scientific discoveries of the time such as natural selection and evolution, thermodynamics and molecular theory as well as political movements of the time such as the ultra-nationalist movements in Europe and Germany (Honderich, 899). The members of this group were concerned that the ideals and anti-scientific opinions emerging from these discoveries were “returning [science] to its metaphysical foundations” and sought to create a philosophy of science “that stressed the need for the researcher to follow a process that would move from overvation of evidence to accurate predictions” (McNabb, 10). This process, or logical positivism, is a tradition in research and thought that is simply a more defined scientific method that involves a hypothesis, observation, data collection, hypothesis testing, and accepting or rejecting the hypothesis and has been the dominant form of research in Public Administration and other social sciences and has only been challenged in recent years with post-positivist research such as marxism and feminism (McNabb, 44 – 45) (Gildenhuys, 14).

The American Revolution, in addition to fighting the oppression of the crown, also fought against the oppression of the mind. Thomas Jefferson once wrote of the young nation in 1804 that “no experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact that man may be governed by reason and truth” (Shermer, 136). But there seems to be little solid work to relate public administration to a specific philosophy, in fact some claim “that there is little in the way of philosophical grounding for [public administration] ideas to be found in liberal political ontology” (Stout, 1). The contrary is asserted by Michael Spicer (2004) in the Public Administration Review when he identifies many influences historical thinkers had on public administration from Michael Oakeshott in the Middle Ages to Frederick the Great in eighteenth-century Prussia. And although the relation in his research is limited to just a few historical cases, Spicer provides a firm foundation to associate today’s public administration philosophy with the ideal of freedom that is ingrained in America’s political foundations of individualism – in fact, this basic individualist principle was introduced to America by none other than the Founding Fathers who “were incalculably influenced by the mental climate of the Enlightenment” (Allen, 162).

There have been some reforms within the evolution of public administration that have “drove the United States away from the original intentions of its founders” and just like the counter enlightenment movements such as the Great Awakenings of the 1740’s have moved a nation away from the Enlightenment standards of inquiry such as replicability, objectivity, and generalizability, the principles have always come back and have embedded themselves within the government and administration of the United States (Raadschelders, 919) (Allen, 155-156) (Jacoby, 2008, 39).

Public administrators and practitioners will always apply their own personal values and philosophies when governing because governments of all kinds exist in some form like dictatorships, communist administrations, socialist, social-democratic, free market administrations, and so-called Islamic and Christian public administrations, but “one may regard most of these as based on pseudo-philosophical principles, because most of them are not based on natural law, reason and rational facts of truth but on mysticism, religious witchcraft, superstition, myths, lies, emotion, faith, and ideology” (Gildenhuys, 7 -8). The Enlightenment principles, adopted by the Founding Fathers and applied through the early foundations of public administration, supplies a rational and fact-based philosophy with which to operate for the benefit of all citizens.

Classic Public Administration

The field of public administration itself has a clear beginning in the works of Woodrow Wilson who in 1887 wrote “The Study of Administration” which, as Leonard White remarked “introduced this country to the idea of administration” (Stillman, 2014). It was not until the late 1800’s that public administration was clearly defined but, as Wilson states in his essay that the field was not pronounced in early government because “the functions of government were simple, because life itself was simple” and that “it is getting harder to run a constitution than to frame one” (Shafritz et al., 23). In the expanding duties and reach of government, Wilson recognized the need to employ and even “americanize” decentralized forms of administration to answer the challenges of the population growth, industrialization, and urbanization of the time (Fry & Raadschelders, 3). This, as Wilson described them then as a science of administration, sought to discover the general principles to guide administrators in the deficient performance of their duties and that these principles should be based on the “systematic and empirical investigations performed on a comparative basis” (Fry & Raadschelders, 3). The empirical nature of its founding sets the field of public administration on the same road of scientific inquiry as the Enlightenment, but the study of administration, as defined by Wilson, possesses two very clear characteristics: Administration based on popular sovereignty, a politics-administration dichotomy, and the separation of facts and values.

It was in this period that public administration truly thrived and began to build. Various principles and foundations are founded in this period from the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Max Weber, and Frederick Taylor among others. The major actors in the founding of the field began to see a split between politics and point out that “politics should supervise and control administration but should not extend this control farther than is necessary for the main purpose” and urge students of the discipline to think “less of separation of functions and more of the synthesis and action” (Lynn, 148). The early writers in public administration relied heavily on the principles of the Enlightenment by focusing on a sense of duty in the civil service. In fact, Carl J. Friedrich and Herman Finer, when debating the nature of administrative responsibility saying that “the first commandment [of administration] is subservience”  and even cited Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau stating that “the people can be unwise, but they cannot be wrong” (Lynn, 152).

Woodrow Wilson describes how difficult it is to organize when one has to consider public opinion. He uses the governments of Prussia and  Russia as a point of comparison in that their system of administration would ‘suffocate’ the citizens of America in their unwillingness to compromise and ease of organization (Shafritz et al., 27). But these countries of monarchs and kings are not ruled by people, but rather “preconceived opinions; ie., prejudices which are not to be reasoned with because they are not the children of reason” (Shafritz et al., 27). The children of reason could easily be referred to as the countries who have embraced Enlightenment principles within their governments. For this comparison, Wilson uses America and France as countries who are not “under the influence of favorites” but rather under the influence of public pinion “for wherever public opinion exists it must rule” (Shafritz et al., 25 – 27). Wilson asserted that change is slow and “in government, as in virtue, the hardest thing is to make progress” and first the citizens must be educated to want change and then the country must compromise and follow (Shafritz et al., 27). To advocate for a system which not only considers the public opinion but also provides a democratic way for change is to marry public administration and democracy together because, unlike monarchic autocracies of the past, democracy wants to include every citizen and to “empower individuals with a methodology instead of an ideology” (Shermer, 135).

Another notable administrator, Max Weber, once noted that traditional authority is one of “arbitrary decisions” where justice is often “a mixture of constraints and personal discretion” – Totalitarian authority was, to Weber, “irrational in the sense that it is not bound by any intellectually analyzable rule” where the leader is “constrained only by his personal judgment” (Fry & Raadschelders, 34 – 35). For Wilson and Weber, as with all Enlightened individuals, popular sovereignty is the ideal for administration. And, before moving on, it should be noted that Wilson asserted that “to know the public mind of this country, one must know the mind, not of Americans of the older stocks only, but also the Irishmen, of Germans, of negros” (Shafritz et al., 28). Popular sovereignty founded on legal authority, is the belief in reason and proper procedures and the belief that the elected official “does not derive his position from above but from below” and they have a duty of office to the public (Shafritz et al., 53) (Fry & Raadschelders, 34 – 35).  In the late eighteen hundreds, these early writers were advocating, quite vocally, the inclusion of everyone in the sphere of public opinions. This sense of equality and tolerance is a cornerstone of the Enlightenment because as Francois Quesnay, a physiocrat argued “even though people have unequal abilities, they have equal natural rights, and so it [is] the government’s duty to protect the rights of individuals” (Shermer, 121).

The other principle of a political and administrative dichotomy is another key point in Wilson’s essay where he asserts that “the field of administration is a field of business. It is removed from the hurry and strife of politics” and that it is “a part of political life only as methods of a counting house are a part of the life of society; only as machinery is part of the manufactured product” (Shafritz, 28). This idea that administrators do not have a monopoly on  the means of administration shows the principle that administrations, in a truly free society, operate based on the will of the people and that “civil servants operate sine ira et studio (without hatred or passion) and thereby exclude irrational feelings and sentiments in favor of the detached, or neutral, professional expert” (Fry & Raadschelders, 41). Of course, it is understood now that it is nearly impossible for anyone, much less government workers, to stay away from politics. As the late author Christopher Hitchens once noted “…you can’t be apolitical. It will come and get you. It’s not that you shouldn’t be neutral, it’s that you won’t be able to stay neutral” (Hitchens, 2011).

Mentioned before, German bureaucrat Max Weber, in a typical German way, sought to create an ideal and efficient bureaucracy – and to do that, it must be rational. Although Weber also agree with Wilson’s politics-administration dichotomy, sense of equality,  and rejected the irrational and arbitrary “traditional authorities”- his biggest Enlightenment ideal with which he built the foundation of the field of public administration was the differentiation of reason and value. He considered bureaucracy, despite its flaws, to be the most rational and efficient forms of organization yet devised by man” and held that “bureaucracy embodies a concept of justice” and in general “the equal application of the law” (Fry & Raadschelders, 23). The focus of rationality in bureaucracy and administration is one of Weber’s many gifts to Western administration and is the understanding of actions and the concept of rationalization with the key distinction being the difference between reason and values.

Weber’s description of an ideal-type of administration is one that uses reality to logically act and operate and “has no connection at all with value judgements and it has nothing to do with any type of perfection other than a purely logical one” (Fry & Raadschelders, 28). When Weber and others speak of value, they are referring to the values and morals people hold. They are personal and, as one can imagine, not always founded on reason. In fact, values and morals are often heavily influenced on emotion, attraction and repulsion, and ideology. As David Hume once wrote

“let us become thoroughly sensible of the weakness, blindness, and narrow limits of human reason; Let us duly consider its uncertainty and endless contrarieties, even in subjects of common life and practice: Let the errors and deceits of our vary senses be set before us; the insuperable difficulties, which attend first principles in all systems; the contradictions, which adhere to the very ideas of matter, cause and effect, extension, space, time, motion; an in a word, quantity of all kins, the object of the only science, that can fairly pretend to any certainty or evidence” (Hume, 1990, 41 – 42).

Hume also affirmed that “morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions…By contrast, reason is perfectly inert and can never produce or prevent action” (Honderich, 380).  Because of the limitations seen in human reason can corrupt and influence administration, there needs to be a clear distinction between reason and values. Weber wrote about a reason-based rationality he referred to as Verstehen which is the act of rational interpretation (Fry & Raadschelders, 28). Although Weber’s ideal-type of bureaucracy can never fully be found in reality, he set it’s rational-based and Enlightenment principles at the forefront of Western administration making the field of public administration itself a reason based science.

Facts and Values

In his book about the administrative state, Morstein Marx listed four essential elements of public administration – the first being rationality and by encompassing the central focus of the Enlightenment, Marx went on to define the use of rationality by the “application of knowledge [and] application of reason” and describes the one who uses rationality in his work is “a gatherer of intelligence” (Lynn, 154). It was scientist Francis Bacon, who imbedded the idea that “knowledge is power” in his 1620 work The New Instrument when he argued that science gives new tools to human reason – the most important one being the separation of facts and values (Harari, 259).

Max Weber also played a huge role in creating a reason-based philosophy for public administration in the way he measured the degree of rationalization of a society. He measured rationalization by “the extent to which ideas gain systematic coherence and consistency and by the displacement of magical elements of thought” [Italics added] (Fry & Raadschelders, 30). This displacement of magical elements of thought sounds like something taken directly from the works of those like Voltaire – but is instead written into the foundations of public administrations. Other great writers within public administration have made the same distinction to further the Enlightenment principle of reason over values.

As mentioned before, the Enlightenment focused on logical positivism and observable science to establish and discover facts. Luther Gulick, referred to as the “Dean of Public Administration” who is said to personify public administration in the United States, saw logical positivism and scientific inquiry as a way for public administration to establish facts seperate from values (Fry & Raadschelders, 112). In a very philosophical way, Gulick says that only “through science and the scientific spirit man has freed himself, at least in his material existence, from the complete domination of habit” and that it is “inevitable that there should be in every field of human endeavor an effort to reduce experience and phenomena to measurable terms” – logical positivism defined! (Fry & Raadschelders, 122). Gulick goes on to advocate for the scientific method as a way to “substitute for ignorance, competence; for the amateur, the professional; for the jack-of-all-trades, the expert; for superficial facility, increasing differentiation and specialization; and for the untutored novitiate, the trained executive” (Fry & Raadschelders, 122). Chester Bernard, known for his work on executive functions, was also influenced by Enlightenment principles and stressing the “independence of mind, pragmatism, respect for the individual, and industriousness” – which spills over into the field of public administration when he writes of the limitations of man as well as when he differentiations between the objective environment and subjective environment in his works (Fry & Raadschelders, 238 & 247). It was Herbert Simon who reiterated this reliance on facts and logical positivism when he sought to divide facts and values and arrives on the fact that “the necessary ideas are already accessible in the literature of philosophy. Hence, the conclusions reached by a particular school of modern philosophy – logical positivism – will be accepted as a starting point” (Simon, 55).

The divide between facts and values is a core concept in Enlightenment thinking because of the simple fact that reason operates in the realm of reality. Values, or morals observed by a person is based on objective knowledge and can vary from person to person and time to time based on how the person perceives it. Neuroscientist Sam Harris has explains how this “firewall between facts and values throughout our intellectual discourse” begins in the brain because “beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain: it appears that we have common system for judging truth and falsity in both domains” (Harris, 10 – 11). Therefore, one problem or event can produce an innumerable amount of solutions to the problem. Whereas facts are repeatable and observable and provide the observer a subjective foundation to build a solution to the problem.

Modern Public Administration

Public Administration today is built upon and focused on key principles that are influenced by the Enlightenment principles: the limitations of man; free inquiry; democracy; and evidence based decision making.The Enlightenment was rife with ethicists who all noticed the inherent limits of human nature. Because people are not entirely rational creatures and often too easily swayed by ideology and mysticism, they cannot always act in a rational way. In short, man’s decision making abilities are lacking and often mislead. Chester Barnard brought this idea into the realm of public administration when he explained that “humans are, by nature, physically and biologically limited, social, active, and purposeful in their behavior, and they possess an irreducible minimum of free will” (Fry & Raadschelders, 247). Barnard concludes that humans are incapable of functioning except “in conjunction with other human organisms” therefore organizations and agencies are, by nature, cooperative and social (Fry & Raadschelders, 242). This application of the limitations of human nature bring to light many important applications to public administration and government. For one, cooperation is necessary for survival; and two, human decision making is flawed. The former provides students of public administration with a whole new field of human behavior, human resources, and management where the later gives way to a deep fundamental human trait that can apply to all aspects of administration. An early public administration researcher, Elton Mayo, also asserts that humans are a social animal and once noted that “societies suffer and die from ignorance. The particular ignorance of modern society is its ignorance of human nature” (Fry & Raadschelders, 193 & 201).

Luther Gulick would agree that “man is a social animal with facile hands, a restless curiosity, and an inventive and retentive mind” and he continues by asserting that man’s nature limits his “knowledge, skill, taste, art, and emotion” (Fry & Raadschelders, 117). But, as Gulick explains, through these limitations and social cravings, man has developed government – the way humans can live and cooperate to help each other. He ultimately claims that public administration would provide “a system of knowledge whereby men may understand relationships, predict results, and influence outcomes in any situation where men are organized to work together for a common purpose” (Fry & Raadschelders, 123). In pursuit of individual freedom and better cooperation, democracy is often the route of choice. Ever since the great experiment put forth by America’s Founding Fathers, democracy is the best way for man to cooperate. Gulick marries the  Enlightenment and public administration principles of facts and democracy by suggesting that in order “to move democracy, you must not only develop the facts through research but you must develop also the vocabulary of the leaders and the support of the masses” (Fry & Raadschelders, 123).

One can identify numerous relations between the works of public administration writers and Enlightenment philosophers – but no relation can be as exact or as eerily similar as Herbert Simon is to David Hume. Not only is it central to Simon’s work that there are “the limits of rationality” and human behavior in decision making which are “limited by [an individual’s] values and those conceptions of purpose”, but he also asserts that what is needed to create a complete administrative theory is “empirical research and experimentation to determine the relative desirability of alternative administrative arrangements” (Shafritz et al., 146 – 147). David Hume, likewise, asserts that only repeatable and measurable information be taken as fact and that humans are by nature rationally bound when he explains how people make their decisions “in absence of the illusory support of reason” (Hinderich, 377).

Perhaps the most alarming similarity is Herbert Simon and David Hume’s is-ought dichotomy. The is-ought dichotomy is a common logical fallacy where someone makes an observation about how the world is and draws a conclusion to how it ought to be (Hume, 1984, 521). A separation of facts and values is a necessary dichotomy because the very nature of public administration involves an observation and a conclusion as to the solution to the problem. But because someone can perceive a problem and apply their faulty reasoning and biases to it means that conclusions they draw can be faulty themselves. Some examples would be if a city always had a parade so therefore they should continue having one or perceiving that an act is immoral so it needs to be controlled through legislation. By applying one’s own moral imperative, the solution to the perceived problem is distorted and the resulting decision to the problem is corrupt with personal bias. This provides a firm foundation in fact in a field of research. It is only logical for a fact-based field of study to have some sort of standard with which to work with. Herbert Simon describes the same point in Administrative Behavior when he notes that “you can’t get an ought by any manner of careful reasoning, solely from a set of pure is’s… No amassing of knowledge about how the world really is can, entirely by itself, tell us how the world ought to be” (Simon, 68 – 69). In these distinctions, Simon seeks to make clear that “human decision-making uses beliefs, which may or may not describe how the world really is” and humans are in error when they “call such beliefs, whether true or not, factual premises” (Simon, 69). These factual and unbiased distinctions can be seen in the works of the field of public administration and serve to show the honest and accurate research in the field. In the next and final section, the research of public administration will be reviewed to see how researchers performed in the past and where the academic work is headed.

The Future of Public Administration

As with any field of study, there needs to be defined and uniform standards with which to research and expand the realm of knowledge of the field. The same is true for the field of public administration. But, it is often argued, that because public administration is in its infancy, it lacks a uniform standard of research and “as long as the study of public administration” lacks a comparative standard “there could not be a science of public administration in the sense of a body of generalized principles independent of their particular national setting” (Fitzpatrick, et al., 822).

The very first major research practitioners of public administration performed in the emerging field would include two key works: Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management and the works of Elton Mayo, particularly the Western Electric Researchers from which the Hawthorne Effect was noted. In both cases, these practitioners sought to increase productivity in the workplace. Frederick Taylor published Scientific Management in 1911 with the aim of producing a fact-based way to increase efficiency in a factory setting, though the principles can, and have, been applied to numerous other settings (Fry & Raadschelders, 76). Because Taylor had a deep “distrust of anything not based on provable facts” like any good enlightened researcher, he relied on observing the workplace and determining the perfect way an employee can perform a specific task. Utilizing scientific and empirical techniques, while abandoning tradition and “the rule of thumb”, Taylor was able to break down every task to discover the one best way to complete it (Shafritz, et al, 43). For example, the instructions Taylor wrote for operating a laste consisted of 183 steps (Fry & Raadschelders, 81). Although Taylor included some impressive progressive ideas regarding pay and management, his tactics were deemed cruel and inhumane. Franz Kafka described it as “the enslavement of mankind” and soon legislation prohibited its use in federal agencies (Fry & Raadschelders, 94). One would argue that this was due to his personal Puritan values seeming into his scientific works.

Scientific Management was a product of administration research in its infancy. As it evolved, the field of public administration adopted more humanitarian and enlightened ways of applying science to their research. The mother of conflict resolution herself, Mary Parker Follett, believed that studying institutions themselves were not enough – what is needed “is the objective study of how people behave together, which requires empirical studies of human relations and social situations based on both participant observation and experimentation” (Fry & Raadschelders, 153). Follett, and those following her, began to adopt and merge the Enlightened principles of individual freedom and scientific research.

Elton Mayo’s research can reveal the values early works in the field held. Mayo, for example, asserted that for an effective democracy, a strong system of education is needed, “in this way, we can reach the nightmind of the child and the savage surviving in the civilized adult, thereby freeing humanity from the bonds of irrationality and superstition” (Fry & Raadschelders, 202). The liberation from irrationality and superstition is taken right out of Enlightenment history. Mayo expands on this by claiming democracy relies too much on Rousseau and not enough on Machiavelli because Rousseau relied too much on “pious hope” whereas Machiavelli recognized that it is the people and administrators themselves who need to understand and forge their own solutions (Fry & Raadschelders, 201-202). His work in the industry set a valuable tone that only empirical and observable observation should be used in research regarding public administration and “served as inspiration for a succeeding generation of scholars” (Fry & Raadschelders, 221). Mayo also shifted the focus of research toward human needs of the employees in order to increase individual wellbeing in addition to productivity and efficiency. His research notably set the bar for future generations by focusing on human nature and their reactions to research (the Hawthorne effect), pointing out that it is not possible to gain objective knowledge regarding social events, and that reality by nature is subjective (McNabb, 41).

The reasons and the way with which public administrators pursue research and investigation in an ethical and rational way solidifies the relation of public administration to the principles of the Enlightenment – Fact based, individual based, and democratically based research serves as a standard principle in the field until recently. The traditional era of public administration is considered to be from the late 1800’s to about the 1950s and was “devoted to government that is representative, responsive, compassionate, [and] concerned with equal opportunity” making their early contributions valuable (Lynn, 154). Other works from that of Gary Wamsley and James Wolf argue that traditional public administration “incorporated such ideas as collaboration, a moral perspective on the public interest, a concern for democratic administration, and pragmatism” (Lynn, 154). Why, then, have there been works from contrarians like Dwight Waldo and other more recent writers that talk down to the early years of public administration? Laurence Lynn Jr (2001) asserts that these traits have been taken for granted in their roles for the values of democracy which could possibly lead to an “uncontrolled, politically corrupt, or irresponsible bureaucracy”. Lynn also asserts that the “contemporary critics of traditional thought pose a greater threat to democratic values than” traditional writers (Lynn, 154). But there is a worrying emergence of research that is not based on fact and even being celebrated by some. Most prominent contrarian in public administration, Dwight Waldo, claims that the field is “only now freeing itself from a strait jacket of its own devising – the instrumentalist philosophy of the public administration formula – that has limited its breadth and scope” (Lynn, 145 – 146). But are the observed changes in research principles in the field a positive one?

There is a movement brewing in modern society known as postmodernism – and just like the religious movements known as the Great Awakenings countered the Enlightenment, postmodernism is a reaction in society that is countering fact based research infecting many fields of study – including public administration (Jacoby, 2008, 39-40). Postmodernism is the idea that no fundamental truth exists, there is no right way to obtain knowledge, and “no rules exist to guarantee the rationality of science” (McNabb, 45). Because this point of view takes into consideration the time, situation, and intent of an action, and therefore the emotion of those involved, it is inherently flawed as a method for reasoning from an Enlightenment perspective. Examples of postmodern philosophy at work would be critical theory, feminist, and marxist ideals (McNabb, 51). Because the terms modernism and Enlightenment philosophy are often interchangeable, examples of such would be scientific and free inquiry and rational based research (Honderich, 583).

Because public administration operates so closely to the public, it is to be expected that popular, or rather, new ideas would creep into its culture. There have been a variety of studies in the past few decades that have noted a swing away from the Enlightenment values that the early practitioners of the field used in their research and a swing toward postmodern approaches that deal more with individual experience and emotion. And because leadership within public administration research has remained “fragmented, [and] guided by narrow frameworks, and lacking a definitive identity”, it has remain impressionable to postmodern trends (McNabb, 391).

As with any academia, public administration, to be seen as a legitimate field of study, “must extend the frontiers of knowledge to identify important research questions and the appropriate methods to answer them” and that cannot be done without the values and principles handed down by logical positivism and empiricism (Wright et al., 749). Simply stated, direct evidence and reliable measurements “can provide the reader with some assurance that the measure is free of systematic error and reflects the variable intended for study” to allow the reader to “judge indirectly” and come to their own conclusions (Wright et al., 749). The results reported should also be expected to be used in future research, making the evidence based research all the more important to the field.

In a review of qualitative research covering 143 articles in six different public administration academic journals found that only 7.5 percent provided reliable evidence and 34 percent addressed biases or possible error in the research – and the most surprising finding showed that 59.7 percent of articles reviewed failed to specify the source of reported measurements (Wright et al., 755 – 756). In a 2011 research in the Public Administration Review, 151 articles were reviewed and the team found the field lacked a consistent use of comparative standards and also noted “the scarcity of empirical data or quantification” (Fitzpatrick et al., 822). These observations lead to the idea that the field not only lacks a credible overreaching uniform theory, but it is abandoning its use of logical positivism with which it has performed its research in the past. Another observation of this study shows that the existing literature is “scattered and diffuse” and often covers a wide variety of topics not pertaining to public administration (Fitzpatrick et al., 822). This could be due to the nature of public administration as a diverse and far reaching field – identity crises may be expected as its reach extends into new realms of study. But nevertheless, a firm foundation in Enlightenment principle and truth in the fields research should be shared values across public administration research if it wishes to continue to be an established and respected field of study.

One could say that the illuminating torch of the Enlightenment principles the Founding Fathers passed on to the early administrators is now at risk of being ignored when being handed off to the current generation of researchers. Enlightenment writer and revolutionary war hero, Thomas Paine, paints a bleak picture of this situation by noting “to argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead” (Paine, 233). But such a picture should not be so bleak with the growing attention to the problem from the field of public administration and those in other fields of study – for the responsibility to establish a uniform standard for responsible and fact-based research lies with each individual in public administration.

In the emerging philosophy of postmodernism, it maybe hard to distinguish facts from values – but it is worth the attention of students and academics alike. In this post-truth environment, values seem to be gaining the advantage over facts and becoming a dangerous rival to fact-based Enlightenment principles. “Take a few minutes to flip between MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN during prime time” professor Michael Ford (2018) suggests to his students, “after this exercise you could be forgiven for thinking that facts are in the eyes of the beholder.” Ford continues to stress, “objective facts do exist, and they do matter” and now more than ever public administration as a field needs to set a standard and learn from the writers of the past: the lesson and values of the Enlightenment matters. Postmodern and anti-Enlightenment trends encourages “running from unpleasant facts in a search for an elusive alternate truth” and “has disconnected the power of administrators evidence based decision making” and can taint the progress and future works in public administration (Knepper, 2018). Hillary Knepper recently warned that “the vibrant nature of a political system balanced by well-educated and well-trained administrators is currently at risk” because of these trends but paints a more optimistic picture than Paine when Knepper asserts that, “public service professionals can change this. They have the numbers to amplify those knowledgeable and expert voices” (Knepper, 2018). Public Administration lies between the government and the minds of the people it serves and thus makes the writers, practitioners, students, and professors in the field the “caretakers of the evidence, the implementers of policy and the voice of those who cannot speak for themselves” (Knepper, 2018).


In this research, notable public administration writers have been examined and correlated directly to the Enlightenment. Their works and underlying ideas were deconstructed and examined in order to understand what historical and philosophical items have influenced them and the correlation to the Enlightenment is clear. Public administration has a history firmly planted in the Enlightenment – era principles of free inquiry, evidence based decision making, democratic values, and rationality. The early and modern works from the writers within public administration are not only using Enlightenment ideals, but also strongly encourage others to use them. The prominent figures in administration advised “displacement of magical elements of thought” within the field held that a separation of facts and values be used in all research because of the nature public administration has to work in (Fry & Raadschelders, 30). Although recent trends suggest postmodernist methods have found their way into the field, there is still time for the next generation of researchers, students, and professors to establish and promote fact-based, uniform, Enlightenment values within the fields research. A return to Enlightenment principles that has been built into American government and public administration is not only necessary and recommended, but it is needed to establish public administration as a legitimate field of research.


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