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Borges's Encyclopedia and Classification in Presidential Studies


Philip Abbott is professor of political science at Wayne State University. His most recent book, The Challenge of the American Presidency, explores the implications of Machiavelli's analysis of executive power.


In her 1990 address before the Presidency Research Group, Betty Glad argued that the alleged low status of presidential studies was based in large part upon a model of science used in theoretical physics. Instead, she contended, if research in botany and some other sciences were employed as a model, other goals, particularly classification, would be prominent and presidential studies would be more productive and presumably less preoccupied with a misplaced scientific status hierarchy. What if, however, a major focus upon classification as a research goal leads not to a rigorous and robust body of knowledge in presidential studies as Glad predicts but rather to a version of the emperor's encyclopedia described by Jorge Luis Borges in which phenomena are cataloged in a completely ersatz fashion? This article examines the utility of classification as a goal of presidential studies by assessing dichotomies offered by Fred Greenstein, Richard Neustadt, and Jeffrey Tulis and typologies presented by Stephen Skowronek and James David Barber. The article concludes that there is a pronounced tendency for these classifications to drift toward the status of those in Borges's encyclopedia that can only be effectively resisted by continual theoretical reassertion of the executive himself as a disruptive force.