Steve Walt opines that “would-be foreign policy wonks” should basically get a classical liberal-arts education, and he uses a traditional justification for this: “In world that is both diverse and changing rapidly, a broad portfolio of knowledge is almost certainly the best preparation for a long career in the field.” I’d amend that somewhat, and say that a broad liberal-arts education — which isn’t about gaining a portfolio of knowledge or skills as much as it is about developing a certain critical intellectual disposition — is almost certainly the best preparation for the rest of your adult life, not just for a career in the IR field however understood. Hyper-specialization at the undergraduate level is something that annoys me to no end, and on that score as on many of the specifics in Walt’s list I find myself in complete agreement.
Minor quibble #1: I think Walt gets the justification for studying some statistics as an undergraduate student precisely correct: “statistics is part of the language of policy discourse, and if you don’t understand the basics, you won’t be a discerning consumer of quantitative information.” It’s a language, you need to be able to speak it in at least a rudimentary way to make headway in most policy circles, and (it pains me to say) in most IR academic circles too. [Not because statistics is bad, but because I think we can do better as a basic methodological vocabulary than elementary statistics. But that’s another post, or a different book that I already wrote.] But when Walt advises the study of economics, he shifts his epistemic warrant slightly, calling for “basic grasp of the key principles of international trade and finance and some idea how the world economy actually works.” The former justification (statistics is a language) makes no commitment to statistics being a correct or even defensible way to view the world, just as his recommendation to learn a foreign language makes no commitment to a given language being somehow truer. But the latter justification presumes that the language of contemporary economics is some kind of a reliable guide to how things work, a debatable proposition indeed — especially given very good recent work on the performativity of economic language. he should have stuck with “learn some of that language too.”
Minor quibble #2: Walt suggests that “geography matters” so students ought to learn things like the physical characteristics of different regions. But this is a non sequitur, since it is entirely possible for one to maintain that geography matters without becoming a geographical determinist. Studying the physical characteristics of a region and expecting them to give one insight into social and political dynamics is geographical determinism, whether or not one produces a minor caveat by converting those physical characteristics into an independent variable with only a partial or probabilistic impact on outcomes…if physical characteristics explain social forms, then we’re a minor and theoretically inconsequential step away from “geography is destiny” and Halford Mackinder’s world-island and heartland. On which, well, one might read any piece of critical geography/geopolitics written in the past several decades, starting here and here. In fact, works like those two provide a gateway to a more defensible and less reductionist/determinist kind of “geography matters,” in which it’s the discourse of geographic space and not that space “in itself” (whatever the heck that might mean) which has consequences.
And this in turn links to my biggest hesitation about Walt’s list, which is his persistent equivocation between the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the diversity of ways that people make sense of the world, and the notion that one should study certain things as an undergraduate in order to grasp the way that things really are (despite what others might think, because they’re wrong). This is perhaps most apparent in Walt’s first recommendation, which is that one should study history:
Not only does history provide the laboratory in which our basic theories must be tested, it shapes the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances and how they regard their relationship to others. How could one hope to understand the Middle East without knowing about the Ottoman Empire, the impact of colonialism, the role of Islam, the influence of European anti-Semitism and Zionism, or the part played by the Cold War? Similarly, how could one grasp the current complexities in Asia without understanding the prior relations between these nations and the different ways that Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Pashtuns, Hindus, Muslims, and others understand and explain past events?
Walt’s “not only” joins two extremely, even radically, different versions of what it would mean to study history. History as “laboratory” — Walt means historical facts as data for our theories to test themselves against, but this conception also covers historical facts as parts of developmental sequences that play themselves out behind the backs, or otherwise out of the grasp of, actors — suggests that we understand a present situation in world politics better by studying what came before it. History as “the narratives different peoples tell themselves about how they came to their present circumstances” — true, Walt says that those narratives are shaped by history rather than being history itself, but then as the paragraph unfolds he grants the study of historical self-understanding its own autonomous role in grasping “current complexities” — suggests, by contrast, that we understand a present situation in world politics better by seeing what use is made of the past in the present and how that puts horizons on the future. Events with persistent causal power versus the causal power of “eventing,” so to speak.
My hesitation is two-fold. First, Walt, like many IR scholars, doesn’t seem to be aware of the tension between these two points of view, so he (like others) can pass pretty seamlessly from “here’s how different actors construe the situation” to “here’s how it is.” But there is radical tension, perhaps to the point of incommensurability, between those approaches to history. Because Walt glosses over that tension, I hesitate. But I also hesitate because I suspect that in the end Walt is really siding with the first approach rather than the second, and is hence unable to reflexively grasp the extent to which his own account of “how it is” is itself a perspectival construal rather than a way of dispelling inaccurate perspectives. The point of a liberal-arts education, as far as I am concerned, is to kick the apparent supports out from under each and every supposed “view from nowhere” by showing how they emerge from particular combinations of commitments and stances, and this in turn propels the liberally-educated person into a better grasp of the contingency of things — which in turn allows creative action that shapes a plausible future. It is precisely not about mastering a multifaceted-but-ultimately-homogenous narrative of The Way That The World Is so that one can use that as a basis for Sound Policy Recommendations.
Developing a respect for ambiguity and contingency is not the same thing as eliminating ambiguity and contingency through a more intricate totalizing account, even if that totalizing account is couched in terms of “a broad portfolio of knowledge” for a “world that is both diverse and changing rapidly.” The former embraces genuine uncertainty in the Knightian sense; the latter reduces it to just plain old “risk.” And I would say that the latter is precisely not what a liberal-arts education is all about — it’s a technocratic device for imagining oneself into a far less ambiguous world. But a liberal-arts education equips one to live in that world instead of perpetually trying to engineer it away. Walt’s last recommendation involves confronting ethical questions and conundrums, which I certainly agree is something that one ought to do as an undergraduate student…but not to find a superior foundation as much as to start recognizing the limits of such foundations, the Weberian “uncomfortable facts” that each and every principled position has to confront. Remember that it was Plato who thought that one could craft new, superior foundations; Socrates just asked questions that confounded his interlocutors and forced them to question their assumptions. The liberal-arts educator ought to think Socrates rather than Plato, and the undergraduate student — especially, perhaps, the undergraduate student interested in world politics broadly understood — ought to be a lot more concerned with the diversity of ways of worlding than with looking for the One True (Account Of The) World.
[The following essay, posted here in three parts over several days, was solicited by and is cross-posted at e-ir. Read part one here. Thanks to Aaron McKeil for editorial input and html formatting assistance.]
In the preceding discussion I have assumed, albeit tacitly, that contradictory statements emanating from different communities of practice and different traditions of inquiry are translatable into one another’s terms. Translation is required for contradiction to have any sense or meaning: “objects fall to the ground when dropped” is contradicted by “objects rise into the sky when dropped,” and not by “cuisinart artichoke hobgoblin.” By the same token, translation of this sort must involve not just the meanings of terms, but also the relevant procedures of judging whether a claim is warranted; if when I say “democracies do not go to war with one another” I mean “democracies are not involved in wars with other democracies to any statistically significant degree,” then the proper translation of a statement that potentially contradicts this one must likewise be a statement expressible in the language of statistical significance. If when someone else says “democracies do so go to war with one another” I mean not that they do so a statistically significant number of times, but that one democracy has fought with one other democracy, the statement is technically not a contradiction of my initial statement, as both could be true—well warranted—at the same time.
But the translations challenges facing IR scholarship are considerably more profound than simply those involving relative frequencies. The IR constructivist claim that identity matters to the explanation of events in world politics does not—at least, does not always—mean that identity exercises a greater impact on outcomes than other factors do. Rather, for many IR constructivists it means that an explanation that does not incorporate identity is incomplete, even if one can achieve statistically significant results without adding identity as an independent variable. Some of this distinction is unfortunately and misleadingly buried in discussions about case-specific vs. general explanations (this is unfortunate and misleading because the number of cases is not methodologically significant in and of itself, but is a consequence of more basic methodological commitments), but the grain of truth here is that at least some IR constructivists are not making claims about the general and cross-case measurable independent impact of norms and ideas and rhetoric, but are instead analyzing world politics—and warranting claims about world politics—in different, non-nomothetic ways. Such claims could not even in principle contradict or be contradicted by the potential nomothetic generalizations (even well-verified nomothetic generalizations!) advanced by neopositivists, because they are almost literally formulated in a different language.
Indeed, it would not be too much to say simply that we are presented with a stark choice when it comes to claims about world politics that appear to be in tension with one another. Either we can translate the claims into the same tradition of inquiry and standards of judging whether the claims are warranted, in which case evaluating them becomes a relatively straightforward matter; or we cannot translate them without doing undue interpretive violence to one of the claims, in which case the claims are simply saying different things and thus pose no problems for one another. Testing on one hand, complementarity on the other, but no relativism. If I claim that states balance against one another in anarchy and I intend this to be a well-warranted claim about world politics, then it can be evaluated against its rivals more or less directly, and perhaps fall to the better-warranted claim that states in anarchy seek to bandwagon and buck-pass. If I claim that states balance in anarchy and I intend this to be an ideal-typical baseline against which I can explain specific state actions, then I haven’t contradicted the claim that states bandwagon and buck-pass; I have instead engaged in a different kind of explanatory endeavor. And I have only scratched the surface here, since many scholarly claims in word politics have normative content as well, which translates even more imperfectly into the idiom of systematic cross-case covariation esteemed by neopositivists…indeed, translation challenges lurk around every corner in IR scholarship, and we only ignore them by something approximating a willful act of blindness.
So what is the proper response? I have argued that translation problems are not relativism because two claims inhabiting different traditions of inquiry cannot possibly contradict one another unless they can be translated into the other tradition more or less perfectly, and if they can be translated then they can be more or less straightforwardly evaluated. Luke and Obi-Wan are speaking different and partially non-translatable languages when they have their confrontation about whether Luke’s father is dead or alive, so they can’t contradict one another. It is only when Luke realizes that Obi-Wan is using words in a different way that something like conversation becomes possible; Luke provisionally adopts Obi-Wan’s definitions and the conversation proceeds, with each party expanding its grasp of the world in subtle, comprehensive ways. If this were to take place in IR, we would not have Keohane’s back-handed faux tolerance—everyone can play if you play my game—but we would instead have an acknowledgement of the variety of warranted claims one might make about world politics. Feminist, post-colonial, and critical constructivist scholarship, to select just three examples, may simply not be interested in the question of whether some X is correlated with some Y; this does not detract from the potential validity of a claim about the relationship between X and Y, but it does suggest that perhaps there might be other important questions to ask that do not fit neatly into that neopositivist explanatory framework.
The point is that the existence of different traditions of inquiry that are each seeking to produce warranted assertions in their own way is in no way a threat to the integrity of each tradition. Over time perhaps some of these traditions will discover or negotiate a common language about validity that connects them to other traditions, and at that point we might be justified in calling those separate traditions a single tradition of inquiry, because there would be only one set of warranted assertions common to both. But perhaps not. We don’t know, and arguably we can’t know, what will happen as conditionally independent lines of broadly social-scientific research proceed and evolve. It would be the height of arrogance and hubris to legislate in advance the language in which potentially valid claims must be articulated, and to place a straightjacket over the precise definition of warranted assertability for all time. Instead, any tradition of inquiry that is concerned to produce warranted assertions about world politics should be allowed, even encouraged, to develop and flourish in IR. The danger is not relativism; the danger is the potential myopia produced by a methodological and theoretical monoculture. Complementary warranted assertions—multiple perspectives, each of which is internally coherent and demonstrably rigorous—can only improve our overall grasp of world politics. There is nothing here to fear, so we should stop barricading our doors against one another, step outside, and have a conversation.
Boghossian, Paul. 2007. Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davidson, Donald. 1973. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 47: 5–20. doi:10.2307/3129898.
Dewey, John. 1938. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. 2011. The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. London: Routledge.
King, Gary, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 2000. The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993. Ed. James Conant and John Haugeland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Moravcsik, Andrew. 1998. The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Rescher, Nicholas. 1997. Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason. Notre Dame, IN: University Of Notre Dame Press.
Shotter, John. 1993. Cultural Politics of Everyday Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Vasquez, John A., ed. 2012. What Do We Know About War? Second ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Waltz, Kenneth N. 1990. “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities.” The American Political Science Review 84 (3): 731–745. doi:10.2307/1962764
[The following essay, to be posted here in three parts over several days, was solicited by and is cross-posted at e-ir. Part one appeared here. Thanks to Aaron McKeil for editorial input and html formatting assistance.]
From this brief example we can draw a few lessons.
In this way, a little perspicacious logical analysis dispels fears of relativism before they have a chance to really take root. The basic fear seems to be that statements could be simultaneously true and contradictory, but as long as both statements are evaluated as potentially warranted assertions, that mythical situation simply does not arise. If the claim I make is well-supported by argument and evidence—objects drop to the ground when released, Darth Vader is my father, even the old IR chestnut that democracies don’t go to war with one another—it can, if challenged by an actually contrary claim, be put to the test alongside the challenger, and this test can resolve the controversy. On the other hand, if confronted with an apparently contradictory but actually independent statement, my warranted assertion remains intact.
Obviously, much of my argument here is borne by the notion of “warranted assertability.” Originally developed by John Dewey in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938) as a way of cashing out the notion of “truth” in a more pragmatic fashion, the basic idea is that a claim about some aspect of the world, be it an observation, an explanation, an evaluation, or whatever, is “true” if and only if it is supported by argument and evidence in some combination judged appropriate by the relevant community of practice. “If you have a UNIX-based operating system, repairing the permissions on your startup disk solves many common operational problems” is a true statement if and only if the relevant group of practitioners (computer support techs, in this case) deem it to be sufficiently supported. The community of practice both understands the claim by having a rough agreement on the meanings of the terms used in the statement, and judges it to be warranted by applying certain conventional procedures to check the claim against appropriate evidence. Note that this does not mean that the community of practice arbitrarily designates a statement true or false on a whim; rather, the community determines whether the claim expressed in the statement is true or false by ascertaining whether or not it is a warranted assertion. Unwarranted assertions are false; warranted assertions are true.
Dewey’s formulation neatly captures, I think, what we usually mean when we say that some statement is true or false, and its deliberate open-endedness means that it can be profitably used with any number of communities of practice, each of which has different conventional procedures for checking claims against appropriate evidence and different rough agreements about the meanings of terms. What a computer technician does when evaluating a piece of troubleshooting advice is not fundamentally different from what a social scientist does when evaluating a scholarly article—and neither is fundamentally different from what Luke does when confronting Obi-Wan about the identity of Darth Vader. Yes, the community of practice is different in each case, and the specific procedures applied are not quite the same across different communities. What we might call the density of the community of practice varies considerably as well, ranging from a tightly-knit group of virtuosos to the extremely diffuse group of speakers of a natural language like English. But the basic activity is the same, and the status of a true statement is the same in each case: judged, by members of the community participating in the truth-seeking activity of evaluating claims, to be sufficiently warranted.
I’ve obviously glossed over several important variants of how a controversy over the truth of a claim might play out. Luke might have decided that Obi-Wan was simply not a member of the same community of practice, because Obi-Wan’s definitions were just too far away from Luke’s own. Either Luke or Obi-Wan might not have been involved in a tradition of inquiry that esteemed truth, giving the statements in question very different statuses: assertions of fidelity, perhaps, or expressions of an ideological commitment. And obviously, as we scholars know only too well, questions of what constitutes appropriate evidence or a definitive warrant for a claim sometimes lead to seemingly endless controversies even though—and perhaps even because!—all parties to the dispute agree on the meanings of terms and the procedures for judging whether claims are actually warranted. But I think we can ignore these complications for the moment because none of them bear on the question of “relativism”: speakers playing very different language-games can’t very well contradict one another, and speakers attempting to draw out the implications of some piece of evidence or line of argument are all already committed to the notion that there is a single uniform answer that will put the controversy to rest (virtually everyone arguing about the “democratic peace” presumes that it either is or is not true that democracies don’t fight one another, and the disagreement is over which claim is better warranted). Neither separate worlds nor specialist debates pose any threat of relativism.
Instead, relativism only looms if each of a set of contradictory statements is regarded as true—sufficiently warranted—by different communities of practice. In IR we appear to have this situation quite a bit, with IR realists maintaining that states seek power and security while IR liberals maintain that states seek wealth and predictability, but this is actually a prime example of an apparent contradiction that dissolves with the application of a little logical analysis. For some IR realists and some IR liberals, these statements are not themselves warranted claims about the world, but presuppositions that structure subsequent empirical investigations—and those investigations are more about clarifying why in a specific case an expected outcome did not occur, why states did not seek to maximize power or wealth or whatever. For example, in structural realism, expected changes in the balance of power may not occur because of domestic political constraints or because of the strange strategic distortions introduced by nuclear weapons (which is an important part of Waltz’s (1990) explanation for the uncanny stability of a bipolar world). If “states maximize power and security” and “states maximize wealth and predictability” are not thought of as expressing empirical claims about the world but are instead regarded as ideal-typical baselines for analyzing the world, then there is as little contradiction between them as there is between statements like “people act according their interests” and “people act according to their beliefs”—and, in consequence, no relativism. There can be debates about the relative merits of each statement and the claim it expresses, with that merit tied to the claim’s usefulness as an explanatory instrument, but it makes no sense to try to directly contrast ideal-typical statements to one another and to look for a contradiction.
Of course, if one did try to treat these statements as appropriate objects of a judgment about whether they were well supported by evidence and argument—as some other IR scholars do—there would be no relativism involved either, because one could simply propose appropriate operationalizations of the relevant concepts, collect data, and determine which claim (if either) was correct. Thus, when scholars set out to ascertain whether a bipolar or a multipolar international system was characterized by more wars, the resounding answer was that it did not make a difference (as in Vasquez 2012), and there are few if any grounds for continuing to believe that the number of poles in the system definitely and unambiguously determines conflict frequency. To continue to maintain that it does is not relativism, but bad science—or a continued category-confusion between empirically warranted assertions about the world and ideal-typical presuppositions that are not even in principle directly testable (their value, instead, lies in their practical contributions to an explanatory account, exactly the way that the abstract and idealized equations of modern physics mirror nothing but serve as the foundation for a plethora of efficacious explanations). There are obvious technical difficulties here, as with a book like Andrew Moravcsik’s The Choice for Europe (1998), which sets out to evaluate claims about the motivations of state leaders but ends up constructing an account that only illustrates the plausibility of a liberal-rationalist account rather than definitively refuting alternate readings of the historical evidence; but once again, relativism is not involved.
Hence: if two claims are actually contradictory, they can be submitted to empirical evaluation; if they are not actually contradictory, then they can be evaluated independently. In either case, relativism vanishes. Luke’s father cannot be both alive and dead for the same meanings of “dead,” “alive,” and “Luke’s father”; the fact that he can be alive in one sense but dead in another is no contradiction, but instead a pleasingly ambiguous opportunity to expand our horizons.
Final installment: The Task of Translation
[The following essay, to be posted here in three parts over the next several days, was solicited by and is cross-posted at e-ir. Thanks to Aaron McKeil for editorial input and html formatting assistance.]
The dominant methodological position in the field of IR—neopositivism—has almost certainly attained its dominance as a result of sociological factors, particularly the role that its emphasis on covering-law explanations and the practical activity of hypothesis-testing using sophisticated techniques of cross-case comparison plays in legitimating IR as a science within the United States. Perhaps as a result of this dominance, neopositivists do not generally engage alternative methodologies on their own terms, but instead extend an apparent olive branch of tolerance and pluralism that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a poisoned pill. The logic of the argument goes something like this: because good social-scientific research is neopositivist, which means that it involves the evaluation of hypothetical statements about the cross-case covariation of variables of interest with the ultimate intent of approximating nomothetic generalizations, any approach to the study of world politics that wants to make a meaningful contribution is welcome to propose variables and hypotheses for testing. In other words, anyone can play—a good neopositivist heartily agrees with Karl Popper that the source of a hypothesis matters not at all to its validity—as long as they agree to play the same game.
Lest I be thought of as exaggerating, let me give two examples from the work of the person perhaps most responsible for setting the agenda of Anglophone IR in the past two decades: Robert O. Keohane.
The first is from his 1989 Millennium commentary “International Relations Theory: Contributions of a Feminist Standpoint”:
I object to the notion that because social science cannot attain any perfectly reliable knowledge, it is justified for students of society to “obliterate the validity of reality”. I also object to the notion that we should happily accept the existence of multiple incommensurable epistemologies, each equally valid. Such a view seems to me to lead away from our knowledge of the external world, and ultimately to a sort of nihilism.…agreement on epistemological essentials constitutes a valuable scientific asset that should not be discarded lightly. With such agreement, people with different substantive views or intuitions can talk to each other in commensurable terms can perhaps come to an agreement with the aid of evidence.…The very difficulty of achieving social scientific knowledge is an argument for cherishing rather than discarding social science and the aspiration for a more or less unified epistemology (pp. 249-250).
The second is from Keohane’s 2009 essay “Political Science as a Vocation”:
In our particular investigations we need to seek objectivity—a goal that is never realized but that we should strive for—because otherwise people with other preferences, or who do not know what our values are, will have no reason to take our findings seriously. In the absence of a serious culture of objectivity, no cumulative increases in knowledge can take place. But the overall enterprise should never be value-neutral. We should choose normatively important problems because we care about improving human behavior, we should explain these choices to our students and readers, and we should not apologize for making value-laden choices even as we seek to search unflinchingly for the truth, as unpleasant or unpopular as that may be (p. 5).
To Keohane’s credit, here and elsewhere he actually makes the claim that IR requires a single set of methodological standards and procedures, some unified way for the field as a whole to adjudicate claims and discard those that are found wanting. Many neopositivists merely assume this, and don’t bother to explicitly state it. Additionally, like the good neopositivist that he is, Keohane is willing to accept any value-commitment as a source of hypotheses and topics, just so long as that commitment only affects the things one chooses to study and not the way in which one chooses to study them. Hence, a pluralism that isn’t so pluralist: a firm insistence on agreement on “fundamentals” underpins the openness to novel lines of inquiry, and the open hand of friendship can quickly turn to a iron fist if the methodological parameters of neopositivism itself are questioned.
For all of his admirable explicitness on the claim of methodological homogeneity, Keohane, like virtually every neopositivist methodologist in and around the field, doesn’t ever actually spell out an argument for methodological homogeneity. Hence, engaging with his position first requires a bit of argumentative reconstruction. There are at least three distinct, but related, reasons for insisting that a field of study should elevate a single methodological standard to such overwhelming dominance that it becomes virtually synonymous with “good research” per se. The first, philosophical, reason would be that there actually is one and only one way to produce valid knowledge of the object(s) of study. The second, hopeful, reason would be that the use of one class of procedures has generated such impressive results thus far that it makes good sense to stick with it in the future. The third, fearful, reason would be a dire forecast of the consequences for the field of study if there were not one single accepted and acceptable way to adjudicate claims.
Methodological discussion in IR virtually since the founding of the field a century or so ago has featured all three of these reasons in various admixtures. Philosophical arguments for the dominance of neopositivism rest on the claim that neopositivism is uniquely scientific; hopeful arguments for the dominance of neopositivism proudly uphold correlations between wealth and democracy, or democracy and peace; and fearful arguments hint at the horrors that would ensue if we did not have a firm and uniform standard for rejecting false and invalid claims. I have addressed the first set of arguments in some detail elsewhere. As for the second set, given that the successes of neopositivist IR are not exactly on the level of flying airplanes and functioning solid-state electronics, it is unclear just how much hope for the future can be derived from some empirical findings that do not command anything like universal assent—and in any event such arguments don’t actually support the dominance of neopositivism as much as they support the right of neopositivist research to be a part of the ongoing conversation alongside other methodological approaches that might or might not pan out.
It is the third set of arguments that concerns me in this essay, because—like other arguments that depend on fear—they can be remarkably effective if the audience has no sound basis on which to dispel them. And the fears that are raised, involving “nihilism,” “incommensurability,” and the collapse of the whole scholarly enterprise through an inability to discard invalid claims and progressively accumulate valid ones, sound quite terrifying indeed, particularly to an audience that thinks of itself as in some sense engaged in social science. All of these fears, I think, fit nicely under the heading of “relativism,” and it is against the specter of relativism that fearful neopositivist arguments are directed. But the relativism against which neopositivists rail and for fear of which they barricade their methodological doors turns out, on closer inspection, to be almost wholly imaginary. Fear of relativism is based on a profound misunderstanding of the actual consequences of methodological diversity; a closer look at what methodological diversity actually entails will hopefully suffice to dispel that fear.
There are many IR examples I could use to illustrate the complexity of the issues surrounding methodological homogeneity and diversity, but starting off with any of those examples might obscure the issues as readers get too wrapped up with the nuances of the argument about world politics. So although I will introduce IR examples later on, for the moment I’m going to pursue an illustration through an example drawn from a different field entirely. In the film Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker confronts his old mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi over the identity of the galactic villain Darth Vader:
Luke: Obi-Wan! Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-Wan: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.
Luke: A certain point of view?
Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. Anakin was a good friend. When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot. But I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him. I took it upon myself to train him as a Jedi. I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong.
Luke: There is still good in him.
Obi-Wan: He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.
Luke’s anger and frustration in this scene stems from the fact that three years (and two films) before this conversation, Obi-Wan had told Luke that Darth Vader had “betrayed and murdered” Luke’s father, but a few months (and one film) before this conversation, when Luke and Vader fought an epic duel, Vader had told Luke that he, Vader, was Luke’s father. Luke therefore feels that he has been lied to, and that Obi-Wan should have told him what had truly happened to his father. Obi-Wan’s response—that truth depends on one’s point of view—seems a dramatic illustration of the kind of relativism so feared by neopositivists, inasmuch as it appears to posit that truth has no meaning outside of its local context, and by implication to affirm that the same statement could be both true and false depending on how one looked at it: Luke’s father could, in effect, be both dead and alive at the same time.
But on closer examination, Obi-Wan’s position looks less relativist than it first appears. Obi-Wan’s reply to Luke effectively redefines “death,” making it less about the termination of a person’s biological functions and more about the end of a person’s identity: Obi-Wan claims that Luke’s father is “dead” in the sense of no longer being the same person. By that definition, Obi-Wan’s claim that Luke’s father is dead, and Luke’s claim that his father is alive and living under the name (and the armor and breathing apparatus of) “Darth Vader,” are not even contradictory. They are instead parallel claims, such that the truth or falsity of one doesn’t affect the truth or falsity of the other—and Luke’s father can easily be dead in Obi-Wan’s sense while remaining alive in Luke’s. Both parties have reasons supporting their claims, so each one is justified in believing their claim true; indeed, both claims can be true at the same time, without any special philosophical problems arising.
The other fascinating thing about this confrontation is that Luke does not continue trying to attack Obi-Wan once he hears Obi-Wan’s explanation. Instead, Luke provisionally adopts Obi-Wan’s definitions and attempts to engage on the basis of those definitions: Vader, Luke claims, still has “good in him,” a contention that Obi-Wan denies. This shifts their dispute from the realm of anything-goes nihilism (where contradictory claims might be true at the same time) to the realm of intellectual inquiry, first by more precisely defining Obi-Wan’s position, and then by evaluating the basis for that position. Either Vader has good in him or he does not, and if he does, then Obi-Wan is wrong that Luke’s father is dead, according to Obi-Wan’s own definitions.
In this way, Obi-Wan’s claim that truth depends on point of view appears less to be a categorical assertion that there are no universally true claims, and more to be an acknowledgement of the fact that the truth of a claim depends on two things: a set of definitions, and a procedure for evaluating how well-supported a claim is—in this instance, by the relevant evidence. Luke’s response, once he realizes that Obi-Wan is not defining and using certain terms in the same was as Luke is, is not to keep insisting on his own definitions, but to learn what Obi-Wan’s definitions are and then to try to ascertain whether Obi-Wan’s claim is justified. Rather than something to be feared, relativism appears in this example as an opportunity for Luke to learn something new by entering a different world of definitions and procedures—and perhaps, for Obi-Wan to change his mind when presented with new evidence that disrupts his earlier certainty.
Next installment: The Appearance of Contradiction
 Technically, Obi-Wan’s ghost, preserved by the Force and somehow still able to interact with more conventionally alive beings.
I have long been intrigued by Orson Scott Card’s typology of relations to the other, as expressed in his novel Speaker for the Dead. I like it so much that I used it as a central part of my argument (in Chapter 2 of this forthcoming edited volume) that the depicted relations between Colonials and cylons in Battlestar Galactica can tell us something about how to construct a more humane social order. But teaching the novel for the umpteenth time in my sci-fi course this week — it and its prequel Ender’s Game have been in every iteration of the course since I wrote the first draft of the syllabus when I was about fifteen — it occurred to me that the Card typology needed some analytical tightening before it could be truly useful. I did a first run at working through the issues in class on Wednesday; this post is my second attempt. And it has prettier diagrams than the ones I scrawled on the whiteboard in class.
Card’s typology contains four orders of otherness or foreignness:
The first is the otherlander, or utlanning, the stranger that we recognize as being a human of our world, but of another city or country. The second is the framling…This is the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another world. The third is the raman, the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another species. The fourth is the true alien, the varelse, which includes all the animals, for with them no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.
The major advantage of this typology, and the potential that I find in it, stems from the fact that it is a typology of relations, not a typology of already-fully-formed communities.
There is no danger here of reifying a contingent social arrangement, and imbuing it with more stability and solidity than it warrants; a community is, in this approach, more or less completely endogenized to the relations between and among its members. Community is a function of how we relate to one another, and is as such located “between” us rather than “outside of” us. The other thing I particularly like about this typology is that it does not make the self a residual effect of differentiation from the Other; exclusion and separation are not the fundamental or foundational aspect of identities and communities, but emerge instead as one possible mode of relation. There can thus be identities and communities that are not premised on deliberate exclusion as much as they involve a focus on “internal” matters — a potential that often gets minimized or sidelined in certain kinds of poststructural and critical accounts of identity. (There’s a very nice 2005 APSR article by Abizadeh — couldn’t find a link that wasn’t behind a paywall, sorry — that makes this point quite cleanly.)
That said, there are three problems with the Card typology. First, although he refers to it as a “hierarchy of exclusion” and thus implies a single criterion that gets more or less intense as we move up and down the scale, the typology actually contains two quite different logics and thus envisions two very different kinds of communities emerging from two different kinds of relations. Second, and related, Card hasn’t actually presented four different types of relation; he’s only presented three (utlanning and framling actually collapse into one another), and only two of them are related to possible communities (no conversation with the varelse means no community with the varelse). Finally, because Card treats this as a classification of actually-existing relations rather than as an ideal-typical typology of possible relations, he is unable to really probe the intriguing dilemmas that arise in actual communities that are never completely characterized by any one kind of relation. The right question is not “what kind of relations to the other do we have in our community?” but instead is something like “what kind of community is envisioned by our ways of relating to the other?” and the reformulated ideal-typical typology helps us sort out the answer to that second question.
I’ll take these in sequence. First of all, notice that both utlanning and framling are relations that presume a shared connection between the people involved, and that the shared connection in question is more or less “backgrounded” or naturalized in the course of any interaction that people engaged in performing or enacting that relation have. In Card’s terms, this prior connection is that both parties are “human,” but I want to suggest that the specific character of the prior connection is less relevant than the fact of its existence as a taken-for-granted presupposition. Relations of the utlanning and framling type actually both look basically the same:
In this diagram, A-D are the relating parties, and for the sake of visual clarity I have drawn their network of relations as a maximally connected one. The green circle around A-D represents the common membership of all of the relating parties in some broader set characterized by something that they all have in common — some attribute or feature by virtue of which they are all members of a single category that is larger, conceptually speaking, than each of them themselves. Call this a categorical community: differences between the relating parties are in a sense overshadowed by their common membership in a broader community, and note that in order for this to work the category in question has to be socially/culturally/politically salient — mere physical resemblance will not cut it. In fact, in a categorical community, the relating parties in some sense think of themselves as belonging to that broader category; if they do not, it matters not at all whether the relating parties share some characteristic in common. (I am setting aside for the moment the complexity of how one recognizes common characteristics and how they become socially/culturally/politically salient, because I am ideal-typifying the kind of community envisioned by the utlanning and framling modes of relating to the other. My point is that in utlanning and framling relations, there in some sense already is a salient category.)
The reason that this diagram could be both utlanning and framling — and, if we get less interplanetary about things, it could be states within a region or civilization, towns within a nation, individuals within an organization, etc. — is that utlanning and framling relations only differ from one another in their physical and geographic size. Utlanning relations are bounded by a planet, which would be the green line in the diagram; scale up, make A-D planets instead of states or cities or countries, and for have framling relations. Scale down to get one of the other varieties I mentioned a moment ago. All of these are relationally similar, and all feature the same basic arrangement: the relating parties may differ from one another on a whole variety of issues and attributes, but their commonality provides a broader basis on which to recognize one another as in some sense belonging together.
Belonging to a categorical community makes possible one of the most striking (and arguably one of the most effective) types of rhetorical coercion: the “nesting” gesture in which a speaker appeals to the broader category as part of a socially sustainable argument about a proposed course of action. In some of my work I have explored this gesture in some detail, as nesting is what makes appeals to “the West” so politically effective during the post-WWII era and well into the Cold War. Nesting is the inner logic of claims about civilizational identity, regional solidarity, national unity, etc. In all of these cases and many more besides, nesting works as a rhetorical gesture because the relating parties in some sense understand themselves to belong to a larger category, which makes possible the appeals to that category that can function as a rhetorical trump card in a public debate: we have our differences, but now the tribe/nation/planet/species to which we all belong has need of us, so we have to put aside those differences for the sake of the greater whole.
Lose the salient category and you lose this possibility, along with the categorical community itself. What you have instead is a category of relating parties that only share in common their ability to relate to one another, and nothing more fundamental than that:
Again, for visual clarity I have drawn this as a maximally connected network, but it need not be. The key point is that in this kind of noncategorical community there is no agreed-upon categorical boundary within which and on the basis of which all the parties can relate; there is just the web of relations itself. Obviously there’s no nesting here.
This is, I would say, a diagram of the community envisioned by Card’s raman relations. The word “human” in “human of another species” doesn’t mean the same thing as it meant in Card’s definitions of utlanning and framling relations; indeed, “human” in raman relations seems to mean nothing other than the ability to converse and communicate, since the primary conceptual distinction is between raman and varelse on the grounds that varelse relations do not include the possibility of conversation. (“They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.”) There would thus be no community envisioned by varelse relations, and no categorical community envisioned by raman relations.
Of course, any student of world politics will have already recognized the parallels here: a categorical community is like “domestic politics,” and a noncategorical community is like “international politics.” Unlike Waltz, what I am prioritizing here is categorical membership, not hierarchy/anarchy, but the basic opposition is the same: presumptive commonality inside the state, and something much more explicitly process-dependent outside. (Again, remember that I am not describing actually-existing entities yet. Actual communities inhabit the tension between these ideal-types.) Precisely because there is no readily-available salient common category to appeal to in a noncategorical community, relations have to be conducted on the basis of ongoing diplomatic negotiation, and the only controlling authority would be the previously-agreed-upon consent of the contracting parties, a.k.a. “precedent.” (This is perhaps starting to sound even more familiar to IR folks.) And any hierarchy would have to be either illegitimate or a-legitimate — or a temporary exigency that was extremely fragile, dependent on independent calculations of benefit and interest…
So what have we learned? Raman relations, which envision a noncategorical community, are similar to what we IR scholars often imagine to be “international relations” — states in anarchy, sure, but more to the point, independent entities that only share in common the ability to relate to one another. (I am quite deliberately shifting to the more generic “relate” rather than Card’s “conversation,” because there is an implicit teleology in Card’s formulation: “conversation” makes violence less likely, because — and this is a general theory of Card’s — understanding makes conflict evaporate. I am not so sure about this, and more to the point, my argument doesn’t depend on it: the “diplomacy” in a noncategorical community could easily consist of an exchange of gunfire, as long as the various parties involved thought of one another as actors rather than as natural forces or something.) Utlanning and framling relations, which envision a categorical community, are similar to what we IR scholars often imagine to be “domestic politics,” with the hierarchy that we sometimes think of as characteristic of domestic politics linked to legitimation claims involving the rhetorical gesture of nesting. And encounters with “true aliens,” the varelse relations: no community is envisioned. Three categories, not four, and two logics: a logic of scale for utlanning-framling, and a logic of recognition for raman-varelse. (And note that Card implicitly realizes this; at the beginning of the first chapter of Speaker he has the author of the typology point out that “When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.”)
I presume that anyone who has made it this far into this essay has already raised about a hundred objections to the distinctions I am drawing here, all of which boil down to some form of “but actual communities don’t look like this!” Precisely. I agree. The point of an ideal-typical typology is not to describe actually-existing objects or entities or relations; the point is to tease out certain logical relations which can then be used instrumentally in the course of an explanation of some puzzling actual situation or case. It is doubtful, for instance, whether there is any such thing as an actual noncategorical community; international society developed a “standard of civilization” detailing who could play and who could not play, and liberal societies with roots in a social-contractarian understanding of social order and government have tended to rest, even if only implicitly, on some categorical community to determine whose voices needed to be taken into account: white people, men, property owners, etc. Indeed, I would speculate that, precisely because categories are so useful in managing daily social relations, a noncategorical community, by virtue of repeated transactions among its members, might incline toward being a categorical community at some point, as raman relations gave way to utlanning or framling relations. But by the same token, a categorical community might break down if one of the relating parties did something that was simply so beyond the pale that it appeared to be the action of an inhuman alien (utlanning/framling -> varelse) or, less dramatically, something happened that revealed that the presumptively stable category on which the community was based was in fact considerably more evanescent (utlanning/framling -> raman). How particular people react to changing situations, and how particular institutions and practices function, would then be explicable in terms of the tension between these different visions of community and the different relations that give rise to them.
The reason this isn’t just redescription, or recoding in exotic language, is that the perspective I have sketched here does three things with respect to thinking about identity and community that other typologies do not do, or at least do not do as well:
1) community here is a function of social relations, and not an ex ante presumption. The kind of community that is envisioned depends on the kind of relations its members have to one another.
2) community here is not necessarily premised on exclusion — what matters is less who we don’t incorporate, and more how we relate to one another. A categorical community can exclude, sure, but that exclusion is a consequence, not a cause.
3) the important empirical questions to ask about a community are not where its boundaries are and how it maintains them. The important empirical questions are instead: a) how is the category on which a categorical community is based made to seem natural and inevitable to the members of that community? b) how is the determination made that a given other is raman and not varelse, or vice versa? (In this last register especially, I wonder about the principle of indefinite detention and the preference for “surgical” drone strikes and other targeted killings of alleged terrorist masterminds, but I have gone on long enough so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.)
Final thought. The idea of a noncategorical community, although it may lack an empirical referent, serves an important moral function. If we are actually committed to the idea of a community in which the members share in common only their capacity to converse and communicate — their moral worth and practical agency — then we have to be perpetually on guard against the all-too-human tendency to fill the “human” in “human of another species” with specific categorical content. It matters not at all whether that content comes from some presumptively natural attribute (as though the question of what constitutes a human or a sentient being with moral worth could be definitively answered in some objective manner) or from some presumptively transcendental exercise of pure communicative reason (Kant and Habermas, you’re on notice here) or doctrinal revelation (the traditional “faith-based” solution to this conundrum is to have some deity show up and simply tell you who is worthy of moral recognition, and perhaps more importantly, who is not worthy). Instead, if we have the courage of our convictions, we need to oppose any and all attempts to unequivocally bound the human, rather than staking everything on some categorical definition of who and what we are. Perpetual negotiation in a noncategorical community of raman relations may be uncomfortable and murky, but such a vision — one might even call it a prophetic provocation — might be the only way to preserve our humanity, and to stay open to possibilities yet unknown.
Seven years ago today, 28 May 2005, is the day that this blog was, in an important sense, born. The previous day the day Dan officially posted the announcement that The Duck of Minerva was henceforth a collective enterprise (he said “collaborative endeavor,” but whatever), and on the 28th, Bill Petti and I started weighing in with posts of our own: Bill on nuclear (non-)proliferation, and me — in what should have been an early signal that I wasn’t exactly going to be doing mainstream IR as my regular schtick here — on “momentum” and why it’s a poor metaphor for events in social life, even the trajectories of baseball teams through the regular season. True, Dan actually started blogging here on 17 May 2005. But the strange animal that is The Duck of Minerva really got going once he decided to invite others, and the conversations we were having among ourselves in person or via private e-mail chains started to take public form online.
So: Dan gets a gold (or maybe gold-pressed latinum) star for his foresight in getting this thing started, and my gratitude for inviting me on board right at the beginning. Happy quacking anniversary, everyone.
This post started off as a reply to a comment under Robert Kelly’s post on historical institutionalism, but it got so long I thought it deserved its own post.
There is a great deal of ambiguity in how we use the term “decision” in contemporary IR, an ambiguity that also infects the closely related concept of “choice.” Briefly, we use these terms to refer both to objects of explanation and to means of explanation — and the ambiguity of our usage leads the the misleading conclusion that to explain decisions or choices necessarily involves a micro-reductionist account of interests, beliefs, and other “internal” factors. But this does not follow, something that would be made clearer if we were more precise about our use of terms and concepts.
When we use “decision” to indicate an object of explanation, we are in effect equating decision or choice with the more general issue of why we have some particular social arrangement or why we see some particular action or behavior — in each case, why we see what we see and not something else. So what Moravscik calls “the choice for Europe” means, if cashed out this way, “why do we have European integration as opposed to something else, presumably a Europe of completely independent traditionally sovereign states.” The “decision to divide Germany” means that we have a divided Germany after the Second World War, rather than a unified Germany. And so on. The important thing here is that designating these outcomes “decisions” doesn’t tell us much of anything about how we should explain them, except that any such explanation has to account for the fact that one possibility was a utilized while others were not. It is even unclear who or what “decides” or “chooses” in this formulation; what is important is that designating the outcome as a choice or decision highlights the contingency of that outcome, because of the outcome was something we thought inevitable we wouldn’t call it a choice or a decision.
But when we use “decision” or “choice” to indicate a means of explanation, we are tacitly adopting a micro-reductionist explanatory strategy. Here we have both an individualist scientific ontology — individual actors precede the social arrangements and institutions in which they are involved — and the idea that we explain what those individuals do by pointing to internal processes and factors, “decision-making.” Under this description, “the choice for Europe” is equivalent to an account of why particular states decided to combine and coordinate their efforts under the rubric of European integration, and “the decision to divide Germany” is equivalent to a specification of the motives that various involved actors had for dividing Germany rather than keeping the country more or less intact. There is no open-ended lack of clarity about who decides; indeed, making a micro-reductionist account like this work requires us to specify the individuals involved (whether those are states, interest groups, particular human beings, or whatever) as part of our explanatory strategy.
Let me suggest that only the second usage is meaningfully about either decision or choice. The first one might be, and in certain cases — Moravcsik leaps to mind — to say “decision” or “choice” is to deploy both usages simultaneously. The ambiguity of the way that we use these terms obscures the fact that there is no necessary logical or theoretical connection between describing an outcome as historically contingent (usage #1) and explaining that outcome as the result of internal decision-making procedures and factors like interests and beliefs (usage #2). If we just called the first usage “historical contingency” instead of “choice” or “decision,” the ambiguity vanishes, along with the erroneous implication that the only way to account for contingent outcomes is to reduce them to decisions that individuals make.
This relates immediately back to the issue of rationalist vs. historical institutionalism(s), and to the question of whether one needs or can meaningfully have both kinds of argument in a single account. Adopting the micro-reductionist usage of “decision” and “choice” would place us close to the rationalist camp, albeit not exclusively so because a belief-driven model of individual decision (i.e. one that did not rely on a strong ex ante specification of interests) would also fit. (Here is a good place to recall that “logics of appropriateness” and “logics of consequences” are equally micro-reductionist modes of explanation, because the causal action takes places inside of individuals. Ole Jacob Sending nailed this point years ago.) On this account, social outcomes have to be reduced to individual decisions in order to be explained, which is why I initially quipped that “rationalist institutionalism” is a contradiction in terms because step one of a rationalist explanation is to make the institution disappear into a morass of individual decisions…the institution itself has no independent explanatory status, and only derives its efficacy from the ongoing choices that individuals make. Logically, one can’t both have an account that accords institutions no independent causal power, and an account that does, so the micro-reductionist explanation is strictly speaking incompatible with other ways of analyzing social outcomes. The ambiguity of the way we use terms like “choice” and “decision” obscures this incompatibility, because it reduces social outcomes to individual decisions by definitional fiat.
The same applies to the kind of explanation of “decisions” that something like a rhetorical coercion account (or other meso-level relational theories involving positionality, and arguably macro-level structural theories too) sets forth. If we are using the term in the second sense, then there’s a pernicious contradiction at the heart of any explanation of decisions or choices: if we can provide a theory that explains why individual I made choice C, then individual I couldn’t really have made any choice other than C — the theory tells us why I chose C, after all — so it is unclear whether the choice for C was actually a choice at all. But this contradiction only applies if we stick to that second micro-reductionist usage of “decision” or “choice,” and it vanishes if we adopt the first usage, the one that I suggested we just call “historical contingency.” If our object of explanation is the fact that we have something rather than something else, there is no need to get metaphysically tied up in knots about free will or anything else along those lines; a theoretical explanation that tells us why we got (e.g.) European integration rather than something other than European integration has precisely zero implications for what individuals chose. Ditto individual action, the contingency of which can be built into explanations that don’t involve individual choices pretty easily. A rhetorical coercion account does not suggest that anyone chose or decided anything, since its object of explanation is neither a choice nor a decision, but instead answers the question why we have one action rather than another.
For these reasons I remain convinced that the best strategy is to keep these two kinds of accounts separate. A less ambiguous use of a term like “decision” would be a great help in this endeavor.
The keynote address for this year’s NITLE Symposium was delivered by Dan Cohen, a major voice in the “digital humanities” movement and one of the leading figures behind Zotero, the open-source free
EndNote killer research tool. Cohen outlined a vision of ‘Net-enabled scholarly publishing that I can only think to call the aggregation model: editorial committees scanning the ‘Net to find the most interesting scholarly content in a given field or discipline, and highlighting it through websites and e-mail blasts that hearken back to the early days when weblogs were literally just collections of links with one- or two-sentence summaries attached. (An example, edited by Cohen and some of his associates: Digital Humanities Now.) Some of that work consists of traditional books and articles, but much of it consists of blog posts, online debates, etc. This model gives us scholarly work from the bottom up, instead of generating published scholarly work by tossing a piece into the random crapshoot of putatively blind peer-review and crossing your fingers to see what happens. It also gives us scholarly work that can be certified as such by the collective deliberation of the community, which “votes” for pieces and ideas by reading them, recirculating them, linking to them, and other signs of interest and approval that can be easily tracked with traffic-tracing tools. And then, on top of that editorial aggregation — Cohen made a great point that this kind of aggregation shouldn’t be fully automated, because automated tools reward “loudmouths” and popular voices that just get retweeted a lot; human editors can do a lot to surface novel insights and new voices — an open-access journal that curates the best of those linked items into published pieces, perhaps with some revisions and peer review/commentary.
In many ways I find this a compelling vision of scholarship in a networked world. The multi-layered system of certification means that there is some “quality control” — a completely crowdsourced solution would, I think, quickly devolve into flamewars and the other horrors of the Wide Open InterNet — but the bottleneck of the peer-reviewed journal (and the academically respectable book publisher) would be broken. Interesting insights could be collected regardless of their origin, put through a gauntlet of scholarly evaluation, and the best would end up re-presented for a critical scholarly audience in convenient forms. Heck, we do some of that here on the Duck already, pointing to stuff that we find interesting and contributions that we think worth noting.
But there’s a flaw in the reasoning, or an important oversight, that I think important.
The peer review system is not, and perhaps not even primarily, about certifying scholarship; it is about certifying scholars. The fact that someone has managed to publish in a “top” journal or with a “top” press is an important part of their journey to being formally accepted as a full member of the scholarly community; that certification system starts with one’s graduate training and the awarding of the Ph.D., but through the tenure-and-promotion part of a scholarly career, publication in ranked places is critical since the Ph.D. is thought to be an insufficient barometer of quality. Getting an article into the top journal in the field, regardless of what the article says, is a sign that one belongs to the community and deserves a place at the table — which is why young scholars bust their butts trying to do just this.
Now run a thought experiment: introduce Cohen’s system of aggregated scholarship. A young scholar seeking to prove her- or himself needs to post things in a lot of places to maximize their chances of getting noticed. And the format, the language-game, of a blog post or online forum is much different than that of a journal article submission. Add into this the fact that established senior colleagues might not respect the aggregation system as much because of a general disparaging of online communication as “not serious scholarly work,” and the young scholar faces a dilemma: which game should she or he play? My strong suspicion is that the only people who would be able to play Cohen’s game are a) graduate students who are just trying to get their name out there and b) tenured scholars whose work habits were already network-enabled (you know, the kind of people who post the text of their ISA paper as a blog post). But junior scholars are not likely to play, because they’ll feel constrained to focus on the traditional certification system…and they’ll get feedback both formal and informal from their senior colleagues that this is the right choice. So they won’t develop those networked habits, and when they’re senior colleagues they’ll repeat the same advice to their junior colleagues…
My point is that Cohen’s model of digital scholarship only works if one ignores the present organizational actuality of academic careers. Unless and until we toss out the traditional certification system, an aggregation model of scholarly knowledge-production is, I think, doomed to be a bit player. In fact, this marginality is already implicit in the model itself, which Cohen quite rightly referred to as “community-sourced” rather than”open-sourced”: not everyone can play, since there is still a level or two of editorial oversight. (Even the Wikipedia has something like this, with protected pages and dedicated editors for some areas.) But this in turn requires some way of certifying people as members of the community in advance of their aggregation work — so the aggregation system supervenes on a traditional system of scholarly certification. The only way for the aggregation system to really take off would be for it to more or less completely replace the traditional system, to the point where one could reference blog posts with extensive comment threads and retweets as evidence of membership in a scholarly community. But I am having a great deal of trouble envisioning how that might feasibly happen.
[Note: This post is almost entirely “inside baseball” for IR academics.]
For this year’s ISA conference I was supposed to write a paper called “The Constructivism That Wasn’t: On the Non-Inevitability of Sociological Liberalism.” The idea was that I would go back and carefully reconstruct those moments of historical contingency in which an alternative IR constructivism — one which did not so neatly track with sociological liberalism, roughly defined as the notion that individuals’ thoughts and beliefs shape their behavior an thus the social world that they inhabit — might have emerged. The alternative history is simple: accentuate Morgenthau’s debt to Nietzsche and Weber and play up his sense of the tragic, reclaim Waltz as an analytical systems theorist instead of the prophet of the inevitable consequences of systemic anarchy for state behavior, push Jervis’ work on the manipulation of images and symbols into a more semiotic direction by rooting things in social/discursive instead of cognitive psychology, and then place Nick Onuf’s 1989 book (about to be released in a new edition, so people can actually read and assign it!) at the center of an alternate way of worlding, and knowledge-producing, in the field as a whole. Presto, a constructivism that would be just as anti-utopian as the field’s founders would have liked: rules, Onuf reminds us, produce rule, and domination (whether legitimate in the Weberian sense, or just naked force) is an omnipresent factor in political life. And then you can fill in the blanks for yourself: insert a whole variety of social and political theorists at appropriate points in the lineage, produce a mashed-up remix of The Culture of National Security and Cultures of Insecurity, and so on.
But as we all know, this didn’t happen, and constructivism came to mean “ideational variables matter,” where matter = systematic cross-case co-variation, best captured in statistical studies whether large-n “quantitative” or small-n “qualitative” — and that’s not a methodological distinction, that’s a lifestyle choice. All of this to the point where I usually don’t feel comfortable self-identifying as a “constructivist” without a great deal of qualification. So the more I have thought about it, the more I have become less and convinced that this really could have happened differently in mainstream Anglophone IR, because mainstream Anglophone IR is dominated by US IR, which is constituted as a subfield of US Political Science — and both US Political Science and US IR bear the traces of the way in which they were legitimated and justified within the US social and political context. In global IR, there may be space for a plurality of voices and visions, and a robust debate about important theoretical and methodological issues like the nature of scientific explanation, the fundamental structure of the world system, and the legacies of imperialism and colonialism (particularly the issue of whether what we have nowadays is any significantly different than what we had during the period of formal colonial empires). But in US IR, as a subfield of US Political Science, the organization of intellectual life forces virtually every interesting question into the liberal cookie-cutter with its twin blades of neopositivism and actor-centric reductionism, and thus neuters anything like a radical critique or even the envisioning of a significantly different alternative future by assuming virtually all of the interesting things away at the outset. If there is actual contingency here, it is the contingency of IR as a separate field of study having been nurtured in the United States.
I should be clear that the kind of liberalism I have in mind is neither left-leaning politics nor a simple translation of the classical liberal tradition of political philosophy and its confidence in free markets. What I mean instead is a specific triumvirate of value-commitments: individual liberty, equality, and reason, with the third usually being cashed out in intellectual/academic circles as “science.” Grant for a moment that the US is a constitutively liberal society (and if you doubt this, may I refer you to the aforementioned Alexis de Tocqueville, and to Louis Hartz’s diagnosis of the “irrational Lockeianism” of US society and political culture?).* It therefore follows that social and political science, in such a society, would have to — if it wanted to be taken seriously — concern itself with individuals and their decisions, lest it be accused of ignoring individual liberty. It would have to be impersonally abstract, lest it be accused of ignoring equality. And “scientific” in such a society would have to mean something like “objective and nonpartisan, accessible to all who have the proper training” — disenchanted knowledge, to make a Weberian gesture. Putting this together we have two basic implications for political science in a liberal society: a kind of explanatory individualist reductionism (in technical language we now call this “microfoundations”), and the kind of advisory role that — as Jack Gunnell so brilliantly sketched in The Descent of Political Theory — comes from a withdrawal of science from politics so as to subsequently correct and improve political activity. (Call this “the Enlightenment legacy/hangover,” and insert all the E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau-inspired comments about the limitations of reason in politics you want at this point.)
The dominance of neopositivism is and has to be understood sociologically. Although I have argued elsewhere — I think pretty conclusively — that there is no generally compelling philosophical warrant for neopositivism as a philosophy of science, because there are alternative approaches to science that do as good if not a better job accounting for science and clarifying the foundations of scientific knowledge, it unfortunately does not follow that all philosophies of science are created sociologically equal. Indeed there is something of an elective affinity between the situation in which US IR finds itself, and neopositivism as a methodological stance. For two reasons: neopositivism appears to offer a firm demarcation criterion for the boundaries of science (“falsifiability”; leave aside for the moment that it doesn’t actually work philosophically, it works pretty well rhetorically because it figures prominently in the self-narratives of many self-identified “scientists” especially when they argue against religion in public settings); and neopositivism holds out the promise of a general notion of truth that can be used to discipline policy makers (leave aside for the moment that fact that this doesn’t work, that policymakers generally take from social scientists only those findings that support their already-existing goals).
As for the other implication of liberalism, actor-centric explanations seek to relate social outcomes of any sort to the motives and interests of individual actors, and regard any explanation as incomplete until it has specified the various internal commitments that compel individuals to act in certain ways rather than others. Sometimes we call these “microfoundations,” and it makes absolutely no difference whether we are talking about calculations of expected utility, ideas about appropriateness or moral rectitude, or emotional attachments to one or another option. In all of these cases, and more like them, the important causal factors inhabit the subjective space within actors, and more or less compel their choices and decisions. Whether those factors are interests or beliefs or desires or whatever does not effect the form of the explanation one bit, since in all cases it remains an explanation of external behavior by means of an internal state of mind.
One might object that states don’t have minds, so that state-centric mainstream US IR can’t be actor-reductionist in this sense. But the objection has no value, because regardless of the ontological issue of whether states do or do not have minds, the dominant theoretical frameworks with which US IR scholars seek to explain state behavior (and thus “international relations,” which in an actor-centric reductionist approach is nothing but a bunch of states and their behavior) treat states as if they were big people, and routinely refer to the state’s interests, beliefs, and desires. The form of explanation remains firmly actor-centric and reductionist, inasmuch as an explanation that does not specify the motives and interests of the relevant states is routinely taken to be incomplete.
Another way to say this is that mainstream US IR, like mainstream US Political Science, is largely if not quite exclusively about specifying actor interests and motives, by way of explaining the choices that individuals make — choices that result in particular social arrangements and outcomes. It is not that there are not structures and interactions and processes in US IR theory; it is rather than all such factors have to be related to individual states of mind in order to explain anything. Norms work by penetrating the heads of relevant decision-makers; the threat of force works by affecting the decision-calculus of the target of the influence attempt; and rhetoric works by altering the preferences or values of those at whom it is aimed. The relevant action takes place inside the individual, which is precisely what a liberal view of society and social action would suggest: autonomous individuals are the fundamental reality, and if other things are taken to exist (not all liberals are Thatcherites or libertarians; liberalism in the sense I am using it here is not a fundamental ontology, but a value-laden ordering of a class of ontologies, some of which contain things like social structures and some of which do not) then they have to be related to individuals in order to have any role to play in a valid explanation.
I’m not going to tell the old, old story of the change between Wendt 1987 and Wendt 1992 [these articles are behind paywalls at JSTOR so I am not going to link to them, and besides, if you have gotten to this point in the post then you have read these articles already] in terms of the pre-social ontology of the state, except to say that I do not believe that this transformation of constructivism is Wendt’s fault, but the fault of what we might call the structural selectivity (borrowing a term, but not necessarily the whole analytical package, from Bob Jessop’s state theory) of mainstream Anglophone IR: actor-centric theory literally makes more sense to irrational Lockeians and their intellectual progeny, so that’s the version that catches on. (There’s a parallel story here about realism, which declined from tragic realpolitik to “material factors matter.” but that’s material for another essay.) And subsequently we have Keohane and Goldstein 1993, “ideas matter,” various statistical studies of norms and ideas, etc. The only way for US IR to have been different would have been for it not to be a subfield of US Political Science. And even then I am skeptical, since I can more easily envision a free-standing US IR adopting neopositivism and actor-centrism (just as Political Science did) in order to justify itself to the wider public, then I can imagine an alternate US IR that went in a completely different direction.
But there is cause for cautious optimism, as long as IR graduate students can avoid the kind of hyperprofessionalization that Dan points to and remain focused on the breadth of IR beyond the “top” US academic institutions. For one thing, since we are talking about domination and not hegemony, there is both active resistance and strategic accommodation on the part of the subordinate. The position of mainstream US IR might be thoroughly actor-centric and neopositivist, but it is not (or at least not yet!) the case that every US IR scholar is similarly inclined. (It is possible that in the future the hiring market will be so thoroughly overrun by neopositivist actor-centrists that no one else will be able to get a job at all; that hasn’t happened yet, and despite the fact that many of the “top” US IR programs are pretty thoroughly dominated by this kind of IR, the overall market is still, I think, big enough for other entrants. And at some level I am still convinced that a good story goes further than the most sophisticated models and methods, so non-neopositivists interested in structures and processes still have a fighting chance, at least in some places.) The problem is, as it has always been, that the vast majority of academic IR scholars in the US work in Political Science departments, and those departments tend to be dominated not by the IR faculty, but by other subfields of Political Science which are much less methodologically and theoretically diverse (cough cough American Politics). But as long as departments need people to teach IR (in this respect, the invention of interdisciplinary undergraduate majors in things like Global Studies is a very welcome development), and as long as such people have publication outlets that are open to their kind of work, there is a fighting chance for an alternative to neopositivism and actor-centrism.
And this in turn points to what I would say is the most important change in the IR scholarly landscape in the past two decades or so: the consolidation of a vibrant English-language IR journal space that is not US-dominated. It is not that mainstream US-style IR doesn’t show up there, it that the overall space is not so heavily dominated by neopositivism and actor-centrism. This is an important point, so let me make it explicitly again: my problem is not with actor-centrism or neopositivism, but with the way that mainstream US IR equates those two commitments with social-scientific IR per se. I have argued that this is because US IR lives within and as a subfield of US Political Science, and both of these live within a liberal society where there is very little space to question the core values of individual autonomy, equality, and reason expressed through science; criticizing neopositivism and actor-centrism in such a context looks like an undermining of the basic rationale for the whole enterprise, which helps to explain why frontal assaults are met with such caustic and dismissive criticism (and the ever-popular misinterpretation-through-reinterpretation: “you can’t possibly have meant X, so I am going to treat you as having meant Y”). It is therefore nigh upon impossible for mainstream US IR to be as pluralist and ecumenical as global IR can potentially be, because the space for intellectual engagement is so narrow: we can argue about variables and hypotheses and specifications of actor motivations, but little else.
I think that the task of building and defending a pluralist space in IR would be immensely strengthened if we stopped having to deal with US Political Science, because that would help make US IR one voice among others in a much more global intellectual space. Global IR has already built some of the scholarly capacity in terms of journals and book publishers that it would need to be genuinely autonomous, and it seems to be the case that alternate centers of graduate training (i.e., not exclusively US institutions) are playing a more significant role in forming IR scholars worldwide. IR in many parts of the world does not have to deal with the legacy of US Political Science, which increases its capacity to foster a diverse scholarly dialogue. We don’t have a good and clear picture of what global IR looks like, exactly, but I hope to shortly launch a mapping project that will assemble a global directory of IR scholars and their career trajectories, and that will hopefully give us a better sense of things.
I am not at all optimistic about the discipline of US Political Science. Indeed, I think it is largely a lost cause, if one is interested in vibrant pluralism and an ecumenical approach to knowledge-production. That said, things emanating from US Political Science still have a disproportionate impact in US IR and hence in global IR, so it is incumbent on those of us interested in preserving pluralism to keep working to broaden those messages as much as possible — not to change US Political Science, which I think largely impossible, but to keep open the space for global IR, including those parts of global IR that live and work in the United States. Part of that is focusing on the right things; the culprit is not and never has been “statistics” or “quant” or “rationalism,” but neopositivism and actor-centrism. But an even larger part of it is building the practices and institutions that can sustain an IR beyond US Political Science: global studies programs, free-standing IR departments, interdisciplinary journals and book series, and conversations across theories and methodologies about world politics broadly understood.
* at the panel Nick Onuf wisely pointed out to me that “irrational Lockeanism,” although dominant in the US, was perpetually locked in combat with a much weaker strain of (neo)classical republicanism of the sort that manifests as communitarianism etc. — and a lot of the bitterness of dissident social science in the US might be attributed to the ressentiment of frustrated republicans. It’s a good and intriguing point, and a fuller genealogy of US IR probably should take that into account.
Social/Science/Fiction preliminary course outline
SIS-419.B01, Summer session 2012
Professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
This course will meet Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:00pm-4:10pm, from 21 May until 28 June, excluding the Memorial Day holiday on 28 May.
Course Objective and Description
Social science has the explanation of society as its explicit goal. Social scientists often try to achieve this goal by studying historical situations in order to elucidate the impact of various factors on outcomes, in the hopes that those impacts can then be extrapolated to other cases. Authors of science fiction engage in similar strategies, although their methods are often more speculative and their conclusions more metaphorical. This commonality of orientation and approach forms the impetus for this course. Is social science a form of science fiction? What, if anything, distinguishes imaginative constructions from scientific constructions? Is science fiction a form of social science? Can an engagement with works of science fiction enhance our understanding of political and social relations? These and other related questions will be explored through readings of various science-fictional texts (including films).
This semester’s course will be entirely focused on a single recurrent theme: the cultural politics of alien encounter, and what that tells us about the boundaries of the human. I phrase it this way to avoid the misperceptions that a) this is a class about the actual or potential existence of extraterrestrial life; or that b) this is a class about actual contact between humans and extraterrestrials. It is neither. Instead, our subject will be confined to the various ways in which non-terrestrial others—aliens, some of whom look suspiciously like members of our species—have been envisioned and imagined, and how the relations between humans and those aliens have been depicted. As we shall see, the human/alien interface is a very productive site for the investigation of a number of topics of extreme social and political relevance, and those connections between “fact” and “fiction” will inform the bulk of our conversations.
Three important points about this class, by way of a negative definition of our enterprise. 1) It is not a “science fiction appreciation” class; it is not a science fiction fan club. While I presume that many of you will probably be fans of the genre, the class is not simply a forum for displaying our fanaticism to one another. 2) It is not primarily a literature class. The artistic merits and literary styles of individual authors and texts may figure into our discussions from time to time, but I do not expect them to be central issues of concern. 3) It is not simply an excuse to read and watch science fiction for credit. If you peruse the assignments detailed below, you will discover that this class demands as much—if not more—work than other seminars. Granted, you may find some of the work more enjoyable because of the subject-matter, but that should not distract from the seriousness of the endeavor.
Do not try to out-geek the professor, either. He has been attending both Star Trek and Star Wars conventions since before you were born.
And the number of the counting shall be three. By the end of the semester, you should be able to:
1) describe and discuss, with appropriate examples, the range of meanings that “alien encounter” has in our present cultural imagination:
2) explicate some suggestive parallels between these fictional alien encounters and actual social and political events; and
3) reflect critically on what our ways of imagining alien encounters say about our humanity and our human social and political arrangements.
As per usual, you will demonstrate how well you have achieved these outcomes through a variety of course components and assignments, which will be specified in the final syllabus although they are not specified in this preliminary course outline.
Daily Schedule of readings and films
Note that books are assigned for the date that they will be discussed in class, and films are assigned for the day that they will be shown and discussed in class.
21 May: genre boundaries. Movie: K-PAX
23 May: eliminating the Other. Novel: Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
(28 May: challenges of encounter. Movie: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Since this is Memorial Day, we won’t actually have class, so you need to go watch this film on your own and be prepared to talk about it at our next class session)
30 May: understanding the Other. Novel: Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead.
4 June: bounding the human. Novel: Frank Herbert, Dune
6 June: the natural and the artificial. Movie: Blade Runner
11 June: ambiguities of communication. Novel: Michael Flynn, Eifelheim
13 June: ramen diplomacy. Novel: Chine Mieville, Embassytown
18 June: problems of perfection. Movie: Serenity
20 June: I am an Other. Movie: District 9
25 June: intervention. Novel: Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward
27 June: first contact. Movie: Contact
Note that I would actually have preferred to assign Serenity on 11 June, Eifelheim on 13 June, and Embassytown on 18 June, but there are technical and logistical reasons why I have to move both films to the week of 18-20 June and both novels to the week of 11-13 June.
I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.
“Many if not most of the terms we use to differentiate styles and traditions of scholarly inquiry are tools for positioning ourselves relative to other scholars. Names of schools of thought, incontrovertible assumptions that have to be agreed to in order to belong to a particular club, shorthand references to ‘great debates’ and ‘key controversies’ — treating these as though they had positive content is basically the same mistake as treating a nationalist claim to possessing some patch of ground from time immemorial as though it were a factual claim. Positioning can provide a helpful signal to other scholars, but but one should be careful not to go overboard in trying to give serious content to something that is basically a set of mapping coordinates.
“This is particularly problematic when we are discussing methodological terms, which are supposed to provide actual guidance for how to do good research. The ordinary academic machine that translates such terms into shibboleths and slogans does an immense disservice to anyone trying to figure out how to do, or to teach others to do, scholarly research, because if open is not careful one can easily find oneself trapped in a hall of mirrors. Perhaps the worst offenders nowadays are words like ‘qualitative’ and ‘interpretive,’ which seem to say something important about a style of research but actually don’t. Both are better thought of as hortatory protest banners: ‘qualitative’ means something like ‘you don’t have to use numbers in order to engage in systematic procedures of data-collection and -analysis’ and ‘interpretive’ means something like ‘get out of your office and go talk to some people, and not just in order to plug their responses into a regression equation’. Okay, fine, but this tells me basically nothing about how to actually do anything.
“Precise terms give us guidance about how to ‘go on’ in producing scholarship that is in some sense valid. Protest banners get our blood pumping and fuel our passion, and maybe get us out into the streets to complain about the lack of thinking space for our kind of work in our field or discipline, but that’s all they are good for. Don’t try to teach using them, and don’t spend too much time trying to give them positive meaning in your own work. Use them to carve out a little academic space for yourself, if you must, and then move on. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t show me the intellectual payoff of your conceptual apparatus, I am not sure what on earth it might possibly be for.”
I remember well the first time I ever encountered the concept of “fair trade”: it was on a poster in the cafeteria of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bonn, where I spent time during the summer of 2002 doing research in the “Archives of Social Democracy” for my first book. The poster proudly proclaimed that the coffee served in the cafeteria was fair trade coffee, and explained the basic principle — growers were paid a decent wage for their product — along with urging people to purchase fair trade coffee elsewhere. Before too long I started to see the same symbol for fair trade certification popping up in the United States, and nowadays I can walk into my local Giant Foods and purchase fair trade coffee for home use quite easily.
During our recent discussion about Steve Jobs and his legacy, Nawal suggested that we should have “fair trade computers.” This strikes me as a very good idea, and no crazier than fair trade coffee. I can anticipate the basic objection — consumer electronics are too price-sensitive, and people won’t pay more for a fair trade certified computer — but to my mind this is flawed because a) the Apple business model shows that people will pay a premium for quality and elegance, so why not for social justice; and b) at least nowadays, there isn’t a price differential between fair trade certified coffee and other coffee of comparable quality, at least not in my local food stores (sure, Folgers and Maxwell House make cheaper coffee, but that’s a different issue; if one is buying Peet’s or Newman’s Own or a comparable brand, the price of the fair trade stuff is the same as the price of the non-fair trade stuff).
So this leads me to wonder: why aren’t there fair trade computers? Is there something about the coffee industry that makes it uniquely susceptible to the notion of fair trade, and something about the consumer electronics industry that prevents it from adopting fair trade practices? Are those parameters fixed, or could they be reshaped? The Internet lets me down on this occasion, since googling “fair trade computers” doesn’t seem to turn up much insightful commentary on this issue. So I turn to the readers of the Duck to tell me either why fair trade computers are an unworkable idea, or — and perhaps better — to help me envision what a viable fair trade computer looks like. One thing I know is that it can’t be a sub-standard machine; I can’t imagine that fair trade coffee would succeed if all the fair trade product was horrible swill while the other coffee was uniformly better-tasting. So why not a fair trade iPad? I know I’d pay a premium for such a thing if it existed, and I’d bet that others would as well.
Forget protest movements and populist politics, to say nothing of academic blogging and scholarship — if you want to change the world in your lifetime, this is the guy you ought to emulate. RIP Steve Jobs, one of the greatest practical visionaries of our time.
PS note that Jobs’ inspiration for the typography on the Mac was a college course … a perfect testimony to the indirect but important influence that we academics can have on the world. Our students, not our research, are our near-term legacy — even, perhaps, our “failed” students who end up doing insanely great things with our theories and concepts and ideas.
I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.
“Spelling out your theoretical and methodological assumptions — the contours of your conceptual equipment, so to speak — is a vital part of doing good social science, because if I don’t know what your assumptions are then I really can’t fairly evaluate your results. In fact, if I don’t know what your assumptions are, I probably have little choice but to apply my own standards, which may or may not be appropriate to your project. So being as clear as you can about your assumptions (with the caveat that it’s impossible to actually spell out *every* assumption that you’re making, both because that kind of self-awareness is a theoretical ideal rather than a live possibility, and because of the Wittgensteinian logical paradox involved in trying to endogenize every rule of a game) is critical.
However, spelling out your assumptions is not the same thing as establishing their validity or their value. Yes, your take on discourse is more pragmatic/Foucault than CDA/Wodak, but that’s not a conclusion of your research — it’s an assumption. Just like ‘individuals make rational choices under conditions of imperfect information’ or ‘human beings are meaning-making animals.’ The fact that you assume this tells me a lot about you, but basically zippo about whether you are right or, more to the point, about whether your assumption is a useful one for the research problem at hand. You can’t use a set of assumptions about discursive practices to conclude that discourse matters or that discourse works the way you think it does, because you already assumed that at the outset! Ditto assumptions about material factors, ideas, etc. “mattering.” You can and should be as detailed as you can be about your assumptions, but if you want anyone to appreciate them as anything other than an expression of your idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities, you need to show us what insight they generate in practice — and you have to refrain from overreaching and tautologically concluding that results generated by applying assumption X are an argument for the validity of assumption X. Those results might indeed contribute to an argument that it is useful to make assumption X when trying to explain what you’re trying to explain, but that’s as far as it goes.
Making ‘assent to assumption X’ a condition of membership in some fraternity helps you found or adhere to a school of thought, but whether it helps you explain anything is an entirely different issue. The fact that members of a school, like adherents of any other type of sect, will parade their results as if they constituted ‘evidence’ for their assumptions should be regarded in about the same spirit as any other testimonial, which is to say, compelling to believers but largely inscrutable to outsiders. Displaying your allegiance doesn’t contribute to knowledge, although it can get you into interesting conversations.”
I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.
“The fact that no one else has approached topic X with your particular perspective is not a sufficient warrant for approaching topic X with your particular combination of theory and methodology. In order to get the reader on board, you have to basically issue a promissory note with a grammar that runs something like:
‘Here’s something odd/striking/weird/counterintuitive about X. Other scholars who have talked about X either haven’t noticed this odd/striking/etc. thing at all, or they haven’t found it odd/striking/etc. Furthermore, they haven’t done so because of something really important about their theory/methodology that — even though it generates some insights — simply prevents them from appreciating how odd/striking/etc. this thing is, let alone trying to explain it. Fortunately, there’s my alternative, which I am now going to outline in a certain amount of abstract detail; but bear with me, because there’s a mess of empirical material about topic X coming after that, and I promise you that my theoretical/methodological apparatus will prove its worth in that empirical material by a) showing you just how odd/striking/etc. that thing is, and b) explaining it in a way that other scholars haven’t been able to and won’t be able to.’
Almost no one is convinced by theory and methodology, and absolutely no one is or should be convinced by a claim that existing approaches aren’t cool enough because they aren’t like yours. The burden is on you to give the reader reasons to keep reading, and at the end of the day the only reason for theory and methodology is to explain stuff that we didn’t have good explanations for before. So you have to convince the reader that other approaches *can’t* explain that odd thing about topic X. (And if you can do this without gratuitous and out-of-context references to Thomas Kuhn and being ‘puzzle-driven,’ that’s even better, because I won’t have to make you write an essay on why basically nobody in the social sciences actually uses Kuhn correctly.)”
Ah, life — you get in the way of important things, like finishing a reply to an online symposium on my book that was started way back in January of this year at The Disorder Of Things. Part One of my reply is here; Part Two is here. At long last, Part Three is below the fold.
In a 2006 article entitled “Public Knowledge and the Difficulties of Democracy,” Philip Kitcher suggests that we need to pay less attention to the epistemological problems generated by a focus on the situation of the putatively isolated individual knower (the problem of true belief) and more attention to the critique of public reasoning. Specifically, he directs attention to what he calls the IIS, the Inquiry-and-Information-System, which he further subdivides into subsystems for inquiry (figuring out which issues are worth investigating), certification (determining which “claims” should be “deemed worthy to inscribe ‘in the books'”), and dissemination (communication of those certified claims to people to whom they would or should make a difference). As a contribution to a broader discussion about the role of science in society, Kitcher’s paper is particularly noteworthy for his insightful observation that it is not enough to concentrate on issues of the transparency of information and on potential distortions of public knowledge produced by interested parties shaping the field of inquiry instrumentally; rather, we also need to think long and hard about what democracy means in the absence of “an IIS whose standards of certification are widely endorsed as reliable.” Indeed, what he calls “hybrid epistemologies” — the idea that people might accept scientific findings only inasmuch as they are not in conflict with some revealed religious truth common only to members of their particular tradition — emerges as one of the significant problems facing democratic deliberation, as it directly undermines the idea of a single common set of certification standards.
It should come as little surprise to any reader of my book or of the various pieces of this discussion that I am in broad agreement with Kitcher’s suggestion to ditch the (Cartesian) isolated knower and his (it’s always a guy, isn’t it?) peculiar hang-ups and challenges related to developing true beliefs about a mind-independent external world. Knowledge isn’t a personal, subjective possession, even if one is a neopositivist; Karl Popper was pretty adamant that knowledge was common to the community, which was part of his solution to Cartesian anxiety, and basically no one after him would disagree in any significant way. And this in turn does mean that we have to focus on the social conditions of knowledge-production, albeit not to the exclusion of the properly philosophical-ontological aspects of the problem — so here again I agree with Kitcher that the certification subsystem is worthy of some serious attention. But then I start to diverge from Kitcher, since his entire position depends on the idea that public knowledge should be based on consensus, both a consensus about particular claims and a consensus about what makes those claims good ones. The entire problem with “hybrid epistemologies” (his term, remember, and a revealing one — he didn’t say “different epistemologies,” after all, which strongly suggests that he places the blame on the non-scientific part of the package) is that they don’t permit diverse citizens to come to overarching consensus about factual issues, and therefore (I can only imagine the shock and outrage in his tone) leaves these issues to be decided by political struggle.
There is something quite interesting going on here, and it has important parallels in the disquiet that my four interlocutors feel, in their different ways, with my deliberate decision to produce an account of contemporary IR scholarship that is content with a diversity of methodological traditions but that insists on the distinctiveness of the scientific endeavor. In Kitcher’s terms, I would definitely say that we need a certification system capable of distinguishing between scientific inquiry and other modes of human expression like art or religion, but I would blanch at the suggestion of inscribing a scientific finding “on the books” if that means that it is now irrevocably fixed or certain or immune to critique — even if, like anthropogenic climate change, there is broad scientific consensus about the finding. That could only be the role of science and of Kitcher’s certification subsystem if there was one unique set of standards that would somehow guarantee the scientific validity of results, and it is the major burden of my book to illustrate that this is simply not the case. As such, a term like “scientific consensus” needs to be used with extreme caution; at most it means “the consensus of (virtually) all of the practicing scientists,” and the decision to go with that consensus can’t be somehow portrayed as anything other than a practical one.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that my entire position on this issue is a deflationary position, and to further say that the main possibility that my argument is arrayed against is the possibility that the claim to scientific validity will be used to insulate an actor from the necessity to take responsibility for her or his action. (Note that I am concerned with the claim to scientific validity, not the claim that something is established in experience; one need not invoke “science” to explain why it’s a bad idea to jump out of an airplane in flight without a parachute if one wants to go on living, and in such a circumstance I fail to see how a discussion of the theory of gravity would contribute much to the deliberation.) “Science made me do it” is just not a valid excuse, since that’s a self-deceptive encoding of “I went with the scientists on this one” — and the less self-deceptive statement opens the possibility of actually deliberating the reasons why to go one way rather than another. Deciding to inscribe a scientific finding “in the books” is a political act, not a scientific one. As I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again, nothing frightens me more than idealists with weapons, because they think that their use of those weapons is simply and unquestionably *right* in the pursuit of their ideals; this misuse of science as a crutch for an idealism that doesn’t self-identify as idealist but as somehow stemming from a de-transcendentalized truth simply equal to the way things are, and as such looks more potent than an honest statement of principle would, is what I am most concerned about. Scientific inquiry doesn’t resolve the highest and most profound issues we face, since those issues are political and aesthetic and ethical and perhaps even theological, even if actors cite scientific inquiry and scientific findings as they express themselves on these issues. I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that it is striking how few problems are actually resolved when we learn to see philosophical and logical claims for what they are. Limiting science in this way — withdrawing the kind of blind faith that all too often accompanies the unmodified use of the term “science” — makes room for other things, room that we desperately need in a world characterized by immense diversity.
So if science isn’t for achieving global consensus, what is it for? And why am I so insistent that IR-as-social-science — remember that the whole book is set up as an answer to the question “supposing we wanted to study world politics scientifically, how would we do that?” and not as an answer to the question “why should I study world politics scientifically?” — be characterized by multiple incompatible methodologies, and not by a grab-bag from which a scholar may select different elements at will? Some of this is because the book is an ideal-typification of present debates, which both means that a) the only positions I discuss in detail in the book are those that are present in contemporary IR scholarship and b) because the exercise is fundamentally ideal-typical, the positions are mutually exclusive and logically incommensurate in ways that actual pieces of research tend not to be. And some of this is because I am betting that the best way to puncture the veil of mysticism that surrounds the vague use of the term “science” without abandoning the notion altogether is to illustrate the internal plurality of ways of being scientific. In addition, some of this is because of the sociological fact that the contemporary IR field is dominated by the discipline of Political Science, in no small degree because of the institutional location of most American IR programs and scholars within departments of Political Science, and as such is slanted in the direction of neopositivism; hence any call to mix or combine methodological positions is more likely than not going to tacitly privilege neopositivism when it comes to the fundamental design and epistemic status of the research project (the bulk of the “qualitative methods” movement in Political Science serves as a case in point here). The vocabulary of the philosophy of science, as long as it is vocabulary that celebrates pluralism in ways of being scientific, can be a great asset in maintaining the autonomy and independence of non-neopositivist ways of producing knowledge about world politics; “mixing” would dilute this position, and make adherence to neopositivist strictures the default ante for playing the game of IR-as-social-science.
But there’s another reason for insisting on multiple methodologies that can’t be easily combined, and it has to do with the notion of “scientific consensus” — and therefore with Kitcher’s certification subsystem. Because any argument about whether to side with the consensus of practicing scientists can’t be a scientific one but has to be articulated on other grounds (grounds which might be philosophical, as in Fred Chernoff’s defense of a modified Duhemian position, but need not be), we can legitimately ask what qualifies a consensus of practicing scientists as noteworthy enough to affect action. If there is rough methodological homogeneity among a group of scientists, then any consensus that they come to is quite possibly, even quite likely, the result, at least in part, of their methodological consensus — a consensus that precedes, at least logically and most probably also temporally, the substantive consensus in question. The fact that a group of people who already agree on a lot have now agreed on another thing in addition to their prior consensus does not strike me as all that significant on its own. But if a group of people who disagree on other fundamental philosophical issues of ontology and methodology reach a consensus about something: now that strikes me as profoundly significant. Without probing too deeply into the reasons for this consensus or trying to explain it — dualists would say that it reflects the intransigent pressure of the real world on our conceptions, monists would say that it graphically illustrates the power of certain assumptions to order our experience, transfactualists would claim evidence of deep generative structures, phenomenalists would celebrate the revelation of a discernible universal — the bare fact of the consensus itself is noteworthy. Anthropogenic climate change, which I mentioned earlier, might qualify as such a improbable consensus across divisions of philosophical ontology; the near-universal opposition of IR scholars of all stripes to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 might also qualify. With multiple reasons not to emerge in the first place, a consensus has emerged, and that should be taken seriously.
Of course, a consensus like this is only unlikely to emerge if everyday scientific practice and ordinary science is dedicated to refining distinctive methodological traditions in their own directions. Let me be clear here: I am not suggesting that we adopt something like the pop-Kuhnian notion of “normal science” and urge that scholars work on minor technical puzzles within their own hermetically sealed paradigms, waiting for a scientific revolution to change the game entirely when their paradigms become brittle and worn enough. I am instead suggesting that scholars be cognizant of the logical incompatibilities between different methodologies as they set about doing their research on a myriad of problems and issues and even puzzles, and develop their accounts with sustained reference to the logical requirements of particular procedures of knowing. Scientific inquiry is supposed to be hard, so that a fact scientifically established has some claim to epistemic privilege; one of the key ways in which it is hard is the stringent insistence on internal consistency and logical coherence, particularly in the linkages between philosophical-ontological presuppositions about the mind-world “hook-up” and the eventual facts produced. Differences in such presuppositions mean differences in methodological orientation, unless one is either a) willing to sacrifice logical consistency or b) articulate an orthogonal solution that somehow transcends or sublimates those differences. Option a) places us outside of even broadly defined science, and into the realm of politics or engineering or other sorts of practical performances, in which results matter more than validity; refusing to do that means, in practice, that the scientific enterprise is quite frangible — we get a mosaic of diverse knowledge-claims rather than the seamless web dreamt of in more naive notions of progressive cumulation. And that in turn makes the rare moments of consensus that much more precious, and worthy of being heeded.
But what about option b), an orthogonal solution to methodological diversity? The challenge with such a solution is that it lies beyond the limits of philosophical reflection on methodology, since methodological reflection is an inherently reconstructive endeavor: our accounts of what makes a claim valid necessarily run behind the actual practice of making and validating claims. In Wittgensteinian terms, methodological reflection of the sort I pursue in my book is an effort to specify the rules of a game that is already being played, and no such set of rules can exhaustively define or specify the game — the best they can do is to give a sense of how the game is played that is useful for guiding the players. A rule is thus a resource to be used in the playing of the game, irrespective of whether that resource is being used in a constitutive or regulative or strategic or tactical manner. As such, a rule change can only function properly if it somehow captures a sense of how the game is supposed to be played; otherwise the community of players rejects is as somehow violating the “spirit” of the game (the ongoing furor over the “designated hitter” rule in Major League Baseball strikes me as a good example here). And the surest way to get rejected is for a rule to run way out ahead of how things are played in practice, which parenthetically is perhaps why so many philosophers are concerned to establish that their proposed rules for just societies or defensible truths are in some sense already implicit and immanent in everyday life. So the rules that I or any other scientific methodologist proposes are in that very important sense subordinate to ongoing practice, constituting both a reconstruction of that practice and — of necessity — an intervention into the ongoing flow of that practice itself. What I have done in the book is to take existing divisions within the scholarly study of world politics and artificially and ideal-typically sharpen them, in the hopes of making more space for different approaches to the production of scientific knowledge. Either the scientific practitioners — IR scholars who self-identify as scientists — find my version of the rules of their game to be compelling and useful, or they do not, and if they do, those rules make orthogonal logical solutions deeply problematic since those proposed solutions would be torn apart by the distinctions I have explicated. But if scientific practice itself runs out beyond my formalization, and if knowledge is produced by researchers deep in dialogue with the issues I have sought to foreground but equally deeply reluctant to accept my categorization, then two conclusions follow:
1) we need new rules.
2) my ladder has been climbed and kicked away, and I will be content.
I do not think that any of us are served by wishy-washy, vague, relaxed standards of scientific validity; I think that precision and intellectual rigor and sharp disagreements when called for are essential components of productive conversations, as they help us maintain the tenuous balancing-act between treating every claim as valid and treating only claims tendered in accord with a single restricted grammar as even potentially valid. I can’t defend that proposition scientifically, and I won’t try to do so. I will instead only say that a science wracked by methodological disagreement is a surer defense against possible abuses of epistemic authority; that emergent consensuses from such a science are inherently more worthy of attention; and that thinking space for contemplating the pressing problems of our time is better preserved by a set of rules that begin with diversity than by a set of rules that begin and end with conformity. Scientific practice may — and probably, hopefully, will — prove me wrong or at least outmoded in the future, but I hope that it does so at least in part as a reaction to the prodding I have provided with my methodological lexicon. But in the meantime, accentuating methodological diversity leaves more room for non-scientific endeavors (art, ethics, theology, and yes, even politics) to inform our actions, interacting with a chastened science in ways that humanizes the whole process. Feyerabend was, I think, quite right when he repeatedly pointed out that science and the philosophy of science should be our servants, not our masters; insisting on rigorous engaged pluralism is, I think, a most efficacious way of helping to ensure that this remains the case.
And lest you think I am exaggerating for rhetorical effect, remember the stakes. As scholars of world politics, we are or should be concerned with the biggest “we” imaginable: the whole world, insofar as it is marked by human social action. Someone has to witness that grand spectacle, and prevent too-hastily-established “truths” from foreclosing its future potential. Someone has to unseat fallacious claims advanced in defense of narrowly partisan interests. Someone has to remember the whole panoply as a human endeavor, as a creative endeavor, as a messy social and political process wherein we produce the knowledge that can help us address pressing global challenges. Others will do it if we don’t, but the unique and special potency of scientific research is that it transmutes values and philosophical commitments into facts through disciplined procedures of inquiry. At the end of the day, that’s our vocation: to make sure that this potency is not abused, to channel it into productive forms, to hold open the space for innovation by insisting on the boundaries and limits of logic and reason. We place ourselves between science and the rest of human endeavor, ensuring with our lives that science doesn’t tell people how to live — or that people don’t look to science for instructions on that score. And we focus on the facts — as Weber says, we “serve only the matter at hand” — in order to let the rest of the world learn to take care of itself. Here we stand; we can do no other. Who else are you gonna call?
II. ethics and politics, which are good things but not science
At the end of the first part of my reply I suggested that the “gang of four” interlocutors (Paul, Joe, Nick, and Meera) who commented on the book are quite correct to point out the importance of my professed but not expansively justified position on the irresolvable nature of value controversies to the overall argument, because many of the points that they raise — the absence of a unitary and uniform metric for scientific progress, my refusal to defend any of the four parts of my typology as uniquely scientific or to disqualify any of them as somehow not worthy of that title, my studied inattentiveness to the politics of methodology or to the implicitly value-laden character of seemingly instrumental definitions — relate quite strongly to my position that fundamental differences on points of philosophical ontology dealing with mind-world relations are not resolvable. If it were possible to actually resolve these controversies, then the engaged pluralism for which I call would not only be unnecessary, but would actually be a detrimental impediment to scientific progress. What, after all, would be the point of continuing to engage discredited positions? Although Paul Feyerabend suggests that we always need alternative research traditions to generate anomalies with which others have to grapple, this presumes a certain fundamental commensurability between claims which might be meaningful within a given philosophical ontology, but could hardly apply to those philosophical ontologies themselves. If we’re all neopositivists or critical realists or analyticists or reflexive scholars, then we have a common methodological basis on which to compare claims, and “discredited” research traditions can always be utilized as a source of claims and findings that provide a spur for continued innovation in the dominant approaches. But if we’re not all working in any one methodology, and if (as I have argued) methodologies are in effect different ways of worlding, this argument for diversity and pluralism falls short. So either there is a way to resolve methodological controversies, and we should all simply adopt the correct answer to the mind-world conundrum, or there is no such way, and we are fated to irresolvable and irreducible pluralism and plurality.
None of my interlocutors are entirely comfortable with this dichotomy.
Paul suggests that my four philosophically ontologies implicitly privilege particular kinds of substantive claims (true, and part of the exercise of my book is to make that privileging less implicit and more explicit) and as such tacitly support universal or at least global claims to resolving methodological controversies by demonstrating that their particular category in the typology is really the superior one (again, true, but what impels research in each methodology is not, I would say, a self-sufficient justification for the superiority of that methodology. I intended the book to deprive every methodology of a claim to superiority over all others on philosophical grounds, and to my mind the best way to deal with multiple claims to epistemic privilege is to adopt the same attitude as one does to ecumenical religious dialogue: yes, you think that God gave you a unique and special revelation, but so do we, and so do they, which makes everyone’s claim to uniqueness and exclusive divine sanction somewhat suspect). Nick draws on Robert Brandom and his impressive beard to suggest a novel approach to philosophical ontology (which, as I said earlier, sounds pretty darn analyticist to me … although it probably sounds pretty darn realist to others) which claims to resolve the controversies between monism and dualism, and to refute phenomenalism in favor of a limited kind of transfactualism (which is a neat exercise, but I am not yet sure what Brandom-esque research on world politics would look like, and in particular I am not sure that it would not look like one or another subtle variant on the existing cels of my 2×2 matrix — as I said, to me it looks like Brandom is wielding transfactual realism as an analytic, which is intriguing but is not likely to be accepted by critical realists). It remains unclear to me how would would even *recognize* a solution to the problem of methodological diversity, as any such solution would, in effect, simply collapse into a defense of and advocacy for one part of the conceptual landscape over and against the others, and thus collapse simultaneously into an expression or reiteration of a particular methodological position. The only way that something else might happen, I would say, is if there is sufficient drift and mutation in the broader cultural milieu that one or another methodological perspective (or one or the other of the dichotomies that I use in producing the matrix in the first place) simply ceases to sound plausible or compelling. This kind of shifting of the stream-bed (to use one of the later Wittgenstein’s metaphors for the process by which notions of common sense change) is not a rational or scientific process; we can observe and describe it, and maybe analyze it, but we don’t get far if we presume that this shifting reveals some march of progressive rationality through History (or maybe the problem is that we get too far too quickly, and end up in Hegel-Land contemplating the Absolute Idea in all its glory, standing next to Plato who is gazing straight into the sunlight of the Good). Ideas about methodology change, yes. But is that “progress”? Who can say? (And on what basis can they say it?) Better to focus on what we can actually ask and answer, which concerns the practical productivity of different methodological commitments, and leave the cosmic questions aside.
I want to proceed carefully here, because I want to be very clear on the differences — even though there are obvious similarities and parallels too! — between my pluralist stance on methodological diversity, and the analyticist perspective on methodology from which I self-admittedly do my empirical scholarship. Both are derived, in my account, from a blending of Weber, Wittgenstein, and American pragmatism, but there is no need that one be an analytical monist to accept the skeptical defense of diversity that frames the book as a whole. Joe is precisely correct to call attention to the Weberian sensibility of my overall approach, however, so I need to spend some time elaborating that and especially tackling the issue of some sort of critical ethical reasoning could provide solutions to the diversity of methodologies. This flows naturally into a consideration of whether a political solution of the sort advocated by Meera — political in the sense that methodologies are instruments for doing things in an unstable world rather than for producing knowledge about the world — is a better way to go. It should be no surprise to any reader that my answer on both counts is “no,” but clarifying why will take some discussion.
The procedure of ideal-typification that I describe in Chapter 5 is, of course, a process designed to generate substantive claims about the world, the epistemic status of which depends both on their artificially systematic (idealized and abstracted) nature, and on their necessary grounding in the sphere of cultural values (a grounding that differentiates ideal-types from merely logical “pure types,” which would affect a “view from nowhere” rather than acknowledging their dependence on value-orientations. Reproduced here is the table from Chapter 5 in which I delineate the complexity of the procedure, but also its goal, which is to connect values to facts in a way that leaves the logical and philosophical distinction between the two intact.
The application of ideal-types to worldly conundrums is what produces factual knowledge, but these facts are only completely acceptable to someone who both appreciates the internal consistency of the process *and* shares the relevant value-orientation; Weber is quite clear that a “Chinese” (Weber’s rather orientalist term for a contemporary as far removed from Weber’s own Western European cultural context as one could possibly be) could appreciate the technical correctness of a demonstrative argument based on ideal-types, but that’s as far as he goes, since the “Chinese” would lack an inner feeling for the correctness of the value-orientations on which the relevant ideal-types were based. And this, for Weber, is precisely the importance of the procedure of ideal-typification and the resulting social science: instead of an irresolvable clash about values, we have a somewhat calmer and more pragmatic discussion about facts.
So what of the ideal-typical 2×2 matrix that provides the basic scaffolding for the book? Matters are a little different here inasmuch as I am doing something that Weber would never have countenanced, which is to ideal-typify not social objects and processes, but methodological orientations. For all of his insights on methodology, Weber did not consider himself a methodologist or a philosopher of social science, and (like Charles Tilly, whom I would argue and have argued was one of the great Weberian social scientists of our time) would have pressed for arguments about stuff rather than arguments about arguments. A proper Weberian ideal-type is equipment for producing facts about the world, and the matrix in my book is not itself a fact about the world. Rather, as Dan Nexon and I suggested in a recent article, it, like the ideal-typical “IR diamond” we generated in that article, is a way of mapping or organizing scholarly arguments. It could be part of an empirical analysis if combined, configurationally, with other ideal-types about scholarship, and used as part of an account of how and why notions of knowledge change or how they came to be the way that they are presently institutionalized, but on its own my matrix of methodologies is not intended to be a contribution to worldly knowledge. But like Weberian ideal-types properly understood, my map of methodologies (like Dan and my map of IR theories) is rooted in a value-orientation and cannot be fully grasped apart from that value-orientation. That orientation is, broadly speaking, pluralist, and pluralist of a specifically humble (better: anti-hubristic) variety: the most basic things that animate our talk about are not up for discussion, and when we appear to be discussing them we are either simply expressing our positions or are engaged in what Wittgenstein called a special form of persuasion that aims to give someone our worldview — which is not, strictly speaking, “persuasion” but is more like *conversion* because of the unavailability of a shared common standard to which worldviews could be subjected (which is a logical point: if we had such a shared common standard, then we’d already share a worldview. QED.). This is not to say that these basic commitments are somehow transhistorically constant, either for individual people or groups of people or for the species as a whole, but that change in these basic commitments does not come about because of reasoned argument; instead, some other form of social process is implicated, and even if arguments are part of the story it is their functional and causal impact rather than their formal and logical character that is relevant. (I’d further suggest that basic commitments, or what I have elsewhere called commonplaces, are themselves intrinsically ambiguous, so it is simply not possible to exhaustively spell out the implications of a given commitment in advance. The process of specifying just what commonplaces in combination imply in terms of concrete social action is something that we can study empirically, but in any event no purely rational resolution of such issues is possible — nor should we naively expect the Habermasian “unforced force of the better argument” to prevail in any actual situation, even as a transcendent ideal subtly working to bring about the possibility of a rational consensus.)
I have no way to persuade you of any of this. The best I can do — and by “best” here I am ruling out the coercive techniques of trying to force you to adopt this way of worlding, this value-orientation towards an ever-present awareness of the partiality and the limitations of knowledge, since to do so would be performatively contradictory in the extreme — is some combination of sketching what a world founded on that value-orientation looks like in practice, and demonstrating the social-scientific utility of ideal-types formed out of that value-commitment for making sense of pressing and puzzling worldly situations. If I could persuade you, I could only do so on the basis of appeals to already-shared standards, and if I could do so in this instance all it would reveal is that in some way you *already* agreed with me, or at least already shared (in a rough sense) this value-orientation. Now, my account might circulate and become part of the mental furniture that we use to make sense of things, if people find it useful — there’s the pragmatic part of my stance, since the “cash value” of an account is what it does in practice — but this wouldn’t be the same as rationally persuading you. Indeed, here’s where I think that sociological studies of scientific knowledge can be at their most insightful, since they set out to explain how things become accepted and taken-for-granted without having any recourse to the (undemonstrable, and indeed, pretty much purely utopian) notion that statements are believed because they are true. From which, yes, it follows that if you don’t buy the value-orientation out of which I have built my ideal-type mapping of methodologies, then you are not likely to be convinced of my repeated claim that methodological questions dealing with the mind-world relation are not rationally resolvable, since this claim is more or less a derivation from the initial value-commitment, and hence not really an empirical claim in the first place. It’s important to properly parse statements into their appropriate logical register; ideal-types and the value-commitments affording them are expressed in statements that are expressions of principle, not of fact, and they are means to the end of social-scientific explanation, not conclusions in themselves.
Let me briefly contrast this with Joe’s call for a form of social science that “responds to pressing social concerns and is explicitly oriented toward social reconstruction that enlarges our experience, in all its protean diversity.” On one hand this formulation is quite similar to mine, and I find a lot to like in it, especially its Deweyian innovation of experience as the ground and goal of knowledge. In fact I am unsure, in the end, whether this formulation is actually any different from the value-commitment animating analyticist monism, so although Joe’s personal position in the pantheon of social science might be (on his own account!) unclear, his sensibility is certainly continuous with one of the boxes of my typology. I would go further, actually: I am not sure that what Joe forwards as a form of ethical reasoning or ethical scholarship is, in my terms, concerned with ethics, and thus his reaction to my denial that the category “ethical knowledge” makes much sense is, perhaps, more of a semantic issue. Joe protests that ethicists are systematic, produce claims that can be publicly criticized, and are concerned with generating knowledge of the world; I’ll easily grant him the first two, but the third strikes me as problematic because in order to for a claim to actually have ethical force it can’t simply be rooted in the world (regardless of whether we think that world is made up of phenomenal objects or whether we think it also includes undetectable causal powers and emergent structures of activity) but has to come from, in some sense, outside of the world. This is especially the case for norms of obligation (“thou shalt not kill”), as their obligatory character has to be in some sense transcendental, but I think it is also the case for norms of shall we say lower resolution (“don’t cut in line”) because the normative force of such admonitions is reducible to a core imperative principle (some notion of fairness, in this instance, even if we mask the appeal to fairness behind putatively empirical notions of overall efficiency and average waiting-time) and for non-obligatory norms of courtesy and accepted social practices (“you should give up your seat on the train for that elderly person”) which, again, derive their moral force from some broader notion about the good of the existing social order. Any normative claim rests on some transcendent (“otherworldly,” or perhaps “extra-worldly”) ethical principle that can impel action, from which it follows that establishing such principles is either:
1) a philosophical or theological exercise, in which case it bears more in common with the creative construction of an ideal-type out of existing raw cultural materials, and the depiction of the relevant principle in sufficiently compelling detail that it strikes a responsive chord with the reader. Important, interesting, but not science, because it’s not worldly knowledge.
2) an exercise in application, in which a taken-for-granted norm or principle is used to animate an investigation of how best to achieve that principle in practice. This subtle shifting of the question leads us to focus not on the principle itself, but on the various forms of practice and organized social action that might encourage that principle. Now we’re in the realm of social science, but we’re no longer in the realm of ethical inquiry strictly speaking. “Applied ethics,” perhaps, and that would be just fine as a science on my account.
3) an attempt to derive principles and standards from already-existing common practice, i.e. the Walzerian project, or the “virtue ethics” variant from Macintyre. This is intriguing stuff animated by one very serious conceptual transformation: to observe that practice has in-built standards that have normative force for the proper conduct of that practice is to suspend any notion that the relevant practice could be criticized on ethical grounds (unless, of course, one situates the practice in a bigger and broader practice, and then uses standards from the larger sphere to critique the smaller sphere, but this just pushes the issue back a level and does not solve it). And relying on the reconstruction of a practice also runs straight into Wittgenstein’s insight that the formal rules are not self-sufficient, and as a result any reconstruction of the standards implicit in practice will be contestable, which contestation becomes its own game with its own tacit rules that can’t be formally summarized … In any event we’re now outside of worldly knowledge, and into a realm that can only be described as intervening in the world to change it. And no amount of argumentative demonstration that a given practice is animated by principle or standard X will ever suffice to prove that standard X is in any transcendent or other-worldly sense ethically justified, so arguments about what one should do fall on deaf ears if one is speaking to people outside of a given practice (or “form of life,” to use Wittgenstein’s terminology).
Joe’s commitment to the expansion of experience, like my commitment to the preservation of philosophical diversity, is not an argumentatively demonstrable one. I rather like Joe’s commitment, but the fact remains that it — like my attachment to diversity — inhabits a realm of philosophical/theological/ethical commitments where argumentative reason falls silent. In the strict sense, then, it is not possible to *know* anything about it, at least not in the same sense that we know things about alliances and colonialism and arms races and the like. But it does not follow that all such commitments are “subjective” — far from it, since if commitments were subjective they’d fall prey to the Wittgenstenian argument against private languages. The conceptual slippage between “arbitrary” (in the sense of not being grounded on anything outside of itself, precisely the same way that Heidegger talks about sentient beings being their own basis, and Derrida talks about language as incapable of being reduced to anything nonlinguistic) and “subjective” (in the sense of being dependent on the individual subject, a formulation that has close conceptual affinities to “relativism” and sounds a lot like “making shit up”) gets us into trouble here, since it excludes precisely the notion that we need to make it through the morass: “intersubjective.” A robust conception of intersubjectivity dissolves the “problems” of subjectivism and relativism, by disclosing thinking as an intrinsically social process; hence the idea that a single individual could, even in principle, take a completely distinctive position is grossly flawed, as all such positions depend intrinsically on a broader set of cultural and discursive resources on which people draw in articulating their positions in the first place. Value-commitments are not just something I invent in the presumed privacy of my own presumedly autonomous mind; instead, they are public performances of a value-laden identity, a kind of stand-taking that only makes sense in relation to others. Yes, it derives its power to animate my actions from the fact that I have committed to it, but that doesn’t make it “subjective” — especially if one is a part of a scholarly community where one’s work is continually, at least in principle, open for discussion. We need not always agree on our values and value-commitments, but we do have to articulate those commitments in a structured present within which not all possible resources and points of view are in fact in evidence; this alone, I would argue, is more than enough to keep the spectre of subjectivist relativism at bay. But it does not allow the further step that Joe tacitly calls for, which is some kind of argumentative resolution of value questions. We need not be monists to accept this limitation, and we do not need to embrace social differentiation as a product of some uniquely modern or capitalist arrangement in order to accept value diversity.
Thus, when Meera points out that my articulation of a broad notion of science “is not an argument grounded in the special epistemological status of inquiry but something like an appeal to the intersubjective agreement about what it feels like to conduct Weberian-style inquiry — more or less a type of orientation to one’s work,” I can’t help but agree. A defense of the special epistemic status of science would, I think, necessarily tip over into a sharp delineation of what science is and should be, which is both precisely what neopositivists and critical realists have been doing in the field for years, and what Meera herself wishes that I would do in the name of an appreciation of ontological instability engendered by reflexive self-awareness. I won’t, both for the philosophical reasons I have been spelling out, and because I am not convinced that a field dominated by a reflexive notion of science would be much better than a field dominated by a neopositivist one. I do not think that any of the four ideal-typical methodologies I sketch in the book are any kind of indispensable component of “being a science,” and even if it privileged me I would not want an IR field in which analyticists were dominant and others were forced to survive as best they could. In this sense, Meera slightly misreads my reference to the Ackerly et. al. volume on feminist methodologies; I intended to praise that book as a first stab at something I want to see more of, namely explicit IR feminist wrestling with the question of what it means to produce valid knowledge of world politics. There are of course a lot of different versions of what “validity” means here, but that’s precisely the point: neopositivist validity and reflexive validity aren’t the same animal, but we have a lot of work trying to define the former and not a lot trying to define the latter. I hope that this situation changes.
But this hope, as Meera is right to point out, is itself grounded in an embrace of the value of scientific inquiry, albeit in my broadened sense. I understand Meera’s critique to, in effect, press towards a more skeptical stance on the value of science, and to forward a conception within which science and politics are more closely linked — in this instance, underpinned by the ontological instability of the world. But this only follows if one adheres to the old, narrow definition of science that I am hoping to broaden. Meera at one point comments that “The ‘fact-value’ distinction within an analyticist framework requires that this is sustained by a valid and distinctive procedure for checking these ideal types against concrete actuality, although as I have suggested this is logically useless without the supposition of an empirical world that is independent of the mind,” but this is not actually the analyticist argument since one does not check ideal-types against concrete actuality as much as one uses those ideal-types to make sense of concrete actuality, and never does so by pattern-matching or falsification. If science necessarily meant knowledge of a mind-independent external world, then notions of monistic science would not make sense, but since I don’t accept the premise, I don’t accept the conclusion. Instead, I would continue to argue that there is both a logical and a practical distinction between knowing about things in the world and affecting change in the world, precisely since the orientation towards affecting change as the primary goal of the exercise gives up the first of my three criteria for science — internal consistency — even though it retains the other two (publicity and worldliness). What matters in politics is what works, regardless of logic. But in science, what works for an explanation can only work if it is first and foremost internally consistent, which is why social theory and social activism are separate exercises.
Now, since I have denied that one can warrant the value of science on the simple grounds of the production of results (and for IR this is a good thing, since we have no results to speak of!), how should it be warranted? We should not overlook the cultural prestige of “science,” and we should not ignore the proud tradition of science, especially social science, as introducing “uncomfortable facts” into political debates and the educational experiences of generations of students. But in the end I find that the most compelling justification for keeping science separated out is an ethical argument: the use of coercive force ought not be justified by the appeal to some kind of non-theistic certainty, and forcing those who would advance such justifications to confront the arbitrariness (in the technical sense I introduced above) of the positions that they take up. The positive vocation of science might be to articulate and introduce findings and facts and the conceptual apparatuses that produce them, in the hope that they might inform subsequent discussions, but the negative vocation may be even more pressing in our secular age: depriving political idealists of the claimed basis of their recommendations, and refusing to them a sanction as absolute in its way as divine sanction, but more in tune with an age in which direct appeals to the divine will (American presidents to the contrary) don’t seem to carry as much weight. You cannot make politics pure by purporting to ground it on scientific truth, and an important part of our job is to try, as much as possible, to prevent politicians from doing so. The condition of possibility for that, in turn, is a separation between science and politics.
Next up: part the third, “don’t cross the streams, but do talk about doing so.” Realistically, I won’t get to post this for another couple of weeks.
Since Dan is entirely too modest to blog this himself, I thought I’d do it myself:
International Security Studies Section Best book Award to: Daniel H. Nexon (Georgetown University) for The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton University Press, 2009).
Yes, that’s right: our very own Dan Nexon won the best book award from the International Security Studies section of the International Studies Association for this year. I did see that they gave him a nice plaque, but I was not quick enough with my camera to snap a photo for posting.
Congratulations to Dan! Richly deserved recognition for an excellent book.