The Duck of Minerva

Deconstructing the Linguistic turn in Epistemology


7 April 2008

Stanley Fish uses a review of the forthcoming book “French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States” (University of Minnesota Press) to provide (what I think is a) very good summary of the debates and issues raised by what we in IR have come to call the Linguistic Turn in epistemology and resulting IR theory.

This morning I was teaching discourse analysis in my Intro to Research Methods course, and trying to articulate the different views of language that Fish locates at the center of the debate on French Theory. So, when I sat down to read Fish’s piece, I was particularly struck as to how useful it would have been as an assignment coming into today’s class (and may still end up as such for later in the week).

Now, this is more Patrick’s terrain than mine (and the subject of his current book project, so here’s an invitation to weigh in with a post and some self-promotion on his part). But, I have been working on a paper about how I teach my research methods course, and one of the implications of my syllabus is that much of the so-called Theoretical debate that we have in IR theory is really a methodological debate about different epistemologies. As Fish says, adopting a different Epistemology is to see a different world, and so its no wonder that Theories of World Politics end up at such loggerheads. For example, one might think that some constructivists who talk about power and can’t stand neo-liberalism would have all kinds of affinities for realists, who also love power and hate neo-liberals. And yet, the epistemological divide between the two prevents (in part) what could be a very fascinating conversation. The two are theorizing different world politics.

Now Fish is more interested in the so-called culture wars that “French Theory” seems to have produced (or is at least a part of). He concludes that there’s no there there (as any deconstructionist could already tell you). But, for those of us in IR theory, for some reason, this remains a central academic battlefront and a central cleavage within the field. The comments following Fish’s post are indicative of just how rugged this terrain is for those of us in this game.