The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Theory: between experience and vision

January 21, 2009

The other night, before the inauguration, I found myself involved in yet another discussion about the relationship between theory and decision-making. Old, familiar territory for us, but slightly altered in this iteration by two factors: the fact that I’m finally teaching an undergraduate course in IR theory (check out our class wiki here) this semester, and the fact that “change” is very much in the air in Washington DC these days. Especially after President Obama’s declaration yesterday that “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” So the question — the perennial question — of the relationship between theory and practical politics is posed yet again, with just as much urgency as ever.

I don’t know that my answer has changed much since the last couple of times I addressed this theme on Duck. But I do think it’s useful to expound the argument, or a version of the argument, again, and see what kind of dialogue it provokes.

First, a brief recap of the Enlightenment Dream about theory — social theory in particular — and what it promised. Once upon a time there were a bunch of European thinkers who conceived an audacious epistemic project: to place all knowledge, and all action that relied on knowledge (which is to say, basically all action), on an absolutely secure foundation in Reason alone. So they set out to demolish prejudices and opinions that masqueraded as Truth, both by revealing how those prejudices and opinions were insufficiently warranted by evidence or logic, and by demonstrating how the defenders of those prejudices and opinions benefited from having others accept their claims. These twin critiques are all over the philosophical literature of the European Enlightenment, from the French Encyclopediasts to Karl Marx and August Comte. In all cases, the goal was to set things on a firmer, more solid basis, and in that way to relieve decision-makers — whether we are talking about public officials or people in their everyday lives — of the awful anxiety of having to commit to a course of action without actually knowing whether it was correct.

Now the master key to making this project succeed, in the minds of these Enlightenment thinkers, was science, which would provide a general theoretical grasp on things and thus make possible the deliberate manipulation of the social and natural environments. Science was supposed to make clear the basic structure of the world; the result of science was supposed to be a set of general theories (or perhaps just one theory) that would in some sense disclose how things really were, somewhere back behind the accidents of actual events. And such theory, in turn, was supposed to provide a solid basis on which to set decisions: if we knew the properties of building-materials, then we could determine how best to build a bridge, and analogously, if we knew the properties of human beings we could determine how best to organize them into political societies.

I am obviously oversimplifying here; there are a vast number of fascinating debates and controversies both about how to construct theories like this and about precisely what such a theory contains. But for my purposes here, it is sufficient to note that (1) something like this Enlightenment Dream persists in the ambitions, and the rhetoric, of many of the social sciences, Political Science and International Relations among them; and (2) the whole Enlightenment project has been called into serious philosophical question for centuries, both by romantics who rejected the idea of science and by existentialists and other postmoderns who rejected the Enlightenment ambitions for science and theory. Contemporary social science is not precisely the same animal as what Comte and Bentham wanted to see — to put the matter bluntly and to use some technical conceptual shorthand, positivist reductionism has been replaced by neopositivist falsification as the dominant way to conceptualize the production of lawlike generalizations — but the dream remains. Teaching in a policy-oriented program in Washington DC, I see this all the time among my students, particularly my MA students: they come for advanced study in IR hoping that it will give them a firmer grasp on how things work, and they look to theory (okay, when we force them to, they look to theory) to provide them with answers.

This, I think, is the major mistake that people make when dealing with the relationship between theory and action, and in particular when dealing with social theory and political action. The Enlightenment Dream didn’t work, because there proved to be no reliable and unquestionable way to ascertain whether any given theoretical claim, no matter how well-established it seemed to be empirically, was anything other than a declaration of how things appeared from a certain point of view. So the only meaningful test of a theoretical proposition is its practical utility, which does not mean that it could serve as the kind of certain grounding that many people wanted and still want it to be. Theory, in a post-Enlightenment frame of mind, is a useful conceptual tool, a systematic elucidation of a way of making sense of things. So almost all that can be said of a theory about, say, world politics is that it serves to show us what might follow if we adhered to its assumptions and followed their logical implications. Hence theory, and theorists, can’t give the kind of practical advice that so many people look for; all a theory or a theorist can say is something like: “what you’ve proposed sounds like theory X, and according to theory X, consequences a, b, . . . n follow if you do this.” This is what Weber called value-clarification, and it’s helpful in that it can perhaps prevent rampant inconsistencies from cropping up in the conduct of action, but it’s sharply limited in that the actor can always reject the value-premise of the theory and move off in a different direction. Theory is irreducibly perspectival, and as such it provides no answers — just clearer and sharper questions.

So in this sense, theory serves not to ground or correct experience, but to systematize experience and enable reflection on it. This doesn’t, however, mean that theory is nothing more than a logical derivation from experience; in order to systematize experience, it is necessary to select a perspective or a value-commitment from which to begin systematizing. That’s the “visionary” component of theory: a theorist takes a vision and transmutes it into a set of operational principles that can order experience. This is not the same thing as taking a vision and testing it against experience; if that were all that we had to do, then we could simply draw up an incontrovertible list of the precepts of experience and use that list as a way of choosing among visions. This is the kind of thing that unreflective practitioners often seem to suggest: as though experience spoke for itself, and spoke with a single and unambiguous voice. It doesn’t; every effort to draw “lessons from history” or codify the “wisdom of the world” implicitly depends on theoretical propositions and value-commitments.

In that way, the theorist’s task becomes a task of unveiling the implicit theories in use among practitioners, and in so doing haul them out into the light so that they might be examined more systematically. Such an examination, as I have suggested, means not just looking to see how they fare empirically, but also looking to see what their core value-commitments look like morally and ethically. That said, making moral and ethical judgments about commitments is not the theorist’s job; that’s a political and social question, and much like the Supreme Court when faced with that kind of issue, I think it’s only proper to toss it back to the people authorized to make such determinations (which in this case means people in their capacity as citizens, and their duly constituted representatives). Science won’t save us; theory won’t tell us what we ought to do.

The point here is that as the Obama administration takes on the enormous task of “change,” and confronts the basic challenges that confront any decision-making procedure in the post-Enlightenment era — the unavailability of any firm theoretical grounding that would justify particular courses of action and immunize the decision against doubt — neither they nor anyone else ought to look to theory to provide a road-map of what they ought to do. Theory and theorists can clarify the options, and the tough choices that they have to make, but determining what to choose is not in the theorist’s job description. Rather, determining the best course of action involves a closer reliance on experienced practitioners, suitably induced into reflection by the prodding of theories and theorists. It does little good to say something like “constructivism tells us that moral authority can be a power resource, so we ought to develop that.” Rather, we start where Obama started yesterday: “To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.” And then using that as a value-commitment, we theoretically organize experience to give us a sense of the plausible. Which means that the Obama administration should lean on experienced practitioners when deciding precisely which courses of action to undertake to best achieve that goal.

Theory doesn’t answer value questions, but it does give us tools for implementing value-commitments in dialogue with experience. This is a hard sell to policy practitioners, who seem to be endlessly looking for secure answers; hence the other task of the theorist, which is to constantly and continually deflate expectations about what social science can do. Because there is no rational grounding for value-commitments, all we get are determinations to go in a particular direction that can then be supplemented with systematic elaborations of how we might do that — but that can never provide the kind of certainty that many among us still, somewhat futilely, look to science and reason to provide.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.