The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Fear of Relativism part one: from a certain point of view

July 3, 2012

[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[1]—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.

I. From A Certain Point of View 

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[2] 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

[1] Neopositivism, as distinct from the logical positivism and logical empiricism that preceded it, combines the exercise of hypothesis-testing with an emphasis on the logical form of nomothetic generalization. King, Keohane, and Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry (1994) provides the clearest contemporary articulation. On neopositivism and its relationship to logical positivism, see (Jackson 2011), especially Chapter 3.

[2] Technically, Obi-Wan’s ghost, preserved by the Force and somehow still able to interact with more conventionally alive beings.

website | + posts

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.