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Fear of Relativism part three: the task of translation

July 9, 2012

[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.]

III. The Task of Translation

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.[6] 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

[6] The importance of translation to these issues is underscored by Donald Davidson’s brilliant demolition of the notion of a “conceptual scheme” (1973) and Nicholas Rescher’s reformulation of “objectivity” as “impersonal reason” (1997). But Davidson and Rescher assumed that every claim was translatable into every language, an assumption I am less willing to make in part because I am convinced by Thomas Kuhn’s later work on the topic (collected in Kuhn 2000). See also John Shotter’s (1993) work on ambiguous commonplaces.
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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.