Fear of Relativism part two: the appearance of contradiction

Jul 6, 2012

[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.]

II. The Appearance of Contradiction

From this brief example we can draw a few lessons.

1)                     When confronted by two apparently contradictory statements, first try to ascertain whether the statements are in fact contradictory, or whether they are actually saying two different things.
2)                     If the statements are actually contradictory, use evidence to ascertain which is true. There is no “relativism” here as long as both statements come from traditions of inquiry that privilege warranted assertions, that is to say, claims supported by a judicious combination of argument and evidence. Instead, there is a more or less straightforward empirical question with a more or less straightforward answer.
3)                     If the statements are not actually contradictory, use evidence to ascertain whether either (or both) of them is true. There is no “relativism” here since the truth of each statement is independent of the truth of the other; either, neither, or both could be warranted assertions.

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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

[3] Note that I am confining this discussion to phenomenal, or what are colloquially known as “empirical,” claims, because the charge of methodological relativism in IR is generally pitched at the level of descriptive inference and causal explanation rather than at the level of morality. It is an open question whether and how normative and ethical claims can be warranted by evidence, and hence an open question whether and how much one can adjudicate normative and ethical controversies by looking for the better-warranted claim. It is a further question how much those making normative and ethical claims would want their claims to be adjudicated or adjudicable by empirical evidence. Dewey himself was not keen on the distinction between phenomenal/empirical claims and normative/ethical claims; others, like Weber and Wittgenstein, would of course disagree.
[4] For this formulation of the problem of relativism I am indebted to Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge (2007). Of course, my entire essay, from the title on, stands as something of a rebuttal to Boghossian’s argument.
[5] Note that for the sake of simplicity I have only introduced one alternative to a warranted empirical claim about the world: ideal-types. There are at least two other classifications of statements that shouldn’t be taken as simple empirical claims because they participate in very different methodologies (critical realism and reflexivity), but to introduce them at this point would I fear, muddy the waters too much for a brief essay.
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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.