Tag: philosophy of science

New Podcast @ New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I already mentioned that this podcast was coming, but now it is out. From my summary at New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

When I agreed to host New Books and Science Fiction and Fantasy there were a number of authors I hoped to interview, including Michael Gordin. This might come as a surprise to listeners, because Michael is neither a science-fiction nor a fantasy author. He is, rather, a prominent historian of science at Princeton University. But his work intersects with the subject-matter of this podcast in a number of ways. Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War asked us to consider what might have been had Tokyo refused to surrender and the US had continued to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Mike will soon start co-teaching a class on invented languages which includes a unit on Klingon. And the main subject of this interview, The Pseudoscience Wars:  Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press, 2012), touches on both the history of science fiction, key themes within the genre, and where much of its source material comes from. Indeed, while this channel will continue to focus on new books within the SF and Fantasy genres, it will also interview scholars and practitioners whose expertise illuminates and enhances our understanding of those genres.

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Steve Shapin Reviews Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars

As readers might have surmised, a number of  the bloggers at the Duck are into the philosophy and history of science. PTJ has written an exceptional book on the philosophy of science in the context of international-relations scholarship. Others of us dabble, with varying degrees of commitment.

When PTJ and I were working on “Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory” I was fortunate to be able to talk Kuhn and Lakatos with Michael Gordin of Princeton University. When I was at Harvard there were some people who were scary brilliant. Michael was one of those guys. He was also one of my debate partners.

Michael’s new book, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago, 2012) has been getting a lot of positive buzz.

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Reply on “physics envy”

Because not everyone reads comment threads, in part because of the way that people engage with The Duck via RSS readers, and because think the questions involved are really important ones, I’m going to post my reaction to PM’s “Yes, I do envy physicists”as a separate post of its own:

Man, I was right with you until your advance response to commenters. Making “data and its analysis central to the undergraduate experience” — a.k.a. emphasizing undergraduate research, such that one of the primary learning outcomes of a BA in International Relations or Government or Political Science or whatever is the critical intellectual disposition necessary to be both an intelligent producer of knowledge about the social and political world and an intelligent consumer of other knowledge-claims about that world — is spot-on. (And part of why one of the first administrative changes I made as Associate Dean in my school is to establish the position of Undergraduate Research Coordinator, whose job is both to coordinate our methodological course offerings and to make sure that upper-division classes feature opportunities to actually use those techniques in research projects as appropriate.) Now, you and I (probably) disagree about the relative prominence of statistical training in the enterprise of undergraduate research, since as you know I am a lot more small-c-catholic about (social-)scientific methodology than, well, most people. But hey, we’re in the same basic place…

…and then you had to go and diss history and theory. This is counterproductive for at least three reasons:

1) one can’t do good research without both theory and methodology, and the point of the exercise is to help people learn how to do good research, not how to use methodological tools in isolation.

2) de-emphasizing history and theory at the undergraduate level basically guarantees that “re-emphasizing” it at the graduate level ain’t never gonna happen. Teched-up statisticians going to graduate programs aren’t likely to willingly seek out unfamiliar ways of thinking about knowledge-production, and let’s be honest, theory — whatever your favorite flavor of theory — isn’t like methodology in general and isn’t like statistical-comparative methodology of the quantitative kind in particular. So you’ll either get a) statisticians launching smash-and-grab raids on history and theory for a justificatory fig-leaf for their operational definitions of variables and for supposedly “objective” data to use in testing their hypotheses (hey, wait a second, that sounds familiar…oh yeah, it’s what “mainstream U.S. PoliSci” does ALL THE FRAKKING TIME ALREADY); or b) existential crises when students discover that everything they learned in undergrad — I am referring to the “hidden curriculum” here, the conclusions that students will draw from the emphasis on statistics and the de-emphasis on history and theory — is wrong or at least seriously incomplete. Then you factor in the professional incentives for publication in “top-tier” US journals, and the lack of ability to meaningfully evaluate non-statistical work if one hasn’t spent some serious time training in how do appreciate that work, and you get…well, you get basically what we have at the moment in US PoliSci, but worse.

3) since we’re social scientists and not statisticians (or discourse analysts, or ethnographers, or surveyors, or…), methodology is a means to an end, and that end is or should always be the explanation of stuff in the social world. A social scientist teaching stats should be teaching about how one uses stats to make sense of the social world; ditto a social scientist teaching whatever methodology or technique one is teaching. Yes, the disciplinary specialists in those tools are not going to be particularly pleased with everything that we do, but that’s okay, since we’re on a different mission. And that mission necessitates history and theory just as much as it necessitates methodology (and, I would argue, a broad and diverse set of methodological literacies). If one tries to play the game where one looks for external validation of one’s methodological chops by people whose discipline specializes in a particular set of tools, then one is probably going to lose, or one is going to be dismissed as derivative. We’re not about to locate the Higgs boson with anything we do in the social sciences, and we’re not likely to contribute to any other discipline (I mean, it happens, but I think the frequency is pretty low). What we are going to do, or at least keep on trying to do, is to enhance our understanding of the social world. More stats training — more methodology training of any sort — at the undergraduate level is not necessarily a means to that end, unless it occurs in conjunction with more history and theory.

None of this is going to help the public understand what we do any better. We don’t make nuclear bombs or cel phones or (un)employment, and the U.S. is kind a a dispositionally anti-intellectual place (has been since the founding of the country…see Tocqueville, Hofstader, etc.) theory isn’t respected as a contribution. Everybody wants results that they can easily see — can you build a better mousetrap — and the vague sense that physicists have something to do with engineers and economists have something to do with entrepreneurs (who are, I think, the actual figures that get public prestige, because they do practical stuff) shores up their respective social value. But us, what we have a vague connection to are POLITICIANS, and everybody hates them. So that’s an uphill battle we’re probably fated to lose. So my punchline, which I’ve given many times before: our primary job is teaching students, our scholarship makes us better teachers, and the place to point for evidence of our social value is to those who graduate from our colleges and universities and the people they’ve become as a result of dwelling for a time in the happily intellectual and critical environment we contribute to producing on campus.


Fear of Relativism part three: the task of translation

[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.

Fear of Relativism part two: the appearance of contradiction

[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.

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

[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.


Quote of the Day


In short, there’s no reason at all to consider microeconomics the “real” economics and macroeconomics some kind of flaky impostor. Yes, micro is a lot more rigorous — but if it’s rigorously wrong, who cares?


Wikipedia #Fail

An abortive comment on Phil Arena’s “Rat Choice Apologetics IV” led me to a quick wikipedia check of “positivism.” I often do this sort of thing, just as a kind of gut check when I want to be precise about terms.

Turns out the article has a number of real problems. They culminate in the discussion of “modern positivism,” from which I now quote:

However, positivism (understood as the use of scientific methods for studying society) remains the dominant approach to both research and theory construction in contemporary sociology, especially in the United States.

The majority of articles published in leading American sociology and political science journals today are positivist (at least to the extent of being quantitative rather than qualitative). This popularity may be because research utilizing positivist quantitative methodologies holds a greater prestige in the social sciences than qualitative work. Such research is generally perceived as being more scientific and more trustworthy, and thus has a greater impact on policy and public opinion (though such judgments are frequently contested by scholars doing non-positivist work.

As I only have the energy to police one wikipedia article, consider this a formal request for someone else to take a swing at this one.


Preview of an immanent online symposium

Here’s a quick heads-up about something that will be concluding here — and over at The Disorder of Things — in a couple of weeks:

This is the third in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Paul started things off with his post setting up Jackson’s methodology of politics in order to ask important questions about the politics of Jackson’s methodology. Joe continued with his post and a discussion of the relationship between the scientific and the normative, and their institutionalization within IR. Next week will see a final post, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.”

Four very bright graduate students are working their way through my book and posting some extremely detailed engagements with it, so of course the least I can do is to post a reply of my own to their great set of engagements once they finish their series. And they all seem to come from the PTJ School of Methodology Blogging, which means essays of a substantial length rather than the sharp quips that the blogging format so often features; hence reading through their essays before I post my reply might be advisable. I’ve been having a lot of fun reading through their pieces and taking copious notes for my reply, so I thought I’d share the fun and let everyone know where they too can get their philosophical fix for the semester.


To science or not to science — is that a question?

Dear American Anthropological Association:

According to recent reports, you are considering dropping the term “science” from your long-range planning document. You propose replacing it with the phrase “public understanding,” and also including a long litany of the variety of things that fit under this umbrella:

This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

All that really changes here is the term “science,” since this kind of diversity was and is already characteristic of the discipline of anthropology; the change is therefore symbolic, as you note. But it’s a powerful symbol, perhaps even more powerful than you realize. I’m not an anthropologist and so I don’t really have a dog in this fight, except for the broader philosophical and cultural issue of what “science” means. But since that’s largely an issue of “public understanding” — or, better, “public misunderstanding” — I would really urge you to think very carefully about this move.

See, in abandoning the term “science” you are, in effect, ceding the rhetorical ground commanded by one of the most potent terms in modern intellectual culture and society at large — and you’re ceding it to a very narrowly neopositivist construal of the term and practice of “science.” As soon as you say “I’m not doing science” in this environment, you set yourself up to be critiqued as subjectivist, relativist, fuzzy, woolly-headed, arbitrary, and a bunch of other dismissive caricatures culiminating in what the president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences called “the rejection of rational argument and thought,” akin to creationism and due to a postmodern attack on the authority of science. So from a purely public relations standpoint, this doesn’t sound like a wise move.

The more important issue, however, is that in simply rejecting the term “science” you reaffirm the very boundary that critics like this insist on maintaining. If I have a narrow understanding of science that restricts that term to practices involving hypothesis-testing, cross-case generalizations, and a rooting of knowledge in an external material reality to which knowledge-claims approximate, I have that understanding not because it’s a personal preference about how to do my work, but because I think that such procedures are somehow uniquely warranted and rooted in the pursuit of Truth or, at the very least, validity. Procedures and techniques are thus inseparable from epistemic goals, and if I reject one I am taken to be rejecting the other. So rejecting the testing of general empirical hypotheses against data about the material world looks like an abandonment of the whole enterprise of producing knowledge that is in some sense valid, and that’s what the critics see as being signaled in the loss of the word “science.” By not confronting this head-on, you are in effect letting the critics have the word “science” as a magical talisman that they can conjure with in debates and discussion — not to mention in the competition for grant funding and publication.

And much like the Democratic Party, which last time I looked still have a majority in both houses of Congress and could make a concerted effort to actually pass something instead of rolling over and playing dead, you have some pretty firm ground on which to stand in refuting the nonsense that the critics are spewing. “Science” is simply not equal to its neopositivist construal; philosophers of science are quite divided about how to define science, and indeed most of them gave up the effort to produce sharp demarcation criteria between science and non-science decades ago. Instead, they are interested in the variety of ways that valid knowledge-claims about the world are produced, ways that are all “scientific” inasmuch as they are a) systematic in that they feature a logical relationship between premises and conclusions, b) public in that they are susceptible to challenge and critique by members of the relevant community of judgment, and c) worldly in the sense of being related to and about the world and the things in it rather than pointing beyond the world towards some transcendent question of the world’s value or purpose. That’s about all one can say about “science” that is generally the case, I would wager. Science isn’t art and it isn’t politics and it isn’t engineering and it isn’t normative critique, although it can inform all of those in various ways; the important thing remains the goal of the exercise, and science is about making systematic, public, worldly knowledge-claims that are in some sense valid, whereas these other vocations are about pursuing different goals. (At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I would suggest my recent bookas a good guide to the issues.)

My point is that you have an excellent warrant for expanding the definition of science rather than abandoning it, and in particular abandoning it to a very narrow definition that equates science with disciplines like biology and practices like archaeology — not that these aren’t scientific, far from it, but there is no reason that the study of cultural practices can’t be just as scientific, albeit in a distinct way. And who wouldn’t want to construct systematic, public, worldly knowledge-claims about human cultural practices as a or perhaps the major component of their professional practice in studying humanity? Seriously, what’s the alternative: abandoning these goals in favor of just advocating on behalf of native peoples? Following Paul Gauguin and painting idiosyncratic pictures of native life? Writing speculative fiction about imagined societies? Go that way and you abandon the epistemic authority of your own research, which strikes me as both short-sighted and unnecessary. I think that if you poll most of your members you’ll find that they agree that they are trying to produce knowledge-claims that are in some sense valid, which means: broadly scientific. Not narrowly scientific, not inextricably linked with hypothesis-testing and broad generalization and determining materiality, but broadly scientific in a way that is easily supported by even a casual perusal of philosophical debates about science over the past few centuries.

And what makes this particularly urgent is that the neopositivist caricature of science is also very similar to the popular misunderstanding of “science,” which seems to hold that science requires numerical data, sweeping generalizations, and incontrovertible facts. (Good neopositivists don’t agree with this, of course, but when attacked many of them trot out old canards about the putatively unique relationship between their preferred procedures and the pursuit of Truth. Public debate makes us all lose our subtlety.) None of this is true, and all of it makes the epistemic authority of science questionable whenever any politician can come up with one practicing scientist willing to publicly doubt some set of research findings (e.g. global climate change), because the public’s confidence is then eroded inasmuch as it mistakenly thought that science was about unquestionable truths. This is bullshit, and the only way to combat it is to help to improve the public understanding of what “science” actually means and how diverse scientific practice is, and this in turn is helped if you keep the study of cultural practices inside of the big tent of science. Otherwise the tent gets small, and the people left to defend it are vulnerable to all sorts of political silliness.

And let’s be honest here: we all want to defend that tent and the broad notion of science. None of us would be happy going back to a world in which public truths were simply proclaimed and imposed rather than being critically constructed, something that we performatively reveal when we criticize some established bit of conventional wisdom as arbitrary and unjustified. Note that this doesn’t mean that we are all committed to the same set of procedures for establishing validity, nor does it mean that we will all one day agree on the same set of facts after we approximately-ideal-speech-situation ourselves into the Linguistically De-Transcendentalized Kingdom of Ends and are escorted to our place at the Kantian table by our maitre d’, Herr Doktor Professor Habermas. But the alternative is not a complete abandonment of the task of thinking, but a reworking of what it means to think scientifically such that it is neither narrowly neopositivist nor the key to a secularized Promised Land, but instead a set of practical procedures for dealing with the world. If anthropology takes its toys and goes home, the whole tent gets smaller, which none of us actually wants.

So please reconsider. What is called for at this juncture is attack, not defense; the definition of science needs to be pluralized, not abandoned to those who would restrict it even further. Otherwise we all lose, if not immediately, than over the next few years, as our culture and civilization continue to drown in the muck of reality TV, soundbite politics, and people just plain making shit up and imposing it by nothing but the authority of sheer naked force. Don’t believe me? Have you looked at the caricatures of other societies and cultures — and even of our own — that circulate in our politics and our school textbooks? You can’t fight that kind of ridiculousness without the power of “science.” Don’t give up the fight before you’ve even begun, and don’t leave the field of battle and make it that much harder for the rest of us.


Methodology411: science and truth

Fascinating little op-ed over at The Guardian Online today (h/t Jesse Crane-Seeber) called, provocatively, “Scientists should stop deceiving us.” The punchline of the piece is that “in holding that the intellectual aim of science is truth alone, scientists seriously misrepresent its real, problematic aims, and thus prevent urgently needed critical assessment by scientists and non-scientists alike.” Chief among these “problematic” aims, we learn, is the preference for unified theories “that attribute the same laws to all the phenomena to which the theory in question applies”; coming in a close second is the “humanitarian or political dimension” of science that leads it to produce knowledge that can be used “to enhance the quality of human life.”

The tone of righteous indignation in this op-ed is kind of startling to me; “deceiving” is a strong accusation, and the implication here is that scientists have sceret value-laden agendas that are somehow affecting their work and their results. To which I say: okay, sure, maybe there’s a great conspiracy to foist unified theories (!) on an unsuspecting public, but if scientists were to be “deceiving” the public I’d expect it to be for something a bit more nefarious than a formal principle like this. (Parenthetically, the author is just wrong when he suggests that a preference for unified theories is “a substantial thesis about the universe independent of evidence”; it’s a methodological principle, not an empirical claim, and methodological principles are pretty much by definition independent of evidence since they structure what counts as “evidence” in the first place.)

Indeed, this op-ed seems to me to be precisely the kind of misunderstanding of science that results when people operate with an unreflective neopositivism as their tacit philosophy of science. Neopositivists — the linear descendants of Vienna Circle positivists via a Popperian shift in the United States during the 1960s — hold that knowledge is the truest (having the most “verisimilitude”) representation of mind-independent reality that can be achieved through the process of successively proposing and falsifying hypothetical generalizations. This is entirely empiricist inasmuch as no lawlike generalization ever has anything but provisional certainty attached to it; there’s no way past experience to grasp causal powers of mechanisms in any kind of definite manner. In such a conception of science, “values” can only appear as distortions — as obstacles to clear representation, since they would presumably not be falsifiable propositions (and if they were then it’s unclear why we’d call them “values” in the first place). And operating with such a conception of science, the discovery of the fact that scientists operate with non-falsifiable notions, both formal epistemic principles like “unified explanation” (which is, parenthetically, not characteristic of all “science” — even the physicists referenced by the author would agree that unified explanations break down in very high-energy situations, or in the smallest incremments of time following the beginning of the universe) and purposive epistemic principles like “enhancing human life,” looks scandalous.

News flash: it isn’t. Scientific explanation hasn’t been about a classically objective representation of mind-independent reality since the invention of quantum theory, and arguably even before that. Contemporary mind-world dualists — scientific realists, we call them — accept the intertwining of the observer and the observed in ways that would make neopositivists shudder (if there were any left to listen to them: there basically aren’t neopositivist philosophers of science any longer, and so neopositivism lives on only among the laity, or among those social scientists who desparately want to emulate what they think that physics was doing in the time of Isaac Newton . . . but that’s another rant for another post). And contemporary mind-world monists — pragmatists, analyticists, etc. — are not only happy to acknowledge the central role of value-commitments in the production of facts, but they would and do argue that only value-commitments permit the production of facts, because without such commitments there’d be no way to focus on or isolate anything in particular in order to study it. There was this German social theorist named Max Weber . . .

Anyway, the main point of the op-ed seems to be that we should indignantly demand that scientists come clean about their value-commitments. No objections there, as long as we all understand that such demands are unlikely to disclose some kind of worldwide conspiracy to enslave the human race to the tyranny of a secret cabal of pro-environment activists. (The op-ed seems to taking some odd swipes at climate science, or at least participating in a debate about it.) I don’t even have any objection to the notion that there ought to be public debates about the value-commitments appropriate to scientific research; indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that the central contribution of scientific research to public debate is to systematically work out the implications of particular value-commitments in practice, and in so doing make those value-commitments available for a more robust debate and discussion.

But accusing scientists of “deceiving” the public? That’s uncalled for, especially since the public still seems to operate with the old neopositivist notion that scientific objectivity and value-commitments are somehow incompatible. We ought to be trying to educate people about how science actually works, not fanning the flames of the kind of sweeping anti-intellectualism and no-nothing-ism that transforms every question into a matter to be answered by private opinion. If there’s any deception going on, it’s the deception perpetrated by those who erroneously think that science provides classically objective answers to difficult questions and thus relieves us of the burden of dealing with them in our usual messy, practical way. Including the author of the op-ed, who should have chosen a different target for his ire.


Two philosophers shoveling snow

A brief non-Platonic dialogue.

Dramatis Personae:
Friedrich William Shotter-Wittgenstein (“Will”), a mind-world monist
Rene Roy Searle-Wight (“Roy”), a mind-world dualist

Roy: Hey there, Will. Surprised to see you out here shoveling snow.

Will: Hey, Roy. Why would you be surprised at that? It snowed a lot last night, and I need to get the sidewalk cleared in front of my house.

Roy: Well, can’t you mind-world monists just think the snow away? Why bother to shovel it?

Will (shaking head, to himself): Oh no, not this again.

Roy: Seriously. If you don’t believe in the separation between the mind and the world, then doesn’t it necessarily follow that the world is a figment of your imagination, or your mental projection, or something like that? And if that’s true, why are you imagining yourself this rather tiring task of shoveling snow?

Will: Roy, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a dozen times — you’re confusing mind-world monism with subjective idealism, and they’re not the same thing.

Roy (somewhat skeptically): Please, enlighten me.

Will (continuing to shovel snow): Subjective idealism is the solipsistic doctrine that nothing beyond perception exists, which implies that how we organize our perceptions is arbitrary — so we should be able to reorganize them, and thus the world.

Roy: where I come from we call that the “epistemic fallacy.”

Will: Yes, I know, and that’s actually part of the problem — you only admit two possibilities, either the world exists outside of mind or the world is a subordinate function of mind. Your “epistemic fallacy” is really just a reductio ad absurdum of subjective idealism, leaving the other pole of the dichotomy as the only option standing.

Roy: But the notion that the world is limited by what we know of it is absurd — as absurd as the notion that we make the world by organizing our perceptions. If we did, then I could make all of this snow disappear by wishing.

Will: I agree that the notion that thinking makes things so is absurd. I’m out here shoveling rather than inside wishing or praying or casting a magic spell, right?

Roy: Then you admit it — your mind-world monism is just an intellectual game, and when push comes to shove, you’re a dualist like the rest of us.

Will: How do you figure that? This isn’t going to be your uncle David’s thing about doors and windows again, is it?

Roy (grinning): How did you guess? Yes indeed, the mere fact that when you leave a building you use the door instead of walking out the second-story window shows that you respect external reality as much as the rest of us do. As does your shoveling snow.

Will (shaking head): Ah, Roy. Why is it so important for you whether or not I assent to your beliefs about how the world is put together?

Roy (sputtering): Because . . . because . . . because you’re wrong, that’s why! And because if this snow weren’t real, if it weren’t something that existed in the world outside of our consciousnesses and wills, then not only would our activity in shoveling it be an absurd waste of time, but the county officials wouldn’t feel any necessity to send out snowplows to clear the roads. It’s delusions like “the snow only exists in your mind” that lead people to cut back on funding for emergency preparedness and basic scientific research, mark my words.

Will (skeptically): I’m pretty sure that the arguments against spending more on snowplows were largely about relative priorities given the climate, but we can probably look that up online later. Scientific research — especially social scientific research in fields like Political Science — yes, you have a point there. A lot of government funding follows the logic that if science isn’t about an externally-existing world about which we could achieve completely solid and classically objective knowledge, then it’s not worth supporting. and since I know that you’re such a big fan of the government, they couldn’t possibly be wrong, could they?

Roy (fuming): Ha ha.

Will (continuing to shovel): In any event, my point is that there are options other than subjective-solipsist one that we both clearly think is absurd, and the mind-independent world that you claim to have knowledge of. I would suggest that there is another option.

Roy (exasperated): But you already admitted that you are also taking the world into account in your actions! How can you now deny that world?

Will: I never said that I was taking the world into account. I just said that I wasn’t sitting back and wishing for the snow to go away; I was out here shoveling it.

Roy: And how exactly is that different from taking the mind-independent world into account?

Will: Because I’m not conforming my mind to something mind-independent; I’m just doing what is appropriate under the circumstances.

Roy: This is just semantics.

Will: I would disagree.

Roy: Figures.

Will: But seriously, I think it’s an important distinction. In your account, the snow falls in a mind-independent way, and then all of us confront the mind-independent fact of the snowfall and take action, right?

Roy: Precisely. And I think that’s what we all did — even you, my friend.

Will: Well, even if we did — and I’m not saying that I do — that still wouldn’t prove anything except that we all assume that the snow exists independently of our minds; it wouldn’t prove that the snow actually does exist independently of our minds.

Roy: Right — it’s background assumption, like my cousin John always says.

Will: But the fact that it’s our background assumption doesn’t make it true, any more than background assumptions about the existence of witches among the Azande was true. In fact, truth and falsity are not at issue here; what matters is efficacy.

Roy: So you’re willing to accept mind-independent reality as a working pragmatic assumption?

Will: Sort of. Actually, I’m willing to accept intersubjective reality, and to reject solipsism, on that basis. But I’m not sure how we could get from intersubjective reality to mind-independent reality, so I’m not willing to accept that.

Roy: But we could all be wrong about it having snowed — we could all be laboring under a delusion out here. And, if snowfall is an intersubjective consensus, can’t we change it if we all wish hard enough?

Will: An intersubjective consensus isn’t just a summation of individual thoughts in heads; it involves publicly accessible rules and procedures, like my cousin Ludwig is fond of saying. If I said that it hadn’t snowed, you’d think that I was using the words wrong.

Roy: You would be using the words wrong, because it snowed a lot last night.

Will: Right — “it snowed” is the description that makes sense in our language-game.

Roy: So if we had a different language-game, it wouldn’t have snowed?

Will: If we had no word for snow, then we couldn’t very well say that it had snowed, could we?

Roy: But what about all of this white crap on the ground?

Will: It’s only “snow” under a particular description, within a particular language-game. And it’s only a “heavy snowfall” under a language-game that emerges from a form of life where this amount and frequency of snow is an unusual occurrence.

Roy: But it did snow.

Will: Yes, that’s what we say.

Roy: But it snowed! It really did!

Will (smiling): Now, Roy, what does saying “really” add to that sentence?

Roy: It adds a certain non-delusional reality constraint, so you can’t just pretend that it didn’t snow.

Will: But I can’t pretend that it didn’t snow — not under this language-game. We established that. So we don’t need “really,” or the notion of a mind-independent reality, to dismiss solipsism; we can do that with intersubjective consensus just fine.

Roy: But we could be wrong! Intersubjective consensus isn’t enough to ensure that our perceptions and actions are actually lining up with reality; we need to be in touch with what really exists in order to ensure that we aren’t accidentally reproducing the conditions of our own oppression. If it didn’t really snow, why are we out here shoveling? Why are we accepting what might be a coercive appropriation of our labor-power? Only knowledge of mind-independent reality can make us certain that we’re doing the right thing.

Will: You worry about whether we’re reproducing the conditions of our own oppression. I’m going to go shovel the driveway.

[Loosely inspired, as the names should indicate, by the works of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, William James, John Shotter, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rene Descartes, Roy Bhaskar, John Searle, and my ISA sparring-partner Colin Wight. Snow courtesy Snowmageddon 2010.]


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