Saturday, March 7, 2009

The dubious pleasures of IR theory; or, Why were you up so late last night?

A not-quite-Socratic dialogue between a questioner (Q) and me.

Q: So, why were you up so late last night?

LFC: I was keeping up with my field.

Q: Ahem ... really?

LFC: I should have gone to bed after watching the "Numbers" episode about the fancy computer that supposedly passes the Turing test but turns out to be a fraud. Instead, I turned on my own computer.

Q: Big mistake.

LFC: After looking at a couple of blogs, I wound up at the Cambridge University Press journals site. There's a new journal called International Theory (catchy, huh?), and the whole first issue is free.

Q: Go on.

LFC: I half-read, half-skimmed the lead article, which is called (as best I can remember) "IR and the False Promise of Philosophical Foundations."

Q: Yawn.

LFC: The authors, two graduate students (at least I'm pretty sure they're grad students) at the Univ. of Chicago, argue that IR scholars should recognize that all the philosophy-of-science positions in the field are shaky and accordingly should stop attacking each other's work on philosophy-of-science grounds.

Q: Sounds reasonable enough.

LFC: I think the authors may exaggerate some of the differences between Instrumentalism and Scientific Realism.

Q: Come again?

LFC: Instrumentalists care about whether a theory "works" or is "useful" not whether it's "true," whereas Scientific Realists care about how well a theory corresponds to, or captures, a mind-independent reality.

Q: Hmm.

LFC: But what both positions care about, in practice, is a theory's explanatory power.

Q: Or interpretive fecundity?

LFC: "Fecundity"?

Q: Sorry.

LFC: Also, there's the tiny problem that Instrumentalists don't like arguments based on unobservable phenomena, yet Kenneth Waltz, the ur-Instrumentalist, wrote his entire Theory of International Politics about unobservable phenomena -- namely, states and the state system.

Q: It's not actually that much of a problem. Waltz took the existence of states and the state system as a useful assumption rather than a postulate about the character or nature of an objective reality. In other words, epistemology trumped ontology, which is precisely what the authors say is the case for Instrumentalists.

LFC: Smarty pants.

Q: I'll ignore that. Well, after "IR and the False Promise of Philosophical Foundations" you must have been ready for bed -- either that or a scotch on the rocks.

LFC: Sadly, no. Since I was already at the Cambridge Univ. Press site, I decided to take a quick look at the current issue of World Politics. It's a special issue on unipolarity.

Q: Did someone say "boring"?

LFC: Most of the issue -- including articles by Marty Finnemore, William Wohlforth, and Stephen Walt, among others -- is behind a paywall. However, I glanced at some of the abstracts, then glanced at the introduction (which is free), and looked somewhat more closely at the concluding piece (which is also free), Robert Jervis's "Unipolarity: A Structural Perspective."

Q: And?

LFC: Well, Jervis is always worth reading, and the fact that I was able to read any of it, in my zonked condition at 3 a.m., testifies to his lucidity. Beyond the piece's specific points, which I was mostly too tired to engage with, I thought it had one overriding virtue.

Q: What's that?

LFC: It's not about the philosophy of science.

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