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The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: The Philosophy of Science and its Implications for the Study of World Politics (review)

From: Education and Culture
Volume 27, Number 2, 2011
pp. 97-100 | 10.1353/eac.2011.0008

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Book reviews in this journal usually proceed by considering the value of the book in question for Dewey scholarship. In this case I would rather say that this book is of interest to Dewey scholars. Jackson’s general project is heavily informed by Dewey’s pluralistic brand of pragmatism. As Jackson notes “Dewey’s Logic . . . stand[s] firmly in the tradition leading to this book” (216). Dewey scholars will greet Jackson’s extension of this approach to the study of international relations warmly.

Over the last thirty years, international relations specialists have debated the merits of a variety of methodological and philosophical options while at the same time a dominant theme has been to make the field as “scientific” as possible. Philosophers will, of course, find much in this debate familiar as it mirrors many of the controversies that have taken place in the philosophy of science over the same period. International Relations (IR) theorists find themselves disputing, along with their philosophical counterparts, the nature of the scientific method and the merits of scientific realism versus its empiricist, historicist, and social constructivist rivals. Jackson’s project is a worthwhile attempt not only to trace out the philosophical disputes that are of importance to IR scholars, but also to learn from the debates and to provide a coherent approach to methodological questions. I think IR theorists will find Jackson’s book a useful place to start when approaching the philosophical issues in their field, and they will find Jackson’s recommendations congenial. Jackson’s most important conclusion is that no single methodology or philosophical understanding of the scientific method ought to dominate the field. The goals of the particular IR study in question and the context of the research need to be considered when deciding on the appropriate approach. In this Jackson proposes that competing methodological proposals be considered and negotiated in a pluralistic philosophical context.

To help the IR theorist do this, much of Jackson’s book takes up the task of laying out a neat (if sometimes controversial) taxonomy of the various options, each one associated with various philosophical traditions, ontological commitments and epistemological proposals. Jackson proposes four main categories: neopositivism, critical realism, analyticism and reflexivity. Neopositivism, according to Jackson, is the dominant approach but it is faced by lively rivals. Neopositivism has its origins in empiricist philosophy stretching back to Hume and before, leading through Compte to the logical positivists of the twentieth century. In IR, this school of thought seeks to discover covering laws that cover cases of international relations (an example is the hypothesis that genuinely democratic states do not resort to warfare in settling disputes). Since experiments are impossible, similar cases are compared against one another (varying only in the key variables under study, such as the presence of democracy). This is done in order to determine if the cases obey postulated laws. Neopositivism is associated with ontological commitments to an objective reality, a strongly empiricist epistemology and an aversion to theoretical posits or entities that cannot be observed.

Critical realism reflects the recent postpositivist philosophies of science that have been critical of the antimetaphysical attitude of positivism. It seeks not just covariant laws but the genuine causes of phenomena as well. While similar in many respects to neopositivism in her commitment to empirical methods and a mind independent reality, the realist wants to go beyond the directly observable. While a positivist might agree that salt dissolves in water, a realist will want to claim that salt always has the unobservable disposition of solubility, even when it is sitting dry on the table. Reference to such dispositions becomes important in realist IR case studies.

Analiticity and reflexivity have their origins in idealist and various other non-empiricist philosophical traditions. Key features include their rejection of dualist distinctions between mind and world, and their rejection of mind independent reality. Jackson does a solid job of distinguishing between the two options as far as IR method is concerned; philosophers will still see some overlap in the two area’s idealistic origins. Analyticists, consistent with their rejection of the mind world distinction, include social constructivist approaches. Reflexivist IR studies, again following from the rejection of dualism, include activist...



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