Freeing the Pluralist Imagination, or on the wisdom of escaping Weber’s “Iron Cage”

This is the second 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. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.

Update (3 Feb): Nick’s post is now up, to learn about material monism and the philosophical power of beards read it here.

Update (17 Feb): Meera’s post is now online, in which she threatens the stability of the matrix.

A broad definition of science, by design, does not provide us with any standards for good research, or indeed any specific advice for how to go about doing research, beyond the two basic admonitions to focus on factual knowledge of the world, and to separate this activity logically and conceptually from the promulgation of normative judgments and partisan-political stances. (25)

Patrick Jackson, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations

My comments on Jackson’s book need to be put in a personal context. I have no interest in claiming the title of “science” for my work or “scientist” for myself. Further, I do not consider my primary vocation the production of empirical knowledge. Instead, my work is “normative” and focused, most broadly, on how we think about the ethical dimension of world politics. Finally, I do not self-identify as a participant in the discipline of “International Relations,” nor as a “political scientist;” the tradition of scholarly work identified as “International Relations” is compromised by its statist foundations and the historically positivist pretensions that motivated the move to a science of politics are unsustainable in my estimation.

This raises an obvious question: why am I commenting on a book about the conduct of scientific inquiry in International Relations (IR)?

A Personal Anecdote

While at a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I had an argument with my friend, Laust Schouenborg, about the nature of social science. Sitting in a Soviet-era housing block converted into a budget hotel, watching the sun go down behind the park, I was rhetorically ejected from academia.

Our argument began when Laust, after reading Chris Brown’s International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, suggested (contra Brown) that because there are no standards of what constitutes a “good” normative argument, the study of ethics had no place in IR, and that scholars concerned with making arguments about how politics should be, had no place in academia.[1] The modern university is a place for scientific study and those who were not practicing science should, he claimed, be relegated to the political and cultural spheres.

This line of reasoning shocked me, but it was only the culmination of a disciplining process I experienced in my first two years as a PhD student in the International Relations Department at the LSE. Even as many members of faculty supported my work, I was constantly asked why I was studying in an IR department and some “colleagues” suggested that my research was value-less as scientific work – whatever its virtues as polemic or sermon.[2]

These experiences have left me with two abiding intellectual concerns about the conduct of social inquiry. The first is to challenge the institutional privilege bestowed upon those conducting their inquiry as “science.” On this concern, Jackson and I share considerable ground, as his critique of exclusive definitions of scientific inquiry deflates dominant pretensions and advocates for a more inclusive study of world politics. And I must give credit where it is due: Jackson doesn’t suggest that my kind be thrown from the ivory tower – just given separate offices. The second concern is deeper and more contentious: to challenge the notion that the ethical questions that interest me can and should be separated from scientific inquiry into world politics. On this point Jackson and I share less ground, and for this reason the bulk of my comments will focus on how and why Jackson separates the “scientific” and the “normative” in his pluralist approach to IR.

Aside from satisfying very personal concerns, I offer this response to Jackson’s book because his generous orientation, stated most forcefully in the concluding chapter, invites engagement. Along with analyzing Jackson’s essentially Weberian account of a pluralist science of IR, and suggesting that a fuller account of social inquiry should bring together ethical and empirical inquiry, my most substantive critique is that the pluralism Jackson defends is partial and continues to discipline the study of world politics in an unsustainable way – a critique that, if correct, undermines a central aim of his project.

I. Separate but Equal

Jackson’s primary goal in The Conduct of Inquiry is to create space for a variety of legitimate scientific approaches to the study of world politics. To accomplish this he argues that science cannot be convincingly defined in a singular way. His survey of the contentious debates in the philosophy of science undermines the favorite parlor trick of IR scholars, where the success of some preferred science or the insight of a distinguished philosopher redeems a particular approach to the study of world politics. In place of these amateurish games, Jackson asks IR scholars to be more sophisticated in their philosophical self-understanding and more tolerant in their evaluations of work founded on contrasting premises.

Initially, the basis for Jackson’s pluralist IR is skeptical, as he doubts we can offer uncontroversial justifications for the fundamental ontological commitments that lie behind our varied methodologies. He suggests that we cannot settle methodological disputes by putting (scientific) ontology first, to accurately catalogue the bestiary, because our methodologies presuppose the “context within which particular practices of knowledge-production might make sense,” (32) and they implicate us in a philosophical ontology that defines how “researchers are able to produce knowledge in the first place.” (28) [3]

The role of the philosophy of science is to enable us to think more clearly about how the worldview we adopt influences scientific practice, to ensure that our practice is internally consistent. Jackson then develops his typology of worldviews, or philosophical-ontological wagers, by cataloguing the possible answers to two fundamental questions regarding (1) the “relationship between the researcher and the world,” (35) and (2) “whether knowledge is purely related to things that can be experienced and empirically observed, or whether it is possible to generate knowledge of in-principle unobservable objects.” (36) Hence, he generates four ideal-types that clarify the possible ways of conducting science in IR, they are neopositivism, critical realism, analyticism, and reflexivity. See Paul’s earlier post on The Conduct of Inquiry for a more sustained examination of this aspect of Jackson’s argument.

What is important here is how Jackson understands the incommensurability of his ideal-types. Originally, it seemed pluralism was necessary as a result of our inability to conclusively validate one worldview over the others; it was a practical pluralism. But what emerges is a logically necessary pluralism, because debates over

philosophical ontology … can really never be settled definitively. “What is the nature of Being?” and “What is the purpose of human existence?”, to give two of the best-known examples, are the sorts of ontological/theological/ethical questions to which particular scholars give answers that depend, in the final analysis, on a measure of faith, precisely because they cannot be revolved empirically or rationally. (34)

The inherent pluralism of inquiry, based on incommensurable worldviews, thus necessitates a broad definition of science, as attempts to limit legitimate science to a single model are unjustifiable.

Indeed, perhaps the only solution that does not presume a non-existent philosophical consensus about the definition of “science” would be an account of science that, in effect, equated science with empirical inquiry designed to produce knowledge. Such an account would not give a lot of specific guidance as to how empirical research should be conducted, but it would serve to differentiate the production of knowledge about world politics from other things that one might do with respect to world politics—other things that might be valuable in their own way, but which would not be reducible or equivalent to knowledge-production. (19)

This inclusive definition of science, however, necessitates reinforcing distinctions between science and its other, in this case the “kinds of works against which” a charge of being unscientific can “be legitimately deployed” are “works of normative analysis and works of political advocacy or commentary.” (24) The distinction, Jackson tells us, is not intended to devalue normative evaluations or political advocacy, but to preserve the unique vocation of science as the production of factual knowledge about the empirical world.

This is a logical consequence of the account Jackson has given thus far, but an interesting ambiguity emerges, which relates to the shifting justification of pluralism mentioned above. Repeatedly, he affirms the common-sense of this definition, suggesting that the pluralism implied by a lack of consensus on ontological matters need not lead to the loss of science as a distinct endeavor, as we can make a practical distinction between collecting or producing facts about world politics, and making ethical judgments or supporting a particular political cause.

Yet, as Jackson unpacks the common-sense account of science, matters become rather more controversial. He defines science as being systematic, publicly accountable and productive of worldly knowledge, but when we consider that definition from the perspective of a “normative” theorist, the distinctive markers of science fades. I struggle to think of an approach to ethical theory whose adherents don’t aspire to be systematic, accountable, and oriented toward discovering or producing practical ethical knowledge.[4] While the meaning of these terms and the methods by which one pursues these aims would obviously differ from those used in strictly empirical investigations, Jackson’s broad practical definition of science raises the possibility that those of us concerned to make ethical evaluations maybe be entitled to declare: “we are scientists!”

Jackson maintains his distinction between science and ethics, emphasizing the production of empirical facts as the defining activity and purpose of science, by asserting the subjective nature of value, even as he acknowledges that subjective value-commitments inform the conduct of science. The empirical facts generated by scientific inquiry are objective so far as one’s commitment to systematic and publicly accountable procedures ensures that the results of science are legitimate in their own terms, even to those that do not share the value-commitments of a particular scientific worldview. So, while the value-commitments that motivate distinct approaches to science are incommensurable, science retains its distinctive office by producing objective (internally consistent) empirical knowledge, giving the claims of science a distinctive status denied to ethical judgment, as a matter of definition. The logical necessity of pluralism emerges again!

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

While I think the practical consequences of Jackson’s analysis are broadly positive, so far as they encourage a less cloistered IR (especially in the US), there are important limitations to his approach. First, Jackson’s account of science, if it is to function as a standard of both inclusion (of all science) and exclusion (of non-science), relies on substantive but undefended premises, which are best characterized as Weberian. This limits his pluralism even as it frames it as a logical necessity, since the acceptability of the account of science offered depends upon this Weberian worldview – such that it delegitimizes approaches to “science” (or social inquiry) that cannot or refuse to accommodate key elements of this worldview. It is akin to liberal accounts of pluralism that extend accommodation only so far as individuals and groups are appropriately liberal. I want to focus on the Weberian presumptions regarding ethics and the way they limit the conduct of inquiry, but without suggesting that this is the only substantive presumption that  Jackson’s pluralism depends upon which one might take exception to.

The second limitation (which I only mention here) results from Jackson’s desire to retain the cultural prestige of science within IR, while parsing out that privilege more widely. Even as he makes accommodation for the value of ethical and political work on world politics, his separation has the practical effect of ghettoizing those individuals who do not pursue IR as a science, as it is unclear what intellectual value these pursuits poses if they do not contribute to inquiry or the production of knowledge. Conceptually, his scheme may provide for a “separate but equal” accommodation, but in practice it ignores the hurdles faced by scholars pursuing such work in the contemporary university, in which scientific credentials are often the only defense against a bureaucratic culture that will marginalize or eliminate those who cannot objectively prove their “impact” via “results” – and which all too readily declares serious study of questions of value a luxury easily done without. For more on this point, see ‘Immediate Commodifiability’; Or, A Virtual Teach-In on Austerity in Education.

II. Weber’s Modernity

Exactly what prescriptions does Jackson offer? The ambiguity surrounding the sources of his pluralism make this a difficult issue to judge, but I take his argument to be arguing the stronger pluralist thesis, which claims that the incommensurability of our philosophical ontologies is not a matter of inadequacy in finding a consensus, but the result of the inherent subjectivity of the value-commitments each of us brings to the study of world politics – as individuals and members of research communities.

This suggests that the Weberian account of social science that Jackson has defended elsewhere (Jackson 2008) must be true, or at least effectively true, for his prescriptions to be fully convincing. In particular, it requires that mind-world monism is a better account of the world and that values are radically subjective.[5]

The critical consequence of this Weberian starting point is that scholars who reject subjectivism and want to include ethical questions in the conduct of social inquiry can find no home in the territory mapped by Jackson, excluded from both science and morality.

Why should science, defined as the rigorous use of evidence and argumentation, as systematic “production” of knowledge, be limited to empirical inquiry?

Worldly knowledge is the realm of facts, not of ethical evaluation or mystical contemplation; facts, in turn, are accessible to anyone employing the proper procedures for disclosing them, and depend not on revelation or intuitive insight but on systematic demonstration and public, if technical, argumentation. (195)

The prior assumption of this definition of social science is that value judgments are radically subjective; they lack justification beyond the preferences of those who hold them. We can compare value judgments and commitments to existential religious faith because, from the viewpoint of disenchanted modernity, they are the same thing. Jackson asks us to accept that Enlightenment rationalization fatally undermines the possibility of objectivity in questions of value by constantly exposing their contingency and source in the individual’s will. While at the same time rationalization enables improvements in science as the application of instrumental rationality.

One cannot choose between ideal-types on a strictly empirical basis, and no amount of research can ever serve to validate a particular way of constructing the world through cultural value-commitments. ‘“Worldviews’’ can never be the product of progressive empirical knowledge’, Weber suggests; ‘the highest ideals that move us most forcefully impinge for all time in conflict with other ideals that are just as sacred to others as ours are to us’. This ‘irresolvable conflict’ between ‘different value-orderings of the world’ means, among other things, that science can never put political controversies to rest. Instead, social science can clarify the likely consequences of adopting a particular perspective on an issue, and thus provide raw material for a decision that remains, irreducibly, contingent on the particular actor’s goals and purposes. (Jackson 2008, 147-148)

Jackson is relatively optimistic about the consequences of affirming this Weberian worldview, suggesting that as long as we are upfront about our incommensurable commitments we can look forward to a comfortable existence as pluralist scholars, embracing the differentiation between science and morality, as well as between fields of scientific inquiry.

As value spheres get increasingly differentiated, powerful modes of thought are opened up whereby each domain can push its immanent logic to its furthest limits. This enables an unprecedented development of rationality in all spheres at the seemingly small cost of the isolation of each mode of practice from every other. (Koopman 2010, 197)

Yet this development comes at a cost because it leads to a subjectivism that denies our ability to study ethical values in a rational or systematic inquiry. Fragmentation means that “Questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent; conflict between rival values cannot be rationally settled. Instead one must simply choose – between parties, classes, nations, causes, ideals.” (MacIntyre, 26) The consequence of this is that we render ethics socially meaningless as anything more than instrumental rules, which come to dominate the social order, despite the promise of autonomy and emancipation – even if a few heroic figures can reconcile the deontic and instrumental in a supreme act of individual will. Further, science becomes the under-laborer to subjective assertion; but if rationalization subverts our values, what remains for the vocation of science other than perfecting bureaucratic powers of control?

For on Weber’s view no type of authority can appeal to rational criteria to vindicate itself except that type of bureaucratic authority which appeals precisely to its own effectiveness. And what this appeal reveals is that bureaucratic authority is nothing other than successful power. (MacIntyre, 26)

The necessary separation of ethics and science not only enables a social science that cannot be judged on the basis of its political and moral content (other than the facile demand that all approaches acknowledge this content), it also enables a view of ethical judgment that is divorced from existing social conditions and is more focused on abstractions than on the transformation of existing conditions. This occludes the possibility that we might bring empirical and ethical investigation together in a unified and critical social philosophy.

If there were no alternative to this radical subjectivity of values, it would be uncontroversial to endorse Jackson’s Weberian starting point. But by engaging in more profound philosophical inquiries than the average IR scholar, Jackson has risked playing with another kind of fire. Invoking philosophy, like science, has its risks. By revealing the extent to which science, even a pluralist account, depends upon substantive philosophical presumptions, we open the door to questions about the place of ethical judgments in social inquiry and we may well have to make room for accounts that either reject or seek to transcend Weber’s subjectivism, as well as Jackson’s neat differentiation between science as the production of worldly knowledge and ethics as the promulgation of moral judgment.

In ethical and political philosophy, a considerable number of scholars would oppose this account of ethics, whether they would defend the efficacy of rational justifications of moral principles (as we’ve seen in the reemergence of normative analytical philosophy, its sophistication on clear display in Rawls’ later work), seek to return to communities of meaning as sources of transcendent value (as we’ve seen in the return to virtue ethics advocated by MacIntyre), or seek a way to reconstruct ethical values without succumbing to radical subjectivity (which can be seen in Rorty’s pragmatist and postmodern ethics). These development give us reason to pause before we accept Jackson’s differentiation of social spheres or judge his pluralism adequate as an inclusive account of legitimate inquiry.[6]

III. Successful Science: Inquiry and Contestation

The question I want to answer in this section is whether the exclusions generated by Jackson’s account really matter. Should these exclusions concern us?

The answer depends, predictably, upon the commitments that guide our approach to inquiry. For those that see little value in promoting a more plural IR, it is likely that potential inconsistencies in Jackson’s position would only be of interest if they confirmed their own more exclusive orientation. Yet, for those of us who support Jackson’s move to a pluralist theory of inquiry, and perhaps for Jackson himself, if the exclusions inherent in his approach either delegitimize or constrain approaches to social inquiry that do not fit easily into his classifications, we may want to resist key elements of his account. This more general pluralist sensibility, I argue, should lead us to question and possibly reject Jackson’s Weberian subjectivism, and rethink the neat division between ethics and science.  To borrow a phrase from William Connolly (1995), I suggest we should embrace pluralization rather pluralism.

The unique success of science is central to justifying the relationship between different spheres of inquiry, whether one believes in the Enlightenment dream of a rational science that enables the progressive realization of freedom through truth, or embraces a modernism of disenchantment, in which the success of rationalizing science causes the fatal crack in the foundations of universal emancipation. “Those working within Weber’s interpretation of modernity either celebrate the basic modern project of differentiation or mourn the lost unity and hope for some future reunification.” (Koopman, 196) These counterpoised narratives, however, share a vital presumption: that the success of science rests in the knowledge it produces, even while controversy persists over whether we can subject questions of value to scientific treatment.

While I have no desire to defend the Enlightenment quest to secure a distinctly rational morality, if we embrace a different account of successful science the question of the relationship between ethics and science shifts. A Deweyian account of social inquiry holds just that promise, and by reconfiguring the interrelationship between science and ethics allows us to defend a critical philosophy that brings together ethical judgment and empirical investigation in a more unified account of inquiry and moves us away from radical subjectivism (for reasons of length I can only offer a sketch of this approach to social inquiry).

For Dewey, the success of the natural sciences stems from their contribution to enlarging our experience. Science is not world disclosing, nor does it offer a more complete account of a given worldview, rather it is an inquiry instigated by a problematic situation, in interruption in the smooth flow of experience. Like all inquiry, factual inquires set off from specific difficulties and issue judgments regarding the suitability of our conclusions to resolving the problem at hand. Further, factual scientific inquiry is “ultimately concerned about human good, that is controlling and directing the process of human experience.” (Koch 1991, xvii) Rather than producing knowledge of scientific facts or moral values that exist sui generis (Koch 1991, xv), Dewey suggests that inquiry results in a form of knowing that transforms experience without finding conclusive or final endpoints. (Hickman 1998, 166)

The distinction we should make between ethics and science is not the promulgation of judgment versus the production of worldly knowledge, as both sorts of questions require that we exercise our judgment and in so doing improve our knowing. Rather the distinctive mark of ethical questions is expressed in the relationship between our judgments and our character. Practically, scientific inquiry into natural facts depends upon the attitude that the scientist takes towards the goods he discovers, but logically scientific inquiry is general (not value-free), so far as the knowing achieved through such inquiry does not affect our self-evaluation. Moral inquiry takes place when the consequences we judge as good  in inquiry bear upon our self-evaluations – our character – suggesting a need to alter our personal conduct or, as is often the case, to pursue social reforms to change the character of our common life. Understood in this way, social inquiry is necessarily ethical as social science responds to specific problems in need of resolution.

The human sciences would be emancipatory in exactly the sense that they would clear away misconceptions about ourselves and our arrangements and empower us to reconstruct the social world more in accordance with our wants and aims. (Manicas 1998, 47)

The problem with subjectivism, then, is that it limits social inquiry by obscuring the ethical good that it logically seeks and necessarily passes judgment on. This is a call for more than the acknowledgement of one’s normative project before value-free science gets underway, as it ties the ethical and factual elements of social inquiry together: “ethical science will effect an organization of the social world and a corresponding organization of the psychological habits through which the individual relates himself to it.” (Dewey 1946, 247) And in this process “the solution to moral problems must be worked out as a reconstruction within the social process. The problem of the ethical theorist is not to find a moral principle standing outside of this social process but to discover new ends through making use of that process.” (Koch 1991, li) The study of world politics is a form of ethical inquiry and we should measure our success by how far such inquiry enables us to improve upon our experience – this is a general standard and does not tell us what ends to pursue, nor what problems to address, and for this reason pluralism is not only maintained, we have reason to more fully embrace it.

Even where we might want to strictly limit social science to factual inquiries that scrupulously avoid evaluative questions, the nature of the concepts we use in social inquiry are themselves moral. Political and social concepts, such as “the nation-state”, “class” or “democracy”, are not only expressive of our subjective worldviews, as public concepts that we all engage with they are plural and contestable. (Connolly 1983) Again, this goes beyond insisting that we acknowledge our values, as the implication is that our values, our ethical orientations, are not static but responsive to sustained inquiry. While I can hardly presume to have articulated my own Deweyian position adequately, if the view articulated here is at all convincing it has two important consequences for Jackson’s work: (1) it suggests that his pluralist orientation creates exclusions, denying some forms of social inquiry equal standing without being able to articulate good reasons for this, and (2) that his ideal-typical account of ontological wagers fails as a helpful guide, so far as it does not help us understand an approach to social inquiry that rejects his Weberian premises, in this specific case the radical subjectivity of values.

The form of critical inquiry that emerges in my analysis retains a focus on plural ways of engaging empirical questions in world politics, but would insist that the evaluative elements not only be acknowledged but also engaged, because the innocence of science is lost at the same time the authority of values (whether through universal reason or subjective will) is undermined – gone is the image of late-modern morality as warring demigods, replaced by critical social intelligence and a commitment to pluralizing inquiry.

IV. Parting Thoughts on Humane Science

A fact known does not operate the same as a fact unperceived. When it is known it comes into contact with the flame of desire and the cold bath of antipathy. Knowledge of the conditions that breed incapacity may fit into some desire to maintain others in that state while averting it for one’s self. Or it may fall in with a character which finds itself blocked by such facts, and therefore strives to use knowledge of causes to make a change in effects. Morality begins at this point of use of knowledge of natural law, a use varying with the active system of dispositions and desires. Intelligent action is not concerned with the bare consequences of the thing known, but with consequences to be brought into existence by action conditioned on that knowledge. (Dewey 2002, 299)

Jackson’s book is an important contribution to the study of world politics. First, the philosophical sophistication he brings to turgid methodological debates can only enliven the field and encourage better inquiry. His work demands that we ask more sophisticated and challenging questions about the study of world politics, something our collective comments here may contribute to in some small way. Second, his pluralism makes it possible to push for the further pluralization of inquiry in world politics, for example by conceiving of such inquiry as a humane science that responds to pressing social concerns and is explicitly oriented toward social reconstruction that enlarges our experience, in all its protean diversity. While Jackson may not want to push the boundaries of inquiry as far, or in the direction, that I do, his inclusive orientation is invigorating and his arguments challenging.

Jackson essentially asks all of us studying world politics to become ontologists, at least at an amateur level – and his books shows why such a demand is rewarding. What I would add is a call for all of us to become ethicists, at least at an amateur level. Perhaps this is only sour grapes on my part, as in the process of resisting the disciplining pressures of doing a PhD, I have had to learn to dabble in the social sciences – I’d submit that rather more is at stake, and that a sophisticated understanding of ethical theory and the place of value judgments in social inquiry would improve our practice. As a final note, an unintended consequence of Jackson’s approach is to suggest the potential in collaborative research in the humane sciences. There’s no need for us to sacrifice specialization in order to become “jacks of all trades”, only a pressure for us to become conversant across different fields of social inquiry, enabling us to work together on large questions and to recognize when collaboration is a pressing need – something which is difficult if we assume our fields of inquiry are clearly delimited and incontestable.

To play us out: We Are Scientists’ anthem of pluralization, “Rules Don’t Stop Me”

[1] Recounting this story isn’t intended to suggest that Laust is a fanatic. His call for my expulsion was made between friends having a good natured and “robust” argument, and I believe he now acknowledges my rightful place in the “academy.”

[2] Lest this sound like an attack on my own department, I must mention that there are a number of faculty members and PhD students within the department doing what is probably best identified as international political theory. My intention is rather to highlight the way in which “normative” theory is disciplined within the social sciences, even in a relatively friendly environment – I imagine many other departments are considerably less welcoming to such work.

[3] Jackson distinguishes between scientific and philosophical ontology in Chapter 2, which is where clarification of these terms can be found; for reasons of space I do not expand upon them here.

[4] Whether you look to meta-ethics or applied ethics, a hallmark of philosophic inquiry into morality is an attempt to systematically and consistently elaborate principles that guide action, and whether those principles are derived postulates, refined intuitions, or constructed rules, most ethical theorists would see themselves as contributing to our knowledge about the world (though focused on transformation more than description, perhaps), making it unclear what would separate the common-sense definition of science from a general account of academic study.

[5] I don’t simply want to point out that Jackson, in embracing Nietzsche’s perspectivism, has a perspective from which his argument follows. Rather, the important point is that the ambiguity this creates regarding the prescriptive consequences of his analysis should be stated more clearly. It is not clear why those that don’t see the world in these terms would find the plea for pluralism convincing – dualists have little reason to abandon their real world, other than responding to the implicit claim that to insist on their exclusive claim to science is morally indefensible, a species of impoliteness. While for those who reject subjectivism, Jackson’s pluralism is inadequate because it requires them to be “modern” in a way that they have little reason to accept, other than the practical injunction to conform to the conventions of dominant scientific practice.

[6] For an account of the various types of knowledge that political theorists (widely conceived) consider themselves to be “creating” – including the moral knowledge – see David Leopold and Marc Stears, Political Theory: Methods and Approaches(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Works Cited

William E. Connolly, The Terms of Political Discourse (Oxford: Robertson, 1983).

William E. Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

John Dewey, “Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality,” Problems of Men (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1946).

John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002).

Larry Hickman, “Dewey’s Theory of Inquiry,” Larry Hickman, ed., Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Postmodern Generation (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, “Foregrounding ontology: dualism, monism, and IR theory,” Review of International Studies, Volume 34, Number 1 (2008), 129–153. Online at:

Donald F. Koch, “Introduction,” John Dewey, Lectures on Ethics: 1900-1901, Donald F. Koch, ed. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).

Colin Koopman, “The History and Critique of Modernity: Dewey with Foucault against Weber,” Paul Fairfield, ed, John Dewey and Continental Philosophy (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), 194-218.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

Peter T. Manicas “John Dewey and American Social Science,” Larry Hickman, ed., Reading Dewey: Interpretation for a Postmodern Generation (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).


8 thoughts on “Freeing the Pluralist Imagination, or on the wisdom of escaping Weber’s “Iron Cage”

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  6. I have, myself, just finished working through CofI, and I think you’re making a good point here about the limits to PTJ’s pluralism. But I don’t read Weber as you do. As I read him, Weber does *not* argue that normative questions (broadly understood) embody a realm of *subjectivity*. Rather, he argues that empirical inquiry cannot adjudicate between the rival value commitments which underpin that inquiry (although it can help to reveal their practical implications). His point in doing so, is, for sure, to *limit* the realm of what we call *science* (to empirical inquiry), but the implication of his doing so is, I think, not what you suggest. He does not believe that we *cannot* or should not (try to) adjudicate between value commitments, but rather that doing so involves a kind of reasoning that cannot be reduced to empirical inquiry. And that, it seems to me, is correct. So where does the problem arise?

    Insofar as there is a problem here, it seems to me that it is the fact that “science”, as limited by Weber (and PTJ) is used (in many cases wholly inappropriately) as a marker of academic belonging and achievement. In my view (and I think I’m agreeing with PTJ here), we should *both* hold those doing empirical inquiry to appropriate standards *and* be pluralist about what methodologies provide access to those standards. But, just as importantly, we shouldn’t use those stanards to police those (equally important) parts of academia that don’t (exclusively) pursue empirical inquiry. If I’m right, then the problem is not with Weber, but with those who use the term *science* in a fashion that Weber himself would reject: to limit the realm of legitimate and valuable inquiry (only a subset of which fulfils Weber’s criteria for *scientific* inquiry). And I’m fairly sure that PTJ would reject such a usage too.


    • Thanks for the comment.

      In response to your 2nd comment – I have no problem agreeing with the practical consequence of Jackson’s argument that we should be pluralist about methodologies in inquiry – the part I don’t subscribe to is the importance attached to “empirical” in distinguishing types of inquiry.

      His basis for doing this is based on his appeal to a common sense notion of science as the systematic and public production of factual knowledge – which he explicitly sets against ethical/political claims, which he describes as based on value-commitments rather than facts, which cannot be appraised systematically or publicly. Yet, someone not coming from Jackson’s Weberian (more on that below) starting point could think that their ethical inquiry met exactly those requirements, and thus the only reason for exclusion from science (under Jackson’s framing) would be that they weren’t producing knowledge about the right kinds of stuff – which is a limiting move on Jackson’s part.

      I appreciate that Jackson is fighting a battle that is very particular to the US IR-scene, but I just don’t buy the easy distinction he wants to make – and I think as a political intervention into the academic debate it risks clearing space for some scholars but re-inscribing the exclusion of others who, if you actually looked at their work, as are “scientific”. The distinction he draws essentially seems to rest on the fact that we’re uncomfortable calling moral theory science these days – though many earlier thinkers would have had no such hang-up – rather than on strong philosophical premises.

      Regarding the first point: I’m hardly a Weber expert, but I do know there are at least two ways of reading him and I’ve tried to follow the implications of Jackson’s own line, which in the book and the paper cited in the post, seems to follow the line that suggests radical subjectivity as opposed to suggesting that there are objective but non-empirical grounds for conducting moral inquiry.

      There may be good arguments for a more “Kantian” (as a crude shorthand) reading of Weber but if that was the Weber that Jackson was using to defend his pluralism, I think, he would (at the very least) describe moral inquiry differently and (for the sake of consistency) need to distinguish science from other inquiry on ontological grounds (what we study) rather than epistemological grounds (how we study) – in which case the implication would be that we can have empirical science and moral science, both of which could or could not be pluralist, but neither of which is reducible to political commitment or religious revelation.


  7. Pingback: Looking ahead – I’m Writing a Book

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