Demarcation Problems: ‘The Conduct Of Inquiry’ Between Politics & Methodology

This is the first 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, released last year to considerable critical acclaim. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson (or PTJ) himself. Taken together, we hope they go some way to meeting the challenge, to paraphrase PTJ himself, of emerging from splendid isolation to engage in some contentious conversations on inquiry.

UPDATE (24 Jan): Joe’s call to free the pluralist imagination is now up.

UPDATE (3 Feb): Nick’s speculative realist examination of inference, progress and materialist monism is now available.

UPDATE (17 Feb): Meera’s further untangling of ‘science’ and challenge to the stasis and status of reflexivism completes this round of responses.

UPDATE (14 March): PTJ has begun his reply.

Conclusion: neither science nor the methodology of research programmes provides arguments against anarchism. Neither Lakatos nor anybody else has shown that science is better than witchcraft and that science proceeds in a rational way. Taste, not argument, guides our choice of science; taste, not argument, makes us carry out certain moves within science (which does not mean that decisions on the basis of taste are not surrounded by and entirely covered by arguments, just as a tasty piece of meat may be surrounded and entirely covered by flies). There is no reason to be depressed by this result. Science, after all, is our creature, not our sovereign; ergo, it should be the slave of our whims, and not the tyrant of our wishes.

Paul Feyerabend, ‘Theses on Anarchism’ (1973), For & Against Method (with Imre Lakatos)

I: Conducts Of Inquiry

Paul Feyerabend’s Dada-ist approach to the philosophy of science was informed by a hostility to singular conceptions of the world, a rejection of rigid prescriptions for the correct character of knowledge and a healthy scepticism towards how people thought their forms of inquiry worked. Setting himself against method, he argued that ‘science’ has no common structure and that no general laws can explain its success or prescribe its methods. The growth of knowledge has not only historically been associated with a disrespect for prevailing methodological rules, it in fact requires such violation (whether deliberately or unwittingly).

Patrick Jackson’s The Conduct Of Inquiry attempts both to expand and to limit the knowledge practices counted as legible and legitimate in International Relations. Like Feyerabend (and Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper for that matter), Jackson evinces a healthy distrust of hard, fast or easy judgements about truth, reality and research procedure. And so he both avoids making the argument for a particular philosophical perspective with which to forge ‘better’ IR and eschews usual schemas that start with the putative ‘fundamentals’ of ontology and epistemology. Instead he offers a Weberian ideal-typification of methodologies (not methods), intended not as a menu of coherent and precise options but as a useful typology of functional categories (on which more in a moment).

The conception of methodology proffered is an expansive one, taken to designate ‘the logical structure and procedure of scientific inquiry’, but not the actual nature of reality and knowledge or the correct technique for a particular problem. Four commitments to philosophical ontology organise the options, generating four methodologies through their various combinations. The purpose is not somehow to test between them, but to reveal their assumptions and explain how they hang together as philosophical wagers. Hence the need to discuss the forms of faith and commitment that under-gird our styles of research.

So, in one sense, we could read PTJ as speaking with Feyerabend in demonstrating that “all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits…like an undercover agent who plays the game of Reason in order to undercut the authority of Reason (Truth, Honesty, Justice, and so on)“.

This intervention is much needed. Continue reading

Beware the Academic Troll-Master!

But I see motivating students, passing on enthusiasm, as the first and most important task of a teacher. (Which isn’t to say that one has to blindly encourage everything a student says or writes; far from it.) That’s why I would say that one of the most despicable figures in the academic bestiary is the Troll-Master: the figure who feeds on the crushed enthusiasm of belittled students. The easiest way to win a cheap kind of respect is by adopting a nothing-can-impress-me hyper-critical stance, doused in cool weltweltschmerz, finding fault everywhere, handing out praise and encouragement only very rarely; it’s a transparent tactic, but one that works surprisingly well, and not only on jejune students, but also on very accomplished people, even those who have written a number of books. Often, the Troll-Master’s own intellectual project will be mediocre and/or suspended – it’s clear that all their libidinal energy is tied up in enslaving students into neurotic servitude. Troll-Masters can permanently insinuate themselves into students’ heads, but usually their power depends upon the hothouse claustrophobia of the university department – they are village despots, whose charismatic tyranny seldom works outside their own turf. If they have a long-term effect, it is only to produce more grey vampires.

K-Punk, ‘Break Through in Grey Lair’

One temptation is the patronizing attempt to over-identify with the imperative “not to learn” supposedly possessed by students. We could call this the “slacker” temptation – of course all students want to do is smoke dope and play Playstation! This model of teaching presupposes two intellectual classes: those who (contingently) want to learn (the lecturer him- or herself) and those who do not (most students, and by extension, most everybody). This approach is a kind of mastery, disavowed in this case and all the more pernicious for it – I know enough to tell you that you do not need to know. It is the supercilious attitude of the newspaper columnist who chucks in references to Marx, postmodernism, etc. before airily informing the less-informed reader that he or she doesn’t need to bother finding out anything about them for him- or herself. Equality of intelligence is here smothered by the laziness, not of the students, but of the teacher, who churns out information without really believing that the audience will be interested in receiving it. As Rancière puts it, “explication is the work of laziness”. The fear masked here, both by assuming student apathy and by preserving the knowledge you yourself possess, is the idea that actually there is nothing “special” about your capacity to learn…

…We must acknowledge a changed landscape: not exclusion, straightforwardly, but a peculiar form of staggered expansion. The supposedly elite institutions are still there at the top, the old-boys and girls networks still churning out elite fodder for the same kinds of jobs – politics, diplomacy, high-end culture industry work, etc. At the same time, the expansion of higher education and the re-branding of ex-Polytechnics as universities in the UK has created a situation in which no one need be excluded. It is no longer a question of keeping them out, but of ensuring they go where they are supposed to. A further change comes at the economic level. As noted, fees have created a kind of split-subject of the university: the “client” who pays for a service and yet is still a subject “supposed to be criticized” or even failed. Endless feedback forms, along the lines of customer satisfaction surveys, entail that students are supposed to know how well that which they don’t yet know is being conveyed.

Nina Power, ‘Axiomatic Equality: Rancière and the Politics of Contemporary Education’