Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

PTJ’s Conduct of Inquiry: a belated few words

About five months ago I read Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s excellent book The Conduct of Inquiry, which is a discussion of the ‘philosophy of science’ as it pertains to the discipline of International Relations. I have no real criticisms of PTJ’s work – none worthy of or ready for articulation, anyway – and it was a major contributing factor in the nevertheless probably overdetermined journey I’ve since made into the philosophy of science and social science. I’ll probably reread his book before starting my PhD programme, too, as I’ll likely get more out of it now that I’m more conversant with the subject matter.

However, I have since formed one…not quite a criticism, but an alternative perspective on PTJ’s subject matter and the 2×2 matrix – the hallmark of social science! – he used to sort enquiry in my discipline into explicitly ideal-typical categories.

Basically, this was his model:

The Neopositivists blithely H-D their way to ever more robust conjunctions – oh the Hume-anity! – perhaps while singing this.

The Critical Realists figure out what must be the case through a sort of NeoKantian ‘transcendental argumentation’, in which they use abductive reasoning – which contrary to what you might expect, does not mean that they will kidnap your mind –  to determine the shape of really real ontological entities. Basically: ‘given what the data show, [entity] must exist, and possess [causal dispositions], because otherwise our theories, to use Searle’s favourite word, would just be absurd’.

The Analyticists build ideal-typical models and doesn’t afraid of anything because they’re badass pragmatists who realise that while there’s more to science than prediction, Critical Realism is…(you guessed it) absurd. Analyticists try to capture certain salient aspects of their subject matter in order to make it intelligible. A model might have predictive power, but its main function is as a cognitive guide. Like a map, it is not meant to be fully isomorphic to really real reality, but rather to help the thinker navigate.

The Reflexivists handwave. Ok, ignore that. The Reflexivists try to discover how occupying a certain position – usually social – grants privileged access to certain kinds of knowledge, is necessary for the possession of certain kinds of conceptual categories, or indeed entails its own truths that might even contradict other truths. They are the only bunch likely to utter the words ‘true for whom?’ in a non-ironic way.

Now, I really like this model. I think that it captures the main methodological paradigms in my discipline, and highlights the deeper ontological and (in some cases) epistemological wagers in which they are grounded (often unselfconsciously). But I don’t think these paradigms are necessarily incommensurable if they’re taken solely on their methodological merits. I wouldn’t dream of claiming to have anywhere near PTJ’s familiarity with the sort of claims that people in my field make, nor of the value in systematically highlighting their deeper ontological and epistemological underpinnings. So what follows is merely the product of my thinking about what wagers or positions on this issue are possible, and how they might look.

Consider this alternative two-level model.

At the first level we divide people into epistemological* Realists and Pragmatists.

Level One: R or P

[R] Realists believe that there exists some kind of method[ology] which will give us access to the really real entities that comprise reality, and reveal their powers.

[P] Pragmatists believe that no method[ology] will give us access to really real reality, and thus our theories are merely cognitive tools.

Level Two: Types of R or P

[Rp] Some Realists are methodolgical positivists, and believe that when an extremely robust conjunction of A and B obtains, there really is something real going on wherein A is causally linked to B, even if they can go no further.

[Re] Some Realists are entity realists. They rely on ‘inference to the best explanation’ to develop a really real ontology. A conjuction is, for them, a good clue, but not firm evidence as there could be undetected additional entities whose potential goes unrealised due to various countervailing influences.

[Rs] Some Realists are standpoint theorists. They are engaged in largely critical enterprise of bringing in additional perspectives on really real reality because those additional perspectives lead to a more complete scientific/theoretical ontology.

[Rnowayjose] Probably, ideal-typification is not really compatible with Realism.

[Pp] Some Pragmatists are methodological positivists. They think that, for the most part, testing hypotheses via the H-D method is a good way to keep science moving along. They probably care mainly about predictions. And shiny things.

[Pm] Some Pragmatists are ideal-typical modelers. They care about more than prediction, and think that models can be normatively useful, or help spot interesting areas for further study when they find substantial discrepancies between the predictions of a supposedly verisimilitudenous (is that even a word?) model and empirical reality.

[Ps] Some Pragmatists are standpoint theorists. They think that a diversity of perspectives allows for a more robust critical discourse. Arendt you convinced already?

[Pe] Some pragmatists could specify a diverse ontology of entities, though I wonder if this wouldn’t be subsumed within [Pm]

Another way to put it is that standpoint theorists and entity realists describe entities themselves, while positivists and modelers focus on making sense of phenomena. So the 2×2 matrix, which I haven’t bothered to make, would have ‘pragmatist’ and ‘realist’ as one distinction, and ‘phenomalism’ and ‘entity…ism’ as the other.

Thus, this alternative of mine works at two levels: the first level is that of epistemological wager, and the second is that of preferred methodology, or perhaps of one’s opinion as to the limits of methodology. Basically, the above model shows that one can employ similar method[ologie]s but treat the results of one’s enquiries as indicating different things. Generally speaking, Realists are trying to learn facts and access really real reality, while Pragmatists are engaged in a whole host of tasks from prediction to normative evaluation to sandbox exploration (something possible with computational simulations). Given the undeniable success of the H-D method in many aspects of science, for example, both a Realist and a Pragmatist could conceivably find a great deal of value in it.

And yes, there is an obvious asymmetry between the Realists and Pragmatists, in that the Realist must specify in rigorous terms why their preferred method[ology] allows for true statements or the specification of real causal relations, or entities, etc, while the Pragmatist just needs to defend their choice as an appropriate means to their ends. Of course, the Pragmatist purchases their easy ride at great cost.

The benefit of a model such as the one that I’ve provided is that it allows for methodolgical alliances between scholars holding competing epistemological positions. For example, I generally consider myself to be a Pragmatist. Overarchingly, I think that any theory is really just an ideal-typical model. But I need not alienate myself from [Rp]s if our research interests overlap. We can both collaborate on the same project, and find value in running the same analyses of the same data. Until I got very bored, and started run a ‘regression’ to a childlike state in which I play with my food and make animal noises to stay amused.

Anyway, this was my two cents. I’m sure this made sense to very few readers, and not necessarily because of ‘obscure’ subject material.

*I’m deliberately assuming that we beginning from, at minimum, a kind of External Realism. ER is, according to Searle, the belief that there is a world independent of our representations of it. That is, a state of affairs comprising some set of primitive ontological entities exists whether or not we try to talk about it. Searle thinks that this position is a presupposition of language itself – using NeoKantian transcendental argumentation, incidentally – and I’m inclined to agree with him. So we’re all Realists in a trivial way, and thus we can all talk about epistemology: how, if its even possible, can we learn about those really real things?


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