Critical realism (CR) has become one of the prominent metatheoretical frameworks upon which substantive inquiry of world politics in the discipline of International Relations (IR) can build. The aim of this article is to critically reconsider CR metatheory and its attitude to ‘get things right’ about the world. This is done, primarily, by focusing on the existence of the correspondence theory of truth in the CR framework. To support this analysis, the notions of explanatory power, retroduction and emergence are also engaged. The article poses three broad research questions: first, what is the relationship between external reality and human knowledge in the CR framework? Second, what sort of logical problems does this account entail? And last, what are the implications of the acceptance of CR metatheory for IR? The article argues that both the emphasis on the external reality as the yardstick for (social) scientific research and the attempt to combine fallibilism with the realist aim of ‘getting things right’ about reality with the help of the correspondence theory of truth are highly problematic. The article concludes that CR metatheory could entail serious axiological problems for IR. Among the most serious ones is the potential scientific conservatism based on realist ‘truthtalk’.
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These frameworks, generally considered to be part of the so-called ‘Third Debate of IR’ (Lapid 1989), would include ‘post-structuralist’ (George and Campbell 1990; Ashley and Walker 1990a, 1990b), ‘feminist’ (Harding 1986; Enloe 1989; Tickner 1992; Sylvester 1994, 2002), ‘constructivist’ (Wendt 1992), ‘historical’ (Kratochwil 2006), and ‘pragmatist’ (Deibert 1997; Neumann 2002; Rytövuori-Apunen 2005) frameworks. About ‘linguistic turns’ in IR, cf. Fierke (2002).
Henceforth, the abbreviation ‘CR’ is used to refer either to ‘Critical Realism’ as a metatheoretical framework, or to the adjective ‘Critical Realist’, for example in the case of ‘Critical Realist’ metatheory. The abbreviation ‘CRs’, on the other hand, refers to scholars who subscribe to Critical Realism.
To be clear, Kratochwil has been deeply pessimistic about the possibility of CR as the ‘new orthodoxy’. A good summary of this can be found, for example, in Kratochwil (2007b: 68−75).
It is worth noticing that pragmatism(s) has also increased its influence in IR as a general metatheoretical position. A pragmatist framework has been accepted, for example, in the works of Deibert (1997); Cochran (2002); Neumann (2002); Owen (2002); Rytövuori-Apunen (2005); Kratochwil (2007a); Kangas (2009); and Jackson (2008a, 2008b). Cf. also two special forums on pragmatism in IR, the first in Millennium 31(3) in 2002, and the second in International Studies Review 11(3) in 2009.
According to Monteiro and Ruby (2009: 17), metadebates tend to escalate substantial or methodological disagreements at a lower, foundational level, and to produce ‘imperial projects’ that ‘have contributed to the fragmentation of the discipline along meta-theoretical lines’.
The importance of metadebates lies in the claim that they affect not just the ways in which research is conducted but the very ways in which thinking is possible in a given discipline; agreements on metatheories may partly define the ‘common sense’ of the discipline. For example, as Guzzini (2000: 156) has stated, the ability to question the intellectual status quo of the discipline involves debates about philosophical as well as political commitments: ‘[m]etatheories do matter both empirically and politically’. Or as Wendt (1999: 34) put it, ‘empirical questions will be tightly bound up with ontological and epistemological ones; how we answer “what causes what?” will depend in important part on how we answer “what is there?” and “how do we study it?”’
A note to the reader: for the most part, we have focused our analysis of CR on the post-Wendtian works of Patomäki and Wight, which have broadened, and made more apparent, the emergence of CR within the contemporary (metatheoretical) debates of IR. This is especially the case on the European side of the discipline. However, references to Wendt's work are present in the text, too.
This idea of ‘broader’ causality is linked to an Aristotelian definition of causality, where Aristotle defined the notion not just as a ‘pushing and pulling’ or efficient causality, but more broadly based on four categories: material, formal, efficient and final causality. This ‘broadening’ of causal explanation allows the consideration (and assessment) of causes as complex and interacting. Cf. Kurki (2006: 206−9); also Bhaskar (1978: 121−2, 194−5, 1987: 54−55).
By ‘direct realism’ is meant the possibility of a ‘direct access’ to external reality in order to capture its way of being unhindered, as it is.
This definition draws from Jackson (2008a: 151).
Wendt's (1999: 59) realist answer to the problem of ‘indeterminacy of reference’ in which ‘natural kinds’ are claimed to be either very difficult or even impossible to specify as objects of reference (the latter especially due to the fact that ‘natural kinds’ might not have essential properties) is to claim that ‘natural kinds’ are constituted by ‘homeostatic clusters of properties’. In other words, ‘individual elements in these clusters might not be essential’. Instead, all ‘kind-definitions’ ought to be understood ‘in terms of “fuzzy sets” or “stereotypes” rather than necessary and sufficient conditions’.
According to Wendt (1999: 58−59), ‘[w]hat makes a theory true is the extent to which it reflects the causal structure of the world, but theories are always tested against other theories, not against some pre-theoretical ‘foundation’ for correspondence’. Thus, the answer to the question of ‘how can we know that a claim of reference is true’ must be that ‘we cannot’. However, he suggests that ‘we should have confidence only in the referents of “mature” theories that have proven successful in the world’. And he continues that even then ‘we can speak only of “approximate” truth’.
The notion of T-equivalence is related to the so-called Tarskian definition of truth where ‘the definition of truth for language L should entail all T-equivalences of the form x is true iff p where x is a name of a sentence in L and p is the translation of this sentence in the metalanguage ML’ (Niiniluoto 1999a: 59). Some philosophers have interpreted the Tarskian view as stating merely a relationship between two languages (e.g. an object-language L and the meta-language ML), not between language and reality. This is often called the ‘disquotational’ or ‘deflationary’ view of truth. A more realist view is suggested by Niiniluoto (1999a: 63−64; 1987: 137−8), according to whom the Tarskian definition of T-equivalence can be seen as a version of a correspondence theory of truth in which socially constructed sentences (in language L) are made true, and satisfied, ‘by objects in the world, not by their substitution instances in the language’. In this article, the notion of T-equivalence refers to the realist view (of correspondence).
Wight (2007c: 305) also claims, elsewhere, that ‘[a]lternative social theories think of their formal objects in differing terms and we should accept the possibility that some of these might be of value … [B]ecause I insist on the existence of a complex structured world beyond its ontological specification in any given theory, then I am also committed to the view that it is probably impossible to for any one theory to capture the totality of that reality’.
By ‘property-individuals’ Niiniluoto means objectively existing and necessary features or qualities (of material) located in time and space.
The problem of correspondence is particularly problematic in terms of unobservable entities. Empirically speaking, the history of science itself, and the so-called ‘pessimistic meta-induction’ (cf. e.g. Cummiskey 1992; Laudan 1981: 42), has shown that many widely accepted scientific theories with postulated unobservable entities have indeed been incorrect from the perspective of our current knowledge. Because of this, we must have doubts concerning unobservables even in the today's most warranted or mature scientific theories. Moreover, we have plenty of examples of theoretical concepts and entities that have been practically effective in scientific use but that have not, from today's perspective, genuinely referred (cf. Laudan 1981). Therefore, even if we endorsed the notion of correspondence and other semantically referring concepts, we simply wouldn’t have any way to know whether we are corresponding with reality correctly, or maybe just conducted, for instance, a functional ‘lucky or unlucky guess’ (Jackson 2008a: 138).
To elaborate the last claim a bit further: if we used the concept of ‘truth’ — if we said that something is ‘true’ — with realist commitments, we could be in danger of losing the fallibilism of our ‘truth claims’ simply because the very idea of claiming something true realistically implies, or the very least strongly suggests, that ‘true statements’ could not, and perhaps need not, be critically engaged in any way, for they are not only vouched by the external way of being, but are also, by the very definition, undeniably true, infallible, and therefore beyond doubt. But, if we deny the possibility of infallibilism, then the strict realist view on truth goes out the window. And if we also reject the notion of correspondence, not only the epistemological realist view based on the Tarskian T-equivalence (‘p’ is true iff p) but also truth as a metaphor can be seen trivial and unverifiable.
According to Niiniluoto (1999a: 67), this conclusion amounts to an ‘All-or-Nothing Fallacy’.
The problem for a realist is that in the cases of induction and deduction the origin of a valid or truthlike scientific hypothesis cannot be explained: these modes of inference are not ‘ampliative’ — or truth-increasing — but only ‘truth-reserving’. That is, in a deductive inference we must, of course, know beforehand the general hypotheses from which we deduce, and induction can only be used for the validation of a beforehand known hypotheses simply because a sample of data can be understood as a sample of some totality only if we know beforehand the totality in issue.
For a detailed discussion of this problem in the context of ‘downward causality’, cf. Kim (2006: 557–8).
By criticising the CR use of the notion of emergence, we do not, of course, want to endorse a positivist account of causality, but simply argue with Putnam (1992: 64) that the notion of causation is relative to human interests, in the sense that the things or reasons we say to be causes of something depend on the context and our understanding of the relevant alternative(s). In fact, the CR view on broad, emergent causality is an interesting contribution in the context of IR to the attempt to combine naturalism and holism. In particular, Kurki (2006: 209−10) concludes that the social world is a holistic combination of a multitude of irreducible causes, and thus the ascription of ‘causes’ must be seen as a question connected to our ‘pragmatic explanatory interests’.
By the (Jamesian) notion of ‘cash value’ we do not aim to promote cruder forms of utilitarianism or value-free and unemotional economic thinking in which merely the rationally (in its abstract sense, as opposed to its ‘bounded’ sense) inferred benefits would bear down on theory choice, or on human choices more generally.
From a pragmatist point of view, it is possible to be abductive non-realistically, or ‘internally’; one can postulate theoretical entities to offer plausible (natural) explanations for an amazing or troublesome phenomena or entity in the world, refer to these theoretical entities within (but not without) the scientific and/or common sense discursive formation and ontology, test the validity of such postulations in terms of concrete and empirical results, and when successful, gain warrants and reasons for their acceptability. New imaginative hypotheses can help us come up with metaphoric uses of language that create new associations and broader (and perhaps alternative) ways of explaining a phenomenon. Against Wendt's (1999: 47) claim that most IR scholars are at least ‘tacit realists’, we agree with van Fraassen (1980: 23) that ‘[m]erely following the ordinary patterns of science does not obviously and automatically make realists of us all’. However, and to be clear, we do not want to claim that scholars should blindly follow the existing, ordinary patterns of science, either.
The political nature of metatheoretical commitments applies, as Kurki correctly points out, also to other metatheoretical positions; for example, pragmatism is often accompanied by ‘liberal pluralist undertones’ (Kurki 2009: 449).
But, contrary to Monteiro and Ruby (2009), this need not be taken as a bad thing. As Kurki (2009: 452) points out, both philosophical and political views are often held strongly, and hence disagreement on both/either is not only probable but also desirable to some extent. Metatheoretical debates do not lead to ‘dead ends’ because they ‘fail to enhance understanding of our subject matter’, as claimed by Holsti (1989: 260). Instead, and as suggested by Kurki, they ‘provide, even if indirectly and in complex ways, an important grounding for political forms of argumentation in IR theory’.
The claim of conservatism is not, of course, limited and specific to CR metatheory. Social constructivist frameworks, pragmatism included, may lead to such ends, too. For the inverted critique of ‘authoritarianism’ (à la pragmatism), cf. Wight (2007b: 47−50).
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We thank Heikki Patomäki, Matti Jutila, David Leon, Jorge Rivas and the three external reviewers of JIRD for (both critical and constructive) comments on earlier drafts of the article. Special thanks go, without a doubt, to Patrick Jackson for his numerous suggestions and insights that helped us to finalise our argument, and to Mika Aaltola for supporting us in this line of research in the first place. We also thank the Department of Political Science at the University of Tampere, the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Academy of Finland for funding that made possible the development of this article. Lastly, we’d like to thank Raymond Duvall for allowing us to present an early version of the text at the MIRC, and David Blaney for helping us to get it for a publication track after that.
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Käpylä, J., Mikkola, H. ‘Getting things right?’: a reconsideration of critical realism as a metatheory for IR. J Int Relat Dev 14, 401–439 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2011.13
- axiology of International Relations
- correspondence theory of truth
- critical realism
- explanatory power