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International Studies Quarterly ~2000! 44, 213237.

After Postpositivism? The Promises


of Critical Realism
Heikki Patomki
Nottingham Trent University
and
Colin Wight
University of Wales, Aberystwyth

This article argues that the current self-understanding of IR theory is


misconceived and that it is time to move beyond the stagnant positivism0
postpositivism debate. We argue that the attempt to occupy a middle
ground compromise position between positivism and postpositivism is
untenable because these two positions share much in common. In this
sense a middle ground position between two problematic positions does
not produce a less problematic position. What is needed is a metatheo-
retical analysis of the two extreme positions. We attempt to show how
both positivism and postpositivism are embedded in a discourse of
philosophical anti-realism. This anti-realism occurs as a result of what
we call the post-Kantian-Humean problem-field of international rela-
tions from which most contemporary positivist, constructivist, and post-
structuralist IR approaches stem. We then try to overcome this problem-
field by means of radically reclaiming reality through a critical realist
philosophy. Once outlined we try to show how this critical realist phi-
losophy can help transcend some of the antinomies currently faced by
IR scholars.

Introduction: Two Wrongs Do Not Make a Right


For at least a decade now the positivist orthodoxy has been under a sustained
challenge from what are variously labelled reflectivist or postpositivist theories.
For many postpositivists, positivism is not only epistemologically and ontologi-
cally flawed; it is also co-responsible for many of the social ills and political
catastrophes of the modern world. Yet, for many positivists the postpositivist
assault amounts to advocating subjectivism, irresponsible relativism and lack of
standards, which work against conducting proper research and the effort to

Authors note: This article has benefited from the advice and comments of many people, none of whom might
wish to agree with all or any of the arguments. As such, ultimate responsibility, as always, rests with the authors. The
article has been greatly improved by the critical, yet encouraging, comments from the editors of International Studies
Quarterly and the anonymous reviewers. Numerous individuals have also commented on the work. A few in
particular require mention ~apologies for any omissions!: Stephen Chan, Thomas Forsberg, Ronen Palan, Magnus
Ryner, Ian Clarke, Michael Williams, Steve Smith, and Tim Dunne. We should also thank the participants of the
BISA panel After the State and Beyond Constructivism on 15 December 1998, at the University of Sussex,
Brighton, UK, for a stimulating discussion on the themes of the paper.

2000 International Studies Association.


Published by Blackwell Publishers, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK.
214 After Postpositivism?

make the human condition better. We think that, at least in many cases, both
suspicions carry some weight.
The typical solution in this kind of situation is to try to find a compromise
position, which would enable a constructive synthesis of the main points of both
positions. Indeed, it seems that in IR constructivism, in various guises, is rap-
idly emerging as a kind of a new middle ground ~Adler, 1997!. We find Wvers
~1992:186; 1996:165169; 1997:1823! schemes, summarized ~and slightly modi-
fied! in Figure 1, particularly helpful in understanding the current situation and
mainstream self-understanding in IR. The triangle in the middle is a variation of
the ~already anachronistic! inter-paradigm debate.
In the 1980s the main movements seemed to be towards a synthesis of neo-
liberalism and neo-realism ~the neo-neo debate spot in Figure 1! and the fading
away of Marxism as the third position. The main challenge that emerged in the
1980s, however, was that of the epistemological radicals ~postpositivists of all
sorts!. If the new radicals were radical enough ~like Ashley and Walker, 1990a; b!,
they exceeded, according to Wver, the boundary of negativity ~dotted line on
the epistemological axis!; and if the neo-neo scholars were too positivist ~like the
work of mathematical model builders or the Correlates of War project!, they
exceeded the boundary of boredom ~the other dotted line on the epistemo-
logical axis!. The happy face that has seemingly avoided all these pitfalls and has
found, by the late 1990s, a position in the middle of everything, is constructivism
~cf. Adler, 1997!.
As a story, illustrated by a nice picture, this may augur well for constructivism,
and other middle ground positions, particularly if we take for granted the wide-
spread de facto aversion against following strictly positivist, scientific methods
~the boundary of boredom! and against being too radical either politically or
epistemologically ~the boundary of negativity! ~Srensen, 1998!. The problem
is that, as it stands, this very loose category of the middle ground does not
really resolve any of the underlying problems. The dilemma is that where the
middle ground is deemed to be is a function of where one draws the bound-
aries. In this respect, the attractiveness of the middle ground for IR scholars is a
direct corollary of a particular understanding of the boundariesan understand-
ing we intend to challenge.
With the boundaries as currently conceptualized the middle ground does
indeed appear attractive. Although prima facie an appealing position, Max Weber
provides a damning indictment of this kind of middle-groundism. Weber held
that we should struggle relentlessly against the self-deception which asserts that
through the synthesis of several party points of view . . . practical norms of

Fig. 1. IR debates in the 1980s and 1990s


Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 215

scientific validity can be arrived at ~Weber, 1904:58!. Weber was here opposing
the nave idea that simply because positions differ from one another, a mid-
point synthesis that steers a line among them is somehow more objective and
less partisan. This is the position we fear that the current attempt to occupy the
middle ground in IR is in danger of articulating. A synthesis based on two
problematic metaphysical systems produces only a synthesis of two problematic
metaphysical positionsnot an improved metaphysical position.
The problem is how to move forward? How do we move beyond a sterile and
debilitating debate where one side chastises the other for its nave belief in a
world out there, while the other berates its mirror image for making the world
all in here and all the while a third position claims legitimacy in terms of its
middle-groundedness. Given that the debate, as currently framed, tends to be
primarily epistemological perhaps a more ontological focus could facilitate a
move forward. This is not to say that ontological considerations do not play a
role in current understandings, but we argue that where they have played a role
these ontological issues have been based on epistemological considerations. In
this respect we want to reverse a long-standing Western philosophical dogma;
that of the privileging of epistemological questions over ontological ones. Indeed,
we think that when viewed from an ontological perspective current understand-
ings of IR take on an altogether different hue.
Any attempt to locate oneself in the centre of current epistemological debates
without considering the ontological problematic risks duplicating the worst of
both extremes. It is not simply a scientific ontology we mean here, as in theo-
retical disagreements over whether states are the most important actors, for
example. What we mean by ontology is a philosophical ontology; an inquiry into
which is logically prior to the development of any scientific or social ontology
~Bunge, 1996!.
It is here that we think that the philosophy known as critical realism can be of
benefit to IR scholars ~for some of the key texts see Archer et al., 1998!.1 We
suggest that critical realism can incorporate many of the recent epistemological
developments and at the same time move the debate forward due to its focus on
ontological matters. Critical realism highlights the conditions of possibility for a
resolution of many of the theoretical, methodological, and praxiological cul-de-
sacs international relations theory currently finds itself in. From a critical realist
perspective and contrary to the dominant understandings within IR theory, the
boundaries of negativity and boredom are not diametrically opposed, but share
much in common.
The key to any move forward is not simply to take the middle ground, but to
engage with and challenge the extremities that constitute the conditions of
possibility for a certain understanding of the middle ground. This can only be
achieved through an examination of the boundaries of boredom and negativity,
or better, the theory problem-field within which they are constituted. Here lies
one of the benefits of metatheoretical inquiry to IR. In this piece we wish to
engage in just such a metatheoretical investigation in the hope of throwing some
light on some of the important contemporary problems facing IR scholars.
First, we locate a common structure to both the boundary of boredom and the
boundary of negativity. In this section we aim to show how both are embedded
upon a discourse of philosophical anti-realism. Second, we attempt to show,
through the philosophies of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, how this anti-
realism constitutes what we call the problem-field of IR, a problem-field that,
we argue, serves to construct a particular understanding of IR theory with a very
particular and restricted understanding of its own possibilities. Third, we develop

1
Critical realism is a position within the philosophy of science and social science. It has no relationship to
political realism. In fact we will argue that political realism rests upon an implicit philosophical anti-realism.
216 After Postpositivism?

a very brief account of our proposed alternative, critical realism. And fourth, we
try to show the difference that critical realism might make to a more ontologi-
cally attuned IR. In this section we argue against the incommensurability thesis
and in favor of epistemological pluralism and opportunism. We try to revive
causal theorizing by redefining causality in realist terms and by arguing that both
meaningful reasons and social structures are causally efficacious. Drawing on this
analysis we discuss the agent-structure problem and suggest how the social world
can be decomposed into causal and ontological elements. We also challenge
what we consider to be the misleading manner in which IR theory currently
understands the levels of analysis problem. Finally, we indicate how critical real-
ism has also normative implications for the study of IR.

Realism and Anti-Realism


Given the widespread acceptance of the view that positivism and postpositivism stand
as binary opposites the claim that they share much in common will likely strike many
IR scholars as perverse. Within the philosophy of science and social science, how-
ever, such a claim would not appear at all controversial. Larry Laudan, for exam-
ple, has explored the common structure of assumptions they share ~Laudan, 1996!.
Foucault openly admitted his empiricism and Peter Dews has even gone as far as to
label him a positivist ~Dews, 1987:184; Foucault, 1988:106!.2 One could quite easily
point to many of these shared assumptions; the fascination with language, for ex-
ample, which is hardly in doubt as far as postmodernism is concerned, but the fact
that the more radical of the logical positivists attempted to reduce philosophy, and
to an extent also science, to the systematic analysis of language, seen as logical state-
ments, seems to have been lost on IR scholars ~Feyerabend, 1995; see also Carnap,
1972!.
The attack on the Cartesian subject, again so energetically pursued by post-
modern writers, was carried out in an equally vigorous manner by positivists in
their attempt to purge the residues of subjectivity from their epistemology ~Kola-
kowski, 1969; Copjec, 1994!. Even in the relationship between facts and values
one can find evidence of a common structure, with many of those beyond the
boundary of negativity echoing the positivist injunction that one can never move
from facts to values; that value positions are simply divorced from factual con-
siderations ~Campbell, 1999!. One could, as Laudan and others have done, pro-
vide additional examples such as these, but we think there is a more fundamental
issue that unites these seemingly opposed positions, that of their anti-realism;
whether explicit or implicit.
A common postpositivist critique of mainstream IR ~for this read positivist! is
that of the supposed nave belief in a world out there ~George, 1994:11, 21!.
Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that for some postpositivists, Jim
George for example, positivism is nothing other than a belief in a world out
there ~George, 1994!. The paradox of Georges position is that he sees only
too clearly that positivism, as a philosophical position, is anti-realist. There is,
as George puts it, no logical basis, even in positivisms own terms, for the
proposition that knowledge of reality is directly derived from an independent
world out there ~George, 1994:53!.3 Martin Hollis has likewise claimed that
empiricist theories of knowledge ~upon which positivism is based! are anti-
realist at bottom ~Hollis, 1996:303304!. George notes that this issue has never
been raised in a serious way anywhere in IR ~George, 1994:53!. We raise it now,

2
We think it is important here not to lapse into a facile rejection of positivism where the function of the term
is simply to label a body of work one disagrees with. Although we fundamentally disagree with positivism we view
it as an important, although flawed, body of thought within philosophy.
3
The issue of a common anti-realism has also been noted by Alexander Wendt. See Wendt, 1999.
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 217

but draw different conclusions than those of George. Because having noted the
implicit anti-realism of positivism it is paradoxical that George adopts such a
position himself.
According to George ~who might be considered by some to be beyond the
boundary of negativity! the objects and subjects of reality are sociolinguistically
constructed ~George, 1994:156!. Compare just how close this position comes to
that of Kenneth Waltz, considered by many postpositivist writers to be beyond
the boundary of boredom. For Waltz, what we think of as reality is itself an
elaborate conception constructed and reconstructed through the ages. Reality
emerges from our selection and organisation of materials that are available in
infinite quantity ~Waltz, 1979:5!.
From an ontologically orientated perspective both the positivists and the post-
positivists share a common metaphysical structure. For positivists the real is
defined in terms of the experienced ~esse est percipi ! and for many postpositivists
in terms of language0discourse ~esse est dictum esse!. What can be considered real
always bears the mark, or insignia, of some human attribute; in effect, an anthro-
pocentric philosophy ~Bhaskar, 1989:147!. We argue that this anthropocentrism
is problematic, tying, as it does, existence to its being experienced or being
spoken. Yet to be means more than to be experienced or to be spoken. A
world prior to the emergence of humanity is a condition of possibility for that
emergence. Even the term construction, employed by both George and Waltz,
implies a set of materials, whether social or natural, out of which this so-called
reality is constructed and which have to exist prior to the construction.
But does this latent anti-realism make any difference? After all, even though
many ~though not all! postpositivists claim that nothing exists outside of dis-
course ~Campbell, 1998:24 25!, they continue to refer to it ~Wight, 1999!. And
positivists, despite dismissing talk of an independently existing reality as meta-
physical, still construct theories that treat nonobservable theoretical entities as
if they existed. We think, however, that an explicit commitment to ontological
realism has real consequences.
On the boundary of negativity, in terms of epistemology, the denial of objects
existing independently of the discourses that construct them as objects seems
unable to differentiate between competing truth claims ~Norris, 1996!. If dis-
courses construct the objects to which the discourses refer, then the discourse
itself can never be wrong about the existence of its objects, in any meaningful or
methodologically interesting way. Nor can an alternative discourse possibly cri-
tique another discourse, since the objects of a given discourse exist if the dis-
course says they exist. External criticism of the existential claims of discourses
seems impossible. Ontologically, if discourses do construct their own objects,
then what constructed the discourses themselves? There is, of course, a long and
venerable philosophical tradition of overt idealism that attempts to answer just
this question. For example, for Berkeley it was God, for Hegel, Geist. We are
unconvinced by these arguments, but if IR scholars want to adopt idealist posi-
tions then let us at least have the arguments in the open where they might be
assessed. Methodologically, and despite the rhetoric of the new, we see little
change in the manner of research practices beyond the boundary of negativity.
Arguments are still advanced and assessed, evidence offered, and independently
existing objects, whether created in the discourse or not, are still referred to.
Those beyond the boundary of boredom fare little better. Epistemology and
ontology become tied together ~what Bhaskar calls the epistemic fallacy!; what is
known is what can be experienced and0or observed and what is is what can be
known. Nonobservable theoretical entities are treated instrumentally. They are
mere fictions, useful perhaps but in no sense can they be considered real. Note
also that this empiricist metaphysics can never achieve the flight from subjectiv-
ity and hence the objectivity it so desires. The tying of existence to experience
218 After Postpositivism?

implies a subject capable of experiencing. There can be no experience without


someone to experience. The world out there is inextricably tied to the world
in here. Methodologically, the useful little fictions become not just useful but
indispensable and even the arch-Dadist Paul Feyerabend declared realism far
superior to instrumentalism ~Feyerabend, 1985!.
There are two further reasons why a more explicit acceptance of realism is de-
sirable. First, as noted above, and despite denials to the contrary, the commitment
to realism is a condition of possibility for science and one that all parties adhere to;
for positivists, sense-experience is real; for postpositivists, discourses or intersub-
jectivity is real. Hence the question becomes not whether one should be a realist,
but of what kind? But realism comes in many forms and the depth realism advo-
cated by critical realism plays a crucial role in defending the very idea of inquiry
itselfin effect science. For beyond the boundary of negativity, if objects are con-
structed in discourses then there is simply nothing more to discover. Everything
that is an object of discourse would be said to exist, that which is not an object of
discourse would not exist. Science, at least as currently practised, would come to
an end. A recent example of this comes from Sherry Turkle, who argues that in our
postmodern world the search for depth and mechanism is futile, that it is more
realistic to explore the world of shifting surfaces than to embark on a search for
origins and structure . . . the future does not lie in this really, really question. It
lies in taking things at interface value ~Turkle, 1999!.
Beyond the boundary of boredom, on the other hand, if it works on the pre-
sumption of as if they existed, then why continue an inquiry into whether or not
they really exist and have whatever form? There is simply no need to go beyond the
appearances and inquire into the nature of things, in effect, the same position as
Turkle advocates. Science would come to an end when we could save the appear-
ances. David Hume provides a less contemporary example, but one that graphi-
cally illuminates the affinities between those beyond both boundaries:

tis still certain we cannot go beyond experience; and any hypothesis, that pre-
tends to discover the ultimate original qualities of human nature, ought at first
to be rejected as presumptuous and chimerical. . . . When we see that we have
arrived at the utmost extent of human reason, we sit down contented. ~Hume,
1967:8889!

The depth realism we advocate, on the other hand, challenges both of these
positions. We argue that part of the rationale for science is the attempt to know
whether or not things are really as described, and what it is that makes them
appear as such. Science on this account never comes to an end. No claim is ever
immune from challenge. Discourses can be, and often are wrong about their
objects, and the assumption of as if they exist is at best a short-term solution.
The world is real and science is dependent upon the making of existential
hypotheses. This is not, however, to advocate a blind allegiance to science, for as
Bhaskar puts it, science is not

a supreme or overriding value, but only one among others to be balanced ~in a
balance that cannot be wholly judged by science! in ergonic, emancipatory and
eudaimonistic activity. Nor do I think the objects of science exhaust reality. On
the contrary, they afford only particular angle or slant of reality, picked out
precisely for its explanatory scope and power. ~Bhaskar, 1993:15!

In this manner, scientific outputs, understood simply as knowledge that attempts


to explain, still require social evaluation.4 The above arguments provide com-

4
Examples of this process are the public debates over genetically modified food and human cloning.
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 219

pelling arguments for taking critical realism seriously. But before turning to
outline some of the differences critical realism might make to IR, we want to
provide a sketch of how it is that IR, in common with other social sciences, finds
itself in the two boundaries and middle ground position and that the manner in
which this latent anti-realism helps construct such an understanding.5 Our main
target here will be the anti-realism and deep scepticism that plays a major role in
the construction of the boundaries of both boredom and negativity.

Hume, Kant, and the Loss of the World


We will try to show in this section that the postpositivist reaction to positivism is
embedded within the same background discourse and is derived from a long
philosophical tradition of anti-realism0scepticism. We do not mean to suggest
that we identify philosophical irrealism as the single master-source of all con-
temporary problems in IR theory. But we do suggest that a more explicit and
attentive explication of the issue of realism is a necessary condition in order for
IR to move beyond the two boundaries given that anti-realism is fundamental to
both.
Every problem, whether practical-political or theoretical, has a set of in-built
presuppositions. Put togetherto the extent that there is some consistency
these presuppositions form what Bhaskar calls a theory0problem solution field
~henceforth a problem-field!. Our argument is that those beyond the bound-
aries of boredom and negativity share the same problem-field despite the
surface rhetoric that separates them.6
Leaving aside the crucially important socioeconomic and political context of
the emergence of this problem-field ~but see Toulmin, 1990:1322! it emanates
from a number of metaphysical presuppositions. Although many philosophers
such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Lockewere quite explicit about the atomism,
rationalism, dualisms and empiricism on which they were grounding their polit-
ical theories, it was the much more secular and anti-theological eighteenth
century philosopher David Hume who most clearly articulated and developed
the implications of this modern metaphysics.7
Humes importance to the problem-field we identify is multifaceted, but
given the limitations of space we will focus on his influential account of causa-
tion, which is accepted by those beyond both boundaries, and which, crucially, is
derived from his thoroughgoing scepticism and anti-realism. Hume was radically
sceptical about the persistence and existence of reality outside the human mind
and perceptions. For Hume, there are only perceptions based upon Impressions,
and Ideas, which, if they are justified can only be legitimated on the basis of
experience. That is, he claimed that there is nothing outside an individuals
perceptions0experience. In common with most forms of scepticism Hume was
deriving ontological arguments from epistemological ones. Since we can never
know whether there is an external reality, the only reality we can legitimately
refer to is that which can be experienced. Humes scepticism constituted the
ground upon which empiricist theories of knowledge are based.
Since experience could not be divorced from a subject which experiences,
Hume concluded that the science of man is the only solid foundation for the
other sciences ~Hume, 196701739:88!. And the basis of this science of man can
only be that of experience and observation ~Hume, 196701739:88!.

5
On this issue see Wight, 1998.
6
By a theory0problem solution field we mean the set of unchallenged theoretical assumptions and the
inevitable solutions such assumptions generate ~Bhaskar, 1994:10!. The following argument will be outlined in
more detail in ~forthcoming!.
7
Our reading of Hume and Kant and their importance is in many ways informed by Bhaskar, 1986:224 308.
220 After Postpositivism?

As with most sceptics, and despite his denial of reality, Hume, in practice,
adhered to a form of empirical realism. But in limiting what can be meaningfully
said of the world to what could be experienced, Hume faced a difficult problem
vis--vis causation. Hume noted that a common-sense understanding of causality
involves the notion of force through which the cause somehow produces the
effect; in essence a necessary connection. But, and as a result of his scepticism,
Hume argued that since no such force or necessary connection can be empiri-
cally verified ~experienced!, such a common-sense understanding is in error. For
Hume, causation is just one of the three bonds that unite our thoughts together
~Hume, 197501777:50!. All we ever observe, he argued, is the constant conjunc-
tion of events. This account of causation has been hugely influential and even
among those scholars who reject causal talk in terms of the social world, the
account of causation being rejected is generally that of Hume ~e.g., see Hollis
and Smith, 1994!.
But Humes scepticism also played a role in the formation of his political
thinking. His radical scepticism implied the view that nothing can ever change
and that although things were co-joined ~in the human mind! they were never
really connected.8 It is thereby no surprise that in his study on the balance of
power, Hume concludes:

In short the maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded so much on


common sense and obvious reasoning, that it is impossible it could altogether
have escaped antiquity, where we find, in other particulars, so many marks of
deep penetration and discernment. ~Hume, 195001825:107!

Although Hume presupposed the modern political theoretical problem of order


~see Hirschman, 1977!, he taught that there has always been a balance of power
politics. This belief is driven by his metaphysical conviction that there have been
no real changes and that there can be none. Since when we say that one object
is connected with another, we mean only that they have acquired a connexion in
our thought ~Hume, 197501777:76!, the balance of power is itself a construct of
the mind. Little wonder that Hume thought that it has always existed and always
will, at least insofar as there are minds. It is also telling how Hume argues that
the balance of power has no practical effect. In Humes view statesmen are
driven by their passions, not by rational considerations or the external world
~which of course he denies!; again a condition that does not change and one at
least consistent with his radical scepticism. In terms of morality Humes scepti-
cism served to ground a form of self-interest far more radical than that of
Hobbes. Consistent with his scepticism Hume famously declared that it is not
contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching
of my finger ~quoted in Bhaskar, 1994:192!. However, although Hume was a
seminal influence in the construction of the problem-field of IR, it was Kant
who finally put all the pieces together and gave the familiar shape IR confronts
today.
Awoken from his dogmatic slumbers by Humes scepticism, Kant systemat-
ically collected the pieces of the problem-field together. Kant was concerned
to refute Humes scepticism of an external reality and, in a widely influential
solution, posited two worldsthat of phenomena0noumena. At the level of
phenomenathe world we experienceKants world is ultimately Humean. But
this phenomenal world we inhabit was not the real world for Kant. As a tran-
scendental idealist, Kant also introduced the noumenal worldthe site of rea-
son and morality. Yes, there was a real world but we could know nothing of it.
The only world we could meaningfully speak of was that which we could know;

8
Again, this argument was also advanced by Hobbes ~1909:19 21!.
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 221

the phenomenal world. If there is indubitable scientific knowledge of, and an


objective order to, this phenomenal world, argued Kant, then it emanates from
the universal categories of understandingnot the nature of the world itself.
Time, space, form, content, meaning, and hence causation, in effect the world
we confront, were all categories of the mind. Again, as with Hume, the prac-
tical effect of giving priority to the epistemological question of what we can
know over the ontological question of what there is to know is an impoverished
ontology. Kants answer to Humes scepticism was achieved through the cutting
of his ontological cloth to fit his epistemological givens.
Kants world is dualistic; there is no way that noumena ~moral reasons! could
have any causal impact on phenomena ~determinist causal processes of the
world!. For Kant, freedom was defined as spontaneity and in no way could an
act be considered free if it was in any way caused. Hence, the noumenal world
was cut off from the determinist world of causal phenomena. Science could hope
to understand the phenomenal world where all events and processes can, in
principle, be subsumed under a causal order, but the noumenal worldthe site
of reasoncould not be explained causally. As Kant himself puts it, we are
dealing with two kinds of causality conceivable by us; causality according to
nature or that which arises from freedom ~Kant, 1934:253268!. And there is
simply no way to link these two worlds, because freedom is defined as a state of
spontaneity . . . @s#uch causality will not, therefore, itself stand under another
cause determining it in time, as required by the law of nature ~Kant, 1934:253
268!. Nor can reason bring about any change in the causal order of things since
no action begins in this active being itself ~Kant, 1934:257!.
International relations develops under the shadow of this dualistic problem-
field and the following is meant to be only suggestive of this development ~see
Patomki, forthcoming!. For Hegel, Kants solution represented an act of cow-
ardice. It was cowardice because, at the end of the day, it had to turn to other-
worldly solutions in its search for morality and rationality.9 Hegel wanted to
show that the existing world is already rational by uniting Kants two worlds into
one through Geist; itself manifested through the statethe Divine Idea on
Earth.10
It was in this intellectual context that the term Realpolitik was coined in Ger-
many after the unsuccessful revolutionary year of 1848. Generally, ideas of Real-
politik were developed by the disillusioned liberals who drew the conclusion that
liberal thinkers should denounce their ambitious programs of change ~Palonen,
1987:99 102!. Realpolitik can be understood as a reaction to Kants idealist nou-
mena and the rationalist Enlightenment thinking. After all, what use was a
world in which we could do nothing and know nothing of ? Far better, is it not,
to deal only with the phenomenal world which we inhabit?
The other key figure in the development of this problem-field is Max Weber
~about the centrality of Weber to the twentieth century IR, see for instance
Smith, 1986!. Weber was a synthetic thinker who combined ideas from Hume,
Kant, Hegel, romantic and hermeneutical thinkers ~themselves drawing on Kant!
such as Schleiermacher, Realpolitik pessimists such as Nietzsche, as well as turn-
of-the-century positivists. In domestic politics, Weber was a liberal, a sceptical
and sometimes critical believer in modernization ~and rationalization and secu-
larization! as progress. Sometimes he was simply fatalistic and in terms of inter-
national relations he articulated a vision that denied the possibility of progress
and emancipation. Weber thought that outside of modern nations, there are no

9
To rescue his moral convictions, Kant resorted to a speculative theory of possible historical development, and
ultimately, to his faith in Providence. Although Kants theory of possible history is not without merits, it does not
resolve the ontological problem. See Kant, 198301783, and 198301784.
10
On the relationship between Hegel and critical realism see Bhaskar, 1993.
222 After Postpositivism?

shared values, only the quasi-Nietzschean struggle of wills-to-power of different


charismatic national leaders.
Hans Morgenthau brought this German Realpolitik discourse to the U.S. Here
in his most Nietzschean moment, contrasting idealizations of scientific man to
the brute realities of power politics, and through his appeal to Hume implicitly
invoking Kants dualistic world view:

Aristotle anticipated this modern problem, as so many others, when he remarked


in the Nicomachean Ethics: Intellect itself, however, moves nothing. When
rationalism was reaping its philosophic triumph, Hume could say: Reason is,
and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any
other office than to serve and obey them. ~Morgenthau, 1946:154!

The Morgenthau of Scientific Man vs. Power Politics was extremely sceptical about
finding any scientific knowledge about the world, because, ultimately, the world
is romantically tragic and Nietzschean. Interestingly, Nietzsche also relied upon
the Humean account of the phenomenal world; he believed that Humes ~English
petit bourgeois! scepticism could be rewritten in terms of the metaphysical
voluntarism of will-to-power. Some postmodernists are very close to repeating
this pattern ~on the close links between the Humean notion of causality, scep-
ticism, Nietzsche, and many forms of deconstruction, see Culler, 1983:86 87!.
And, finally, we have the Unhappy Consciousness of the Christian realists such
as Niebuhr, and early Butterfield and Wight, who saw the origin of world his-
torical tragedies to lie in the original sin of humankind, and thought that the
salvation must be other-wordly, too. Many of these sceptical and anti-Enlightenment
IR thinkers took for granted the Kantian dualism between the phenomenal
world of Humean causality and the noumenal world of reason and meanings. On
the other hand, Humean and Nietzschean tenets notwithstanding, the founding
role of anti-realism and scepticism was gradually forgotten, particularly in the
scientistic U.S. American discourse attempting to deal with the world as it is.
Note that all the classical IR debates are within this same problem-field. This
holds obviously true for idealism vs. realism, but also for the great method-
ological debate of the 1960s, which was a dispute between the scientists and the
advocates of a more hermeneutically orientated IR. And the so-called Third
debate between positivism and postpositivism is within the same problem-field,
with many Nietzschean deconstructionists and hermeneuticists relying upon the
Kantian dichotomy between reasons and causal phenomena. What typically goes
unnoticed is the role played by scepticism and anti-realism in structuring these
debates.
And it is here that the importance of Hume, Kant, and the implicit anti-
realism of empiricist theories of knowledge cannot be overstated. Kant, who
articulated the IR problem-field, relied upon a Humean ontology. The ontol-
ogy of Kants phenomenal world is essentially that of Hume. The existence of
another world ~Kants noumenal world! opens up the possibility of transcending
Hume, but Kant closes off this possibility by divorcing the world of reason from
that of causation. In effect, Kant forces a sharp separation between the material
and ideational. And what has been ripped apart in this manner is very difficult,
if not impossible, to reunite. Scholars operating in the shadow of this problem-
field are now faced with two alternatives; either accept the phenomenal world as
it is and with it Humes atomistic and deterministic individualism, or divorce the
world of reason from that of physical causation and perhaps even causation itself.
Explanation vs. Understanding, Rationalism vs. Reflectivism, Positivism vs. Post-
positivism are all embedded within the same problem-field.
We argue that a rethinking of this problem-field requires a substantially
different understanding of the ontological problematic, one that reverses the
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 223

long-standing prioritising of epistemological matters over ontological ones. Crit-


ical realism, we argue, is suggestive of potential solutions to these problems,
because of its radical break with both Humean scepticism and Kantian transcen-
dental idealism. Critical realism provides an alternative problem-field which
embeds the social within the material without reducing one to the other.

Critical Realism
Every theory of knowledge must also logically presuppose a theory of what the
world is like ~ontology! for knowledge ~epistemology! to be possible. Or as Bhaskar,
inverting a Hegelian aphorism, puts it, all philosophies, cognitive discourses
and practical activities presuppose a realismin the sense of some ontology or
general account of the worldof one kind or another ~Bhaskar, 1989:2!. The
question is not of whether to be a realist, but of what kind of realist to be. We
have attempted to show how the boundaries of both negativity and boredom
share a common problem-field, which is structured by various forms of anti-
realism0scepticism. We have also argued that those beyond the boundary of
boredom tend to be empirical realists and those beyond the boundary of nega-
tivity tend towards linguistic realism. We want to now situate a different problem-
field: one that takes the possibility of a deeper realism to be a condition of
possibility for both empirical and linguistic realism. The form of realism we
advocate can be called critical realism ~for essential readings, see Archer et al.,
1998!.
There are two distinct ways in which critical realism differs from empirical and
linguistic realism. First, according to critical realism the world is composed not
only of events, states of affairs, experiences, impressions, and discourses, but also
of underlying structures, powers, and tendencies that exist, whether or not detected
or known through experience and0or discourse. For critical realists this under-
lying reality provides the conditions of possibility for actual events and perceived
and0or experienced phenomena. According to critical realists, empirical and
linguistic realists collapse what are, in effect, different levels of reality into one
~Bhaskar, 1975:56!. For both the underlying reality that makes experience pos-
sible and the course of events that is not experienced0spoken are reduced to
what can be experienced or become an object of discourse.
Second, for critical realism the different levels may be out of phase with each
other. What we mean is that although the underlying level may possess certain
powers and tendencies, these are not always manifest in experience, or even for
that matter realized. A nuclear arsenal has the power to bring about vast destruc-
tion and this power exists irrespective of being actualized. Moreover, this power
is itself based on more than that which we directly experience. The conception
we are proposing is that of a world composed, in part, of complex things ~includ-
ing systems and complexly structured situations! that, by virtue of their struc-
tures, possess certain powers, potentials, and capacities to act in certain ways
even if those capacities are not always realized. The world on this view consists of
more than the actual course of events and experiences and0or discourses about
them.
Science, in this view, is not a deductive process that attempts to seek out
constant event conjunctions, but one that aims at identifying and illuminating
the structures, powers, and tendencies that structure the course of events. A
significant part of what constitutes science is the attempt to identify the relatively
enduring structures, powers, and tendencies, and to understand their character-
istic ways of acting. Explanation entails providing an account of those structures,
powers and tendencies that have contributed to, or facilitated, some already
identified phenomenon of interest. It is important to note that the mode of
inference implied by critical realism is neither deduction nor induction, but
224 After Postpositivism?

retroduction. This consists in the movement, on the basis of analogy and meta-
phor amongst other things, from a conception of some phenomenon of interest
to the development of a model of some totally different type of thing, structure,
or condition that, at least in part, is responsible for the given phenomenon.
From this perspective there can be no a priori assumption that the scientific
endeavour could ever come to an end. For as one phenomenon is explained by
a deeper level, that deeper level itself becomes a new phenomenon that requires
explanation. Equally, as deeper layers are revealed and understood, the knowl-
edge we gain of them may necessitate that we revise our understandings of the
original phenomenon. Science is seen to proceed through a constant spiral of
discovery and understanding, further discovery, and revision, and hopefully more
adequate, understanding. Note also that in this view there can be no such thing
as the scientific method. Such an ontologically oriented perspective implies,
given the commitment to a structured and differentiated reality, that each sci-
ence will require its own methods of inquiry. But equally, each science, insofar as
it attempts to explain, will still be a science.
Critical realism, then, differs from empirical and linguistic realism in viewing
the world as, in part, composed of objects, including causal laws which are
structured and, to adopt Bhaskars term, are intransitive to those that would
wish to come to know them. This intransitive dimension to the world is irreduc-
ible to events and their patterns and it is these structures, powers, and tendencies
that are designated in causal laws, not Humean constant conjunctions.
This intransitive dimension to science, however, is, of course, only one side of
the equation. As is already implied in the rejection of the idea that this deeper
level of reality is immediately given in experience, another dimension to science
is necessary in order to make sense of knowledge production. Rejecting, for the
sake of intelligibility, that knowledge of these underlying structures emerges ex
nihilo, it would seem that it must come about through a transformation of
pre-existing knowledge; a set of antecedent materials, what Bhaskar calls transi-
tive objectstheories, paradigms, models, facts, speculations, linguistic conven-
tions, beliefs, hunches, hypotheses, guesses, symbolic gestures, and so on.
Knowledge, then, is a social product, actively produced by means of antecedent
social productsalbeit on the basis of a continual engagement, or interaction,
with its ~intransitive! object. That is, widely different theories can interpret the
same, unchanging world in radically different ways. However, because it is knowl-
edge of an independently existing reality, knowledge is not totally arbitrary and
some claims about the nature of this reality may provide better accounts than
others.
In summary, the critical realist problem-field we advocate can be said to be
committed to ontological realism ~that there is a reality, which is differentiated,
structured, and layered, and independent of mind!, epistemological relativism
~that all beliefs are socially produced and hence potentially fallible!, and judg-
mental rationalism ~that despite epistemological relativism, it is still possible, in
principle, to provide justifiable grounds for preferring one theory over another!.
But can this new problem-field be applied to the study of the social world?
In the social world, are things not radically different, because the specific mate-
rial structure of the social worldits institutions, social relations, and practices
are dependent upon social meanings in numerous ways? Thus, as part of the
object, the ideas, beliefs, concepts, and knowledge held by people in societies
must be understood. In studying social objects, such as war, nationality, and
gender, we must interpret what these and other relevant social objects mean for
the subjects whose practices constitute these objects. In a sense the study of the
social world requires that the subject become part of its object. This necessitates
an essential critical component to all properly conceived social sciences. For any
given social object will necessarily be constituted by, inter alia, a set of practices
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 225

~themselves concept dependent! and a number of ideas about those practices.


Insofar as some of the ideas and beliefs circulating within social groups about a
given set of practices may be incorrect, a social scientist who identifies these
incorrect beliefs must necessarily be critical of them. And if this sociological
account contradicts the participants understanding of the situation it must nec-
essarily be critical of these understandings.
This constitutes a radical difference between the study of the social world and
the natural world, but it does not, in our opinion, violate the intransitive nature
of social phenomena in relation to those minds or persons who would wish to
come to know it. The social world certainly depends upon the concepts that the
agents acting in it possess, but it cannot be the case that any given social phe-
nomenon requires the existence of a social scientist to conceptualise it before it
can come into being. Equally, the deep ontology suggested by critical realism
also foregrounds a stark contrast to positivist and postpositivist ontologies deeply
embedded with the problem-field of IR. On a critical realist reading, the social
world cannot be reduced either to its experiential moment or to its intersubjec-
tive elements. That the social world consists of more than can be experienced is
self-evident from the importance of ideas, beliefs, concepts, and knowledge to
the social world.
Some of those beyond the boundaries of boredom, behavioralists, for exam-
ple, attempt to deny the validity of this notion of depth to the social world by
taking only observable behaviors as worthy of inquiry and it should be obvious
how impoverished this ontology is. But as one would expect from approaches
deriving from a common problem-field, many of those beyond the boundary
of negativity and even some attempting to occupy the middle ground tend to
define society solely in terms of intersubjectivity or practices ~Doty, 1997!. Alex-
ander Wendt, for example, seems to view the difference between the individual
and society as that between the subjective and the intersubjective, hence his
claim that the social world is ideas all the way down ~Wendt, 1992!.11 Society,
for Wendt, is intersubjectivity. But what is lost with this definition?
To critical realism the intersubjective merely represents one important and
necessary part of the social. Yet, important as intersubjective meanings and
relations are, they do not exhaust the social world. According to Bhaskar ~1979:152
205! intersubjective relations typically represent only the immediate appearance
of the social relations that constitute society, even if they are also necessary for
the ~re!production of all social relations. Thus for Bhaskar, the surface appear-
ance of intersubjectivity, although possessing causal power, is typically distinct
from its underlyingand potentially hidden, reified, or mystifiedessential
relations.

Putting Critical Realism to Work in IR

The Incommensurability Thesis


Critical realism shares with postpositivist approaches a commitment to method-
ological and epistemological pluralism. Yet the incommensurability thesis threat-
ens any nascent multi-paradigmatic approach.12 If incommensurability entails
that meaningful communication across paradigms is, in principle, impossible,
then any form of multi-paradigmatic inquiry would seem to be futile. In effect,
although incommensurability seems to provide the rationale to keep the con-

11
Although it should be noted that Wendt has recently added a question mark to this assertion ~Wendt, 1999!.
However, according to critical realism the social world can no more be ideas all the way down than it can be
materiality all the way down.
12
For a more detailed refutation of the incommensurability thesis and its attendant problems see Wight, 1996.
226 After Postpositivism?

versation going, no real conversation takes place. Within international rela-


tions the argument for incommensurability is generally attributed to Thomas
Kuhn ~1970a!. Although superficially a liberating position, Kuhns thesis quickly
legitimates a stagnant conservatism ~Guzzini, 1993:446; Wight, 1996!. For Kuhn,
normal science represents that phase when problems are solved, but crucially, it
also describes a situation in which one paradigm dominates.
Given the complexity and open nature of the social world, however, it is
hardly possible that one paradigm could ever dominate. Taking a complex social
ontology seriously requires a commitment to a multi-paradigmatic approach. But
if the incommensurability thesis holds then any attempt to put a multi-
paradigmatic approach into practice is doomed to failure. The incommensura-
bility thesis legitimates apartheid for paradigms where proponents of competing
paradigms assume that they alone know ~epistemological incommensurability!
the truth of the world they have created ~ontological incommensurability!. Incom-
mensurability buttresses competing approaches from criticism from alternative
approachesa situation we find deplorable since we consider all claims should,
at least potentially, be open to challenge. But what are the arguments for incom-
mensurability?
Incommensurability signifies the idea that there is no common measure among
paradigms of inquiry.13 It can take either an ontological or epistemological
form. The ontological argument is actually a non sequitur. For if two theories0
paradigms have different objects, then they cannot be said to clash. In order
for theories to clash they must clash over something. Einsteins theory of rela-
tivity does not clash with Darwins theory of evolution. Strictly speaking, the
idea that theories of different parts of reality are incommensurable is true, but
uninteresting. Of course, theories can clash and posit different ontologies in
their attempt to explain some phenomenon. Note, however, that in order to be
interesting, and to be said to clash, some aspects of the phenomenon remain
constant and what changes0clashes are the explanations of the phenomenon.
All theories that attempt to explain the end of the Cold War accept that
certain important episodes and changes took place, which require explanation.
It is obvious that theories understand the Cold War and its end in different
waysand many of them misidentify both badly ~see Patomki, 1992a!. But they
accept that they are referring to at least partially same real phenomenon. If they
did not we could not know that they were clashing. Admittedly, in the attempt to
explain, some events will be privileged over others, and it may be the case that
some events undergo a comprehensive redescription such that they are no lon-
ger recognizable under the old descriptions. But even in these situations it is rare
for there to be no overlap among phenomena. For if there were no ontological
overlap in what sense could we say the accounts clashed? In this sense, critical
realisms refocusing of ontological questions escapes the problem-field of IR
and directs our attention to the question of ontological overlap between theo-
ries.14 Put simply, if there is no ontological overlap then there is little point in
trying to compare theories, or bemoaning the fact that we cant.
The epistemological argument for incommensurability is altogether more inter-
esting, although, we think, no more convincing. This epistemological argument
suggests that since different theories0paradigms have different epistemological

13
It seems to us that the argument that there is no neutral metalanguage with which to compare competing
theories is basically sound. However, this does not mean that communication0translation across theories0paradigms
is impossible. If one is translating from one language into another one does not first have to learn a neutral third
language in order to communicate. Interestingly, Kuhn was keen to distance himself from some of the more radical
interpretations of the incommensurability thesis that have emerged ~see Kuhn, 1970b, 1982, 1990!.
14
For how this kind of analysis is done in the context of explaining the Economic and Monetary Union, see
Patomki, 1997.
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 227

criteria then there is simply no way to compare them; the evidence accepted by
one may be rejected by the other. Yet the epistemological argument rests upon
the fallacious assumption that paradigms are embedded in one, and only one,
epistemological outlook, and are hermetically sealed. We find this assumption
wholly implausible.
For example, Martin Hollis and Steve Smith suggest that explanatory accounts
and interpretive accounts necessitate different epistemologies ~Hollis and Smith,
1991, 1994!. It seems to us that Hollis and Smith are confusing epistemologies
with methodologies. Given that the social world constitutes a different kind of
object compared to atoms, for example, it is hardly surprising that its study will
require a different set of methods, but methods are not epistemologies. This
Explanation vs. Understanding controversy is embedded within the IR problem-
field. Yet what can it mean to talk of an interpretative epistemology? Or an
explanatory epistemology? The reduction of Explanation and Understanding to
one and only one epistemology does violence to the many disputes that have
shaped and formed debates within these traditions. Explanations ~taken to mean
a commitment to scientific methods! can be empiricist, rationalist, pragmatist,
and0or conventionalist in epistemological outlook. And of course, these episte-
mologies should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.
The more appropriate epistemological stance is one of epistemological
opportunism: anything goes, as far as there are good reasons for it and it
gives the promise of advancing our knowledge ~cf. Feyerabend, 1995:123!. Equally,
epistemological speculation in an ontological vacuum is at best arbitrary and
invariably leads to debilitating disputes over epistemological turf. Obvi-
ously, these good reasons are contested and should be discussed also in the
context of concrete research puzzles. Critical realism nonetheless suggests that
the plausibility of existential hypotheses and the explanatory power and origi-
nality of models are crucial. But so is the capability to incorporate different
perspectives.
The rejection of ontological and epistemological incommensurability, how-
ever, does not demonstrate how communication between different approaches
might be achieved in practice. What it does demonstrate is that such communi-
cation is, in principle, possible.
Ontologically the social world is composed of a fragmented interplay of prac-
tices based on various partial, relational perspectives, and a more comprehensive
perspective is achieved by transcending and adapting these partial perspectives
and synthesising them into a broader, non-reductive perspective capable of incor-
porating the strengths of all. Note, however, that this does not imply the destruc-
tion of competing perspectives. The synthesis we advocate does not imply a
grand theory of everything. This, we think, is the real methodological import of
Nietzschean perspectivism ~Nietzsche, 1989:119!. What is important to realize is
that this process is continual. No synthesis can ever be absolute and final: reality
is constantly changing, and so there can only be a dynamic synthesis that is
constantly being reformulated.
The dynamic synthesis that we advocate can be achieved only if the relativity
and the partial nature of all perspectives is recognized, appreciated, and incor-
porated into a more comprehensive account, and if we challenge the unnoticed
assumptions of the problem-field into which these problems are embedded.
This will require a rethinking of these partial perspectives; a rethinking that
fundamentally challenges them and reformulates them.

Causality
Outside the strictly positivist camp there has been very little talk about causality
in IR. In general this is because those that reject the applicability of causal talk
228 After Postpositivism?

in the social still presume the Humean account of it. When based on this
positivist-Humean account of cause, scientific explanations are essentially deduc-
tive in form. According to this view the explanandum ~the event to be explained!
is the logical conclusion of a general law and the occurrence of a set of initial
conditions, which together constitute the explanans ~that which does the explain-
ing!. This model of explanation is generally known as the D-N, or covering law
model. To get a clearer picture of what this model entails, suppose that events A
and B are related by the general law, if event A occurs then event B must
occur. 15 The following schema exemplifies the D-N model:

If event A occurs, then event B must occur. ~the covering law!


Event A has occurred
Therefore event B must ~had to! occur

The D-N model implies that the role of an empirical science is to uncover
general laws ~covering laws! that can then be used as the premises of deductive
arguments. This model implies the symmetry of explanation and prediction: if
one has knowledge to explain B, one could have also predicted it. It also implies
the parity of explanation, prediction, and falsification, in that a failed prediction
falsifies ~Bhaskar, 1994:20!. But what are the key problems with this model?
First and foremost, based as it is solely at the level of co-joined events, it does
not really constitute an explanation at all. To say that this acid turns litmus
paper red, or this metal conducts electricity because all do is hardly explanatory
~Bhaskar, 1994:20!. Moreover, the model cannot sustain the distinction between
a necessary and an accidental sequence of events. There may well be a correla-
tion between democracies and peace, but is there a connection? The Humean
model also cannot account for the fundamental common-sense experience of
trying to do something we are unable to do, and failing ~Gerwin, 1987!. The
world resists all attempts to reduce it to our ideas.
The question that critical realists pose for this model is: Is the noted constant
conjunction, i.e., the principle of empirical invariance, either necessary, or suf-
ficient for explanation? The answer is no. For constant conjunctions ~empirical
regularities! in general only obtain under experimentally controlled conditions.
That is, under closure. Given that the social world is open not closed, then it is
hardly surprising that no laws have yet been discovered. Both the ontology
~perception or sense-realism and the implicit assumption that social systems are
closed! and the related theory of causality are false and misleading.
Among the recent and most systematic attempts to tackle the problem of
causality in IR is that of Suganamis On the Causes of War ~1996!. With a simple
analysis of causes as necessary and0or sufficient conditions, Suganami ~1996:48
53! is able to demonstrate the implausibility of the Waltzian notion of inter-
national anarchy as an explanation of war. He also shows how the claim that
liberal states have not fought against each other is also without an adequate
account of the historical mechanisms that would explain this alleged statistical
invariance. In general, as admitted even by the main advocates of the thesis,
dyadic liberalism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for peace
~Suganami, 1996:7074 and also Chapter 3, particularly 101112!. This is explained
by Suganami:

15
Note that this is a simplification to the extreme. The covering law model does not, in general, presuppose
that there is a unique A, which is a sufficient condition for B. Moreover, even within positivist approaches, causal
relations can be conditional, multistage, and allow for alternative causation of the same phenomena, thus allowing
for more appropriate construction of models of some fragments of historical reality ~see Nowak, 1960!.
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 229

A number of different explanations can coexist for the phenomenon of inter-


liberal peace as a whole, but this point seems mostly unnoticed by Doyle, his
supporters, and his critics. . . . @T#here is no guarantee that only one of the above
theses @about the causes for peace# will hold true consistently with respect to all
instances of inter-liberal peace. Indeed, there is no guarantee even that the
cause of peace between any two liberal states remains the same throughout
different historical periods. ~Suganami, 1996:104, 107!

This explanation points in the right direction. In open systems, outcomes might
be the result of many different causes and the same cause might lead to different
outcomes. Moreover, Suganami correctly pays attention to the ambivalent for-
mulations Hempel employedare the alleged laws known or are they existing in
the world, whether known or not? He nonetheless only wants to considerably
dilute, at least in the first phase of his argument, the Humean account of
causality ~see Suganami, 1996:119 128!.
Yet because of his ontological coyness Suganami assumes that further elabo-
ration on the notion of causality would not lead us anywhere, and that the basic
ambivalences and ambiguities of the deductive-hypothetical model of explana-
tion would remain. Yet in rejecting a strict positivism Suganami moves to an
ontological idealism similar to many forms of postpositivism, and gives up the
idea of an independentontologicalnotion of causality entirely and argues for
a narrative as the fundamental basis for explanation. This is a paradigmatic
example of the manner in which the problem-field of IR limits the possibilities
of theoretical advance.

A narrative account renders the outbreak of the war more intelligible to us than
before, the sequence of events thus narrated constituting the cause of the war. ~Sug-
anami, 1996:140; italics in original!

Obviously, Suganami has an important point here, but its nature is epistemolog-
ical, not ontological. Social scientists do tell stories about temporal sequences of
events and processes. However, the ontological status of the sequence of events
is unclear in his account. Are these narrative sequences projections of the nar-
rative themselves, or are they real causal complexes which brought about the war
independent of the narrative?
Explanations are indeed interpretative ~narrative! attempts to make explanan-
dum intelligible to us ~whoever the we are!, but they must include existential
and causal hypotheses about the real world. Events, episodes, and processual
tendencies are caused by the causal powers existing in the world ~within which
we dwell as a very small part of it and possibly incapable of understanding large
parts of it!, not by our stories and scientific texts. For instance, however we tell
the story about the three World Wars of this century, we cannot change their
existence or causes any more than we can change the geo-historical processes of
the formation of the planet Earth and the evolution of the life-forms on it.
Stories about world politics presuppose and contain existential and causal hypoth-
eses about the tensed, processual real world, whichto the extent that we are
talking about the past, and to a large extent also if we are talking about the
present and the futureexists, existed, and to a contingent extent will exist,
quite independently of our stories about it, whoever the we are ~given that
there are always multiple, structurally positioned actors playing a role in world
history!.
In order to provide causal explanation we need theories about what it is that
brings about changes in the world outside of the texts we are writing ourselves;
that is, an account of causal powers of different structured mechanisms or com-
plexes at different layers of the world. Positivists and postpositivists alike, embed-
230 After Postpositivism?

ded in the problem-field of IR, have difficulties in explaining anything happening


outside their own sense perceptions and texts.
According to critical realism, there are different layers of world, each being
able to influence each other causally. These layers include ecological, biological,
and social worlds. Now, it is a central critical realist argument that, at the social
layer, reasons for actions by social beings are among the causally powerful ele-
ments of the real world. For instance, the Cold War ended because a multiplicity
of actors contributed to it in a causally efficacious manner in the context of
worldwide state diplomacy between 1985 and 1991. These actors included amongst
others, the Reagan administration, Western peace movements, parties, and gov-
ernments, Soviet thinks tanks, Gorbachev himself, nationalists of different Soviet
states, and Soviet and Eastern European dissidents. Many of these participants
were also constituted ~in part! by the concepts and political theories circulated in
and disseminated from the West ~some of them articulated for instance in the
CSCE Final Act, even if only in a compromise form!. These kinds of existential
and related causalhypotheses presuppose, in turn, the pre-existence ~the real-
ity! of a differentiated, layered, and structured world with real causal powers,
upon which these agents draw.

Agency0Structure
The fundamental issue in the agent-structure problem ~ASP! is enshrined by the
pithy yet compelling truism articulated by Marx. Men ~sic! do indeed make their
own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Within the commu-
nity of international relations scholars the ASP has tended to be subsumed
under the guise of the level-of-analysis problem. Explicit recognition of the
agent-structure problem came with Alexander Wendts influential 1987 article,
although Ashley ~1984! had already discussed it. Following this, interventions by
David Dessler ~1989!, Martin Hollis and Steve Smith ~1990, 1992, 1994!, and
Walter Carlsnaes ~1992!, to name but a few, have served to highlight the impor-
tance of this debate to IR scholars and have separated this problem from the
level-of-analysis problem.
At heart the agent-structure problem is an ontological problem concerning
the constitutive elements of the social world and their interrelationships. From
this ontological problem epistemological and methodological problems arise.
The approach we advocate rejects both individualism ~however the individuals
are definedgenerally states! and holism. We argue that every social act, event,
or phenomenon is only possible insofar as the conditions for action exist as well
as the agents which act; conditions which, we argue, are real and not reducible
to the discourses and0or experiences of the agents. Ontologically, the social
world can only be understood as a processual flow that is intrinsically open and
subject to multiple and at times contradictory causal processes. In this view, the
issue is not how to integrate agents and structures into one account, but how
they could ever be separated. Even when such a separation becomes necessary
on analytical grounds, as in the abstracting of agency from structure in order to
study structure, it is vital to remember that this is only an analytical separation
and not an ontological one.
Agents cannot be separated from structures for at least three reasons. First,
agents cannot easily be separated from the social situations in which they are
routinely embedded. This should not be taken to imply a denial of an individu-
als sense of identity, personality, and perception of the social world as these
things are experienced and0or influenced by her, or his, social experience.
Individual selves, however, are rhythmically developing, stratified beings, and a
critical realist account would necessarily reject extreme psychological explana-
tions that view the individual as a separate unit possessing a fixed inner core or
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 231

essence. In this sense critical realism puts the realm of individual deliberation
~Kants noumenal realm! firmly in the realm of phenomena.
Second is the fact that all social activity is, as Derek Layder has called it,
situated activity ~Layder, 1993:8089!. This highlights the dynamic nature of the
social world and draws attention to the dynamics of interaction itself. Social
activity generally occurs in gatherings of, or encounters between, several indi-
viduals and can tend to produce outcomes and properties that are a result of the
interchange of communication between the group as a whole rather than the
behaviour of the individuals viewed singly. That is to say, situated activity displays
emergent properties that are the result of the way in which individuals interact
and coalesce and which could never have been understood or explained through
an analysis of the individuals themselves.
And third, all social activity is dependent upon antecedent structural materials
and takes place in a context. Selves and situated activity exist within a wider and
deeper relational context. All social reproduction and0or transformation takes
place under conditions and relations inherited from the past. These conditions
and relations represent the already established character of social forms that
have been reproduced and0or transformed in the past and which confront new
generations of individuals as obdurate structural contexts which constitute actors
and action-possibilities as well as inspire, encourage, and reward certain forms of
behaviour and dishearten, discourage, and punish others. As such, these struc-
tural contexts entail relations of power and authority, which constitute and influ-
ence social activity in these settings and the wider contexts within which these
settings are embedded.
Context, however, has to be viewed as a complex concept, thus there are many
contextual circles. The gendered nature of state occupations, such as the army,
for example, has to be seen in the wider context of gender social relations that
locate women in certain kinds of occupation. It is only in this context, and in the
even wider one of the power and control implicated in patriarchal relations in
society in general, that we can begin to understand, for instance, phenomena
such as mass rape in war ~Stiglmayer, 1989!.
As this particular example makes clear, the question becomes not one of how
to integrate agents and structures into one coherent account, but of how it could
ever be possible to consider methodological individualism or methodological
structuralism as viable alternatives. That is, it is always difficult, if not impossible,
to separate out the relations and effects of the immediate setting of ~often
face-to-face! interaction from the wider and deeper relations such as patriarchal
power relations, or class relations. Similarly, it is impossible to understand the
way in which these wider and deeper structures are reproduced over time unless
we understand how they are reproduced and sometimes transformed in the
course of face-to-face ~or, nowadays, more and more often technologically medi-
ated! spatio-temporal episodes between individual selves.
The example of gender relations and a state occupation such as soldiering is
a good one since it highlights the manner in which the immediate settings of
activity ~the barracks, or the battleground! are firmly connected to increasingly
remote and mediated relations of domination and subordination in the wider
social fabric ~Enloe, 1989!. In this sense, global processes feed into local activity
here and now and in some way make it possible, while the situated activity itself
reproduces these wider social relations and co-constitute the related processes.
To summarise: In the social world, there are beings that possess causal powers
that can make a difference by changing the course of the flow of events that
would have otherwise taken place. Equally, the existence and exercise of these
causal powers presuppose the intentionality of agency. Intentions ~I am about to
do X! are reasoned ~. . . in order to; and also, at another level, . . . because!,
and in general reasons are causally efficacious, even if the actors themselves
232 After Postpositivism?

might be confused about the role, nature, and origin of their reasons for, and
rationalisation of, actions. By doing things agents bring about changes of states
of affairs even when those actions amount to the mere reproduction of already
existing social relations and positioned practices ~there are states of affairs that
would be otherwise without agents actions!.
Equally, every social act, event, or phenomenon is only possible insofar as the
conditions for activity exist. Agents, their intentions, and the reasons for these
intentions, however, are not enough to account for social causality. Although
reasons are causes for actions, social structures are real conditions ~in different senses,
but also always necessary conditions! for both these reasons and their causal
efficaciousness. The real question is thus: how should we decompose the inter-
nally and externally related elements of social settings and contexts? And our
general, even if ~always! tentative answer is: there are ~i! historically constructed,
yet also idiosyncratic corporeal ~bodily! actors, who are both internally and exter-
nally related to each other; ~ii! intentional action, the meanings of which are
socio-historically structured; ~iii! regulative and constitutive rules implicated in
every action and constitution of actors; ~iv! resources as competencies and facil-
ities, bringing about also productive and destructive capabilities; and ~v! rela-
tional and positioned practices, which might be organised in a manner of
accomplishing collective identities and actors, and which are oftenalso in other
cases~inter!dependent.
Moreover, social systems are open systems, that is, susceptible to external
influences and internal, qualitative change and emergence. Spaces and times
intersect and overlap and overlapping, elongated, truncated, spatio-temporalities
may and do coalesce. Different tendential causes can bring about similar epi-
sodes and trends and the same ~kinds of ! tendential causes can bring about
different ~kinds of ! events, episodes, and trends, depending on the totality of
relevant ~open-systemic! causal complexes and processes.

Levels of Analysis
Before Wendts ~1987! article, individualism and holism were discussed in IR in
terms of levels of analysis. Even after that article, there seems to have been
confusion about the relationship between ASP and the levels-of-analysis problem
~cf. Hollis and Smith, 1991, 1992; Wendt, 1991, 1992!. It is our contention that
the discipline of IR should fundamentally rethink its understanding of the levels-
of-analysis problem. As presently formulated it confuses and misleads much
more than illuminates ~Walker, 1993:131140; Patomki, 1996; Wight, 2000!.
In general, the metaphor of level is widely used in realist theories of science,
and for good reasons ~Bunge, 1963:36 48!. There are different ontological layers
in the world, and the social world is itself a causally efficacious emergent level.
Given the empirical realism and linguistic realism adhered to by those of either
boundary, then the best that can be said of levels is that we treat them as if
they existed ~beyond the boundary of boredom!, or deny the notion of depth
altogether ~beyond the boundary of negativity!. Contrary to these positions we
suggest that it is a question of building substantial theories and models that
attempt to resolve exactly where the layers are to be located and their interrela-
tionships. Moreover, we would also wish to talk about levels and depth within
social worlds. We suggest at least two directions of depth, that is, of movements
towards deeper levels.
First is the ontological stratification of agency and discourses, which are
closely interrelated, but not reducible to each other. Language and discourse,
for example, are closely connected to, but not reducible to the unconscious
level. And in both of these levels there can be interrelated mechanisms that
could co-explain reasoning for, and rationalisation of, actions. Here the image
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 233

is of two levels interacting to produce outcomes, not one level determinate in


the last instance.
Second, there are also ontological layers conceived in terms of emergence in
time. In this sense, the institutionalised meanings and practices sedimented in
the longue dure of world historysuch as the institutions of diplomacy; inter-
national law; sovereignty ~all of which are embedded in potentially contradictory
discourses!form a deeper layer of social realities.
In both cases, however, we can make no a priori assumptions about the deeper
strata or layers being causally more powerful ~whatever that would mean! or
less susceptible to change in the future. Nor can we assume that institutions such
as diplomacy and international law would have a context-independent identity
that has remained unchanged throughout centuries of the history. More con-
crete, relational identifications and locations of these deeper elements would
most likely show their manifold transformations as well.
Now, even if we can findin addition to analytical depth in our own
explanationsontological depth in the real social worlds, there is little sense
talking about individual0sub-state, state, and international levels of analysis. Again,
the critical realist focus on ontology plays a role here. The causal powers of
relational social phenomena cannot be grouped in different artificial factors
which are then located at different levels as if things were as described. As
the above discussion of the agent-structure problem demonstrates, ontologically
speaking, state activities occur in the course of, and due to, gatherings of, or
encounters between, several individual actors and manifold structural contexts.
These gatherings and encounters produce outcomes and properties that are a
result of the interchange of communication between the group of actors posi-
tioned in foreign policy-making practices of a state.
The point about decomposing social worldsboth situated activity and its
wider and deeper contextinto elements of causal complexes is that whatever
the contextual and tendential phenomenon we want to explain, we should be
looking for the same kinds of elements at all levels: actors, actions, rules, resources,
and practices, all forming together a spatio-temporally situated relational whole,
or totality. It makes no sense, and this is the key error, to treat the levels of the
state and the international system as related as agents to structures.
There is also a further sense why the levels-of-analysis talk is so misleading: it re-
ifies collective actors and social relations. Social research, given the hermeneuti-
cally saturated nature of the social world, should proceed bottom-up. The first stage
is to hermeneutically understand, and familiarize oneself with the meanings held
by the concrete actors in spatio-temporally and contextually situated activities.16
That is to understand how the social phenomena under scrutiny are constituted.
We need to discover what happened before we can ask why. The second stage is to
proceed to reconstructing interactive action episodes on that basis. Building iconic
models of the wider and deeper relational contexts and their inherent, real causal
tendencies should follow this ~Patomki, 1992b: chap. 4!.

Fact and Values


We think that in this respect critical realism seems the most radical of all
approaches. A reconsideration of the theory0problem field of IR can demon-
strate this point. To positivists facts are distinct from values. The genesis of this
distinction comes from Hume, but is filtered through Kants dualistic world
outlook. This distinction has been vigorously challenged by postpositivists, yet

16
In this rather limited methodological sense, hermeneuticists such as Winch ~1958! have been on the right
track. But the price of the Kantian dichotomy between phenomena and noumena has been the disappearance of
causes and, ultimately, social structures.
234 After Postpositivism?

devoid of the metaphysical means to unite Kants two worlds, postpositivism


treats facts as nothing other than disguised values. This situation mirrors that of
the interwar dispute between idealists and realists, with the realists accusing the
idealists of speculative idealism and the idealists accusing the realists of moral
vacuity. This debate resonates through current exchanges with many of the
postpositivists claiming the moral high ground, but in line with positivists also
rejecting the idea that epistemological issues have any bearing on ethico-political
ones ~Campbell, 1999!. Outside of this repetitious theory0problem solution field
critical realism is suggestive of a radical insight.
For critical realism, reality is differentiated yet interconnected. So, although
facts are not merely values and vice versa, they are mutually implicating. Facts
are always value-laden, because at the transitive dimension of science truth is a
positive value and truth as correspondence to the world is a regulative metaphor
guiding scientific and other practices. But this is the radical move. For if facts are
always in this sense value-laden, then values must in a sense be factually embed-
ded. Nietzsche captures nicely what is at stake here arguing, Let us articulate
this new demand: we need a critique of moral values. The value of these values
themselves must first be called into questionand for that there is needed a
knowledge of the conditions and circumstances under which they grew, under
which they evolved and changed ~Nietzsche, 1989:6!.
The implication of this point is clear. We can move from facts to values.
Indeed, we must in order to explain those values themselves. No doubt this will
appall both positivists and many postpositivists. For positivists this move is inadmis-
sible, and for many postpositivists unnecessary ~values simply being contingent
preferences!. Critical realism, on the other hand, situates a genuinely critical
moment at the heart of analysis; a moment that depends at once upon values
being factually explained and facts being subject to evaluation. The implication
is an account of emancipatory practice embedded within a general account of
knowledge construction able to identify the possibility of a transition from an
unwanted, unnecessary, and oppressive situation to a wanted and0or needed and
empowering or more flourishing situation ~see Bhaskar, 1994: chaps. 6 and 7!.
And this because critical realism rejects the problem-field of IR and locates
agency, and the knowledge upon which such agency is based, in this world not
another.

Conclusion
We have argued for an approach that makes its commitment to realism explicit
as opposed to secreting an implicit realism. Through such a recovery of realism
the problem-field of IR may be transcended. The positivism0postpositivism
dichotomy that replaced the interparadigm debate seems so natural now. It is as
if we have always thought in this way and always will. Yet this debate itself is a
construct of those engaged in it and is a product of the problem-field of IR.
Mapped onto the problem-field of IR this divide mirrors Kants dualistic world
view. The positivists concern themselves with Kants phenomenal realm and the
postpositivists with the noumenal. Critical realism suggests a different theory0
problem solution field. One, no doubt, that will contain the seeds of its own
destruction, for we make no claims to finitude or ahistorical knowledge.
The problem-field of IR constitutes the present-day conditions of possibility
for thinking about, hence acting in, the realm of international relations. And as
such it blocks the development of a more ethically and politically aware body of
scholarship oriented towards emancipation. For, as Margaret Archer has put it,

we would betray ourselves, as well as our readers, by offering any form of social
scientism with laws which are held to be unaffected by the uses and abuses we
Heikki Patomki and Colin Wight 235

make of our freedoms, for this renders moral responsibility meaningless and
political action worthless and self-reflection pointless. Equally, we delude one
another by the pretence that society is simply what we choose to make it and
make of it. ~Archer, 1995:2!

Critical realism provides a potential ~and partial! way out of this problem-field.
Critical realism highlights the disconnected nature of Kants two-world outlook
and the manner in which this dichotomy provides the ground for all the key
debates and category distinctions that constitute international relations; in thought
and deed. Critical realism sees society as an emergent entity with material and
ideational aspects and hence makes any attempt at an easy separation problem-
atic. Critical realism suggests that the material and ideational have to be viewed
as a whole. A whole that it is necessary to investigate as an integral system with
all its necessary interconnections, not as isolated fragments torn out of context.
Things, even social things, have to be seen in their movement and interconnec-
tions. The parts cannot be correctly understood apart from their relationship
with the whole. Critical realism also reconnects the world of ethical deliberation
with the world of real causal processes and highlights the manner in which we
act in this world as a result of the knowledge we possess of that which we value
and that which we can do. And what we can do is much more than reject this
reality, accept this reality, or retreat from this reality. It is in this emancipatory
sense that we need to reclaim reality from where it has been lost in the problem-
field of IR.

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