International relations (IR) theory as a discipline of study has both suffered from and found communicative grounding in a series of well-connected “Great Debates” between generations of conflicting theoretical schools. Presently, the crux of the fourth Debate can be summed as such: positivism versus interpretivism (sometimes conflated with “post-positivism”). In recent years, there have been a number of calls to reverse the so-called “balkanization” of the field (Colgan, 2016: 7), mostly advocating for a degree of cross-theoretical dialogue, and a pragmatic admission that both schools offer mutually enriching tools for problem solving (Price & Reut-Smit, 1996; Kowert & Shannon, 2002; Fearon & Wendt, 2002; Katzenstein, Keohane, & Krasner, 1998). At the same time, there have been counter-argumentative efforts that reify the divisions between the two predominant philosophies, pointing to certain fundamental rifts in methodology that demand consideration (Moravcsik, 1999; Mearsheimer, 1994). At the forefront of the epistemic divide are a growing school of scholars who are crafting an obscure, though earnest, conciliatory framework for bridging the rival paradigms. Borrowing from recent developments in the philosophy of social science, “critical realists” (or critical naturalists) have provided a possible catch-all epistemology that accommodates for the ontological claims from both sides of the field (Jackson, 2010; Bhaskar, Esbjorn-Hargens, Hartwig, & Hedlund, 2016). I intend to situate this emerging interface within the established canon of IR theory in such a way that it provides space for a possible détente between opposing theoretical factions. To this end, I will illustrate my solution using the concept of modular design.
In plain terms, positivism is a collection of multiple epistemological approaches that share the foundational assumptions in the efficacy of (i) data derived from empirical evidence, and (ii) its interpretation through reason and logic, as the only source of true positive knowledge (Larrain, 1979); albeit, this statement has no intention of ever “being proved” as a truth claim itself (p. 197). And here lies the crux of the debate: positivism, on the whole, relies on a Humean account of causality and a foundational claim of scientific laws as being those extracted from the empirical unification of events. These assumptive premises have been questioned as to whether they are consistent with some general “goal of understanding” (Smith, 2006: 192). Smith (2006) goes on to point out that the antithetical method employed by the interpretivist of rejecting natural or social causality contradicts their inclusion of this world in their research should it maintain any pretenses to science or ‘inquiry’ (p. 192). We can now infer that the ontological status of causality, and thus what can be known about the world in general, presents a rift between the two parties that fundamental obstructs their ability to meaningfully communicate with each other—or, in more temporal terms, there is no mid-level theory on which these epistemologies can interact.
In advancing further with respect to the positivist’s dilemma, it would be a disservice to the debate to not continue expounding its foundational difficulties. At its core, the positivist advances a causal mechanistic framework that rests upon grossly unempirical assumptions regarding “timeless necessary connections” between causal events (that is, the inextricable quality linking ∆X with ∆Y); however, to accept this as true would be to accept that nothing, in empirically verifiable terms, binds X and Y together, and the fact that “all past [X] has been [X and Y together, and the fact that “all past [Xs] have been [Ys] is a matter of cosmic coincidence” (Hildebrand, 2016: 4). This is a cogent description of David Hume’s critique of inductive reasoning which, in broad terms, posits that inductive arguments are concerned with inferential justifications from the premises; however, inductive premises are justified themselves by subjective experiences which themselves have no immediate bearing “on how the inference from that premise to the conclusion is justified” (BonJour, 2010: 53).
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