TSElosophers meeting 8.3.2017
Milla Wirén, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl, Jonathan Van Mumford, Henning Christner

On Acting and Knowing: How Pragmatism Can Advance International Relations Researchand Methodology, International Organization 2009
Jörg Friedrichs and Friedrich Kratochwil

Quick summary:

The article criticizes the mainstream social science methodologies that subscribe to the ontological realism and the correspondence theory of the truth. It proposes adopting the philosophical underpinnings of pragmatism to fulfill the purpose of social science: to enable orientation in the social realm(s). The following key themes were discussed:

  • In its purpose to induce change in the prevalent “positivism” dominated methodologies, the authors succumb to reducing the “mainstream” into a strawman, ultimately ignoring the rich streams of other alternative approaches
  • Is the role and importance of theory mainly instrumental? Can theory be evaluated only through the practical insights that it provides, or is there any inherent value in the theoretical (episteme, scientific) knowledge building?
  • In defining the “wrong” and “right” methodological approaches, don’t the writers actually suggest a level of realism they argue against?

Longer outline of discussion:

The article is well written and makes its points eloquently, with skillful use of examples. However, the version of pragmatism promoted raised some eyebrows in our discussion. We interpreted the methodological suggestions as based on instrumentalism: the purpose of social science is to have a purpose of solving an issue (“enabling orientation in the social world”), which makes this approach a soulmate of the Flyvbjergian (2001) approach. As our group consists of individuals who value theoretical knowledge (the episteme) as the main aim of science and its key resource in conducting, for instance, social science that matters, this approach was not easily swallowed.

We agree on the notion of social ontology: the reality we perceive is constructed through our perceptions, to an extent even in the natural sciences, but monumentally more so when we’re dealing with the “intersubjective meanings and value relations” constituting the social realm. However, unlike Friedrichs and Kratochwil propose, we find the epistemological approach of grounding our knowledge in consensus (either internally in a given group or externally enlarged) questionable: any theory, by its very nature, requires at least some correspondence to whatever is in the context considered more true than something else – while fully acknowledging that any such correspondence can be shown to be faulty by subsequent theorizing. While we seem to slightly disagree about the existence of objective truth(s), to be a theory, the string of concepts needs to assert a certain level of existingness – otherwise there simply are no theories, just idiosyncratic concepts and perceptions instrumentally molded to suit a purpose.

To our reading the authors render both the “mainstream” research and the pragmatist alternative(s) into strawmen: the first adhering to naïve realism and the second to following the “anything goes as long as it (by consensual agreement) fills a purpose” interpretation. However our notion of pragmatism is different: fundamentally it shies away from taking a firm stand on the ontological nature of reality, but merely suggests that only within the realm of intersubjective, in interaction with surrounding elements, is the understanding of the object in question formulated. Put simply, the object may or may not be objectively something, but the way we intersubjectively make sense of it is what we ground our actions on. The strength of pragmatism lies not in the answers it provides to the ontological questions, but in the epistemological avenues it offers to “knowing” about the object via following the actions that result from that “knowing”.

The eloquent simplicity of the article is both its merit and downfall. It succeeds in acting how it preaches, namely existing because of a purpose, and the tone of the article well suits the aims. However in its parsimonious rendering of both the “mainstream” and pragmatism, it succumbs to logical inconsistencies and – in our minds – the grave sin of unappreciation of episteme. Had they followed the logical outcome of the socially constructed ontology they tout, they wouldn’t have been able to take such a strong stand towards how science should and should not be carried out.

It seems that we have a recurring theme in our readings about the “raison d’être” of science – a pertinent theme as most of us come from highly practitioner oriented disciplines. Is science ultimately glorified problem solving or is there a more “immortal and divine” quality to it?



I would like to question: is the knowledge (the episteme) the main aim of science? Instead, I very much subscribe to the Aristotelian idea that practical wisdom (the phronesis) is the primary virtue – in science and for the scientists. However, contrasting with Flyvberg (2001), I would define practical wisdom differently. Practical wisdom is not only practical relevance. Instead, it is the primary virtue which includes all other virtues (also the production of new knowledge) in a balanced manner (i.e. unity of virtues). What I’m trying to say here is that the main aim of science might as well be to constitute virtuous scientists – and the rest will follow.