The Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: Commentary and Critique of the Columbia University lecture series at Lecture One Lisa Anderson

Hits: 754

The first lecture by Lisa Anderson sets the agenda for the entire course with the claim:

“This is a course about how the world works today”

This is a very empirical and pragmatic beginning to the course and perhaps intentionally so. Perhaps it is intended to ring a warning bell in the community of souls who believe like Aristotle and Plato that Politics is fundamentally conceptual but that the concepts are ethical concepts, concepts related to the good and what ought to be aimed for at the level of the polis. For these philosophers a course with this title ought to be about what ought to be the case rather than about what is the case.
Asking the question “how something works” obviously is intended to invoke a cause-effect principle which is scientifically free of terms of appraisal and evaluation. For many philosophers, the term “Political Science” is a problematic combination of terms unless of course “Science” is used in the broadly Aristotelian sense in which there is a reference to knowledge.

The course description does not however resolve the ambiguities raised above. It states that the course is :

“Designed to help students think theoretically and analytically about leading issues in international affairs by introducing them to to social science methods and scholarship:and by exposing them to the uses of such concepts in practice, through examination of contemporary problems and challenges in international affairs.”

This commentary and critique is intending to examine these lectures from the broader perspective of knowledge that we have inherited from Greek and Enlightenment philosophy.

Lisa Anderson begins the course with a comment on the modern world and its relation to change:

“When Hobbes and Locke and Marx and Weber were trying to figure out how the world worked at the beginning of the modern era, they were, as we were, living in a time of dramatic change—they were trying to understand a world that was changing before their very eyes. Some of what they say resonates through the centuries ad is still relevant today”

Upon reading this the reader may be forgiven for immediately thinking of Aristotle. Was he not living in a time of change? Did not his pupil Alexander change the world? In fact was this not partly the reason for him beginning his entire metaphysical theory with a theory of change. Was he not one of the first philosophers to respond to change with knowledge about change in the form of disciplines which would respond to different kinds of change with different principles? Did he not respond to the unity of change with differentiation? That is, he clearly distinguished between different kinds of explanation for different reasons, one of which was the differentiation in the nature of the phenomena he was studying. Aristotle clearly saw, for example, the role for the principles of material and efficient causation in the explanation of natural phenomena and principles of formal and final causation in the explanation of human phenomena. In the realm of human action, for example, it is more illuminating to inquire into the why question which gives the action its identity rather than the how question which takes us outside of the sphere of the reasons an agent has for acting. The why-question is and the how question is not situated in the sphere of ultimate values, the sphere of what Plato called “The Good”.

What is being claimed here is that this course would have provided a richer experience for its students if some kind of reference to the philosophical idea of ultimate value had been a focal point.

Let us develop this line of reasoning in relation to the following remark:

“All public policy is based on theory which in turn is based on assumptions and sometimes the policy makes is aware of these assumptions and sometimes they are not. These assumptions are about how the world works or about how people live. They may, therefore, also have beliefs about what motivates human behaviour, about what causes conflicts, about how we should measure value, about what the rights of citizens should be, about how identities are formed.”

Theory of all kinds is obviously grounded in practice and theories must hae both descriptive and explanatory functions, i.e. answer what , how and why questions. Theories about human action at an individual or collective level must take into account the teleological and formal aspects of the matter, namely that all human activities, aim at the good. Is this an assumption? It seems much more than that or at least it seems that it differentiates itself from the normal theoretical assumption and is therefore a special kind of assumption.
One should add here that apart from a theory being defined in terms of its descriptive and explanatory functions a theory must connect to the world in some fashion. For Aristotle Political theory is connected to the world via the way in which action of a particular kind brings about a telos of a particular kind(the common good). There is an obvious symmetry for Aristotle between the good the individual strives for and the good the rulers of a city are striving for because the individual is striving for the individual good of a flourishing life which can only be achieved in the context of a flourishing city or Callipolis.

This theory is, in modern terminology “normative” and “prescriptive” in that what is being described by the theory is of political significance or value. Aristotle was at pains to point out that ethical and political reflection was more problematic than reflection in other areas and this was probably due to the fact that norms and actions are more difficult to characterise objectively than the things and the events of the physical world.

R.S. Peters, in his work “Brett’s History of Psychology” points out, in the spirit of Aristotle that theoretical questions are distinguishable from questions of policy. The former, he argues, might tell us that iron swords expand when heated and the purpose of this is observationally descriptive, that is, it is a description of what one expects to happen if an iron sword is heated. Questions of policy, on the other hand, are not descriptions of what we expect to happen but are rather normative and prescriptive and express our attitude and interests in the common good. In relation to the idea or form of “The Good” Plato in his work “The Republic” made an interesting distinction between, firstly, assumptions that just assume a hypothetical principle without any thought of a further “why” question which might take us back to a first principle or origin of things, ad secondly a categorical first principle such as “we ought not to murder each other”(with swords). On Plato’s view it would be wrong to call this an axiom of the ethical system because axioms are not first principles and do not possess the necessary stamp of a first principle. It might for example be an axiom of our measuring system that space is measured by straight lines which are defined as the shortest distance between two points. It is possible to reject this axiom without contradiction by assuming that space is curved and that space now has to be measured(or described) in other ways. Intentionally taking another persons life is an ultimate categorical negative value because it deprives a person of what is ultimately and universally valuable, namely life which is a principle of anybody being able to do anything. Murder is therefore a more serious matter than breaking a promise or lying. These are not “scientific” or observational matters. No amount of observing the acts of people murdering each other , in a war, for example, will ever teach anyone the first principle of ethics because all hypothetical principles tied to observation must in accordance with scientific method be appraisal free and value neutral: must be free of all attitudes tied to evaluation. There can therefore be no such thing as the observationally based measurement of value on Platonic and Aristotelian grounds, except perhaps in the banal sense of the counting of the victims of a holocaust or ethnic cleansing campaign. The way in which we know a policy is right or wrong is therefore non observationally and not scientific.

Hovering in the background of these remarks is of course the worry that the scientific account will start with a set of facts and jump to an arbitrary and evaluative conclusion: pull an ought conclusion out from a hat full of facts.
Peters puts this concern into perspective with the following remarks(p30):

“A great number of questions, however about what is or was, or will be the case but about what ought to be the case. Answers to such questions of policy are appraisals rather than assumptions, prescriptions rather than descriptions. They express our interests, attitudes and demands rather than our expectations. They cannot be confirmed or falsified by simply looking at things or situations. The man who says that peace is better than war cannot be refuted by being made to look at swords as well as pruning hooks or by being taken from his husbandry to watch a battle. The wrongness of killing people is not revealed to us by simply watching a battle: we cannot put our ear to the ground and hear goodness steal by: the sacredness of a shrine is not made manifest to the nose of one who lingers there. Of course appraisals are seldom made without looking at things, people, or situations, or without memories of them or testimonies about them. But such appraisals and prescriptions are not statements of fact, neither can they be inferred from statements of fact. Assumptions are extremely relevant to appraisals, descriptions to prescriptions: but there is no valid inference from one to the other. Words like “wrong”, “good”, “sacred” do not express our expectations so much as our interests in, demands of, and attitudes towards things, people and situations.”

So, on the basis of extensive observations of facts one can never arrive at an appraisal unless there is already an evaluative idea guiding the observations—Plato’s “form of the good”. This idea, in Wittgenstein’s terminology enables us to see what we are seeing “as” wrong, evil etc. We should be clear that this is a very different scenario to that in which we inductively accumulate facts which eventually lead us to the generalisation/assumption , for example, that all metals expand when heated. Making the judgment that it was wrong of one man to murder another at a bus stop in the course of an argument is not a question of learning the wrongness of the deed from the observations one makes: it is rather a case of seeing the murder under an evaluative category The judgment is, in virtue of these facts in its nature an appraisal and a prescription.

Peters also refers to a third category of question which in fact haunts many theories in the field of Political Science/Philosophy and which it will be necessary to understand if we are to evaluate or criticise this series of lectures: This is the category of “Questions of Technology”. He characterises these questions as a logical hybrid of the other two. Questions of Technology are, for Peters, instrumental questions which sometimes appeal to the scientific method. This method of resolution of a compound into its elements before the attempt to compose the whole out of which the elements have been condensed is the method Hobbes and Hume used in their attempt to rid social science and philosophy of its metaphysical inclinations. The method will take a holistic activity such as the murderer murdering at a bus-stop and resolve it into the value free elements of means and ends. Using this method one is then able to see this murder as a means to an end, namely the removal of an irritant in an otherwise “happy” day. This involves a “technological attitude” which uses the scientific principle of causation to construct a means and ends relation which must be value and appraisal free. In Aristotle’s ethical and political philosophy there is a holistic integrity to all human activity in which values are equally present in the means as well as the ends, i.e. the means of dealing with the irritant at the bus stop will be deemed in accordance with Aristotle’s theory to exclude the means of violence and instead treat the irritant as an end in himself whose life possesses the universal life-value of all agents. The means and the ends are equally value-laden, equally “Good”. The Enlightenment Philosophy of Kant was equally concerned to see the theoretical and practical connections of ethics and political philosophy. Kant was equally concerned to see human activities under the aspect of the good.

Peters may be levelling his criticism at Psychology in his comments on the History of Psychology but it should be stated that the history of Psychology mirrored the history of the Social Sciences. In both cases there was an equivalent tendency to distant these disciplines from the Philosophical methodology of Metaphysical Logic whilst simultaneously embracing the methodology and assumptions of the natural sciences.

Lisa Anderson continues the lecture with the following attempt at the motivation for and classification of political regimes:

“One can wonder where the ideas in these assumptions and theories come from and what alternative assumptions there are. Policy is only continually improved if policy-makers recognise their own assumptions and in the process of living the consequences of the policies, embrace their normative implication. We not only have theories about how the world works but also preferences relating to how it should work. There are different kinds of theories. Liberal v Realist.”

Nothing is said about the logical status of our “preferences”. Are they “subjective” and “whimsical”? Anderson then asks why policy-makers in general prefer democracy and fails to answer her own aporetic question. She instead proceeds to the task of classification of forms of regime and elaborates firstly on the liberal view of democracy which postulates a cooperative man striving to understand even violence in terms of science and “causes” such as socoi-economic depression and the exploitation of foreigners: secondly she characterises the realist’s view of democracy in which it is understood(by whom?) that “evil lurks in mans hearts” and where states compete for survival in a lawless world.
In this context Anderson points out that:

“International law exists but it does not really determine the way in which states interact with each other. The Primary unit of analysis for the Realist is the State and International Relations consists in the game of survival evaluated best by games theory.”

So, it looks as if Economics, that “Science” par excellence is going to be the final judge of the why’s and wherefores of International Politics. This is an incredible claim. What will it have to say at the end of all its “gaming” about why we prefer democracy? Perhaps that it is like all our preferences, arbitrary?

What is missing from these reflections is a determination of whether “modern political and social philosophy” initiated by Hobbes, Locke and Hume fully understood the heritage of ideas from the ancient democratic Greek world. The suspicion which will be made more and more apparent as these lectures proceed is that the above “Modern” Philosophers did not have sufficiently good arguments to discard the Platonic and Aristotelian ideas that have motivated political discourse over thousands of years of theorising. This discourse has given rise via the Enlightenment Philosophy of Kant, to the democratic form of government which most of the world is striving to actualise. Given these claims it is difficult to see how one can discard both theory and practice for a “method” or strategy which leaves us posing the question “How does it work?”

To condense the democratic cloud into the drops of liberalism, realism and constructivism appears somewhat arbitrary given the descriptions of these respective positions.