IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Monday, February 3, 2014

Three Ways of Knowing

Nature, wrote Cicero, has given our minds an insatiable appetite for the truth. Truth, for Chaucer, “is the highest thing that man may keep.” Francis Bacon expressed the old yearning most beautifully: “The inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it; the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it; and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.” Knowledge of the truth is evidently a very good thing to have, and an excellent thing to seek, but not after all quite so easy to get. There is a vast literature among historians, philosophers, and political scientists on what might be termed the conditions of knowing. Knowledge is itself variable; there are different ways of knowing. (Article length: 2600 words)

In the view of Bent Flyvbjerg, a Danish social scientist, the ways of knowing that have prevailed in the social sciences have fallen short: “social science never has been, and probably never will be, able to develop the type of explanatory and predictive theory that is the ideal and hallmark of natural science.” Like Richard Ned Lebow and others, Flyvbjerg believes that modern society took a “Rationalist Turn” with the Enlightenment, emphasizing instrumental reason. Also like Lebow, Flyvbjerg rests his intellectual strategy on recovering a basic distinction of the ancients and employing it to critique the methodology of contemporary social science. For Lebow, that meant recovering antiquity’s understanding of the psyche; for Flyvbjerg, it entails recovering Aristotle’s conception of three ways of knowing, the intellectual virtues of episteme, techne, and phronesis. As Flyvbjerg explains:
Whereas episteme is found in the modern words "epistemology" and "epistemic," and techne in "technology" and "technical," it is indicative of the degree to which thinking in the social sciences has allowed itself to be colonized by natural and technical science that we today do not even have a word for the one intellectual virtue, phronesis, which Aristotle saw not only as the necessary basis for social and political inquiry, but as the most important of the intellectual virtues. Phronesis is most important because it is that activity by which instrumental rationality is balanced by value-rationality, and because such balancing is crucial to the sustained happiness of the citizens in any society. (3-4)
Taking  Flyvbjerg as our guide, let us look more closely at each of these terms and then consider the implications for the role of the social and natural sciences.  
The term "epistemic science" derives from the intellectual virtue that Aristotle calls episteme, and which is generally translated as "science" or "scientific knowledge” . . .  Episteme concerns universals and the production of knowledge which is invariable in time and space, and which is achieved with the aid of analytical rationality. Episteme corresponds to the modern scientific ideal as expressed in natural science. In Socrates and Plato, and subsequently in the Enlightenment tradition, this scientific ideal became dominant. The ideal has come close to being the only legitimate view of what constitutes genuine science, such that even intellectual activities like social science, which are not and probably never can be scientific in this sense, have found themselves compelled to strive for and legitimate themselves in terms of this Enlightenment ideal.
Whereas episteme resembles our ideal modern scientific project, techne and phronesis denote two contrasting roles of intellectual work. Techne can be translated into English as "art" in the sense of "craft"; a craftsman is also an artisan. For Aristotle, both techne and phronesis are connected with the concept of truth, as is episteme. . . . Techne is thus craft and art, and as an activity it is concrete, variable, and context-dependent. The objective of techne is application of technical knowledge and skills according to a pragmatic instrumental rationality. . . .
Whereas episteme concerns theoretical know why and techne denotes technical know how, phronesis emphasizes practical knowledge and practical ethics. Phronesis is often translated as "prudence" or "practical common sense." . . . It focuses on what is variable, on that which cannot be encapsulated by universal rules, on specific cases. Phronesis requires an interaction between the general and the concrete; it requires consideration, judgment, and choice. More than anything else, phronesis require experience. . . . The person possessing practical wisdom (phronimos) has knowledge of how to behave in each particular circumstance that can never be equated with or reduced to knowledge of general truths. Phronesis is a sense of the ethically practical rather than a kind of science. Where rational humans for Plato are moved by the cosmic order, for Aristotle they are moved by a sense of the proper order among the ends we pursue. This sense cannot be articulated in terms of theoretical axioms, but rather, is grasped by phronesis.
Some interpretations of Aristotle's intellectual virtues leave doubt as to whether phronesis and techne are distinct categories, or whether phronesis is just a higher form of techne or know-how. Aristotle is clear on this point. Even if both of these intellectual virtues involve skill and judgment, one type of intellectual virtue cannot be reduced to the other; phronesis is about value judgment, not about producing things. (55-58)
Phronetic research, according to Flyvbjerg, entails taking as our point of departure the following questions: “1) Where are we going? 2) Is this desirable? 3) What should be done?” That was the classic phronetic approach, he writes, but he insists on the need for additional questions: “Who gains and who loses; by which mechanisms of power?” He wants to “use social and political studies not just as a mirror for society but also as society’s nose, eyes, and ears.” Flyvbjerg realizes that “there is no unified ‘we’ in relation to which the questions can be given a final answer,” but that does not prevent an analysis that consciously sets forth and weighs the competing values at stake.  (60-61)
What sort of activities in “political science” correspond with techne, episteme, and phronesis? Certain studies of ways of getting and holding power (as in the contemporary art of winning elections) might be seen as falling under the rubric of techne. Military professionalism—the knowledge of the application or threat of military power—might also reasonably be included under that rubric. An instance of episteme would be Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, in which Waltz made predictions of state behavior based on the position of states and the distribution of power within the international system. Another instance, but from the liberal rather than realist camp, would be the so called “law” that democracies don’t fight one another. Yet the search for phronesis does not go a begging, even in the academy.  In policy pronouncements and the mass of commentary that attends the conduct of foreign affairs, for instance, it is commonplace to confront the set of questions Flyvbjerg identifies with phronesis:  Where are we going? Is this desirable? What should we do? Political scientists, like other commentators, cannot avoid employing “value rationality” in addressing matters of public concern, but for many within the discipline such works do not count as political science. That is, it is precisely because they are phronetic in character that they do not count as episteme.  
In one sense, Flyvbjerg’s judgment regarding contemporary social science is bleak. He documents that social science has attempted to emulate natural science, an enterprise he sees as a cul de sac. “Mainstream social theory and social science methodology stand in need of reorientation.” (4)  By the same token, however, it has more to offer than the natural sciences in crucial respects:
[Richard] Lewontin and others are right, albeit perhaps not for the reasons they believe, when they say that social science has set itself an impossible task when it attempts to emulate natural science and produce explanatory and predictive, that is, epistemic, theory. [However,] this does not imply the oft-seen image of impotent social sciences versus potent natural sciences, which is at the core of the Science Wars. (3)
Just as social science has not been able to contribute with Kuhnian normal science and predictive theory to scientific development, so natural science has had little to offer to the reflexive analysis of goals, values, and interests that is a precondition for an enlightened development in any society. However, where natural science is weak, social science is strong, and vice versa. For Aristotle, the most important task of social and political studies was to develop society's value-rationality vis-à-vis its scientific and technical rationality. Aristotle did not doubt that the first type of rationality was the most important and ought to influence the second. Since Aristotle's time, however, this view has receded into the background, especially after the Enlightenment and modernity installed instrumental rationality in a dominant position in both science and society. Social thinkers as diverse as Max Weber, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen Habermas have pointed out that for more than two centuries value-rationality (Wertrationalitdt) has increasingly given way to instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalitat). In the words of Richard Livingstone: "if you want a description of our age, here is one: the civilization of means without ends." (53)
We may pause here to query the adequacy of that description. Modern civilization, whether in the West or elsewhere, surely embraces ends as well as means, though this may include ends that not all of us approve of (or results that none of us like). It is virtually a condition of living that one has to employ value-rationality alongside instrumental rationality. The decision to build a nuclear plant, for instance, is inevitably bound up with value-laden questions from many different angles, and it would be impossible to justify a decision either way without attending to these questions as a matter of course. I take this as an example because nuclear power must be a sort of Exhibit A of a civilization that has substituted means for ends, but yet displays, in the way in which society argues about it, detailed attention to both instrumental rationality and value rationality. The collective mind or “global brain”—even knowledgeable individuals—can handle both of these inquiries at once. It's just not that difficult to think in these different categories, though it may be extremely difficult to arrive at a wise or even satisfactory answer.
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Altogether different is the claim that contemporary social science has set its sights on episteme at the expense of phronesis. In the self-understanding of much of the American political science profession (and even more so in neo-classical economics), the natural sciences continue to be a model. The announced search is for laws of political behavior that are parsimonious and express timeless truths. The method is deductive-nomonological versus historical-comparative.  Flyvbjerg rightly questions this approach. His reasons to prefer the latter are not too different from those of Francis Bacon. Objecting to the literature of the Scholastics, Bacon observed:
There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. This way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.
Flyvbjerg notes that Aristotle linked phronesis directly with political science:
[Aristotle]: Political science and prudence [phronesis] are the same state of mind [They are not identical, however. Phronesis is also found at the level of the household and the individual] . . . Prudence concerning the state has two aspects: one, which is controlling and directive, is legislative science; the other . . . deals with particular circumstances . . . [and] is practical and deliberative.'
[Flyvbjerg]: Two things are worth noting in this context. The first is Aristotle's assertion that political science, as a consequence of the emphasis on the particular, on context, and on experience, cannot be practiced as episteme. To be a knowledgeable researcher in an epistemic sense is not enough when it concerns political science because "although [people] develop ability in geometry and mathematics and become wise in such matters, they are not thought to develop prudence [phronesis]." Aristotle explains that a well-functioning political science based on phronesis is imperative for a well-functioning society, inasmuch as "it is impossible to secure one's own good independently of . . . political science." (59)
The first step toward achieving a new perspective in social science is for teachers and students “to make explicit the different roles of science as episteme, techne, and phronesis."
Today's researchers seldom make explicit which one of these three roles they are practicing. The whole enterprise is simply called "science," even though we are dealing with quite different activities. It is often the case that these activities are rationalized as episteme even though they are actually techne or phronesis. . . . The oft-seen image of impotent social sciences versus potent natural sciences derives from their being compared in terms of their epistemic qualities. Yet such a comparison is misleading, for the two types of science have their respective strengths and weaknesses along fundamentally different dimensions. In their role as phronesis, the social sciences are strongest where the natural sciences are weakest. (61)
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It seems then that social science has a great superiority over natural science, but one it has failed to exploit because it chased after the harlot Episteme and gave up its once solid (if rather stolid) relationship with Phronesis. Social science therefore has, by Flyvbjerg's light, an entirely conjectural superiority, and could only improve itself by a repudiation of its current method. This seems rather unlikely: it is a safe bet that political scientists will continue to live in sin.

Flyvgberg’s approach has great implications for the role of scholars, teachers, and students.  Scholars may resist it because it threatens their methodological presuppositions or because it seems to augur a greater degree of political involvement than they would feel comfortable with.  In his concluding chapter, “Social Science That Matters,” Flyvgberg argues that we should “drop the fruitless efforts to emulate” the natural sciences and instead “take up problems that matter to the local, national, and global communities in which we live.” I think that that is a worthwhile undertaking, but it is surely not the only proper role for academics. A better way of putting the charge to social scientists is that they need to devote more time and attention to studying activities requiring phronetic reasoning, less to discovering (or rather attempting to discover) universal laws of political behavior. Teachers need to teach about phronetic reasoning, not shunt it aside as if were unworthy of deliberation and study.

I distrust Flyvgberg’s formulation a bit because it seems to lose the distinction between academic study and political practice, which surely must remain fundamental; we can study politics without being politicians. On the larger point, however, Flyvgberg is right. We need to put back in to social and political inquiry what had previously been hived off from it, at some considerable cost. As Lebow remarks, the dominant tendency in the social sciences striped away cultural and moral justifications to get at hidden causes and parsimonious laws. This entailed a sundering of the human personality and ultimately formed a barrier to understanding it. “Conventional paradigms of politics and international relations," notes Lebow, "are rooted in appetite. Liberalism and Marxism describe politics as driven by material interests, and realism acknowledges their primacy after security. Scholars who work in these paradigms attempt to penetrate what they believe to be the smokescreen of culture and ideology to get at the political, economic and military realities they are understood to obfuscate.”
“Constructivism” in IR theory, at least in some of its precincts, is all about the inadequacies of that theoretical enterprise. However, it should be noted that Constructivism’s strictures against Realism and Liberalism apply only to academics writing in the last couple of generations (as reflected especially in the ascendancy of "neo-realism" and "neo-liberalism" in IR); it should not be confused with a critique of older writers in these traditions, nor, of course, with political practice, which is especially identified with the need for phronesis.
A question for students: what kind of knowledge is the most worth having among the three? What way of knowing would you especially want to be excellent in?
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Bent Flyvgberg, Making Social Science Matter (Cambridge University Press, 2001)