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date: 06 April 2020

A Pragmatic View of Practice in International Relations

Summary and Keywords

The recent turn to practices in international relations has been touted as a decisive step to provide a comprehensive theory of the field, comparable to the discovery of the “gluon” that revolutionized particle physics. More moderate arguments stress however that making the way we act the center of attention is preferable to having our research agenda set by methodological questions or metatheoretical issues, which gave the great theoretical debates in the field an often ethereal quality. This focus on international practices and the institutions to which they give rise promises to provide the “relevant” knowledge for decision makers as well as for the attentive public. Aside from the usual utilitarian considerations this, argument also calls attention to the fact that not everything that may be true is practically useful, feasible, or allowed. Those questions are of special importance in disciplines that deal with questions of praxis, where issues of the “should” and “ought,” of responsibility and commitment, weigh in heavily and which cannot be reduced to “what happens” by necessity, or “mostly”, or “frequently,” as evidenced by observations (made under ideal conditions, as in experiments, or by inductive inference from a big data set).

To that extent it is somewhat surprising that this “turn” to practice bases its claims on its alleged ability to furnish us with a better theory and provide answers to what “really is”, as specified by the usual epistemological criteria accepted by the mainstream in political science. At the same time, this “turn” pays scant attention to the proprium of “action” that takes place in time and specific contingencies, under strategic conditions characterized by uncertainty (not only by “risk” where we at least must know or correctly guess the distribution of cases) and the possibility of genuine perspective-dissolving surprises (e.g., 9/11 or the fall of the wall in Berlin, or the financial meltdown). Action also frequently has detrimental consequences for others, or involves making choices for others (patients, clients, citizens), so shrugging off problems that impose special duties on actors is hardly possible. The perspective on the “observable,” or what “is,” which is supposed to disclose itself to an unengaged observer and can be used as a criterion for acting and for assessing the actions of others when vetted by the standards of a good theory, therefore seems to be highly problematic.

Whatever we may believe and on whichever side we come down in the end, it is important to be aware of the various philosophical issues and conceptual difficulties that such an assessment requires. It cannot be short-circuited by simple “assumptions” (as “rational” as they might be), or by relying on dubious conceptual stretches, unexamined analogies, or the “kindness of strangers” in our networks.

Keywords: international relations theory, pragmatism, practice turn, action theory, Aristotelian praxis, Hume’s conventionalism, habits, norms and action, ordinary language philosophy and action, scholars on scholarship


Political science, like law, has traditionally been considered a practical discipline distinguished by a specific form of knowledge that differs from the logic of work or production and from metaphysics (in its ontological form) and from the knowledge of nature (physis) and its “laws. To that extent the present “turn” to practice in sociology and—belatedly—also in international relations might seem odd, or similar to “carrying coals to Newcastle.” But this oddity becomes understandable when placed in the larger narrative of the development of knowledge and the victory of “science” in modernity. “Politics” became a “political science” and the budding field of international relations (IR) could quickly be incorporated as a “field” into this “science”—as soon the homo politicus as a power maximizer had been invented in analogy to the homo economicus. The old lore propagated by diplomatic academies, or transmitted in history, geography, and international law could only survive in the niches of often ill-defined “international studies” or in the “British school.” The latter was heir to a declining empire and to the practical political problem arising out of Britain’s role as a balancer within the European context and of an imperial power in an increasingly globalized world.1

Even law has been subjected to a “theoretical” treatment as the different attempts of Kelsen, Hart, Dworkin, and the “law and economics” school show, although traditional jurisprudence, and common law in particular, had resisted earlier moves in this direction, as did legal realism and “sociological jurisprudence.”2 Nevertheless, the “victory” of “science” in developing a monopoly on legitimizing what can count as knowledge can be seen by the fact that increasingly the field of practice was considered to be the area for “applied” science. Thereby the autonomy of the practical realm–which I also try to unearth in this article—was increasingly moved out of sight, making it appear that there was one and only one continuum along which different fields could be located and where on the one end there was pure since, while the other was reserved to the less precise “application” of science. (Physics on one end and engineering and medicine on the other became the paradigmatic examples.)

These initial remarks suggest that a considerable amount of conceptual baggage is being brought to the table when issues of “practice” are being discussed in this fashion.3 It is therefore not surprising that the turn to practice is characterized by considerable confusion. Since many concepts stem from different traditions and semantics, their “grafting”—often with little concern for their fit and compatibility—becomes problematic. We become somewhat aware of such strains when we look at the tensions and battle-cries of the various camps in the field. There are iconoclasts in the social sciences, for example, who call attention to the blind spots of “positivism” and variable research,4 attacking those who want to do “science.” At the other extreme are those who are more concerned with “unifying” the profession by easing the strains of disagreement within the community of researchers to gain greater recognition and standing in the society at large.5

Another tension has to do with the basic purposes of IR as a scientific community and its research practice One side of this is concerned with the wider social circulation of knowledge in society, while the other addresses the “materiality” of doing research by foregrounding the techniques and instruments we rely on. The first side has been explored by pragmatist philosopher Peirce6 and, in a different way, by the sociologist Bourdieu7; the latter paved way for the practice turn in sociology and the science studies of Latour8 and others. The popularity of science studies generated a cluster of researchers devoted to actor-network theory,9 though Andrew Barry cautions against simply “applying” it to IR because of unavoidable “translation problems” (Barry, 2013).

A further tension revisits the old theory/praxis distinction and overlaps with the material “practice” approach to IR. This tension concerns the issue of whether knowledge production is practiced mainly through “contemplation” and “interpretation” (that is, applying some constructs on the world) or requires “work,” as in the Marxian tradition. This issue is similar to a concern of the American pragmatists as well as that of Arendt.10 Marxians maintain that the world needs to be transformed and not merely interpreted differently, pragmatists insist that “knowing” involves an engagement with the world, rather than only a passive observation where “nature” discloses itself by affecting our senses (in a quasi-Lockean fashion) and imprinting itself on the tabula rasa of the mind). Arendt, on the other hand gives priority to the vita activa which throws new light on the human condition since our ability “to act and deliberate together” makes us “political” instead of only social animals.11

Given these different tensions and the variety of themes that go through and across the various debates, it is not surprising that trying to “distill” a core meaning of pragmatism is probably bound to fail.12 Not only will the various approaches perhaps not even have a common center, since the members of this specific scientific subcommunity might even be further divided by serious disagreements. Thus Peirce, one of the founders of pragmatism, declined to be identified with what William James (1907) had gathered from his writings. Instead, he wanted to be called a pragmaticist, because he surmised that this word was “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.” Pierce (1998) also was flabbergasted by Dewey’s favorable review of his essay “What Pragmatism Is,” since for him Dewey’s logic “forbids all such researches which I have been absorbed in for the last eighteen years” (Westbrook, 2005, p. 1).

Peirce had hoped to be able to hold on to the notion of “truth,” while Dewey believed that such a conception contributed little for our understanding, as do modern pragmatists, such as Rorty, who prefer to think that “justified, or warranted belief” provides us with a more productive way of orienting ourselves in the world. The point is not that there is no truth as the usual interpretation of James’s adage or Rorty’s flippant “update” suggest. James (1907) had originally argued that “the ‘true’ is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief” (p. 42), which in Rorty’s hands becomes “truth is what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with” (1979, p. 176). Significantly, in both cases the usual interpretations leave out the references to intersubjective standards shared by the scientific community, so that the straw man of “relativism” can raise its ugly head and be knocked down with gusto.13

This is not to say that clarifications and critique of the concepts we use can be suspended, but suggests only that any insight or knowledge will come to us not by a comprehensive “view,” but only by “working through” the various arguments and giving up the hope for a “view from nowhere” that will compellingly show us all what really “is” (Nagel, 1986). Accepting this realization also shows that disagreements are actually the engines that power our inquiries, contrary to the common belief that they are mostly unproductive.

Thus, mainstreaming a critical research agenda grounded in pragmatism in the interest of enhancing the credibility of a discipline seems to come at the hefty price of stunting potentially innovative research. As we know from the fate of the discussions in the 1980s debate over the theoretical innovation of “international regimes”–in which the “norms” of constructivists suddenly became an “intervening variable” in the hands of the positivists–such “translations” frequently not only involve a misinterpretation but also involve mistakes with considerable consequences.14 For one thing, variable research obscures the constitutive function of our concepts in the social world and its important corollaries, one of the most obvious being that of the “mind dependence” of many concepts in the social world. Variable research derails analysis by making it appear that the only function of rules is to “modify” the power of some more essential factors, such as power and interest,.15

Obviously, the presumably happy convergence of “norms research” and some form of causal analysis does not prove anything but only shows that to decide this issue would, first and foremost, require a more serious engagement with the problem of causality. It cannot be that all “causes” must function like efficient causes, as causality is a more capacious concept. This is an issue that puzzled Hume and occasioned his lifelong inquiry, not only in the nature of social institutions and their role in social reproduction but also in their role in shaping historical transformations.16

But be that as it may, it should be clear that I am concerned here with the framing of problems and with casting doubts on the background understandings that provide the “backing” for our arguments. Since I have claimed that these background understandings are doubtful, I must subject them to scrutiny. Consequently, I shall not follow the traditional epistemological canon of (logical) positivism by beginning with a definition or the construction of a model in order to provide an assessment of pragmatism and IR. Instead, I will try to go through the various debates—often called “turns”—that antedate the present controversy. By examining the questions in those controversies we are in a better position to understand the differences in the answers we get. The issue of incommensurability neither threatens such a clarification nor is the effort of clarification beholden to the notion that conceptual developments, especially in the social world, can or should be seen in terms of “progress,” that is, of coming nearer and nearer to “the truth.” To take this criterion as a yardstick for evaluation seems to me incoherent for logical and practical-epistemic reasons. Logically, the judgment that I am getting nearer to the truth would imply that I already know the truth; at least in the sense that I can see posts that separate truth from ignorance or error, and that I can make an assessment of whether I am nearer or farther away from them. Without a direct view of such “posts” I can only say that I am now somewhere else than before.

The practical-epistemic reasons concern the illumination by low wattage that is provided by the “explanation” that the conceptual shift which occurred, for example, in the 17th century from the old notion of a “body politic” to a “contract” was a based on a “progressive” paradigmatic move. Such an interpretation presupposes either an already “given” world or the knowledge of an end-state, preordained by teleology of nature a la Kant (1991a, 1991b). However, on closer inspection, such a view represents little more than a rather trite “philosophy of history” arguing backward from a known telos and pretending to be able to identify the steps for leading us there. For pragmatists, the transformative changes occasioned by the root metaphor consists, instead, in the availability of a new vocabulary for thinking about society and its order, foregrounding certain problems while putting others into the background. But such a change certainly does not mean that we are nearer to the “truth” since a society is neither a body nor a contract. As Rorty (1989) put it, creating a new vocabulary

…is not a discovery about how old vocabularies fit together. That is why it cannot be reached by an inferential process—by starting with premises formulated in the old vocabularies. Such creations are not the result of successfully fitting together pieces of a puzzle….

The proper analogy is with the invention of new tools to take the place of old tools. To come up with such a vocabulary is more like discarding the lever and the chock because one has envisaged the pulley, or like discarding gesso and tempera because one has now figured out how to size canvas properly. (p.12)

It is just that we “do” more things now and do them differently, and this provides a kind of answer to the puzzle of incommensurability. Since there is no common measure for all things, incommensurability exists. However, living with it is not as debilitating as it at first appears since we can “work around it.” There might not be a logical way for getting from the “is” to the “ought,” but there are practical ones. For example “institutional rules”17 tell us what to do in order to make sure that someone is obliged—although we are unable to formulate a convincing general “theory of obligation” from which we could “derive” particular obligations. However, by using the institution of contract we “know” that someone signing a document that has “Contract” on the first page, has a prima facie obligation, although it “derives” only from the “fiat” that sets up the institution, rather than from logic or ontology.18 Similarly, as studies in the history of science have shown, actual scientists are much less concerned with presumably refuting evidence and can live with it by using different theories and methods for different problems, treating the apparent contradiction as an open question.19

If there is anything that “pragmatists” share, then, it is the conviction that inquiry is not a passive observation or demonstration but requires an active engagement with the problem being investigated in order to cope with it, instead of only providing a proper representation. This engagement requires actions and interventions in the situation as well as interactions with other inquirers, and a willingness to suspend beliefs, rather than relying on a priori assumptions and on reasoning by deduction or induction in order to “test” a theory.

Here Dewey’s arguments are to the point. In the essay “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism” he elaborates on the “inter-” or “trans-active” notion of knowledge. It usually starts by an event or a realization that something is surprising—similar to Aristotle’s argument about the “astonishment” (thaumazein)—that gives rise to further inquiry. But at this point different emotions are at work as well since they arouse a person’s interest and contribute, after an explanation has been found, to the person’s acceptance of the “findings.” Dewey (1910) gives the following mundane example of hearing some noise while being in a dark room:

I start and am flustered by a noise heard. Empirically, that noise is fearsome; it really is, not merely phenomenally or subjectively so. That is what it is experienced as being. But, when I experience the noise as a known thing, I find it to be innocent of harm. It is the tapping of a shade against the window, owing to movements of the wind. The experience has changed; that is, the thing experienced has changed, not that an unreality has given place to a reality, nor that some transcendental (inexperienced) reality has changed, not that truth has changed, but just and only the concrete reality experienced has changed. I now feel ashamed of my fright; and the noise as fearsome is changed to noise as a change of experienced existence, effected through the medium of cognition. (pp. 230–231)

From these initial remarks we can now see more clearly how to go about the discussion here. Since I do not want to involve myself in a performative contraction, by following the traditional path of inquiry and commencing with a “preliminary operational definition” of the problem or by dealing with the fuzziness of our concepts through “normalizing” them, I prefer to begin in the midst of it. Although the discussion will go beyond the traditional IR literature, I take as my point of departure a concrete debate in this field instead of commencing with a definitional or methodological exercise. Similarly, instead of developing an abstract model, I begin with the present “turn to practice” in IR and the rather different enterprises it comprises. While the first section addresses the topic of pragmatism in IR scholarship, I believe that the narrow disciplinary focus on IR has to be left behind in order to elucidate the issues, which are often not well articulated or even passed over in the disciplinary debate. Consequently, the next two sections examine more deeply the philosophical and epistemological problems that have dominated the “theory/praxis” intersection. The section on the “‘Archaeology’ of Praxis” deals with the classical heritage, the Cartesian remedy to skepticism, and Hume’s and Kant’s answers to this challenge. The following section “The Practice Turn in the Social Sciences” examines in greater detail the various turns during the last century that have occurred in epistemology, in science studies, and in critical theory, particularly with Wittgenstein’s insight into the emergence of ordinary language philosophy (“Praxis and Its Riddles”). I conclude with some remarks concerning the role of criticism in the realm of praxis and its study.

The Present Turn to Practice(s) in International Relations

The Debates

The recent turn to practices in international relations (IR) has led to great hopes that this “turn” might finally lead to theoretical breakthrough as practices are likened to “gluons” in physics that promised to allow us to see what holds the world together.20 There are two reasons to be skeptical. For one, the analogy to the gluon might be little more than a conceptual stretch, which covers up rather than calls attention to the necessity of a more thorough-going conceptual reconstruction. Here the experiences of a previous turn to practice—initiated by Richard Ashley (1986, 1988), who introduced the American audience to Bourdieu’s work—caused much debate and excitement (see International Organization, 1984) but could not sustain its momentum as soon as it became obvious that it would not be compatible with a “business as usual-plus” strategy for conducting research. The result was that “exile” (if not downright exit) became the preferred option for the dissenters (Ashley, 1990) so that the mainstream could congratulate itself on its show of “tolerance,” while actually exercising “inclusionary control.”21

This leads me to my second point. Our present times do not seem auspicious for harboring such hopes either. Actually they might be even be worse, since one cannot but notice a distinct tendency in the profession to eschew grand theories and return to a hands-on research that seems more like “normal science” To that extent the sympathies for a new pragmatism, of getting on with one’s work and not losing time with idle philosophical speculations–which are more productive of spreading dissent and confusion than producing knowledge–enjoys broad support among IR specialists.22 However, such support may come from falling prey to the opposite fallacy; that is, by relying on a highly problematic notion of pragmatism as “unspoken commonsense” or as a “pretext for doing empirical research unencumbered by theoretical and methodological considerations” (Friedrichs, 2009, p. 646). Nevertheless, given the previous prevalence of metatheoretical debates in IR—frequently offered at bargain-basement prices—the newly advocated “analytic eclecticism” seems to steer clear of both methodological fetishism and theoretical obsession.23

There is however also a third “school,” which fears that this dedication to normal science will not provide decision-makers with the necessary knowledge. In a way, this third school is attributing to each side half of the blame by admitting that theory-driven research often exhausts itself by arcane issues of methodology and metatheory. While this ill has to be cured by looking at “real life issues” (Ninic & Lepgold, 2002), one need not give up on “theory” as our best way of finding out what “is.”24 The solution for this dilemma is to call for the production of more “useful” knowledge generated by case studies, by inquiring through interviews what people in decision-making positions are doing (here diplomats have been of increasing interest)25 by reflecting on how IR contributes to the reproduction of an international system (which might be a good or bad thing depending on one’s evaluation of the present situation). But whatever position one takes on this evaluation,26 it is only by shifting the research agenda to real life problems instead of being preoccupied by metaphysical issues that one can hope to bridge the gap that exists between the academy and foreign policymaking circles.27

There were of course some other symposia devoted to pragmatism, such as the rather early one by the American Journal of Political Science (of all places, since this journal is usually a rather mainstream Midwestern political science journal), which contained thought-provoking articles on Dewey, his “democratization” of science,28 and his democratic theory. Or the Millennium symposium of 2002,29 in which “think pieces” by Bohman (2002) or Isaacoff (2002) and critical examinations of pragmatist thinkers—such as Molly Cochran’s (1999, 2002) excellent treatment of Deweyan pragmatism30—are paired with case studies (as in Bellamy’s piece on humanitarian intervention) showing the fruitfulness of a pragmatic approach.

There was also a roundtable on pragmatism at an ISA Convention organized by Gunther Hellman in which IR scholars from Europe and the United States examined the potential of pragmatism for IR analysis.31

But if my initial analysis is correct (and some of the quoted literature seems to agree), then something more than an adjustment in choosing new topics is required. Here Josph Rouse’ s indispensable analysis of the philosophical issues involved in a turn to practice provides much food for thought (Rouse, 2007). To that extent simply trying to be more relevant to policy by becoming more case-oriented will not do. Besides, attention to policy questions combined with the circulation of academics in policymaking circles is already quite common, especially in the United States. There does not seem to be the disdain or lack of respect toward the academy among the policymakers one encounters in other parts of the world—except perhaps in the case of the present U.S. administration. The reason for a “gap” seems, therefore to lie somewhere else: that persons with both practical experience and good judgment (the Aristotelian spoudaios)32 are difficult to find in an environment that prizes “theory” or expertise, conceived analogously to “technology.”­33 It is this misrecognition of the problem—common to the processes of knowledge creation about practical matters and to its circulation in society at large—that is the tap root of our disappointments.34

Diagnosing the Symptoms

This discussion points us to a different problem than the usual theory versus folklore and science and expertise versus populism debates by calling attention to a critical intersection. Decision makers and experts usually know that most practical problems cannot be cured by a reliance on theoretical knowledge and that they require instead “local knowledge,” imagination, and a “decision.” This decision is a commitment, not just a result of processes that, when fine-tuned, can deliver a better product. After all, no ready-made technology is available because the “paradigms” used by social scientists are not very helpful for understanding practical problems (see Hirschman, 1970). Those unfortunate circumstances were noticed a long time ago, when the dismal record of the theory of economic development became apparent.

Unfortunately, Hirschman’s original criticism of paradigms as a hindrance for understanding has often been treated as an outlier in the profession. Nevertheless, Tetlock (2005) has, ironically, corroborated it more recently in his large-scale study on the failure of expertise in dealing with the problems of the social world. Using standard “scientific” criteria for evaluating the predictions and judgments of experts, he shows that predictions based on expertise usually were not any more accurate than general folklore and often were even poorer. In trying to find a way to improve the record Tetlock then examined experts who were better than the average peers. His findings suggest that the old dilemma, which goes back to the Greek poet Archilous, of knowing “many things” (foxes) versus knowing “one big thing” (hedgehogs) provides some surprising clues when taken metaphorically. Isaiah Berlin (1953) addressed this in a playful essay, walking us through Western intellectual history and supplying us with two respective lists of foxes and hedgehogs. Tetlock elaborates on these different ways of thinking about problems by looking particularly at the problem of learning. His surprising conclusion is that it is this “knowing of many little things,” of being quick on one’s feet and able to draw on unorthodox analogies, of having fall-back positions without being committed to an overarching theory, leads over time to better results than following the hedgehog path.

This is indeed bad news, not only for the scientists who offer their expert knowledge to their “clients” but also equally for the “politicians” who rely on such knowledge. On second thought, what looks to us more like a pathology than a prescription for improving decision-making is perhaps not that surprising at all. Admitting freely that political choices entail dilemmas for which no algorithm can be found (vide Arrow’s theorem); that the situations requiring action are usually ill defined (as they are evolving and can quickly transform themselves into something else); that information is always incomplete, exacerbating misjudgments, and so on, failures seem inevitable. However, the general public can easily interpret those reasons as excuses for the decision makers’ incompetence or for refusing to make hard choices. Political leaders have, therefore, to show that they are in control, know what they are doing, and willing to seek the best available advice when help is needed. Consequently, a dubious form of back-scratching occurs: the decision maker relies on the expert and the expert is validated by being chosen over other “experts” who had proposed a different “package” to solve the problem at hand, while leaving the scientific establishment and its practices as such intact. In this way experts as well as decision makers signal to the public that the problem is recognized and that they are working on it. This assuages the fears that come along with the unknown and it also reestablishes legitimacy for both the political system and the research community, even if the proposed remedy rests on questionable foundations and—with hindsight—is often more like a placebo rather than an effective medicine; if we are lucky enough it does not do outright harm.

Nevertheless, it seems that a “long train” of disappointments (interpreted as “abuses”) and considerable turmoil is necessary to shake the general belief that allows for the separation of the professions from the groups which rely on different forms of legitimization, such as societal groups (status), the church, or the political system. It is also clear that those boundaries are not immutable and that science and expertise can be politicized, as can be gathered from several historical episodes. Doctors often become the targets of dissatisfied decision makers because they have, in personalistic systems of rule, easy access to the decision makers and must therefore be watched, similar to “professional” soldiers (even though, in the latter case “skill” rather than disciplinary knowledge provides the basis for their organization). Fear of becoming a victim of assassination can then quickly be externalized and used by propagating mythical tales of conspiracies, which, in turn, are used to persecute real or imaginary opponents, as Stalin’s “doctors plot” amply demonstrates. Lawyers are also easy targets, as they possess the privilege to “speak the law” (juris dictio) but they usually are easier to control as soon as the state apparatus forms and most of them become “magistrates” or deal only in private practice with “private matters.”35 If they are dealing with public or international law they can easily be dismissed, as other, more willing “experts” are at hand.

As the sponsored research of the cigarette and pharma industries indicates, even the life sciences are not immune from interference since their results are hardly as clear as the notion of an “objective observation” suggest. The data have to be interpreted and require judgment calls, so that controversies are endemic and preprogrammed. Besides, as we all know, one of the surest ways to spread confusion among the public is to provide “more data” even if they result most often in “chaff” rather than in providing answers to targeted questions. Then bullying and wishful thinking take over since contrary evidence can be treated as “fake news,” which deserve no attention and the suspension of critical inquiry and public discussion is “trumped” by professions of faith, similar to revivalist meetings, but which should be foreign to public meetings aimed at deliberation. In a surprising change, public gatherings in modern democracies have increasingly taken on features of “bearing witness” to one’s convictions rather than engaging in controversy and debate. The people in the audience are then constantly reminded of their original greatness, which has to be reaffirmed again or are mobilized by “dreams,” announcing that the best is still to come. Since the future will be so different from the past, experience and common sense no longer matter. Having finally arrived at the nirvana of a “borderless” understanding of the world, the “bounds of sense” dissolve in tandem with disciplinary knowledge.

This discussion sets the stage for the next two sections of this article. The next deals with the question of what type of knowledge is appropriate for the realm of praxis, now that we have realized that neither “the world out there” nor “reason” itself can serve as the foundation for all knowledge. This involves us in further inquiry into the “archaeology” of knowledge and requires a discussion of actions and interactions as well as of the intersubjectivity of the social world and of the mind-dependence of many concepts that brings this world into existence. I offer, therefore, a brief discussion of the Aristotelian argument about praxis and of Hume’s objection to the new “first philosophy,” which both Hobbes and Descartes advanced. Hume counters these attempts with a non-foundational, conventionalist account of the social world, stressing not only its historical and contingent character but also the importance of participatory learning—“through” commerce and conversation—for being able to act in it and understand it.

The “Archaeology” of Praxis

Aristotle and Ontology

When the onslaught of skepticism in ancient Greece showed that the world is not necessarily what our senses seem to tell us it is—as the oar in the water is broken but is whole again when removed—Plato answered this challenge by his theory of forms. The things we encounter in the world are only imperfect instantiations of an idea in which these things—“forms,” in Plato’s terms —participate. The highest of all the ideas, in which the different forms participate, is the idea of the good. Thus, true knowledge can only be acquired by going from the shadowy world of appearances to the ideas and finally to the recognition that they are reflections of the good. The natural and moral order were thus of one cloth and true knowledge could be acquired by following the ascent described in the parable of the cave.36

Aristotle dissents, and it is interesting that he challenges his teacher in two respects: first, that the good cannot be just one form because it is used as a predicate in various categories so that it functions like the word “is,” which is used in different senses; and second, that ascriptions of properties need not be permanent and everlasting in order to be true. As to the first point he suggests:

The word “good” is used in many senses as the word “is” (eti epei t’agathon isachos legetai to onti). We may describe a person or a thing—God for instance or the reasoning faculty—as “good” in the sense of absolutely good. Or we may speak of things as good when we are thinking of their qualities or special excellences. Or we may use the word in connexion with the quantity of something, when we mean that there is the right amount of it; or in connexion with its relation to something else, as when we say that something is “useful” meaning “good” as a means to an end . . . things of which there is a single form must be things of which there is a single science. Consequently, there should be (in the view we are discussing) a single science dealing with all good things. But what do we find? An indefinite number of sciences dealing with the “good” coming even under one of the heads we have mentioned. Take the “right moment.” The right moment in war is studied under military science, the right moment in sickness under the science of medicine. (Aristotle, 1971, pp. 32–33)

Thus we find that the concept is not only used across different categories but even within a specific one—here Aristotle takes the “right moment” (kairos) as an example, which is in Greek just one word without an adjective—showing that the term is used analogously in different situations. This leads Aristotle to a wider argument (my second point above), which nearly seems to have a “nominalist” ring.

Next, what do they mean by “the thing as it really is”? . . . For in their own terminology “man as he really is” is just another way of saying “man.” In this respect, then, there will be no difference between them—they are both “man.” But, if we are allowed to argue on these lines, we shall see no difference either between the really good and the [simple] good, in so far as both are good. Nor will the “really good” be any more good by being “eternal.” You might as well say that a white thing, which lasts a long time, is whiter than one which lasts only one day. (Aristotle, 1971, p. 33)

In this context it is significant that Aristotle does not use an appeal to ontology or to geometry to make his case as Plato did in his third step of ascending from the cave. Instead, Aristotle invokes the way in which we make assertions as his proof, as later Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy will do. That leads him to the conclusion that the practical world is different, since its guiding interest is the recognition of the specific configuration of a situation and not in what obtains universally. As acting takes place in time, contingency is an undeniable part of it so that the knowledge appropriate for acting—especially acting well—cannot be the contemplative grasp of “what is so universally and necessarily” but what is appropriate in the given circumstances. It also sets the stage for his further claim that the social world is one of artifice, constituted by language and shared concepts,37 a point that later the first generation of constructivists also emphasized (see Kratochwil, 1989; Onuf, 1989).

In such a world, prudence and deliberation become necessary since no compelling demonstration exists and claims of having to ascend to the idea of ideas, that is, the “good” itself (eidos ton eidon) do, as Aristotle notes, very little work under such circumstances. He nearly flippantly remarks: “What advantage in his art will a weaver or a joiner get from a knowledge of the absolute good. Or how shall a doctor or a general who had a vision of the Very Form become thereby a better doctor or general.”38

Given our predicament we have to find our way by addressing the situation, by reasoning from case to case and by analogy. Such a heuristics requires imagination and reliance on comparison rather than being exclusively committed to deduction or to inductive inference–having become hostage to the belief that nothing can be said or done until we know what is generally true (e.g., in all wars, in all financial crises, in all nation-building processes, etc). While certain commonalities exist, they are likely to be trivial on closer inspection—such as that people get killed in wars (that’s why we call something a “war” if it “costs” the lives of a thousand), or that people lose their orientation in crises, be they political or financial. Here noticing the differences among them might provide us with better clues for what to do. We also must develop a sense of timing if we are to act well, as windows of opportunities open and close. We also realize that we are ill-served if we hang on to solutions that entail doing “more of the same,” in case the results are disappointing, instead of having a fallback or exit option, since we believe in the principle of the continuity of nature

In short, virtues other than sagacity and logical prowess are required. In the individual case such virtues are acquired—according to Aristotle—only by experience and through the formation of character, which aligns cognition and emotions so an actor is able “to go on” by mastering different concrete situations (instead of relying on abstractions by focusing on features supposedly shared by all situations). But as we know, aside from trivial routines, chances for direct repeat performances39 are rather slim in social life, Instead, the others with whom we interact often treat our actions with resentment, that can become “game changers” for the next round.

In collective decisions the “common view” is also not something that is perspicuous to all and need only be invoked to establish consensus. It virtually always entails a contested view of both the situation and the appropriate remedies, given the value dilemmas and the risks of different strategies for reaching a common goal. Furthermore, for the continuation of the polity as an ongoing concern, the discussions need to be well informed—here the Aristotelian euboulia (i.e., being well advised) comes to the fore. This in turn presupposes a “requisite variety” of opinions to choose from, so that the pro and cons of a proposal can be presented, instead of appealing to convictions, gut-feelings, or pretense only, which make persuasion—the peitho of old—impossible and open instead the door for ad hominem attacks. Particularly the latter problem points again to the importance of the alignment of emotions and cognition, since it is the sympathy among the citizens—Aristotle’s philia—that enables people to accept defeat not without regret, but without resentment, and to keep cool in the face of victory rather than triumph over the losers.

Given these remarks Aristotle introduces three distinctions: one between a “theory,” which deals with matters of the necessary and universal, second a mode of thinking in which knowledge and know-how either have to address issues of “production”—here again distinguishing additionally between “technical” and poetic production—and third, of practical matters (praxis), as no artifact serves as a goal. Acting practically means that the actions are relatively straightforward performances if they have been routinized—even if they misfire—but if not, they require deliberation and commitments since they often entail choices in strategic situations, where the outcome will not depend on either my or the others intentions alone, but on their interaction. Furthermore, since our actions will in all likelihood also interfere with those of others, we usually act within a framework where rules establish priorities and responsibilities in order to deal with issues of interferences (by assigning liabilities) and to prevent or overcome collective action problems, which range from simple defections to deceptions, to dealing with risks and imponderables. All those questions require decisions under contingent and less than ideal circumstances, which cannot be neglected by abstracting from them in the interest of pursuing “the truth” or “the good.” Instead we are held to respect also quite “arbitrary” standards, such as exact deadlines, and that a signed contract is binding, even if I change my mind after having come to the conclusion that going through with it would be a big mistake.

One has then to wonder why Aristotle in the end—at least in the subsequent dominant interpretation of Aristotle’s oeuvre—considers wisdom the highest form of knowledge. Wisdom emerges from metaphysical reflection but it certainly does not encompass all the other different forms of knowing and even worse, no lexical ordering seems possible a priori. In short, what kind of knowledge is appropriate cannot be read simply from the hierarchy of being, but requires the additional specification of purposes and situations. If I am kidnapped and try to escape, knowing the mathematical proof that I cannot get out of a three-dimensional space without breaking through one of the sides of the cube is of no help. Then searching for an opening, or observing when the guards change, or taking a chance in setting my bed on fire, are far more promising options.

For whatever reason, the tradition after Aristotle relied, however, on an “order of things” argument, which meant that in the Middle Ages theology could claim preeminence and secondly that metaphysics and theory were accepted as the highest form of knowing as long as they did not contradict the scriptures. It took indeed another significant attack by the skeptics—helped certainly by religious dissent that undermined the credibility of the theological orthodoxy and an attack on the natural order of things in society when social movements could no longer be controlled—to provide for a new “turn.” As Richard Popkin has shown,40 the rediscovery of the writings of Sextus Empiricus in the 16th century popularized a form of philosophical (Pyrrhonic) skepticism, maintaining that we should suspend all judgments in the face of the (im)possibility of knowledge, since neither claim can be demonstrated by an appeal to the senses, authority, or logic. Only in this way do we attain the peace of mind (ataraxia) that lets us get on with life. Sextus’s writings (Outlines of Pyrrhonism41 and Skeptical Treatises) not only influenced Montaigne and Pascal, they set the stage for the 17th-century epistemological debates.42

The New Epistemological Project and the Humean Critique

The bite of the skeptics’ criticism, we see in that both scripture and established tradition were eventually rejected as authoritative, even though Pyrrhonism as such did not carry the way. Instead, we see a new near universal agreement that a new form of knowledge was called for that would produce knowledge rather than simply find it through contemplation. That is the purpose of Bacon’s New Organon.43 While making reference to Aristotle’s system of logic Bacon argued for the systemic empirical treatment of the phenomena to be explained, using first comparison among many cases in different domains and then for applying “true induction.” As Bacon (1902) avers in the preface of this work:

Our method, though difficult in its operation, is easily explained. It consists in determining the degrees of certainty, while we, as it were, restore the senses to their former rank, but generally reject that operation of the mind, which follows close upon the senses, and open and establish a new and certain course for the mind from the first actual perceptions of the senses themselves. This, no doubt, was the view taken by those who have assigned so much to logic; showing clearly thereby that they sought some support for the mind, and suspected its natural and spontaneous mode of action. But this is now employed too late as a remedy, when all is clearly lost, and after the mind, by the daily habit and intercourse of life, has come prepossessed with corrupted doctrines, and filled with the vainest idols. The art of logic therefore being (as we have mentioned) too late a precaution, and in no way remedying the matter, has tended more to confirm errors, than to disclose truth. (p. 7)

But that this is no uncritical empiricism becomes clear from Bacon’s book II in the Organum, which consists of “Aphorisms Concerning the Interpretation of Nature and the Kingdom of Man” that show how observation is impeded by prejudices, or—as he says—by “idols,”44 all of which have to be “unlearned” before the search for knowledge becomes possible again. Against these dangers he proposes “tables of invention” that proceed by analogous reasoning and eliminative induction, using also experiments. Such a method, he claims, provides us with a better way of arriving at secure knowledge than relying on speculative deductions and the acceptance of traditional lore, or the mindless accumulation of “evidence” culled from canonical texts.

To that extent Bacon was perhaps not that far removed from Galileo’s approach even though Galileo (1957/1623) was perhaps more given to the belief that “philosophy is written in this grand book the universe. . . . It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles circles and other geometric figures. . . (pp. 237–238). He nevertheless systematically included both experiments and instruments into his scientific practice. He employed the telescope, which he had made for his observation and discovered in this way the mountainous surface of the moon, as well as the moons of Jupiter. Since he was also serving as a teacher of design at the Florentine Art Academy—teaching chiaroscuro and perspective—he surmised correctly that the different tones of light observed on the moon must be caused by mountains. He thereby exploded the Aristotelian myth of the perfect form of all heavenly bodies and another Aristotelian “truth” as well, since moons were supposed to circle only the earth and not other planets. In short, he creatively used comparisons and analogies that were system-transforming, even if not all of his arguments were right,45 and he apparently saw no difficulty in reconciling his scientific interest in astronomy with his dedication to astrology, as did many budding “scientists” at that time.

Thus the Pyrrhonian challenge was, in a way, more overcome by advocating a certain method—than by a new theory. This method was a particular practice of structuring inquiry. It combined experimentation with the application of mathematical concepts to the natural and the social world, rather than being informed by some vision of “true knowledge” that relied on a philosophy of forms, or on ontology.

Nevertheless, the old dream of coming to a new theoretical understanding that tied all the different disciplinary understandings and all forms of knowledge together—just at the moment that the disciplines emancipated themselves from philosophy—did not die easily. This can be seen from the triumphalist announcement of a new “first philosophy” of Descartes. His Meditations on First Philosophy, which appeared in 1641 and 1642, four years after his Discourse on Method (1637) was perhaps the most pronounced claim of having discovered a new philosophy similar to metaphysics. But Hobbes made similar claims. His treatise De Cive was published around the same time (1642 and 1647) and it provided the first comprehensive statement of grounding the science of man on a first “philosophy,”46 which was to proceed in the “manner of geometry” (more geometrico), substituting a method for the old contemplation of the order of being.

Of course, several problems arose in this context. One was whether one could indeed find such a method that allowed for such cogent derivations. In the case of Descartes it became quickly clear that much more than a universal doubt and a method was required. There had to be some shared intuitions—Descartes’s innate ideas—and there had to be a benign God who ensured that concepts and the “world out there” actually matched, so that we could be certain that we were not subject to deception. Similarly as modern Hobbes scholars demonstrated, Hobbes could not rely on strict demonstration either but used instead all the usual rhetorical “tricks” to persuade his audience of the “reasonableness” of his construct (see Johston, 1986; Skinner, 1996). This can be best seen in his Leviathan (1651), in which examples—many purely hypothetical—are listed for “corroborating” his thesis of the inevitability of conflict in the absence of a strong sovereign. Another problem was that the method did not seem to provide unequivocal answers, as Spinoza’s attack on Descartes’s method in his Ethics shows. After all, the objections as well as the original assertions were based on the same method but contradicted each other.

Of course, this could mean that one of the authors used the method correctly while the other erred, but coming to such a judgment was controversial since it not only undermined the claim of the possibility of a clear “demonstration” in the realm of praxis but also undermined implicitly the wider justification: that this method would end controversies and bring peace to a concrete Commonwealth as well as to the republic of letters. Instead, using this method seemed to exacerbate conflict, which showed surprising similarities to religious conflicts that dominated the 17th century. Finally, when a settlement was finally reached in England by the “Glorious Revolution” (1688) it was not one for which a “method” had provided the blueprint.

These two realizations provided the background for Hume’s attack on foundationalism. First, it concerned the refutation of exaggerated claims of a rationalist theory based on a problematic analogy to mathematics on which it did not and could not make good. Second, it was based on the explication of an actual historical settlement that was neither expected nor came about by purely intentional actions of the participants. Here Hume poked fun at the Tory, as well as at the Whig, interpretation of history, which he debunked by close archival research, exposing the respective partisan prejudices. Hume’s conclusion was that while this settlement was fortunate and had to be embraced, it was neither intended nor fortuitous because the meaning these events attained was an achievement of later generations, which had learned to live with and accept the original compromise. Here his critical historical analysis led him to the investigation of both the role of institutions and of generation-transcending action sequences that become perspicuous to us in our historical reflection contained in narratives, rather than in the construction of systems or theories.

Thus, Hume’s principled opposition to Descartes’s philosophy and to the epistemological project it engenders arose out of the realization that an adequate understanding of the social world requires a different approach than relying on self-reflexivity as the unique and incontrovertible foundation (Hume, 1978, 2007).47 Practical choices for Hume always involve appraisals of “good” and “bad,” but such ascriptions can no longer be read from either a permanent order of things or from individual reason (limited to instrumental reason and the principle of maximization), as such an approach would end up in the cacophony of the “me first,” as Hobbes correctly pointed out. But Hume also disagreed with Hobbes who had argued that such agreement could be ordained by the fiat of the sovereign. Although Hume agreed that choices require standards for public approval, as we inevitably interfere with each other’s action and plans, so that priorities must be set, he saw that the do’s and don’ts cannot be invented by sovereign determinations every time an issue arises. In other words, public acquiescence or approval cannot be the result of a mere command, but requires rules, because the latter are conventional and historical, and depend on the intersubjectivity of the conventions and customs prevailing in a society. It is not the actual command that is important but something like the “credit” the sovereign enjoys and on which his determinations ultimately have to rest. Authoritative decisions of a sovereign only make sense within such a common framework. If the rules regulating behavior were just the command of a superior then they could not fulfill their main function as general prescriptions. The latter require shared understandings for their interpretation, which is necessary for “going on” in a particular situation. In the absence of such a background knowledge, rules would lose their function as instruments of rule, since people would act capriciously or not act at all because they would not know what to do. This latter phenomenon we all know well from organizations where control freaks dominate and where apathy (as a cheap form of resistance) among the “subjects” is then the usual outcome.

There are three corollaries to these considerations. The first is that rules and conventions are not only external constraints on our actions but enable us to act in the first place and allow us to be recognized as actors rather than being considered as persons who just disturb or interfere with the status quo. The second—much less obvious one—results from the open texture of our concepts and the fact that rules can and frequently do conflict in concrete cases. Thus “no vehicles in the park” seems like a pretty clear rule. But is a skateboard powered by a small engine a vehicle? What about a wheelchair? Fire engines and ambulances are surely “vehicles”! But does that mean that they cannot enter the park when a fire has broken out or someone has had a heart attack? Similarly, if a judge passed a sentence on a person who rescued a child who had fallen in a water basin–and by jumping in, the rescuer had acted contrary to the clearly posted prohibition “no swimming in the basin”–we would not consider this a sensible application of the rule.

Kant, very much following Hume’s common sense argument, provided the important gloss that “applying rules” is not a simple “working by the book,” or following an algorithm, but requires instead “judgment” (Urteilskraft). As Kant notes, Urteilskraft is a capacity, which is different from reason and its logical procedures, as many highly intelligent people can make dumb practical choices: “The lack of judgment (Urteilskraft) is actually what we call stupidity (Dummheit) and such a flaw (Gebrechen) cannot be cured.”48 It is a capacity that cannot be taught, by making a student familiar with rules, since in the absence of “getting the point” for which the rule was designed, new rules of application would become necessary, which again would require new rules for their application, etc., threatening an infinite regress. Urteilskraft (judgement) can be acquired only through experience and through the exercise of imagination, that is, through learning by doing, analogous reasoning, and by “thinking through” different possibilities. As Kant suggests:

Although schooling might be able furnish rules derived from the insights of others and might [even be able] to somehow “implant” them in a limited mind, the capacity to apply them correctly must be in the “apprentice” (Lehrling) himself. No rule, which we prescribe to him with this intention, is secure from abuse, if such a talent is missing. Consequently, a physician or judge, or statesman might have in their heads many beautiful rules for pathologies, laws, or politics—so that they could even become competent teachers of them—but they could as easily violate these rules in applying them, because they either lack this power of judgment (even if they possess understanding and can discern the general in abstracto but lack the discrimination of whether a concrete case falls under it), or because their judgment has not been sufficiently exercised by practice and examples. Indeed it is the unique and great advantage of examples that they sharpen the judgment.49

But while these corollaries address largely cognitive issues, there is still something else that is required: the alignment of cognition and of the feelings of approbation of disapprobation when we appraise actions. Hume reminds us not only that who we are and what we do and think is “social” all the way down, recognizing this also points us and all the way back into history and the institutional structures which develop as the result of individual and collective “formations,” which gives us an identity and makes the “we” an ongoing and transgenerational concern of the actors.

A “Theory” of Praxis and the Problem of Order

Thus the reduction of the research agenda of action by an atomistic epistemology based on assumptions of individual instrumental rationality is problematic, not only because man is a social animal but because thinking and feeling are not purely idiosyncratic or private activities. It is problematic also because action involves language, common concepts, and standards of taste (or of right and wrong) that serve as criteria for appraisal. That such criteria do not eliminate debate and disagreement, and that the debates they occasion cannot be resolved by claims to superior insights, or by resorting to “values” or direct intuitions, is surprising only for those who understand social reality solely from books.

It has indeed been one of the gravest shortcomings of the “norms research” of the last 20 years that the Parsonian model of a harmonious society, firmly anchored in its “value consensus.”, served as the yardstick for assessing “compliance,” instead of seeing that norms are equally important for generating conflict, legitimizing and voicing dissent, and engineering change as they are for inducing compliance. There have been some exceptions—notably Wiener’s (2008) work, which focused on contestation, or Marlin-Bennett’s (2010) work on contestation of the agricultural trade regime. In mainstream analysis, however, this aspect was either kept out of sight or one pointed to the restricted form of contestation within the legal process, which was to take care of this problem. Here too an “ideal theory”, in both the Rawlsian50 and the Habermasian version, assumed that only the clarification of the principles of justice or the transcendental conditions of communicative action were necessary to achieve justice, or have the better argument win (Risse, 2000), since—after they had been found—they could be easily applied to cases and controversies. To that extent issues of “realizability” had only to be faced in the application stage, but not in the clarification or discovery stage.

But such a procedure seems dubious for logical and practical grounds. On logical grounds alone one could argue that such a separation is possible only if principles and facts do not interact, i.e., the facts of a case might not require that their subsumption under a different principle must be considered (e.g., that the case at hand is clearly one of human rights and not a freedom-of-contract issue). If such a separation is not possible in practice then separation on logical grounds seems heuristically problematic, not to say barren.51 Second, it would be necessary to establish a lexical ordering among the values that the principles protect. Rawls does make this assumption by assigning priority to justice, but such a claim seems like a tall order to fill. One need not be a Hobbesian to see that distributive issues—which fall under justice—are interdependent with other issues, such as assigning and justifying original entitlements and maintaining security and the rule of law, and that a lexical ordering depends on the circumstances of the problems different societies face. Consequently this question cannot be decided once and for all, as prioritization cannot be kept fact free. Besides, no lexical ordering among values seems possible because different principles conflict and cannot be ordered according to neutral, or logical, criteria. Instead such a conflict requires a decision, which, in turn, issues from the power of judgment represented by different capacity than by theory or the logic of an algorithm.

Thus it seems that constructs such as the ideal speech situation and the choice behind the veil of ignorance develop their persuasive power only by building their theory on equivocations of the key terms they use. On the one hand the arguments appeal to common sense, while on the other hand they want to dispense with traditional common understandings by appealing to reason, tout court. Habermas quickly has to admit that not only an ideal speech situation is required but also ideal speakers if his argument is to be cogent. Only then we can dispense with the need of agreement since reason itself, and not the reasons advanced by the participants, dictates the outcome. Similarly, the concept of a contract in Rawls is little more than a misapplied metaphor. Instead of being used for the “meeting of the wills” of actual actors—which is thereby accomplished by a performance in accordance to certain practice type rules—it has morphed into a search for the transcendental conditions by which the outcome could be rationally justified. Since reason is universal and trans-historical, it also does not matter if an agreement is actually reached by the participants since it is a purely hypothetical construct of “theorizing.”

Most pragmatists believe however that irrespective of whether normative questions or the production of knowledge are at issue, the justification for our doings cannot be transcendentally grounded. It cannot be grounded, either in the old sense of fitting the order of being or in the newer sense of issuing from reason itself because our actions and our inquiry are driven by our attempts at “coping” in the world that is not simply there and that cannot be grasped from a point of standing outside of it. To that extent most pragmatists also see no point in continuing many of the philosophical debates that center on issues of idealism versus realism because the dichotomies are misleading and the notion that “the Truth” that can be “found”—instead of emerging from interactions and the commitments that follow from the giving of assent, is not helpful for that very reason.

After all, even if a determinate solution has been found, the practical problem remains that it has to be accepted and embraced—as suggested by Wittgenstein’s signpost example. To that extent the practical problem is not a cognitive one, even though it certainly does not help to confuse the issues of logical determinacy with those of uniqueness and to furthermore misidentify the reasons why even contested decisions such as those delivered by a court are binding—which has little to do with the “one right answer” argument that undergirds Dworkin’s legal theory and with the legalist dream that courts are the answer (instead of being part of the problem). While, of course the international anarchy suffers from the lack of a clearly structured judicial process, the idea that no norms exist there and that certain issue areas are not highly legalized is simply not true. So the interesting problem is whether it is indeed the lack of law that is so problematic or whether other factors, such as the indeterminacy of norms are also responsible for that state of affairs. If this were so, then a proliferation of courts could not “do the trick” in the absence of firm institutionalization putting different courts and dispute settling institutions in an effective instructional relationship.

Let us begin with Dworkin’s right answer argument, which seems at first to be the necessary if not sufficient condition for settling conflicts (see Dworkin, 1997). According to him even complicated or “hard cases” have one solution and one solution only if the judges engage with the precedents and the logic of the narrative that allows different decisions to be understood in terms of the unfolding of a coherent storyline. Admittedly, Dworkin uses hermeneutic instead of purely logical criteria for making his argument, but that changes little, if the relevant distinction concerns the issue of whether the “closure” of an argument is due to meeting cognitive or pragmatic criteria respectively. It seems to me that this type of decision-making—also acknowledged by Dworkin as being reserved to appeals court and courts of last instance—is “final” not because it makes the better argument but because this finality is due to the place the court occupies within an institutionalized legal process. That finality puts a particular strain on the judges for justifying their choices in particularly carefully worded and well-reasoned arguments might be true, but none of the final decision of a supreme court can be overridden by pointing to flaws in the argument. This does not mute criticism—especially among theorists of constitutional law—but the stare decisis character has nothing to do with the unique rightness of the decision made.

On second thought, the bitter truth is also that choices can be fully determinate without representing the one right answer, as they are not unique. While mathematicians can be satisfied with showing why a solution is determinate, they are not necessarily flabbergasted that in cases of multiple equilibria, for example, several solutions obtain and that no unique solution recommends itself since they are logically equivalent. But this is precisely the issue that represents the problem in the practical realm as people have to converge on one reading of the situation and on one solution for solving their choice problem, instead of simply showing them that, despite all the efforts, they still face a dilemma that can be overcome only by an authoritative determination. In that case they have to fall back on arbitrary choice mechanisms, such as flipping a coin, or leaving it to a dictator (as sometimes in Roman history) or rely on assent by embracing the majority rule (or some more exacting criterion of a qualified majority).52 The fact that high courts rely on majorities and that these majorities can come about by concurring opinions rather than actual substantive agreement, make the “right answer” thesis indeed a thin reed to hang one’s hat on.

It is here that most international relations scholars will point to the absence of compelling judicial settlement in the international arena, which has to be cured by the further development of international law. Although they are half right—as opposed to hardcore realists who deny any relevance of international law to, due to the prevailing international anarchy — it is worthwhile to ponder why this is so and why the usual theoretically inspired arguments are deficient. Actually the existing dispute settlement “mechanisms”—amounting to about 150 “courts” entitled to render judgments in disputes suggest that the anarchy argument is in need of correction. In the meantime we have had warnings from International Court of Justice presidents that the proliferation of courts was threatening the international legal order.53 Strangely enough it seems that the current problem is an embarrassment of riches of having too many courts that are not part of a clearly institutionalized legal process. Since most cases arising in the “real world” touch on a variety of issues that can pertain to trade, the environment, to jurisdiction, to humanitarian concerns, and so on, none of the courts have a final say and confusion is preprogrammed. Furthermore if we understand how compliance and enforcement are actually related, in that that enforcement presupposes the finality of judgment, which serves as a signal for a “prospective ordering” of the members’ actions, we begin to understand where the problems lie. It seems that most of our theories misidentify the problem and consequently neither more courts nor more effective enforcement will do the trick as long as we misunderstand what it is that has to be done.

We face here on a smaller scale similar problems that are familiar from peacekeeping whose effectiveness is most often not simply impeded by the lack of troops—without denying that can be a serious problem as in Srebrenica—but by the lack of clarity of the mission and the fragile consensus that the high-sounding mission statement can hardly paper over. This leads to all types of actions but not to a cooperation in the sense of acting together in the pursuit of a common goal. The typical response to such dilemmas is to “do more of the same”, whereby each organization that is part of the mission has its own ideas concerning the questions of “who,” “what,” “how much,” and “when.” The usual result is that we have lots of activities that cannot disguise the loss of the ability of acting together, as allegedly pragmatic considerations (news-speak for muddling through after losing interest in questioning what you are doing) determine the actions “on the ground.”

Unfortunately, creating political order is not like making decisions about how to produce and distribute a certain good, such as providing more beer for everyone, supplied either by market forces or through authoritative allocation. If this template were right then the mission goal, the subgoals, and the implementing strategies could be specified, representing little more than instrumentally rational steps within that production process. Those problems can then that can be left to experts and managers, as judgment is “operationalized” as an optimization issue and keeping cooperation as an ongoing concern among the participants is now assessed by the proxy measures of showing that one is working by the book and implementing the required drills. As long as the questionnaires are filled in correctly and the numbers are right the mission must be a success!

Realizing that such ways of acting are induced by the misplaced trust in way of knowing that cannot make good on its promise of “certainty” is also the first step of recognizing that the problems of the social world do not arise out of theoretical concerns with assumptions and theorems, and do not allow for reducing the issue of implementation to questions of method, such as figuring out a maximizing strategy. They require instead a familiarity with making choices i.e., selecting both ends and means by paying attention to how they interact and relate to the changing situation by putting them together so the commitment remains an ongoing concerns among those acting together. Being committed to such a “goal” requires instead of withdrawing or ascending to a point that offers the view from nowhere, a different perspective: or, as Hume (1985) suggests, it, presupposes the know-how which comes from participating “in common life and conversation” (p. 535).

This realization has a further corollary. Although the social world is “made” by the actors, it cannot be simply “designed” from one central perspective, such as the sheer command of a sovereign or universal reason, which supplies the master plan or a set of instructions. Furthermore, since judgments of good and bad involve our feelings of approbation and disapprobation, sentiments have to play an important part in such a world. But for that very reason they cannot be purely private drives, passions, or purely idiosyncratic likes or dislikes.54 They must be common, or vetted and cultivated by education to provide us with public yardsticks for evaluation. Emphasizing the conventional nature of the social world and the necessity of participating in it allows not only for a learning by doing but also for the education of sentiments, an issue that the Scottish enlightenment took very seriously.

It obviously cannot be the purpose of this brief contribution to examine in detail the entire trajectory of the debates that were informed by these themes and dominated the discussions of the late 18th to the second half of the 20th century. Instead I want to begin my interrogation by focusing on the practice turn and its reverberation in the social sciences.

The Practice Turn in the Social Sciences

The Background

Although there are many ways of recounting and accounting for the turn to practice, there is virtually no doubt that the publication of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, edited by Theodore Schatzki, Karin Knorr-Cetina, and von Savigny (2001), served as a catalyst for several developments in the social sciences. A few preliminary remarks are therefore in order to provide some background and examine the impulses that reverberated from there through the other social sciences.

The first thing to notice is that the turn occurred largely within the discipline of sociology, parallel to the one in the philosophy of science where the debate, largely informed by the epistemological project, continued unabated along the lines of the unity of science theme. Given the proliferation of new sciences in the 20th century, ranging from new “life sciences” to psychology (in the manner of Adler and Freud), it became obvious that the epistemological project could only be sustained if a clear demarcation criterion between scientific and nonscientific statements could be found and if it could be shown that such a criterion was also used by scientists in their work. Only under such circumstances was a reconstruction of science persuasive that explained its success as an accumulation of knowledge.55

Of course the narrative of progress was decisively deflated by the discovery of paradigms and revolutionary science by Kuhn (1996), since this interpretation created considerable puzzles as to the yardstick for assessing progress, since the trajectory does not seem to follow a neat progression such as increasing the sides of a polygon inside a circle to approximate the true form of a circle. Furthermore, the revolution in technology that contributed to the belief in progress seemed conceptually problematic since many things invented over previous 200 years, which are taken as tokens of our increase in knowledge, were actually based on theories that turned out to be false (vide the theory of ether or Newton’s theory, which got us to the moon but had been shown to be defective by Einstein).56

This brings us back to the issue of what researchers are doing as a proper focus for analysis, that is, exploring the practice of science that becomes a formal object of investigation for historians of science as well as for sociologists. Here one of the surprising and controversial discoveries has been that instead of steady progress, punctuated by conjectures and refutations, science developed in a rather uneven, sometimes even explosive fashion. This historical counternarrative received backing from the sociological investigations, which seemed to confirm the pragmatists’ insistence on the crucial role played by the scientific community. The ways in which these communities organize their research, incorporating instruments and adopting procedures for the vetting of results, decisively influences what counts as “science.”

In the social sciences these two factors also explain why sociology—especially when allied with a critical historiography—was now in a privileged position for addressing the issues of knowledge creation/diffusion: it seemed to be part and parcel of the problem of social reproduction in general. Here too, the attempt to solve the Hobbesian problem of order via the postulation of a coherent cultural system, based on shared values had already come under considerable attack (see Parsons, 1951). Adherents of the so-called conflict school in sociology,57 which drew on Marx, emphasized issues of stratification and of struggle as endemic in every society, making the existence of a basic value consensus in a society an ideological construct. To that extent, paradigm conflict and social reproduction seemed like two sides of the same coin.

This disagreement also raised another crucial issue vetted in sociology, that is, how the knowledge of the social world could claim objectivity despite the fact that no prefabricated “world out there” was waiting to be discovered (Weber, 1985). Thus, the imagery of discovery that would only require the lifting of a veil, instead of studying the process of its making, had already lost much of its persuasive power even in the natural sciences (Zeilinger, 2003).


Finally, national differences could be identified in these fundamental controversies, as predicted by sociologists focusing on the community of scientists. But since even “society” has increasingly became a national society, using the state as a boundary for the organization of educational systems and of the transmission of knowledge through academies and the national means of molding public opinion, it is not surprising that national traditions emerged, which were far from being inconsequential.58 This can be seen from the different paths in which pragmatism was adopted or transformed in different national debates. After all, it was the issue of meaning and of the difference between the social and the natural world that originally had set German sociology on the path of elaborating on the role of values and meanings in the tradition of Dilthey and Weber (1949). Various exponents of what later became the Frankfurt school represented the Marxian heritage. Although two of its members—Apel59 and Habermas—developed in the postwar era some interest in American pragmatism, it was a strange form of pragmatism when compared to that of James or Dewey. Since their approach was beholden to Peircean logic rather than Dewey’s form of pragmatism, it became in the hands of its Frankfurt advocates the search for a transcendental pragmatics60 that could ground a social theory in a quasi-Kantian constitutive interest for unimpeded communication among free agents (Habermas 1968; 1971).

In a way this seems to be an oxymoron, given the antifoundationalist orientation of most pragmatist thinkers. Although Habermas soon abandoned this attempt in favor of the investigation of the life-world of concrete societies (see Habermas, 1984, 1996), there remains, nevertheless, a tension between his insistence on epistemic criteria and the pragmatic realization that there is no point in practical matters to believe that unique or unanimous solutions issuing from universal reason are a necessary precondition for the functioning of a society.

In France, “Marxism”—or what was believed to be Marxism—played a larger role. The influence of pragmatic thought was at first negligible, entering through an interest in the material side of knowledge creation, as already mentioned. However, when paired with semiotics it led in the hands of Derrida,61 to deconstruction who claimed that his approach represented the radicalization of the Marxian critique of ideology.62 Derrida showed the historicity of structures that shape our acting and thinking, while at the same time he emphasized that understanding this genesis does not lead us to a pure and simple origin that can be posited. Instead we have to recognize an original complexity which can be brought to the fore, but which can never be “dis-solved”, as the tenets of classical ontology or a philosophy of presence (relying e.g., on universal and ahistorical reason, which defines “logocentrism”) pretend.63 Pragmatic concerns did spawn a distinct school of thought based on the conceptualization of fields, doxa, and habitus, developed by Bourdieu and probably influenced by the teachings of Gaston Bachelard (who taught him, as well as Derrida and Foucault and Althusser).

Only in Great Britain did the research agenda remain closer to the Humean paradigm of practical knowledge. The epistemological debate was powerfully shaped by the emergence of ordinary language philosophy as it developed in Oxford and by Wittgenstein’s later work. The British approach, especially in international relations—but also in political theory—was characterized by the continued interest in institutions, their historical genesis and their relations to larger social understandings and habits. This was exemplified by Hedley Bull (1977) and by Oakeshott’s political philosophy, even though the latter’s influence only grew in later years (see Oakeshott, 1962, 1975, 1983). To that extent the “English School” of international relations developed its own research agenda by examining comparatively historical state systems (Wight, 1977), their politics, and the role conventions in this context, while avoiding to approach those problems by means of a comprehensive theory or through metatheoretical excursions.64 It seems no accident that in the U.K., where international studies had strong links to area studies, local knowledge (languages), and diplomatic practice (see Nicholson, 1963; Watson, 1982), had been the predominant way of “doing” international relations, instead of subjecting the practice of states to the epistemological criteria (Buzan & Little, 2000) and quartering its researchers in political science departments. Such an approach need not end up in a form of historical descriptivism but allowed for the development of a genuine system theory that was equally distanced from the Luhmannian project (Luhmann, 1996/1984) of the autopoiesis of constituting systems by “codes” and from the Waltzian version of “structural” theorizing (see Buzans & Little, 2000).65

This brief survey of the different schools of thought leads me right back to the central problem of pragmatism, that is, whether the shifting forms in research orientations can and should still be contained within “theory” and be represented in terms of just building a better theory. Of course, if one held the latter position, one would have perhaps to be more attentive to the puzzles that emerge from the analysis of the concrete choice situations an actor faces by taking Weber’s subjective point of view (or better, an intersubjective view), instead of solving this problem largely by assumptions, or leaving the hypothesis-building sequestered to the mind and the individual psychology of researchers. Such a change might, however, also require a more pluralist methodology, as the contemporary appreciation of eclecticism suggests (see Sil & Katzenstein, 2010). This would allow the theorist to leave the past positivism and its epistemological project behind, but still remain within the gravitational field of theory.

Subscribing to a pragmatist mode of inquiry may, as I suspect, require even further moves that go beyond traditional theoretical concerns. While this can remain an open question, at least for the moment, some of the hot topics in social theory around the time of the practice turn show how difficult a straightforward answer to the question is. For that purpose a closer look at Bourdieu’s, Gidden’s, and Archer’s work, which focuses on the agent structure problematique, is instructive.

Structuralism, Functionalism, and the Issue of Agency

As we have seen the conflict school of sociology criticized Parson’s notion of a social system that was fully integrated by culture and common values. Parson’s later writings, however, focused more on the crucial role of functional differentiation in modern societies, which made him subsequently one of the main exponents of structural functionalism. In his Economy and Society (1956), the general problem of the survival of the social system provided the main focus, rather than the choice situation of the actor. Although Parsons himself denied such a shift66 in his “theorizing,” further questions arose about whether his conceptualization of the media of exchange and of functional differentiation which had been introduced by others in modern systems theory67 was sufficient or whether such a shift did not also require a new conceptualization of the problem of social reproduction. Such a new “theory” needed not only a clarification of how self-reproducing systems (autopoetic systems) accomplish this task, but also a break with the old Aristotelian logic of part and whole, which had been constitutive for the notion of a traditional systems.68 The critical point is not the alleged inherent conservatism of the original Parsonian action theory, but the problematic use of incommensurable conceptual bits and pieces that do not fit together and can do little work in a new theory of society.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to fall into the conceptual traps of structuralism, as can be seen in the case of Bourdieu. Originally influenced by Saussurian and Levi-Straussian semiotics, Bourdieu experienced great difficulties in doing his fieldwork in North Africa, and realized that even participant observation is no cure for being misled by the categories and interpretation through which the data are formed, even if the research is no longer informed by traditional ontology but by a pervasive semiotic system of conceptual oppositions (Bourdieu, 1977). This system of oppositions serves as the key for making sense of phenomena, such as dealing with the order of the cosmos, arranging a building, or evaluating actions, and even of determining the recipes for preparing food. Quite different from the ethnomethodological approach that developed out of pragmatism via Mead (1934) and Goffmann (1959, 1967), action is still not analyzed mainly through interaction. At best it is an enactment in accordance with the semiotic system, similar to thinking that when we speak a language (la parole) we are were only actualizing part of the complete program contained in abstract semiotic relations of la langue. Meaning is thus created neither by reference to the world out there, nor by the interactive communication of speakers in a situation that lets them go on. This is of course quite different from the pragmatic approach that Mead had pioneered by focusing on interactions as well as by Goffman’s concern with impression management in face-to-face encounters.

Bourdieu (1984) continued his work on cultural reproduction by examining the connection of standards of taste and stratification, explaining the remarkable ability of the elite to maintain its privileged position. But the division of the observable in an exchange and the “hidden clues” given off by the interacting parties, seemed just to reproduce the old distinction of action and structure in a different disguise. In elaborating his own approach further, Bourdieu tried to overcome the established categorization that had led to the impasses of structure and agency and of the reification of society instead of looking at its “making” (reproduction through the actors). Here the notions of fields, referring to ensembles of more or less autonomous practices in which different forms of capital are created, and the assignment of a certain habitus to the participants operating in a field who have acquired certain skills and dispositions, seemed to offer a way out. The “structural” and agential component of traditional social analysis could be bridged in that the socialization of the individual is not reduced to some causal mechanism in which some norms get emplaced in the actors’ mind, but remain a disposition that needs to be acted out.

But this argument hides perhaps more than it discloses. For one, what is exactly the “need” that triggers the call up of this internalized norm? If the needs are the actual drivers and norms do not cause anything—at least directly — then this need remains obscure, as it is exogenous to the theory. Similarly, situations do not come neatly packaged and require the invocation of a specific norm for their interpretation. How does the actor then choose among competing norms? These remain difficult problems. Nevertheless, to the extent that the habitus is a more reflexive notion than just executing learned programs, even if learning might lead to a seemingly automatic execution (as a conditioned Pavlovian dog would exemplify), the difference is that all actions can be criticized as competent or incompetent performances whether routinely performed (as in knowing how), or with consummate skill. This background understanding common to the actor and the audience alike distinguishes actions from mindless habits and idiosyncrasies, but also from common but purely reactive responses, such as when we all jump out of the way to avoid an oncoming car or seek shelter from flying objects in a storm.

Thus habitus does not work causally (in the sense of efficient causation) and Bourdieu, with reason, talks only of dispositions, although some people like de Certeau (1988) found this argument unpersuasive. He charged Bourdieu with substituting new vocabulary for the old one but which left much of the performative element of practices undertheorized.69 De Certeau suggests therefore focusing on metis (cunning)70—which we typically connect only with heroic action—for the analysis of the practices of everyday life. Such a change in vocabulary seems odd at first, since modernity is characterized by the ever-increasing application of disciplining technologies and there seems little space for an actor to engage in exemplary deeds. To that extent de Certeau’s polemological analysis taken from of a heroic culture that extolled “great deeds,” seems, at first, misplaced (1988, xviii).

While de Certeau readily admits to the differences, he insists that using the vocabulary of war and the distinction of strategy and tactics in particular is illuminating since it alerts us to the possibilities of resistance by the subjects to grand ordering schemes. After all, the tactical workaround of disciplinary routines is also part of our social reality and occurs not only in grand political action.71 Instead, as even the protocols of laboratory experiments and participatory observations show, there is often a dramatic divergence between the way things came to pass and in the “normalized” representations, which serve later as the official record.

Even the practice of reading a text, which seems destined to make out of the reader a passive recipient only of a transmitted message, can be transformed and become a liberating experience by engaging metis in doing so. Thus a different way of operating, such as drifting across the page, paying more attention to certain parts, reinterpreting the recorded events in accordance with one’s own memories, and so on leads to the realization that the author is not the sole source of meaning and that the text need no longer be a “closed book.”

There were of course still other ways of coming to terms with the limitations of the conceptual tools of habitus and doxa whose structuralist overtones threatened to derail analysis. Two attempts shall be mentioned in passing: one proposed a new beginning by engaging in only limited repairs, the other demanded a fundamental reorientation for the analysis of the social world, as exemplified by Archer (1988) and Giddens, respectively. Both started with the aporia created by the agent-structure debate but differed on how this problem could be solved or circumvented. Here different metatheoretical positions suggested different strategies.

Archer starts from the premises of “scientific realism” and sees a conflation in the agent-structure debate. Instead of accounting for an emergent phenomenon, there is, according to Archer, a tendency to deny causal autonomy to either one side of the equation or the other. Either one privileged structures by denying agency and autonomy, endowing only structures with causal powers (downward conflation), or one attributes efficacy only to agency thereby denying causal powers to structures (upward conflation). This leads to the chicken-and-egg problem that has been part of the scholastic tradition. There is a deeper problem, however: that of efficient causality, “where an active force is isolated as the author of a clearly identifiable effect” (Bennett 2005).

Identifying efficient causality as a requirement of scientific realism is in tension with another requirement of scientific realism, that a theory has to provide an appropriate explanation that is universally valid across time and place. This tension inevitably causes difficulties in both the explanations of actions—especially if we give causality a mathematical interpretation—and in adequately conceptualizing the conjunctural elements. Since the situations that actors face are not simply given, but evolve largely out of their interactions, this creates two difficulties: reification and of coming to terms with irreversible historical time. As pragmatist George Herbert Mead (1932) warns,

It seems that the extreme mathematization of recent science in which the reality of motion is reduced to equations in which change disappears in an identity, and in which space and time disappears in a four-dimensional continuum of indistinguishable events which are neither in space nor time—is a reflection of the treatment of time as passage without becoming. (p. 13)

For Archer, the usual agent/structure debate fails to provide efficient causality and commits the error of relying on the notion of “co-constitution.” This she deems the ultimate, or central, conflation. Causality is muddied, following Archer’s argument, when agency and structure become one in the same process whereby structures enable and constrain the agent but come into existence and exert influence only through the actions of the actors themselves (rather than being some materialist productive forces as in most Marxian analyses).72 Hume struggled with an earlier version of this puzzle, but his response was that his ”moral explanation” was superior to a causal one in the case of actions, anticipating in a way the controversy over reasons versus causes, as well as the issue of self-reference familiar from Wittgenstein and Searle.

Archer, calling herself a scientific realist73 and having accepted Roy Bhaskar’s version of scientific realism,74 cannot take that path to a more radical reconstruction of the vocabulary. Yet it is quite obvious that the constitutive rules that Searle later elaborates in his ascription of status functions75 cannot be understood in terms of invoking efficient causality.76 Instead we have to come to terms with the problem of self-reference since our explanations of social kinds—such as what is (or rather what serves as) money”—presupposes an existing practice and cannot be explained without invoking it. This could be easily misunderstood as a simple problem of self-reference, which leads to vicious circles. But this co-constitution is not simply vicious,77 and it is more complex than the logic of inference or subsumption suggests. The facts attain their relevance from established ways of doings things, which serves as an interpretive frame, not an inferential operation in which the conclusion is also used in one of the premises. Thus the “logic,” in the sense of helping us to understand, is neither that of an inference (deductive or inductive) nor that of causal necessity (the constant conjunction of Hume, which is supplied by the mind) but rather that of emplacement. If we understand what purchasing with money means, we also understand saving, paying taxes, or even investing or speculating. In short, the issue is not one of causation but more of a hermeneutic circle in that the storyline consists of the meaningful concatenation of certain facts. But whether these facts matter or not depends on whether they fit together and support the story line as well as are supported by the story line. As in a detective story they have to fit. While some facts lose their importance (even if they are true) and can be excluded due to their lack of fit,78 others can change the plot. There is no logical way to decide ex ante (rather than being available only ex post) what the whole set of relevant facts are, since that depends on vetting through the court (in a legal case) or by the narrator (in a story). (I will use the term “gloss” for such explanatory narratives.)

Instead of (mis)taking this for a causal account, the gloss serves rather as an elucidation of what goes on when we act and try to reflect on what we are doing by invoking the constitutive rule. Thus we cannot claim that nothing has happened when we finally understand how money functions although it is neither a material cause, nor a mysterious quality inherent in it, that lets us “go on.” Why should we then privilege only causal accounts if we already see that such a criterion is counterproductive because it is beside the point? Obviously such an assessment should depend on the costs and advantages that such a privileging move entails.

Here things get a bit more complicated. With a realist understanding, wedded to efficient causality, we might get as far as chaos theory since even deterministic systems allow for multiple realizations of the same outcome, or for ending up at different end states by the same causal path. But it is difficult to fathom how this vocabulary can provide a plausible explanation for the mind-dependence of most of the concepts for explicating the social world, unless one uses the term “reality” very loosely and packs everything into “emergence.” But does such a form of realism not imply the impossible (i.e., a “theory of everything”)?79

Giddens (1993) suggests a different strategy. For him, the actual culprit for the confusions in social analysis is the reification of social kinds, a problem that is conceptually superordinate to the conflation problem. What therefore is needed is a fundamental conceptual change, which Giddens attempts to address in his structuration theory, in which institutional rules and the assignment of status functions play a particularly important role. They provide a bridge by which the traditional antinomies can at least be overcome in practice—if not solved in a logical sense—by supplying the necessary fictions contained in institutional rules, as Hume already mentioned,80

Understanding the reproduction of society requires the knowledge of the practices of agents who create the social world with their actions. Such knowledge requires a double hermeneutic understanding of (a) the interaction of norms, meanings, and power, rather than a simple observation of a preexisting world, and (b) how the objects of social science are related to these practices of the actors that they endow with meaning rather than meaning being supplied by the mistaken reference to nature (natural kinds) or by a nominalist stipulation of the observer. Thus actions become meaningful only against the background of structures, which are not mysterious things working themselves out behind the backs of agents. These structures are also not simply the summary concepts for all intentional acts, as aggregation problems and unintended consequences do matter (vide the problems of the “run on the bank” whose outcome no one intends, or the issue of resource-depletion and overuse particularly of the global commons, which are externalities). Because actors are not simply implementing certain designs but are reflexively monitoring their doings, the agents can change their practice on the basis of what is said about their actions. In this way social structures are subject to transformative changes, such as when suddenly sovereignty is assigned to the people rather than the traditional ruler.

Structures therefore simultaneously constrain and enable human action, linking rules and resources for action. The assembly of structures and their interrelations, such as occurs in a social system, involve the examination of the modes of “structuration” in which the system is produced by the social interactions among its members, using generative rules and resources for that purpose. Thus, while these assemblages can be studied outside of the actual use in a specific situation—as we can study texts outside of participating in or observing a verbal exchange—it is clear that this conceptualization inverts the relations between language as a communicative praxis (la parole)–for which largely pragmatic considerations are important for the creation of meaning–and the semiotic system of signs (the Saussurian la langue). Meaning is no longer simply a function of the oppositions conveyed by syntax but involves considerably more complicated operations, such as lateral extensions of meaning through metaphors and analogies, as well as pragmatic considerations arising out of a situation.81 Nevertheless, meaning production cannot be reduced to situational factors, as the reflection on interaction and the linking of action sequences among different actors across space and time suggests. This points to the importance of glosses and to the crucial role of narratives, which establishes the individual self and collective identity of society.

A person’s identity is not provided by his or her exemplarity, or as a single being that somehow has to survive with others. In that case the social seems to consist of the aggregation of individuals as suggested by methodological individualism, and the individual has to be taken as a “primitive.” But such an account is undermined by the very realization that the individual is not simply given but emerges out of interactions. As Giddens (1991) argues in a passage that is nearly reminiscent of Hume’s historical writings in regard to narrative understandings (as well as his argument above concerning fictions):

The existential question of self-identity is bound up with the fragile nature of the biography, which the individual ‘supplies’ about herself. A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior, nor—important as this is—in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going …... The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interactions with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events, which occur in the external world and sort them into a ongoing “story” about the self. As Charles Taylor put it, “In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.” (p. 54; emphasis in original)

Praxis and Its Riddles (Inside an Enigma)

Practices, Rules, and the Issue of “Theory”

Having mapped out the archaeology of the concern with practice, we are now in a better position to appreciate the so-called practice turns in social analysis. While it might not be a mystery, much of it is still a “riddle inside an enigma”, to paraphrase Churchill’s adage when pondering the practical issues of how to deal with Russia. Although the term “theory” is still often used for explicating praxis—in the vain hope that word-magic might work—from what was said it should be clear that the use of the term “theory” has to be rather loose.82 It does not refer to contemplation (instead of an active engagement with the object of investigation) and it is not devoted to the discovery of general laws (as the unity of science position advocated). Practice theory—if we take the term “theory” in a much wider sense as is common—then praxis theory concerns itself with the examination of our doings in the world and our reflections on it.83 But it also should be clear that not every activity is a practice. Put succinctly, practices are doings plus examination and reflection. Practices are thus different from personal habits, which are not subject to such vetting. We automatically subject practices to some assessments and often even to theoretical criteria as a matter of course, but the analysis of praxis requires that these actions are critically examined, as the latter move is not tantamout to constructing a “theory”. Furthermore, practice theory recognizes (at least implicitly) that the acquisition of knowledge is itself an assemblage of practices, and it is unavoidably shot through with the appraisal that practices can be performed well or badly. Moreover, the critical examination of and reflections on our doings are different from theories assuming that “the world out there” or universal reason can supply the ultimate objective standards, which are binding upon all for all purposes. It needs no further argument that the latter view would presuppose an eye that can see without foregrounding or backgrounding something, that does not distinguish between central peripheral vision as everything is perspicuous and equally present to our inspection, and that ultimately no further questions can arise.

With this combination of making practices (rather than individuals or societies) the main focus and investigating them in terms of rules rather than of mere behavior or habits, and by foregrounding matters of meaning (rather than efficient causality and the discovery of laws), a research agenda rather different from that of positivism emerged. Although there were ample borrowings from pragmatists, interactionists, and Weberian sociology, two further additions turned out to be important: constructivism, with its Kantian heritage, and the “linguistic turn,” exemplified by Wittgenstein’s approach to rule-following and by ordinary language philosophy with its interest in institutional rules. Objectivity is thus achieved not by reference to a “world out there” or to universal reasons but by the active attempts of actors who orient themselves to others. They can achieve through communication a fallible agreement of what makes sense, given that they share certain criteria or paradigmatic understandings. This practical intelligibility lets us not only know what is going on but gauge how to respond to what others are doing.

This new way of determining the unit of analysis (practices) and engaging with the world has important implications. For the social world it means that social order exists not because everything fits harmoniously together as structural functionalism suggested. Instead, practices—as assemblies and arrangements, connecting action and resources on the basis of rules—suggest that orders (i.e., coming to an agreement and giving up on opposition) have to be studied not like a thing but as a process. It entails contestation and persuasion but also imposition or rule (i.e., Herrschaft in the Weberian sense) whereby coercion, especially coercion as part of “ruling” has to be linked to other concepts of praxis, such as legitimacy and power. The latter is no simple natural energeia but the capacity to act and act together with others for realizing a good in order to distinguish action from mere force or gratuitous violence.

To that extent explanations that rely on efficient causality in explaining action are problematic, as rules do not determine outcomes. They require not only interpretations but also judgments that are not derivable from algorithms. If we take efficient causality as a yardstick for what we are doing, following rules remains largely a mystery, as the guidance of rules seems to be deficient. After all, even Wittgenstein argued that a signpost points in a direction but does not tell us what to do (Wittgenstein, 1958, para.85). This has occasioned several debates in international relations about the nature of the indeterminacy of rule guidance, a point also raised in the regime debate, which had relegated the role of norms to that of an “intervening variable” (see, e.g., Krasner, 1983).

The problem with the latter argument was not that it called attention to the indeterminacy of rules in both its semantic dimension (because the semantic openness of the concepts we use) and in its in strict efficient causal sense. What was wrong was the belief that a mechanistic understanding of making choices relying on a purely observational language is sufficient for providing us with an appropriate account of what goes on when we choose, since this analysis relies on a mistaken conception of how language functions and how we engage with the world when we act. As already pointed out, the first problem results from the belief that language has to be a mirror of nature so that meaning is constructed by reference, which, of course requires that the world comes neatly ordered by natural kinds to which our concepts correspond. There is something wrong with this picture and also with the assumption that the indeterminacy arises out of the confusions which norms and values create because they are not “facts”. Consequently the only remedy consists in sticking to the facts and to facts only.

However, adopting such a strategy will not do. As the etymology of the term suggests, the “facts” (a past participle of the Latin verb “to do”) of the social world are primarily concerned with what was done, and only secondarily with what remains. The latter is collected in museums and archives, or what we remember when something stirs our memory, and makes out of the deeds the turning points we encounter in a grand narrative. Here the facts are not only collected and selected, thereby establishing the “record” (from recordari, where the “heart” (cor), i.e., emotions, play a role) while other facts are pushed into the background or are discarded as they have lost their relevance. This record provides us with a story, which has a beginning, a development, and an end, all of which bestow meaning upon the selection. Such a narrative is not a mere protocol, informing us of what happened, just as a map is not a mirror of the territory it depicts.84 Here Latour’s Science in Action (1987), which focuses on “inscription devices,” such as sextants, and compasses is important, as its seems to be devoted to the material side of the human world, which allegedly is often neglected in the account of practices. But on closer inspection it is precisely the use of and not the artifacts themselves that are important. These devices allowed their users to visualize distant lands without being there and they enabled them to plan actions (as the European ministries did, leading to the run on the rest of the world, which was to become colonies).

Action and “Ends” (Rather than “Causes”)

This realization points us right back to the problem that issues of action have their own “logic” (i.e., that of praxis, which is different from that of physis). In addition, we have to confront the issue that even the use of seemingly descriptive terms, such as “big” or “small,” is no simple description of a “fact of the matter “in the real world to which we just have to apply a measuring device, so as to read off from it the attribution contained in the predicate. Instead, we have to realize that the use of the term is governed by the practices in certain fields, such as carpentry or geometry, as Aristotle noticed.85 Even nowadays a big deviation for a chip producer or a brain surgeon (1 mm.) is of no concern to an architect building a 50-story office tower, because it is much too “small.”

Consequently, we have to be aware that context and the purposes underlying our doings in the world play a much greater role in practical matters86 than the identification of efficient causal chains. In understanding action we have not only to take the actor’s perspective—rather than rely on a purely observational account of regularity but have to realize that the observable regularity has to be produced and is therefore subject to misfires and transformations that exhibit neither the necessary sameness, nor the constant conjunction we encounter in efficient causality.87 Recognizing both problems and their interaction provides us with new clues for social order and for the type of cooperation necessary for social reproduction.

We have to admit that action is fundamentally teleological: that is, we act “in order to” reach a desired end, rather than look backward to identify the antecedent conditions for actions which, if true, would not allow us to act differently and change things. We also have to realize that the end, or telos, is not an affectively neutral state but is desired; that is, has “affect” as a defining characteristic.88 Furthermore, these emotions are not based on irrational, or purely idiosyncratic wishes or unadulterated drives, precisely because they also have been formed in social interactions, are subject to standards, and have become thereby part and parcel of practical intelligibility.

One may think that such an understanding requires a moral point of view since moral issues are touched upon, which then would make all practical questions moral ones. I do not think this is right. After all, many of our institutions—such as legal rules about limited liability—are adopted precisely to limit moral responsibility89 or settle issues by fiat (such as allowing only a limited time for invoking remedies against an injury or settling coordination issues such as driving on one designated side of the road). When considered from a moral point of view, such stipulations are either irrelevant or downright immoral. In short, taking the perspective of what “we” do when making a choice in a situation provides us with a frame of analysis for investigating such teleo-affective choices while remaining fully aware of the plurality of goods that people pursue, of the changes in the standards of taste, and of the difference between legality, legitimacy, and morality.90

Laurent Thevenot has elaborated on these problems using a simple thought experiment that shows how different forms or ordering exist, which also embody different notions of which “good” is engaged. He asked his students to think about organizing and preparing their room to lend to a friend for a few days, or to rent it out to strangers. By focusing on the different modes in which the owner engages with the environment in each case, Thevenot can also raise in this context the question of why and how different standards, embodying different notions of the good arise, connect, or are in conflict.

If I am in charge of a room in my house I can order it according to my likes and dislikes and perhaps even use and drag in some things that belong to my siblings, so that personal and local convenience are reflected in the arrangements that emerge—looking perhaps quite messy to an outsider. Things get tougher when I let a friend from another city stay in my place while I am away for an internship. The first thing I have to realize is that I have to put my room in a different order, perhaps with the help of my family. The appropriate regime is one of arrangements “based on regular action and utility. . . [thereby destroying] a fair amount of the familiar capacity of the complex web of our habitat” (Thevenot, 2001, pp. 63). This is why the armchair regains its privilege for being used for sitting (instead of serving as the bottom for a pile of my clothes), a new door knob is installed (instead of using the adjacent screwdriver), and lots of instructions are given to the new user, who is assumed to arrive with some common notions of what represents a “good working order” of the things he will use.

Another shift to an even more formal regime is demanded when the house is rented to strangers. Conventional utility might be fine when things were running smoothly and mishaps caused by the friend—such when an appliance is mishandled out of ignorance—usually lead only to apologies on the part of the guest and to “oversight” on the part of the hosts. When strangers rent the place, a more formalized regime becomes necessary for regulating the “do’s” and “don’ts” for use. Liabilities have to be specified in a formal instrument (lease) that goes beyond vague notions of “working order” or “mishap,” or even neighborly help. Certain actions, such as repairing a washing machine or fuse box might be explicitly forbidden, as they are reserved for “licensed personnel only.” Here codification, and collective notions of what one can expect, that is, a notion of a collective common good, is embedded and overrides personal or even agreed-upon regimes based on personal likes or familiarity. Although all of the regimes are embodying a specific access to reality in that they provide for coping with changing “situations” and letting us “go on,” each pursues a different notion of what the “good” is, which is thereby aimed at.

While the described linkage of regimes using different standards to protect different goods might give the impression that we deal here with a ladder of abstraction in which the higher and more comprehensive good trumps local standards, a moment of reflection shows that this would be a somewhat hasty conclusion since regime concatenation—usually accomplished by constitutional means—might exempt certain areas from comprehensive public ordering and allow for private ordering (freedom of contract, markets) and even parents and educators might realize that attempts to regulate everything according to criteria of conventional utility might create resistance and unnecessary conflict. Thus, efforts at mainstreaming by insisting on the rationality of regular, planned action come at a cost.

Whatever we might think of this problem one further question needs to be answered: What is shared among interacting parties? Up to now we have only excluded unreflective personal habit. If I wanted to make this habit obligatory I would have to cast it in verbal form to inform others of how they have to do things, since it would be strange that people would hit upon the same forms of behavior as I did. This would then make it necessary to reflect upon my habits and give them a verbal expression, and gain the assent of others if it touches what is theirs rather than only having reference to what is mine. But the first thing to notice is that a purely personal, —practically an a-social habit—would be strange, as it would not contain any emulation or fashion (e.g., wanting to be an eccentric) and would also not entail recognition by others who must grant me such a liberty by leaving me alone (as in the case of parents, putting up with my mess). In any case it would be certainly a different form of habit that Hume and Oakeshott describe when they emphasize how conventions develop out of the active participation in a society, involving a learning by doing.

Nevertheless, it is this rather implausible response model to a given situation faced by individual actors—as in noncooperative game theory—that has been used to account for the emergence of cooperation among such actors. It needs no further elaboration that several additional strong assumptions have to be made, such as that of full information in game theory, the identity of the players in different rounds, the non-decisiveness of any particular round and of an unknown number of rounds, etc. (Axelrod, 1984). As soon as signals are introduced—such as in Wendt’s minimal social situation—then issues of common knowledge91and questions of misusing signals arise (Jervis, 1970). To get the virtuous cycle going—leading through repeated successful interaction to cooperation, such as we would have to face in first encounters between extraterrestrials and us—much more than a common knowledge is, however, required. The little green critters from solar system 146 of the Andromeda galaxy would have to know that winking means “come nearer,” rather than “stop right there,” and they also would have to know that we know this, or else disaster will ensue. Finally, they would have to develop a stake in continuing this cooperation instead of just taking what they can by guile and flying off again to their home planet. Thus, while continued cooperation is not excluded, even in iterative rounds of noncooperative games, among multiple actors the continuation of the game crucially depends then on sanctioning and/or on spreading information about who the bad apples are so that they can be isolated, and thus the valuation of continuing the game can defeat the otherwise dominant “defect” strategies.

Acting Together

The invocation of shared rules (norms) seems to violate the criteria of methodological individualism by allegedly postulating some form of “group mind” a la Durkheim. Although the case for such a necessary connection was never made—aside from postulating it—the crucial question became how norms could propagate and get “into the mind” of actors, making the latter behave in the prescribed fashion. Norms had not only to become a kind of “actant” but had to be thought of as analogous to some pathogens that propagated and invaded the body, acting then in a causal fashion, even though the old Cartesian solution to this problem—that such a causal pathway was provided by the individual’s pituitary gland—had long fallen out of favor.

The first part (individual habituation leading to a convergence of behavior) was largely defended by Steve Turner (1994) and the second version gave rise to the research of “justice cascades” (Sikkink, 2017), which took the other road. Here norms get viral and infect activists across borders, instantiating the life cycles of norms (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998), usually without addressing the issue of the possibility of “norm death”, or of reversals of norm cascades. The logic of the metaphor of life cycles would at least have suggested such a topic since rather significant reversal of trends in political preferences are only badly explained in terms of populist regressions even though this might be one path of norm dynamics. Thus due to a happy (or strange) concatenation of circumstances in the knowledge industry—confirming in a way the habitus- and doxa-dependence of the field—the original promise of constructivism, i.e., of restructuring the way of inquiry by taking on the pragmatists’ criticism of orthodox theorizing92 seriously, was buried under heaps of paper, largely engaging in confirmatory research, extolling the virtues of business as usual, or drawing strength from a Kantian narrative, in which the telos of humanity is preordained by “nature’s design” or “cunning.” (Perpetual Peace) Since I have dealt with the latter problem of extensively in another place93 let me just address in greater detail Turner’s radical individualistic criticism of practice theorizing due to its alleged tendency of invoking a group mind, thereby violating the methodological individualism.

The first thing to notice is that the alleged need of radically individualist explanations might be a case of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. But, nothing is gained by making Mr. Hollering a person who is acting on his own when he calls from the tax office. The point here is simply that actor designations cannot be reduced to individual psychological states or dispositions that are acted out. While the notion of a disposition that has to be activated is perhaps not wrong, the idea that these dispositions are the result of people finding themselves in certain situations and somehow hit upon the same solution, seems more than phantasmagoric since it dispenses with the necessary verbal glosses during training and interactions. Grasping how norms actually work and are being enacted allows us therefore to circumvent the Wittgensteinian paradox that seems to exist in his Philosophical Investigations.94 Admittedly, Wittgenstein’s examples of training, invoking drills and mathematical operations that leave no choice (aside from making mistakes), lend themselves easily to a causal interpretation; but such a reading would be incompatible with central tenets of ordinary language philosophy and its explanation of “joint action”.

Consider in this context a cavalry charge—to use Barnes’s example. The soldiers of the detachment will have to act like a unit, but that does not mean that they can all do the same thing. Instead they will have to do different things according to some joint plan, and they will have to check what their fellow soldiers are doing so that the joint plan can be executed by constant mutual adjustment. If one part of the troop gets slower because of the terrain, others have to slow down or speed up when the others are ahead. Nothing could be further from a stimulus response model of explanation in which the internalized norms or preexisting payoff structures and a universal rationality principle cause the behavior.

Furthermore, as Barnes suggests, a cavalry attack certainly encompasses all types of skills and resources that can be called upon but this does not dispense of the issue, that for having this effect, a command by a commonly recognized commander is necessary. The decision to give this command will not be unrelated to the knowledge that these capabilities exist, but this knowledge will be not be self-executing. It would be also odd to argue, that the skills and know-how acquired by endless maneuvers and drills are not “there,”, if they are not called upon and nothing happens. Should we then say that the cavalry detachment does not exist either if it does not “act” or even that its non-action did not influence the outcome? That would be false in the first instance and hasty in the second.

After all, non-occurrences and non-observability are as important as observable actions for our understanding of action. They create similar but not directly symmetrical conceptual difficulties. Consider in this context the case of a non-occurrence, such as the surprise that the commander might decide to resort to a ruse by keeping his troops in reserve so that another detachment, which had been sneaking up on the enemy, can unexpectedly attack, as the enemies’ eyes were trained on his detachment. Nevertheless, even in this case of a non-command, the commander and the individually learned skills of the troops are still tightly linked to the achievement of a common goal, even if nothing seemed to have happened. One thing should be clear from this example: the enactment (or rather the lack thereof) cannot be explained in terms of what the soldiers learned and internalized when they faced many times the same situation in their exercises, To fall back, as Turner does, on individual habit as the explanans is then obviously missing the target.

To ascend now from the ridiculous to the sublime: How are we to understand the necessary coordination among individuals that is typical for joint ventures. Yes, the soldiers involved—coming back to the above example—have been drilled and know now (hopefully) every move by heart, but that does not relieve them—after the command has been given—of having to pay constant attention to what the others members of the corps are doing. Consequently, the execution will not exhibit the “sameness” of the response, such as akin to a cannon being fired—that we connect with causality governing the material world.

In short, acting—although it is a performance—is also different from just enacting a fixed script or from repeating the same action, like an automaton, critically depicted in Chaplin’s movie Modern Times with its satirical gloss on assembly-line production. The point is not that we often do observe such pathologies: bureaucracies working by the book instead of solving problems, universities processing their students through a curriculum without teaching them anything, scientists who think that conditioning people is tantamount to making them happy, the more the better, and so on. The point is rather that all those cases have little to do with action proper—but have a lot to do with reaction and with production (but even there probably only with shoddy production). In other words, they are the wrong ideal type for analyzing action and particularly interaction in one of its important forms: cooperation. These points have been amply discussed in philosophy95 and the real issue is why these points are either not known to our social theorists, or why many, if not most of them, seem to believe that they can be ignored.

If we look at another type of unobservable, such as above, when Mr. Hollering from the tax office is calling, we very well understand that it is not Mr. Hollering who wants to talk to us but the revenue service, and it also would be downright mysterious if we were not to understand that this agency is not just the physical building downtown, or that we believed that Mr. Hollering must be a crank, trying to impersonate an unreal entity because, as we all know, only real persons can call. The whole discussion spurned by the doxa of extreme methodological individualism is beside the point, as we very well understand that corporate entities exist, how they come into existence, what they do, and how they cease to function even though they seldom die.

Although corporate entities come close to a creatio ex nihilo, in the world of praxis this is as normal as apple pie, and, unless we have been indoctrinated by some notions of science, we are not surprised because we understand through our participation in the ongoing practices and through reflection upon them, how new entities can be created through the ascription of a status function. We also understand that certain actions can now be carried out that were impossible before the status assignment. Thus no person can convict another one, unless s/he has been appointed to be a judge and vested with the powers that come with this office. We also understand that the judge or policeman cannot ask us for a donation at a trial, although the sum might be much lower than the prospective fine, and despite the fact that both persons are also volunteers at a hospital, whose board has started a funding drive, so that I could be pretty sure that the money will be spent for a good thing (which is not always the case with taxes and fines). For making that pitch to me both the judge and the policeman would have to meet me in the street or the mall, and preferably by accident, as private persons, just as the soldier who is entering a shop does so not as a soldier but as a “customer”.

Recognizing this fact has further implication because it shows us that that even the presumably descriptive terms we use, such as putting us in certain categories, are actually normative concepts as they connect the description of actions and practices and provide us with the yardsticks of evaluation. To that extent what something is, or is meaningful to us in specific situations, does not result by being placed in time and space in general—. Rather the endowment with meaning has to do with our language and conceptualization establishing the social world and with the fact that such roles cannot be read off some ontological given, as Aristotle already noticed. Thus following Jeff Coulter (2001), it might be true that I am a father, a Catholic, a home owner, and a coach of an amateur soccer team, but my writing this paper for the Oxford encyclopedia has nothing to do with any of them. Rather it follows from my being an academic—even though the other descriptions are ”right” in different contexts and situations. In other words they are not simply wrong but worse: They are irrelevant, if they do not “fit” the particularities of the situation.96

Assuming that there has to be one right description has led to the most curious distortions in social analysis. Noticing that by succumbing to the ontological myopia there is something fishy in linking persons and actions in only one way, the common response to this puzzlement has been to argue that we all have multiple identities. Even better, we assume apparently that these different identities can all be neatly fitted together like the puppets in a Russian doll. So we have ties to our family, to our fellow citizens, and to humanity. The last, most general one, is then not only encompassing all others,97 which also establishes then the case for the appropriateness of the most inclusive identity as citizen of the world or, if we think big—as the Stoics did—of the kosmos (presumably an inspiring vision at the threshold of interplanetary travel).

This argument is, of course, sheer wishful thinking, although it resonates with many, perhaps mainly with those scholars who have seriously overdosed on sci-fi in their youth. A moment’s reflection shows that conflicts among roles are inevitable as exemplified by Sophocles’s Antigone, which addresses paradigmatically the conflict of duties to family and the law of the city. It is precisely for mediating these conflicts and for setting priorities that we try to work on our character and our identity, which encompasses us as whole persons and stands for a way of conducting one’s life, entailing duties, loyalties, and sacrifices. It is clear that such a series of choices, which is thereby brought under one term, cannot be made once and for all and that character and identity are not like things that can be picked up from a shelf.

But their malleability—due to breakdowns, disappointments and failures as well as successes—cannot be understood in terms of a production process either, in which a design is realized in various steps. Instead, it is being constructed by our reflections and the narrative understanding by which deeds and events attain their meaning, as argued above. Such action sequences are badly modeled when multiple identities are introduced—or downright mistaken when such series of choices are pressed into the mold of a consumer’s choice, selecting apples over oranges. In short, issues of identity involve existential choices that Sartre illustrated by the case of the young Frenchman who is torn between fighting the Germans by joining the government in exile and enlisting in its forces and taking care of his sick mother (Sartre, 1975/1946). Here, no algorithms for making this choice seem available and even if it were possible, without the decision of the individual embracing such a choice and committing to it, it would be inauthentic.

Following Rules and the Puzzles of Learning

The most important question remaining then is of how we follow rules. Whether this can be conceived of in terms of what Bloor calls a “meaning determinism”98 (i.e., nothing more than understanding the terms contained in the rule is necessary) is then a tough question (see Wittgenstein, 1958, para. 188). Thus following the rule of adding 2 and 2 will not create a problem when I have reached 40 or 10022 since I know that the next number has to be 42 or 10024 respectively. The upshot of this position—to which Wittgenstein develops his counter-position—is that the rule means what it says. Rule-following is then also individualistic, as not much learning of “how to” takes place. After all, teachers—as well as experience—are only of marginal importance for understanding the rule—because understanding the rule is understanding the concepts it contains. Since they have to be grasped by the individual mind no further discussion is necessary and rule-conforming behavior will result virtually by necessity, except in cases of disturbed or incapable minds.

Against this paradigm Wittgenstein argues that rule-following has to be studied by not taking only one example as paradigmatic. Instead we have to see what happens when rules are at work in different contexts, such as in games. There again things might be different in strictly regulated ones, and those that rely on judgment calls of a referee, or when rules are, in a way, made up as one goes along—as children often do—or when in the context of stricter rule-following through interpretation new ways of acting and interacting emerge. Think in this context of the rule prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures”! In those cases learning cannot be limited to understanding the meaning of the rule, as its meaning is always contested and is determined through the interactions of the actors invoking the rule. To that extent it is the social context and the ability to go on with interactions, which determine the meaning and provide the criteria for its “right” or “wrong” use. Rule-following becomes a normative problem and is thus no longer one of theory, but of learning by doing. Meaning emerges out of interactions with others and by the settlements, which can serve as precedents in other cases by providing not only standard solutions but also a yardstick for assessing the performances of the actions that they inspire.

Rule-following therefore is not comparable to a causal mechanism as no actor thinks that he or she is doing the same thing the planets do when following a law. Planets conform to a physical law, a motorist obeys (or disobeys) the law, even though he might be blissfully unaware of many of the exacting prescriptions of the rules of the road, and of the case law fixing the meaning of key concepts for certain situations. But learning obedience is not like giving a causal account for some observations. Producing this “same” behavior—which we have seen is usually not the result of the “same” identical action but emerges out of interactions and mutual adjustment—as we have seen in the cavalry example. It relies among humans on language even though the activities are drilled, since even drills rely not only on commands but also on the many do’s and don’ts we encounter during (moral) training, Here the reasoning with rules comes in rather late, while early on Anscombe’s (1981) stopping-modals or forcing-modals open up the spaces for the later “musts” and “can’ts” but these modals are still acquired largely through ostensive training. To that extent the obedience game consists in part of learning how to respond to certain signals—which looks like as if were following rules “blindly” as Wittgenstein’s orphic pronouncement has it (para. 219). It is also clear that the musts and can’ts are in the process increasingly transmitted by verbal glosses of praise and blame for concrete actions or by assessments of hypothetical cases, which involve analogical and exemplary reasoning, imagination, and experience, as pragmatists have pointed out.

Where does this leave us in respect to theory? As the above discussion suggests, first, even a loose reading of theory has its dangers as it may be misleading for understanding practice and the question arises why then one should hang on to a term that is essentially miscuing us. Here the mind-dependence problem and its practical solution, which militates against the logic of causality or the lack of reference for descriptive terms, give us much food for thought. On the other hand, even false beliefs might not be entirely useless but deliver something. Thus Columbus’s conviction of having discovered India on the basis of his theory might have been entirely mistaken, but his discovery and its consequences can hardly be put aside because what he thought and acted upon was erroneous. But this then is precisely the point, that practice cannot be assessed by the usual criteria of truth and falsehood but has to be placed into the wider frame of sense-making and action guidance.

Second, the notion that a theory can tell us what to do since acting is simply a throughput of norms is demonstrably inapt and for the tiny area in which it might be applicable, such as in normative decision theory (game theory), the results are not encouraging as the issue of choice is misconstrued by leaving the end exogenous and focusing only on the rational selections of means. Norms usually do not provide us with a unique solution, nor can decisions be read off from even an unequivocal sign, as Wittgenstein’s signpost example, showed.

Finally there remains the hoary problem of temporality and its reduction to causal chains in theory that does not allow for contingency and for historical reflection on placing actors in specific positions and making a society an ongoing and transgenerational concern. Since particularity and contingency are characteristic elements of praxis, the usual introduction of substitutes, such as relying on secularized versions of a philosophy of history, or of conceiving of structures that—behind the backs of actors—are at work, provide a poor Ersatz for thinking about individual and collective choices and identities.


The bane of conclusions is that they frequently attempt to get the gist of the argument across in a few lines, providing readers with a neat package of some catchy phrases that will stick in their memory, while the laborious steps of the arguments, designed to disabuse them of their reliance on some unexamined truth, is quickly relegated to oblivion. Presumably the audience, which has finally seen the errors of its ways, is now ready and awaits eagerly the marching orders of what to do next.

I shall resist this temptation for several reasons, even if it is against the conventions of paper writing and even if my failing is still worse since I refuse to propose some future research topics or formulate some questions for a big grant for further study. But the reasons for my refusal, which also serve as my excuses, are as follows:

First, if I argued that philosophy can nether be the ultimate court standing outside our common world and deriving from it the claim to provide the “view from nowhere” that settles controversies once and for all, then I would involve myself in a performative contradiction if I now provided new and improved instructions for getting on with one’s research. Those choices have to be made by the individual researcher, not by some critic or consultant, and they have to be executed with integrity and have to be fought for in the institutions of learning, which usually preach pluralism, but adhere—as most of us do—to the notion of truth with a big T. Although the latter no longer is dispensed by God or the church, but by science, the dangers that come with such orthodoxies are all the same. Nevertheless, there might be a little good news. As Hume so aptly put it: “Generally speaking errors in religion are dangerous, those in philosophy only ridiculous” (Hume, 2007, 1:344).

Second, if the attentive reader can take anything home from this discussion then it is the realization that the one-size-fits-all epistemology (into which philosophy has largely morphed in modernity) is of no use and that we have to come to terms with the fact that there is no ultimate foundation. So instead of starting with fundamental metaphysical problems, or with propositions of some theory—following the KKV advice (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1996)—and then cast around for their application and tests is likely not to lead very far, since such suggestions forget that we always start in the middle of things and not from a point outside the social world, which would endow tests with meaning beyond doubts. Furthermore, we get at a problem not through abstraction from as many cases as possible, but through the analysis of how we describe them and how this description emplaces the problem in certain semantic fields, which alerts us then to the relevant conceptual connections that have to be taken into consideration. Rather than starting with an operational definition and testing the propositions derived from the theoretical assumptions or generalizations, in the realm of praxis we are mainly interested in how the concepts work, or play out in praxis by informing actions. Thus “sovereignty” cannot simply be defined, as no match in the outside world exists. Rather we have to ascertain what sovereignty allows us to do or not to do and how it relates to other practices, such as war and peace making, diplomacy, autonomy, nonintervention, immunity, multilateralism, and so on.

Similarly, to start in ethics (when conceived as an ideal theory) with ultimate principles or even with best practices is likely to lead to the pathologies described by the garbage-can model of decision-making and to potentially disastrous outcomes, despite all good intentions and because of the careful but, (a la Kant), “stupid” observance of rules. It may seem like cold comfort that even a turn to practice might not be immune to such infections, if we forget or belittle the conceptual problems we have to face. In short, to believe that a focus on practices injects, finally, a sufficient dose of realism (against realist or any other form of theory) into the arcane theoretical discussions of the field is naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. (As a matter of fact much of the article was written with that concern in mind).

Third, if acting is crucially connected to freedom and responsibility, then asking at the end of this exercise the question of “what one is now to do,” seems rather odd. Admittedly no new theory was presented and no new research agenda was proposed (even though reading between the lines would reveal that implicitly there is more than a lifetime’s work outlined). Such a question seems somewhat odd nevertheless, because the questioner obviously has not realized that learning always entails unlearning as a first step, thereby hopefully liberating the students to go on with energy and self-respect with their own projects, instead of withdrawing and feeling sorry or playing to the choir and hating the inauthenticity that this option entails. Such a question is then more like the request of a person who has undergone some therapy for his indecision, but who finally marshals his strength to ask his coach whether he should now divorce his wife or stick with her. If anything, such a request—a well as any recommendation—would only show the failure of the therapy.


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(1.) For a recent review of those controversies from a “culturalist” perspective examining the various debates in international relations, see Reus-Smit (2018).

(2.) For a discussion detailed discussion see Kratochwil (2011).

(3.) For an excellent discussion of what a conceptual reorientation concerning praxis would entail see Lindahl (2018).

(4.) See, e.g., Ashley and Walker (1990a).

(5.) Here Alexander Wendt (1999) is paradigmatic. Although it suggests that its purpose is “theoretical” its actual intention is to make “constructivism” in a bowdlerized form acceptable to the “mainstream” in order to “unite” the profession. On this point see Kratochwil (2016a).

(6.) Against Cartesian solipsism and doubt, see thesis 2 in Peirce (1868): “we cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers. Hence, if disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author of the theory himself.”

(7.) For a much more somber look at the impact of the organization of knowledge in disciplines see Bourdieu (1988).

(8.) See, e.g., Latour (1987); and Latour and Woolgar (1979).

(9.) Callon and Latour’s conceptual sketch, adumbrating what later became the actor-network theory, was decisive; see Latour and Callon (1981); Latour (2003).

(10.) Arendt is opposed to the old notion of the vita contemplativa and stresses the active life, but she is equally opposed to the notion that the vita activa can be reduced to action that takes “production” (the making of things) as its template, as this would misrepresent political life. See Arendt (1958).

(11.) The locus classicus for this distinction is Aristotle’s Politics, Bk. 1, chap. 2, distinguishing man from “gregarious animals (such as bees) through the endowment of language (logos)…anthropos . . . zoon logon echon).

(12.) For a brief but incisive introduction to the original pragmatists and their influence on later thinkers, such as Sellars, who influenced Rorty and established the link between the old and the new pragmatists, see Robert (2011). For an excellent not too “technical” collection of essays by some “new pragmatists,” see Misak (2009).

(13.) In the case of James, it concerns the qualifying elaboration that the use of “good” had to be based on “definite assignable reasons,” a point on which he later elaborates in The Meaning of Truth (1909). In the case of Rorty the ceteris paribus condition points us at least indirectly to the shared background knowledge among scientists so that Rorty’s (1979) claim is that “we see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature” (p. 171; emphasis added).

(14.) See the important criticism of “third generation” constructivists against the “second generation” of constructivists, which eschewed the critical potential of constructivism (Kessler & Steele, 2016).

(15.) That does not mean that researchers calling themselves “constructivist” but pay no attention to what such a conceptual commitment implies do not make a similar mistake when they endow norms with “causal powers.”

(16.) It puzzled Hume since he did not hold that “causality is part of nature but supplied by the mind” and because he held that what he called a “moral explanation” provides a better understanding of causality than efficient causality. Things get even more complicated since the usual interpretation of Hume suggests—quite contrary to his extensive treatment of conventions and promises—that norms do NOT matter for a “theory,” as only matters of fact can be vetted, and about “tastes” one cannot even argue (de gustibus non est disputandum). For a more extensive discussion see Friedrich Kratochwil (2016b, pp. 29–74). For a critique of “Humeanism” (i.e., a doctrine of causality attributed to Hume that has little to do with what Hume said and more with the widely shared preference for “mechanistic” explanations) see Kurki (2008).

(17.) Thus, if you sign a paper with the title of “Contract” between … and … you have an obligation and cannot claim that your signature was just an autograph for the other party, as one gives to fans.

(18.) Money is here perhaps the best illustration as it solves the otherwise unsolvable problem of interpersonal utility comparisons and lets people exchange goods even if they have no complementary “goods” to offer (as in barter).

(19.) Thus Newtonian physics got us to the moon although it had been refuted by Einstein’s scientific revolution.

(20.) In this respect the spiritus rector in some “turn” to practices is clearly the attempt to finally get a “better” or more inclusive theory action that does not necessarily call into question the standard epistemology in mainstream political science, which is precisely what others working in a more “critical” mode doubt. For the former approach see Adler and Pouliot (2011). For a more critical assessment see Kratochwil (2011a, pp. 36–60).

(21.) Inclusionary control is an exercise in which a previously excluded phenomenon is admitted into the paradigm on the condition that it does not disturb the coherence of the established theoretical core. Such a gambit is preemptively deployed by practitioners of a discipline when proliferating anomalies threaten the basic regulative premises and assumptions, (Lapid & Kratochwil, 1996, p. 109). How effective this strategy was can be seen from the anthology edited by Robert Keohane (1986), in which the discussion centered nearly exclusively on Waltz’s and his version of structural realism, as the name had been appropriated.

(22.) The shrillest indictment comes from David Lake (2011).

(23.) See, e.g., Sil (2009), in which he and Peter Katzenstein consider it as a “‘pragmatic alternative’ to scholarship embedded in existing research traditions” (p. 649); Sil and Katzenstein (2010).

(24.) Here Bent Flyvbjerg’s (2001) criticism seems to fit (although his Aristotelian bent goes a bit further. This Aristotelian theme is then taken up in a more recent anthology (Flyvbjerg, Landman, & Schram, 2012).

(25.) See Sharpe (2009); Neumann (2012), working in the Norwegian Foreign Office, provides us with an “insider account” based on participant observation; see also a Bourdieusian analysis of the mutual relations of NATO and Russia by Pouliot (2010) and its sequel (2016); Sending, Pouliot, and Neumann (2015).

(26.) See the rather somber assessment by Steve Smith in his Presidential Address to the ISA Convention 2003 in Portland Oregon. “Singing our World into Existence: IR Theory and September 11,” International Studies Quarterly, 48(3) (2004), 499–515.

(27.) See Felice and Obino (2012).

(28.) See e.g., the contributions of Farr, Bohman, and Morris.

(29.) See the Millennium special issue on pragmatism as an ally of inquiring into international relations (2002), 31 (3).

(30.) On Dewey’s theory of action see Miettinen (2006).

(31.) The proceedings appeared later in the “Forum” section of the International Studies Review (Hellman, 2009), which included some short reviews about the conceptual issues and the pertinent IR literature. See a very brief but useful sketch by Hannes Peltonen. On Pragmatism (in International Relations) (at]); for a literature review see Ralston (2013).

(32.) The notion of the spoudaios is elaborated in Aristotle’s Nichomachen Ethics, Bk. I, chap. 3 (1095a 1-5); Bk. I, chap. 7 (1097a-198b), also in Bk. III, chap. 4 (114a 27-35); see also his Politics, Bk. VII, chap. 14 (1332a 32–35).

(33.) See e.g., the perceptive analysis of Christian Reus-Smit (2012).

(34.) Here I am in a way sympathetic to Beate Jahn’s (2017) argument distinguishing between political relevance and “policy relevance” opposing reduction of the former to the latter. Where I differ is that I do not think that this distinction coincides again with the traditional understanding of “theory” and “praxis.”

(35.) Here the organization of law in “inns,” which occurred in England, rather than in a “faculty” of church- or state-sponsored universities.

(36.) Plato, Republic, Bk. VII (514a 2–517).

(37.) See Aristotle, Politics, Bk. I, chap 2: “man alone has language among the living creatures (logon de monon anthropos echei ton zoon). . . . For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have the perception of good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust. And it is the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household or a city.”

(38.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. I, chap 6, at 35.

(39.) For further elaboration on this problem see Friedrich Kratochwil (2018).

(40.) For an indispensable background for the 16th and 17th century debates and the “epistemological project” issuing from them, see Popkin (2003); see also Popkin (1979).

(41.) The Latin translation of Sextus’s Outlines was printed in Geneva in 1562 by Henricus Stephanus; a complete version all Sextus’s writings followed in 1569 by Gentian Hervet. For a history of the transmission of these texts see Floridi (2002).

(42.) I leave aside the nontraditional early modern writers who had considerable political influence on defeating skepticism by freely drawing on traditional philosophical arguments but also on biblical prophecy and millenarianism; see also, Popkin (1992).

(43.) The Novum Organum was part of a larger opus, the so-called Instauratio magna (part 2), which was planned to contain six parts of which the last two were never written.

(44.) He distinguishes between those of “the tribe” (idola tribus), which are rooted in human nature in general (Aphorism 41), of the cave (idola specus, i.e., individual idiosyncrasies, Aphorism 42), idols of the public at large (idola fori, Aphorism 43), and of the theater (idola theatri, dogmas of philosophers and conceptual flim-flam artists, Aphorism 44).

(45.) A famous case was his controversy with Kepler on accounting for tides, which Kepler attributed to the moon while Galileo thought the earth’s rotation was their cause. In the latter case there could be only one high tide per day while Galileo knew that Venice had two tides per day. See Einstein (1953). Because Galileo’s Dialogue compared the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems, it was changed before it was printed and submitted to the Inquisition. It had been renamed The Dialogue of the Ebb and Flow of the Sea,” to avoid controversy, taking a minor (and wrong) point as a title.

(46.) The term “first philosophy” is originally used by Aristotle and concerns his “metaphysics” (i.e., the work that examines the foundations of knowledge). The usage of “first philosophy” by Descartes clearly indicates his “theoretical” intentions. Hobbes and even Spinoza (his Ethics, called Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata appears in 1677) attempt to found all knowledge not on “being” or “authority”—as the “schoolmen” did, who were so hated by Hobbes-, but on a method akin to geometry (or rather a form of applied geometry). This indicates the shared the belief in the possibility of one form of knowledge universally applicable as it satisfied field independent criteria of the epistemological project that started with them.

(47.) For a further discussion of the implications of the Humean criticism, see Kratochwil (2018), particularly chaps. 8 and 9.

(48.) Kant, Critique of pure reason, A 134, 135; B 173, 174.

(49.) Kant, Critique of pure reason B 172 and 173 (my translation).

(50.) See, e.g., Rawls’s early work, such as A Theory of Justice (1971), in which the specification of a “choice behind the veil of ignorance” was supposed to deliver such “insights.”

(51.) This is the criticism advanced by Harald Mueller (2004), that the construction of a emancipatory interest separates communicative from strategic interests and may be construable but has no relevance for analyzing actual interaction where strategic and communicative are always present and hardly separable.

(52.) Needless to say, for most “private matters” the court is preferred and for “public issue” negotiated settlement among the parties is preferred, whereby international law relies—or relied historically—mostly on “private law” instruments such as contract and “assent” was construed as binding only when the parties had never objected to a customary rule in their interactions. The emergence of human rights and the use of the subsidiary sources of the “principles as recognized by civilized nations” and of the “writings of highly qualified publicist,” which are increasingly taken as “indicators” for the existence of an “instantaneous custom,” have of course been game-changers. See Art. 86 of the ICJ Statute for a discussion of finding new sources; for reinterpreting the original source catalogue see Kratochwil (2011b), particularly chap. 4. For the Statute of the ICJ see

(53.) From the slew of publications concerning this issue, see the addresses of former ICJ presidents Schwebel and Guillaume before the UN General Assembly in 1999 and 2000, as discussed by Koskenniemi and Paevi Leino (2002). See also Simma and Pulkowsi (2006); Teubner and Fischer-Lescano (2004).

(54.) Here Hume introduces the notion of “utility” that is informed by “sympathy” and benevolence to others. This is rather different from the later “liberal” use of the concept in which idiosyncratic “preferences” remain exogenous to the “theory” of choice, even in the case of altruism.

(55.) But even such an interpretation of pushing back the boundaries of ignorance by creating a larger and ever-increasing area of knowledge makes sense only if we believe that the world of all true sentences is limited, so that it can be exhausted. Otherwise we face the paradox that any increase in knowledge should also make us aware that our ignorance also increases.

(56.) It is a sublime irony that the staunch anti-Platonist Karl Popper resorted to such a construction of science and scientific progress as evidenced by his argument about the “Third world,” where all “true” scientific statements are housed, which makes his construct of the verisimile (resembling the truth) equally suspect. Even stranger is that Popper seems aware of those problems. As some of his critics point out, the famous demarcation criterion of refutability does not play a great role in actual research because sometimes what has been refuted before turns out to be right according to new findings. Then the problem of whether the “refutation” should “count” especially since “truth” has to be time-insensitive. On his attack on Plato, see Popper (1945). For the notion of a “Third World” containing all truths, see Popper (1972).

(57.) See Dahrendorf (1959); see also Lewis Coser (1957), who is more influenced by Georg Simmel and shows that conflict is “functional” in a society not only for inducing social change and preventing the society from ossification, but for creating solidarity within groups and sometimes within society at large when its survival is at stake.

(58.) Here I do not want to suggest some type of territorial or essentialist mode of knowledge production. Rather I want to use the term more in the predominant school of thought that within a given country different schools exist and their influence rests to a large extent on their ability to form transnational networks not only within a given discipline but across disciplines. For example, Derrida’s influence was more noticeable in American departments of Literature than in the social sciences or in philosophy.

(59.) Karl Otto Apel, although a member of the social science faculty at Frankfurt, was more influenced by humanism and its language (hermeneutics) and Peirce rather than by Marxism. The transcendental turn came in the 1960s, where (on the basis of the intersubjectivity of the Peircean community of scientists, the symbolic interactionism, and the later Wittgenstein) the Kantian “subject” was transformed into an intersubjective context of communication.

(60.) Here Karl-Otto Apel seems to have been the spiritus rector postulating that a transcendental notion of intelligibility, truth, rightness, and truthfulness is entailed in the concept of an ideal community of speakers. See Karl Otto Apel (1999). For a symposium on Apel’s work see Dorschel, Kettner, Kuhlmann, and Niquet (1993). Apel later criticized Habermas for his “weak” form of transcendentalism.

(61.) Because of Derrida’s criticism of traditional structuralism, U.S. scholars coined the term “post structuralism” for his approach. Fundamental for his thinking is his early Of Grammatology (1967) and the essays collected in Derrida (1978).

(62.) He made this claim in 1993 at a conference devoted to Marxism after the fall of the wall; see Derrida (1994).

(63.) This shows his difference with Husserl’s phenomenology and Saussurian structuralism. See his “Structure, Sign and Play” (1967) and the earlier “Genesis and ‘Structure’ and Phenomenology”(1964) in Derrida (1978, pp. 351–371, 193–211).

(64.) See, e.g., Bull’s (1966) plea for a classical approach, which ignited the second large debate in the field of international relations.

(65.) One has to see, however, that Waltz’s self-description of developing a “structural” theory of realism is a misidentification. His is a micro theory of action, which makes it neither structural in the usual sense, nor a macro theory. The closest analogy which Waltz constantly invokes is the economic “micro-theory” of the competitive market.

Karl Popper, an immigrant to Britain from Vienna brought with him the preoccupations of the Vienna circle with the “unity of science” and the development of a sharp demarcation-criterion distinguishing science from other ways of knowing (in a benign interpretation), separating science from “nonsense” (in a less benign, or “orthodox” version). But his version of logical positivism and its further development by Imre Lakatos were of larger influence in the United States than in Europe, and Lakotosh’s reconstruction of logical positivism reentered the European debates mainly through U.S. circuits. See Lakatos (1970).

(66.) See, e.g., the Parsons intervention in the debate on whether the system turn had displaced the action/interaction focus that via Mead had established the link to the pragmatist agenda (Turner, 1974; Parsons 1975).

(67.) See, e.g., Luhmann (1996/1984), whose “functionalism” is no longer oriented to the “adaptation” of a system to a given environment (as much of the environment also comprises systems that are constantly in the process of formation and transformation) but to the successful solution of reducing complexity by being able to react to external irritations in terms of the generative code underlying the system. Thus, structure no longer has an ontological foundation but is a general program for the reproduction of the system. In the case of social systems successful reproduction is not so much determined by a given functionality–such as the “head” being the decider of the “body politic” and the arms the tentacles–rather than by general expectations communicated by norms and institutional rules. The latter are not ontological “givens”, but are –as “mind-dependent constructs”–also subject to change.

(68.) For a general discussion of the new system theories, see Albert, Cederman, and Wendt (2010); Albert, Buzan, and Zuern (2013).

(69.) If one sees Bourdieu (1990) as an attempt to map the architecture of the Kabyle house onto the semiotic oppositions of ordering the world long after his criticism of structuralist analysis in his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), one is indeed inclined to agree with this assessment, even if it seems hasty.

(70.) The importance of metis had already been pointed out by Detienne and Vernant (1978). De Certeau, used this old Homeric notion, which had by his time become the term for craftiness and slyness, as Detienne and Vernant suggested. Odysseus was called polymetis (a man of many tricks). Originally, it had meant something like “magical cunning” or “deep thought.” Metis was also the first wife of Zeus, who assisted him in his fights against the Titans. But because there was a prophesy that their children would be more powerful than their parents, Zeus persuaded his wife to transform herself into a fly, which he swallowed. Metis was however already pregnant with a daughter (Athene) who sprang at birth from the head of Zeus.

(71.) As Hamati-Ataya has argued in the case of international relations scholars coming from the periphery, their most subversive capital consists in their capacity to look at things differently due to their lack of socialization into the dominant habitus. This can be a resource in disciplinary meta-debates, presupposing, of course, that the outsider has not been coopted and sees a mission in “transmitting” the dominant doxa and the set of absorbed practices to their own audience (Hamati-Ataya, 2012).

(72.) Here of course the differences between orthodox interpretations of Marx, beginning with Engels, leading Lenin’s and Stalin’s bowdlerizations, and the unorthodox analysis of Gramsci or Lukacs should be noted.

(73.) Archer was heading a Center of Critical Realism at the University of Warwick.

(74.) For aficionados of critical realism, see Archer, Bhaskar, Collier, Lawson, and Norris (1998).

(75.) Thus the (Humean) fiction that “x counts under the circumstances y as a z” so as in “this piece of copper” counts as “money” under the circumstances of paying for all debts public and private, makes out of a “material thing” a “coin” which is part of a “currency.” See Searle (1993), esp. chap. 2.

(76.) This is not to deny that issues of “emergence” are a concern for this group of scientific realist although the proliferation of categories and terms makes their arguments often opaque.

(77.) The circle is not “vicious” since it does not use the conclusion as one of its premises.

(78.) For a further development of this thoughts see Kratochwil (1989), chap. 8. The fact that Mr. X had an extreme dislike for Mr. B and had threatened him on several occasions becomes irrelevant when at the time of Mr. B’s murder Mr. X has a foolproof “alibi,” as he was giving testimony as a Crown’s witness in a court proceeding.

(79.) Bhaskar’s later attempt to create a “transcendental, dialectical, critical realism” seems to come close to such an ideal (Bhaskar, 2000, 2002).

(80.) See, e.g., Hume’s (1978) argument that the contradictions arise out of our conceptualizations, particularly the puzzles of dualism that results from the malady between reason and nature which “cannot be cured,” . But this does not mean that sometimes a “new fiction” (p. 215) can come into existence, so that the “infirmity of human nature becomes a remedy to itself” (p. 536).

(81.) This is what. Grice calls implicature (not implication!). Thus when I sit in a train where it is rather hot and I ask my neighbor whether I may open the widow and he says, “I am getting off at the next stop” , I know that my request has been denied despite the fact that his response had no direct reference to my question. See the William James Lectures in Grice (1967, 1989).

(82.) Thus Bueger and Gadinger (2014) list in their survey five different types of practice theory (pp. 4–5).

(83.) Schatzki (2001a) alludes to this polysemy by saying that the use of this term in this anthology “departs from both the once dominant conception that ties theories to explanation and prediction and the more colloquial . . . notion that theories are hypotheses`’ mentioning that nowadays also models and typologies, as well as conceptual frameworks, are called ‘theories’, so long as they are couched in general, abstract terms” (p. 4). While one could take issue with such a rather superficial thumbnail sketch, it is useful to think that expressions such as “practice theory” and “practice thinking” as well as “practice approach” try to grapple with the issue of our doings in the world and in particular our practical choices and social actions and their meanings that provide us with numerous issues ranging from problems of meaning to ascriptions of responsibility and questions of (moral) evaluation.

(84.) Here Borges’s wistful story of the Chinese emperor comes to mind, who ordered an exact map containing every detail and who had to be given a map as large as the realm.

(85.) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. I, chap. 7, at 40.

(86.) This does not mean that efficient causality plays no role in our practical deliberations—we just cannot “assume” that “pigs fly” or that we can neglect gravity when building a house. But it does imply that “purposes” cannot be reduced without further ado to efficient causality.

(87.) Whether an “evolutionary” approach, such as agent-based modeling, can account for those phenomena– which conceptual modifications such an engagement would require - can remain at this point an open question.

(88.) On this point see Schatzki (2001b), esp. chap. 3.

(89.) On a further elaboration of this point see Kratochwil, (2019).

(90.) Here I use, e.g., the Aristotelian argument of “happiness” as ultimate goal only as a placeholder—as I think that his further determination of the philosophical life as the highest of all goods is highly debatable. Nor do I think (a la Rorty ) that one’s own “way of life” already exhausts the notion of a “good life” that no longer needs further critical assessment. Finally, although my approach is more procedural than substantive, I do not believe that idealized procedures, such as that of Rawls’s “choice behind the veil of ignorance” can solve the problem by relying on an “ideal theory”, because trying to solve practical issues via “theory” seems to me like barking up the wrong tree. While this type of skepticism is usually taken as a sign that there must be “ultimate standards” to which we appeal, as otherwise this position would involve a performative contradiction, I do not think that such an inference is warranted. For a detailed discussion see Kratochwil (2018).

(91.) Thus each participant must not only possess the knowledge but each must know that the others also know it. If the possession were just individual but not socially shared, their possession would be like each having coins but no “money,” because no common convention exists that allows the pieces of metal to be exchanged or even used to facilitate exchanges.

(92.) See, e.g., Kratochwil (2007b), the “Tartu lecture,” and its critics. The lecture was debated by Ned Lebow (2007), Hidemi Suganami (2007), and Colin Wight (2007). See also Kratochwil’s (2007a) response, where such a research program is adumbrated.

(93.) For a criticism of this type of analysis, see Kratochwil (2011b), chaps. 4 and 5.

(94.) See paragraphs 85 and 217: Para 85 reads: “A rule stands there like a signpost. Does the signpost leave no doubt about the way I have to go?” Para 217 states: “If I have exhausted all justification I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: This is simply what I do.”

(95.) See, e.g., Bratman (1987, 1999); Gilbert (2014). For a recent lucid and jargon-free discussion of the philosophical issues involved, see Chwaszcza (2017).

(96.) This is what Sachs (1995) once called the “relevantly correct categorization.”

(97.) This is the argument made by Montesquieu on which Julia Kristeva relies in her plea for cosmopolitanism. The passage taken from Montesquieu’s Mes Pensees reads: “If I knew something useful for myself and detrimental to my family, I would reject it from my mind. If I knew something useful for my family, but not to my homeland I would try to forget it. If I knew something useful to my homeland, which would be detrimental to Europe, or else useful to Europe but detrimental to mankind, I would consider it a crime” Kristeva (1993, p. 63) wanted to have this statement “engraved on the walls of all schools and political institutions, as it could become the touchstone for anyone wishing to participate in the French nation understood as an esprit generale” Kristeva (1993, p. 63).

(98.) Regarding the role of following the rule of addition, see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 188 (1958): “your idea was that that the meaning the order had in its own way already traversed all those steps; that when you meant it, your mind, as it were, flew ahead and took all the steps before you arrived at this or that one.” Thus you were inclined “to use such expressions as: the steps are really taken before I take them in writing or orally or in thought.”