1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

International Relations takes it all too often for granted that different scholarly sub-communities in the field are incommensurable and, therefore, that the erosion of the community of International Relations scholars is inevitable. I present a three-fold argument against this inevitability: First, International Relations is much better understood as a field of overlapping horizons than a discipline of incommensurable paradigms. Second, the most consequential overlap is epistemological. This overlap is constituted by very specific rhetorical understandings of epistemology that come remarkably close to the Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic. International Relations is a rhetorical discipline. Third, dialogue is able to seize the opportunities for communication across different horizons within and beyond International Relations—making it a lively and open discipline instead of a constellation of hermetically sealed and self-referential sub-communities.

There are many reasons why one could expect International Relations to be a field of lively debates.1 The subject matter invites the exchange of different points of view. After all, we are dealing with politics and it is in the very nature of this matter that some of us feel more strongly about certain things than others, understand some things differently than others, and present our arguments and our challenges to others accordingly. The recent flourishing of multiple meta-theoretical perspectives in International Relations should provide an additional spark for debate. With scholars approaching their research from various vantage points, there should be plenty of occasions for presenting and challenging different arguments.

The field, however, does not meet these expectations. All too often adherents to different perspectives make very little effort to listen to what the other side has to say, or, even more common, refuse to talk to one another altogether. The deepest and most consequential disagreements in the field are epistemological. Both the so-called “third debate” (Lapid 1989) between positivists and postpositivists and the “communicative stasis” (Lapid 2003:130) that has succeeded it, speak volumes about the divisiveness of assumptions on how to produce knowledge. The “third debate,” or, by Waever’s count, the “fourth debate,” has been much more “war” than “debate” (Waever 1996:167). The current grand silence is testimony that, in the eyes of most scholars, the last grand debate was futile and that it is pointless to communicate across the great divides in the field. As a result, scholars have withdrawn into burgeoning sub-communities—with their own journals, workshops, conference sections, etc.—and International Relations has become an “administrative holding company” (Herrmann 1998:605) instead of a lively community of scholars.

This is a deeply troubling development. Sub-communities eclipse the heterogeneity that is to be expected by any scholarly community. Within them, communication is easy. But this ease comes at a great cost. Four interrelated problems come immediately to mind: First, sheltered from different perspectives, communication within sub-communities entrenches cherished assumptions. Communication in an open scholarly community, by contrast, enables scholars to reflect upon, question, change and at times even revolutionize otherwise taken-for-granted (meta-)theoretical and methodological assumptions. Second, sub-communities stifle innovation because they impede fusions across different perspectives. Communities allowing for the exchange across different perspectives, by contrast, allow for such fusions, which are often the most important sources for (meta-)theoretical and methodological innovations. Scholarly ideas, after all, are hardly ever new. But their linkages sometimes are. Third, communication in sub-communities streamlines research questions. They become repetitive and big questions remain bracketed. Communication in an open scholarly community, by contrast, provides chances to uncover and rediscover previously neglected big questions for research. Finally, sub-communities become too easily too comfortable with their research findings. Mechanisms for questioning findings, such as peer review, lose their edge when they are in the hands of a sub-community. All too often, the reviewers come from the same camp as the author, which does not make them very reliable jurors. Heterogeneous scholarly communities, by contrast, provide for much more demanding standards for evaluating research findings.

Is the erosion of a community of International Relations scholars as inevitable as usually assumed? This article develops a three-fold argument against such an inevitability: First, borrowing from Gadamer, as well as Bakthin and Bernstein, I contend that it is much more plausible to understand International Relations as a constellation of overlapping horizons than a field dotted with hermetically sealed paradigms. Thus, speechlessness can be overcome by uncovering overlaps. Second, I argue that this applies even to the supposedly most irreconcilable epistemological controversies between positivists and postpositivists (and the considerable infighting within these perspectives). My heuristic vehicle for uncovering overlaps is a classification of epistemological stances in ancient Greece. This shows that International Relations is a rhetorical discipline. It is rhetorical—I employ this term in the sense Aristotle and the Philosophical Sophists used it—in terms of its truth claims, its modes of reasoning, and its manner of disseminating what is taken to be knowledge. Third, dialogue is a precondition for avoiding the perils and seizing the opportunities of a rhetorical discipline. Dialogue can develop out of the overlaps of horizons, and (re-)produce the shared language across horizons on which a scholarly community depends. This does not leave the horizons untouched. It adds novelty to existing horizons (renewing) and gives rise to new ones (newing).

Corresponding to this three-fold argument, this paper is organized as follows: First, I juxtapose the widely held interpretation of Kuhn’s work on paradigms and incommensurability with Gadamer’s and Bernstein’s writings on horizons and overlap. Second, I examine whether the notion of overlapping horizons is applicable to epistemological debates in International Relations. To this end, I introduce five epistemological positions in ancient Greece—Aristotelian Logic, Platonian Dialectic, Aristotelian Rhetoric, Philosophical Sophistic, and Pure Sophistic—and apply these to the current epistemological controversies in International Relations. Third, I propose rules for a dialogue across horizons that have the potential to use the overlaps as a starting point for meaningful communication, (re-)newing horizons, and building community among International Relations scholars.

Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

International Relations scholars have been quick to apply Kuhn’s work on paradigms to the discipline (Kuhn 1996). In the 1970s, there was a debate whether Kuhn’s notion of a single paradigm during times of normal science is applicable to the field (Lijphard 1974;Ashley 1976; Beal 1976; Keohane and Nye 1977). In the 1980s, the discipline increasingly came to understand itself as a field of multiple paradigms (Alker and Biersteker 1984; Holsti 1985, 1989). In the 1990s, incommensurability became a major issue. Since then, a few authors (Waever 1996; Herrmann 1998) have argued that there are ways to counter the lack of a shared language between different paradigms, and, indeed, Kuhn himself provides many clues for doing so.2 Yet, most International Relations scholars have understood incommensurability in much more absolute terms. They maintain that the lack of a shared language between contending paradigms is unchangeable and with it the persistently insurmountable divisions in the discipline along the fault lines of these paradigms (Hollis and Smith 1990; Neufeld 1995:50–69).

The notion of overlapping horizons challenges the widely taken-for-granted assumption of incommensurable paradigms. In Gadamer’s reading (Gadamer 1972:286–290), a horizon has four important characteristics: First, it is a repertoire of background ideas. Similarly to Kuhn’s paradigm, the horizon is constituted by a set of taken-for-granted ideas that make it possible for their holders to make the world intelligible to themselves—inside and outside of academia. Second, these ideas amount to what Hammermeister (1999:67) calls a Verstehensgrenze (boundary of understanding). The ideas enable us to understand what is at the one side of the boundary but make it impossible to comprehend what is on the other side. They delineate the phenomena of which we are able to make sense. Third, far from being carved into stone, the Verstehensgrenze is flexible. It is up to the efforts of their holders, whether the boundary contracts, persists or extends. Fourth, the key feature of relationships across horizons is overlap. Gadamer holds that horizons are not hermetically sealed. Their overlaps make communication across horizons possible, as long as communicators make an effort to situate themselves in the overlapping borderlands of horizons (Gadamer 1972:279). Bakhtin3 and Bernstein echo this persuasion. The Verstehensgrenzen of horizons crisscross, and this offers a chance to the curious mind to communicate across horizons (Bakhtin 1986:137–142; Bernstein 1991:65).

In contrast to the widely taken for granted assumption of incommensurable paradigms, the notion of overlapping horizons has no following among International Relations scholars trying to understand the epistemological topography of our field. Is this justified? Does the notion of incommensurable paradigms really provide a better understanding than overlapping horizons? Note that this focus on epistemology should make it easy for the notion of the incommensurable paradigm to outperform the alternative of overlapping horizons. The question of incommensurability versus overlap can be dealt with on different levels. Very few students of world politics would object to conceding that there are some overlapping empirical research interests across different scholarly perspectives. Likewise, few scholars would argue that there are absolutely no conceptual overlaps across different perspectives. Yet, is there an epistemological overlap? Given the sharp controversies of the third debate and the ensuing grand silence, it seems that the obvious answer to this question is a clear “no.”

Nevertheless, let us take this question seriously. Orthodoxies are not always a reliable guide. A compelling answer to this question requires the completion of two tasks: The first task lays the groundwork. It entails introducing a heuristic vehicle—an alternative organizational device—that reframes the stagnant epistemological debate between positivists and postpositivists (and various camps within these clusters of thought). Such a reframing exercise is necessary because competing perspectives—whether adequately understood as paradigms or horizons—find it very difficult to see commonalities even if there are some. After all, they are constituted by demarcation from one another. The second task builds on this groundwork of reframing. It consists of examining whether seeing the old debate in the vehicle’s new light uncovers overlaps across previously seemingly hermetically sealed perspectives.

A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

This section introduces a classification of epistemological stances in ancient Greece. This classification is extraordinarily well suited for reframing the stagnant debate in International Relations. On the one hand, the Greek debate is sufficiently different from the terms of the International Relations debate to make us see the latter in a new light. On the other hand, the classical debate is by no means far-fetched and non-applicable. There are numerous hidden traces of the ancient debate in current epistemological stances in our field.

The ancient debate revolves around three issues: (a) What kind of knowledge is attainable? (b) How is this knowledge created? (c) How it is disseminated? These three meta-theoretical questions about generating knowledge are interrelated. Attainability is about possibility. Human beings are assumed to be able to generate certain kinds of knowledge but not others. Depending on the ideal of attainable knowledge, the creation of knowledge revolves around the discovery of objective knowledge or the invention of intersubjective knowledge. Finally, depending on the conception of how to create knowledge, the dissemination of knowledge is either a matter of sending a message to a larger audience (and thus not really an epistemological issue) or binding the audience into the process of arriving at intersubjective knowledge (and thus an important epistemological issue). Different answers to these questions and different linkages between these answers cluster around five epistemological positions, which I label as follows: Aristotelian Logic, Platonian Dialectic, Aristotelian Rhetoric, Philosophical Sophistic, and Pure Sophistic.

In his Prior Analytics, Aristotle (1989) argues that attaining true knowledge is possible in what we now refer to as the natural sciences. Subject areas that are detached from political life and from art have the potential to discover episteme. This theoretical knowledge is not about plausibility or likelihood but about how things really are. The mathematician, for instance, deals with a subject area in which episteme is attainable (Kennedy 1980:62–63; Craig 2001). According to Aristotle, the only pathway to generate episteme is the rigorous use of syllogistic logic. This well known logical framework consists of a major premise formulating a general principle (all men are mortal), a minor premise containing a specific statement (Socrates is a man), and the conclusion, which is deduced from the two premises (Socrates is mortal). As Aristotle explains at length in his Prior Analytics, two conditions have to be met for the conclusion to be true: First, the premises are true. Second, the process of deducing the conclusion from the premises is free of any logical error, such as a hidden premise or a conclusion that simply reformulates a premise. Deducing a conclusion from premises is not a social enterprise. The logician makes inferences on his or her own. Once the truth is discovered, the logician tries to disseminate the truth but Aristotle does not provide many clues for how this occurs. There is a reason for this. He hints that syllogistic reasoning speaks for itself to the well educated. No rhetorical tricks are needed to convince one’s peers. A broader audience, by contrast, cannot be convinced by syllogistic reasoning. It is simply lacking the capacities needed to follow its logic (Aristotle 1975:I [I]12).

Although Plato’s truth claims are more far-reaching than Aristotle’s, the Platonian Dialectic is less rigorous than the Aristotelian Logic. As far as truth claims are concerned, Plato is even more optimistic than Aristotle. He maintains that objective knowledge about the truth is attainable independently from subject areas. It is no coincidence that Plato’s allegory of the cave and metaphor of the sun appear in his Republic. The truth is waiting to be discovered, even in as volatile a field of study as politics (Plato 2004). The means for this discovery is dialectic. His style of writing alludes to a particular interpretation of dialectic. Getting to the truth involves developing one’s argument by privately exchanging arguments with a small circle of peers (Plato 2005). Through cross-examining the arguments of others, the scholar develops definitions, classifies phenomena, and develops an argument that is free of contradictions. This exchange is governed by the commitment to the good of the polis, and the determination to discover the truth (Plato 1924). After the truth has been discovered through dialectic, a wider audience ought to be enlightened by the discovery. Since Plato is very skeptical whether dialectic reasoning could ever convince a broader audience, he endorses the more easily accessible means of rhetoric, including the use of analogies and figures of speech, to disseminate the truth (Plato 2005; Kennedy 1980:64).

Aristotelian Rhetoric is more skeptical and less rigorous than Aristotelian Logic and Platonian Dialectic. As mentioned above, Aristotle contends that episteme is not attainable in every field of study. Knowledge that deals with practical matters, in particular with the good life in the polis, is more tentative. Practical knowledge may approximate the truth but, in contrast to theoretical knowledge, it will never get at the truth (Craig 2001:132). Aristotle’s means to generate practical knowledge is rhetorical reasoning. At the core of this reasoning is the enthymeme, which is a syllogism tailored to the uncertainties of creating practical knowledge. While the syllogism provides a true conclusion, the enthymeme provides merely a probable one (Aristotle 1975; :I[I]11–12). The enthymeme lacks the above mentioned two conditions that make a conclusion true: First, it does not start from true premises but merely from probable ones. Second, the inference from the premises to the conclusion is less stringent. Some premises are missing and some are added by others in the course of reasoning.4 Those adding premises are usually fellow orators or scholars within a small debating circle, coming together before the orator addresses a larger audience (Aristotle 1955:II1, Aristotle 1975:I10–11). Once orators have made their inferences, they think about how to make a compelling case for them. A broader audience judges whether the orator succeeds in doing so or not. Aristotle lists three means of persuasion: logos, ethos and pathos. A persuasive proof by logical reasoning (logos) may be made either inductively or deductively. Logos is always supplemented by attempts of the speaker to be perceived as trustworthy (ethos) and to capture the audience’s emotions (pathos). To Aristotle, the logos of the enthymeme is the most important piece in this puzzle. The deductive reasoning modeled after the syllogism is the key to persuasion. It constitutes ‘the strongest rhetorical proof’ (Aristotle 1975:I [I]11).

Philosophical Sophists5, such as Antiphon, Gorgias, Isocrates and Protagoras, are even more skeptical about truth claims. They fully share the normative commitment to the good of the polis with the above perspectives.6 Yet, apart from this normative resolve, their epistemological lens is quite different. Most importantly, Philosophical Sophists hold that truth is contingent on time and place. Protagoras’s famous saying that “[o]f all things the measure is man, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not” (quoted in Sprague 1972:18) along with his emphasis on rhetoric to debate truth claims points to an understanding of truth that is anchored in persuasion. If people agree upon a conclusion, this conclusion constitutes a provisional truth. If they agree that judgment has to be suspended—Philosophical Sophists sometimes argue that different approaches to a particular issue are equally valid—there is no single provisional truth. The same applies to situations in which disagreement among the discussants remains. Truth claims are discussed through an open process of rhetorical reasoning. There are rigorous methods of comparison. Isocrates (1992a), for instance, uses a comparative design that resembles John Stuart Mill’s method of difference (Mill 1996). There is the Sophistic (and somewhat Platonian) interpretation of dialectic in which discussants scrutinize contradictory statements in order to determine whether a particular statement is more plausible in a particular context than another (Kerferd 1997). There is the search for a golden middle path by first juxtaposing the ideal and the actual and then aiming for a realistic and normatively sound position in the middle (Poulakos 1997). There is the use of counterfactuals (Tindale 2004:47–50). And, of course, there is the play with language, which critics of Sophist thought, such as Aristotle and Plato, reject vehemently. The creative play with language, for instance the use of metaphors and analogies, is used to approach a phenomenon from a fresh perspective. Philosophical Sophists employ these techniques to reason with an audience. Aristotle’s and Plato’s strict distinction between creating and disseminating knowledge collapses. Provisional knowledge is invented and orthodox knowledge questioned by exchanging arguments with the audience. The open process of rhetorical reasoning is a means to this end. It is meant to captivate the audience and invite it to join the reasoning process (Tindale 2004:50–55).

Only few Sophists were philosophically inclined. For the most part, they were simply teachers of how to speak effectively in public. In contrast to Philosophical Sophists, Pure Sophists are not philosophizing about truth claims and they do not reflect on how something becomes knowledge. Their focus is much narrower. They are concerned with the tools for persuading an audience. Rhetoric, therefore, is not a mode of reasoning meant to ensure the generation of objectively or intersubjectively valid knowledge but merely a means to win an argument. Pure Sophists probably did not publish as widely as Philosophical Sophists and very few of their works have survived. Some rhetorical textbooks, such as the Rhetoric for Alexander (probably by Anaximenes), are closer to Pure Sophistic than to Philosophical Sophistic (Kennedy 1994:33). In a similar vein, Polus’s work, mocked by Plato in the Phaedrus, points into this direction (Kennedy 1994:37).

Table 1 summarises this overview of the epistemological debate in ancient Greece. The five main contending perspectives differ in terms of the ideals of what kind of knowledge is attainable, by how this kind of knowledge can be created, and how it is disseminated to a broader audience. At the risk of over-simplifying the relationship among these five perspectives, the Aristotelian Logic is the most demanding epistemological stance whereas the Pure Sophistic is least concerned with ambitious truth claims and rigorous methods to uncover and communicate the truth. These two perspectives form the two poles of a spectrum. In between these two poles are—starting with the stance closest to the Aristotelian Logic—the Platonian Dialectic, the Aristotelian Rhetoric, and the Philosophical Sophistic.

Table 1.   The Classical Debate
 Attainable KnowledgeCreation of KnowledgeDissemination of Knowledge
Aristotelian LogicObjective truthDiscovery through syllogism; individuallySyllogism speaks for itself to the educated
Platonian DialecticObjective truthDiscovery through dialectic; leading a small circle; committed to good of the polisRhetoric to enlighten a wider audience with the objective truth
Aristotelian RhetoricApproximating objective truthCreation through rhetorical reasoning modeled after syllogism; within small circle; committed to the good of the polisRhetorical reasoning to persuade an audience of practical knowledge
Philosophical SophisticContingent truth or suspension of judgmentInvention through broad rhetorical reasoning; committed to the good of the polisRhetorical reasoning as invitation to audience to join reasoning about contingent truth
Pure Sophistic[Unconcerned][Unconcerned]Rhetoric to sell argument

How do these five categories derived from the classical debate help us shed new light on the positivist-postpositivist divide? Most importantly, is the rift between the two as deep as widely assumed in International Relations? The following two sections employ the five categories developed above to answer this question. They deal with positivism and postpositivism, respectively. Each section proceeds in three steps: First, I illustrate how outspoken critics situated on one side of the rift see the other side (postpositivist critics of positivism and positivist critics of postpositivism). Second, I juxtapose these images of the other side with the theory of knowledge that the proponents of each side actually espouse (positivists on positivism and postpositivism on postpositivism). Third, I show the tensions between the practices of knowledge generation, which are routinely carried out by each side, and the theory of knowledge generation that each side claims for itself.

Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Postpositivists accuse positivists of mistakenly applying something akin to the Aristotelian Logic to International Relations. Critics allege that positivists falsely assume that their research results capture the objective truth (Price and Reus-Smit 1998). They dismiss positivist logic, aimed to create knowledge in a stringent deductive or inductive manner, as “decrepit” (Walker 1980:29), chastise it for distracting from critical normative issues (Ashley 1986:280–286; George and Campbell 1990:281–288), and castigate it for not reflecting on the way in which knowledge produced by positivists comes to construct the world (George 1994; Neufeld 1995). All these criticisms combined have culminated in calls to “forget IR” (Bleiker 1997; Weber 1999a).

Yet, positivism as seen through the eyes of its most outspoken postpositivist critics is nothing but a caricature.7 The alleged positivist notion of attainable knowledge is an integral part of this caricature. Postpositivist critics correctly point out that positivists fully embrace the notion that there is a truth “out there.” As Navon (2001:625) puts it, “facts are facts with or without human consent.” What postpositivist critics usually gloss over though is that positivists are hardly ever confident that they have discovered the truth. Bold statements such as Levy’s that the democratic peace literature comes “close” to having discovered a nomothetic law are rare and even then, it is qualified by the word “close” (Levy 1988:652). Two sets of meta-theoretical persuasions illustrate the positivists’ reluctance to proclaim something as true: the widespread acknowledgement of uncertainty and the adoption of Lakatos’s thinking on research programs.

Quantitative research relies on a number of devices to signal uncertainty. Hypotheses, for instance, are usually formulated not in terms of absolutes but in terms of likelihoods, and the pitfalls of operationalization and measurement are often acknowledged. King, Keohane, and Verba (1994:9) explain that precautions such as these are important for quantitative and qualitative research because “uncertainty is a central aspect of all research and all knowledge about the world.” They further maintain that sweeping them underneath the carpet is “not science as we define it.” Given their emphasis on uncertainty, it is not surprising that the index of their book does not list the word truth. They formulate the goal of social science methodologies in more modest terms. Methods ought to “produce valid inferences” (King et al. 1994:3). Positivists who put a strong emphasis on the subjective understandings of the actors they study are even more cautious. Jervis (1985:148), for instance, does not write about truth but about fruitfulness of knowledge, and acknowledges that determining this fruitfulness across competing explanations has become “exceedingly difficult.”

Many positivists in the field embrace Lakatos’s theory of knowledge production (and, therefore, are not positivists narrowly conceived). According to Lakatos (1970), knowledge is produced by research programs. These are containers in which the accumulation of knowledge towards approximating the truth becomes possible, because accumulation requires a research program’s shared standards of judgment and research foci.8 Many positivists freely admit that there is not just one research program but that there are several of them, and, therefore, also several distinct clusters of knowledge. When they relate to the same or similar issues, these clusters compete with one another. Yet, this is not considered bad news. On the contrary, debates across research programs may give rise to a new and stronger research program, usually through a synthesis between the competitors.9 As Walt (1991:229) puts it, “competition encourages contending approaches to refine their arguments and to seek better empirical support, and it usually leads them to incorporate each other’s ideas as well.” For this reason, Keohane hopes for the constructive competition of research programs in order to further knowledge about international relations as an important outcome of the third debate (Tickner 1997; Keohane 1998; Tickner 2005).

This conception of knowledge runs counter the postpositivist image of positivists. The latter do believe in a truth to be discovered but they are quite skeptical about how much of it can be discovered. This casts serious doubt over whether positivists really operate within the frame of the Aristotelian Logic. Their view on the attainability of truth is not compatible with the very demanding Platonian Dialectic either. Instead, it comes remarkably close to the Aristotelian Rhetoric. Scholarly knowledge—even the most sophisticated one—and truth are not synonymous. The former has merely the potential to approximate the latter. The parallels between the Aristotelian Rhetoric and positivist epistemology do not stop here. Contradicting postpositivist depictions of positivism once more, positivist theories of how to create knowledge also resemble the Aristotelian Rhetoric in various ways.

There are three interesting parallels: First, while most positivists privilege deductive reasoning, only few of them dismiss inductive research altogether. On the one hand, Bueno de Mesquita postulates that research should be strictly deductive and based on “axiomatic logic” (Bueno de Mesquita 1985:121). On the other hand, Vasquez criticizes what he considers the flawed assumptions of many deductive research enterprises, and advocates to build theories on empirical findings (Vasquez 1993). Most positivist research is situated between these two positions but tends towards deduction. Most positivists deduce hypotheses from a set of premises and test these hypotheses against evidence. When they interpret the results of the test, they often induce additional or alternative hypotheses from these results, which they sometimes test against evidence in later research. This emphasis on deduction and accommodation for induction is reminiscent of Aristotle’s work on rhetoric. While a particular kind of deduction—the enthymeme—constitutes the core of Aristotle’s rhetorical reasoning, he also allows for induction, especially reasoning by historical example.

Second, most positivists do not hold that the premises underpinning their theoretical frameworks are true. Instead, they understand these premises as working assumptions. The set of assumptions underlying the rational actor model, for example, is not seen as the true stepping stone for more truth but as “valuable tool” (Keohane 1988:379). This qualification—routinely overlooked by many postpositivists—is very important. It is in many ways diametrically opposed to the Aristotelian Logic and approximates the Aristotelian Rhetoric. Aristotle reserves syllogistic logic to those fields of study in which there are true premises based on which the scholar can proceed to build episteme. In fields where such luxury does not exist, such as the study of politics, Aristotle adopts the rhetorical path of reasoning, which centers on the enthymeme. The enthymeme starts from plausible but not true assumptions. Standing on this shaky ground makes it impossible to discover the truth but it is possible to come reasonably close to it. Positivist epistemology echoes this persuasion.

Third, positivists have normative commitments. Usually positivists are quite reluctant to make these explicit. Yet, disconcerted about accusations of being amoral, positivists have made these—for instance “individualism, liberty and human rights” (Gilpin 1986:321)—at times very explicit in their troubled encounters with postpositivist critics. Indeed, there are many positivist research endeavors that are ultimately aimed at helping solve problems that have plagued humankind for centuries. The scientific study of war, for example, started with this overall goal in mind (Singer 1979). The normative commitment makes the positivist project once again resemble the Aristotelian Rhetoric much more closely than the Aristotelian Logic. The latter is unconcerned with normative questions because it deals with fields of research, for instance mathematics, where normative questions are less obvious than in the practical disciplines. The Aristotelian Rhetoric, by contrast, dealing with practical matters, emphasizes the need for normative commitment.

All of this is certainly not stating the orthodox. If located within epistemological debates among Aristotle, Plato, and the Sophists, the positivist theory of generating knowledge employed by International Relations scholars is far removed from Aristotle’s logic. It bears much more resemblance with Aristotle’s rhetoric. Shedding additional light on how positivists create and disseminate knowledge, positivist practices of producing knowledge point even further away from logic and towards rhetoric. While there are notable tensions between theory and practice, these tensions are firmly located within the rhetorical realm. Some of these echo tensions in Aristotle’s work on rhetoric and some stem from intermixing elements familiar from the Aristotelian Rhetoric with traces from aspects reminiscent of the Philosophical Sophistic.

There are three important tensions: First, whereas positivist theories of attainable truth acknowledge that they cannot reach for the stars, positivist practices of disseminating knowledge pretend they can. This mirrors a tension in the Aristotelian Rhetoric. Aristotle, too, cautions that practical knowledge is more tentative than episteme but, at the same time, he strongly encourages the orator not to be tentative in his or her speech. In a similar vein, positivist theories of knowledge creation in the field stress that truth can only be approximated but can hardly ever be fully reached. Most positivist practices of knowledge dissemination, however, are anything but tentative. Many positivists are keenly aware that labeling something “truth” or “objective” buys precious persuasive power, especially when channeling their knowledge to receivers outside the discipline, such as the public and political decision makers. Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument, for example, that the power of an “Israel Lobby” explains why the United States’ policies towards the Middle East are opposed to its objective national interest illustrates this quite well (Mearsheimer and Walt 2006). The term “objective” becomes a sharp rhetorical weapon. It elevates knowledge of which most positivists admit in their reflections on the theory of knowledge that it comes at best close to the truth to the status of the truth. Rational deterrence theory provides another example. Achen and Snidal (1989:150) emphasize that the rational actor model underpinning the theory stands not on unshakable ground. Its premises are merely “working assumptions.” When they (1989:153) address the foreign policy implications of the theory, however, they proclaim that the theory is objectively proven and as such compelling policy advice.

Second, positivist theories of how to create knowledge postulate a narrower and more rigorous logic for making inferences than much of positivist research practices. Seen through the prism of the classical epistemological debate, this tension arises because many positivists fuse Aristotelian precepts for how to create knowledge with aspects from the Philosophical Sophistic. On the one hand, inferences following the pattern of what Aristotle referred to as the enthymeme form the centerpiece not only of much of positivist theorizing but also practicing knowledge production. Those positivists placing less emphasis on this form of deduction rely on inductive modes of inferences, which are endorsed by Aristotle’s work on rhetoric as well. On the other hand, positivists also employ elements against which Aristotle cautions resolutely, without accounting for this in their theories of knowledge creation. The practice of positivist reasoning is notably broader than positivist theories of knowledge are ready to acknowledge. For example, abduction—going back and forth between deduction and induction—is probably much more common than deduction or induction, but positivists rarely ever admit this.10 The presentation of research results is purged of this messiness. More clearly observable in their research, analogies and metaphors feature prominently in positivist practices of generating knowledge. Game theory is an especially influential attempt to use metaphors, say the prisoners’ dilemma and the game of chicken, as cognitive and discursive anchors for reasoning by enthymeme. This mixture of different modes of reasoning and in particular the use of analogies and metaphors exhibits distinct traces of the Philosophical Sophistic.

Third, there is a tension between the theory of creating knowledge qua universal standards and the practice of assent. In theory, positivists fully embrace Aristotle’s dichotomy of knowledge creation and dissemination. First, an author creates knowledge. Whether this knowledge is valid or not depends on universal standards. For Aristotle, for instance, there are clear standards for what makes for a good enthymeme. In a similar vein, there are positivist standards about what makes for valid knowledge. Some of these pertain to theorizing and some to the method for how to link theory and empirics. Then, an author disseminates the knowledge. Whether this dissemination is successful or not may have nothing to do with the validity of the knowledge disseminated. Knowledge ignored or misunderstood by an audience may still be—by universal standards of knowledge creation—valid knowledge. At close scrutiny, however, positivist practices blur the line between knowledge creation and dissemination because evaluating knowledge depends much more on assent than on universal standards. Peer review makes sure that nothing gets published that has not received the assent of at least a handful of assessors, composed of editors and anonymous referees. Once published, a piece may be ignored, vilified or glorified—with many shades in between—by the scholarly community. Through this process of evaluation, it comes to be judged as valid knowledge that helps getting closer to the truth or not. This does not mean that standards play no role in the evaluation process. Yet, these standards are far from universal. They are subject to assent themselves. This applies even to the supposedly most rigorous of sets of standards (that is, methodology). As Vasquez (2005:228) puts it, methodological standards “must be seen as decision rules, norms if you will, and not as logical conclusions compelling belief.” Thus, the decision of whether something counts as contributing to discovering the truth is deeply rooted in exercises of building assent. This blurred line between knowledge creation and dissemination points away from the Aristotelian Rhetoric to the Philosophical Sophistic.

In short, positivist theories and practices of producing knowledge bear very little resemblance with their portrayal by postpositivists. Positivists are not Aristotelian Logicians. A closer look at positivist epistemology strongly suggests that it is deeply permeated by rhetoric. The manner in which truth is conceptualized, created, and disseminated approximates the Aristotelian Rhetoric and there are even notable traces of the Philosophical Sophistic. Yet, what about postpositivism? Where are postpositivist perspectives located when applied to the classification of epistemological stances in ancient Greece?

Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Positivists have criticized postpositivists as harshly as the latter have dismissed the former. Their criticism alleges that postpositivists mistakenly use something akin to the Pure Sophistic to approach international politics. Positivists have been up in arms against what they see as the postpositivists’ unacceptable relativism. Denying that there is an objective truth to be discovered amounts in their view to “an indifference to the realities of international life” (Holsti 1989:255). To positivists, it is not surprising that postpositivists do not adhere to the methodological canon of the discipline and allegedly reject the basic logical premises—indeed logic itself—on which it rests (Harvey and Cobb 2003). Dismissing existing standards for research and not even replacing them with another set of rigorous standards is to positivists a reflection of the postpositivist attitude of anything goes. If there is no truth, then there is also no incentive to device appropriate methods to discover it (Mearsheimer 1994/95:37–47).11 Although positivists consider postpositivist perspectives deeply flawed, they consider them a serious challenge. The concern is not postpositivist substance but its rhetorical power. Postpositivist criticism makes inroads into the discipline because it knows how to make its criticism resonate without putting forward an alternative (Mearsheimer 1994/95:38).

Putting this criticism under scrutiny requires answering two questions: First, is postpositivism really akin to the Pure Sophistic as some positivist critics allege? Second, and more fundamentally, do postpositivists share enough ground to make it possible at all to speak of postpositivism as a way of doing research? The answer to this question is by no means self-evident. True, postpositivism has developed by demarcating itself from positivism and this shared demarcation may constitute sufficient resemblances across postpositivist approaches that make it possible to group postpositivist research together. However, postpositivists in International Relations are an even more heterogeneous group of scholars than positivists. While contestations among positivists focus, for the most part, on methodology,12 postpositivists even disagree about epistemology. Three major perspectives are often distinguished: interpretive (hermeneutic), critical and poststructural. In the tradition of Dilthey, Weber, and Gadamer, interpretivists seek to understand—verstehen in German—world politics. Influenced by Marx, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, critical theorists attempt to link their understandings of world politics to an explicit agenda for radical emancipatory change. Poststructuralists, drawing mainly from Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, try to unmask hegemonic discourses about world politics and International Relations without, however, arguing for an alternative order of things.

Examining postpositivist theories of generating knowledge by applying them to the classical Greek debate yields an interesting result. There is enough overlap among postpositivist epistemologies to allow for grouping them together. Yet, this grouping is nothing akin to the Pure Sophistic, as alleged by positivist critics. Instead, it approximates the Philosophical Sophistic, albeit each of the three postpositivist perspectives is much narrower than the Philosophical Sophistic as a whole. Postpositivist perspectives emphasize different aspects of the latter, without, however, combining these aspects as the Philosophical Sophists did.

Postpositivist theories of attainable knowledge are close to the Philosophical Sophistic. Postpositivists fully agree with Protatoras’s dictum that human beings are the measure of things. The world is socially constructed and this includes knowledge. This ontological assumption gives rise to three different ideals of attainable knowledge: Interpretivists tend to embrace a pragmatist stance. They are committed to understanding the world as it comes to be constructed. The scholarly community is the arbiter of whether a scholarly contribution to understanding this world counts as an attempt towards building a working truth on a certain aspect of international relations or not (Kratochwil 2003:126; Hellmann 2003:123). Critical Theorists, by contrast, reach beyond making sense of the world as it evolves. They stress the attainability and need for knowledge that actively interferes with the social construction of reality in order to foster emancipation. Knowledge ought to take a stance to change the world radically (Cox 2001). This involves judging “social arrangements by their capacity to embrace open dialogue” and advocating “new forms of political community which break with unjustified exclusion” (Linklater 1996:280). Poststructuralists also judge existing communities by their inclusions and exclusions but they dismiss the critical theorists’ advocacy of an alternative community as yet another attempt to install a hegemonic discourse.13 The poststructural ideal of knowledge is multiple voices. Letting these voices come to the fore instead of silencing them is the pathway towards more inclusion (Walker 1995:324; Sparke 2005:xxxiv–xxxv). These three different ideals of attainable knowledge all resemble ideals embraced by Philosophical Sophists. But for Philosophical Sophists, the ideal of knowledge is not a universal dogma but dependent on subject matter and situation. Depending on these circumstances, they aim for contingent and provisional truth claims, to be established through open debate; they criticize established knowledge and advocate replacing it with radically different knowledge (for instance in the field of education); or they argue for understanding different sides of an issue and suspending judgment in favor of a particular side (dissoi logoi).

In a similar way, postpositivist theories on how to create this attainable knowledge approximate the Philosophical Sophistic. This approximation occurs on two levels: First, postpositivists embrace a wide repertoire of reasoning for creating and questioning knowledge. Rejecting the notion of research as a one-way street linking observation to theory (induction) or theory to observation (deduction), interpretivists and critical theorists sometimes endorse abduction (Ruggie 1998:94; Morrow 1994:251–252). Furthermore, distancing themselves from syllogistic reasoning, they stress that there is not just one intelligible way of linking ideas together but many (Bartelson 1995:8; Linklater 1996:286). Some contributions explicitly embrace Aristotle’s enthymeme (Kratochwil 1989:216–218), while others endorse alternative modes of reasoning such as analogies. Metaphors and historical analogies are used to make sense of the world (Hall and Kratochwil 1993), to see it in a new light (Deibert 1997), and to provide defamiliarizing accounts of otherwise taken-for-granted interpretations of it (Weber 1999a; Shapiro 2004). This array of modes of reasoning is reminiscent of the Philosophical Sophistic. Yet, again, there is also a notable difference. While postpositivist scholars do mix different modes of reasoning, they tend to be pre-committed to a particular mix. This mix varies across different strands of postpositivism and within these strands, often even from scholar to scholar. No matter what the research problem is, for instance, poststructuralists tend to pre-commit to a set of devices for defamiliarization. Philosophical Sophists, by contrast, commit to modes of reasoning based on the requirements of the issue at stake, and these requirements differ markedly between, say, an ontological debate and courtroom proceedings.

Second, postpositivists reflect upon the knowledge they create. Interpretivists postulate to question their role as scholars by the double hermeneutic (Guzzini 2000; Guillaume, 2002). Critical theorists debate their positions, make them explicit, and turn them into advocacies for emancipation (Neufeld 1995:125). Poststructuralists, striving for “a view from afar, from up high” (Ashley 1987: 408), deconstruct the taken-for-granted knowledge that constitutes the world and are at pains to avoid replacing it with yet another hegemonic reality-constituting discourse. Once again, this reflective disposition towards knowledge is reminiscent of the Philosophical Sophistic. And once again the same qualification applies: The Philosophical Sophists’ range of reflection is broader. Some Philosophical Sophists, for instance, go as far as to allow for—even rejoice—contradicting their own previous knowledge (Hippias in Sprague 1972:99). Such a far-reaching reflection is virtually unthinkable for postpositivists.

This examination of epistemological premises made explicit by postpositivists casts already major doubt on the positivist depiction of postpositivists as Pure Sophists. Postpositivists approximate the Philosophical Sophistic rather than the Pure Sophistic. Or, more precisely, different strands of postpositivist thought come close to different aspects of the Philosophical Sophistic. Investigating postpositivist practices of doing research confirms that postpositivism mirrors the Philosophical Sophistic to a considerable extent. But it also shows some interesting tensions between theory and practice. Postpositivist practices—no matter whether interpretivist, critical or poststructural—are not only about the Philosophical Sophistic but also show traces of the Aristotelian Rhetoric.

There are two important tensions: First, while postpositivist theories on creating knowledge revolve around questioning orthodoxies, practices frequently rely on taken-for-granted knowledge in order to make sense of the world. In theory, postpositivists are committed to critically discuss what might otherwise pass as self-evident. Especially poststructuralists put a very strong emphasis on this need to question orthodoxy. Even they, however, rely on a canon that remains unquestioned. This applies in particular to the interpretation of founding works that serve as guides for poststructuralist research (Weber 1999a,b). The consensus on a particular interpretation of Nietzsche’s genealogical method (Nietzsche 1887), for instance, is so firm that instances of questioning it are very rare indeed.14 This tension between theory and practice mirrors a tension between the Philosophical Sophistic and the Aristotelian Rhetoric. Philosophical Sophists often strive for questioning the orthodox, even if this entails contradicting something they have previously established. Aristotle, however, considers some orthodoxy as inevitable for any kind of reasoning. This applies to the means for creating knowledge (for example, the enthymeme), as well as the commonplaces required to make use of these means for creating knowledge (for example, the premises of the enthymeme).

Second, while postpositivist theories of generating knowledge emphasize the blurred boundary between knowledge creation and dissemination, postpositivist practices reinforce this boundary. In theory, postpositivists are committed to inviting their audience to reason with them and to remain open for its feedback. For interpretivist and critical scholars, this openness of research is important because for many of them truth is working truth to be established by assent. Truth, in other words, is nothing that can be established by an individual, but—as tentative as it always is—only by a community, and this requires openness on the part of the individuals that form this community. Poststructuralists reject the notion of a working truth and endorse multiple voices instead. This makes openness of an individual’s research to different points of view even more important. In practice, however, postpositivists tend to narrowly focus on defending their individually-held “small-t truth.” No matter whether they are interpretivists, critical scholars or poststructuralists, they “claim to have arrived at logical and empirically plausible interpretations of actions, events or processes, and they appeal to the weight of the evidence to sustain such claims” (Price and Reus-Smit 1998:272–273). Hence, postpositivist practices of disseminating knowledge are closer to the Aristotelian Rhetoric than the Philosophical Sophistic. The latter embrace feedback mechanisms between speaker and audience in scholarly debates, sometimes even to the extent that the speaker fully changes his or her mind. Postpositivist research, however, hardly encourages these feedback mechanisms. In many ways, it is more reminiscent of the Aristotelian Rhetoric. Research, at least once it is published, is meant to win over an audience rather than make the audience engage with it and remain open for changes.

In sum, postpositivist theories and practices of generating knowledge bear very little resemblance with its portrayal by positivists. From a less caricaturistic point of view, postpositivists are far removed from the Pure Sophistic. Striving for generating knowledge in a world where truth is not something objective waiting to be discovered, postpositivist theories of generating knowledge approximate the Philosophical Sophistic to a considerable degree. Their practices also exhibit notable traces of the Aristotelian Rhetoric.

International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Angry scholarly exchanges, in which pathos, ethos and logos (in this order) have derived from insulting the other side, should not distract us from overlooking the many similarities and commonalities across the discipline’s major divide. Positivism and postpositivism (as well as differing epistemological stances within these perspectives) are not incommensurable paradigms but overlapping horizons. Seen through the prism of ancient Greek debates on epistemology they are not worlds apart. They share numerous pervasive rhetorical elements reminiscent of the Aristotelian Rhetoric and the Philosophical Sophistic, with positivism somewhat closer to the former and postpositivism to the latter. Hence, International Relations is a rhetorical discipline.

How can we use this overlap across horizons to further a community of International Relations scholars and learn from one another across different perspectives? Monologues are counter-productive. The one-sidedness of communication makes horizons drift apart. The overlap diminishes, making communication across horizons more and more difficult. Modes of communication in which the participants exclusively aim for defending their own stance suffer from the same problem. They are quasi-monologues, in which participants fail to engage with one another. Ultimately, they listen only to themselves and not to their fellow communicators. This decreases the overlap of horizons instead of increasing it.

Dialogue, by contrast, makes the most out of the communicative potential offered by the overlaps of horizons. Gadamer is very optimistic about the potential of dialogues. He contends that the participants of a dialogue, through rounds and rounds of arguments and counter-arguments, find a common language. They extend their horizons, ultimately even fusing them. It is the fusion of horizons that, according to Gadamer, constitutes understanding (Gadamer 1972:159). Yet, one does not have to be as optimistic as Gadamer to recognize the potential of dialogue. Bakhtin, Bernstein and Ricoeur emphasize that communication failures are always possible and even communicative successes rarely ever lead to the fusion of horizons (Bernstein 1991:65–66; Bakhtin 1986:142). Furthermore, they caution that horizons—old, renewed or new—are never politically innocent. Horizons always need to be questioned and defamiliarized (Bakhtin 1994; Ricoeur 1998:93). Yet, this more cautions account, too, emphasizes the importance of dialogues. They make it possible to learn from other horizons and question one’s own.

It depends on the communicators’ commitment to dialogue to what extent dialogue is able to live up to its potential. A firm commitment to five rules is of particular importance: First, the participants approach the dialogue with an open mind (Gadamer 1972:345). A dialogue is not a battle in which each participant tries to make his or her own horizon win a contest of competing perspectives. Indeed, the goal of a dialogue is not a homogenization of horizons at all. Instead, participants accept the multiplicity of horizons and the shortcomings of their own. They are eager to revisit the prejudgments that constitute their own horizons and understand that this requires meaningful communication across horizons. This meaningful communication is a constant challenge. It is not something that we can take for granted or that we should attempt only periodically. It is a never-ending task and participants of a dialogue have to be persistent in actively striving for it.

Second, the participants are committed to inclusivity. Excluding perspectives from dialogue impoverishes the dialogue and diminishes opportunities for (re-)newing one’s horizon. A dialogue is only able to live up to its potential if participants dare to build meaningful communication across perspectives that, at first glance, seem different and alien. The proper place for the curious mind is the borderland between the familiar and the unfamiliar (Gadamer 1972:279). Grappling with the seemingly radically different is particularly well suited to revisit all kinds of prejudgments, including one’s prejudices against other perspectives. It offers a rare opportunity to defamiliarize oneself with one’s own horizon (Bakhtin 1994; Ricoeur 1998:93).

Third, the participants engage each others’ arguments. Being interested in understanding and not in outmanoevering other participants of the dialogue, they listen carefully what the other side has to say. Both sides ask the other questions and provide clarifying answers. They ask questions that develop out of their attempts to understand the other side. Their counterparts try their best to answer these questions in a manner that is comprehensible to those asking the questions. If the questioner discovers what seems to him or her a weakness in the statement of the answerer, the questioner seeks to make the answerer’s case stronger. Instead of using such a weakness to dismiss the other side, the questioner tries to get deeper into the horizon of the other and proposes, based on his or her reading of the other’s background, ways to overcome it (Gadamer 1972:363). This is a crucial step for understanding. In this way, a perceived weakness does not foreshadow the end of dialogue but its intensification and the increasing familiarization of the questioner with the background of the answerer (Gadamer 1972:349; Bernstein 1991:338).

Fourth, the participants focus on an issue domain. Dialogue is about generating insight into something (Gadamer 1972:345). This something may be key components of horizons and/or particular linkages between these key components. It may be explicitly connected to an empirical topic or not. Such a focus has to be on the minds of questioner and answerer. Without it, a structured interplay of questions and answers cannot develop. The participants speak past one another. They confuse one another with the questions they ask and the answers they provide. This bewilderment may contribute to horizons drifting even further apart instead of increasing their overlap or even fusing them. As a result, understanding becomes even more difficult.

Fifth, the participants embrace the open-ended nature of the dialogue. Dialogues assume a dynamic on their own. Sometimes they are unable to prevent partial or even complete communication failure. Sometimes they are successful in enabling new understandings on a particular issue across horizons and even in developing far reaching (re-)newals of horizons. Taking advantage of the transformative potential of dialogues requires continuing the conversation even if the communicators perceive a discrepancy between understandings on a particular issue. It is important to always keep in mind that these understandings are interpretations and not carbon copies of someone else’s readings (Gadamer 1972:159), and over time the dialogue may make such a perception of discrepancy dwindle. Taking advantage of the transformative potential of dialogues also necessitates not to shy away from the uncharted waters into which dialogue may lead the communicators. In rare occasions, dialogue may fundamentally alter the constellation of horizons in an academic discipline. Indeed, lively disciplinary dialogue, especially if coupled with lively interdisciplinary dialogue, may even come to change the boundaries of academic disciplines themselves.

Commitment to these five rules amounts to a tall order for International Relations. These rules are more demanding than the rules for dialogue that the field postulates for others—be it for policymakers (Burton 1990) or the public (Lynch 2000). They contradict deeply entrenched routines that have developed over many decades. They conflict with scholarly interests that focus on establishing a privileged status of a sub-community or a personal privileged status within the shelter of such a sub-community. Nevertheless, dialogue is not a utopian goal. Herrmann (1998:619) makes an important point in her advocacy for more dialogue in the field. There may be something peculiar about the scholarly endeavor that helps it rise to the challenge. She has “trust in the inherent intellectual curiosity of those pursuing research on the nature of world politics and to wrestle with, and not instantly condemn, information that may call some of what they believe into question.” It is this curiosity that may well be the nucleus for changes that accommodate these five rules.

Many changes in the ways we do International Relations are necessary in order to generate an infrastructure that allows for dialogues to develop. Two important changes come to mind immediately: First, we need to cast our web of communication much more widely. There are various possibilities for doing so. Instead of dividing conferences and workshops along the fault lines of the discipline, we could ensure that there is more heterogeneity of discussions in each section and panel. Instead of relegating peer review to the acclamation of like-minded scholars we could dare using the publishing process as a discussion across major dividing lines. Instead of rendering themselves mouth-pieces of a particular research tradition, we could strive for journals—especially flagship journals in the field—to cover the plurality of horizons in the discipline. Instead of ridding our edited volumes of dissent, we could be more inclusionary when it comes to approaching possible contributors. Instead of focusing, more or less exclusively, on our area of expertise, we could read more widely. Instead of setting up a strawman against which we try to make our research shine, we could discuss alternative explanations in a more honest manner.

Second, we need to be much more creative in sparking dialogue. Some of the deep-seated ways in which we make sense of the discipline are major obstacles in even thinking about dialogue. Our disciplinary imagination is dominated by four types of mighty walls: conceptual, methodological, ontological and epistemological. While there is some appreciation that different conceptual understandings do not make scholarly debates impossible, the imagined walls between different methodological terrains are already much higher. Different ontologies are conceived of as entirely different scholarly realms and the walls appear altogether insurmountable when it comes to epistemology. Only creativity can counter this simplistic topography of the discipline. Instead of constantly rehashing and, thus, reifying the major dividing lines of the discipline, we could think of innovative organizing devices countering this reification. This strategy is suited for conceptual, methodological and meta-theoretical contestations. The epistemological debate in ancient Greece, for instance, is such an alternative organizing device for epistemological contestations in the field. Furthermore, instead of taking for granted that communication across the great disciplinary divides is impossible, we could look for shared starting points for an initially more narrowly defined joint analytical journey into the unknown. This strategy is probably best suited for conceptual and methodological contestations but, depending on the direction of the journey, may very well venture into ontology and epistemology. The concept of power, for instance, has proven to be very well suited as a starting point for initiating focused empirical and theoretical debates across the field’s major schisms. The spilling over of these debates into meta-theoretical contestations—ontology and epistemology—has not disrupted communication because the concept of power anchors these debates in something more tangible (Mattern 2001; Nye 2004; Barnett and Duvall 2005; Guzzini 2005; Schmidt 2005; Schneider 2005; Sterling-Folker and Shinko 2005).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

More than two decades ago, Holsti (1985) labeled International Relations “the dividing discipline.” If anything, the divisions in the field have become even more pronounced since then. Epistemology appears to be the most divisive complex of issues in the field. Positivists and postpositivists—and different epistemological strands within these groupings of scholars—find it especially difficult to initiate and sustain meaningful communication with one another. Understanding epistemological divides as clashes of incommensurable paradigms, many positivists and postpositivists regard these communication failures as inevitable.

This article developed an argument against this inevitability. It did so in three steps: First, I clarified that there are two very different ways of making sense of competing perspectives in a scholarly discipline: incommensurable paradigms and overlapping horizons. Second, I introduced the classical Greek epistemological positions as a vehicle to reframe the stagnant epistemological debates in International Relations. This yielded a remarkable finding. Seen in the light of the classical debate, different perspectives in International Relations share much more common epistemological ground than usually acknowledged. International Relations is a field of overlapping horizons and not incommensurable paradigms. These overlaps are constituted by deeply entrenched rhetorical elements approximating the Aristotelian Rhetoric and the Philosophical Sophistic. Third, I contended that the overlaps offer opportunities for meaningful communication, the (re-)production of a shared language, community-building across epistemological divides, reaching out beyond the discipline and, thus, for (re-)newing horizons for studying international relations. Seizing these opportunities requires dialogue, and I proposed five rules for such a dialogue.

Few terms provoke as much dismissal as rhetoric does. Celebrated as skillful art by scholars of rhetoric and vilified as sinister manipulation in the vernacular, rhetoric means many different things to many people. Even at the risk of repeating myself, I would like to end this article with four clarifications: First, uncovering overlaps across horizons in the field need not focus on epistemology. I chose this focus because it was a “hard case” for applying Gadamer’s notion of overlapping horizons to the field. Contestations about epistemology make for the most divisive controversies in the field, and it is widely assumed that this divisiveness is the inevitable product of incommensurable paradigms. My use of classical Greek epistemological stances to reframe this debate exposes how misleading this assumption is, and this is suggestive for less divisive issues. If uncovering epistemological overlaps is possible, this should be possible for other contested issues—ontological, methodological and conceptual ones, for instance—as well. Attempts of doing so are very much warranted.

Second, there is not just one way to reframe a debate that has reached an impasse. There may be many vehicles for reframing the stagnant epistemological debate in International Relations in a compelling manner. The classical Greek epistemological positions are very well suited for this endeavor. Not only do they help us see epistemological contentions in the field in a new light but they also provide an opportunity to uncover the crucial but otherwise hidden rhetorical dimensions of our discipline. Yet, the classical positions, of course, are not the only vehicle available to us to re-think the discipline and detect its usually hidden dimensions. Exploring the usefulness of other vehicles is important to learn more about our discipline.

Third, I did not advocate for International Relations to become a rhetorical discipline. Instead, I argued that it already is—rhetoric constitutes the field—but ought to improve as a rhetorical discipline. With several authors making a compelling case for the human sciences (Nelson, Megill, McCloskey 1981) and even the natural sciences (Gross 1990; Gross and Keith 1997) being rhetorical disciplines, it would be surprising if International Relations was an exception. Rhetorical disciplines are about generating practical knowledge and International Relations deals with the very practical matter of politics on a global scale. This is not bad news. There is nothing wrong with a rhetorical discipline per se. It is most definitely not a discipline in which anything goes. As shown in detail in this article, such a discipline has standards of attainable truth, how to get to it, and how to disseminate it. Yet, these standards presuppose lively and critical discussions across sub-communities. A withdrawal into sub-communities undercuts the cross-fertilization upon which a rhetorical discipline depends. My suggestion of five rules for dialogue is meant to counter this withdrawal and foster community on the level of the discipline.

Finally, I did not call for a fusion of all horizons but for open-ended dialogue across horizons in the field and beyond. A complete fusion of all horizons is the most unlikely outcome of such a dialogue. The open-ended dialogue relies much too strongly on highly demanding processes of persuasion—for instance to be committed to inclusivity and making the other’s case stronger using his or her horizon—for it to allow for a grand fusion of all horizons. Communication failures, in which the communicators speak past one another, are frequent. If fusions occur, these are usually partial and short-lived, and only few become more enduring. Some horizons may even dissolve into a single one but, by the same token, dialogue may also compose new horizons out of existing ones without making the latter disappear. In short, where there is fusion, there is also fission. This plurality of horizons fits our rhetorical discipline well. It is the creative and curious engagement with this difference that allows us to critically reflect on our thinking, (re-)new our horizons, and gain new insights into international relations. But creative and curious we have to be.

  • 1

    I would like to thank Alexander Betts, Elisabetta Brighi, Neta Crawford, Andrew Hobson, Ted Hopf, Andrew Hurrell, Hartmut Lenz, Patrick Jackson, Jochen Prantl, Robbie Shilliam, Dagmar Sonnecken, Raluca Soreanu, and Ralph Walker for very helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. My research on this article was greatly facilitated by an R.J. Vincent Postdoctoral Fellowship, held at the Department of Politics and International Relations in conjunction with Magdalen College, University of Oxford.

  • 2

    Kuhn (1977:xi–xii) gives an example of himself as a translator of different paradigms of motion. Only this translation, he maintains, enabled him to understand Aristotle’s understanding of motion. See also Kuhn (1977:339, 1996:202–204).

  • 3

    Instead of horizon, Bakhtin writes about context (Voloshinov and Bakhtin 1994), but the concepts are very closely related.

  • 4

    The tenuous nature of these premises and its wide applicability for human reasoning gave rise to what has become known as the New Rhetoric (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1958;Perelman 1982). For a more recent seminal study on rhetorical reasoning, see Skinner (1996).

  • 5

    I follow Philostratus’s distinction between Philosophical Sophists and Pure Sophists (Kennedy 1980:38–41). See also Isocrates (2006:11–16).

  • 6

    See, for instance, Isocrates (1992a,b).

  • 7

    Some postpositivists critically reflect on their portrayal of positivism and admit this problem (Neufeld 1995:22).

  • 8

    Most positivists are very aware of the limits of knowledge accumulation (Harvey and Cobb 2003:144; Geller and Vasquez 2004:4).

  • 9

    Perhaps the best known synthesis of this kind happened between neorealism and neoliberalism (Keohane 1988).

  • 10

    Most and Starr (1989:14) come close to doing so.

  • 11

    Mearsheimer labels all postpositivists critical theorists, even those constructivists who embrace, broadly speaking, a positivist epistemology.

  • 12

    The most visible divide is between quantitative and qualitative research (King et al. 1994; Tarrow 1995; McKeown 1999). Partly provoked by the advocacy for a scientific realism (Bhaskar 1998; Wendt 1999), there are also epistemological controversies. But these contestations are less divisive than those among postpositivists.

  • 13

    Yet, with some poststructuralists starting to indicate interest in the discourse of emancipation, the gap between poststructuralists and critical theorists may become increasingly bridgeable (Jones 2001:11–12).

  • 14

    For a rare exception of at least hinting at questioning it, see Bleiker (1997).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Incommensurable Paradigms Versus Overlapping Horizons
  4. A Vehicle for Uncovering Overlaps: The Classical Debate
  5. Positivist Theories and Practices: Aristotelian Rhetoric and Philosophical Sophistic
  6. Postpositivist Theories and Practices: Philosophical Sophistic and Aristotelian Rhetoric
  7. International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline: Rules for Dialogue
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
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