Friday, March 07, 2008

Thanks to Peter Spiro, David Zaring, and the folks at Temple University

I just wanted to take a moment publicly to thank everyone at Temple University for the lovely conversation about my early draft paper on politics and method in public international law, which I offered yesterday at an international law seminar there.  The redoubtable Peter Spiro, whose new book, Beyond Citizenship, is out from OUP and highly recommended even from a skeptic like me (I don't think you can really take part in that debate without reading Peter's book), organized things, and it was terrific.  David Zaring, from Wharton, commented and was very patient and generous with comments on a very early stage, development stage paper.  (You can see the gist of it in the post preceding this one.)  I prefer to present very early stage papers where possible - meaning the point is not to show off something already done, but to develop it - precisely because I prefer getting comments at a point when the ideas are still being shaped.  Once too far along, the ideas are a bit set in concrete and it feels like defending a completed paper, rather than getting help in developing a new one.  David's comments were extraordinarily useful.  Likewise comments from the rest of the international law faculty and numbers of very thoughtful students.  My thanks to everyone.

ps.  A quick note to myself, so I don't forget it when I get past the current crisis deadline and start working on this again.  The broad background for this discussion, at least in matters of method, is the general decline of the humanities and the rise of social science as the way of explaining things.  David was quite right to point to the method axis and suggest that it might better be labeled not prescriptivist and descriptivist, but humanities and social science.  The subtext for the discussion of international law method might be the decline of Kant and the rise of Bentham.  But it seems to me that a big part of this method issue in law is the role of quantitative modeling - and it is echoed across the academy as, for examples, business schools dump the marketing and motivational and leadership stuff and recast themselves as applied economics, etc.  The humanities have themselves to blame for their loss of status, having embraced postmodernist theories that deprived them of any claim to authority, much less truth.  No one looks to humanities, from novels to the essay to art to you-name-it, as a source of revelation.  Social sciences, preferably with a statistical edge, have taken pride of place.  The difficulty is that it is hard, at least in large swathes of law, to see that the new methods are as yet set to deliver.  Mathematics in many of the new fields appears to be less a means of revelation than of a way of establishing an intellectual pecking order: the more math, the smarter you must be:  but the relationship to truth in the real world appears murkier.  Maybe one day the methods will pay off in unambiguous ways - I am no postmodernist, and I would like to hold out for ways of coming at complex social truth, including statistically.  But much of it seems more promising as yet than able to deliver.  How much of the stuff that I see in political science, IR, and international law in these new fields depends, for example, on survey research that cannot be made better than it is by any amount of statistical massage.  Here is a moment for the humanities and its traditional emphasis on the interpretation of texts: consider the Pew survey questions for worldwide attitudes toward Americans, or about religions, etc., and consider the ambiguities that many of those polled might :  when American pollsters are able to show a vastly better track record just for exit polls for national elections, then we might turn to consider the same issues on a worldwide cross cultural basis.  But at the moment, it is more the promise of a method than a method.  In that sense, the new quantitative methods of social science in the traditional humanities and law appear to be more exercises in post modernism than science.  Sorry this is cryptic; it is really scattered notes to myself.