Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ockham's Razor and the Perestroika Wars in Political Science

Ockham’s razor's underlying principle represents one side of a controversy in political science which, for the sake of simplicity, let's call “the Perestroika Wars.” This principle embodies the conceptual or methodological imperative that, as Willard Van Orman Quine puts it, satisfies our taste for “desert landscapes.” The fewer basic objects in one's ontology, the better. Or for methodological purposes, the simpler, more elegant explanation is, far superior to a more complex explanation. I say “represents” because Ockham’s razor is only one soldier in one of the battling armies in the Perestroika Wars. The division is more generally between hard explanations—seeking certainty as in mathematics, simplicity, objectivity, universality, and the linear accumulation of knowledge--and soft explanations, including contingency, non-rational paradigm shifts, contextualism, and subjectivity. Yet, even these dichotomies do not quite fully capture the rebellious element in the Perestroika Wars.

The Wars began in 2000 when a group of disgruntled political scientists, fed up with political science’s fixation with hard explanations, formed a new movement having no singular revolutionary purpose. Perestroika is an eclectic approach which resists what its members consider “a methodological bias toward the quantitative, behavioral, rational choice, statistic, and formal modeling approaches in American political science.” In part, Perestroika expresses unhappiness with what they perceive to be the American Political Science Association’s exclusionary practices. The revolutionaries condemn the APSA for excluding important work in political science just because it does not reflect the rationale behind the paradigms of hard science. This movement has now resulted in Kristen Renwick Monroe’s Perestroika: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science. The book introduces the reader to the Perestroika Wars as well as a range of issues, including methodology in political science, graduate education, the governance of professional organizations, and competition in publishing. It raises important challenges to the very idea of social science.

The controversy between hardies and softies ranges far beyond political science or even social science generally. Indeed, western intellectual history is replete with such dichotomies as objectivity-subjectivity, realism-nominalism, certainty-skepticism, universality-contextualism, and so forth. Isaiah Berlin’s useful metaphor of the hedgehog and the fox, like the Perestroika Wars, is grounded in the idea that there are two fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, and that conducting rational inquiry should reflect this difference. For Berlin, some people (hedgehogs) are content to know just one large truth; while others (foxes) are busy discovering a bunch of little and varied truths. The difference between hedgehogs and foxes reflects the difference between those theorists who seek unity in science and knowledge generally and those who insist that there is no guarantee that all of what we know or what we value will fit together nicely, and there is reason to believe that it will not. The controversy, one might say, defines controversies in virtually every intellectual pursuit. It is a controversy that lawyers committed to hard social scientific paradigms should take seriously.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Tracy Lightcap said...

The formulation of Ockham here is not quite right. I've always used Einstein's razor myself: "Make all explanations as simple as possible, but not simpler." That's actually very close to what Ockham said. It isn't that we should prefer simpler explanations, but rather that we should prefer the simplest explanation consistent with an adequate description of states of affairs.

That's nitpicking, bu it's a nit that needs to be picked.

11/15/2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger Robert Justin Lipkin said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1/03/2007 12:56 PM  
Blogger Robert Justin Lipkin said...

My sincere apology to Mr. Lightcap for being so tardy in responding. But here's my reply.

What I said in the post is this: "The fewer basic objects in one's ontology, the better. Or for methodological purposes, the simpler, more elegant explanation is, far superior to a more complex explanation."

That means that there is an ontological version of Ockham's razor and a methodological one. Trying, if possible, not to multiply entities in one's ontology--that is, using the fewest objects
possible--is, I think the original formulation of the doctrine of Ockham's Razor. In the first instance, Ockham's Razor is an ontological doctrine.

Seeking the simplest explanation is a later addition, but perfectly consistent with the original formulation. I agree with Mr. Lightcap that both versions must be qualified. One should limit the entities posited if the evidence permits doing so. And one should seek the simplest explanation consistent with the evidence.

Again, I'm sorry for replying so late.

1/03/2007 1:34 PM  

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