International Theory of Mind: Wendt, PTJ and Philosophy of Mind
When re-reading some Wendt recently whilst finalising an article for submission, I stumbled on this rather odd claim:
in the end there can only be two possibilities [for types of explanation], materialist and idealist, because there are only two kinds of stuff in the world, material and ideational
– Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics 1999, p. 136
This statement, I think, takes Wendt into some very, very treacherous ontological waters. The idea that matter and mind are the two basic kinds of stuff composing the universe is a highly contentious position within philosophy of mind. Lots of pitfalls lie in the direction Wendt wants us to take, which seems to be some form of substance or at least property dualism. The most basic and obvious problem is that, if material and ideational stuff are distinct from one another, how do they interact?
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson points out another problem for Wendt:
Wendt argues that we can preserve the autonomy of the social and ideational aspects of world politics in our theories by sharply delineating just how much of social life is explained by material factors, so that we can see how much of a difference non-material factors make (Wendt 1999, 135–136), but this strategy is unsustainable if the non-material aspects of world politics are themselves products of material factors!
-PTJ, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations 2010, 97
If one takes the, prima facie plausible, view that the brain provides the material substrate of the human mind then it seems difficult to see what room there is for a separate ‘ideational stuff’ to play a role in our explanations. PTJ pushes this argument further:
The problem precisely parallels the challenge confronting philosophers of mind who seek to maintain simultaneously that mental phenomena emerge from physical phenomena and—as the natural sciences seem quite unequivocally to maintain—that physical events have physical causes: there is simply no way that mental states emerging from physical arrangements could ever add anything to an explanation that simply linked antecedent physical arrangements to a physical event directly
-PTJ, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations 2010, 97-8
This is a version of Jaegwon Kim’s well known argument about supervenience and the redundancy of mental causations. Alarm bells should be going off at this point though, because PTJ seems to have painted himself into a corner. I don’t think he wants to accept the conclusion, indeed it is presented almost as a reductio ad absurdum against a critical realist position*. Therefore he must reject one of two propositions: that physical events have physical causes; or that mental phenomena emerge from physical phenomena. Rejecting the former suggests abandonment of the natural sciences, rejecting the latter implies a commitment to a pretty hardcore version of dualism or idealism.
I think we are better off accepting those two propositions (although to say that ‘mental phenomena emerge from physical phenomena’ is a bit vague and doesn’t specify between a range of plausible positions in philosophy of mind) and take issue with his interpretation of the conclusion. PTJ states that:
if one maintained that the world was reducible to purely material objects then there would be little point in studying ideas and beliefs and other mental factors
-PTJ, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations 2010, 225
This is misleading, not least because many physicalists in philosophy of mind argue that mind is not reducible to material objects, but rather shares an identity with certain material processes. Furthermore, even if ideas and beliefs really are just pre-scientific labels we use to refer to particular classes of physical processes, these processes remain as plausible candidates as any others to provide explanations for social phenomena. Commitment to physicalism in the philosophy of mind doesn’t necessarily tell us much anything about what sort of processes are causally efficacious in the social world.
It might be worthwhile to try to clarify some of the ontological confusions of this sort in contemporary IR theory, but I’d have to invest much more time than I can spare familiarising myself with the philosophy of mind literature. Maybe I will try to add some more constructivism and critical realist IR theory to my reading list instead.
* Which is given a notably shorter shrift than the three other metholodogical positions PTJ examines in his book.