Does Keohane's deployment of Lakatosian philosophy of science give Neoliberalism a decisive advantage over Waltzes' Popperian position deployed in the Theory of International Politics?

Essay, 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 68,00


This essay examines the question if ‘Keohane’s deployment of Lakatosian philosophy of science gives Neoliberalism a decisive advantage over Waltz’s Popperian position deployed in Theory of International Politics.' I will argue that the deployment of the Lakatosian philosophy by Robert Keohane does not give Neoliberalism a decisive advantage. To display my line of argumentations, Section 1 briefly introduces the Lakatosian and the Popperian philosophy. Section 2 demonstrates Waltz’s deployment of Popperian philosophy and Keohane’s deployment of Lakatosian philosophy. Section 3 outlines main findings and a conclusion will be drawn.

1 - The philosophies of Popper and Lakatos

This section briefly outlines the philosophies developed by Karl Popper and the Imre Lakatos. The explanations serve as a prerequisite to understand the discussion in section 2 of this paper. Due to word restrictions, only the main principles are outlined.

The philosophy of Karl Popper

Karl Popper argues that only a deductive approach to science can be truly scientific. He states that a theory can never be entirely verified and there can be no complete solution to a problem if an inductive approach to a theory is applied. However, by falsifying a theory, one can get a precise understanding of the reality, even though a complete truth can never be found (Popper, 1959, p.33). Moreover, the method of falsification offers a possibility to demarcate science from pseudo-science.

The method of falsification is based on the introduction of hypotheses. Popper expects researchers only to establish bold hypotheses and actively participate to falsify and criticize these hypotheses through empirical testing. In addition to the criteria mentioned above, the method of falsification does not allow the introduction of so- called ad-hoc hypotheses. In Popper's view, ad-hoc hypotheses only serve as a means to save a theory from falsification and thus rejection (Popper, 1959, p.42).

The philosophy of Imre Lakatos

Imre Lakatos introduced the concept of a so-called “Scientific Research Programme." A “[scientific] research programme is a set of methodological rules telling US what paths of research to avoid and what paths to follow” (Keohane, 1986, p. 161). The research programme has a hard core that builds up the theory and a protective belt, which encompasses auxiliary and observable hypotheses. Lakatos does not differentiate between verified and falsified theories but introduces the concept of a degenerative and progressive research programme. For a research programme to be progressive, Lakatos defines two main criterions:

1) a progressive research programme produces novel assumptions
2) the positive heuristic is research-led for the future

If a research programme does not provide any novel assumptions anymore and thus does not display continuous growth (cf. Keohane, 1986, p. 161) it has to be rejected.

2 - The deployment of philosophies by Kenneth Waltz and Robert Keohane

This section outlines how Kenneth Waltz and Robert Keohane deploy the aforementioned philosophies by Popper and Lakatos.

Waltz deployment of Popperian philosophy

In his book Theory of International Politics, Kenneth Waltz attempts to establish a theory of International Politics based on a truly scientific approach. He calls this approach structural realism, which is also known as neorealism. Waltz states that “a theory is a picture, mentally formed, of a bounded realm or domain of activity” (Waltz, 1979, p. 8). He argues that previous (realist) theories of international relations have been reductionist theories, meaning that these theories try to explain international outcomes with elements located at the national and subnational level. The focus of those theories lies on the behavior of the units (Linklater, 1995, p. 242). Thus, realism lacks the possibility to be (dis)proven and scientific credibility. Waltz criticizes the commonly used method of induction to define a theory. According to him, most scholars build a theory by verifying their hypotheses: “[a] theory is born in conjecture and is viable if the conjecture is confirmed” (Waltz, 1979, p. 2). However, the belief to explain certain happenings and accumulate knowledge through the method on induction is nothing more than an inductive illusion. For Waltz, the confirmation of a hypothesis “does not give birth to a theory” (Waltz, 1979, p. 8). As a response to the unit-level focused theories as well as to accumulate explicit explanations, which are an integral part of a theory, Kenneth Waltz calls for a deductive theory. This call for a deductive theory is in line with the Popperian philosophy, which recognizes the deductive approach as the only truly scientific one. To develop a logical congruent theory of international politics, Kenneth Waltz introduces a systemic theory of international politics, which is based on a very abstract but at the same time simplistic model. The main feature of this systemic theory is the differentiation between the structural level and the unit level. Waltz informs US that the structure emerges from the interaction of states, but in turn constrains them from taking certain actions and encourages them towards others (Waltz, 1979, p. 92-95). He compares the structure of an international system with the structure in an economic system. Both structures seem to be invisible but still have an influence either on the states in a political system or firms placed in an economic system (Waltz, 1979, p.72). Moreover, Waltz introduces three main criteria for a theory of international politics:

1) The ordering principle
2) Character of units
3) Distribution of capabilities

According to Waltz, the ordering principle of the international system is anarchy. Contrary to domestic politics, in which hierarchy is the ordering principle, in international politics no ‘world government’ has been established (Waltz, 1979, p. 88). With regard to the character of units, Waltz states that the units in the international systems are the states. All actors are formally equal and only differentiated by the capabilities they have, not by the functions they are performing (Waltz, 1979, p. 93). Actors are defined to be rational and interact in a system of self-help. With regards to the third criteria, the distribution of capabilities, one can understand the distribution of capabilities in terms of the distribution of power. Waltz outlines that “States, because they are in a self-help system, have to use their combined capabilities in order to serve their interests. The economic, military, and other capabilities of nations cannot be sectored and separately weighed. [...]. Their rank depends on how they score on all of the following items: size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence.” (Waltz, 1979, p. 131). Having outlined the main points of Waltz systemic theory, one question has to be raised: what is the main empirical finding that one can deviate from the deployment of Popperian philosophy and a deductive theory based on a very simplistic model? According to Kenneth Waltz, it is the theory of Balance of Power. Waltz argues that the theory of balance of power might be the only distinct theory in international politics (Waltz, 1979, p. 117). He defines balance of power theory as a theory that displays the results that have been produced by the uncoordinated actions of states (Waltz, 1979, p. 122). Waltz states that within the theory of balance of power, due to the ordering principle of anarchy, states are mostly concerned with survival and security within the system; thus, a balance of power is created. Within the system of balance of power, states now tend to join the weaker alliance: firstly, because “[...] it is the stronger side that threatens them” (Waltz, 1979, p. 127) and secondly because joining a weaker alliance leaves states in turn with more relative gains, which are, according to Waltz, more important than absolute gains (Waltz, 1979, p. 198).

Keohane’s deployment of Lakatosian philosophy

In Chapter 7 of his book structural Realism and its critics (1977), Robert Keohane presents a detailed analysis of Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism in the light of the Lakatosian scientific research programme and argues that “[the concept of Lakatos] has the great merit of providing clear and sensible criteria for the evaluation of scientific traditions, and asking penetrating questions that states that the theory of structural realism should rather be considered a component “for a thoroughly analysis of action, by states or non-state actors, in world politics” (Keohane, 1986, p. 193). He explains the omissions that have been made by Kenneth Waltz lead to a very limited understanding of international politics and demonstrates the degenerative characteristics of neorealism based on the theory of balance of power by Waltz, the game-theory developed by Glenn Snyder and Gilpin’s work War and Change. Keohane outlines that these three works are chosen “to provide US with one systematic attempt to develop structural Realist theory, one study of bargaining in specific cases, and one effort to understand broad patterns of international change” (Keohane, 1986, p. 171). In his analysis, he points out about several mistakes that have been made within that theory. According to him, Kenneth Waltz has established such a general theory that it is impossible to test this theory; Waltz exempts his balance of power theory from being empirically tested and suggests that confirmation of his theory should be sought through observation. Here, Waltz clearly violates the Popperian and his own approach, namely the approach of deduction. Further, Waltz does not apply his theory to a universe of cases but only picks a few cases, which are in line with his balance of power and “international practice” assumptions. Again, he violates the Popperian approach to science. Keohane’s argumentation is supported by Richard Ashley. In his article, Ashley also argues that the theory on neorealism does not comply with Popperian standards of science. He states that “despite [...] emphasis on the role of hard falsifying tests as the measure of theoretical progress, neorealism immunizes its statist commitment from any form of falsification” (Ashley, 1984, p. 239). Keohane underpins his assumption of the degenerative character of neorealism by pointing out that within the balance of power theory the assumption of states maximizing their power is in line with the Realist argument about states interest. He states that both realist and neorealist make a logical error about the power assumption and shortly after concludes that Waltz has only restated realist assumptions and thus does not contribute to the development of any novelties. Thus, structural realism has to be regarded degenerative. The second work, Keohane uses to demonstrate the general degenerative characteristics of overall structural realism is game theory by Snyder and Diesing. Snyder and Diesing determine that the main assumptions of neorealism are insufficient and recognize that various forces have to be taken into account. Keohane thus concludes that the neorealist assumptions may be fruitful but do not lead to new findings (Keohane, 1986, p. 177). Again, Keohane demonstrates the degenerative character of neorealism. In his last example, Keohane analyses the work by Gilpin and outlines how little neorealism can contribute to understand world affairs (Keohane, 1986, p. 180). Next to the works of the three above-mentioned scholars, Keohane also uses the inappropriate use of auxiliary hypotheses to validate neorealism’s degeneration. He outlines that, according to Lakatosian science, it is allowed to create auxiliary hypotheses to rescue a theory from being rejected. However, these hypotheses have to be progressive and thus produce novelties. Keohane focuses on the example of power fungibility within neorealism. In order to protect the power fungibility assumption, neorealist would create the auxiliary hypotheses However, when applying these auxiliary hypotheses, one can see that the hypotheses do not produce any novelties but rather try to explain certain facts (Keohane, 1986, p. 187).


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Does Keohane's deployment of Lakatosian philosophy of science give Neoliberalism a decisive advantage over Waltzes' Popperian position deployed in the Theory of International Politics?
University of Kent  (School of Politics and International Relations)
IR Theory
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ISBN (Book)
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Neoliberalism, Neorealism, Waltz, Keohane, Popper, Lakatos, IR, IR Theory, IB, Theorien
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Victoria Sophie Crede (Author), 2017, Does Keohane's deployment of Lakatosian philosophy of science give Neoliberalism a decisive advantage over Waltzes' Popperian position deployed in the Theory of International Politics?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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