the vagaries of studying the state

Bartleson, in The Critique of the State, makes a great point about the current state of state theory. One camp, which we’ll call the contextual historians, views the state as something “essentially relative, historically variable, and contextual.” Hence, there is no such thing as “the state” but there are states operating in historic relief and we can observe them. Another camp, which we’ll call abstract philosophers, views the state as something of an object or a thing, and thus ontologize the state to be more of a “transcendental [idea] … with invariable content.”

That established, one of the foundational problems in state theory has to do with criticisms between these perspectives. Scholars, such as Bevir in The Logic of History of Ideas, have attempted to reconcile these seemingly incommensurate, if not opposing approaches to the state. However, and this is crucial, it does us no good. We cannot criticize historians for their committment to historical contingency any more than you can criticize philosophers for their committment to abstract systematizations. Without a committment to contexutality, historians would not be historians. Without a committment to abstract systematizations, philosophers would not longer be philosophers.These camps are at loggerheads.

The solution, Jens claims, is conceptual autonomy from the vantage point of logical constructivism. Here’s why: in principle, we cannot assume the stability and coherence of the state (theoretically and ontologically) in research when the stability and coherence of the state (theoretically and ontologically) are what are in question. Next, even if we could get past that, standards of stability and coherence “do indeed vary across time and context by virtue of the simple fact that they themselves are conceptual in chatacter” too, and hence we would need the tools of logical constructivism to uncover these conceptual shifts as well (even if we did assume the state into existance). Lastly, by selecting conceptual autonomy as a tool, Jens is essentially agreeing with the abstract philosophers that the state is unquestionably foundational to political discourse, because only conceptual autonomy puts the analyst in a position verify if the state concept is unquestionably foundational to political discourse because its conceptual stability and coherence are precisely what he intends to examine.

The state (or the state hypothesis) is an assumption from one perspective, and an open empirical question from another.

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This entry was posted in STS, Uncategorized and tagged by Nicholas. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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