Stephen Hobden
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The limits to knowledge
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All critical theories raise epistemological questions; what is the basis of the claims that we make about the world? This chapter examines what three critical approaches (Critical Theory, Post-Structuralism and Complexity Thinking) have contributed to epistemological debates and how these perspectives have been construed in International Relations. For the ‘first generation’ Frankfurt School writers theory and practices of knowledge production could be considered to be historically and geographically specific. This is not to deny the possibility of making truth claims, but rather to say that these are context dependent. In their most famous work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno analysed the considerable constraints that are implied by living in a totally reified world. The pessimistic implications of that work led subsequent Frankfurt School writers to investigate alternative ways that an operationalization form of truth may be achieved, and the chapter assesses Habermas’ communicative action theory, which has been particularly influential in International Relations theory. For poststructuralist writers the question is not so much about knowledge, but more about how certain ‘truths’ come to be established as such. For complexity thinkers access to knowledge is made difficult by the multiple elements that can have an impact on an event, and the non-linear relationships between them. While we might be able to analyse how events came about, if the gold standard for knowledge production is the ability to predict the future then complexity thinking raises significant issues.

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Critical theory and international relations

Knowledge, power and practice

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