The hardest service
: Conceptions of truth in critical international thought

  • Matthew Fluck

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Some three decades ago, post-positivists working in International Relations rejected the positivist separation of the knowing subject and the object known. In doing so, they established a new ‘critical’ paradigm in which truth has been understood primarily in terms of social and political practices and norms rather than the Archimedean detachment of the scientist. This new paradigm is typically thought to have brought a new theoretical pluralism to IR. However, focusing on the work of Critical Theorists and poststructuralists, this thesis shows that the work of post-positivist IR scholars has in fact been defined by responses to a specific set of questions which emerge from the ‘socialisation’ of truth. It demonstrates, moreover, that both Critical IR Theorists and poststructuralists have addressed these questions by understanding truth as a matter of intersubjective epistemic practices and idealisations about the conditions in which they take place.

This ‘epistemic’ understanding of truth is the source of significant problems for Critical Theorists and poststructuralists in IR, especially in their accounts of political practice and proposals for international political transformation. The thesis considers whether the work of Critical Realists in IR, who have advocated the scientific pursuit of objective truth, might offer a solution. However, whilst they rightly reintroduce the subject-object relationship to critical IR, Critical Realists lapse into a scientism as a result of which they reject legitimate post-positivist claims about the inherent normativity and practicality of truth. The thesis introduces Theodor Adorno’s materialist theory of truth as a way of combining post-positivists’ normative concerns with the realists’ emphasis on the subject-object relationship. On this view, truth is a matter of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity because it is matter of the needs and practices of partly objective human subjects. It is, therefore, both objective and normative.
Date of Award05 Oct 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorHidemi Suganami (Supervisor) & Howard Williams (Supervisor)


  • positivism
  • Platonism
  • Habermasian critical theory

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