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Conventional Realism and Political Inquiry

Channeling Wittgenstein

When social scientists and social theorists turn to the work of philosophers for intellectual and practical authority, they typically assume that truth, reality, and meaning are to be found outside rather than within our conventional discursive practices.

John G. Gunnell argues for conventional realism as a theory of social phenomena and an approach to the study of politics. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s critique of “mentalism” and traditional realism, Gunnell argues that everything we designate as “real” is rendered conventionally, which entails a rejection of the widely accepted distinction between what is natural and what is conventional. The terms “reality” and “world” have no meaning outside the contexts of specific claims and assumptions about what exists and how it behaves. And rather than a mysterious source and repository of prelinguistic meaning, the “mind” is simply our linguistic capacities. Taking readers through contemporary forms of mentalism and realism in both philosophy and American political science and theory, Gunnell also analyzes the philosophical challenges to these positions mounted by Wittgenstein and those who can be construed as his successors.

208 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Philosophy: Logic and Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Society

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


"This book exploration of the relationship between social science and philosophy, but, more specifically, ... focuses on the impact of representational philosophy on the discipline of political science as well as on social inquiry in general."

Blog of the APA

"The reading of Wittgenstein’s writings is contentious, but close, detailed, and substantial."

The Review of Politics

"This text will surely attract established and budding scholars of political science, political theory, and philosophy. . . . Highly recommended."


"Conventional Realism and Political Inquiry is a serious and important book. For those not up to speed with contemporary analytic philosophy, it provides generally excellent if necessarily abbreviated accounts (not summaries) and cogent critiques of major analytical thinkers. Gunnell forcefully advances an account of how philosophers and social scientists should think about their business."

The Review of Metaphysics

“One of the most distinguished analysts of American political science provides a fresh, powerful, and coherent [book].”

Perspectives on Politics

“Gunnell ultimately contributes to Wittgensteinian scholarship by reinforcing its significance to social sciences and will hopefully stimulate the emergence of new critical literature in the field of political studies.”


"Gunnel ultimately contributes to Wittgensteinian scholarship by reinforcing its significance to social science and will hopefully stimulatethe emergence of new critical literature on the field of political studies."


Table of Contents


1              Representational Philosophy and Conventional Realism
2              Mentalism and the Problem of Concepts
3              The Realistic Imagination in Political Inquiry: The Case of International Relations
4              The Challenge to Representational Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Austin
5              Contemporary Anti-representationalism: Sellars, Davidson, Putnam, McDowell, and Dennett
6              Presentation and Representation in Social Inquiry
7              Conventional Realism
8              The Quest for the Real and the Fear of Relativism


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