International Relations

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International Relations

Past Masters and Modern Inventions: Intellectual History as Critical Theory Darshan Vigneswaran and Joel Quirk International Relations 2010 24: 107 DOI: 10.1177/0047117809366192 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Past Masters and Modern Inventions: Intellectual History as Critical Theory Darshan Vigneswaran and Joel Quirk

Abstract In this article, we explore the relationship between past and present international relations (IR) scholarship, paying particular attention to the way in which various representations, interpretations and classifications of past works can collectively influence how modern scholars ask and answer questions. This serves two main purposes. On the one hand, we seek to contribute to a growing literature interrogating misleading and simplistic depictions of past authors and eras. On the other, we explore how the history of ideas can be utilized as a critical resource, which offers a compelling platform from which to refine and re-evaluate prevailing notions of the purposes of intellectual inquiry. Keywords: critical theory, historiography, history of ideas, international history, international relations theory, traditions of thought

The academic discipline of international relations (IR) is a modern invention. Its historical development has been characterized by four overlapping dynamics: (i) the emergence of a distinctive intellectual identity; (ii) the development of an academic infrastructure that both reflects and further reinforces this identity; (iii) the accumulation of works that consciously seek to contribute to a bounded realm of intellectual and theoretical inquiry; and (iv) the retroactive application of both intellectual identity and bounded realm to past authors and eras. This final theme has played an integral role in shaping prevailing notions of the nature and purpose of IR scholarship. In this article we explore the relationship between past and present endeavours, paying particular attention to the way in which various representations, interpretations and classifications of past works can collectively influence how modern scholars ask and answer questions. This serves two main goals. On the one hand, we seek to contribute to a growing literature interrogating misleading and simplistic depictions of past authors and eras. On the other, we explore how the history of ideas can be used as a critical resource, which offers a compelling platform from which to refine and reevaluate modern notions of the purposes of intellectual inquiry. These two goals are closely connected. When scholars propel recent models of inquiry backwards in time, their own theoretical and methodological commitments can take on the imprimatur of ‘standard operating procedures’, which build upon a long line of equivalent endeavours. Instead of appearing as a contingent product requiring systematic reflection and ongoing revision, the underlying purpose of IR scholarship can appear as a takenfor-granted, ahistorical assumption.

© The Author(s), 2010. Reprints and permissions: Vol 24(2): 107–131 [DOI: 10.1177/0047117809366192]



By emphasizing the role that different models of scholarship play in defining the purposes of intellectual endeavour, this article seeks to highlight a crucial dimension of historical inquiry that has tended to be discussed in implicit, rather than explicit terms. To make sense of this dynamic, we identify three essential ingredients which need to be taken into account when it comes to the history of ideas. These are (i) content, which refers to the substance of a given text, (ii) context, which refers to the distinctive milieu within which a given text is produced, and (iii) criteria, which refers to the normative aspirations and procedural standards around which a given text is formulated. The concept of ‘criteria’ is the most novel component of this trio. While there is now a fairly extensive literature challenging various ‘IR’ traditions, much of this literature continues to give pride of place to questions of textual content and theoretical allegiance, downplaying deeper questions about the terms on which past works tend to be evaluated. On this front, it is entirely possible to question the attribution of a realist persona to scholars such Thucydides or Thomas Hobbes, yet still accept competition between theoretical paradigms as a definitive evaluative standard. By establishing issues of context and criteria as core concerns, we seek to move away from the idea that authors from different eras can be analysed and codified according to universal benchmarks, and thereby bring into focus an intellectual landscape populated by many different models. This article is organized into four sections. In the first section we examine the various contributions of historical inquiry to modern theoretical debates. This serves to introduce both the main problems associated with retroactive attribution and IR essentialism, and the main contours of our tripartite division between content, context and criteria. These core themes are developed in greater depth in subsequent sections. In the second and third sections we argue that misleading caricatures of past works tend to be (re)produced in two quite different settings. On the one hand, we have modern IR scholarship that focuses on intellectual history, where the search for ‘enduring essences’ has played a decisive role in structuring the terms of debate. On the other hand, we have modern IR scholarship that is chiefly concerned with other issues, yet nonetheless offers cursory treatments of aspects of the history of ideas in order to introduce and/or advance a range of contemporary concerns. This use of intellectual history as a contemporary addendum is not always reducible to strategic interests, or conspiratorial agendas, but can also reflect less instrumental activities based upon little more than casual generalizations, the uncritical reproduction and reification of established conventions, and a lack of interest or expertise in particular historical issues. In the final section of the article we examine a number of recent contributions to an expanding critical literature, further developing our case for placing questions of intellectual criteria alongside more familiar questions of textual content and historical context.

International history, intellectual history and contemporary theory At an institutional level, the fortunes of academic IR are currently at a historic high. Student numbers, professional membership, published output and public interest have



all experienced sustained and often rapid growth in recent times. At an intellectual level, the picture remains less straightforward, with prominent commentators consistently expressing frustration at the inability of IR scholarship to live up to its considerable potential, achieve a degree of consensus over key issues, or do more than somewhat belatedly echo developments in related disciplines.1 One of the main points at issue here has been the ongoing proliferation of approaches and subfields, which have led to an increasingly fragmented discipline where many scholars operate within narrow enclaves, either routinely ignoring or reflexively dismissing works from different theoretical and methodological perspectives. In this fractious intellectual environment, historical inquiry has acquired increasing prominence, leading to discussion of a ‘historical turn’.2 In keeping with larger trends, the main point at issue has not been historical analysis per se, but the larger relationship between both international and intellectual history and modern theoretical debates. For most IR scholars, historical inquiry is not simply an end in itself. Instead, history most commonly serves as a strategic platform for competing efforts to advance contemporary agendas.3 Many approaches have been employed here, making it difficult to speak of anything more than general tendencies. Framed in philosophical terms, the relationship between past and present frequently boils down to questions of continuity and change. For some theorists, history is best understood as a realm of recurrence and repetition. By exploring enduring patterns, orientations and ideas, they seek to draw instructive parallels between the historical and contemporary. For other theorists, history is best understood as a realm of variation and transformation. By exploring ruptures and fundamental differences, they seek to demonstrate that aspects of the prevailing status quo that we otherwise take for granted are better seen as contingent and often idiosyncratic products of a long-term process of transformation.4 In this second perspective, historical inquiry serves an inherently critical role. Instead of viewing current activities as an extension of recurring axioms, essential differences between past and present are invoked to reveal the contingency of prevailing conventions, thereby calling into question their legitimacy and longevity. This impulse extends to the study of both international and intellectual history. In the case of the former, the main point at issue has been the origin, operation and future trajectory of the modern state system. In the case of the latter, the main point at issue has been the origin, operation and future trajectory of dominant theories of international relations. Despite differences in subject matter, both axes of inquiry are organized around a shared critique of ahistorical approaches and attitudes which project modern innovations backwards through time, thereby falsely elevating relatively recent structures and orientations to the status of enduring historical essences. This line of argument is most developed in IR circles when it comes to international history. On this front, we turn to John Hobson, who distinguishes between two distinct modes of ahistoricism prevalent in ‘mainstream’ IR scholarship. One mode is explicitly concerned with the reification of the contemporary state system. It works by sealing off this historical moment from its origins and evolution, ‘such that it appears as an autonomous, natural, spontaneous and immutable entity’.



The second mode is more explicitly concerned with the retroactive projection of modern categories upon the past. This involves the extrapolation of a ‘naturalized’ present ‘backwards through time such that discontinuous ruptures and differences between historical epochs and states systems are smoothed over and consequentially obscured’.5 Hobson labels this mode of ahistoricism ‘tempocentrism’, but instead of this rather clunky neologism we feel that it is more appropriate to use the more familiar concept of ‘presentism’, which covers much the same ground.6 Hobson’s argument was generated in reaction to 1980s and 1990s debates amongst IR theorists, which saw various scholars utilize the underlying essentialism of leading figures such as Kenneth Waltz and Robert Gilpin as critical foils. It is clear, moreover, that similar ideas and arguments can be found in a number of settings. For some time now, scholars from different disciplines have been exploring various aspects of the far-reaching relationship between history and social science(s). These reflections have occurred on both a disciplinary level, where the main point at issue has been the relationship between professional historians and other disciplines, and at a theoretical and methodological level, where the main point at issue has been the extent to which social scientific methods and related attempts to formulate universal models have unduly compromised the way in which historical events have been conceptualized and represented. The latter half of this equation has sometimes been framed in terms of a trade-off between parsimony and complexity, or the general and the particular, where many key historical events are said to have been severely diluted/distorted by the demands of theoretical simplification and paradigmatic competition.7 This line of argument is not without merit, but there is also a case to be made that at least some shortcomings and distortions stem from failures of implementation and execution, rather than fundamental incompatibility. While there is no doubt that different perspectives, methods and institutional incentives have regularly pulled scholars in different directions, there have also recently been a number of examples of mutually beneficial engagement and theoretical innovation, with scholars from various backgrounds taking up the challenge of effectively combining theory and history.8 This trend has been primarily advanced by scholars from political science and sociology backgrounds. While some movement has also occurred in IR circles, the main focus here has been international history, rather than intellectual history.9 This is somewhat unfortunate. As we have seen, the search for universal essences has not been confined to the study of historical practices, but has also been a defining feature of the way in which IR scholars have approached the history of ideas, with various eminent figures being routinely represented as exemplars of timeless ideas, or eternal conversations. On this front, it is necessary to begin with the observation that intellectual inquiry into international relations was not consistently differentiated from the study of law, philosophy, politics, history, economics and/or religion until the twentieth century.10 A key component in the development of this modern invention has been a cumulative, retroactive effort to forge genealogical links with earlier intellectual figures. The selection and representation of these theoretical ancestors have frequently owed a great deal to the conventions of political philosophy, sustaining several cottage



industries devoted to already familiar figures while other contributions languish in relative obscurity.11 This cumulative project can be divided along a number of axes, starting with efforts to group historical figures under modern theoretical flags. This invention of great ‘IR’ traditions has usually taken place alongside the retroactive attribution of recent methodological innovations to various authors and eras. As we shall see, this is most commonly expressed in the reconfiguration of past works in terms of modern conceptions of paradigmatic competition, theoretical allegiance and parsimonious explanation. Following Hobson and others, we contend that this reification of methods and monikers popular in our own time is highly problematic, since it promotes a ‘naturalized’ vision of the present, obscuring fundamental questions of difference and divergence.12 It is here that we turn to the aforementioned division between content, context and criteria, which is designed as both a tool for critique and an analytical template for future research. The most straightforward part of this equation is content, which refers to all forms of written material composed by various historical figures. These materials usually represent the most accessible and authoritative legacy of the ideas and arguments of specific authors, but they nonetheless remain subject to a series of interpretative challenges. These challenges begin with questions arising from translation issues, incomplete or missing material, self-censorship and other historical silences, and ultimately extend to differences of opinion over the interpretation of particular passages, or the identification of defining arguments. In this environment, the main attraction of ahistorical essentialism is its value as a simplifying device. Instead of directly confronting issues of complexity and contingency, ahistorical essentialism tends to dilute difficult interpretative questions by reducing the content of particular texts to (imperfect) reflections of eternal conversations and timeless ideas. Once this initial step has been taken, it is easy to smuggle in a range of presentist assumptions, as formal gestures towards ‘universality’ provide a cloak for presentist concepts and categorizations.13 As we have seen, this approach has been subjected to a number of lines of critique. From this vantage point, the issue of context can be viewed as a key point of departure in now longstanding debates over the most effective means of interrogating textual content. These debates have not been limited to differences of opinion over the meaning of specific texts (disputes of this nature can also occur amongst exponents of trans-historical essentialism), but also extend to underlying questions about the methods which should be employed to analyse past works and various intellectual trends.14 It is here that questions of context have emerged as a central concern, as scholars have sought to situate various works alongside parallel historical and intellectual developments, instead of retroactively imposing modern pedigrees. In its most general form, context serves as an umbrella term which incorporates ‘real world’ events such as major wars or ideological movements; structural characteristics such as prevailing modes of political and religious organization; personal circumstances such as upbringing and identity; and more idiosyncratic intellectual trends. Questions of context are easy to talk about but hard to successfully operationalize. This is partly an issue of specification, as it can be difficult to determine which of any



number of contextual factors influence written content. It is also partly an issue of execution, since sophisticated contextual analysis, of the sort pioneered by scholars such as Quentin Skinner and John Pocock, requires both specialized knowledge and painstaking research.15 Not all scholars have been to able live up to these challenges. Especially problematic here is the widespread practice of treating historical events as a functional determinant of intellectual activity. On this front, an influential argument comes from Brian Schmidt, who has taken issue with histories which treat external, ‘real world’ influences as ‘an independent variable that explains the character of the field at a specific historical juncture’.16 For Schmidt, this problem is chiefly in evidence when it comes to the twentieth century, as potted histories of the IR discipline have routinely framed external events, such as the Great War, as decisive influences upon parallel developments within the academy. Cataloguing many examples of dubious claims, Schmidt concludes that ‘sweeping contextual generalizations … do not adequately account for many of the subtle details in the field’s history’.17 This does not necessarily amount to a case against contextual analysis per se, since it is also possible to point to other more sophisticated examples of such an approach, but it does strongly suggest that many attempts to engage with contextual questions within IR have been poorly executed. This snapshot serves to delineate context as a basic ingredient in the study of the history of ideas. It is not our intention to enter into ongoing debates over different approaches to contextual analysis. Our primary interest here is not so much context, for which there is already a substantial literature available, but criteria. In its most basic form, the concept of criteria seeks to engage with questions of intellectual purpose, giving pride of place to the diverse array of procedural standards and normative aspirations around which forms of textual content have come to be formulated and evaluated. From a procedural standpoint, some of the main issues here are (i) appeals to authority, such as scriptural sources, historical precedents, corroboration from past masters, natural law and empirical verification; (ii) types of arguments, such as divine interpretation, Socratic dialogues, enlightened reason and historical dialectics; and (iii) forms of authentication, such as scriptural revelation, historical analysis, empirical observation and logical inference. When it comes to normative aspirations, all writers will invariably seek to persuade their audience of the merits of their favoured positions, but these positions can range from justifying standards of ethical conduct or idealized models of political and religious authority, to offering strategic guidance and empirical analysis. Acknowledging the importance of criteria as an ingredient of historiographical study involves more than accepting that there has been historical change in the standards employed to formulate and evaluate textual content; it also constitutes a partial response to the problem of specification outlined above: an answer to the question ‘what context matters most?’ While this perspective does not discount the causal influence of broader contextual factors upon the constitution and transformation of the history of ideas, it nonetheless seeks to assign particular weight to historical variations in the criteria against which intellectual inquiries have been formulated and evaluated.



Rather than evaluating textual content according to a singular, presentist standard, where every author is tacitly assumed to be engaged in the same essential exercise, we are instead faced with an intellectual landscape populated by many distinctive models. This not only gives pride of place to different conceptions of intellectual purpose, it also serves as a necessary corrective to the retroactive application of contemporary categories and concepts. The key issue here is the detachment of content from criteria, which typically begins with a tacit assumption that past works should be evaluated according to the same overarching standards as contemporary scholarship. Three main issues can be highlighted here: (i) the attribution of a modern ‘IR’ identity; (ii) the separation of empirical explanation from normative argument; and (iii) the attribution of recent methodological orientations to authors who composed their works according to quite different procedural and purposive standards. A good illustration of these impulses can be found in Kenneth Waltz’s (amongst others) depiction of the ‘Hobson–Lenin’ theory of imperialism. This theory is said to be ‘elegant and powerful. Simply stated and incorporating only a few elements’, as the age of high imperialism is traced to ‘the push that originates in underconsumption at home combined with the pull provided by the lure of higher profits through investment abroad’.18 This popular formula is an egregious distortion of both content and criteria (questions of context are largely absent). It not only involves an awkward amalgam of the eclectic, multi-causal Hobson and the more single-minded Lenin (chiefly at Hobson’s expense), it also requires their works to be evaluated according to intellectual criteria based on recent models of parsimony, value-neutral explanation and theoretical competition. With this retroactive move, two very different political activists are reconfigured as value-neutral social scientists, thereby downplaying or otherwise disregarding a vital link between empirical explanation and normative argument in the works of both. Neither Hobson nor Lenin were dispassionate social scientists seeking to identify a singular variable that would account for recent imperial expansion, but were instead public figures whose prolific works would explicitly integrate empirical, praxeological and normative agendas. The troika of content, context and criteria is not confined to the strategies used to analyse and codify specific authors, but also extends to larger forms of macrohistorical comparison and evaluation. On this key point, it can be useful to distinguish two quite different facets of intellectual history.19 On the one hand, we have familiar questions concerning the interpretation of specific authors. These questions tend to concentrate on discrete episodes in the past, such as the representation of specific authors, or the defining features of a specific intellectual milieu. On the other hand, we have broader questions regarding the terms on which the contributions of authors from very different eras can be most effectively brought together under a common rubric. This once again brings us back to aforementioned debates over continuity and change, and the underlying relationship between the general and the particular. Most presentist claims and characterizations start with the assumption/notion of an underlying continuity between past and present, paving the way for textual content to be abstracted from the distinctive context and criteria around which it was formulated. Within this basic template, authors from very different points in history tend to be



assessed according to a common set of trans-historical standards and theoretical pigeonholes. When context and criteria are added into the mix as core objects of inquiry, this type of macro-historical comparison takes on quite a different flavour. Instead of focusing upon (and unduly accentuating) underlying similarities, the key issues become questions of variation and transformation. By directing our attention to the ways in which different peoples at different times have thought and acted in different ways, the analysis of context and criteria also invites us to reconsider aspects of our own times that otherwise appear natural, or normal. This discussion is more illustrative than exhaustive, but it does point in some important directions. As we shall see below, the last two decades have seen a growing number of critical voices questioning popular treatments of a variety of authors and eras. The main issue here has been textual content, leading to charges that IR orthodoxy regularly (re)produces misleading and overly simplistic treatments of the relevant works and theoretical allegiances of various past masters. While contextual issues have also regularly figured in these debates, at least at a rhetorical level (applied examples being less common), the types of questions we have brought together under the concept of criteria have tended to be discussed in implicit terms, rather than treated as a core component of historical inquiry.20 When critiques of disciplinary conventions and presentist schemes narrowly focus on the interpretation of textual content, they can leave the task of critical historiography half-finished, or simply end up substituting one presentist scheme for another. While content will always be an indispensible starting point, the key question is not simply whether the content of specific works is consistent with IR orthodoxy, but also whether the intellectual criteria employed to evaluate particular works are accurate and appropriate. As we have seen, this emphasis on the core contribution of different models of intellectual endeavour not only helps to refine our understanding of intellectual history, it also serves to underscore the transient nature of current models of scholarship. It is here that the critical capacity of historical inquiry can be especially valuable, as the careful evaluation and delineation of various intellectual models also provides a compelling platform from which to re-evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of modern conventions. On this front, it is important to emphasize that current IR scholars are regularly subject to similar contextual influences, yet nonetheless structure their work around diverse criteria. This has been a key source of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, with scholars of various persuasions imposing their preferred standards upon works that have been formulated according to quite different models. While a greater appreciation of the role of criteria in structuring individual works would clearly be very useful here, this does not necessarily mean that we should adopt a pluralistic, ‘live and let live’ approach. Faced with a balkanized intellectual environment where many different criteria are currently in operation, historical inquiries can play a vital role in helping to determine the most effective normative goals and procedural standards around which modern IR scholarship should ideally be formulated and evaluated. The main thrust of this line of argument is developed further in the final section of this paper. Before reaching that stage, it is first necessary to examine in greater detail



the characteristics and consequences of retroactive attribution and IR essentialism exemplified in our brief discussion of Waltz, Hobson and Lenin. To this end, the following analysis argues that the practices and problems identified above are found in two quite different settings. In the next section, we examine IR scholarship that is specifically devoted to various aspects of the history of ideas. Following this discussion, we go on to examine scholarship that is chiefly concerned with other issues, yet nonetheless offers cursory treatments of the history of ideas in order to legitimize other agendas. While the first of these settings has consistently attracted the lion’s share of critical commentary, the role of the second can often be equally problematic, especially when it comes to the reproduction and consolidation of dubious historical narratives.

The invention of an ‘IR’ tradition The first step in the invention of an IR tradition revolves around the construction of the ‘international’ as a bounded realm of intellectual inquiry. On this front, a useful point of departure is provided by Fred Halliday, who observes that ‘the social sciences taught in the universities of today claim to correspond to objects of study that exist objectively in the outside world’.21 Taken to its logical conclusion, this formula effectively suggests that the international realm has always been a bounded analytical object, and that scholars have always understood it in these overarching terms. In some ways, this is a useful fiction which helps to bolster the integrity of a discipline that sits at the crossroads of more established academic peers. However, problems arise when this formula becomes an embedded component of the manner in which we interpret past works. Several issues can be highlighted here. The first concerns the difficulties involved in sustaining the ‘international’ as a bounded analytical object, which is not as straightforward as it might appear, since the historical demarcation between the international and domestic has rarely been clear-cut. The most familiar example here is medieval Europe, where scholars have documented a heteronomous order of crosscutting jurisdictions and various forms of functional differentiation,22 but in a world where sovereign territoriality is a recent innovation, this central inside/outside dichotomy grossly misrepresents political relations in many historical communities. It is not easy to point to a history of sustained, systematic (let alone self-conscious) reflection on international relations as a bounded object of intellectual inquiry. While there is no shortage of at least somewhat relevant materials, these scattered contributions tend to be organized on very different terms to modern IR scholarship. This can be partially attributed to the structural variations identified above. It is, for instance, relatively difficult to identify a clear demarcation between the international and domestic in the works of luminaries such as Thucydides, Niccolò Machiavelli or Hugo Grotius. It is also no coincidence that Roman and medieval figures have figured less prominently in modern debates (outside just-war theory), since both their historical circumstances and intellectual contributions are substantially removed from more familiar models. It is perhaps due to these uncomfortable truths that modern IR scholars commonly make a 2000-year jump from Thucydides (or the Greek



city-states) to Machiavelli (or the Italian city-states), with little discussion of intervening developments. This is symptomatic of a larger trend, which has seen modern IR scholars consistently focus upon historical state systems which resemble (however vaguely and tangentially) the present sovereign territorial order, instead of confronting the vast swathes of human history where very different political models have prevailed. This challenge is further complicated by questions of the composition of past works, where scattered reflections on relations between political communities are found at the margins of projects that are primarily concerned with other topics, such as moral philosophy, theology, governance or law. In this context, it is important to distinguish between works with an international (or inter-polity) dimension, and works that consciously seek to contribute to a bounded realm of inquiry. These themes are routinely conflated, leaving selected elements of past works detached from their historical and intellectual milieu. One prominent example here is the work of Thomas Hobbes, whose canonical status as an IR realist can arguably be derived from a ‘handful of his striking phrases arbitrarily lifted out of a very carefully crafted and interdependent whole’.23 Like many past masters, Hobbes’s works contain only occasional (explicit) references to relations between political communities. His primary focus is on the organization and justification of political and religious authority.24 The search for enduring historical essences is not unique to academic IR. Until (at least) the 1970s it remained the favoured approach to the history of ideas in many related disciplines. It was during this period that many now entrenched IR conventions were first constructed. One notable example here is the work of Martin Wight. An influential figure, Wight would make two somewhat paradoxical contributions. On the one hand, he composed a famous 1966 article entitled ‘Why is there no international theory?’, which concluded that there was limited evidence of a sustained, first-rate tradition of inquiry into international relations, and that philosophers who might have been expected to contribute to such a tradition often had little to say on the subject.25 On the other, Wight achieved greater recognition by organizing international theory around enduring cleavages between three (or perhaps four) Traditions. This totalizing scheme retroactively divided the history of international thought into Realism, Rationalism and Revolutionism, whose adherents were conceived as partisan participants in trans-historical disputes over the essential character and potential prospects of various aspects of international life. Wight’s Traditions began life as a teaching tool, offering students a series of ideal types that were designed to help them navigate through the vagaries of intellectual history. His approach was also representative of other works from this period.26 On this front, Wight appears to have been more self-critical than some of his peers about the limitations of his scheme, observing that ‘the purpose of building pigeon-holes is to reassure oneself that the raw material does not fit into them. Classification becomes valuable, in humane studies, only at the point where it breaks down.’27 This brief passage introduces a welcome note of caution, but it also invites critical appraisal. Is it really the case, as Wight suggests, that the purpose of pigeon-holes is to reassure oneself that they don’t work?28 Surely other purposes, of equal or greater significance



were also involved? Even if we take this remark at face value, there is little to suggest that other exponents of this approach share Wight’s view. Contra Wight, we believe that the primary attraction of the enduring essences approach is that it introduces clear evaluative criteria which can be applied across a tremendous range of settings. Individual authors and eras may not always (if ever) neatly align with these trans-historical, presentist criteria, but the simple fact of their introduction tends to shift the terms of debate away from fundamental differences in historical context and intellectual environment, and instead concentrates discussion around the central relationship between past masters and modern inventions. This places questions of theoretical orientation and allegiance front and centre, often reducing the history of ideas to repetitive debates over whether particular authors can be legitimately placed within various analytical pigeon-holes. Over the years different scholars have framed their discussion around different ‘schools of thought’, and engaged in periodic debates over their respective parameters, but the tenor of most of these contributions has tended to consolidate, rather than problematize, the essential idea that past authors can be meaningfully described as participating in a timeless, inter-paradigmatic debate based upon shared intellectual criteria. As layers of modern commentary have been added over time, the semblance of an enduring, even ‘selfevident’ IR tradition has slowly grown ever stronger, relegating difficult questions about different types of intellectual purposes and historical environments to at best second- or third-order concerns. Many modern IR scholars have continued to use the enduring essences model. Some have (often briefly) defended their preferred approach against decades of critique.29 Others have followed in the wake of convention, bypassing more critical voices.30 One recent example of the latter variant comes from Michael Doyle, who organizes his influential intellectual history around enduring cleavages between realism, liberalism and socialism. Starting with the premise that ‘much of what they [canonical figures] argued for and about is timeless’,31 Doyle ends up reorganizing the entire history of ideas around categories and conventions entirely derived from modern IR theory. This involves exemplars of competing traditions (whose membership is largely taken for granted) being evaluated against a series of presentist standards, with ‘theorists’ being catalogued in terms of their views of Human Nature, Domestic Society and the Interstate System. This scheme tacitly reproduces modern notions of inside and outside, obscuring different models of political organization.32 While historical variations are by no means absent from Doyle’s work, their primary analytical function is to help evaluate where a given author should be situated within modern theoretical categories. When numerous works fail to align with these categories, Doyle’s main response is to catalogue inconsistencies and ‘deviations’, rather than rethink his retroactive standards. The internal logic of this approach is summarized by Beate Jahn, who observes that: insofar as intellectual or political discontinuities between a classical text and the modern world are noted, they are presented as developments or variations within the given framework rather than taken to question the applicability of the framework to the classical text.33



Another recent contribution that is framed in a similar fashion comes from Emmanuel Navon, who claims (among other things) that ‘the so-called “first debate” between idealists and realists in international relations is part of a broader and fundamental philosophical debate which has been dividing Western thinkers since the pre-Socratics until today’.34 By elevating concepts rooted in modern IR discourse to the status of enduring essences, Navon seeks to shed new light upon more recent theoretical disputes. His approach was recently subject to a piercing critique by Duncan Bell, who maintains that Navon’s ‘rudimentary survey of the history of philosophy serves to conceal more than it exposes; and the schematic, disembodied method he utilises is today widely regarded as obsolete’.35 This critique is not driven by new research, but instead synthesizes pre-existing arguments, demonstrating that Navon’s discussion of ‘great debates’ reproduces a narrative that critics had already concluded was a myth, and that his methodology reproduces an approach that had already been systematically called into question. While contrary positions were already available within the existing literature, they were effectively ignored, leaving an abstract ‘textualism’ that is methodologically incapable of coming to terms with the specific purposes and procedures that informed particular works. For Bell, these problems are not unique to Navon’s work, but are also symptomatic of larger trends. Several key points follow from this snapshot of recent historiography. First, we have the nexus between the invention of an ‘IR’ tradition and trans-historical essentialism, which has seen the projection of a modern disciplinary identity backwards through time, thereby ‘smoothing over’ discontinuous ruptures and differences between authors and eras. This has not only compromised our understanding of the past, it has also unduly constrained our contemporary horizons, elevating retroactive constructs to the status of enduring historical essences. Second, we have a series of influential precedents based upon what Bell describes as now ‘obsolete’ methods, of which Wight’s scheme is arguably the most familiar (and perhaps most reflexive) example. These precedents continue to cast a long shadow, generating classificatory schemes and historical approaches which many subsequent scholars have both followed and further refined. With the passage of time, difficult methodological and interpretive questions have been largely overshadowed by the cumulative weight of retroactive commentary written from a modern IR perspective. While the volume and quality of work on the history of ideas has gradually improved in recent times, both orthodox and more critical viewpoints tend to be structured around a series of common reference points that were first introduced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Intellectual history as a contemporary addendum The tendency of authors who are self-consciously engaged in the study of intellectual history to downplay or disregard questions of criteria has been further reinforced by presentist tendencies amongst scholars with limited knowledge of the history of ideas. On this front, the casual use of the history of ideas as a contemporary theoretical addendum has been a key component in the (re)production of simplistic and misleading images of the past. The underlying logic is simple, yet profoundly important.



Scholars who are chiefly concerned with other issues and agendas turn to intellectual history as a useful way of introducing, defending and/or legitimating contemporary theoretical projects. Since their main interests (and perhaps expertise) lie elsewhere, they give limited consideration to the past authors and eras concerned, or the underlying methodological issues involved in historical inquiry. This has regularly translated into simplistic and misleading depictions of past works, which can (at least initially) escape critical appraisal because they appear at the margins of projects that are primarily concerned with other issues. However, large numbers of casual allusions can have important cumulative effects, ultimately contributing to a body of received wisdom that strongly informs how specific topics are conceptualized and discussed.36 This underlying dynamic does not only result in the introduction of dubious and misleading narratives. It also plays a key role in their reproduction. Cursory references to past events are generally more effective (i.e. more readily accepted) when they align with prevailing orthodoxy. Readers may not always take particular claims at face value, but they will at least recognize that they are rooted in established positions. From here, simplistic and misleading images of the past can be sustained/reinforced by little more than convention and casual repetition. One prominent example of this dynamic is provided by Robert Gilpin’s defence of ‘The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism’ in the 1980s, which formed part of an important exchange with Richard Ashley.37 Responding to Ashley’s polemical charge that neo-realists have ‘betrayed’ the intellectual heritage of their ‘classical’ forebears, Gilpin contends that more recent innovations mark an extension of an enduring philosophical disposition, which can be identified with scholars such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, Carr and Morgenthau. This lineage is not entirely unfounded or indefensible, but in stressing continuity Gilpin inevitably ends up downplaying key differences between authors and eras. Especially relevant here is his discussion of science, as Thucydides becomes the first ‘scientific historian’, Machiavelli the ‘first true political scientist’, and Carr an exponent of ‘a science of international relations’.38 Each author is said to combine intuitive and scientific elements, but in stressing the scientific side of the equation, Gilpin establishes a set of unsustainable parallels. Thucydides may well have been ‘scientific’, in the sense that he eschewed divine elements found in Herodotus, but this remains a long way from positivist methodologies. Carr may well have called for a science of international politics, but it was a ‘science not only of what is, but of what ought to be’,39 a stance at odds with behavioural models. This does not mean that the realist label is entirely illegitimate, as this largely depends on one’s definition, but it should not be allowed to obscure the profound novelty of the methodological criteria IR scholars now employ, or the theoretical standards to which they aspire. A second point of departure is provided by Jeffrey Legro and Andrew Moravcsik, who ask ‘Is Anybody Still a Realist?’40 Having identified a trend towards methodological eclecticism amongst modern realist theorists, Legro and Moravcsik (neither identifies with realism) advocate a return to the coherent, parsimonious model ostensibly espoused by figures such as Waltz, Morgenthau and Carr. Conceived in these terms, realism must ‘remain distinct from its liberal, epistemic and



institutionalist counterparts’, and thereby advance rigorous competition among clearly defined theoretical models.41 This may well be a goal worth defending, but it is not one that many earlier scholars would share. This is not only relevant to realism, but to scholarship more generally, as Legro and Moravcsik reconstitute academic IR around competition among discrete, parsimonious and empirically driven theories. Take liberalism, for example, an eclectic body of thought that has traditionally sought not only to explain the world, but to change it; yet it is here abridged into a nonideological42 model based largely on internal politics.43 The main problem, however, is that their preferred version of realism is almost entirely derived from Kenneth Waltz, but is nonetheless said to reflect the views of many scholars, both past and present. Many leading post-war figures, such as Arnold Wolfers, John Herz and Reinhold Niebuhr, were open to the idea of balancing realism and idealism, leaving them open to the same charge of theoretical incoherence levelled at current scholarship.44 Carr and Morgenthau were also (at best) in two minds on positivism, as both were comfortable integrating empirical explanation and normative argument.45 With this nexus once again becoming increasingly prominent in IR circles, Legro and Moravcsik’s argument represents a defensive reaction to recent theoretical innovations. Many of the scholars mentioned above can be at least plausibly situated within a broad realist church, yet they also represent quite different approaches to those espoused by Legro, Moravcsik and Gilpin. The relevant textual content may well be there, including a healthy scepticism about the prospects of radical reforms, a focus on the balance of power, and the (moral) primacy of the national (or imperial) interest, but the intellectual criteria employed in reaching these positions are substantively different. This will not necessarily come as a revelation, but is still worth stressing for several reasons. When theoretical schools are discussed in singular terms, based around a set of enduring themes, there is less room for differences and discrepancies, both theoretical and methodological.46 In both of the examples outlined above, authors who are concerned with modern debates end up invoking the history of ideas to ‘smooth over’ methodological differences. By sheltering recent innovations under the umbrella of an enduring theoretical lineage, Gilpin seeks to deflect Ashley’s charges of a radical departure from earlier models. By extending a distinctive (and more recent) paradigmatic identity to pioneers such as Carr and Morgenthau, Legro and Moravcsik are able to invoke a long and illustrious pedigree to validate their preferred evaluative criteria. Neither article devotes significant time to the history of ideas, but the history of ideas nonetheless serves a key purpose in their central arguments. When Legro and Moravcsik aspire to (re)organize the entire IR discipline around a model of paradigmatic competition, the validity of their methodological enterprise rests heavily on an unsubstantiated appeal to historical precedent. This tendency to paper over important variations in intellectual criteria is by no means unique to scholars seeking to bolster parochial agendas. Once particular images of the past become part of academic orthodoxy, they often end up being reproduced by scholars of various theoretical persuasions. At this juncture, we turn to the story of the First Great Debate, which provides a useful illustration of the dynamics of noninstrumental construction and reproduction. The ‘First Debate’ story presents the



triumph of a realist school over interwar idealists/utopians as a key turning point in the early history of the IR discipline. Instead of being a detailed narrative that can be traced to a single authoritative source, the story of the First Debate is best understood as an ‘anecdote’ that has been briefly recounted by various authors. Its current form is the cumulative product of subsequent treatments of more recent theoretical cleavages, as a range of authors have used the framework of a series of debates to briefly introduce their accounts of contemporary issues.47 The ‘mature’ form of the story of the First Debate first emerged during the 1980s, as a brief addendum to a more substantial discussion of a Third Great Debate, which was said to delineate a major theoretical dispute occurring within academic IR.48 The protagonists of this more recent debate would be described in a variety of often inconsistent ways. The most influential variant was arguably provided by Yosef Lapid, who somewhat optimistically sought to evaluate the prospects of international relations theory in a post-positivist era. Lapid offered a sophisticated analysis of a Third Debate, but had little to say about preceding debates, devoting only one paragraph to previous schisms early in his article.49 This was not unusual. References to previous debates by other ‘Third Debaters’ would range from a handful of paragraphs, to offering no information whatsoever.50 This is not particularly surprising. The authors involved were focused upon contemporary theory, not intellectual history. They also had no obvious interest in realist hegemony. Realist theorists have frequently castigated their critics for a lack of understanding of unpleasant political ‘realities’. The story of the First Debate can provide intellectual ammunition for this longstanding charge,51 yet the ‘Third Debaters’ had no clear interest in bolstering such claims. This does not mean, however, that their activities were neutral, or inconsequential. Unlike its nominal predecessors,52 the Third Debate was a substantial, easily verifiable event, which attracted tremendous interest. An unfortunate (by)product of this interest was the further elevation of a highly dubious narrative into the annals of academic IR. In recent times, this prominence has attracted critical interest. From the late 1990s onwards, a growing number of scholars have called into question the story of the First Debate, challenging whether it accurately depicts the content of past texts.53 In stark contrast to those involved in (re)producing the story of the First Debate, this critical turn has been defined by detailed historical and textual analysis.54 Once particular conventions are firmly established, they structure how specific issues are conceptualized and discussed in a number of ways. This influence is not limited to casual reproduction, but also extends to the way in which specialists in the history of ideas approach their chosen subject. In recent times, there has been growing interest in the early history of academic IR, resulting in extended, sophisticated treatments of many pioneering figures, along with their larger historical milieu.55 The repudiation of the First Debate forms part of this larger trend. In this setting, as in many others, conventional wisdom has played a key role, with specialists expending considerable energy demolishing popular caricatures of immature ‘idealists’. While this has undoubtedly been a welcome development, it does not mark the end of the pervasive effects of IR orthodoxy. On this front, it has often been assumed/argued that the discipline’s dominant myths have been primarily generated by scholars deliberately



seeking to strategically advance their preferred theoretical agenda.56 While this line of argument is not without merit, it only captures part of the issues involved here. Alongside strategic manipulation, we also need to recognize the essential role played by both (i) casual (re)production and (ii) the path-dependent nature of critical historiography. A number of points can be raised here.57 First, we have various organizational issues, as historical inquiries are often initially structured around a need to disprove tenuous and largely unsubstantiated positions. In this context, the authors and eras involved are inevitably tied to and/or filtered through orthodox claims and characterizations. This can not only result in a high degree of repetition, with scholars making similar points about the same subject, it may also introduce a relatively low bar for historical analysis, as modern questions of theoretical allegiance occupy prime position in various inquiries. The real danger, however, is that relevant specialists can end up concentrating most of their energies on IR orthodoxy, rather than on each other’s claims and characterizations. This structure is difficult to avoid, given the dubious nature of many popular narratives, but it can also leave limited scope and/or incentive for adversarial engagement with more substantial arguments. On this front, the most valuable (and also most daunting) step involves sustained dialogue with the interpretations of past work that have been generated by scholars from other disciplines.58 The relationship described above is highly dysfunctional. As we have seen, contemporary theory has unduly compromised the study of intellectual history in a number of fundamental respects. The main point at issue here has been the casual use of aspects of the history of ideas as a means of introducing, defending and/or legitimating theoretical projects that are chiefly concerned with other issues and agendas. This simple yet far-reaching impulse has made a decisive contribution to the development and ongoing reproduction of many simplistic and misleading narratives. These depictions can often escape critical appraisal, because they appear at the margins of works that focus on other themes, yet they nonetheless regularly serve a crucial role in legitimating particular positions, while simultaneously contributing to a body of conventional wisdom that helps to define how specific topics are conceptualized and discussed. This can leave specialists in the history of ideas in a difficult position, as this logic can not only play a major role in setting the initial terms of inquiry into intellectual history, it can also complicate efforts to challenge narratives which are chiefly sustained by widespread familiarity, casual allusion and habitual repetition.

Critical voices and changing criteria The issues and impulses that we have identified above do not take place in a critical vacuum. Over the last decade the study of intellectual history has been characterized by remarkable growth, challenging the confines of a conceptual architecture that primarily dates from the 1950s and 1960s. Alongside a number of more general surveys, three main areas of inquiry can be identified: (i) the early history of academic IR; (ii) the character and composition of the Realist Tradition; and (iii) the integration of



political and international theory. In each of these areas, historical inquiry has played a vital role in efforts to destabilize prevailing orthodoxies, providing ammunition for much larger debates over political transformation, normative theorizing, the virtues of specific schools, and methodological strategies. These debates are not confined to the content of modern theories, but also extend to the underlying criteria against which modern IR scholarship has been – and should be – formulated and evaluated. It is here that the critical dimensions of historical inquiry again become apparent. For pioneering historians such as David Long and Peter Wilson, efforts to recover and rehabilitate the early history of academic IR from misrepresentation and obscurity invariably feed into contemporary theoretical agendas, introducing new materials which cast doubt upon many modern fault-lines and formulas.59 For revisionist scholars such as Richard Ned Lebow and Michael Williams, efforts to reinvigorate our collective understandings of canonical figures such as Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes can be traced to dissatisfaction with the narrow theoretical horizons of modern IR.60 For political philosophers such as Chris Brown and Andrew Linklater, the history of ideas serves as a starting point from which to reconstitute an alternative foundation and/or theoretical pedigree for the recent growth of normative theory.61 To be persuasive, these critical voices need to demonstrate a clear connection between their contemporary agendas and their representation of past authors and/or eras. While there is no question of there ever being a single authoritative interpretation of a given piece of work, not all interpretations are equally plausible, or even consistent with available evidence. As we have seen, relationships between competing viewpoints tend to be path-dependent, with more recent interpretations being evaluated against (and structured around) the merits of established formulations. To pass muster, new interpretations of specific works must cross a negative threshold by identifying problems with existing treatments, and a positive threshold by offering additional insights and information. While the negative threshold is usually fairly low, owing to the dubious nature of many established conventions, it is the positive threshold that has the greatest implications for the capacity of revisionist historiography to challenge and/or revise current orthodoxies. Once the main goal is to destabilize (rather than normalize) prevailing conventions, there is tremendous value in sustained engagement with historical questions of variation and transformation. It is here that we believe that the concept of criteria can be called upon to both strengthen and further refine the use of the history of ideas as a strategic platform from which to reform and re-evaluate current theoretical approaches, procedural standards and normative aspirations. This involves de-emphasizing questions of theoretical allegiance, which tend to structure discussion around the relationship between textual content and contemporary categories, and focusing instead upon differences and discontinuities in the underlying criteria around which figures from various eras composed their works. As we have seen, the objection to retroactive IR essentialism is not simply that it ends up distorting the substance of particular texts, but also that it ‘smoothes over’ differences between historically constituted models of inquiry. By treating these models as a key component of the study of the history of ideas, the concept of criteria not only adds an additional dimension to existing critiques of IR



orthodoxy, it also helps to (re)integrate particular works within their own historical and intellectual environment. To further develop this line of argument, we turn to three recent examples of critical historiography, which serve to briefly elucidate a number of overlapping themes. One important contribution is provided by Michael Williams in his theoretically sophisticated work, The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations (2005). As we noted earlier, the Realist Tradition has emerged as a major focal point in recent times. Two quite different approaches can be identified here. The first questions the retroactive attribution of a realist persona to key historical figures such as Thucydides or Hobbes, leading various scholars to conclude that those involved should not be caricatured as realists.62 The second approach formally accepts that these figures belong to an identifiable Realist Tradition, and instead uses their vaunted status to interrogate modern conceptions of the composition and orientation of realist theory.63 Williams offers an impressive example of the second approach, as he strives to ‘develop a broader view of the “tradition” of Realism against which current controversies can be read’.64 This revolves around a detailed, content-driven analysis of the works of Hobbes, Rousseau and Morgenthau. Expressing a ‘deep dissatisfaction with the ways in which key figures in the history of political thought have been appropriated in much of International Relations’, Williams expends considerable energy demolishing popular caricatures.65 This exercise in deconstruction is not limited to the history of ideas, but also extends to contemporary theory, as he extends a model of ‘wilful realism’ derived from the authors identified above to systematically re-evaluate contemporary debates, templates and pedigrees. At the heart of his argument is the claim that ‘the Realist Tradition has always been defined by a concern with the construction of political orders, both ethically and sociologically’, which leaves it far better placed that its rationalist alternatives.66 Another recent contribution comes from Richard Ned Lebow, in his outstanding work The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders (2003). Like Williams, Lebow builds his argument around a number of key figures in the Realist Tradition, providing an expansive, contextual analysis of the careers of Thucydides, Clausewitz and Morgenthau. Of central importance here is the complex relationship between (theories of) political and ethical behaviour, which is in turn bound up in Lebow’s belief that: the conceptual language of modern realism has become so impoverished that it almost precludes asking, let alone answering, some of the most important questions about our interests, the nature of influence and the danger and opportunities that hegemonic powers confront.67 In this environment, the prominence attached to various past masters serves as a platform from which to re-evaluate contemporary models. Unlike Brian Schmidt, who maintains that the importance of early canonical figures can be overstated,68 both Lebow and Williams accept popular estimations of the worth of their historical contribution to (modern) IR scholarship, and seek to harness their eminent reputations



in the pursuit of a revisionist theoretical agenda. One great strength of Lebow’s work is his fluency with materials from many disciplines. Like Williams, he convincingly demolishes orthodox narratives, but he is also able to go into much greater detail when it comes to larger contextual questions of personal influences and historical circumstances. This is important on multiple levels, as Lebow systematically compares historical events (and intellectual responses) from various eras, culminating in an integrated treatment of contemporary theory, intellectual history and post-Cold War politics. From this macro-historical vantage point, both contemporary policies and prevailing theories are found lacking on a number of empirical and normative grounds.69 Both Williams’s and Lebow’s reactions to modern IR scholarship reflect overlapping objections to the distinctive criteria around which current approaches have recently come to be formulated. By highlighting the importance of various attempts to resolve questions of ethics and responsibility from figures that are conventionally presented in very different ways, they are able to construct a compelling case for rethinking the primary goals of theoretical inquiry. As is often the case in such matters, the most straightforward part of the equation concerns the deconstruction of established conventions. While a high degree of repetition is sometimes apparent here, this also indirectly serves to underline a basic point: if many prevailing narratives are to be employed in the future, they really need to be explicitly defended, rather than tacitly assumed. Past works can be quite legitimately interpreted in a variety of ways, but the level of critique on many authors and eras has now reached a stage where the privileged positions accorded to many narratives can no longer be justified. Critical historiography tends to be a relatively one-sided affair, with detailed charges routinely going unanswered, but it is also clear that the process of critique can end up somewhat paradoxically consolidating underlying categories and genealogies, as alternative interpretations end up reaching audiences through their initial connection with more familiar referents. This is borne out in the two works introduced above, as each author confirms the existence of an enduring Realist Tradition which is essentially a retroactive invention, and then goes on to offer a revisionist account of its distinctive properties. In this formulation, variations occurring within an overarching framework are invoked to call into question its modern representatives, leading to the introduction of more sophisticated alternatives. While both of the examples discussed here clearly represent major advances, they predominantly take the form of refinements of, rather than direct challenges to, trans-historical essentialism. From this standpoint, an alternative perspective can be found in Edward Keene’s recent work International Political Thought: A Historical Introduction (2005). Echoing Williams, Keene maintains that existing histories of international thought can be ‘positively harmful’, leaving students with a distorted and inadequate grounding in the history of ideas, but instead of concentrating upon the merits of conventional representations of a handful of seminal figures, Keene organizes his introduction to the field around the main ideas or concepts that ‘thinkers have used to make sense of their international political environments’.70 Inspired by the ideas of leading contextualist scholars, this historically orientated approach strives:



to illuminate our contemporary intellectual situation by establishing contrasts rather than affinities with the past, to call attention to the fact that at different times thinkers have conceptualized international politics and expressed their views on the topic in quite different ways.71 This finds expression in an episodic narrative spanning the history of international political thought from the ancient Greeks to the present day. Focusing upon questions of inclusion and exclusion, Keene strives to capture differences and discontinuities in the ‘linguistic, ideological, political and social contexts within which authors wrote their texts’.72 From this standpoint, the key point of departure for macro-historical comparison and evaluation becomes variation and transformation, rather than superficial similarities. As is invariably the case with any introductory text, Keene’s history is sometimes more suggestive than substantive, but his work nonetheless offers an instructive departure from IR orthodoxy. In order to maximize the critical potential of the history of ideas, many longstanding conventions need to be discarded entirely, paving the way for the study of the intellectual history to be rebuilt from the ground up upon very different foundations. Rather than seeking to reform/reconstitute established models and genealogies, which is the approach favoured by Williams and Lebow, Keene instead offers a strong case for relegating these models to the margins of inquiry. This not only provides greater scope for the reconsideration of aspects of the history of ideas that do not readily conform with contemporary categories and concerns, such as the intellectual environment of the Roman Empire, it also offers a foundation for an explicit attempt to ‘think beyond the constraints of our immediate intellectual and political environment’.73

Concluding remarks The tripartite division between content, context and criteria serves a number of theoretical and methodological purposes, combining both a form of critique and a theoretical formula upon which future work can be built. As a form for critique, it seeks to encapsulate many of the key problems highlighted over the course of this article. On the one hand, we are faced with a widespread and longstanding endorsement of the idea of enduring essences, or eternal conversations, which leaves questions of content abstracted from questions of context and criteria. On the other, we have the casual use of intellectual history as a cursory addendum to contemporary agendas, where past masters are briefly invoked to supplement arguments that are primarily geared towards other issues. Both dynamics involve contemporary categories and concerns being propelled backwards in time, thereby obscuring major differences in the procedural and purposive dimensions of various forms of intellectual endeavour. As we have seen, this dynamic can operate at both a disciplinary level, with the retroactive construction of a demarcated tradition of inquiry into a bounded analytical object, and a more parochial theoretical level, with the retroactive attribution of modern methods and theoretical personas.



Various examples of this widespread, frequently unreflective approach have attracted growing critical commentary, yet their continued prominence can often be less a testament to their intellectual virtues than to familiarity and casual reproduction. This does not mean, of course, that every critical excursion is valid, or even immune from some of the same types of problems, but these often repetitive commentaries can now be said to have reached a stage where many prominent images need to be either defended or discarded. It is also clear, moreover, that the study of intellectual history is not simply an end in itself, but continues to be deeply implicated in a variety of contemporary projects. By deconstructing dominant narratives, critics not only seek to redress deficiencies in our understanding of the past, they also seek to harness alternative interpretations of specific authors and eras to re-evaluate prevailing conventions, thereby gradually developing a platform for further innovation in both procedural standards and normative aspirations. If these endeavours are going to maximize their potential, they need to move beyond narrow debates over theoretical allegiance and trans-historical comparisons between past masters and modern inventions, and instead focus upon more fundamental variations in historical context and intellectual criteria. This line of argument should not be construed as another plea for the discipline of IR to forge a new identity. Sustained critical engagement with the past requires us to destabilize, rather than further consolidate, established disciplinary markers. Instead of seeking to (re)construct and further refine a retroactive pedigree which further insulates modern IR theory from larger debates, future scholarship needs to cast aside many conventions and categories, and instead directly engage with more sophisticated debates surrounding the interpretation of past authors and eras which have long taken place in related disciplines. For decades now, classificatory schemes from the 1950s and 1960s have served as privileged starting points for historiographical inquiry. There is limited value in continuing this trend.

Notes An early version of this article was presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention, Portland, Oregon, in February 2003. It has benefited from important contributions from Malcolm Cook, Greg Fry, Nicole George, Sarah Graham, Paul Keal, Chris Reus-Smit, Anna Rajander, Shogo Suzuki, Tianbiao Zhu and the participants of the Australian National University IR Theory Reading Group. This project could not have been completed without the generous support of a British Academy UK–Africa Grant. 1

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See, for example, Chris Brown, ‘Turtles All the Way Down: Anti-Foundationalism, Critical Theory and International Relations’, Millennium, 23, 1994, pp. 213–36; Barry Buzan and Richard Little, ‘Why International Relations Has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to Do About it’, Millennium, 30, 2001, pp. 19–39; Christian Heine and Benno Teschke, ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Dialectical Awakening: On the Potential of Dialectic for International Relations’, Millennium, 25, 1996, pp. 399–423. Geoffrey Roberts, ‘History, Theory and the Narrative Turn in IR, Review of International Studies, 32, 2006, pp. 704–7. For other statements of this claim, see Michael Donelan, Elements of International Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 142; and Thomas Smith, History and International Relations (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 160–2. Joel Quirk, ‘Historical Methods’, in Duncan Snidal and Christian Reus-Smit (eds), Oxford Handbook of International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 518–36.

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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS 24(2) John Hobson, ‘What’s at Stake in “Bringing Historical Sociology Back into International Relations”? Transcending “Chronofetishism” and “Tempocentrism” in International Relations’, in Stephen Hobden and John Hobson (eds), Historical Sociology of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 9. David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), pp. 135–40. A number of different disciplines over at least several decades are represented here. See, for example, John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Bernard S. Cohn, ‘History and Anthropology: The State of Play’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22, 1980, pp. 198–221; Richard Dennis, ‘History, Geography, and Historical Geography’, Social Science History, 15, 1991, pp. 265–88; Jack Amariglio, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, ‘Division and Difference in the “Discipline” of Economics’, Social Scientist, 19, 1991, pp. 49–77; Melville J. Herskovits, ‘The Ahistorical Approach to Afroamerican Studies: A Critique’, American Anthropologist, 62, 1960, pp. 559–69; Henrika Kuklick, ‘Restructuring the Past: Toward an Appreciation of the Social Context of Social Science’, Sociological Quarterly, 21, 1980, pp. 5–21; David N. Livingstone, ‘Geographical Traditions’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 20, 1995, pp. 420–2. See, for example, Theda Skocpol (ed.), Visions and Method in Historical Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Olivier Zunz (ed.), Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman (eds), Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Mark Trachtenberg, The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave, 2003); Roberts, ‘History, Theory and the Narrative Turn in IR’. In addition to Hobson, two other recent variations on these themes have been produced by Friedrich Kratochwil, ‘History, Action and Identity: Revisiting the “Second” Great Debate and Assessing its Importance for Social Theory’, European Journal of International Relations, 12, 2006, pp. 5–29; and Leonard Seabrooke, ‘Why Political Economy Needs Historical Sociology’, International Politics, 44, 2007, pp. 390–413. Questions of periodization are always difficult. As Brian Schmidt has convincingly shown, the intellectual history of the discipline can be traced back to the late nineteenth century (at least in the United States). The formula presented here rests upon an admittedly subjective appraisal of cumulative growth, rather than an endorsement of the popular story of Great War foundations. Framed in terms of a distinctive identity (and infrastructure), academic IR arguably acquires a clear delineation in the mid-twentieth century. Brian Schmidt, The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998). Edward Keene, ‘Images of Grotius’, in Beate Jahn, Classical Theory in International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 233–6. This has also meant reproducing and further reinforcing the widespread Eurocentrism that has long characterized the study of intellectual history. While this theme falls outside the main remit of this article, it is worthwhile briefly noting that neither the tempocentric tendencies nor the remedial strategies discussed in this article are necessarily confined to differences between historical eras, but are also directly applicable to differences between cultures and civilizations, where dubious pretensions to universality also tend to smooth over key issues of difference and divergence. See also David S. Yost, ‘Political Philosophy and the Theory of International Relations’, International Affairs, 70, 1994, pp. 263–90; Ole Wæver, ‘The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations’, International Organization, 52, 1998, pp. 687–72. See also Beate Jahn, ‘Classical Theory and International Relations in Context’, in Classical Theory in International Relations, pp. 11–17; Renee Jeffrey, ‘Tradition as Invention: The “Traditions Tradition” and the History of Ideas in International Relations’, Millennium, 34, 2005, pp. 57–84. Alongside an attachment to ‘timeless’ ideas, we also find a related attachment to the idea of progress, as past masters are held to have anticipated, or helped to slowly refine, modern conceptions of key concepts such as property or democracy. For a sample of the key debates see John G. Gunnell, ‘Interpretation and the History of Political Theory: Apology and Epistemology’, American Political Science Review, 76, 1982, pp. 317–27; John G. Pocock, ‘On Richard Ashcraft’s “On the Problem of Methodology”’, Political Theory, 3, 1975, pp. 317–18; Bikhu Parekh and Robert Nandor Berki, ‘The History of Political Ideas: A Critique of Q. Skinner’s Methodology’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 34, 1973, pp. 163–84.


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See John Dunn, Political Obligation in its Historical Context: Essays in Political Theory (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002); Quentin Skinner, Vision of Politics, vol. 1: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); John Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975). Schmidt, Political Discourse, p. 34. Schmidt, Political Discourse, p. 37. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979), pp. 21, 24. This distinction could also be expanded to include ideological ‘after-lives’ and incarnations, which concern the way in which various texts have subsequently been interpreted and represented, but this is not an issue we can address in depth here. See Ian Shapiro, The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 33–7. The main point of departure here has been the popular distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘positivist’ models, but this formula regularly ends up grouping all pre-1950s works under a common banner, with common characteristics, instead of giving due consideration to more specific variations between authors and eras. See, for example, Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Richard Shapcott, ‘IR as Practical Philosophy: Defining a “Classical Approach”’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6, 2004, pp. 271–91. Fred Halliday, ‘International Relations and its Discontents’, International Affairs, 71, 1995, p. 733. Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso, 2003), pp. 48–75. Donald Hanson, ‘Thomas Hobbes’s Highway to Peace’, International Organization, 38, 1984, p. 332. The reception of this article over the last 25 years has been particularly revealing, as many more recent discussions of ‘Hobbesian’ realism have failed to even acknowledge (let alone engage with) alternative views. See also Murray Forsyth, ‘Thomas Hobbes and the External Relations of States’, British Journal of International Studies, 5, 1979, pp. 196–209. On this front, it is also worth noting that IR discussion of Hobbes rarely explicitly engages with the voluminous literature on his work in other disciplines. In his popular introduction to Hobbes’s thought, Richard Tuck presents a loose typology of the four main ways in which Hobbes has been interpreted – as a modernist, a social scientist, a moralist and a natural law theorist – yet these diverse viewpoints rarely find a prominent place in academic IR. Richard Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 92–116. Martin Wight, ‘Why is There No International Theory?’, in Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966), pp. 17–34. Another key source of IR iconography from this era comes from Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954). Martin Wight, International Theory: The Three Traditions, ed. Gabriele Wight and Brian Porter, with an introductory essay by Hedley Bull (London: Leicester University Press, 1991), p. 259. This argument finds an echo in Hedley Bull, who observed that: there is a point at which the debate Wight is describing ceases to be one that has actually taken place, and becomes one that he has invented; at this point his work is not an exercise in the history of ideas, so much as the exposition of an imaginary philosophical conversation, in the manner of Plato’s dialogues.

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Hedley Bull, ‘Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations’, in Wight, International Theory, p. xviii. See, for example, David Boucher, Political Theories of International Relations: From Thucydides to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), and Ian Clark and Iver B. Neumann (eds), Classical Theories of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1996). See also Brian Schmidt, ‘On the History and Historiography of International Relations’, in Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons (eds), Handbook of International Relations (London: Sage, 2002), pp. 6–7. Michael Doyle, Ways of War and Peace: Realism, Liberalism and Socialism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 9. A useful counterpoint is provided by Christian Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS 24(2) Jahn, ‘Classical Theory and International Relations in Context’, p. 14. Emmanuel Navon, ‘The “Third Debate” Revisited’, Review of International Studies, 27, 2001, p. 613. Duncan Bell, ‘Political Theory and the Functions of Intellectual History: A Response to Emmanuel Navon’, Review of International Studies, 29, 2003, p. 152. In this context, teaching also emerges as a crucial issue, but this is not a topic that we can explicitly address in this article. Robert Gilpin, ‘The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism’, International Organization, 38, 1984, pp. 287–304; Richard Ashley, ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’, International Organization, 38 (1984), pp. 225–86. Gilpin, ‘Richness of the Tradition’, pp. 291–2 (author’s italics). Edward Hallett Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1946 [1939]), p. 5. Jeffrey Legro and Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Is Anybody Still a Realist?’ International Security¸ 24, 1999, pp. 5–55. Legro and Moravcsik, ‘Is Anybody Still a Realist?’, p. 12. Andrew Moravcsik, ‘Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics’, International Organization, 51, 1997, p. 513. The problems with this formula are discussed in Christian Reus-Smit, ‘The Strange Death of Liberal International Theory’, European Journal of International Law, 12, 2001, pp. 573–93. Joel Quirk and Darshan Vigneswaran, ‘The Construction of an Edifice: The Story of a First Great Debate’, Review of International Studies, 1, 2005, pp. 98–9. Legro and Moravcsik’s initial article provoked a number of commentaries, where questions of intellectual history were one of a number of issues raised, with contemporary theory again being the major focal point. See Andrew Moravcsik, Jeffrey W. Legro, Peter D. Feaver, Gunther Hellmann, Randall Schweller, Jeffrey W. Taliaferro and William Wohlforth, ‘Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm? (Or was Anybody Ever a Realist?)’, International Security, 25, 2000, pp. 165–93. On this theme, a key starting point is Ole Wæver, ‘Figures of International Thought: Introducing Persons instead of Paradigms’, in Iver Neumann and Ole Wæver (eds), The Future of International Relations: Masters in the Making (London: Routledge, 1997). This discussion draws upon Quirk and Vigneswaran, ‘Construction of an Edifice’, pp. 89–107. Key examples include Michael Banks, ‘The Evolution of International Relations Theory’, in Michael Banks (ed.), Conflict in World Society: A New Perspective on International Relations (Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1984); Yosef Lapid, ‘The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era’, International Studies Quarterly, 33, 1989, pp. 235–54; Ray Maghroori, ‘Introduction: Major Debates in International Relations’, in Bennett Ramberg (ed.), Globalism Versus Realism: International Relations’ Third Debate (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982). Lapid, ‘The Third Debate’, p. 236. Quirk and Vigneswaran, ‘Construction of an Edifice’, pp. 101–3. See Peter Wilson, ‘The Myth of the “First Great Debate”’, Review of International Studies, 24, 1998, pp. 8–13; Cameron Thies, ‘Progress, History and Identity in International Relations Theory: The Case of the Idealist-Realist Debate’, European Journal of International Relations, 8, 2002, pp. 169–70. The Second Debate has not received the same degree of interest as the First, but it would be a mistake to assume that it rests upon secure ground. On this point, a critical incursion comes from Bell, who contends that ‘The second “great debate” was … neither great nor a debate, constituting instead a brief and limited exchange’. Bell, ‘Political Theory’, p. 155. Examples include Lucian Ashworth, ‘Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen? A Revisionist History of International Relations’, International Relations, 16, 2002, pp. 33–51; Quirk and Vigneswaran, ‘Construction of an Edifice’, pp. 89–107; Schmidt, ‘On the History and Historiography of International Relations’, pp. 10–11; Thies, ‘Progress, History and Identity in International Relations Theory’, pp. 147–85; Wilson, ‘The Myth of the “First Great Debate”’, pp. 1–16. David Long and Brian Schmidt, ‘Introduction’, in David Long and Brian Schmidt, (eds), Imperialism and Internationalism in the Discipline of International Relations (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. 4. In addition to sources already cited, other examples include Lucian Ashworth, ‘Where are the Idealists in Interwar International Relations?’, Review of International Studies, 32, 2006, pp. 291–308; Ken Booth, ‘Navigating the “Absolute Novum”: John H. Herz’s Political Realism and Political Idealism’, International Relations, 22, 2008, pp. 510–26; Michael Cox (ed.), E. H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000); Charles Jones, E. H. Carr and International Relations:


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A Duty to Lie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Andreas Osiander, ‘Rereading Early Twentieth-Century IR Theory: Idealism Revisited’, International Studies Quarterly, 42, 1998, pp. 409–32; and Brian Schmidt, ‘Lessons from the Past: Reassessing the Interwar Disciplinary History of International Relations’, International Studies Quarterly, 42, 1998, pp. 433–59. See, for example, Schmidt, Political Discourse, p. 32; Thies, ‘Progress, History and Identity in International Relations Theory’, pp. 148–50; Wæver, ‘Figures of International Thought’, p. 10. For an early critique of the great debate concept as an organizing principle for IR theory more generally, see Steve Smith, ‘The Self-Images of a Discipline: A Genealogy of International Relations Theory’, in Ken Booth and Steve Smith (eds), International Relations Theory Today (Cambridge: Polity, 1995). This is not to say this is not already occurring in some circles, but this engagement can often be limited to supplementary support for favoured interpretations, rather than direct engagement with contrary readings. This theme is less applicable to the early history of IR, but remains a key issue when it comes to figures such as Hobbes, Machiavelli and Thucydides. David Long and Peter Wilson (eds), Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Long and Schmidt, Imperialism and Internationalism in the Discipline of International Relations. On this point, it is worth noting that revisionist histories of early academic IR are not limited to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but also extend to the emergence of realism in the aftermath of the Second World War. Richard Ned Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Michael Williams, The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Chris Brown, International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992); Andrew Linklater, Beyond Realism and Marxism: Critical Theory and International Relations (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990). Examples include Laurie Bagby, ‘The Use and Abuse of Thucydides in International Relations’, International Organization, 48, 1994, pp. 131–153; Daniel Garst, ‘Thucydides and Neorealism’, International Studies Quarterly, 33, 1989, pp. 3–27; Murray Forsyth, ‘Thomas Hobbes and the External Relations of States’, British Journal of International Studies, 5, 1979, pp. 196–209; Jim George, Discourses of Global Politics: A Critical (Re)Introduction to International Relations (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994), pp. 70–4; Reus-Smit, Moral Purpose, pp. 54–61; Rob Walker, Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 26–47. Other examples include Steven Forde, ‘International Relations and the Science of Politics: Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Neorealism’, International Studies Quarterly, 39, 1995, pp. 141–60; Steven Forde, ‘Varieties of Realism: Thucydides and Machiavelli’, Journal of Politics, 54, 1992, pp. 372–93; and Jonathan Haslam, No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations Since Machiavelli (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002). Williams, The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations, p. 12. Williams, Realist Tradition, p. 4. Williams, Realist Tradition, p. 207. Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics, p. xiii. Schmidt, Political Discourse, p. 39. See also Long and Schmidt, ‘Introduction’, pp. 8–9. This approach has been further extended in his more recent work. See Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), especially pp. 38–42. Edward Keene, International Political Thought: A Historical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), pp. 5, 16. Keene, International Political Thought, p. 17. Keene, International Political Thought, p. 21. Keene, International Political Thought, p. 10.