Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Michael C. Williams. It is the 23rd installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post refers to Williams’ article (PDF). A response, authored by Daniel J. Levine, will appear at 10am Eastern.
Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.
Disciplinary history is too important to be left only to intellectual historians. It should concern anyone interested in international politics. “The tradition of all dead generations” may not weigh on the brains of today’s International Relations (IR) scholars with quite the fever of Marx’s nightmare, but it does continue to exert powerful and often unrecognized effects on contemporary thinking. The idea of an “end of IR theory” that animates the Special Issue of the EJIR provides an intriguing opportunity to open up this issue: to ask where the field is going by looking again at where it came from.
This story can be told in many ways. One of the most revealing is to take seriously Stanley Hoffmann’s famous claim that IR developed as a quintessentially “American” social science (PDF). Hoffmann was right, though for reasons and with implications quite different from those he advanced. In his eyes, these origins lay mainly in a concern with American hegemony and policy-oriented theory in the context of the Cold War. No one could doubt that these questions were important, yet in many ways IR’s origins and commitments are better located in a wider but generally unrecognized analytic and political sensibility that, in his brilliant study of Desolation and Enlightenment, Ira Katznelson has called the “political studies enlightenment” (note the small ‘e’).
Katznelson holds that diverse figures in post-war American social science including Dahl, Hofstaeder, Lasswell, Lindblom, Polanyi, and Arendt were united in the view that the desolation of the previous half century and its apparent refutation of Enlightenment promises of progress, peace, and the reign of reason. In response, they undertook systematic analyses of the limits of a century and a half of increasing rationalism within the liberal Enlightenment tradition. Yet they did so not to reject modernity or liberalism, but to save it. They held that understanding the calamities of the period required seeing them not as simple irrationality erupting inexplicably into the otherwise placid, progressive, world of reason, but as specifically modern, arising in important aspects from the Enlightenment itself, and representing key weaknesses within it, including its inability to engage the question of “radical evil” in modernity; the increasing dominance of technology, and technical rationality; the rise of “mass society” and mass politics, and the accompanying crisis of classical liberalism and its vision of democracy; and the rise of extreme nationalism and anti-liberal politics as an at least partial consequence of liberal modernity, not as its simple antithesis. The goal was to grasp these dynamics philosophically, historically, and sociologically, in order to understand how they might be countered in pursuit of suitably chastened but nonetheless recognizable Enlightenment values and principles.