Christian Bueger

The History and Sociology of International Thought: A troublesome relation?


3-NUS_Logo_sml_wht-transWhat can the History of Intellectual Thought contribute to International Relations theory? Clarifying the relation between both projects was the objective of the Annual Political Theory Symposium of the Department of Political Science of the National University of Singapore (NUS). The symposium held on the 19th and 20th of March, brought together a range of key thinkers in the History of International Thought. There was some thought provoking insights for the Sociology of International Relations, too.

Ian Hall (Griffith) questioned the dominance of Cambridge School contextualizers in the study of history of international thought. He pointed to the need of identifying accounts which can better account for the emergence of texts. He pointed to the concept of intellectual inheritance as a promising concept to do this. Chris Brown (LSE) explored the relation through a detailed history of the collaboration between political theory and international relations. Paradoxically as he pointed out, the professionalization of international political theory has not significantly raised its status in the disciplinary landscape. Ben Schupmann (NUS) discussed how Carl Schmitt’s understanding of anarchy can advance contemporary IR realism, and hence offered a powerful case that the history of international thought can make major interventions in contemporary IR theory debates, in this case the debate on realist constructivism and the potential of neoclassical realism. David Hendrickson (Colorado College) provided another case, in discussing the American founding, he showed how IR theory is actually influenced by debates that well preceded the “official” discipline of IR. In the last presentation of the day Edward Keene (Oxford) called for the importance of moving beyond the canonical texts conventionally discussed in the History of International Thought, that is, Burke, Grotius, Hobbes, Kant, Machiavelli. Instead he called for the study of the everyday production of texts on the international and offered a discussion of late 17th and early 18th century writing on international law.

What the discussion revealed is first of all how productive the discussion in the history of international thought has become. The contribution that such studies can make to IR is quite obvious, it is to provide IR a history, but also to provide us with an understanding where our concepts and categories come from, and, perhaps most importantly, which ideas became lost in history and might be re-discovered to provide us with understandings of the contemporary situation. Attending the workshop as an outsider, I made two observations:

Firstly, it appears that the History of International Thought is on the verge of its own practice turn. Although participants did not phrase it in those terms, the concept of practice was prominent in the majority of papers, presentations and the discussion. The travel direction that was set out is moving towards the everyday and the study of the practical production of text. This move is no coincident, since also in history more generally the practice turn has been started to be widely received, not the least because of Gabrielle Spiegel’s pathbreaking edited volume “Practicing History”.

With such a move the History of International Thought takes similar directions as the Sociology of (the Discipline of) International Relations. This relation remains, however, troublesome. We still haven’t reached a post-Kuhnian age and live in a world where the study of thought remains divided into Philosophy, Sociology and History. This critique is mutual. On the one hand, there is a curious absence (or lack of engagement) in the History of International Thought with contemporary social theory (e.g. theories of modernity, or the potential contribution of Bourdieu et al.). Moreover, the historians interest stops somewhere in the early 20th century with Morgenthau being one of the last signposts. On the other side of the coin, the Sociology of IR debate has not really engaged with the frameworks and results of the history of political thought. Moreover, there is a lack of historical consciousness in much of sociological writings. There is a tendency to prioritize the contemporary state of the discipline and studies go hardly further back in time then the 1990s. More dialogue will be needed. Historians might start to pay attention to how significantly social theorists have influenced IR theory (think Waltz and Durkheim) and start addressing more recent episodes. Sociologists will need more awareness for the fact that the patterns that produce the discipline and international knowledge more generally have much older traces.

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