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  1. #1
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    Apr 2015

    What IR Can Learn From the Intellectual Historian


    ·Scientific disciplines, or disciplines that aspire to be scientific, distance themselves from their past. That past is acknowledged as a record of how the discipline became what it is, but knowledge of that past is not part of that discipline. The history of science is not science. But this cannot be said about humanistic disciplines such as literature, philosophy and history itself. Nor does it work for IR, which is at least in part a humanistic discipline. The history of ideas about international relations remains part of the IR field despite recurrent efforts to exclude it. In recognition of this fact, IR as it emerged as a distinct academic subject at the start of the twentieth century was conceived as multidisciplinary. History, along with law, politics and economics, was understood to be one of the contributing disciplines. So from the beginning there was interest in the history of international relations and the history of ideas about international relations.

    Intellectual History

    • The premise of intellectual history is that ideas are important in human activity and therefore in making sense of it. You can’t make a will without the idea of property or explain national self-determination without distinguishing between nation and state. Sovereignty, preventive war and the responsibility to protect are ideas, and like other ideas they have a history. But as time passes, the meanings of words used to convey ideas are increasingly obscured and these meanings must be recovered to avoid misunderstanding those ideas. The word “sovereignty” is a case in point, having become so identified with absolute power that those engaged in the effort to define the principle of a responsibility to protect (R2P) had to argue that sovereignty is best understood as implying duties as well as rights: a clear indication that words and their meanings matter.
    • Intellectual history offers the student of international relations an alternative to theoretical abstraction and naïve empiricism. It reminds us that theories, no matter how universal their claims, emerge from experience and that experience is local. And it reminds us of the limitations of material explanations. Facts are not independent of ideas: what we call a fact is not a brute given but the outcome of an inquiry, a conclusion whose validity depends on the evidence supporting it.

    Grotius, Hobbes, and Kant

    • The hazards of interpreting the international past are well illustrated by the disciplinary uses commonly made of three canonical thinkers: Grotius, Hobbes and Kant, sometimes taken as eponyms of Martin Wight’s three traditions of international thought (Wight, 1991).

    • Grotius has been identified as the father of international law, as an advocate for peace and for morality in war and as a thinker whose view of international relations rests on an idea of human sociability diametrically opposed to Hobbes’s antisocial individualism. But historical scholarship has shown each of these claims to be a myth. International law existed as a body of ideas and practices long before Grotius, who far from innovating continued the tradition of basing it on an oil and water combination of reason and custom. Grotius does not clearly or consistently distinguish natural law from the law of nations – ius gentium, law not between but common to different peoples – or articulate the modern view of international law as a distinct body of rules governing relations between states.

    The IR Canon

    • Many fields have canonical works – works that scholars mention as important in their field or in its history. For IR, these include, besides works by Grotius, Hobbes and Kant already mentioned, others by Thucydides, Machiavelli, Vattel, Rousseau, Burke and Mill, followed by a lengthy and increasingly contentious list. At that point we are no longer speaking of a canon because of uncertainty about what it includes. The canon of international thought has meant, for the most part, only the most famous works. It is worth keeping in mind that the idea of a canon derives from ecclesiastical tradition and denotes the authoritative measure of a thing. So, a canon of books is the measure of a field of study. But, as we know, a field can be measured in different ways for different purposes. The IR canon must therefore be seen as a construction, even if we are unaware of how it was constructed.
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