Not Aufklärers but Dilettantes: Reading Michael C. Williams’s “In the Beginning…”

17 September 2013, 1000 EDT

“In the Beginning” joins a growing literature – including my own Recovering International Relationsin which normative claims regarding the vocation of IR theory are tied to an historical account of its disciplinary emergence.* If these arguments vary in their details, they share a common logical-rhetorical tactic. An account of the discipline’s beginnings is mobilized to critique present-day scholarly practices: to spur “reflection on where one is, and where one is going.”

On Williams’ account, a basic confusion regarding IR-realism’s relationship to liberalism characterizes “where we are.” The traditional ‘dueling paradigms’ approach to IR theory in which “realism and liberalism…develop as parallel tracks that rarely intersect substantively,” overlooks their deeper historical co-emergence. IR-realism, he argues, emerged to guide liberal societies and protect their freedoms amidst the growing challenges of postwar political life. That co-emergence, Williams suggests, has been forgotten, with “significant implications for how we think about the past and future development of the field.”

What Williams wants is international theory that is not merely open to normative concerns, but which is deeply imbued with them. Accordingly, it is not a reflection so much as it is a proposed regrounding. Williams wants us to think about IR differently because he wants IR to speak to political life differently: in the voice of Ira Katznelson’s post-war “political studies enlightenment,” which “combined the deduction of politics from norms with its extrapolation from facts, affiliating engaged social criticism with disinterested social science[.]” (p. 3)

Nothing wrong with that; but what practices of reflection are to keep his understanding of the field from becoming as “final and defining” as those he is attempting to critique? [p. xxxx] Rationalist scholars, too, often evince a sense of grounded vocation. Where they differ is on the account of social and political life upon which their analyses rely, and onto which their notions of ‘good’ theory bolt. [inter alia, see here, here, here, and here]. Nor are ‘historical’ narratives any more objectively or self-evidently cohesive than are ‘rationalist’ ones. If indeed – as Williams quotes Adorno and Horkheimer in his 2005 book – “all reification is a forgetting,” then what risks being reified and forgotten in his counter-narrative? (p. 128)

Drawing on my own work – in particular, on engagements with Williams’ earlier writing (here and here) – I will attempt a bare-bones answer in four steps. First, I will suggest that Williams may have under-read the degree to which thinkers of the post-war “political enlightenment” felt themselves unequal to the crises they identified. Second, I will suggest that such an under-reading may skew Williams’ understanding of critique. Third, I will speak to the difficulty of operationalizing that post-war feeling of inadequacy while still meaningfully addressing problems in world politics, a challenge general to IR as a discipline. Finally, I will suggest a tentative path forward, using thinkers on whose idiom Williams himself draws.

1. Late modernity as intellectual crisis. While Williams correctly identifies an awareness of radical evil that permeated postwar thinking, he may not go far enough. I would venture that many of the thinkers on whom Williams draws understood themselves – or at least the intellectual traditions from which they worked – to be implicated in that evil; moreover, that they did not themselves entirely know what to do about this. The result was a pervasive sense of scholarly anxiety, one which played a crucial role in the reflexivity that permeated their thought.

Since the image of Hannah Arendt looms large in Williams’ writing – and in that of the ‘classical’ realists (Morgenthau) and disciplinary historians (Katznelson) on whom he draws – her work can be used to briefly sketch out a sense of that inadequacy. Consider how her Human Condition opens: the possibility of human beings entirely escaping the bounds of the earth, Arendt suggests, should move us to a profound rethinking of what it means to be human; to “think what we are doing.” (p. 5) Yet we are far from able to undertake such thinking. The concepts we have inherited from the past may be unequal to the present, but new ones have not yet emerged. Indeed, the superannuated philosophical tradition in which we do write may actually help perpetuate the kind of thoughtlessness which it ostensibly means to dispel, for our speculative perorations (and the ‘materialist’ analyses that follow from them) cannot, in fact, deliver the understandings which they promise. Eichmann in Jerusalem provided a signal example of this inability. Recall the passage in which, at the prompting of Judge Raveh, Eichmann proceeds to offer – to everyone’s surprise – “an approximately correct account of Kant’s categorical imperative.” (p. 136) Eichmann can thrive because a world that leaves the thoughtful tied up in knots also offers the thoughtless certain ‘easy outs’: for Kant’s ‘moral law’ substitute ‘the will of the Führer’, and go about your duty. However gloomy that assessment, it is hardly particular to her writing, and variants of it can be discerned in thinkers from Adorno (“philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed”) to Leo Strauss, to – as Williams notes in passing – Judith Shklar.

2. The breadth of that sense of crisis. Such thinking, as Williams notes, deeply affected Morgenthau and the classical realists. But it also affected at least some of the rationalists that Williams critiques. Consider Shklar’s influence on Robert Keohane, one of the deans of rationalist ‘neo-neo’ IR theory. The links are not hard to see. Keohane’s “tart” conception of liberalism was specifically anti-utopian: “an approach to the analysis of social reality” that eschewed (or at least claimed to eschew) “a doctrine of liberty.” (p. 174)** By dismissing this common sense of vocation, Williams risks re-inscribing precisely the same disciplinary fallacy which Katznelson – successfully or otherwise – seeks to undo. Namely, that the gap between “speculative, semi-philosophical, brooding texts,” and “doggedly empirical, social science treatises” is so vast “that they inhabit separate universes.” (p. 117) Rather than a spur to considering the general limitations, structures or mediations of thought – and then to proceed from those limitations – critique, as Bruno Latour persuasively documents (PDF), becomes a machete by which to hack away at others’ practical agendas.

3. The challenge of sustaining critique. Remaining within so anxious and deeply reflexive a thinking space – one which I have elsewhere called sustainable critique – is, to be sure, extremely difficult. Williams’ discussion of classical realism – both in “In the Beginning” and elsewhere – suggests agreement on this point. He is careful to confine his discussion to the normative/vocational thinking space that Morgenthau and his colleagues sought to sustain. But beyond what these theorists tried to do lies an assessment of what they actually succeeded in doing. Did Morgenthau, in fact, sustain the thinking space to which he aspired? If not, why not? Put differently, Williams might wish to do more than read normative and historical context back into international theory. If they have been eclipsed, he might wish to think about how and why they come to be so, and what that means for the kind of reflexivity to which he aspires.

4. Toward such a mode of sustainably critical thinking. If these bare bones arguments hold, what is to be done? Williams opens “In the Beginning” with considerations drawn from the early work of Edward Said: a discussion of both the fecundity, and the problems, that attend the narration of beginnings. Said’s last work – On Late Styleuses Adorno’s thinking to push those considerations to a careful form of reflective-analytical equipoise. He wants to move past a critique of beginnings, to a mode of thinking that neither reifies any particular account of beginnings or foundations, nor rejects them altogether as points of intellectual departure. To that end, he eschews enlightenment grandiloquence in favor of a peculiar kind of dilettantism: an “inspired if slightly sated amateurism,” in which “great works, great masters and great ideas” are to be viewed not reverentially, but as slightly self-indulgent swings of affect and mood, “practices indulged in by a frequent habitué at a club.” (p. 20) The aim of critique is, on this account, to reveal the hollowness inherent in every grandiose narrative of history, truth and time – our own, as well as everyone else’s. Such dilettantism might leave Williams with a robust space for critiquing present scholarly practices in IR, without laying down potentially exclusionary counter-narratives of his own.

Editor’s Note: This is a  guest post by Daniel J. Levine. It is the 24th 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 Michael C. Williams’ article (PDF). His post appeared earlier today. tl;dr notice: ~1730 words.

Editor’s Note: This is a  guest post by Daniel J. Levine. It is the 24th 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 Michael C. Williams’ article. His post appeared earlier today. tl;dr notice: ~1730 words.

*See recent and recent-ish studies by Campbell Craig, Duncan Bell, Nicolas Guilhot, Stefano Guzzini, Srdjan Vucetic, Hartmut Behr, Felix Rösch, Brian Schmidt, Robert Vitalis, Ido Oren, Inanna Hamati-Ataya, John M. Hobson, Torbjorn Knutsen, Ned Lebow, Alison McQueen, Christoph Frei, Piki Ish-Shalom, Christophe Frei, William Scheuerman, Vibeke Tjalve, Martti Koskenniemi, Oliver Jutersonke – and Williams’ 2005 book.[back]

** On Shklar’s influence see Keohane’s Keohane, Robert O.: Power and Governance in a Partially Globalized World (London: Routledge, 2002), esp. ch. 12 and his 2004 interview with Harry Kriesler. On “tart cooperation” see his 1984 After Hegemony. Compare to one of the closing passages from Shklar’s After Utopia: “Traditionally, political theory has turned around and around two poles, the notions of power and justice. Purely empirical studies of various power structures and of various conceptions of justice can and do exist in quantity, of course, but these do not add up to a theoretical picture. To speak of justice has become intellectually hazardous. The inhibitions bred by our historical experience and by analytical honesty are overpowering. Moreover, the notion of political justice implies a moral imperative – and as such an end beyond what is known to exist. Unless we admit that the very notion is senseless, it demands at least an ounce of utopianism even to consider justice, and this utopianism, as we have amply seen, is absent today. All that our lack of confidence permits is to say that it is better to believe in it than not – and that is hardly a theory of politics in the grand tradition.” (Princeton: 1957, pp. 271-2, emphasis mine).” [back]