Stanley Hoffmann’s approach to studying politics: in memoriam 1928-2015 .

18 September 2015, 0840 EDT

[Note: This is a guest post by Peter Gourevitch, Founding Dean and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Watson Institute, Brown University.]

Stanley Hoffmann influenced the study of international relations greatly. From the 1960s on, generations of professors in training read his work. All were affected by doing so. Some reacted negatively, some positively, some indirectly, but all were affected because of its clarity and utility. He laid out argumentation in the sharpest way — stereotypical of the best part of French analytic training — defining all the variables, categories, dimensions, and their combinations. It was perfect for preparing comprehensive exams, or defining issues for a thesis prospectus or an article. Contemporary Theory in International Relations, (Prentice-Hall, 1960) and The State of War: Essays on the Theory and Practice of International Politics, (Praeger, 1965) were the most notable examples.

At the same time, Hoffmann did not like the trend toward social scientific theorizing of international relations. He believed in his French mentor Raymond Aron’s comparative historical sociology: the rich systematic comparison of situations in historical context, a kind of Weberian construction and comparison of ideal types. Some books were written following Aron’s approach, but not many. The field was moving against Hoffmann. Mostly the study of international relations went the way of most social science in those days, ever sharper definition of dependent and independent variables and their testing, or careful construction of deductive reasoning (think, game theory , Schelling, Waltz. ) That was not Hoffmann’s approach, so while he was widely read, he was not widely followed in a self conscious way.

In outlook, Hoffmann hated determinism, from literal mechanical Marxism, to mechanical culturalism, institutionalism, rationalism, or anything else. He believed in the plasticity of politics and situations, in the choices open to people, the choices that need to be explained. People, countries, decision makers had choices, and it was these which needed to be explained.

At Harvard, Hoffmann helped found the Social Studies major. Once selected to this competitive major, students read during their sophomore years Toqueville, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Freud; as juniors they read major historical cases applying these theories to interpretation of social issues and episodes; senior year was an honors thesis. This training reflected the kind of thinking Hoffmann encouraged: theoretically informed application to important social problems. Explanations could be fairly complex and rich; simplicity not necessarily a virtue.

So a Hoffmann Ecole did not emerge. Instead, for decades, people were hugely stimulated listening to Hoffmann lecture or reading his work — and those who did learned how to think, read, analyze in systematic and coherent ways. He wrote books on US foreign policy, on European American relations and world disorder. These were widely read but did not fit the demands of academic journals that wanted theory building and theory testing.

Hoffmann was also a specialist on France. In that sense he was a comparativist, though he focused on France, rather than comparative politics more generally. His most famous courses at Harvard dealt with France and with War: He taught each of these courses in various forms over the years, with huge enrollments. If you took both, you could not sustain a notion that IR and Comparative could be analyzed separately. In French politics as elsewhere, domestic and international politics were totally intertwined. Hoffmann did not theorize about that boundary, he just practiced its absence. He also gave courses on political theory, political ideas and political literature. For some thougths on Hoffmann’s courses at Harvard and his impact in developing the Center for European Studies, and his personality, see my comments here.

The courses on France stressed the interplay of ideas, leadership, institutions, history and culture. Hoffmann had to hide from the Nazi’s during WW II in France, and survived while many friends did not. He acquired a palpable affection for French culture. He thought a lot about leadership and decisions; and wrote some notable essays on de Gaulle. He contributed a great deal to a French literature on “stalemate society” a notion that France was unable to move forward in making key decisions to modernize and reform , which meant weakness both at home and in foreign policy: Hoffmann saw that stalemate as coming from the interplay of social institutions with culture and tradition and looked to political leadership to overcome it. Reading or hearing Hoffmann on France was quite impressive, as one felt the depth of knowledge and the profound engagement. Again it was not theory building but the application of theory, or inferring the theory from how the analysis operated, something like reading Tocqueville.

As Hoffmann wrote for the famous magazines (New York Review of Books, Daedelus, New Republic) in the sphere of the public intellectual he had become, his disillusion with US foreign policy grew. He had spent years explaining France and the US to each other. Now it was becoming harder as he saw the US engaged in foolish misuse of its great power. These essays were always eagerly anticipated. Whatever happened in the world, people wanted to read or hear what he said, because his analyses were so brilliant. He got to the bottom of whatever it was, but it was not easy to replicate into a formula how that kind of analysis was done. Down to the very last years of his career at Harvard, students, from undergrads to young faculty, found him hugely stimulating to listen to. He enjoyed being with the young and they noticed it, he was often with them at protests against foreign policy. And he had a public intellectual’s audience in the US, in France and in Europe generally. So Hoffmann’s influence was very great, and at the same time, not easy to convey to those who did not hear him. We all lose from not hearing him any more.

Postscript: If readers are interested in learning more about Stanley Hoffmann’s work, Wikipedia has a pretty decent list of his publications but leaves out In Search of France,(Harvard Press, 1963) edited by Hoffmann and includes chapters by Charles Kindleberger, Lawrence Wyle, Jesse Pitts, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle and François Goguel; Hoffmann’s chapter presents a masterful summation of his concerns about French politics and society, the Kindleberger chapter is a study in theories of economic growth applied to a particular country, and so on – the kind of applied country study with big implications from which you can get big comparative ideas. Art Goldhammer who runs the remarkable French politics blog
and is also the translator of Thomas Piketty’s now famous book Capital in the 21st Century, has a very nice post on Stanley Hoffmann’s contributions and a super summary in French of Hoffmann’s ideas on modern France. The Center for European Studies, one of Hoffmann’s most important creations, has posted this.

Update: An especially fine post just went up on Foreign by Gary Bass. Hoffmann taught courses on Morality and international relations, in its own way a fore runner of the current interest in human rights,but different in that it asks in what ways can one be ethical in conducting foreign policy. And Bass notes Hoffmann’s important interaction with his closest friend among the Harvard faculty, the late Judith Shklar, with whom he co-taught courses in political thought. The flood of tributes about Hoffmann speaks to his influence. So does the torrent of emails circulating among students who share an experience of over fifty years, and recognize in each other the depth of that influence.