Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What Happened to the Liberal Arts Degree?

Something that is of interest to many readers here, Uncommon Knowledge has a nice conversation on the role of the liberal arts degree in the West today. There is a great irony that many of the columnists and political pundits that have decried the perceived uselessness of a liberal arts education are beneficiaries of said education. Joseph Epstein and Andrew Ferguson defend the tradition and aims of having a broad, rationalist approach to study and argue that the degree is not an end in of itself. I don't agree with everything they say (the comments about home schooling do not match up with any research or anecdotal evidence I have encountered), but generally a fine defense of the traditional liberal arts.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Are Classical Political Theory and the "Post" Varieties Compatible?

I wrote a number of pieces in the past criticizing post-modern and post-structural approaches to politics and political theory. However, I did want to present a more nuanced look at the usefulness of the "post" theoretical approaches. The following essay is on said topic.

Realists Hans Morgenthau and E.H. Carr argued that their predecessors in the international relations field had been unable to accurately explain the relations between states due to their idealistic assumptions about the human condition, and offered a telling response to the dominate theories of the time (Carr, 1962, p. 71). Subsequent theorists have challenged realism’s presumptions and questioned its approach. Specifically, post-structuralism has confronted the inherent notions within realism, and questioned the very assumptions that inform its intrinsic logic. Veronique Pin-Fat explains that grasping realism’s “grammar is fundamental to understanding [its] constitution of the national interest and the ways in which the nation-state may offer a ‘solution’ to international ethics” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.218). To post-structuralists, the very vernacular of realism is inundated with preconceptions, which must be analyzed to appreciate how they influence the theory’s policy recommendations for leaders and statesmen. I argue that while realism’s attempt “to speak truth to power even though power may try to silence or distort the scholar’s voice” (Cozette, 2008, p.8) is consistent with the aims of post-structuralism, its epistemological method and ontological claims are inherently at odds with the post-structuralist approach to international relations. By comparing post-structuralism’s epistemology and ontology to Carr’s and Morgenthau’s realism, it becomes apparent that the two theories are incongruous. Post-structuralism is intrinsically reflective: it is a critical methodology “employed to challenge existing discourse” (Roseanu, 1990, p.86). Thus, the very question of the two theories compatibility necessitates more than a simple comparison between ontological claims and epistemological approaches, it requires that post-structuralism be applied as it is intended: as a critical study of an existing discourse. Consequently, to truly demonstrate their incompatibility, it is necessary to apply post-structuralism’s methodological approach to realism’s theoretical foundations.

Realism’s epistemology contends that what can be known can be obtained through the study of the world in its entirety, “supported by evidence and illuminated by reason” (Morgenthau, 1978, p.5), in an attempt to construct a rational outline with universal applications. What can be known can be learned through the study of history and the examination of previous events, but also in examining “the rational alternatives” present to statesmen at any given juncture (Morgenthau, 1978, p.5). Realism’s ontology assumes a set of static conditions within man, a human nature that compels an inner desire for power and love within self-interested individuals (Morgenthau, 1962, p.247). Post-structuralism provides a fundamentally dissimilar method to studying international relations (Roseanu, 1990, p. 83). It assumes no natural state, order, or truth, and is implicitly sceptical of theories grounded in reason and rationalist traditions (Selby, 2007, p.326). Post-structuralists shun the notion of truth or facts, as everything is “enigmatic, unique and unrepeatable, rather than directly casual, explanatory or predictable” (Roseanu, 1990, p.85). Post-structuralism believes meaning is produced, and is not inherent. In a sense, post-structuralism foregoes ontological questions concerning what constitutes reality, and instead utilizes a critical methodological approach to studying existing discourses. Post-structuralism’s epistemology creates the necessity for a reactive methodology, examining “language, symbols, [and] alternative discourses” (Ibid, p.84) in an attempt to dissect their concealed assumptions. It is here that post-structuralism constitutes a profound departure from realism, and where it provides telling insight into realism’s foundation. While Morgenthau and Carr claim that realism’s theoretical assumptions are supported by historical specifics, post-structuralism assumes the concept of universal evidence as “meaningless” (Roseanu, 1990, p.84). Instead, post-structuralism provides an analysis of existing work, attempting to demonstrate how language “creates and reproduces a world which is never definitive but always in transformation” (Ibid, p.86).

            Classical realism fundamentally connects an ethical understanding of how states and individuals operate to universal traits attributed to human nature. Realism asserts that “theory consists in ascertaining facts and giving them meaning through reason” (Morgenthau, 1978, p. 4). This epistemological approach attempts to present knowledge based on what we can observe and know, placing emphasis on historical precedent, and how history and past events can inform current international and domestic systems (Morgenthau, 1948, p.98), as “there can be no reality outside the historical process” (Carr, 2001, p.64). In addition, Morgenthau and Carr argue that universal moralistic claims made by leaders should be dissected, as they often represent a mere position of power (Cozette, 2008, p.9). Carr writes that universal principles used to shroud a strategy “were not principles at all, but the unconscious reflections of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest in a particular time” (Carr, 1962, p.80). Morgenthau makes a comparable assertion when he argues that “the true nature of the policy is concealed by ideological justifications and rationalizations” (Morgenthau, 1973, p.101). Both realists were aware that political leaders and statesmen appropriate moral justifications to condone policies that are merely their specific interests, as “power can only work smoothly by successfully hiding under moral clothes so that its actions appear legitimate” (Cozette, 2008, p.9).

The veiled meaning imbedded in realism’s vocabulary, if dissected through a post-structuralist approach, generates conflicts in the theory’s argument. How realism conceptualizes ‘power’ deserves considerable attention. Realism, specifically the work of Hans Morgenthau, endeavors to explain power as a desire linked to the natural state of man, which continues to compel and influence his actions in the modern world (Morgenthau, 1962, p.247). Power is a defining variable in this assessment, as it “may compromise anything that establishes and maintains the control over man” (Morgenthau, 1973, p.10). Carr applies this reasoning to the state when he argues “politics are…in one sense always power politics” (Carr, 2001, p. 97). To both theorists, power is the defining variable in the relationships between individuals in the political world; power encompasses all “social relations characterised by a will to dominate others” (Cozette, 2008, p.10).

Placing a desire for power at the core of human existence provides the foundation to realism’s perception of international affairs. Morgenthau argues that individuals cannot fulfil themselves, and that this “awareness of that insufficiency drives him on in search of love and power” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.247). It is through love that man hopes to find his other half that will “make him whole” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.248), while power manifests to “impose his will on another man” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.248). Implicit in this ontological conception of human nature is that man is innately flawed, and that this internal flaw is what politics is used to navigate throughout. As Morgenthau writes, “the truth of political science is the truth about power, its manifestations, its configurations, its limitations, its implications, its laws” (Morgenthau, 2004, p.8). Realism’s “laws” are then constructed on an ontological assumption, which then influence the possible actions possible in the international political realm. Post-structuralists, specifically Michel Foucault, approach the notion of power in a far different manner than the realists, and see an implicit ideology in the way power is articulated in the theory. To Foucault, “power is relational, not a substance” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.24). In this understanding of power, it is “neither given, nor exchanged, nor recovered, but rather exercised ... it only exists in action” (Foucault, 1980, p.89). Power is not a variable that can be “possessed or traded; it is continually produced through certain forms of social relationship” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.4). Relations of power only exist when exercised between “free subjects and only insofar as they are “free” (Foucault, 2000, p.342). The difference between the two conceptions of power is significant: Morgenthau’s description of power implicitly manifests in sovereign structures, out of reach of the individual, who then lacks the ability to challenge said power in a post-structuralist sense (Ibid, p.342).

Post-structuralism challenges the inherent structural nature of realism. Carr was conscious of the state’s ability to impose its will on individuals and the negative effects if could produce, and argued that the need to extend “the boundaries of community so that citizens and aliens come together as political equals” was necessary to creating just states less likely to create war (Linklater, 1997, p. 322). Both Carr and Morgenthau recognized that the nation state is a temporary aspect of the modern world, and that “larger units of a quite different character” would likely develop (Morgenthat, 1973, p.12). However, these larger units of organization will still hold sovereignty over the individual, and likely further a relationship of violence and “rule out the possibility of resistance” (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p.23). The assumption that man inherently desires to “impose his will on another man” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.248), necessitates realism’s indispensable political structures. 

            Additionally, Morgenthau’s conceptualization of human nature is intrinsically universal. To argue that mankind acts as it does due to an inherent trait, as Morgenthau does in “Love and Power,” is a universal judgement not locked into a specific culture or epoch. The morals of a society may change as Carr and Morgenthau recognize, but the inherent foundation to man’s lust for power and want of love is unchangeable. This psychological relationship, in which an individual controls the actions of another through supremacy to produce influence, is achieved through “the expectation of benefits, the fear of disadvantages, the respect or love for men or institutions” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.249). Thus, these methods of extracting influence become enduring aspect of mankind. By declaring these techniques effectively part of human nature, it normalizes them as acceptable political actions. Carr seconds this notion when he argues that reality is associated with “determinism, practice, [and] power” (Jones, 1998, p.54). Morgenthau and Carr challenge the political actions recommended by the idealists before them, and by rooting realism to their conceptualization of human nature (Morgenthau, 1973, p.5), allowed them to argue that their recommendations were compatible with the true nature of the world. Without the state of man described by Morgenthau, realism is without the base the entire structure is assembled atop.

            Realism continually argues that states and actors should act prudently in their affairs (Morgenthau, 1973, p.8), as “political ethics judge action by its political consequences” (Ibid, p.10-11). As previously noted, Morgenthau and Carr were critical of leaders and states appealing to moral arguments when undertaking a specific policy, yet imbedded in realism’s logic is an essentially universal set of principles that cannot be conjured deductively (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.235). Morgenthau does recognize that the moral framework used to access action in the modern age is rooted in our specific place in time (Morgenthau, 1973, pg. 12), yet contends that actions which produce the least harm are superior to their alternatives (Morgenthau, 1945, p.11). The policy that does minimal damage to ones state or constituents is just regardless of the period in history they are performed. Even though Morgenthau and Carr accept that morality is directly linked to the institutions and society which they develop, they still elude to a timeless ethical measurement when advocating prudent polices that do as little harm as possible. When Morgenthau argued, “The very act of acting destroys our moral integrity,” (Morgenthau, 1945, p.11) he did not intend these words to inspire inaction on the part of statesmen. The incompatibility of morality with action means “we must do evil while we try to do good” (Ibid, p.11). An action that is politically sound is likely incompatible with “the rule of ethics” (Ibid, p.14). The world envisioned through realism is competitive and dangerous, and thus prudent policy dictates a path that ‘minimizes risks and maximizes benefits’ (Morgenthau, 1973, p.8). To act in a way that defends the state and its survival can then be seen to be “rational and reasonable” (Wong, 2000, p.406), as the destruction of the state would expose the natural form of mankind and create greater ills according to realist thought. Since corruption is a permanent aspect of human existence (Morgenthau, 1945, p.15), one should not judge the actions of a leader or state if they lack justice and ethical morality (Morgenthau, 1945, p17). However, Morgenthau recognizes that some actions, even when achieving national interests, cannot be justified (Morgenthau, 1948, p.82). If a leader’s actions cannot be judged on their moral character, and if some interest maximizing actions are just and others are not, on what grounds does a statesman settle on the rationality of a policy?

            The answer lies in the realism’s grammar, and demonstrates the value of the post-structural approach in analyzing theoretical texts, and lays bare the incompatibility of the two theories. Assessing which policy is prudent is developed through pure instinct, a process that cannot be deductively created (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231). Morgenthau writes, “Wisdom is the gift of intuition, and political wisdom is the gift to grasp intuitively the quality of diverse interests and power in the present and future and the impact of different actions upon them” (Morgenthau, 1972, p. 45). For a statesman to utilize a prudent policy and truly grasp what policy is interest maximizing, the individual must personify an “existential condition,” that transcends the actors place in time to gather eternal, universal knowledge (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231). By means of realism’s epistemological approach, one may infer responsible policies from history, but “it is intuition that determines which interests should be pursued for political success and thereby leaves space for transcendent value” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231). Just policies are created through an abstract process that is divorced from realism’s epistemological method, and relies entirely on ethereal ontological assumptions about the acquisition of knowledge. This method of attaining wisdom is at odds with Morgenthau and Carr’s assertion that realism is removed from the idealism and wishful thinking of previous theorists (Carr, 1962, p. 71) (Morgenthau, 1978, p.4).

            The “philosopher king” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231) required to obtain transcendent wisdom in Morgenthau’s realism provides an excellent point of contention between the theory and post-structuralism. Post-structuralism looks to examine how sovereignty and authority are constructed in the modern world, specifically in the way forms of life are separated (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p.7). Morgenthau specifies that the world is plural environment: to understand a specific aspect of human life, it must be studied in its own right with its own rules and ethical standards (Morgenthau, 1945, p.4). Post-structuralists argue that this produces a distinction between the political, public life and the naked life, or domestic sphere (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p.7). This core principle of realism gives the sovereign of the state the ability to “specify what life is to count as politically qualified and to exclude bare life” from the logic of the state and its practices (Ibid, p.7). What constitutes the domestic or the political is not static, as aspects of each can transfer to the alternate realm. What post-structuralism demonstrates is the sovereigns’ ability to designate which acts are political, and which are not. The sovereign is responsible for providing meaning to a set of actions by placing them in a distinct category (Ibid, p.8), and therefore dictates what constitutes an acceptable political ethic. Furthermore, it limits the methods of resistance available to individuals under the sovereign. Post-structuralism intends to expose the constructed disconnection between these spheres of human activity, and challenge the methods they are created and maintained (Ibid, p.8).

            Post-structuralism can only be properly understood when used to dissect an existing discourse. By using its methodology to question key assumptions within realism, it exposes the incompatibility between the two theories. For realism to function appropriately, it must assume various postulations, like the natural state of man and the separation of political and domestic acts. Post-structuralism is not intended to devise an all encompassing theory that explains the inner workings of society. Rather, it is designed to challenge and question the inherent preconceptions present in an existing work, with intent to demonstrate how those prejudices imbed themselves in the theory’s very foundation, exposing its limits and biases (Roseanu, 1990, p. 83). This radically different method of studying the relations between states and individuals cannot be reconciled to realism’s methodology and ingrained reasoning.


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