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.
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
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,
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).
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).
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
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?
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).
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
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Born of parents both recently and distantly American, I was once an activist and advocate for the socialist left. Nowadays, I am a defender of the "Responsibility to Protect" who stands for universal rights and liberty.
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