Theory Seminar: Beyond Reification and Deconstruction: Towards a Dialogical Approach to Theorizing International Politic
Summary of dissertation:
This dissertation is a philosophical (conceptual) inquiry into the relation between theory and practice in international politics. The thesis that is explicated and defended is that this relation should be conceptualized as a dialogue. By “dialogue” I mean a kind of intersubjective relation between theories of international politics (IR theory) and international political practice that goes beyond the familiar antagonism between essentialist reification and constructivist deconstruction. A turn to dialogue would have important implications for the study of international politics (IR). In particular, a dialogical IR would have an intimate connection with philosophy and history.
The classical understanding of IR theory is that such theory is supposed to reflect the underlying structure—the essence—of international politics. I refer to this position as “essentialism”. The constructivist critique of essentialism is that there is no such thing as an “essence” of international politics. Rather, international politics, as all forms of social practice, can take on a myriad of different forms—and have a myriad of “essences”. Taking one particular form, internal to one social-historical context, and calling it the essence of international politics is an act of unwarranted “reification”: i.e. a legitimization of a possible state of affairs as necessary and unavoidable. Such reification is, in effect, an attempt to stop the conversation on what international politics can potentially be.
The constructivist attitude reconfigures the understanding of the relation between IR and international-political practice. The essentialist has a clear idea of what international politics should be like, but justifies, paradoxically, this idea with reference to its necessity (international politics is such and such, regardless of what we would like it to be). On the constructivist understanding, theory is an explicit-making of the ideational background (the “horizon”) that at any given time underpins international politics as a realm of practice, and gives it a certain shape and form. By showing the social-historical particularity of such horizons (through “deconstruction”), the constructivist re-opens the conversation on what international politics can be—without, ostensibly, taking any particular standpoint on what international politics should be.
The dialogical approach advanced in this dissertation builds on the constructivist position by arguing that this position is, in fact, not merely deconstructive but also (potentially) re-constructive. The process of explicit-making of horizons is not merely negative in the form of “de-reification”/“deconstruction”; it also has a positive aspect in the form enlightenment. There is a difference between performing practices—such as those practices that make up the realm of international politics—in naiveté concerning the horizon (the ideational background) that regulates and makes the practices possible, and performing the practice under (self-)conscious awareness of this horizon (induced by deconstruction).
At the bottom here is the Socratic imperative to know oneself, which does not mean to know one’s own private quirks and characteristics, but to know one’s place in the grander scheme of things—to know what is demanded of me in my different capacities, such as, e.g., a practitioner of international politics (if that is what I am). Theory qua insight into one’s horizon, I suggest, is a kind of Socratic self-knowledge; and to be a theorist is, ideally, to be a “midwife” (as Socrates thought of himself) for such insight. This way of thinking re-orients the relation between the theorist and practitioner such that it is no longer a matter of reifying a horizon as “natural”, or merely de-reifying a horizon as a social construct. Rather, theorizing is a matter of disclosing not a “natural horizon”, but our horizon—which is difficult enough.
In full awareness that our horizon has a social-historical origin, we can focus on the more interesting questions: whether, in practice, international politics currently lives up to the ideals that make up our horizon (it does not), and whether we have a sufficiently good theoretical grasp of our own horizon (we do not). The process of making our horizon explicit (i.e. theorizing) is a process of getting to know ourselves in the Socratic sense. I call this process “dialogue”, and IR as a discipline is a moment in this dialogue as it relates to international politics—a contribution to the larger enlightenment project in which we find ourselves as modern human beings. The next step in IR theorizing should be greater self-awareness of this task and what it demands.