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Context, reception, and the study of great thinkers in international relations

  • Claire Vergerio (a1)


While the discipline of International Relations (IR) has a long tradition of celebrating ‘great thinkers’ and appropriating their ideas for contemporary theories, it has rarely accounted for how these authors came to be seen as ‘great’ in the first place. This is at least partly a corollary of the discipline’s long-standing aversion to methodological reflection in its engagement with intellectual history, and it echoes IR’s infamous tendency to misportray these great thinkers’ ideas more broadly. Drawing on existing attempts to import the methodological insights of historians of political thought into IR, this article puts forward a unified approach to the study of great thinkers in IR that combines the tenets of so-called ‘Cambridge School’ contextualism with those of what broadly falls under the label of reception theory. I make the case for the possibility of developing a coherent methodology through the combination of what is often seen as separate strands of intellectual history, and for the value of such an approach in IR. In doing so, the article ultimately offers a more rigorous methodology for engaging with the thought of great thinkers in IR, for analyzing the way a specific author’s ideas come to have an impact in practice, and for assessing the extent to which these ideas are distorted in the process.

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