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Mythology or methodology? Traditions in international theory*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 October 2009


The development of the academic study of international relations has been peculiarly conditioned by traditions of thought. Martin Wight was the first theorist to reject the binary dualism of the founding traditions of realism and idealism, as he believed it to be ‘the reflection of a diseased situation’. In its place Wight constructed three traditions of Realism, Rationalism and Revolutionism.

These served as the foundations for his lectures on international theory given at the London School of Economics in the 1950s which, as Brian Porter acknowledges, ‘have been more heard about than heard’. Due to the relative paucity of Wight's printed legacy, scholars have had to piece together the fragments of his ideas on international theory. With the publication of these twelve lectures there is now a rich resource to be mined, and for this reason, the academy of international relations owes a considerable debt to the editors, Brian Porter and Gabriele Wight, for preserving and transmitting these remarkable orations on international theory.

Review Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 1993

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1 For the reason that, according to Wight, ‘the more it [the two schools analysis] is made the basis for a general international theory the more untrue it seems to become’. Wight, Martin, International Theory: The Three Traditions, ed. Wight, Gabriele and Porter, Brian (Leicester and London, 1991), p. 267Google Scholar.

2 The editors' convention for denoting the three traditions with an upper case ‘R’ will be retained in order to distinguish, for example, Wight's discourse on Realism from that employed in the Nardin and Mapel work.

1 Wight, , International Theory, p. viiiGoogle Scholar.

4 Wight, Martin, ‘An Anatomy of International Thought’, Review of International Studies, 13 (1987), pp. 221–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Martin Wight, ‘Western Values in International Relations’ and ‘Why Is There No International Theory?’ in Herbert Buttei field and Wight, Martin (eds.), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London, 1966)Google Scholar.

5 Wight, International Theory. Chapters include: ‘The Theory of Human Nature’; ‘Theory of International Society’; ‘Theory of Mankind: Barbarians’; ‘Theory of National Power’; ‘Theory of National Interest’; ‘Theory of Diplomacy: Foreign Policy’; ‘Theory of Diplomacy: Balance of Power’; ‘Theory of Diplomacy: Diplomacy’; ‘Theory of War’ ‘Theory of International Law, Obligation and Ethics’.

6 Wight, , International Theory, p. 202Google Scholar.

7 Nardin, Terry and Mapel, David R. (eds.), Traditions of International Ethics (Cambridge, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Chapters include: Terry Nardin, ‘Ethical Traditions in International Affairs’; Murray Forsyth, ‘The Tradition of International Law’; Dorothy V. Jones, ‘The Declaratory Tradition in Modern International Law’; Steven Forde, ‘Classical Realism’; Jack Donnelly, ‘Twentieth-Century Realism’; Joseph Boyle, ‘National Law and International Ethics’; Thomas Donaldson, ‘Kant’ s Global Rationalism’; Anthony Ellis, ‘Utilitarianism and International Ethics’; David R. Mapel, ‘The Contractarian Tradition in International Ethics’ ; Michael Joseph Smith, ‘Liberalism and International Reform’; Chris Brown, ‘Marxism and International Ethics’; R. J. Vincent, ‘The Idea of Rights in International Ethics’; Michael G. Cartwright, ‘Biblical Argument in International Ethics’; David R. Mapel and Terry Nardin, ‘Convergence and Divergence in International Ethics’.

8 This is consistent with John Dunn's definition of political theory: ‘The purpose of political theory is to diagnose practical predicaments and show us how best to confront them’. Dunn, John, Interpreting Political Responsibility (Cambridge, 1990), p. 193Google Scholar.

9 For example, E. H. Carr's breathtaking series of dichotomies derived from the antithesis of Realism and Utopianism: radical and conservative; intellectual and bureaucrat; purpose and fact; value and nature; universal and relative. Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (London, 1946), pp. 1921CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 The three paradigms were realism, pluralism and structuralism. See Banks, Michael ‘The Evolution of International Relations Theory’, in Banks, M. (ed.), Conflict in World Society: A New Perspective on International Relations (Brighton, 1986), pp. 321Google Scholar.

11 For a sustained defence of the via media, see Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London, 1977)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also for contrasting positions on the question of a Grotian ‘tradition’, see Bull, Hedley, Kingsbury, Benedict and Roberts, Adam (eds.), Hugo Grotius and international Relations (Oxford, 1990), pp. 5164Google Scholar, and Cutler, A. Claire, ‘The “Grotian Tradition’ in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 17 (1991), pp. 4165CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Derian, James Der, ‘Introducing Philosophical Traditions’, Millennium, 17 (1988), pp. 189–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Linklater, Andrew, Beyond Realism and Marxism (London, 1990), p. 32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Note that Donelan refers to the ‘elements’ not as traditions but as ‘five strands’. Donelan, Michael, Elements of International Political Theory (Oxford, 1990), p. 2Google Scholar. The suggestion that there are five traditions has been strongly endorsed by Jackson, R. H. in ‘Pluralism in International Political Theory’, Review of International Studies, 18 (1992), pp. 271–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Walker, R. B. J., Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory (Cambridge, 1993), p. 105Google Scholar.

16 Wight, , International Theory, p. 5Google Scholar.

17 Derrian, Der, ‘Introducing Philosophical Traditions’, p. 190Google Scholar.

18 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 9Google Scholar.

19 Wight, , International Theory, p. 5Google Scholar.

20 Quoted in Vincent, R. J., ‘The Hobbesian Tradition in Twentieth Century International Thought’, Millennium, 10 (1981), p. 91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Foucault, Michel, ‘Disciplinary Power and Subjection’, in Lukes, Steven (ed.), Power (New York, 1986), p. 229Google Scholar.

22 Morgenthau, H. J., Scientific Man Versus Power Politics (Chicago, 1946), p. 195Google Scholar.

23 For an alternative interpretation of different types of traditions, see Bull, H., Kingsbury, B. and Roberts, A. (eds.), Hugo Grotius, pp. 5154Google Scholar. In the introduction, Benedict Kingsbury and Adam Roberts suggest four possible interpretations ‘why a particular tradition is held to be “Grotian” ’. First, ‘the proposition that there can be discerned a pattern of issues, and of approaches to them, with which that tradition has been centrally and distinctively concerned’. Second, a tradition ‘comprised only of Grotius’ writings, the commentaries on them …’ Third, the ‘detailed contextual methods’ associated with the work of Quentin Skinner. Fourth, an approach which they identify with Martin Wight, namely, ‘the identification of distinctively Grotian strands of thought in the history of ideas about international relations …’.

24 Although Kuhn's work is based upon the history of (natural) science, there is no good reason for rejecting the analogy with the social sciences. Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1970)Google Scholar.

25 Maclntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice? Which Rationality (London, 1988), p. 328Google Scholar.

26 Maclntyre, , Whose Justice?, p. 326Google Scholar.

27 For an exposition of Wight's conceptions of homogeneity and legitimacy in the context of Burke and international order, see Welsh, Jennifer M., ‘Edmun d Burke and the Commonwealth of Europe’ unpublished conference paper, BISA (1992), p. 35Google Scholar.

28 See Hobsbawm, Eric and Ranger, Terence, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983)Google Scholar.

29 This useful interpretation of the approach of Bull in terms of’theory as tradition’ is found in Griffiths, Martin, Realism, Idealism and International Politics: A Reinterpretation (London, 1992), pp. 130–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Bull, Hedley, ‘International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach’, in Knorr, K. and Rosenau, J.Contending Approaches to International Politics (Princeton, 1969), p. 37Google Scholar.

31 Wight, , International Theory, p. 6Google Scholar.

32 See especially Strauss, Leo, What is Political Philosophy (Glencoe, 1959), pp. 228–9Google Scholar.

33 Skinner, Quentin, ‘Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas’, in Tully, James (ed.), Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 2967Google Scholar.

34 A good example of the application of a contextualist approach to traditions is provided by Skinner himself. He approaches Machiavelli's thought in terms of Machiavelli's reaction to (and manipulation of) the conventions of the humanist tradition in his pursuit of republicanism. In this way we come to see that the argument between Machiavelli and his contemporaries cannot be characterized as a conflict between morality and amorality: ‘The essential contrast is rather between two different moralities—two rival and incompatible accounts of what ought to be done. Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Vol. I (Cambridge, 1978), p. 135CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is interesting to note that Wight upholds the traditional view of Machiavelli: ‘Machiavelli, the first man (since the ancient Greeks) to look at politics without ethical presuppositions’, Wight, , International Theory, p. 16Google Scholar.

35 Kingsbury and Roberts note the ‘mammoth task of applying such detailed contextual methods to the very long and very broad sweep of a “Grotian tradition’.’ Bull, , Kingsbury, and Roberts, (eds.), Hugo Grotius, p. 53Google Scholar. In a recent review of the above work, N. J. Rengger makes the point that political theory has made impressive progress along this route: 'skinner's own work has covered the period from the mid-twelfth to the late sixteenth century, Pocock's the fifteenth to the eighteenth century and Tuck's the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’. See ‘Discovering Traditions? Grotius International Society and International Relations’, Oxford International Review, 3 (1991), p. 48Google Scholar.

36 Walker, R. B. J., Inside/Outside, p. 106Google Scholar.

37 See Derian's, James Der ‘Introducing Philosophical Traditions’, p. 189Google Scholar. A more recent example of the exploration of critical traditions is contained in the ‘Special Issue: Beyond International Society’, Millennium, 21 (1992)Google Scholar.

38 Wight, , International Theory, p. 259Google Scholar.

39 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. viiiGoogle Scholar.

40 Oakeshott, Michael, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, 1991), p. 56Google Scholar. The influence of Oakeshott on Nardin is evident in Nardin's distinction between two rival conceptions of international society as a ‘practical association’ and as a ‘purposive association’. In the preface, Nardin states openly that, ‘All who are familiar with the work of Michael Oakeshott will recognise the extent to which I have relied upon his ideas’. See Nardin, Terry, Law, Morality and the Relations of States (Princeton, 1983), p. xiGoogle Scholar. The link between Martin Wight and Michael Oakeshott is less well known. At the time Wight was giving his lectures on international theory, Oakeshott (also at the London School of Economics) wrote an introduction to Hobbes, Leviathan. Herein Oakeshott discusses Hobbes's work in the context of ‘three great traditions ot thought’. It is worth quoting the passage at length. ‘The singularities of political philosophies (like most singularities) are not unique, but follow one of three man patterns which philosophical reflection about politics has impressed upon the intellectual history of Europe. These I call traditions’ (Oakeshott, , Rationalism, p. 227Google Scholar). This association between Wight and Oakeshott was pointed out to me by Peter Lyon, a former student of Wight.

41 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 2Google Scholar.

42 Wight, , International Theory, p. 263Google Scholar.

43 Skinner, , ‘Meaning and Understanding’, p. 65Google Scholar.

44 Wight, , International Theory, p. 268Google Scholar.

45 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 20Google Scholar.

46 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 1Google Scholar.

47 Maclntyre, Alasdair, ‘The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition’, in Sandel, M. J. (ed.), Liberalism and Its Critics (Oxford, 1984), p. 144Google Scholar.

48 Donelan, , Elements, p. 2Google Scholar.

49 Vincent, , ‘The Hobbesian Tradition’, p. 96Google Scholar.

50 Boucher, David, ‘The Character of the History of the Philosophy of International Relations and the Case of Edmund Burke’, Review of International Studies, 17(1991), p. 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Wight, , International Theory, p. 259Google Scholar.

52 Wight, , International Theory, p. 15Google Scholar.

53 Wight, , International Theory, p. xxiiGoogle Scholar.

54 Wight's description of’Revolutionist’ academics is quite humorous: ‘These dry theories and formulas of dusty dons and German professors about human commonwealths and civitates maximae can become politically explosive.’ Ibid. p. 48.

55 This is in evidence when Wight states that, ‘the Revolutionary Kantian principle (not Kant's!) is that the end justifies the means’. Ibid. p. 162.

56 Wight, , International Theory, p. 267Google Scholar. A number of Wight's diagrams have been included which adumbrate the sub-divisions of the three traditions in ‘aggressive’ and ‘defensive’ Machiavellian; ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ Grotian; ‘evolutionary’ and ‘revolutionary’ Kantian. Within these categories Wight attempts to place individual theorists and statesman. Ibid. p. 160.

57 Wight, , International Theory, p. 260Google Scholar.

58 As Hedley Bull argues, ‘There is a point at which the debate Wight is describing ceases to be one that has actually taken place, and becomes one that he has invented …’. Ibid. p. xviii. Bull's memorial lecture ‘Martin Wight and the Theory of International Relations’ delivered at the LSE in January 1976 and published in British Journal of International Studies. 2 (1976), pp. 101–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar, has been reprinted as an introduction to the lectures.

59 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 62Google Scholar. Ian Clark offers qualified support for this view: ‘as long as it is remembered that we are talking at the level of intellectual ideal-types, there is some value in depicting the general characteristics of a realist tradition of thought’. Clark, Ian, The Hierarchy of States (Cambridge, 1989), p. 67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Tuck, Richard, Hobbes (Oxford, 1989), p. 1Google Scholar.

61 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 320Google Scholar. Michael Donelan reaches a similar conclusion: ‘You should use them all [realism, rationalism, natural law, fideism and historicism] in reaching your own view of the truth’. Donelan, , Elements, p. 4Google Scholar.

62 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 297Google Scholar.

63 Nardin, and Mapel, (eds.), Traditions, p. 321Google Scholar.

64 R. J. Vincent in Nardin, and Mapel, , Traditions, p. 250Google Scholar. This passage underlines how Vincent's thought was more at home in Wight's three traditions. See Vincent, R. J., ‘The Hobbcsian Tradition’ and ‘Edmund Burke and the Theory of International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 10 (1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 By Kantianism, in this context, Wight is referring to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Machiavellism denotes the Realpolitik of Nazi Germany, and the Grotian experiment, is of course, a reference to the League of Nations. Wight, , International Theory, p. 163Google Scholar.

66 For a critical reflection on the disinterested nature of Wight's discourse, not e the following passage by Michael Nicholson: ‘There is a difference between being pessimistic about th e chances of success and being confident of doom—indeed confidence in doom too often seems to involve being in love with doom’. Nicholson, M., ‘The Enigm a of Martin Wight’, Review of International Studies, 7 (1981), pp. 20–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Ibid. p. 268. This admission casts doubt on Alan James's remark, ‘As a teacher and writer Wight fall unambiguously into the category which is widely termed, not least by himself, realist’. James, Alan, ‘Michael Nicholson on Martin Wight: a mind passing in the night’, Review of International Studies, 8 (1982), p. 118CrossRefGoogle Scholar. There is also evidence to support the view that Martin Wight believed in Inverted Revolutionism. The following passage in his lectures provides an interesting biographical insight: ‘Inverted Revolutionism in its classic form is fed by a pessimistic estimate of human nature, not an optimistic one. This bleak view of humankind may explain why pacifists, if they descend from being above the battle to entering the fray, lend to adopt a Realist stance.’ Wight, , International Theory, p. 110Google Scholar. See also Porter, Brian, ‘Patterns of Thought and Practice’ in Donelan, M. (ed.), Reason of States (London, 1978), p. 68Google Scholar.

68 Martin Wight, ‘Western Values in International Relations’, paper presented to the ‘British Committee on the Theory of International Politics’ (October, 1961), published in Butterfield and Wight, Diplomatic Investigations, p. 91.

69 Walker, R. B. J., ‘Realism, Change, and International Political Theory’, International Studies Quarterly, 31 (1987), p. 69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 Butterfield, and Wight, , Diplomatic Investigations, pp. 1734Google Scholar.

71 Butterfield, and Wight, , Diplomatic Investigations, p. 33Google Scholar. It is interesting to note that in ‘Why Is There no International Theory?’ Wight argued that international theory was marked ‘not only by paucity but by intellectual and moral poverty’ whereas in International Theory: The Three Traditions he suggests that 'some of the greatest political philosophers have been fascinated by the problems of international relations and have tried their hand at writing about them.’ Wight, , International Theory, p. 4Google Scholar.

72 Although R. J. Vincent suggests that the three traditions are ‘intuitively plausible’ because of’the old distinction between right, centre and left; conservative, liberal and revolutionary’. Vincent, , ‘Edmund Burke’, p. 216Google Scholar.

73 According to Chris Brown, ‘they [Marx and Engels] can simultaneously assert the moral irrelevance of the state today, its emergence as a community after the triumph of the proletariat, and its unproblematic situation vis-a-vis the world community, while ignoring the problems involved in reconciling these positions’. Brown in Nardin, (ed), Traditions, p. 237Google Scholar.

74 Wight, , International Theory, p. 41Google Scholar.

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