IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Classical Humanist Approach to IR

Robert Jackson’s The Global Covenant is a defense of a pluralist conception of international society, and one of the most important works in IR over the last generation. Jackson styles his own work as an elaboration of the work of Martin Wight and Hedley Bull, two of the seminal figures in the “English School” of IR. Like them, Jackson considers international studies to be a humanistic inquiry whose fundamental questions are normative in character: “Is there an international society? What is the institutional embodiment of that society? What are the core values upheld by a society of states? What is the main justification of state sovereignty? Is there a community of humankind? How can human rights fit into a world of sovereign states? Is there a morality of the global commons?” (61) Such are the questions that preoccupy Jackson and that he seeks to put at the center of the field.  

In the second half of his book, Jackson offers an assessment of the status of various contested norms in contemporary international society, including such questions as whether there exists a right or duty of humanitarian intervention. Jackson’s approach to these questions—and what he means by the term “global covenant”--are surveyed in an earlier entry on IR and All That; here I want to focus on Jackson’s extended discussion of methodological issues in the first part of his work.

His is an old-fashioned approach, one that he identifies with “classical humanism.” Like Bent Flyvbjerg, Jackson argues that approaches to social science knowledge resting on positivist techniques are seriously flawed. Human beings cannot be successfully studied as if they were natural objects; we need, he argues, an “inside-out” approach in which the attempt is made to get inside the heads of those we seek to understand. According to the classical approach, the student of human affairs “is always inside the subject and seeks to understand  it and interpret it by gaining insight into the mentality of the people involved and the circumstances in which they find themselves.” (71)  
[T]he ideas people have about their relations are crucially import­ant to understand. That applies as much to international relations as to any other sphere of human relations. It also means that interests, concerns, intentions, ambi­tions, calculations, miscalculations, desires, beliefs, hopes, fears, confidence, cau­tion, doubt, uncertainty, confusion, and related dispositions and inclinations must be at the centre of normative inquiry into world politics because they are part and parcel of human activity in that sphere. As it happens, these are among the most significant and enduring features of international relations which go a long way toward characterizing the subject. We can fully grasp those features in our accounts of the subject. We can get into the subject via our human understand­ing. But our academic accounts cannot be objectively true in the positivist sci­entific meaning. We cannot pin human activity down to that extent. (72)

Jackson is especially insistent on the importance of norms and values in understanding the social world. 

We could say that norms are the grammar or syntax of human relations. They are the practices and usages, the forms and modalities, according to which human activity in any sphere is assessed as to its correctness: its rightness or wrongness, its goodness or badness. The basic problem with positivism emerges at this point: it fails to discern, or it turns a blind eye to, this social arrange­ment by reference to which human activity is evaluated. In international rela­tions that shortcoming is clearly evident in the positivists' usual neglect of international law and diplomatic practices, which are important elements of the grammar of international discourse. It is also evident in their neglect of the pru­dential ethics of statecraft. Positivists seem to operate with an assumption that international relations can be explained satisfactorily without studying the norms by reference to which the international practitioners assess each other's foreign policies and international activities. (50) 

Sometimes [in political science] norms are handled as economists would handle them: i.e., as pref­erences. But preferences are not the same as norms. What we would prefer to do is not the same as what we ought to do. Preferences indicate latitude and choice; norms indicate restraint and constriction of choice. Preferences disclose a world of wants and desires; norms disclose a world of responsibilities which morally or legally limit what one can justifiably do in the situation. Sometime positivists try to come to grips with norms by reconceptualizing them as some­thing causal: that is, a norm is conceived to be an independent variable that has an impact on a dependent variable. Values and norms are considered to be important because they are seen to trigger or track behaviour. They can thus be employed to explain behaviour in cause and effect terms. . . . [But] norms and values, properly understood, do not lend themselves to any analysis which seeks to employ the philosophy and methodology of natural science. A norm is not an element of the physical or natural world. It is not something 'out there' that can be perceived by our senses. It cannot be unlocked by a study of sense perceptions. It is not a causal force or independent variable. Nor is it merely an effect of human interaction, an outcome. A norm is not an instru­ment. A value is not simply a goal that calls for instrumentally rational (that is, goal-seeking) behaviour. And it is impossible to translate a norm, in the usual moral or legal sense of the term, into a preference, without destroying the orig­inal idea. (49) 

Jackson contrasts positivist approaches in the social sciences with a classical humanist approach, which he defines as follows:   

It is the mode of scholarship that prevailed in political science prior to the behavioural revolution and was largely based on historical analysis, legal-institutional scholarship, and political thought. Traditional political science was part of 'civil science', the core of which was the 'humanist school of jurisprudence' which examined the norms of human societies from a historical and comparative perspective." Civil science was centrally preoccupied with discerning and understanding human conduct, its character, and its modus operandi, in various spheres of political life, especially that of law and the state. (56) 

The humanists were comprehensive or holistic in their approach to the study of human relations. They did not see themselves as narrow specialists. They did not understand the human sciences as technical subjects. They understood them as non-technical subjects. Political science was conceived as based on a combi­nation of classical political theory, history, and law. (56) 

The human sciences endeavored to interpret the living world of human rela­tions with the aim of giving an academic account of it. Donald Kelley conveys the gist of the approach: 'Central to all these concepts, of course, was the theory of law, including the practice of "interpretation", which transformed law into "civil science.”’ (57)
The classical humanist approach rests on a fundamental conviction: that there is much to be learnt from the long history of observation and reflection on inter­national relations and from the many theorists who have contributed to that tradition. Of course there will always be some theorists but only a select few who stand head and shoulders above the crowd: their theories speak to us from across the centuries. Thus we return time and again to Machiavelli or Grotius or Kant for insights into the problems of international relations not only in their time but also in our time. Yet even the greatest theorists can never have the final word on international relations or, indeed, on any other sphere of human rela­tions. Contemporary theorists working in the classical tradition are not impris­oned by the thought of past thinkers. They are intellectually free to engage in their own independent thinking and to make their own theoretical contributions, drawing where they can on the insights of earlier thinkers. There is always something more to be said about human relations. (75) 

The classical international society approach to normative inquiry is a pluralistic approach. By 'pluralistic' I mean that international human conduct, taken as a whole, discloses divergent and even contradictory ideas, values, and beliefs which must be recognized by our theories, and assimilated by them, if they are to be faithful to reality. If scholars of international society seek to carry out an empirical inquiry they must allow for the tensions and contradictions of human experience in that sphere of human conduct: contingency as well as rationality, intentions but also unintended consequences, ours as well as theirs, right and might, prudence alongside procedure, humanity as well as sovereignty, desire and duty, virtue and expediency, goals and rules, ideals and practices, and the rest. (83) 

Recovering the classical approach is not a return to the outmoded ideas and theories of the past. Rather, it is bringing our knowledge of those ideas and the­ories into contact and communication with our attempt to understand the present and the future. It involves acquainting ourselves with sophisticated and articulate ways of seeing and understanding international relations which have stood the test of time. It is not a current fashion that is in danger of disappear­ing tomorrow. Classical international relations scholars are the custodians of some very important theories of world politics which never become entirely obsolete and remain open to further elaboration and reformulation. Yester­day's normative theories are challenged by today's or tomorrow's experiences and by new theories which attempt to capture those experiences in academic terms. But old theories, certainly the most outstanding, are rarely superseded entirely by new theories. Old theorists still manage to communicate from across the centuries, and we read Thucydides not merely out of antiquarian curiosity. (76) 

One key objection to the consideration of such norms is that they are merely “window dressing.” Jackson puts that critique as follows:
According to that objection, the normative sphere is merely rhetorical camouflage to cover up, or dress up, or render palatable by clever civilized rhetoric, the hard and sometimes brutal realities of power and narrow self-interest in world politics. Thus, when statespeople claim to be acting out of con­cern for international peace or human rights or world prosperity or the global environment or any other important value it is only to mask their real intent and deceive others. In short, norms arc a convenient and commonplace way of obscuring selfish or ulterior motives and actions in international relations. (67-68) 

Jackson points out that the window dressing critique involves a serious anomaly: if states-people “perceived normative claims as merely window-dressing, presumably they would not make them for they would have no reason to do so.” In fact, however, such claims are made all the time and would be important to understand even if they were put forward cynically:  

[T]here is an elaborate normative discourse whose vocabulary is well-entrenched in foreign policy, diplomacy, international law, international organ­ization, trade, finance, aid, and other historical and contemporary activities and practices of international relations. The endeavors by states at moral justification are recurrent, vigorous, and virtually universal. Even war and intervention--which are often portrayed as paradigmatic instrumental activities--are expressed and carried on by means of not only instrumental language but normative lan­guage also. It would be impossible to discuss either war or intervention in purely instrumental terms because profound values are at stake: peace, freedom, secur­ity, survival. And once such values are raised about our activities we have entered into a normative world. (69) 

Jackson does not use Bent Flyvbjerg’s terminology, borrowed from Aristotle, regarding three ways of knowing (techne, phronesis, episteme), but it is clearly the study of phronesis that he seeks and that he commends to students and scholars. Though both observers find the search for episteme, understood as positivist laws of human behavior, of dubious merit, they differ in their understanding of the appropriate role for professors. Flyvgjerg wants to get us involved, bringing phronetic knowledge to bear in addressing the problems of our various communities. Jackson advises detachment. He commends pluralism, but insists that “to engage in classical international society scholarship is . . . not a question of selectively favouring either conservative values or revolutionary values. It is not a question of favouring any value. It is not the role of academics to promote values.” Much as I like Jackson's overall approach, this injunction seems rather severe, like leading a horse to water but forbidding it from drinking. Surely there is room for both engagement and detachment in academia.  
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Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, Oxford University Press, 2000. There are cheap copies available on Amazon. A somewhat less formidable introduction to Jackson's thought may be found in his Classical and Modern Thought on International Relations: From Anarchy to Cosmopolis (2005). 

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If you were interested in pursuing an education in graduate school taking the classical humanist approach to international relations, you would definitely be pursuing a worthy intimation, but with two drawbacks. You would probably have to venture abroad to Great Britain or Australia (not so bad) and you probably couldn't find a university job in America on your return (not very good at all, though perhaps you might sneak in under false pretenses at a liberal arts college). Notes one document prepared by British academics, trying to assess the pecking order in the field: "In most universities in the US there is a dominant approach to IR which could broadly be defined as‘neo-positivist’, employing hypothetico-deductive models, formal theory and‘large ‘n’ quantitative studies. Because of the numerical dominance of US political science in the global scene, and the prestige of the leading North American academies, this dominance tends to be reflected in citation indices and the like. . . . In the US IR has generally been seen as a branch of Political Science and is taught in Political Science Departments; graduate students receive training in the methods of Political Science. In the UK the discipline developed in Departments separate from Political Science/Government (most notably at LSE and Aberystwyth, nowadays also St Andrews and Sussex) and with an orientation towards History, Law and Philosophy as well as Political Science."