History and International Relations

History and International Relations

History and International Relations

History and International Relations


This book is a major contribution to the debate about philosophy and method in history and international relations. The author analyses IR scholarship from classical realism to quantitative and postmodern work.


Out of our conceptions of the past, we make a future.

Hobbes (1994:32)

"The past," the great skeptic of British philosophy Michael Oakeshott once noted, is "a field in which we exercise our moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on a Sunday afternoon" (Oakeshott 1962:166). Prompted by Oakeshott's critique of history-as-ideology, this study scrutinizes international relations theory and research across the methodological spectrum from classical realism to quantitative and postmodernist work. Perhaps because it is a child of history, international relations, as it has developed, has tried to distance itself from historical discourse, through methodological and theoretical innovations seeking general knowledge about international and global politics. In this flight from the old ways of history, researchers have tended to downplay the historical content of their own work, and, at times, to embrace an easy historical empiricism. This uncritical view of the past has contributed to an often licentious historical method, with history serving less as an independent body of evidence than as a trove to be plundered, and which in the discipline's most scientific work saddles history with more certainty than it can bear.

The historical problem is to some extent inherent in the material. As Hans Morgenthau noted in an opening passage of Politics Among Nations (1948),

The most formidable difficulty facing a scientific inquiry into the nature and ways of international politics is the ambiguity of the material with which the observer has to deal.… The first lesson the student of international politics must learn and never forget is that the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible. It is here that the scholar and the charlatan part company… In every political situation contradictory tendencies are at play…which tendency actually will prevail is anybody's guess. The best the scholar can do, then, is to trace the different tendencies which, as potentialities, are inherent in a certain international situation.

(Morgenthau 1948:4-6) . . .

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