Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Language, Legitimacy, and the Project of Critique

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Language, Legitimacy, and the Project of Critique

Article excerpt

We are...in a world in which power figures and reconfigures; in which human artifice must struggle with human necessities; in which notions such as justice, freedom, compassion, and autonomy, authority, legitimacy, security and force animate, constrain, and enable human beings in each and every arena within which they engage one another.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

In our own times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed.

William E. Gonnolly

The role of language in the constitution of social and political life has long been overlooked in the academic study of international relations. The most influential theoretical approaches, those that dominate debate in U.S. political science, remain firmly wedded to a correspondence theory of truth and the "elusive quest" for a scientific understanding of the world. (1) Concerns about language and intersubjectivity are deemed irrelevant in the positivist mission to explain the pattern(s) of world politics. It is as if much of twentieth-century social theory and philosophy had never been written. Nevertheless, over the last few years, a plethora of critical voices have sought to challenge this pervasive attitude, and their work has made an "indelible impression" on the topography of the field, undermining its boundaries, questioning its questions and problematizing its practices. (2)

The starting point for many of these critical approaches--which include postmodernism(s)/poststructuralism(s), most forms of feminism, and some constructivists--has been work produced in the wake of the "linguistic turn" in social and political theory. (3) This turn has followed a number of diverse routes, encompassing the universal pragmatics propounded by Habermas and Apel, the transcendental phenomenology of Husserl, the ordinary language analysis of Wittgenstein and Austin, and the hermeneutics of, among others, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. Nevertheless, in social and political theory in general, and international-relations theory in particular, much of this intellectual terrain remains under-explored. One important project is that developed by what in this article I am calling the Cambridge School (CS) of historians--in particular, by Quentin Skinner. Kari Palonen, for example, has claimed that Skinner should be regarded as one of "the few dissidents in the contemporary academic world" who concentrat e on the role of conceptual-linguistic transformation in the unfolding of history; and Charles Taylor argues that Skinner has formulated an "interesting and challenging" political theory. (4) This article outlines the Skinnerian position in relation to IR, and as such it is a partial response to Ken Booth's contention that it "is vital that students of IR give language more attention than hitherto, as words shape as well as reflect reality." (5) The CS approach has much to offer the theorist of international politics, especially through its focus on the historicity of conceptual change and its understanding of how political legitimacy is embedded in and constrained by the set of political vocabularies available at any given time.

Why have the implications for political theory inherent in the CS project been largely overlooked? The CS authors, and Skinner in particular, are usually bracketed as historians, and aspects of their work that relate to political theory remain unnoticed or are assumed to refer primarily to the study of the history of ideas. (6) This characterization is a mistake, for within the arguments sketched by the CS authors can be discerned an important approach to understanding social and political life. By concentrating on conceptual change and the constitutive role played by language in shaping the normative architecture of (any given) society, we can reach a more sophisticated understanding of language in both the reproduction of social norms and conventions and consequently in the process(es) of change itself. …

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