Critical Theory and World Politics

By Richard Wyn Jones | Go to book overview

4
CRITICAL THEORY AND THE
DEMOCRATIC IMPULSE: UNDERSTANDING
A CENTURY-OLD TRADITION
Craig N. Murphy

Contemporary critical theory in English-language international relations (IR) may best be understood as today's manifestation of a long-standing democratic impulse in the academic study of international affairs. The impact of this impulse can account for scientifically progressive breakpoints within the discipline, the moments of transformation that are part of almost every conventional account of the field's history—for example, the transition from idealism to realism in the period between World Wars I and II.

Understanding critical theory in this way lets us compare today's scholarship to that of earlier democratically inspired schools within the discipline; it allows us to ask whether today's theorists have been as successful as their predecessors. Along most relevant dimensions of comparison, today's critical theory is just as progressive as its three predecessors—the work of John A. Hobson and his colleagues in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the interwar studies of realists on the left such as E. H. Carr and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the critical scientific peace research of the early 1960s. Nonetheless, along one significant dimension, contemporary critical theory may be less progressive than its predecessors. Unlike early scholars with similar political motivations and similar epistemological concerns, contemporary critical theorists have offered little programmatic input into the political practice of egalitarian social movements.

In the final section of the chapter I speculate as to why. Before doing so I make the case that the history of the field can be understood through the lens of this hypothesized democratic impulse and then link earlier manifestations of this impulse to some defining intellectual practices of contemporary critical theory.

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