Critical Theory and World Politics

By Richard Wyn Jones | Go to book overview

13
WHAT IS
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS FOR?
NOTES TOWARD A POSTCRITICAL VIEW
Alexander Wendt

A book on critical theory and international relations is at once also a book on positivism and international relations, since it is in relation to positivism that critical theory is constituted. Whereas positivism generally affirms the possibility of separating fact and value, distinguishing subject and object, and achieving objective knowledge about the world, critical theories 1 generally deny these separations, stressing the entanglement of facts and values, the breakdown of subject-object distinctions, and the relativity of all knowledge claims to someone or some purpose. Positivism is the other to critical theory's self.

Many of the differences in this binary stem from different answers to perhaps the first question of any discipline of international relations, namely, What is IR for? If we had to pick one description of what positivists are after, it might be policy relevance. IR should try to explain how the international system works so that policymakers can use that knowledge to preserve the aspects of it we like and change those we don't. Robert Cox has famously called this a problem-solving approach to social science, in which the goal is to solve problems within, and thus reproduce, the existing order (Cox 1981). In contrast, perhaps the most common answer that critical theorists give to the question is emancipation. IR should try to uncover the deep structures that make the existing order possible and identify alternatives to those structures so that we can liberate ourselves from their oppressions. Moreover, since the existing order is defended by policymakers, critical theory is aimed primarily at policy takers, especially in civil society, and thus reflects a democratic impulse in scholarship compared to positivism's perhaps more technocratic one (see Murphy, Ch. 4, this volume). As a result of these different political agendas, social scientific knowledge

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