Critical theory and normative politics

2006-01-31

in Oxford, Politics

During today’s seminar, which was every bit as energetic as I expected, I was stuck by a question. The discussion centred around the grand and frustrating neo-neo debate, where neoliberals and neorealists fall over themselves to prove how much more scientific they are than one another. While this kind of thing blasted back and forth between the two sides, some interesting critical theory questions started to come up at the periphery. What is the role of theory? How does it affect power relations within and between states? Which elites does it serve, and how? What effect does the person making theory have on the theory produced, and can that impact be bracketed or ignored?

The kind of self-awareness that such questions call upon theory to deliver demonstrates one of the ways in which critical theory might be extremely helpful to us. Indeed, if we can deal with the empirical and ontological problems and assumptions that underlie classical liberalism, perhaps we can rescue it. Classical philosophy has the great virtue that it is explicitly concerned with the good life. Not to imply that this is a monolithic thing, in terms of content, but it is a monolithic thing in terms of human intention. We’re all constantly pondering what the lines of our obituary will say, the way we are and will be remembered. As such, there is a fundamental humanity to projects that personalize political questions.

Obviously, theories like liberal institutionalism can be helpful to us. Maybe they will help us develop effective institutions to deal with real problems. The fear many people seem to have about critical theory is that it will hopelessly erode our ability to say anything of value about the world, much less act in a meaningful and progressive way. The idea that struck me – and it’s really nothing more than a shadow of an idea – is that perhaps we could use critical theory to replace some of the puffery about rational individuals and black boxes that exists in classical theory with something more philosophically rigorous. Perhaps it could enable unashamed action, rather than binding us forever in a kind of grim relativism.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

tristan Laing January 31, 2006 at 6:00 pm

yes. Unfortunately, to really rethink the rational individual thesis, more than a little philosophy will need to be taken in.

MaryB January 31, 2006 at 6:18 pm

I love reading this stuff, Milan. Reminds me of my own dear days at Exeter College (big kiss and wave to Turl Street). And it’s somewhat gratifying to realize that despite a brain-full of marketing mush, I can follow what you’re saying! Keep on postin’!

Milan January 31, 2006 at 10:44 pm

Tristan,

We shall see what we can go.

MaryB,

Thanks for reading.

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