WHY THEORY?

Kant_-_SIL14-K001-05a

by DR DAVID P HOUGHTON

As a student or even a scholar, you may be wondering why we study theory at all. Surely we can get along quite happily without abstract discussions, academic digressions and high-sounding jargon? What do these have to do with understanding? Academics in particular often sound like they are deliberately intending to mislead or to obfuscate. ‘Epistemology’? ‘Ontology’? ‘Social constructivism’? What on earth are those? It makes you think of the 1980s movie Crimson Tide, where the traditional old man of the sea played by Gene Hackman engages rather tentatively in an academic discussion of Carl von Clausewitz with the Harvard-educated Denzel Washington. ‘I studied engineering at the Naval War College’, Hackman tells Washington’s character, implying that he never much bothered with theory or with the musings of long-dead Prussian officers (by the way, the discussion of Clausewitz in the movie is highly inaccurate, but never mind!) But the salient question here is why do practical people, who are used to getting the job done with little fanfare or fuss, need to think about strategy or theory?

For the sceptics, Clausewitz himself – a military man, but also an academic – had a ready answer in On War: theory is an essential aid to critical analysis. In other words, it helps us understand the deeper causes of events, allowing us to tease out common patterns from history rather than seeing one event as completely unrelated to another. Clausewitz derides what we might call ‘mere description’, an account of events that one might find in a newspaper but which never looks at the underlying causes of the events themselves. For a real analysis which makes sense of the world, we need theory. As the political scientist Steve Smith notes in a popular YouTube presentation, theory provides ‘a set of lenses’ through which we can understand the world, and that world would make little or no sense otherwise. Put another way, theory offers us a kind of ‘road map’, which alerts us to the kind of data and evidence we should be looking for (and, by the same token, shows us what might be worth less of our attention).

Even though we may express a disdain for theory on occasion, in practice many of us are secret or ‘closet’ theorists. In fact, I’d argue that it’s pretty much impossible to go through life not having a theory of some sort, whether it’s a theory of how military bureaucracy works, why your wife/husband goes to the same hairdresser all the time or what makes other people tick in general. Most of us have lots of theories, although we really aren’t aware of them unless we reflect upon the fact. Indeed, some theories of how the mind works from the field of cognitive science suggest that we are inveterate theorizers. Attribution theorists, for instance, argue that human beings are always looking for the deeper causes of events. We observe our brother doing something greedy or selfish. Is that because he is selfish? Or did some aspect of the situation or environment push him into it? We just can’t help asking ourselves. Of course, in someone you know so well, you may have developed an intuitive theory about him long ago. But there are even ‘theories about theories’.

Why study International Relations theory, then? You may have already guessed the answer. In short, IR theory is an indispensable starting point for those who want understand how international politics works. Take realism as an example. Classical realism argues that human nature is deeply flawed. We are greedy, self-interested, acquisitive, always wanting more (according to this view). Hans Morgenthau called this the animus dominandi, meaning literally the ‘domineering mind’. For him, this is why war recurs throughout human history. Although each war has its own particular causes, the underlying factor is always the same. Each conflict is an expression of ourselves, of our underlying (and deeply flawed) nature.

Of course, not all realists would agree with Morgenthau. The structural realist (or ‘neo-realist’) Kenneth Waltz argued that he didn’t need to assume anything at all about human nature in order to explain the recurrence of war down the centuries. For him, the system was the thing, and it was the fact that the international system lacks a hegemon (or ‘world government’) that allows war to occur again and again. Liberals would also disagree, although from a different perspective. They see war as something which we are learning to avoid, creating institutions like the European Union which are rendering wars on a world scale increasingly obsolete. Why assume that human beings are doomed to go on repeating the same mistakes, over and over again? And Constructivists would argue that neither realists nor liberals are correct, or at least that they can both be correct only under certain circumstances (an approach which I argued provides a logical base to foreign policy analysis in my article titled Reinvigorating the Study of Foreign Policy Decision Making: Toward a Constructivist Approach). Realist (or ‘Hobbesian’) worlds are still possible, as are Liberal (or ‘Kantian’) worlds; it all depends of the kinds of relationships that human beings construct. We live in a world of our own making, as Nicholas Onuf has put it.

So reasonable minds may disagree. Theory that is unconnected to experience is admittedly “mere intellectual play”, as Immanuel Kant once said, but equally “experience without theory is blind”. While some like theory for its own sake – and there is a kind of fascination to building mental castles in the sky – most of us use theory because it explains the world, or tries to. And the two are intimately connected; you can’t have one without the other. You can explain the world deductively – starting with a theory and then seeing whether the empirical world fits it – or you can approach it inductively – using experience from the ground up to build a theory. But either way, you end up using theory. The painter Leonardo da Vinci put it best when he said that “he who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards a ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

Image: Immanuel Kant.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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