For this essay we will try to explore the idea of Martin Wight’s contribution on the theory of International Relations[i], then personal thoughts and critique will follow or it could be stated after his ideas were presented. In his essay ‘Why is there no international theory?[ii]’ was regarded as a classical piece that most of the theorist[iii] of international relations cited him as a godfather (well, there is no appropriate adjective to describe him instead I used the word that Dr. Yurdusev said in his lecture, though a different meaning was presented, i.e. Wight occupies a godfather figure in the school) in an attempt to understand and establish the conception of international theory. Such word like international theory can also be interpreted in different contextual of social sciences, hitherto sociology, political science and its subdisciplines, law and even philosophy. Social theory can be part of international theory, but international theory is more likely paralleled with political theory.
Wight argued that the sense of international theory traditionally is “imagined as the twin of speculation about state to which the name political theory is appropriated” but he clearly elaborated that any layman (I assume those who were educated but not necessarily ordinary people that in a sense they constitute the lower class in the society, if we mean economics here – the poor and in general, those who did not finish or enter tertiary level of education) might comprehend it as to which “some conceptual system which offers a unified explanation of international phenomena.” This is not to discredit a layman’s comprehension but I don’t think every one of them can think and explain it within the borders of language and meaning that Wight described and defined.
He is bewildered when proponents of international theory regard, somehow, Machiavelli, Kant, Rosseau et al as founding fathers when they have been understood as classical writers and philosophers of political theory. Moreover, Thucydides was even anointed (this word was taken just to exaggerate how realists want to back-up their claim that realism was part of the classical strand of history of political thought) as the founder of classical realism because of his written stories or documentation on the Peloponnesian war and the Melian dialogue between the powerful Athenians and the citizens of the small island called Melos. This premise is not that troubling nor causes bewilderment because every fields and disciplines in social sciences share a bond of interrelatedness and conceptual correlations. Like I remember, Prof. Carlos, my teacher in one of my master course in the Philippines, consider Philosophy as the mother of all sciences while Prof. Espiritu, my adviser in one of my undergraduate course, regarded History as the foot or base of all sciences. These anecdotal quotations need not be elaborated for common sense dictates that any notions, conceptions with inclusion of their ontological propositions and epistemological presuppositions and ideologies precipitate a multidisciplinary approach in social science.
Wight asked a resounding inquiry: What international theory was there before 1914? And if there was any, is it worth rediscovering? He straightforwardly answer this question stating that “if political theory is the tradition of speculation about the state, then international theory may be supposed to be a tradition of speculation about society of states … or of the international community.” But he believed that international theory was marked by two reasons: (1) intellectual prejudice imposed by sovereign state and (2) the belief in progress. The idea of sovereignty alone contributed to the lack of empirical or historical research of international theory. When sovereignty was imposed and served as a cardinal stance among all over the world, community of people aspired, forcefully or gradually, for state and that recognition of their sanctified (sacred) sovereignty must be respected for they will also respect others. The sovereign nation-state became the dominant actor in international relations and was associated with political theory for a long time before World War I.
Another constraining element or factor to the development of international theory is the belief of progress. He followed the idea of Toynbee by rejecting the belief on progress. For example, he referred the conceptions of nationalism and nation-states as modern reincarnation of tribalism, which in turn, resulted to the poverty of international theory. His attempt on deepening the understanding on why is there no international theory was quite lackluster for he did not present or recommend any (putative) solutions or criteria on how and what should be an international theory. However, I am not saying that this was not a form of precedence for scholars to imagine and think regarding the placement of the theory of the British School of International Relations in the field rather it served as an impetus and driving force to deepen and widen the conception of those who followed his footsteps. In trying to answer his article’s title, I think it is imperative to show how theory originated and formulated.
We should first understand that in order to form/formulate one’s own theory we should first be concern if this has an ‘explanatory power’ in explaining a specific not a complex phenomenon; if you are debunking another theory then your explanatory power must be better. Description for me is I think the first stage in formulating a theory, how you describe and observe is the initial process for it is where you will ask, ask, and ask of many vague descriptions happening in a certain phenomenon. Then, reducing the questions into its one primal significance and salient characteristic consonance to the phenomenon. The second stage is interpretation, it is where you will find (plausible or even implausible) answers, gather all the answers you need and test all those answers for whatever methods or means you may want to use. The last stage is setting out your explanation by reinterpreting all of the plausible answers and select what you think is the most and highly feasible answer you had tested.
If only he had answered his title by looking into the autonomous attribute of international theory then he may find (some) answers. This is one of the debacle or obstacle Kenneth Waltz encountered in writing his book the ‘Theory of International Politics’, making international politics separate, autonomous or independent from political science. He looked into, if I may adapt a scientific term, variable that will constitute an autonomous characterization. By this he meant the structure as the variable in analyzing the interactions between the units and the system and finding answers from the field of economics which Morgenthau et al paid less attention because for them it is irrelevant in the study of politics among nations and states, which will constitute Waltz explanatory power.
This is not to discredit Wight’s essay vis-à-vis Waltz criterion for theory because what Waltz had done in his book is very positivistic which uses scientific method in determining a theory of international politics as against to one of the traditional roots of British School of International Relations which is adherence to methodological pluralism and rejection to behaviorism and Scientism.
[i] It is important to note that when I say International Relations (begins with capital letters), I refer to the discipline itself, however for small caps it is the practice of IR. Examples for the practice of international relations were diplomacy or state craft, consular, drafting treatises and other bilateral relationship on the state level.
[ii] One of the articles included in the first chapter of the Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (1966). Slanted phrases were directly extracted from that essay and I think it is unnecessary to cite pages (over again) because those were randomly cited and used.
[iii] Citations can be found from the works of Yale Ferguson, Richard Mansbanch, Fred Chernoff and Mark Neufeld. It is interesting that these theorists were contemporary authors in IR and yet Wight has impacted their way of thinking but I would not assume that their scholarship was greatly influenced by Wight’s writings.