A Foolish Discipline?

This is the third post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book, followed by Meera’s response. In the next few weeks, we will have a posts from Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Brett’s response is now up.

Interest in the history of International Theory has grown, but the academic study of its origins has received relatively little attention to date.  The reasons are multiple: the complexity of the subject, a powerful commonplace view that ‘disciplinary history’ equates scholasticism and navel-gazing, and, I would hasten to add, a collective unwillingness to deal with racism that often pops up in the writings of mythicized fathers of international theory.  John M. Hobson is not hindered by any of these obstacles.  What he does in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is tell a story that begins in 1760 and ends in 2010, assessing hundreds of international theorists past and present, from Adam Smith to Anne-Marie Slaughter.

This wide-ranging, authoritative book is a continuation of the author’s previous achievement of note, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. There, Hobson argued, echoing Edward Said, that nineteenth century European imperialism was symbiotic with Europe’s “racist identity.”  This symbiosis has had many implications, but none as big as this: “had racism not existed and had the West viewed the Eastern peoples as equal human beings, imperialism might never have occurred” (2004: 241).  This meta-point is now revisited in a major way:

international theory is to this book what Western literature is to Edward Said’s Orientalism….given Said’s claim that Eurocentrism has a clear link with international politics – in this case imperialism – then international theory should logically constitute the ultimate litmus test for revealing this discourse in Western academic thought (p.2; all subsequent in-text references are to this book, unless otherwise indicated).

In Hobson’s hands, the litmus paper mostly turns red, but before I turn to the discussion of results, let me first outline the parameters of the experiment.  First, while Said was right about imperialism being authorized by a discourse, Hobson argues, Orientalism is too blunt of a construct with which to examine a variety of Eurocentric tendencies, racisms and imperialists politics that characterized International Theory.  Second, Hobson’s focus is never far from the contextual nuances between and within assorted discourses. All of those figures (19 of them) and tables (5) are sometimes difficult to tackle, but they are worth the labour because they disentangle assorted philosophies of race, civilization, and empire, and show how they make and breake Eurocentric IR over four macro-historical periods. And while the intersections between Eurocentrism and other meta-discourses (e.g., “patriarchy”) are critically important for his story, Hobson clarifies, they nevertheless must be put aside for now.

So why is International Theory acidic?  Because, Hobson argues, it is primarily a Eurocentric construct, whose principle aim is to defend and promote the so-called Western civilization. A meta-approach to world politics, Eurocentrism reigns at once as ontology, epistemology, and politics.  And the situation has not improved over time: the “knowledge product” (dare I say the “use value”?) of International Relations (IR), the current disciplinary home to International Theory, remains a “parochial and provincial analysis of the West that masquerades as the universal” (p. 18).  The social and intellectual structures that discipline scholarship in this field simply reinforce the sorry status quo. So viewed, IR is not simply a cross between science, critique, advocacy, and discourse practice, but also farce a point strongly suggested by the creepy image on the book’s front-cover:

In lieu of a caption: Hobson is explicit on why he picked the “Fool’s Cap World Map” (p. 21-2), and this explanation builds on one of the themes in The Eastern Origins). For a quick reference, check out this Strange Maps blurb

The litmus paper, note, is not all red.  The discourse of Eurocentrism, while pervasive and powerful, is not equivalent to racism, and can, in fact, operate as an anti-imperialistic and anti-paternalist force.  For all its analytical, moral and political shortcomings, International Theory has not shortage of emancipatory potential – if you know where to look.  Thus, Hobson is not interested in repudiating IR so much as recasting its culturally solipsistic emphasis on, for instance, Westphalian (Hobson: ‘Westphilian’) sovereignty or the “great debates.”  Concepts and isms that have traditionally defined the discipline clearly need an overhaul, and Hobson’s powerful critique (articulated earlier by Naeem Inayatullah and David Blaney, among others), I imagine, will find many supporters, certainly on this blog (Meera’s  “what’s next?” post sums it up).

Hobson’s book is impressive across the board. By breaking Said’s Orientalism into, first, “Eurocentric institutionalism” and “scientific racism” and, then, various subcategories (“direct and indirect racial exterminism”, e.g.), Hobson is able to evaluate more nuanced properties of international thought and attend to some of its most complex interrelationships such, e.g., that between eugenics and Western declinism. The author’s lucid, provocative arguments and conclusions cannot be summarized here, but some highlights are in order: historically speaking, hierarchy is the go-to concept of International Theory; “paternalism” is what links nineteenth century imperialism to U.S./Western hegemony today (“cultural conversion of non-Western states to a Western civilizational standard”); many “crits”, too, have been subject to a Eurocentric tunnel vision; and “Western liberal-realism” may be the modal strand of Eurocentrism in international theorizing today.

Doing a review one feels obliged to take a few issues with the content even when it is clear that these cannot possibly detract from the quality of the book.  Let me begin with the issue of conceptualization.  What this book does exceptionally well is to leave open the meanings of imperialism and anti-imperialism in ways that, I think, are productive for IR in the post-American/Western world.  The concept of race and its cognates is not plumbed in the same depth, however.  For reasons both analytical and tactical, Hobson avoids the adjective “racist” (for some pitfalls of this descriptive inference, see, e.g., Ferguson vs Mishra, as editorialized by Andrew Gelman), while assiduously maintaining the otherwise dim boundary between scientific racism and Eurocentric institutionalism (which he also calls “Cultural Eurocentrism,” though after reading Sam Moyn’s 2011 book, I would not perioditize this boundary back to 1945).  The difference between the two is said to be primarily “genetic/biological” or “racial/genetic” (p. 323), which is meant to say that representations of cultural similarity/difference as well as cultural inferiority/superiority though the biological discourses on the human body are illegitimate today.

The qualifier “primarily” is key: contextualizing race historically using the contemporary vocabulary is difficult precisely because cultural and genetic/biological dimensions have so often been intermixed.  The same qualifier also renders the difference between scientific racism and Eurocentric institutionalism one of degree, not kind: “While the discursive form of scientific racism has not re-appeared in international theory, it is nevertheless striking how much of its content finds its contemporary voice in offensive and defensive Eurocentric institutionalism” (p. 323, italics in the original).  What assorted theses on “racism-in-disguise” (Hobson lists them in footnotes 7-10, 12, 274-6) emphasize are precisely the substantive continuities in bias towards the civilizational/cultural Other (without denying the obvious changes with regards to non-white agency, miscegenation, etc., which Hobson discusses on p. 323-4).  I thus can’t help but feel that Hobson could have spent more time on the analytical and tactical trade-offs involved in separating sanitized ethnocentrism from scientific racism (and, for that matter, from racism-in-disguise).

I also wish to pause over the methodological issue of the “author’s intentions,” which first appears within a critique of approaches that “impute[] a rationale that was not intended by the author concerned.” Rather than committing what he calls “interpretivist imputation”, Hobson sets out to read every

author in the spirit of that which I believe s(he) intended. Of course, I fully recognize that there could be a range of possible interpretations to any one text. But what I have not done is impute a certain rationale behind the back of the particular author. For example Kant would, I imagine, have found bewildering the claim that he was in fact an imperialist because he believed that liberal-capitalism and democracy are the highest forms of societal and political expression and that all societies should embrace them (p. 29).

And in lieu of separating imperialists from anti-imperialists by a broad interpretivist fiat, Hobson works out the “logic of the theory that is advanced explicitly by the author” (Ibid.).

Historians have debated the issues of intentions, motivation, and “witting testimony” since at least Maitland and Dilthey (and not just historians).  Today, the “intentionality” problematique is usually associated with Quentin Skinner and the so-called Cambridge school of history (a.k.a., “meaning & context” or “contextualism”).  In Skinner’s view, a historian cannot unearth meanings without ample engagement with social, political, linguistic and epistemological conditions (or “normative frameworks”) in which the text under question is situated.  Here, intentions are recoverable, but only in a larger social and contextual sense. “Postmodernist” schools of history, in contrast, see intentionality as a property of both authors and readers/interpreters. Without some type of intepretivist imputation (which, note, is not the same as teleological or ahistorical imputation) texts have no meanings.

Let us consider the aforementioned Kant (putting aside the historiographical and theoretical debate on whether the logic of his theory specifies liberal-capitalist democracies or, in fact, republics). In Ch. 3, Hobson enlists the work of the political theorist Sankar Muthu to argue that Kant was anti-imperialist and anti-paternalist because he believed in an inclusive, universal humanity, even if he characterized it in terms of differentiated “cultural agency” (Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire, 2003, p. 268) and Eurocentric “gradated sovereignities” (Hobson, p. 62).  In this reading, Perpetual Peace, for example, is remarkable for its defence of “cosmopolitan right”, as evidenced in the way that its author disapproves of aggressive “Open Door” practices, policies and institutions enacted by contemporary European traders in East Asia. “Had, therefore, Kant insisted that European states had a right to force non-European states into adopting free trading relations with themselves, then this would certainly meet my designed threshold [of imperialism],” suggests Hobson (p. 65).  He then goes on to defend this particular Kant, while offering an insightful critique of Muthu’s understanding of the same.

It is easy to follow Muthu’s contention that Kant worked to “to articulate an ideal which can both condemn European imperialism and encourage nonexploitative and peaceful transnational relations” (Muthu, p. 192, cited in Hobson, p. 64) as well as Hobson’s derivative argument about the presence of a certain “auto-development against empire” theme in Kant’s political writings, both of which are made with much erudition and aplomb. But to be fully convinced, the reader must also work with two assumptions: first, accept that Kant’s international theory is coherent and separate from his political anthropology (to say nothing of his more abstract theorizations in philosophy); and second, resolve the remaining tensions between “early” Kant’s racism Muthu, p. 183-4; Hobson, p. 67, fn. 64) and “late” Kant’s cosmopolitanism in favour of the latter.

Among the historians of ideas and/or political philosophers, methodological moves of this sort are not without controversy.  If interpretivist imputation refers to the propensity of making sweeping claims that all texts left behind X (e.g., Kant) were Y (racist) or that the entire context of V (the European “republic of letters”) was W (entangled in the operation of a single episteme), then Hobson is surely right.  But if the point is simply to say that one set of texts left behind X (Kant’s political writings) contained rich, varied, and contradictory “intended potential” on the subject of Y (human equality), then we are either engaging in platitudes (after all, why not give up the search for coherence and simply “pluralize” our understanding of both X and Y?) or, preferably, in some sort of immanent critique that would lead straight into the “what’s next?” rubric.

To be sure, Hobson can accept the “conventional reading” (his term) that emphasizes Kant’s racism and still contend that Kant was not as imperialist and paternalist as postcolonial IR suggests, thus keeping his overall line of argument intact.  But it is opportune to invoke Said once more, this time reaching for his “travelling theory” or the idea that theories take on different political meanings dependent on the context in which they are deployed.  There is nothing wrong with working out the logic of theory that is explicitly advanced by the author (what is fallacious, both Skinner and “postmodernists” would suggest, is treating history as text that needs no interpretation). But without a map of theory’s travels – without a “genealogy,” if you will – it is difficult to account for “deep content,” which is Hobson’s ultimate goal (p. 328).  How was it possible for Kant to link cosmopolitanism to free trade, but not to slave trade?  What normative frameworks enabled some expressions of anti-imperialism, but not others?  And why did anti-imperialism disappear as a robust intellectual force by the 1830s (as Muthu says)?  It may be that these questions fall well outside the scope of Hobson’s survey, but they are certainly worth keeping in mind when reflecting on the evolution of Western international thought [1]. Also worth keeping mind, I would say, are those “postmodernist” teachings on the undecidability of meaning; that is, on the primacy of interpretative liberties over (the author’s) intentions.  What the author A means – or could/should mean – to “us” (IR-ists) is no less important than what a rationales can or cannot be imputed to A given the explicit logic of her theory or theories.

I left the most predictable comment for the end: the title of the book may be misleading.  Rather than Eurocentric and Western, Hobson is primarily tracing and analyzing “Anglo” writings.  No book can cover everything, but if its themes are discourse (“multivalent” and “polymorphous), complexity (“internal differences”), agency (“pioneering” and “derivative”), hegemony (British, American, Western), then the geography of inquiry is as important as its time scale [2].

This is an old chestnut.  In the introductory pages to Orientalism (1978), Said underscored that his story “depends neither upon an exhaustive catalogue of texts dealing with the Orient nor upon a clearly delimited set of texts, authors, and ideas that make up the Orientalist canon.”  But he also made this point: “To speak of Orientalism therefore is to speak mainly, although not exclusively, of a British and French cultural enterprise […]” (p.4).  The methodological dance between “mainly” and “exclusively” is critical.  In Said’s book, as his critics liked to point out, it was never clear to what extent select British and French texts “represented” Britain and France (as states, societies etc.), much less whether they stood in for a more nebulous ontological category like the Occident [3].  Well-aware of these debates, Hobson sets out to sail “between the Scylla of complexity and the Charybdis of homogeneity” with an effort to “provide just enough thinkers to support my claim that in aggregate they represent one type of genre of ‘Eurocentrism,’ but not too many that the depth of analysis is lost” (p. 14).  But isn’t it then a stretch for Hobson to identify entire “genres” on the basis of (mainly? exclusively?) English language texts?  Admiringly, Hobson offers close readings of a number of texts penned by thinkers who defy disciplinary, cultural, linguistic and other boxes (Hans Morgenthau, for example), yet one can still legitimately ask if a critique of a more broadly Western International Theory would require a different focus and different heuristics. But would a different navigation system necessarily lead Hobson to different meta-points?  This, as theorists like to say, is an empirical question.

Consider Alexandre Kojève (a.k.a., Kozhevnikov, pictured left), who last gained English language scholarly headlines in 1989 thanks to a creative appropriation of his end-of-history trope by Francis Fukuyama [4].  By any reasonable measure, Kojève could be regarded as a major figure in the history of European social and political thought and so in what Hobson calls Western International Theory (and possibly a minor figure in the history of Cold War espionage).  But apart from passing references (e.g., in Andrew Hurrell’s On Global Order, 2007, p. 265), Kojève’s ideas are generally not closely examined in Anglophone IR.  This is a pity because Kojève’s interpretations of Hegel (Marx, Weber, Heidegger etc.) significantly influenced scores of scholars (in the “French” world alone, the list cover everyone from Bataille and Sartre to Aron, Fanon, and Foucault), and so a considerable amount of contemporary International Thought (one reason behind his invisibility: Kojève effortlessly wrote in three European languages, but English was not one of them).  No less important, Kojève significantly influenced the “official mind” of the restored French state, including the early stages of the European integration project.  In his 1945 “Outline of a Doctrine of French Foreign Policy,” for example, Kojève famously called for the creation of a “Latin Empire,” an entity that would be geographically and philosophically centered on Paris and opposed to both Anglo-Saxon capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism [4].  Indeed, not unlike some proponents of the Anglosphere today, what Kojève imagined was a community of states and nations based not on what he viewed to be antiquated notions of blood and belonging, but on certain cultural and, indeed, spiritual aspirations such as ever-greater social equality and a thirty-hour work week.  And like the Anglosphere, Kojève’s “Latin Empire” was geographically elastic: he dreamed up things like the Francophonie or the Franco-German axis long before they became de rigeur in certain circles, while also expressing hopes for a rebirth of a Mediterranean heartland (the Arab Spring would have probably delighted him, too).

This particular Eurocentric conception of world politics is not recorded in the disciplinary histories of IR, neither standard nor critical. In ideological and normative terms, Kojève’s thinking is hard to pin down, even if the reading is limited to a single text.  Reduced to the idea of the “Latin Empire,” Kojève can probably be sorted within Hobson’s schemas. Figure 10.1 (p. 235) in the chapter on “critical subliminal Eurocentrism” would be helpful, I think, but there are other possibilities: one of the anti-imperialist, anti-paternalist cells in Table 13.1 on p. 314), next to Carr and/or neo-Marxists, or Box 4 (p. 24), perhaps, mirroring Gilpin, Kindleberger and other prophets of “Anglo-Saxon hegemony”?  But where would one place Kojève on the leisure state?  What about a broader left-wing Hegelian project that he helped move forward?  It can’t be that all those madcap mid-twentieth century pipe-smoking Marxists were such cultural monists, can it? (Cue images of Sartre and Althusser).  I, for one, would be very interested to see how a more “continental” reading of Western International Theory might interact with Hobson’s grand tour [5].

Questions like “but what about ABC (author, book, context)?” are patently unfair given the fact The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics covers over one hundred thinkers; arguably, only work of similar historical (and historiographical) ambition could credibly probe the extent to which additional literatures incite different organizing schemes and different conclusions.  And whatever insight the next generation of disciplinary history brings, Hobson’s stimulating book will be here to remind us that “conventional” IR views of the world may not always be more accurate than the “Fool’s Cap World Map.”


[1] Some answers can be found in the works Hobson lists in footnotes 57 and 64 (Eze, Bernasconi, Mehta, Hindess, Pateman and Mills, Tully, Bowden, Pagden).  For a critical overview, see Duncan Bell, “Empire and Ideology,” in Michael Freeden, Marc Stears, and Lyman Tower Sargent (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (Oxford University Press, 2012)

[2] A recent analysis of the geographical network structures of authorship and coauthorship in a sample of key journals finds that that the contemporary IR scholarship is centered on the cluster of institutions in the North Atlantic area and on the U.S. West Coast. Peter Marcus Kristensen, “A Not So American Social Science – Alternative Cartographies of International Relations,” Paper presented at the BISA-ISA Convention 2012. Suffice it to say, it is difficult to put Hobson’s book down without reflecting on the “rise of the Rest” and its impact on international theorizing or, put slightly differently, on the center-periphery interactions within the field of IR. “What’s next?” indeed.

[2] Methodological quibbles were implicated in broader critiques of Said’s Orientalism. Even if the pervasive alterity of “India and the Bible lands” arose from a number of texts (mostly) penned and published in nineteenth century London and Paris, it is still not obvious that Orientalism was a necessary condition for British and French imperial rule in the same period, much less for the operation of post-World War II American hegemon. Put more forcefully, Said methodology does not help him determine whether it was Orientalism that caused imperialism, or the other way around. See, e.g., the pungent reactions by Fred Halliday (“Orientalism and its Critics,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20, 1993, 45-163) and Aijaz Ahmad (In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, Verso, 1992).

[3] Fukuyama wrote about the collapse of the Soviet empire and the triumph of liberalism, but Kojève argued, in 1947, that history ended with the French revolution and its subsequent militarized disputes (specifically the Battle of Jena, for some quirky reasons) in the sense that it changed the understandings of political violence and authority in Europe. Alexandre Kojève, La Philosophie, l’État, la fin de l’Histoire (Grasset, 1989).

[4] Alexandre Kojève, « Esquisse d’une doctrine de la politique française », 27 August 1945, reprinted in Florence de Lussy, ed., Hommage à Alexandre Kojève: Actes de la « Journée A. Kojève » du 28 janvier 2003 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2007). 87-98. Also see, Raymond Barre, « Le conseiller du prince, » in Ibid., 56-67; Robert Howse, “Kojève’s Latin Empire,” Policy Review 126 (2004), 41-8; and Gaelen Murphy, “Alexandre Kojève: Cosmopolitanism at the End of History,” in Lee Trepanier and Khalil M. Habib, eds., Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).  On the long life of the term “Anglo-Saxon” in France, see Emile Chabal, “The Rise of the Anglo-Saxon: French Perceptions of the Anglo-American World in the Long Twentieth Century,” French Politics, Culture and Society 30: 3 (Winter 2012).

[5] To go back to the point about what Kant means to International Theory, one could argue that Kojève’s humanism is paternalist and racialized (as captured by the 1989 “Parisian map of the world” above), but still a step in the emancipatory direction of, say, Césaire’s or even Fanon’s humanism (cf. Ethan Kleinberg, “Kojève and Fanon: The Fact of Blackness and the Desire for Recognition” in Tyler Stovall and George Van Den Abbeele, eds., French Civilization and Its Discontents [Lexington, 2003]).


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