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Embracing ontological doubt: The role of ‘reality’ in political realism:

01 Feb 2017-Journal of International Political Theory (SAGE Publications)-Vol. 13, Iss: 1, pp 59-80

Abstract: While a number of scholars argue that classical realism is conspicuously similar to critical international relations, this article takes an issue with such an interpretation. It does not challenge the observation that both approaches are comparable when it comes to ethical concerns and a related critique of modernity, but it puts forth an argument that they differ fundamentally when it comes to their basic intellectual motivation and purpose. This also makes classical realism more ready to formulate normative judgment. To articulate what provides for the ethical impetus in classical realism, the study turns to the work of Stephen Turner and his collaborators who illuminate Weberian sources of classical realist social science. Adopting the category of analyticism from Patrick Jackson, it further puts forth that normative judgment is linked to classical realism’s inherent ontological doubt, a feature it compensates for by focusing on epistemology necessitating constant engagement with empirical reality as a...
Topics: Philosophical realism (63%), Classical Realism (63%), Critical realism (philosophy of perception) (62%), Realism (57%), Normative (52%)

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Aberystwyth University
Embracing Ontological Doubt
Stullerova, Kamila
Published in:
Journal of International Political Theory
Publication date:
Citation for published version (APA):
Stullerova, K. (2017). Embracing Ontological Doubt: The Role of ‘Reality’ in Political Realism. Journal of
International Political Theory, 13(1), 59-80.
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Embracing Ontological Doubt: The Role of ‘Reality’ in Political Realism
by Kamila Stullerova
Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth SY23 3FE, UK.
This is a pre-publication draft copy intended for green open access. The articles final version
is published in the Journal of International Political Theory, October 19, 2016:
doi: 10.1177/1755088216673079
While a number of scholars argue that classical realism is conspicuously similar to critical
international relations, this article takes an issue with such an interpretation. It does not
challenge the observation that both approaches are comparable when it comes to ethical
concerns and a related critique of modernity, but it puts forth an argument that they differ
fundamentally when it comes to their basic intellectual motivation and purpose. This also
makes classical realism more ready to formulate normative judgment. To articulate what
provides for the ethical impetus in classical realism, the study turns to the work of Stephen
Turner and his collaborators who illuminate Weberian sources of classical realist social
science. Adopting the category of analyticism from Patrick Jackson, it further puts forth that
normative judgment is linked to classical realism’s inherent ontological doubt, a feature it
compensates for by focusing on epistemology necessitating constant engagement with
empirical reality as a source of its (weak) ontological orientation. As a result, classical realism
is reinforced here as an approach to international relations worth reviving and further
Classical Realism, Hans J Morgenthau, Critical IR, Max Weber, social science, normative
Embracing Ontological Doubt: The Role of ‘Reality’ in Political Realism
The social scientist is a part of history from which his knowledge is constructed;
every tomorrow, that knowledge may have to be revised or abandoned altogether.
WG Runciman (1963: 174)
The number of works revisiting IR’s classical realism which have appeared in the last dozen
or so years is large enough to divulge that the once deprecated approach resonates with
intellectual needs and quests of current IR scholarship. What exactly are the gaps that
classical realism helps to fill in has so far not been systematically examined, although there is
a number of partial accounts along these lines. Classical realism lends new energy and a
particular direction to the theorising of the ethics of responsibility (Williams, 2005; Lebow,
The article was produced as part of the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Classical Realism Meets Critical
Theory’ and its earlier versions were presented at the project’s workshops in Newcastle (2013) and Ottawa
(2014). I am grateful for the generous input of the project’s members into the making of this article and for
additional editorial comments from Hartmut Behr and Michael Williams.

2003), the virtue of reflexivity (Lebow, 2003), ethical leadership (Tjalve, 2008) or the need of
a fundamental transformation of the state (Craig, 2003; Scheuerman, 2011). As can be seen
already from this brief outline of its key themes, in its sensibilities, the revival of classical
realism is conspicuously close to critical IR. It is, therefore, crucial to ask whether the
classical realist revival is a part or a new stage of the critical turn in IR, which is both older
and more robust than is the present turn to classical realism.
Two issues may prevent us from reaching such a conclusion. First, it is the question of
normative judgment. The promise of normative judgment seems to be stronger in classical
realism than it is in critical IR, which is suspicious of normativity’s universalism. If classical
realism is a version of critical IR, it must come to terms with the latter’s unease about
normativity. Second, the renewed interest in the works of classical realists has not yet
produced new research into contemporary international politics which would utilise classical
realist theory.
Unless such research is produced, one may ask whether the revival of classical
realism is anything more than an antiquarian quest to engage past, oft-forgotten works of one-
time giants of our field, which as is usually the case lends a new perspective on what we
are already set to do, strengthening our vision but without fundamentally challenging the way
we do research. This article argues that the two points are crucially intertwined. By asking
about the reluctance to produce new classical realist research in international relations, we
may be able to answer the question how, if at all, classical realism is distinct from critical IR
and where it grounds its commitment to normative judgment.
Several commentators on the current revival of classical realism point out a striking similarity
between the critical sensibilities of the key protagonists of this revival and the critical
tradition in IR (Steele, 2007; Cozette, 2008a, 2008b; Hom and Steele, 2010).
Some argue
that it is the engagement with the work of classical realists as nurtured by contemporary
critical sensibilities that produces what they call reflexive realism (Steele, 2007); others locate
the very critical sensibilities in classical realism itself (Scheuerman, 2008). At the same time,
there is also a growing unease with the idea that Morgenthau et al. should be seen as
precursors of the critical turn in IR or even as critical IR theorists themselves. Daniel Levine
(2013) makes a compelling argument why Morgenthau should not deemed a critical theorist.
Compared to Frankfurt School’s anti-foundationalism, Morgenthau comes across as
‘profoundly epistemologically and ontologically conservative’ (Levine, 2013: 96). Yet, we
must ask whether admirers and critics alike assess classical realism on its own terms. After
all, classical realism fell out of fashion and ceased shaping our scholarly receptiveness. It
might well be that IR’s current the critical sensibilities as well as expectations on what is good
scholarship are preventing us from recognising classical realism’s unique character and,
concomitantly, from making full use of its own scholarly potential.
Starting with the established premise that mid-century (now classical’) realism lost to its
competitors on the grounds of its alleged scientific inadequacies (Waltz, 1959; Gilpin, 1984;
Vasquez, 1998: 41), the article’s first section examines the role of social science in both
critical IR and classical realism. Within the context of this study, science is understood in
Patrick Jackson’s (2011) pluralist sense, as a systematic inquiry to produce factual knowledge
about the empirical world of international relations. The opening section emphasises the
tendency in critical IR to neglect scientific inquiry, arguing that classical realism does not
Rathbun (2008) illustrates why neoclassical realism cannot be seen as fulfilling this role.
For the purpose of this article, I understand the critical IR tradition broadly, including scholarship inspired by
Frankfurt School Critical Theory, approaches developed out of the Coxian reading of Horkheimer as well as
post-structuralist scholarship.

have a comparable option of resorting to philosophy. While present scholarship has
appreciated the specificity of classical realist take on social science, this has not been a key
research area. This relative neglect is understandable. In the 1950s and 60s classical realism
bitterly lost to the onslaught of behaviouralism, which triumphed as the more rigorous
approach. It thus comes as no surprise that scholars working on the rehabilitation of classical
realism have avoided repeating the mid-century battling. As a result, classical realism tends to
be understood and praised as a kind of international political theory, which is exactly what
its mid-century critics claimed it to be. To reverse this, the article turns its attention to
classical realist social sciences, exploring in its second section the thesis that it is a version or
precursor of IR constructivism before supporting the argument that it is best viewed as a
Weberian social science relying on ideal-types. The third section reinforces this interpretation
by exploring how Weberian social science necessitates cultivation of inner criticism as well as
the faculty of judgment which indicates when the inner critic is (temporarily) satisfied. It is
this faculty that informs the normative element of classical realism, one which looks
conspicuously close to critical IR’s cultivation of ethics, but is in fact nurtured from different
intellectual sources and practices of knowledge formation.
1. Classical realism and critical IR: Morgenthau is not Adorno
IRs critical turn in the 1980s and especially 90s was instigated from two directions:
scientific dissatisfaction with positivist IR that came to dominate the discipline and a longing
for an ethical dimension in scholarship. IR was to be made ethical in the sense that analysis,
its outcomes and the impact it is making on the social world was to be put under ethical
scrutiny. This was married with a re-kindled belief that, in one way or another, ideas can
produce a world better than the inherited one. Ensuing developments seem to have fulfilled
both needs. Critical IR responds to scientific critique of un-reflexive, rationalist positivism
and validates the ethical need by accounting for the power that knowledge brings about.
However, as already some of the earliest critics point out, critical IR is rarely capable of
satisfying its two intellectual roots the scientific and the ethical at the same time. Critical
IR’s resignation on furthering its scientific dimension cannot be replicated in classical
realism. Morgenthau, whom this study uses as an epitome of classical realism, was a social
scientist and an IR scholar, unlike the seminal figures of critical IR who were all philosophers
and often not particularly interested in international relations.
While directly focusing on only one segment of the wider category referred to here as critical
IR, Beate Jahn maintains that the Anglo-American strand of critical theory in IR sees ‘the
epistemological critique of the fact-value relationship not as a basis for a more rigorous
methodological approach than positivism, but rather as a licence of not observing any kind of
rigour’ (1998: 614). According to Jahn, critical IR is complacent about honing its own
scientific credentials. Instead, it seeks to build bridges between various theories and
incorporates ‘valuable parts’ of realism, rationalism and idealism in areas it cannot provide
for with its own theoretical means (1998: 626). Jahn worries that methodological laxity
cannot be counterbalanced by a noble ethical goal, joining here another critic, Josef Lapid
Critical IR has not displayed any systematic engagement with challenges of this kind. Mark
Neufeld puts forth an argument why this is next to impossible (1995: 125). Critical IR seems
to have acted upon Neufeld’s point. Instead of investing energy into theorising critical social
science of international relations, it has placed extra effort into theorising its ethical
commitments and philosophical significance. For many critical IR scholars this translates into
non-normative cultivation of ethics, such as the ethics of scholarship as political action or the

ethics of responsibility, which do not make claims of normative universalism (Jabri, 1998;
Edkins, 1999, 2000; Dauphinée, 2007). Others embrace commitments to political norms and
related research interests (Linklater, 1998) but progressively do so in a rather abstract, though
no less vehement, manner which stops short of formulating a specific normative position on
current international affairs, focusing instead on long-term ethical orientation (Linklater,
2011). It should be added that this dual shift away from social science and towards ethics
might not have been propelled by only autochthonous forces. Most likely, it also happened as
a response to the hyper-scientism that came to dominate global IR, which did not leave much
space for alternatives as scientifically acceptable options. Toni Erskine is right to liken the
status quo of current IR to ‘trench warfare’ or, at best, see it as profound ‘indifference’
towards other approaches (2012: 449). Jackson’s quest (2011) to re-configure the parameters
of what is good scientific IR demolishes the trenches but, as will be shown later,
inadvertently reinforces critical IR’s reasons for turning away from its science.
Another strategy, present in critical IR from its very beginning, is to postulate that scientific
explanation is inherent to only some approaches those which critical IR rejects as
insufficient. Interestingly, Richard Ashley (1981) turns to John Herz and Hans Morgenthau to
introduce this point, a move that might also make him into a forerunner for the more recent
recovering of classical realism. Inspired by hermeneutics, Ashley distinguishes knowledge as
understanding and knowledge as explanation and postulates that not all IR must be concerned
with scientific explanation (1981: 212). In a sense, he celebrates the trenches Erskine
criticizes. The book Explaining and Understanding International Relations (Hollis and Smith,
1991) sealed Ashley’s thesis and in the eyes of many theorists brought the discussion about
the alleged scientific inadequacy of critical IR to a closure. As a result, critical IR’s
‘emancipatory interest’ (Ashley, 1981) and dedication to the politically excluded (George and
Campbell, 1990) has most forcefully shaped our present expectations on and our very idea of
what critical IR stands for.
In many ways, the revival of classical realism replicates the trajectory of critical IR. Emphasis
is placed on classical realism’s ethical commitments while scientific aspects are mostly
neglected; preference is given to in-depth interpretations of past thinkers over engagement
with contemporary theory and practice of international relations. The close attention paid to
Hans Morgenthau over the last dozen years (Lebow, 2003; Williams, 2005, 2007; Tjalve,
2008; Neacsu, 2009; Jütersonke, 2010; Scheuerman, 2013; Rösch, 2015) is not dissimilar to
the attention seminal philosophers have received within critical IR. Like critical IR, the
revival of classical realism highlights the problems of late modernity, especially ethical and
political consequences of global value neutrality in the face of differentiated histories, of
technological progress and environmental degradation. However, one factor in classical
realism prevents its revival from mimicking the route of critical IR. From its very beginning,
critical IR has been crucially nurtured by the philosophical works of Marx, Adorno,
Horkheimer, Habermas, Foucault, etc. That none of these primarily sought to explain
international relations has presented critical IR with a challenge which has been turned into an
opportunity. It allows critical IR to avoid confrontation with the wider discipline on the issue
of its science by constantly renewing its ethical orientation and critical diagnostics of the
maladies of the modern world in the robust philosophies which underpin it. This avenue is not
present for the revival of classical realism.
Jackson identifies ‘reflexivity as the chief characteristic of critical IR, meaning by it
‘reflexivity of knowledge, by which the tools of knowledge-production are turned back on the

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