Critical theory remains one of the most important and exciting areas within the study of international relations. Its purpose is not only to describe the way in which the world operates but to help us imagine how the world might be different and how we might achieve a more equitable and sustainable way of life. As well as presenting key concepts and thinkers the book also provides an evaluation of the field and suggests how critical thinking can contribute to confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century. The book evaluates the foundations on which critical theory has been built and illustrates how ideas which developed outside of International Relations theory have been adopted and adapted within the discipline. The book is focused on essential questions to the critical project: what can we know; how does power operate; and how should we live? In addition to discussing the foundations of critical thinking in International Relations, the book draws on recent developments in philosophy and posthumanism as an area of study to critique western thought. To overcome recent critiques of critical theory in International Relations, the book argues that it is necessary to engage with thinking outside of the western tradition. As the human species confronts the COVID-19 epidemic and the ongoing climate crisis, the book argues for a new direction for critical theory in International Relations.
All critical theories raise epistemological questions; what is the basis of the claims that we make about the world? This chapter examines what three critical approaches (Critical Theory, Post-Structuralism and Complexity Thinking) have contributed to epistemological debates and how these perspectives have been construed in International Relations. For the ‘first generation’ Frankfurt School writers theory and practices of knowledge production could be considered to be historically and geographically specific. This is not to deny the possibility of making truth claims, but rather to say that these are context dependent. In their most famous work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno analysed the considerable constraints that are implied by living in a totally reified world. The pessimistic implications of that work led subsequent Frankfurt School writers to investigate alternative ways that an operationalization form of truth may be achieved, and the chapter assesses Habermas’ communicative action theory, which has been particularly influential in International Relations theory. For poststructuralist writers the question is not so much about knowledge, but more about how certain ‘truths’ come to be established as such. For complexity thinkers access to knowledge is made difficult by the multiple elements that can have an impact on an event, and the non-linear relationships between them. While we might be able to analyse how events came about, if the gold standard for knowledge production is the ability to predict the future then complexity thinking raises significant issues.
The operation of power has been a central concern within International Relations, and this is also true within critical thinking. The various critical approaches have contributed differing analyses of the operation of power. Amongst critical thinkers Foucault’s work on power is the most influential, and this chapter will focus on the way that his work on power developed over the course of his lifetime and how this has been taken on by writers in International Relations. One of the major concepts developed by Foucault was ‘governmentality’. This term has been used in International relation very widely, though some authors are not convinced by its utility. The chapter will also discuss how power has been conceived within Frankfurt School influenced Critical Theory, and Posthumanism drawing on the notion of fitness landscape.
Avoiding the ‘big hole with a lot of dead people in it’
This chapter the focuses on the political projects that emerge from the critical approaches discussed in the book. Frankfurt School inspired critical theorists within International Relations have focused on the notion of ‘emancipation’. However, this is a very problematic term – who gets to decide what emancipation is, and how do we move from the situation that we are in to an emancipated one? Poststructuralists have been particularly wary of the term ‘emancipation’ suggesting that emancipatory projects inevitably involve replacing one set of oppressive relations with another. The focus for poststructuralist thinkers is on revealing power relations and ‘resistance’. Does this however imply ultimately a nihilistic perspective and the abandonment of any hope of a more progressive world order? The priority for posthumanists is a rethinking of relations between human and non-human nature. This re-thinking can be viewed in a self-interested way; in order to maintain a survivable environment for humans on the planet. Alternatively it can be understood as an attempt to reduce the level of suffering that humans impose on the life with which we share the planet.
The project for Critical International Relations is to provide practical solutions and thinking for our current troubled times. In the light of an acknowledged failure to develop an emancipatory practice, the chapter suggests a possible way forward for the approach, drawing on the critique of the west provided by Frankfurt School influenced thinking and the work of Michel Foucault. When combined with posthumanist thinking which encourages us to look beyond the human, the chapter suggests an engagement with forms of non-Western thinking.
In order to clarify the use of the term critical theory, this chapter looks at some examples from mainstream International Relations. Neorealism is taken as the paradigmatic example of a problem-solving or traditional theory. The chapter will assess why that is so, and examine whether there are any grounds for challenging that view. A more hard test case would be Social Constructivism, and the chapter will assess the extent to which this approach could be considered a critical theory and on what grounds. The aim of the chapter is to indicate that a hard distinction between critical theory and problem-solving theory is hard to sustain and that perhaps all theory contains some mixture of critical and problem-solving elements – though in different combinations.
This chapter develops a working definition of critical theory, and argues for the need for critical approaches to understand current global crises and the operation of power. Following a brief discussion of the notion of critique, the chapter provides an analysis of Horkheimer’s agenda-setting essay ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’. Horkheimer’s essay is compared to Robert Cox’s distinction between problem-solving and critical theory. The chapter closes with a discussion of the emergence of a range of critical theories within International Relations, namely Critical Theory itself, feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and complexity thinking.