A Critical Assessment of Martin Wights Why Is There No International Theory

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Wight claims that this paucity is compounded by “intellectual and moral poverty…[due to] the intellectual prejudice imposed by the sovereign State, and the belief in progress” (1960/2000, p. 30). He argues that there is no body of knowledge in international theory, understood as “speculation about the society of states, or the family of nations, or the international community” (Wight, 2000, 28), to match the successes of political theory, understood as “speculation about the state” (Wight, 2000, p. 27).
The “theory of the good life” (Wight, 2000, p. 39), political theory’s central concern, was deemed incompatible with the study of international relations (IR), since the latter is understood to be primarily engaged with survival. In this essay, we shall evaluate Wight’s criticism of international theory and shall attempt to show his damaging claim failed to take into account the changes in the international which were already evident at the time. For conceptual clarity, we henceforth use international theory and IR theory interchangeably.
The sources of international theory which Wight identifies form an eclectic mix of international law (Grotius and Prufendorf), writings of “irenists” such as Erasmus and Sully, Machiavellian elements, the “parerga” of political theorists, philosophers and historians (Hume, Rousseau, and Burke), and the speeches, despatches and other documents of statesmen of old, like Gentz and Bismarck (Wight, 2000, pp. 28-30). To reiterate the paucity of IR theory, he maintains that most of these works remain penetrable only by the scholar, making the international somewhat of an ivory tower.